Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 2

Words matter.[i] When I began to understand deconstruction as a method, I felt like I no longer knew how to speak (I’m still figuring it out). In this sense, I see pedagogy as teaching one not simply how (and not what!) to think but also how to write and speak. I understand critical religion pedagogies as teaching one how to speak and write in ways that are more conscious of the social dimensions (context and implications) of what one reproduces through discursive citation (of concepts and sources). Even then, as my supervisor is fond of saying, “if it’s difficult to step out of the box, it’s even more difficult to keep from falling back into it!”
The discourse on religion coming from a critical theory of religion or a critical religious perspective as offered in the editorials, appears to (or prefers to) remain within the ‘religion’ box without questioning how it came to be or whether it really ‘is.’ The claims made in the CRR pieces under discussion cite and enact ‘religion’ in a performative sense, bringing it into being and reproducing it, manifesting constructions and constructing manifestations. Using the term ‘enacts’ perhaps applies to all scholarship, if to differing degrees: “‘enactment’ can, in general, be understood as a less conscious and willed dimension of reproducing social and political categories.”[ii]
However, as McCutcheon points out in his Theses on Professionalization, “teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research.” Additionally, “The performative… is always pedagogical, and the pedagogical is always political.”[iii] Scholarship by its very nature performs or enacts a pedagogical performance that doesn’t simply stop at the end of the page.
The CRR editorial asks, “Is it time to find new ways to unmask the processes through which we position our own intellectual tasks?” Absolutely (sort of). For the most part, that’s what scholars who deconstruct and historicize the category and the study of religion aim to do, whether for their own purposes or for the intellectual satisfaction of taking things apart - that would depend on the scholar and the project, and similar scrutiny may certainly be applied to their work. Deconstructing ‘religion’ only to reconstruct it over again but ‘better’ would defeat the purpose of “unmasking” the processes through which ‘religion’ comes to be constituted as an object of study and critique in the first place.
One caveat, ending on the “unmasking” metaphor: I rather doubt that there is something really real, reachable, and readable under the mask, either within scholarship or with respect to that which scholars claim to study - something to be taken prima facie or at face value. The assumption that there are forms of religion, religions, the religious, research, scholarship, and pedagogy that should be taken at face value that can be “unmasked” is perhaps one of the fallacies of constant (re)construction built upon on ambiguous conceptual categories. There will always be cracks in the foundation - unknown, unacknowledged, unrealized, perspectives and interests, waiting in the wings to (re)construct again (and again, and again).
Deconstruction can be used to take ‘religion’ apart not only to rearrange the social features that contribute to the constitution of religion, but also to question how it is that those features came to ‘be’ and to be arranged in the first place. Critical (religion) pedagogies in the study of religion destabilize the ‘givens’ of the field in order to offer new perspectives. Fostering an awareness of the perspectives and aims of a particular approach teaches students not simply to parrot one approach or another, but to evaluate each for the work that it does both on and off the page.

[i] Anecdote: As an early, avid reader who often read words before ever speaking them, words, word usage, and wordplay has always fascinated me. As a young adult, I paid a large chunk of cash to become certified as an ESL instructor. I ended up never using it, at first due to circumstance but afterwards because teaching someone how to communicate seemed like a loaded responsibility. I try to still bring that awareness into my own work and pedagogy.
[ii]Ahmed, “Interview with Judith Butler,” 2.
[iii]Denzin, Lincoln, and Smith, Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, xi.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 1

By Stacie A. Swain

Recently I wrote a response to an editorial in Critical Research on Religion (CRR).The editorial debates a ‘critical religion’ versus a ‘critical theory of religion’ approach. An earlier piece briefly mentioned in the editorial (and in my post) asks, “Can a religious approach be critical?” and the answer from the CRR editorial board, in short, is “yes.” I’d like to muse on these thoughts a little more by pointing out that we now have three word combinations to consider when we think of what a ‘critical’ approach may entail with respect to ‘religion’:

1) A critical religion approach
2) A critical theory of religion
3) A critical religious approach

What distinguishes the first from the latter two is the contention that, as Willi Braun states, “religion does not exist; all that exists for our study are people who do things that we [or they] classify as “religious.”[i] In contrast, the latter two take for granted that there is something identifiable called ‘religion’ and that one can have the quality of being ‘religious.’ Here we have two claims (similarly named, but rearranged), presuming that #3 above is subsumed within #2. The two claims in question regard:

a)      theory that is critical of what gets classified as ‘religion’ as an object of study;
b)      a critical theory of an object of study classified as ‘religion.’

The pedagogical implications of the two approaches in question can be elucidated by considering not only such wordplay, but also the aims that they claim to work towards and how they do so. The aims of CRR state that, “our goal is not to be pro-religion or anti-religion but to understand religions in both their positive and negative manifestations.”[ii] The authors of the editorial, “suggest a more social scientific construction of the category of religion… It need not have one agreed upon universal definition, since we think such a definition is impossible, but may contain multiple definitions (after all, words have more than one meaning) derived from some common characteristics of the world’s religions.”[iii]
When thinking about teaching this approach, it would entail defining the “category of religion” according to “the world’s religions” (i.e. defining religion by referring to religions).This is, to borrow a nice turn of phrase from Tomoko Masuzawa, “intricately intrareferential.”[iv] If one invokes ‘religion’ enough then it will (seem to) appear, much like the phantasm of ‘Bloody Mary’might as one stares into the bathroom mirror; then, you study what has been invoked as if ‘it’ has always been there, and even though you’re alone in the room, as if you had nothing to do with placing ‘it’ there and naming ‘it.’ From this I gather that a critical theory of religion entails a critical approach to something given to be already and always existing, origins mystified in the processes of construction.
The editorial in question particularly critiques critical religion as having a solely deconstructive approach. To reiterate a quote that appeared in my last post: “scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests… the critique needs to have a goal. It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it.”[v]A critical theory of religion then, can perhaps be described as constructive criticism – this approach claims to construct something called religion in a ‘better’ way, using criticism to build upwards upon a foundational concept called ‘religion.’ For if it is a “positive manifestation” then it is to be praised, and if it is a “negative manifestation,” then it is to be improved. This is done according to the “values” quoted above.
The above requires the admission that what has been constructed and classified (or classified and constructed) as ‘religion,’ has been constructed badly in the first place and continues to be. This is where the question of “values” and a progressive narrative comes in – one must have a pre-established notion of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ if one is to reconstruct it. But good or bad according to whom and in what context? In a pedagogy of a critical theory of religion, does one teach values to students, values beyond those of responsible and rigorous scholarship? Is there a line separating pedagogy from personal and/or institutional ideologies? If not, is there some mechanism in place to ensure full disclosure of that ideology and the potential interests it may serve, or serve to disguise?
In contrast and speaking generally, a critical religion approach is critical of the category of religion and those forms of scholarship that uncritically perpetuate narratives of the good, the bad, and the ugly ‘religion.’[vi]A deconstructive pedagogy might include examining the productive power of these (loaded) narratives in order to draw attention to construction, context, aims, and social implications. In the Twitterverse, it appears that undergraduate students in Alabama are doing just this with respect to ideology and the media. One student concludes a report on the exclusionary politics of news media: “Recognizing how a narrative is being built is an important facet of learning to deconstruct. Through deconstruction, we take nothing on face value, and contemplate why and how things are being represented.”
Thus, what are the implications of the way that CRR represents a critical theory of religion? What are some other representation of a ‘critical’ approach? For example, there’s Matt Sheedy’s recent take over at the Bulletin: “The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgments.” I would add that the ‘familiar’ be made strange, as well.

[i]This is in “Introducing Religion,” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith, unfortunately I only have an electronic copy of the chapter in question at the moment, and don’t know the page number in the book.
[ii]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 4.
[iv]Speaking of both religion and culture, Masuzawa, “Culture,” 82.
[v]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 6.
[vi] For a more thorough discussion of what ‘critical religion’ is or isn’t according to specific scholars, consult the sources within the editorials discussed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Response to: “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion”

*This blog originally appeared on Stacie A. Swain's Blog

By Stacie A. Swain,

Earlier today, I read the editorial “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion” in Critical Research on Religion, 2016, Vol. 4(1) 3–7, by Warren S. Goldstein, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin.

To give a brief background, from what I gather, since the inception of the journal there has been debate around what exactly ‘critical’ means when it comes to the study of what we’re classifying as ‘religion.’ The triple-authored editorial characterizes three scholars (Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Craig Martin) as representing the “critical religion” approach, then makes an argument for the approach that the three editorial authors represent, that of a “critical theory of religion” (and, why it is different and presumably better than the other).

After reading the editorial, I had some thoughts of my own – perhaps we can continue the rule of three, and have three graduate students weigh in? – and as my thoughts were getting rather lengthy, I decided to post them here as opposed to in a Facebook comment. I would be delighted if anyone has a response, and would like to preface my comments with the admission that they’re shamelessly self-reflexive with respect to my own situatedness and my chosen master’s research project, a working-out-loud of my own positioning and approach. And, I haven’t read the work, except perhaps briefly, of the editorial’s authors, so take my critique with a grain of salt.The particular strand of thought that I want to pull out is:

As it stands, the approach of critical religion is solely deconstructive and not constructive; it does not build anything… It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it. It is only through the use of values and ideals that this can be done. (Pages 4 and 6)

While now you can see why I used the term “better” above, I’d like to discuss some important points with respect to (re)construction, who gets to do it, and according to whose values and ideals (or interests?). For example, I’m studying the category of religion in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada, and deconstructing the politics attendant upon its use (by the state). Part of that deconstruction is patently pointing out that it’s not my place to construct a “better” state, but to contribute to making space for more often excluded voices to fill; not refilling that space with my own (privileged) voice, which would reproduce what I critique. As a result, I consciously draw upon Indigenous voices that outline similar interests (and sometimes sources, but I’m not sure about values) and do offer what they see as progressive constructions. I see that as possibly (but not necessarily, because I have critical doubts about my own positive influence), contributing to a discourse on social change – IF anyone wants to use my work for their own purposes, or even if it just makes someone (anyone) think twice about a statement or event.

So, while of course I’m situated/implicated, with the model that I use – that of critical religion, if that isn’t clear yet – I’m also not actively constructing a model to replace what I’ve just attempted to take apart. However, isn’t that still ‘constructive’ in a sense that is precluded by the above quote? Perhaps in a less imperialistic way, at least in this particular context? I find that a critical religion approach allows me to mitigate to some extent the fact that I am non-Indigenous and thus in the context of this literature a settler, and the social implications attendant upon accepting that as an identity claim.

In an academic context, I don’t see it as my place to decide, define, and thus impose and reproduce values and ideals either of or upon those social actors and contexts that I claim to study. This is in part because I am aware that I myself am imbricated in a social and institutional context in which certain values and ideals are often assumed, and privileged. It would therefore undermine my academic interests and yes goals, to presume to construct a new world on top of possible others. The extent to which this strategic attempt at self-effacement might apply (and work) would likely change from person to person, project to project, context to context.

As the editorial states, “[critical religion] is based on a suspicion of universal values and an attempt to socially locate them as interests. Identifying such social loci is essential.” This leads me to venture that the real issue at stake between the two positions that the editorial presents, is “social progress” according to whom, and the assumption of universal values within scholarship as well as outside of it – something “better” or “beyond.” Others prefer to describe and/or acknowledge these presumed values and ideals as another layer of interests, context-specific and socially situated, and equally open to critique.

I quote, but add italics for emphasis: “Yet, scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests. It can only be counter-hegemonic when it reveals particular interests hidden behind proclaimed universal values.”
Indeed, but with the caveat that I am also suspicious of those values claimed in the first sentence.

Before concluding, I’d like to address one final and related point, and bring a third voice into the discourses represented here by the two sets of three. The editorial above can be supplemented by two posts on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog, that recount a social media conversation between several of the scholars above and a few others. You can read part one, and part two. At the end, Craig Martin notes that he finds, “the voices of women in our discussion conspicuous by their absence.” And while Rebekka King is an author of the editorial above and I by no means wish to discount her voice by failing to note that, I am both adding my piece (above) and want to selectively quote another woman from outside of this debate.

While I confess that some of it is beyond me at this point in the semester (at least I can count this editorial towards my literature review, which I should be working on!), I find sections of a post on Sarah Ahmed’s blog relevant, and compelling:

The promise of the universal is what conceals the very failure of the universal to be universal. …the universal as pure or empty form, as abstraction from something or anything in particular. But remember: abstraction is an activity. To abstract is to drag away. The very effort to drag the universal away from the particular is what makes the promise of the universal a particular promise; a promise that seems empty enough to be filled by anyone is how a promise evokes someone. It is the emptiness of the promise that is the form of the universal; it is how the universal takes form around some bodies that do not have to transform themselves to enter the room kept open by the universal. 
And: no matter how convincing feminist and anti-racist critiques of universalism (of how the white man becomes the universal subject) universalism seems to come back up, right up, straight and upright, very quickly. I have also called this mechanism a “spring back mechanism.” An order is quickly e-established because the effort to transform that order becomes too exhausting. Universalism: when you push against it, you become pushy. 
Back to the same thing. 
Same old, same old.

And I think that I’ll end on that suggestive note, and add that I am very open to critique and response – I’m a newcomer in the room and I’m not exhausted yet.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Homo Religiosus?

*This post originally appeared in MARGINALIA

By Thomas J. Whitley

In 1704, Peter Kolb travelled to the Cape of Good Hope in his capacity as an astronomer and mathematician. Though he was largely regarded as failure because of his penchant for smoking and drinking, he used his time there to write an ethnography of the area’s Khoikhoi natives. The Khoikhoi had been of great interest to Europeans since the Dutch East India Company had set up a station there in 1652. Prior to Kolb’s arrival, though, the Khoikhoi were understood as an utterly primitive people who lacked any religion. Kolb almost immediately decided that this theory was “rubbish.” Just look at them, Kolb implored in his writings. Their actions were obviously religious to Kolb:
In their Customs and Institutions they cannot be said to resemble any People besides the Jews and the Old Troglodytes. They resemble the Jews in their Offerings, the Regulation of their Chief Festivals by the New and Full Moon, and in their Withdrawing at certain Times from their Wives. They agree with that People in abstaining from certain Sorts of Good; in particular, Swine’s Flesh, which hardly any of ‘em will taste. At a certain Age, they undergo a Sort of Circumcision. And Women are excluded the Secret and Management of certain Affairs, much as they are among the Jews. And in several other Customs to the Hottentots [Khoikhoi] agree with that People.*

Kolb “discovered” religion among the Khoikhoi by employing a rhetoric of similarity. Kolb already knew what counted as “religion” and needed only to find similarities between the Khoikhoi and the Jews and “Old Troglodytes.” Kolb’s thesis was a stark reversal of how the Khoikhoi had previously been viewed by Europeans and how they would later be viewed. Once the relationship between Europeans and the Khoikhoi was no longer economically beneficial to the Europeans, the Khoikhoi were suddenly again a group with no religion.

Fast forward three centuries and we are again discovering “religion” and “spirituality” among a group where it’s never before been thought to exist: animals.

This hypothesis was renewed recently after the publication of a paper in Nature that details how some chimpanzees engage in a practice whereby they throw the same stones at the same trees repeatedly. As Barbara J. King is quick to note, the paper’s authors do not call this action spiritual or religious. Rather they say that it is “superficially similar” to activities performed by humans at “sacred” trees. It did not take long for the snow ball to grow and for publications to begin asking if we had found evidence of religion among chimpanzees. This was no doubt in part due to one of the study’s authors freely suggesting as much in a post about the article.

The question seems natural enough to many people. As Jane Goodall asked of Tanzanian chimpanzees who threw rocks at a waterfall and then sat and looked at it, “why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality?” What is striking in Barbara King’s well-written piece for the Atlantic is the way in which so many scientists engage in acts of comparison to either suggest or claim outright that animals are, like humans, religious.

In his interview with King, Donovan Schaefer, author of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, said:
People will always debate what is and isn’t sacred, what counts and what doesn’t count as religious. But if we encountered a group of humans who returned to the same trees over and over and performed the same inexplicable action near them and didn’t seem to have any practical reason to do so, there would be lots of people who would interpret it through the prism of religion.

Schaefer is one such person. But for such acts of comparison to lead to the “discovery” of religion in animals, we must first harbor ideas about what counts as religion in humans and then project these onto our subjects. For Schaefer that includes repetitive actions that aren’t “practical.” For Jane Goodall feelings of awe and wonder are prerequisites for “spirituality.”

Yet, that we see “religion” or “spirituality” in animals says more about us than it does about them. King agrees:
I’m uneasy with making 1:1 comparisons between the meaning of human behaviors performed at trees in the forest and similar chimpanzee behaviors performed there. After all, even if we unbind religion from language, texts, and beliefs – as I think we should – isn’t it incredibly anthropocentric of us to expect other species to think and feel the way we do?

Yes, it is. But what King has missed here is that seeing “human behaviors performed at trees” as “religious” deserves just as much attention. In other words, seeing religion in humans should give us just as much pause as seeing religion in animals. For neither is a given and both call for analysis of the act of identification.

Peter Kolb’s focus on practice allowed him to favorably compare the Khoikhoi with Jews and thereby “discover” their “religion.” Jane Goodall’s focus on awe and wonder allowed her to see “spirituality” among chimpanzees. Donovan Schaefer’s focus on actions that are repetitive and impractical (to him) allowed him to see “religion” among certain animals. Had Kolb, Goodall, or Schaefer harbored a conception of “religion” that took faith or belief to be the essential component, as do many modern religious people, they would not have been able to see “religion” among the Khoikhoi or among chimpanzees.

If we have found religion or spirituality in animals, it is only because we have put it there. The world is not ours to discover, it is ours to create.

*Peter Kolb, The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope: Or, A Particular Account of the Several Nations of the Hottentots: Their Religion, Government, Laws, Customs, Ceremonies, and Opinions: Their Art of War, Professions, Language, Genesis, etc., trans. Mr. Medley (London: W. Innys, 1731), as quoted in Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 115.