A Word from the Balcony

Picture 9A yesterday a colleague posted a blog with three hypotheses on the topic of studying a thing called American Religious History — concerning how it may very well be a nationalist project, from start to finish (no matter how it is done), and that it is a discourse that may have historical continuities with (and practical effects akin to) the world religious discourse that so many in our field now claim to critique.

His point, as I read him, was not how to do it better but why we do it in the first place.

Apart from agreeing with much of the post — after all, how much convincing would we need to see a [insert some other country’s name here, especially one you generally disagree with] scholar’s focus on religious history in [re-insert that other country’s name here] as a nationalist exercise? — I found particularly interesting one of the comments that followed the post. It reads:

October 2, 2014 at 12:11 PM

To my surprise, I really liked your ideas in this piece, especially the idea of how Robert Baird has helped frame what counts as worthy to be studied as “religion in America.” I say “to my surprise,” because I think that deconstructionist projects like this often focus on what one recent scholar has in JAAR has typified as the production of knowledge alone, not on its consumption (one of the major problems this scholar had with Russell McCucheon [sic]). So…it’s great to have scholars like you focusing on the production of categories, but its not so great if that’s what every scholar does all the time. I get worried that some scholars, like McCucheon [sic], suggest that we should just be doing the former as religious studies scholars. I don’t think you’re advocating for that.

Without worrying too much about the journal article being cited (which, yes, I read a couple weeks ago and which seems to me to be using my work as a bit of a strawman, to be honest — that is, I don’t think that particular author and I are talking about the same things at all, to be honest), what I find fascinating about the above comment is that I don’t think I’ve ever offered a critique without trying to make plain not only the alternative assumptions that allow me to make the critique but, more importantly, without outlining (sometimes in a fair bit of detail) an alternative way of, for instance, going about doing our research, designing and teaching our classes, carrying out faculty searches, professionalizing graduate students, or maybe even organizing departments and their curricula.

This started with the very first article I published; in fact, the last chapter to my first book, Manufacturing Religion (1997), opens as follows:

Picture 8I then went on to offer a chapter on how I (at least back then) thought the field ought to be organized and our work carried out. Some of my views have changed since then, yes, but there’s always an alternative on offer.

So what am I to make of someone who says that I never offer constructive suggestions, that all I do is criticize other people’s use of categories without every offering alternative ways to do our scholarly work?

Well, it seems to me that this reading of my work — a reading I’m rather familiar with, actually — confirms much about the problems that I see with the field, for it seems that the truths that I call into question are so sacrosanct that inviting readers to re-consider them is read as exceedingly controversial, so much so that some may not even be able to continue reading to the end of the essay or the chapter, or stomach tackling another piece by me. I’m being provocative for effect here, of course, but how to account for readers not seeing the alternative that’s being proposed by means of the critique, as the very basis for the critique?

Perhaps because the alternative is, to some readers, utterly unimaginable given the unquestioned place, for them, of the item I’ve called into question. For everyone now seems to know all about the critique of the category religion — yawn — but that hasn’t stopped everyone from still studying religion, right?

To rephrase: if it’s unthinkable to critique X then how much more difficult will it be to imagine doing Y in its place? So they don’t see the alternative because no alternative is imaginable.

So I’ll close by offering a hypothesis of my own:

Readers who disagree with the proposals I’ve made over the years, and thus those who disagree with the sort of field that might result from their implementation, sometimes opt not to even see those proposals as proposals — which seems a pretty good way to caricature my work as overly negative, deconstructive, just lobbing insults from the balcony, and not offering constructive alternatives. It’s yet another way of making an easily toppled strawman.

It’s a rational response some readers might have. Either that or all they’ve read of me was an article someone picked for them one week in a method & theory grad course. Or maybe they just saw the cover of one collection of essays that had the word “critic” in the title.

That’s entirely possible too.

9 thoughts on “A Word from the Balcony

  1. Thanks for your gracious response. I was away for the weekend and buried with class preps and writing deadlines until now. Would you suggest that the Sacred is the Profane is the best starting point for understanding your work as of now? if not, does any chapter or essay in particular provide what you consider the best entrance point to your work? I’ve got a stack of books on my desk for research and more for upcoming courses (we all do). That said, I do think that understanding your voice is important, if for no other reason, to provide students with a range of contemporary voices and approaches in religious studies. I’ve referenced your work off-hand to students when we talk in the first few days of intro classes about basic approaches to studying religion (emic versus etic, advocacy versus critique, etc.). It’s worth my time to understand you much better. Thanks once more.

  2. Quick response, but I will fess up. I wrote the “unknown” comment because I had not properly set up my google account. As you speculate, I encountered your work in graduate school, read a bit (but not much), heard a lot of second-hand critiques that gave me a rather jaundiced view of your oeuvre, and then recently read the JAAR article that offered what I thought was a fair critique of your project as I understood it. You indicate it is not a fair critique. Fine. I will look at your work more carefully in the future before lobbing quick, relatively uninformed generalizations on blogs. So…there we go.

    1. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on whatever you’re able to read, David. Nice to meet you.

      As for Fong, to select but one point: I’d like to think that my career has taken very seriously that social constructs have effect; otherwise why have I been so interested in “religion”?–e.g., while it was just a stamp in my passport and a plasticized high tech card that got mailed to me, becoming a “Permanent Resident” in the US meant I got to go on the other side of the velvet rope at airport customs areas and get processed far quicker and thus make my connections on time when flying into the US. Silly example, perhaps, but of course these things have tremendous effect and that’s why they’re interesting to study. Thus, to instruct me on this in an article seems but one of many examples where the author works hard to ignore what I’ve written all in order to provide himself with a place to push off to make his own point. Of such are discourses made, however, and so I’m glad for him that he’s got a c.v. line by pushing off’a me.

  3. One hypothesis I can offer is that while there are lots of ways one could respond to the kinds of critiques made by McCucheon (sic) and Altman, I’ve noticed the responses often follow a tripartite scheme that makes three simultaneous assertions: 1. McCutcheon and Altman’s criticisms are obviously true and we know this already and we’ve already incorporated them into our work and so all this is old news; 2. These criticisms are obviously false because they misrepresent how real people (ie., not academics) understand religion themselves; and 3. It doesn’t matter whether these criticisms are true or false because we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing anyway and so all this critique amounts to is time-wasting navel gazing that distracts us from doing the real work that we’ve already decided to do. For this last reason, deconstructive critiques that tell us that work in religious studies is analytically incoherent are not helpful because they might prevent scholars of religion from doing the analytically incoherent work that we will inevitably do because, hey, no one’s perfect.

    Dunno if this hypothesis works universally, but I think a lot of essays could be broken down this way.

    1. My favorite is the “yes…, but” two step: first, you acknowledge the critique, and then find a loop hole out of it. “Yes, Jefferson owned slaves, but…” It’ll get you outta almost any jam–it’s better than a pack of matches and a roll of duct tapes in the hands of MacGyver.

    2. Finbarr nails it with his analysis of the reaction to Mike’s post. I find reaction 3 the most telling and troubling.

    3. Citing the scholarship critiquing “religion” or “world religions” now functions as an indulgence or a genuflection–you do it when you first start the article so that you can just keep on doing what you’ve always done.