Points of Contact

Picture 16Do you know that painting? It’s detail from Norman Rockwell’s 1951, “Saying Grace,” which sold for $46 million a couple years ago. It came to mind after an exchange that I had over on Twitter the other day, in which I wrote the following:

Picture 17The painting nicely illustrates the point — that classification is the trace of a social situation in which difference and similarity are being worked out. For, to break it down to it’s simplest, I’d argue that those two figures on the right are “saying grace” or “being religious” only inasmuch as the two on the left are watching them.

For without those curious young guys, without that setting in the restaurant, I’m not convinced that the lady and boy would naturally understand what they were doing as something religious, maybe not even as something worth noticing or talking about. Sure, they might say, “let’s say grace” or “let’s bow our heads” to start it off, but my point is that, in the doing, this is more than likely all just a routinized form of behavior for them — that is, they don’t self-consciously think “now I’ll be religious” when they do it. Instead, it’s how they start off their meal.

I don’t think, “Now I’ll sit like a man” when I cross my legs in a certain way. I just do it.

Sure, they could elaborate on it, if queried, drawing on a host of signifiers that would plot this action in distinction from others. But that’s all in hindsight, when prompted by someone as curious as those two guys in the painting, who come armed with their own set of assumptions and ways of dividing up and naming the world. I’d hazard a guess, then, that, alone, at a table, in a kitchen, it’s just part of what it means to set the table and eat.

The larger point, then, is to consider the ease with which we, as observers, classify actions, as if we’ve identified some core trait they possess, so as to make it virtually impossible to unsee them as being an instance of a this or a that, all in clear distinction from this or that other thing. One might say, for example, that “saying grace” is so obviously religious — it’s giving thanks to an all-mighty power, after all, and, in return, asking for a blessing of some sort — that, of course, it has something inherently to do with what some people do when a young girl or boy comes of age, what those others do when someone dies, and what yet others do regularly in that building over there, you know, the ones obviously distinguished from all those other buildings where people meet no less regularly, inasmuch as we call just some a temple or a mosque or a synagogue or a church.

But it’s our habit of naming and associating that could become our object of study — if we were curious, that it, about how it is that we make the world sensible and habitable to ourselves by assuming invisible networks of relations exist, whereby things in our world are (or so we assume) naturally and necessarily sorted. Whether that lady and that boy, or those two other guys for that matter, also are thinking this in the moment of the act, I certainly don’t know, but I’d bet that if they are then it is only inasmuch as the situation unfolds as it does in that painting, depicting a moment where divergent practices meet and bump up against one another, making the actors curious, suggesting to me that designators like “being religious” are evidence of contact, where taken-for-granted expectations and practices unexpectedly diverge, and not, as we usually assume, an enduring identity naturally and continuously expressed into the world.

Calling something religious, then, and assuming it is inevitably linked to other equally religious things, is evidence of someone trying to manage a social situation of divergence, possibly conflict, rather than expressive of a shared, inner trait those objects, settings, and acts possess. In this case studying religion means studying the creation and management of that system of designation and identification — looking more closely at the acts or the objects, in order to discern something about their inner religious character, is therefore not nearly as interesting as examining the situation of their naming.