Academic Style and the Voice of Authority

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I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.

One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading “Academic Style and the Voice of Authority”

Catching Archive Fever

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I’m headed to California tomorrow for a few weeks and, while there, will be doing a little archival work. As a theorist, my relationship to archives has always been something of an ambivalent one. On one hand, I am a trivia geek and a total sucker for troves of old things. I like thumbing through letters and thinking about changes in penmanship and syntax over the years. I really dig the time capsule aspect of the process that creates enough distance for everything to appear strange and special to me. On the other hand, I am wary of the temptation to identify a clear or linear narrative about (and, in so doing, romanticize) the past. The archival project that I often assign to students in my Religion in the American South seminar, for example, asks them to focus on the rhetoric and contextual politics of the archival sources they examine in UA’s special collections library. In that sense, my students are looking reading historical texts from a perspective akin to what Hayden White outlines in his now-classic Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), keeping in mind the manifold narrative devices present in the presentation of an artifact. Continue reading “Catching Archive Fever”

“You Will Get Nervous When You Learn…”

I recently watched Ethan Hawke’s foray into documentary filmmaking, Seymour: An Introduction, about the great pianist Seymour Bernstein. While it’s characteristically Ethan Hawke-y in a way that made me think Julie Delphy would show up at any minute to play sounding board to Hawke’s musings, and while there’s a bit with a career-mystic that I could do without, I was charmed by Bernstein’s soft-spoken enthusiasm. There are also a few terrific stories along the way. Like this one:

This idea of getting more nervous as one grows in sophistication and talent got me thinking about the respective confidence or jitters with which we approach our profession as scholars. Continue reading ““You Will Get Nervous When You Learn…””

Residual Assumptions

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In a recent email discussion among scholars about general issues of representations and Wendy Doniger’s controversial book (about which I have written on Culture on the Edge and Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog), P. Pratap Kumar, a colleague in South Africa, framed the issue through a clear, though contrived, contrast between the scholar and the devotee. He wrote,

Someone who is raised as a Hindu grows up listening to religious songs at Satsangs and even through Bollywood religious songs (there are plenty of Bollywood religious songs that Hindus listen to with utmost devotion) and never would have known that their Hindu texts contain many erotic statements and not just the singular term Linga. But on the other hand, scholars especially from the outside Hindu tradition (be they western or eastern) begin with Sanskrit language and then reading the highly specialised texts where they find statements that devout Hindus would have never heard of. From scholar’s reading, there are indeed very detailed erotic references in many Hindu texts, . . .
We as scholars have to talk about these things because these matters are there in the texts from the Rig Veda to the epics in plenty of places. It is hard to fault a western scholar or any non-Hindu scholar for pointing these out and translating them for what they are.

Continue reading “Residual Assumptions”

Who Are You? I’m a Religious Studies Scholar

Religious Studies

Who Are You?” is an ongoing series that asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.

The inevitable moment when people I meet for the first time ask what I do tends to be a bit of an awkward one.  It goes something a little like this:

“So, what do you do, Merinda?”
“I’m a religious studies professor at the University of Alabama.”
“What sort of stuff do you work on?”
“I’m interested in how and why people make authenticity claims… I focus mostly on these claims in relation to gender, race, and the South.”
“…wait, but didn’t you say you’re in a religion department?”
“Yeah.”
“So that’s the kind of stuff you can study in a Ph.D. program in religion?”
“Well, sure! My Ph.D. is in English though.”

It’s at this point that most people change the subject. But for those who act interested in how it happens that someone with an English degree is doing her teaching and research in a religious studies context, I try to explain the following.… Continue reading “Who Are You? I’m a Religious Studies Scholar”

Who Are You? I am/am not a McCutcheonite

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Who Are You?” is an ongoing series that asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.

What’s at stake in claiming an academic influence or identity, or in asserting another scholar’s influence or identity? I’ve been accused of being a McCutcheonite before. What precisely is at stake in such an accusation? Why is it, for instance, an accusation rather than a form of praise? With this alleged identity claim, what is being accomplished? Continue reading “Who Are You? I am/am not a McCutcheonite”

On Playing it Straight

mugatuI’ve long known why I like Will Ferrell movies — he always plays it straight. No matter what character he adopts, he rides it as far as it’ll take him, never feeling the need that he has to wink to the audience, to let us in on the secret that he really isn’t that way himself, that he’s just playing a character.

That is, he never breaks the fourth wall. Continue reading “On Playing it Straight”

Reversing Roles in the Definition of Hinduism

Radha_Krishna_PaintingThe controversy surrounding Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History reemerged today with word that Penguin India has agreed to withdraw and destroy copies of the book in India to settle a lawsuit alleging that Doniger’s book hurt the religious sentiments of “millions of Hindus”. (The full text of the legal complaint is available online.) The response from scholars in the United States has been anger and shock over Penguin’s decision and concern over the freedom of expression in India. While much can be said on many issues, what intrigues me here is the shifting assumptions in the contested definition of Hinduism. Continue reading “Reversing Roles in the Definition of Hinduism”

In Other Words…

A little while back, Russell McCutcheon prompted Monica Miller and me to think about the notion of code switching. People use the phrase to refer to everyday modes of discourse that come to be seen or understood as exceptional—specifically the phenomenon of talking or acting in particular ways depending on the group or context that surrounds someone.  He gave us a clip from My Fair Lady as an example.  The story is all about Eliza Doolittle’s (successful, by the accounts of those around her) attempt to become a “lady” rather than—to quote Prof. Higgins’s early assessment—someone “so deliciously low.”  In order to trade her harsh cockney accent for that of a person in high British society, she goes through endless lessons attempting to change her speech, manner of dress, and behavior.  For example, who can forget the famous “rain in Spain” breakthrough? It’s practically on par cinematically with Patty Duke’s spelling out w-a-t-e-r into miracle worker Anne Bancroft’s hand: Continue reading “In Other Words…”