Note from the Field: A Comment

In his comment on the recent JAAR cover, Jack Llewellyn made reference to the caption (pictured above) that appears on the inside table of contents, in the current issue, which describes the photo in question.

I admit that I had not paid attention to any of this until I read his comment. And so what then caught my attention in that caption was the manner in which the seemingly descriptive voice can be far from merely descriptive.

First, we see the dominant idealist stance in the field nicely represented here (though dominant, it is hardly the only starting point for work in the field), inasmuch as behaviors are presumed to be indicative of inner sentiments, with the former (which are empirically observable) assumed to be motivated by (i.e., expressive of) the latter (which are unseen by the observer, of course). For, as noted there, the documented action of touching the feet illustrates (draws a picture of) that which cannot appear in the photo: desire.

As I’ve written on past occasions, the once popular “Myth Symbol, Ritual” course title was another place where we found this approach, all three elements of that title understood as public sites where non-empirical feelings or experiences were presumed to be exhibited. In fact, it’s the premise on which the field’s preoccupation with the comparative method rests (still evident in our world religions courses and textbooks) — at least the late-19th century model which inductively itemized a list of cross-cultural, empirical items in order to find similarities from which a non-empirical universal could be inferred.

What’s important to note, however, is that without this particular starting point and the assumptions it entails, the caption’s opening line would likely not occur to us, making it an interpretive statement as opposed to the mere description or statement of fact that it seems to be.

And with this in mind, we see a second example in the very next words: “… which is believed to be a conduit for the sacred.” Not only does the idealist model reappear, with the typical (i.e., widely accepted) emphasis on belief as an inner dimension that motivates action, but the well-known Eliadean interpretive framework (that many in the field claim to be an historical relic of a bygone era) is presented as if it were a mere description of the content of that supposed belief, rather than signalling to the reader that both the idealist model and the reliance on this notion of “the sacred” are part of a (contestable, according to some scholars) higher order analysis used by the observer to make sense of the situation. To rephrase: I think it would be highly unlikely to hear this caption come from the mouth of the woman being depicted and whose actions are being decoded for the viewer via this misleadingly simple caption — not unless the woman depicted had read books by some scholars of religion who work in this interpretive tradition (which is possible, of course).

Now, given my own approach to the field, my work is often criticized for failing to represent fairly the world as it is seen by the people under study. What is fascinating about this criticism is the manner in which it avoids ever holding the feet of captions such as this to the same critical fire. For the speed with which description — “A devotee touches a sadhu’s feet…” — turns into what I read as unacknowledged analysis, as if the descriptive voice was just continuing, deserves some attention. And not just here, of course, in a mere caption in an issue of a journal, but in the scholarly voice used in articles and books as well.

For my hunch is that analysis always creeps in and reading work as simply being descriptive serves to authorize those interpretations as if they were statements of fact in sync with the people we’re studying (thereby preventing us from ever really debating their adequacy). Rather, I’d propose that we entertain that scholarship is, by definition, always removed from the worlds and self-perceptions of the people that we happen to study, prompting us to listen a little more closely whenever we hear the descriptive voice.