In or Out?

I’ve got to admit, I’m getting tired of all the “epistemological crisis” talk and the way it’s being pinned on the humanities in general and postmodernism in particular.

For the way I see it, members of groups that once benefited from a broad social consensus are now a bit angry that someone has pointed out the link between power and knowledge. Or, to rephrase, it’s curious to me how a socio-political issue is continually portrayed as an epistemological issue, as if this is all about how “we know” and not about “how we organize” and “who gets to organize.” Continue reading

The Book Event – As Told in Pictures

Last Thursday, the Religious Studies Department hosted its second annual book event at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in downtown Tuscaloosa. The refreshments and cozy ambiance created the perfect atmosphere for any book lover to mingle and browse the store. Professors, students, and even Tuscaloosa locals joined us to discuss Prof. Ramey‘s and Prof. Loewen‘s recently published books.

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Disconnecting Truth from Free Speech

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

Harry Potter, or in human form Daniel Radcliffe, is currently acting in an off-Broadway play titled The Lifespan of a Fact. Timely and satirical, the play posits a contemporary political pastime of major and minor news agencies across the world: fact-checking truth. Perhaps the more important question one might ask today is: is there truth out there to be found by all these fact checkers? For Radcliffe, there are no magic wands, no all-knowing Hermione Grangers and no easy answer to this question as he portrays the dedicated fact checker. Tim Teemen in his review of this play for the Daily Beast explains that the play is about “what counts as fact and the perception of fact in what we read and visually and aurally consume every day.”

On stage, Daniel Radcliffe works to fact-check an article by a well-known journalist about a horrific suicide in 2002 when a sixteen-year-old jumped off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.  This real story and actual journalistic attempt was in the “fact-check” phase for seven years before it was finally killed as a story for Harper’s Magazine due to journalistic disagreements.  The story was finally published in the form of a book seven years after the actual event and then became the subject of this play exploring the discourse of the narrative flow in non-fiction true event’s writing.

The United States is currently at war with itself in terms of what free speech is and whether free speech and truth are the same. The illusion is that free speech, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, is equal to “truth”. Civics teachers have been emphasizing for years that it is our right and that we need to honor each other’s right to speak our truths.  What wasn’t emphasized was that “truth” and “free speech” are not equal.  This is not a new argument either in popular culture or in academic scholarship. Roland Barthes a major French literary theorist wrote about the nature of linguistic meaning and one of his explorations dealt with the multiplicity/plurality of meanings. Barthes is talking about literature and scholarship but the implication is that “meanings” are complex and are affected by time, relationships and authors. Is there such a thing as “truth”? Does the designation of “fact” make the item “true”? Can we trust the fact-checkers in the media when as Pierre Bourdieu stated in his text On Television (1996), “we are getting closer to the point where the social world is primarily described—and in a sense prescribed—by television.”

Journalists work for companies, whether as print journalists or televised journalists, which are owned and sponsored by moneyed operatives or corporations. Television and print medium fans have their own “teams” in terms of what news outlet they support or champion and as long as their “truth” is espoused, they continue to watch or read.  Journalists are writers and writers like to have their work read or seen by a wide audience.  Whether it is fiction or non-fiction there is always tension about what literary license means when presenting truth. With fiction, the author expects the reader to come along for the ride and agree that there is plausibility in the story. With non-fiction, the author still has a desire to present the material in a literary form so that the reader will want to read the article or book, assured that the facts of the story are being presented.

The conundrum is that the reading/watching audience are operating with a set of truths that, as Barthes would argue, are complex and layered and from individual to individual may not, over time, relate to each other except as a demonstration of how complex truth actually is. No matter how hard the fact-checkers work or how long they pursue their goal, what is presented in the end by that news outlet will not be received by everyone as “truth”. The new term “fake news” used today has nothing to do with the veracity of an article or item. It is used to combat journalism that one doesn’t like.

Harry Potter had to deal with “fake news” too, put out by The Daily Prophet. At least he had a magic wand to deal with his “truth” issues. Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact has no magic wand and unfortunately, his character cannot guarantee his outcome as truth either.

Knowing Your Roots

Last week I sat down to chat with Dr. Richard Newton, a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies who recently joined us from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Originally from Texas, Professor Newton lived on each coast before making his way to The University of Alabama. This semester, he’s teaching a course on Islam, advising the Religious Studies Student Association (RSSA), and, next semester, will be teaching a graduate course on this history of the field along with an intro to the New Testament.

Dr. Newton’s work is interested in evaluating how cultural texts or scriptures, can inform a sense of individual and group identity. Currently, he is working on his first book, Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures, and hopes it will be available for purchase within the next year. Continue reading

Public Service Announcement

The day I meet postmodernists whose relativism does not disappear the minute they start talking about salaries and workloads is the day I will take relativism seriously.

That’s a quotation I saw posted on social media yesterday, from Steve Bruce‘s new book Researching Religion: Why We Need Social Science.

My comment on the site?

I find positions one disagrees with are easiest critiqued when one parodies them.

Fending off parodies of postmodernism’s influence in our field is a full-time job these days, whether they come from the theologians looking for evidence of God’s truth, the humanists in search of Meaning and the Enduring Human Spirit (the uppercase is intended), or, yes, the social scientists who equally need religion to be some real, tangible thing but in order to explain it in some fashion. But despite the obvious differences among these three broad approaches, I see representatives of each routinely drawing upon the same parodies of critical or postmodern stances.

So, as a public service, let me comment here that to take a self-interested and apparently absolutist stand concerning a salary or a workload RELATIVE TO one’s practical and changeable interests is not some sort contradictory “Aha!” moment that exposes the weakness at the heart of a social constructionist or so-called relativist approach. Instead, it is actually a pretty good argument for why we should take such an approach, as Bruce phrases it, seriously.

Social actors, after all, aren’t the most consistent players and I see no reason why scholars are somehow different from the rest of their peers. So an approach that they adopt in the study of others which they apparently suspend when advancing their own interests strikes me as a good example of how social life actually works, providing a pretty compelling case for why we ought to be doing anything but dismissing that approach in our study of human behavior and organization.

The 6th Annual Day Lecture

The Department of Religious Studies hosted its 6th annual Day Lecture. The series (established, by his family, in the memory of REL grad Zachary Day) focuses on religion and popular culture, attracting students from across campus.
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20 Conference Dos and Don’ts

With the our field’s main annual conference just days away, we thought we’d offer a public service announcement to those who may be new to navigating the heady intellectual environment of a scholarly meeting.

So here goes…

1. Don’t wander into the book display unprepared; instead, psych yourself up for the over-stimulating audio-visual onslaught that is a convention center ballroom filled with thousands and thousands of books — many of which are on either Jesus or the Apostle Paul — and nearly as many tweed-coated scholars fighting over them or talking to each other in the middle of the aisle. #obstaclecourse Continue reading

Studying Religion in Culture in Denver–AAR, SBL, and NAASR 2018!

Annual Meetings of the SBL AAR Denver 2018

If Manly Hall is a little quieter in Mid-November, trust that the faculty are keeping busy. Many in our Department will be headed to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

And as you can see, the Department will be well represented on the program.

Prof. Nathan Loewen continues to serve on the executive committee of the International Development and Religion program unit. This group supports interdisciplinary scholarship that informs and critiques the role of religion in humanitarian interests in the global South. He also co-organizes the “Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion Seminar.”

Prof. Emily Crews is presenting a response paper on gender and sexuality during a NAASR session.

Prof. Russell T. McCutcheon is chairing a NAASR panel on Jonathan Z. Smith’s contributions to the field. And for the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion program unit, he will be chairing and responding to a panel discussing religious philanthropy and the endowment of academic chairs.

Prof. Richard Newton is leading a workshop on Teaching and Trauma for the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and presenting his recent paper on race and religion for NAASR. He will also be discussing the public humanities, politics and pedagogy, and teaching theory and method in the study of religion on various panels.

The scholarly working group Culture on the Edge will bring together Prof. McCuthceon, Prof. Newton, Prof. Vaia Touna, and Prof. Ramey and others to discuss future projects and celebrate the recent publications of Strategic Acts of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place (ed. Prof Touna, Equinox 2019).

Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place, edited by Vaia Touna

The faculty will also be connecting with colleagues from other institutions. We look forward to seeing many of our not-so-local readers. And you can keep up with the action via social medi

Michael Scott twirling

Is this “Rising” or even Equal?

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, here in the middle, actually right up on the final run toward the mid-term 2018 elections, it was amazing to see a political advertisement that turned the standard dialogue about women running for office on its head. Paid for by the Serve America PAC, a democratic effort, this ad features eight first time congressional female candidates running across the United States for elected office. You should watch it here:

I have a long and varied path from my early identification as a feminist in the 1960s to the present Pussy Hat wearing throng of women with political ambition or political desire. This ad was new.

Seeing the ad for the first time on Facebook, my old feminist heart leapt at the visual of these women, all having served America either through military service (Marines, Navy or Air Force) or governmental service (CIA). They spoke of their service in combat, as leaders, in high-powered jobs and their desire to continue to serve their country through political service.

First impressions being what they are and quite frankly after forty years of the old dialogue about the “little ladies” running for office, I was blown away and amazed at this political advertisement. I smiled and re-posted it to several feminist friends and colleagues and planned to show the ad to my undergraduate students in triumph of a new wave of possible women candidates who could win with such a message.

But then, the scholar in me woke up and shoved aside the feminist and I started wondering what I would say to my students. The language of this ad was different than any other “woman’s” political ad that I had ever seen. They were using the language that is usually associated with male power. They were talking about flying combat planes, leading men and women into battle, leading men and women on a huge ship, working in a male-dominated investigation unit. The linguistic images were those of men. Hold on a minute.  Feminists have been fighting the image of nature versus nurture for hundreds of years and endless reams of scholarship attempting to level the playing field for both men and women.  Scholars like Sherry B Ortner (see her article “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture”) associate women’s lack of social or cultural power to the fact that women are considered closer to nature due to their ability to give birth and nurture children. Men are typically identified with the power associated with the protection of weaker women and children through aggression and battle. This political ad was using what many would consider male language. Rather than considering women equal to men, was this not a usurpation of “male” language just to get females elected?

As women have been afforded secondary status historically, this ad leaves us with an incredible predicament because women are not unilaterally one thing across the globe and when it comes to the concept of power there are even more complexities. It seems that we have finally begun to un-separate the “duties” of men and women in culture and un-tangle the gendered language used to understand what power is acceptable within culture. More importantly, what does it say if these women win in the mid-term election of 2018? Do women have to usurp the heretofore language of male “power” in order to win? What does this say about a woman who occupies a “traditional” woman’s job in culture such as school teacher, non-profit worker or librarian? Is female “power” now only afforded to those women who have “made it” in traditional male jobs such as combat or the CIA? That seems to be the message of this political ad.

When all these ideas came rushing into my head, I was suddenly mad. Minutes before, I was ready to run out and vote and champion this moment and minutes later I was grumpy and back to my typical “HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?” mood. In the long run, what happens if women win using what is considered male language, and what are the consequences?

I, Robot… I, Ethical

On my morning drive into work, I heard a news report on autonomous and intelligent road vehicles, or self-driving automobiles. The story explained that as these vehicles are optimized for road safety, designers must determine programming imperatives such as whether a vehicle should prioritize the safety of the human “driver” or a pedestrian in a roadway.

If that scenario was not unsettling enough, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is developing a certification of ethics for approved vehicles. But determining the credentialed curriculum has proven tricky because of cultural bias.

As one IEEE representative explained, the radar system in some prototypes has been calibrated to detect darting squirrels, but testing in Australia helped researcher realize that they had not accounted for the hopping of kangaroos. All ethical politics are local politics it seems.

A less quaint shorthand of meaning-making was the admission by IEEE credential architect, John Havens.

All ethics questions, often times, especially in western media, is coming from a Greek background of ethics whereas when we have the entire other side of the planet and the Global South has things called Confucian ethics and Ubuntu ethics. And it is a reframing of the paradigm of how we come to these questions … And so it is when you ask those questions that much more, this is where the words “safety” or “trust” can really be elevated to more global levels and that is what IEEE is about with consensus building globally. That is to say, “We don’t know. We don’t know yet, but we have to ask.”

The lede here reminded me of the 2004 film, I, Robot, in which the robotic infrastructure of the future turns against humanity, and a prejudice, anti-robot police officer (played by Will Smith) must save the day.

But truth be told, I’m less worried about the politics of a CPU than I am of the way some certain ethical interpreters and interpretations will be taken as representative of whole peoples in the service of the global good. One does not have to turn to science fiction to think about how some people will become casualties in that process. That’s just history.