You Are What You Read, with Russell McCutcheon (Part 5)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

5. What’s a book that you love but which isn’t widely read?

Anything by Sara10708056_10102579064556025_1136587271_nh Vowell.

While enjoying her dry wit and occasional sarcasm, what I love so much about Sarah Vowell’s writing is that it is widely accessible yet incredibly well researched, making her the ideal example of what some of us aspire to do (perhaps on a blog such as this even?): reach wide audiences with our scholarship. While not thinking that this is the sole audience, or even a required audience, to reach, for anyone wanting to write for wider audiences than just other scholars or other scholars-in-the-making (regardless what level they are in school), Vowell’s books present the model for how to do this. She strikes me as a poster-child for the relevance of the Humanities, in fact—a much discussed topic these days—for her 1993 B.A. from Montana State University in Modern Languages and Literature and her M.A., earned at The School of the Chicago Art Institute in 1996, in Art History are both in areas that, at least according to some, have little direct relevance for employability. Yet here she is, a widely selling author (even the voice of the daughter, Violet, in the animated film The Incredibles!) whose engaging books dive deeply into terribly complicated and, at times, controversial historical material—I think back to a sad, funny, troubling, and, ultimately, incredibly engaging story she did in 1998 on her and her twin sister’s summer travels along the Trail of Tears or her 2003 dissection of the tangled history of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, each remarkable pieces of history writing—but doing so in a way that makes the storyteller’s (or, in the case of the latter, the singer’s) own conflicted positioning part of the narrative as well.

So pick up one of her books, and see what you think—you may find them to be far more relevant for scholars and students that you might at first think, either as an example of how to write for wider publics or as an example of the skills that we in the liberal arts daily teach to our students (sometimes without even knowing it).

You Are What You Read, With Steven Ramey (Part 1)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.

41QChDGQ1PL._BO1,204,203,200_1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

My current interest in alternative ways of discussing identifications and labels builds on my early consideration of the tension between the complexity of practices in India and the language of religious studies that assumes clearly bounded religions and religious identification. The book in graduate school that first provided an alternative way to discuss this tension was not a book that directly addressed the issues that interested me. K. N. Chaudhuri’s book Asia Before Europe opened up the possibilities of reconfiguring the ways we talk about the world, as Chaudhuri shifts the paradigm by acknowledging the different choices that people make when they construct historical narratives, even when they do not acknowledge those choices. He writes, “The analysis shows that historical events, structures, or phenomena can be grouped into different classes of time which have different qualitative properties, different ‘frequencies’, and unequal power’.” While such a notion is not unique to Chaudhuri, reading this book that attempts to chart cultural histories in a more complicated fashion awakened me to the possibilities of developing alternative ways of discussing religions that acknowledge the constructive nature of discourse. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, With Steven Ramey (Part 1)”

You Are What You Read, with Craig Martin (Part 2)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.

2. Name one of your favorite theory books.

While I’m tempted to name one of my favorites by Althusser, Derrida, Foucault, Bourdieu, or Butler, I think I’ll go with Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society. While Elementary Forms seems to be everyone’s favorite in religious studies, I have a strong preference for Division of Labor. In Division of Labor we see the best and worst of Durkheim all at once: sometimes rigorous and sometimes sloppy in his argumentation, he delivers a devastating blow to methodological individualism, he shows how culture is fundamentally related to society or social structure, but — although he frequently departs from the self-serving views of his contemporaries — he speaks freely of “primitive savages” across the globe and ratifies a certain brand of European ethnocentrism. I love teaching Division of Labor because I get to show students a brilliant mind whose views deserve continual consideration yet not always acceptance. Every lecture turns out to be a love letter of sorts to Durkheim, but with a love that resists romaniticizing him and instead loves him despite his flaws.

Plus, I hate methodological individualism, so there’s that. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Craig Martin (Part 2)”

You Are What You Read, with Russell McCutcheon (Part 4)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.

4. Name a book that could serve as the perfect foil for your current research project (e.g., an example of a scholarly trend you’re working against).

brando-wild-one Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda ya got?

(“The Wild One” [1953])

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 4)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.

4. Name a book that could serve as the perfect foil for your current research project (e.g., an example of a scholarly trend you’re working against).

Between Jesus and the Market

When I think about a trend in scholarship that I’m working against, I (ironically) consider one of the first volumes that shifted my academic path towards the study of rhetoric, and which remains one of the most influential volumes to my present focus today.  Previously in this series I mentioned the pivotal role that Roland Barthes’ Mythologies played early on in my thinking, but in terms of influence, I could just as easily have mentioned Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions That Matter in Right-Wing America, by Linda Kintz.

Kintz’s work earns a paradoxical place in my mind for the same reason that I feel so conflicted about much of the scholarship on evangelicalism and fundamentalism out today: although often historically incisive and analytically helpful, Kintz writes with a clear agenda to politically defeat her subjects. What strikes me as odd about this position is that almost all scholars who do this contextualize their own political positions as somehow fundamentally different from those that they critique. This, to me, is worth mention because believing that one is fundamentally different from those that they study often proves to be an analytically questionable position. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 4)”

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 3)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.

3. Name one of your favorite books that’s not a theory book.

tomato-red-daniel-woodrell-book-coverAsking about my favorite non-theory book is kind of like asking about my favorite child. As such, I’ll dodge that question and say that it’s a tie between all of the Harry Potter books and all of the Daniel Woodrell books. The first Woodrell book I read was Tomato Red. Next was The Death of Sweet Mister, followed by Winter’s Bone (remember that Jennifer Lawrence movie? Woodrell wrote the book), and all of the others shortly followed (most recently for me, The Maid’s Version). The Harry Potter books don’t need any sort of explanation, I suspect. But Daniel Woodrell might, and he’s well worth the introduction.
I suppose one of the reasons why I’ve got such strong feelings for Woodrell is not only because he’s an absolutely amazing writer, but because he writes largely about the region where I’m from. I grew up in the Ozarks, and although I was not a child on the verge of starvation living at the whim of my mostly-absent meth-dealing parents, when you live in the places about which Woodrell writes, these realities are never far away if you know where to look. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 3)”

You Are What You Read, with Craig Martin (Part 1)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

During my senior year of college I picked up a copy of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle, and it has made an indelible impact on me. In the book, Fish suggests that abstract principles — specifically abstract liberal principles such as “freedom,” “equality,” “inclusion,” “tolerance,” or “neutrality” — are, in and of themselves, vacuous of any particular content and can, in practice, be turned to support just about any social agenda. To use another analytical vocabulary: abstract liberal principles are floating signifiers that, in context, can be fixed to any particular referent, depending on the skill of the rhetorician at work. Fish suggests that liberal proceduralism — the attempt to find and apply non-partisan political principles — is, ultimately, a theoretically bankrupt affair, as abstract principles only begin to take shape when fixed to partisan projects. If it’s politics all the way down, the presentation of one’s own view as above the fray can be reduced to a form of legitimation. That is not to say that what is theoretically bankrupt is not politically useful: in good Nietzschean fashion Fish assumes that partisan contestation is the nature of the game, and that presenting one’s partisan agenda as neutral is a powerful way of winning social and political contests.

While today I find the details of Fish’s analysis weak at a number of points, I nevertheless remain convinced of his argument on the whole. In a field like the study of religion — many corners of which are saturated with liberal rhetoric — I find Fish’s suspicion of liberal discourse continually useful.

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 2)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

2. Name one of your favorite theory books.

512fyAWdIqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After 9/11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)

This is one of my favorite theory books because of its approach toward and definition of religion. The definition, which has four parts, revolves around the first component: the foundation of religion, Lincoln asserts, is discourse. What makes religious discourse different from other types of discourse is that it appeals to a transcendent source (the most familiar version of which is “God”), which subsequently sets that claim beyond effective human critique significantly increasing the political weight of such claims. The other three components (practices, communities, and institutions) come to life only insomuch as they are socio-structural manifestations of that discourse. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 2)”

You Are What You Read, with Russell McCutcheon (Part 3)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

3. Name one of your favorite books that’s not a theory book.

17tjs8w96pqmdjpgIf I’m permitted to range further than my own scholarly expertise, it’s got to be any of those go-to works by Tolkien. My reason? I was a life guard at the local pool throughout high school and within a week or so of the end of grade 12 I broke both bones in my left leg, a little above the ankle, while on a diving board at the pool. (Yes, I was the diving instructor too—irony abounds.) We’d all take two bounces, to do anything in the air that struck us as interesting and who knows what happened to prompt that loud snapping noise that I hear a second before I felt it and flopped into the water. Up until that point in my life I’d not really read all that much; tackling 2001: A Space Odyssey in grade 7 or 8 was pretty rewarding (how cool was that monolith, right? And what about the last line concerning “a silent detonation that brought a brief, false dawn to half the sleeping globe”!), but, at least as memory serves, that was the only novel I’d so far read and enjoyed; all other reading was required for school and thus a task to get through. (Why did we have to read Four Feathers? And what was with all that dystopic stuff that one year—“beware of thy mutant” and soma vacations…?) Oh, and I also grew up in a gas station, owned and operated by my parents, with no other employees and my older siblings long out of the house. So it was a pretty hectic place, with people coming and going and the sometimes relentless “ding ding” of the bell going off every time a car drove in across the hose, announcing another customer. So into this context was introduced the immobility and slowed life that comes with a full leg cast for the entire summer of 1979. I don’t recall who recommended The Silmarillion to me but I read that one first, then moved on to the various Lord of the Rings volumes, and, in suitably backward order, ended with The Hobbit—those were the first books I ever read in that manner you hear people talking about, as if they had entered the story by becoming so engrossed in it, rushing to get back to it after dinner. I wasn’t a particular fan of scifi or fantasy, but for whatever reason, that summer I experienced reading in a whole new way. Now, I don’t want to be melodramatic, but I sometimes wonder what would have become of me, career-wise, had I not broken my leg on June 13, 1979, and had I not learned to—well, been forced to, really—take time to read. For, along with writing and talking, it eventually became one of the primary ways that I earn my livelihood today.

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Smith (Part 1)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

MythologiesI remember standing in the checkout line at the campus bookstore with my copy of Roland Barthes Mythologies. I admit that I was suspicious of any book supposedly so profound that was also so small. Its size is deceiving just as much as its structure is unique: the first part of Mythologies is comprised of a series of short essays that provide the pop-culture exemplars of Barthes’ theory on how mythmaking operates (covering everything from food to clothing to politics), while the latter half is comprised of a theoretical essay – entitled simply “Myth Today” – that more overtly addresses the workings of this type of semiotic turn. Barthes rejected common definitions of myth that equate it with “falsehood” or “the stories that dead people believed.” Rather, Barthes understood myth as an absolutely ubiquitous process that involves the transformation of “history into nature,” or, put differently, the manner in which otherwise constructed things are made to appear natural or inevitable. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Smith (Part 1)”