The REL Journal Group: Reading Amid the (phenomenological) Lines


The following exchange between Prof. Nathan Loewen and Emma Gibson, a graduate student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of REL’s monthly journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Nathan: So, Emma, you have a background in the study of philosophy and you came to the religious studies department at UA in order to complete an MA in religious studies. Your first semester at UA has included plenty of coursework on critical theory as well as an independent study with me focused on major publications from Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. The faculty and graduate students in our department convened for our journal group for its third and time in order to discuss the article that you chose. What went into your decision to have us read and discuss an article from 1985?

Emma: In the article, John Caputo outlines the moves Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida make to transgress Western metaphysics. I chose the article in order to engage with the department about my interests in phenomenology. I first encountered phenomenology my freshman year of undergraduate studies in my 20th century philosophy course and was drawn into the way these thinkers considered the subject and experience rather than assuming logic, observations, and reason were sufficient in the quest for knowledge and truth. Edmund Husserl pioneered phenomenology when he argued that our own perceptions precede the object. Our perceptions (or, phenomenological experiences) come together to construct our “ideas” of objects and always refer back to other experiences and instances. If this is the case, then we would have to conclude that our knowledge of the world is primarily non-empirical. Approaches that emphasize an external, objective world are incapable of producing a complete and true narrative of reality. Phenomenology is a distinct field in philosophy, and its methods are applied differently in religious studies. While philosophy considers phenomenological experiences as a continual processes that call for a restructuring of the way we make sense of the world, religious studies uses phenomenology to argue that God can only be known by one who has encountered religious experience. In recent weeks I also recently read Caputo’s book, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derridaso this article covered several thinkers pertinent to my research interests.

NL: What does it mean to “transgress Western metaphysics”? Is that the business kind of thing that scholars of religion should be doing?

EG: Western metaphysics refers to a set of philosophical arguments about the nature of reality as fixed and predictable. That view contested by a reading of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida. Each argues reality is constructed from a multiplicity of phenomenological experiences, we are unable to form a linear, singular narrative about objects and ideas. We are always already becoming and this means that we should avoid imposing structures on thought that mask the unknowable and unpredictable qualities of existence. I have thought a lot about disrupting assumed structures and categories, which is exactly what “transgressing Western metaphysics” seeks to accomplish. I figured that an article about “transgressing” Western metaphysics would be relevant to my professors and cohort since they also use methods and theories that critique attempts to rigidly categorize and systematize concepts such as religion. I believe it is useful to discuss how the phenomenological approach considers the experience of the subject such undertakings.

NL: The article makes an argument that Heidegger has a “creative misunderstanding” about Nietzsche. The group was surprised by this claim, and we discussed it at some length. What did you see as the issue in terms of how postmodern, critical theorists work with the texts they choose to read?

EG: I enjoyed how the group debated the relationship of the philosopher to the text; Should we consider the intentions of the author or only focus on the text itself? Are we ever able to have the “correct” interpretation of an author’s work? After discussing these questions at length, I believe that Caputo’s claim that Heidegger “misread” another thinker is a rhetorical strategy to validate his argument. On the one hand, if we accept that the author is dead and there can be multiple readings of a text then we might fall into relativism. On the other, making claims that suggest one person is able to correctly interpret an author brings up questions of who has the authority to make these kinds of statements. I do not have answer to how postmodern thinkers should approach the texts they read, but I do think it would be beneficial to consider what it means to misread something.

NL: Another point of vibrant discussion was a consideration of how the article used the terms “abyss” and “mystery” in order to introduce a reference to Meister Eckhart in the article’s conclusion. Would you summarize what developed in our talk as a common concern?

EG: There was debate over whether Caputo was successful in his reading of Derrida’s abyss. This is a question that I am actually going to examine in my final paper for my independent study. Using terms like “mystery” and mentioning Eckhart was a red flag for some people in the room. Was this a signals of a theological interpretation of Derrida’s abyss that actually ontoglogized it? Isn’t this something Derrida actively tried to avoid? The idea of breaking-through metaphysics in order to reach the abyss suggests that there is only one move towards the unknown. I would argue that Eckhart’s breaking-through does not necessarily have to assume a theistic nature in the context of Caputo’s argument as long as the breaking through is continuous. There is no one event of transgression, but, rather a continuous process. This is something that I will keep thinking about!

NL: Thanks for sharing your reflections on our journal group discussion. I think it was really useful for everyone. Where do you plan to go from here? Is this journal article going to form a part of how you complete your projects this semester?

EG: I am actually going to compare Caputo’s article with the paper presented by Craig Martin at the 2017 NAASR meetings to think about interpretations of Derrida’s abyss. There was also discussion about the differences between phenomenology in the field of religion and phenomenology in the field of religious studies that I found compelling. It is a topic I am now considering for my Master’s thesis. My hope is to identify where the two fields differ in terms of interpreting concepts like “abyss” and “anxiety” and what this means for scholars in each discipline.

The New Triple Threat: Programming Omeka

You may have seen this tweet. As part of the Public Humanities and Religious Studies foundations course in our MA program, I collaborated with Sierra Lawson and Emma Gibson and helped to build AARtifacts. The project was built in Omeka and is meant to represent interesting artifacts gathered from people’s experiences of the annual American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting. So why did we choose to do this project? And how did we make it happen?

We went in knowing two things: the AAR was our case study for the semester and Omeka would be our platform for this particular project. A couple of brainstorming sessions later, we had decided to collect items from the faculty in our own department and create collections based on what we received. Sierra took on the task of trawling YouTube and Vimeo for relevant videos. Emma took the lead on scanning all of the old bulletins of from the academy. I photographed all of the physical items — tote bags and buttons, mainly. Altogether we had more than 100 items to catalogue.

Then came the part that actually involved Omeka. Omeka has a plugin that, ideally, should be able to upload a CSV document and separate your items automatically. This means that instead of entering each of those 100 items by hand, we’d be able to enter them seamlessly from the spreadsheet we had all contributed to. Except it didn’t work.

screen shot of slack conversation

Obviously this was a source of frustration for all of us. We had used the spreadsheet format trusting that it would upload with no or minimal problems. So as Sierra and Emma started entering the items individually (mad props to them for being willing to do that), I went digging. I needed an answer.

The first problem I had to address was that Mike (our professor and the host of the project) would receive a detailed error message and all I got was “Omeka has encountered an error.” After a few clicks and some light googling, I was able to 1) make some files appear in Mike’s file manager that were hidden for the purpose of being more user friendly and 2) fix a line of code that allowed Omeka to read error messages to me. Now I was able to at least find out what the problem was.

After another couple of hours of trying to make the plugin work, failing, digging to find out what the error was, and even more googling — it sounds much more straightforward than it actually was — I found the problem. All I needed to do was enter the right path for the command line in the right line of code of the right file and ta-da it would work. I went back to Mike, let him know, and asked him to find the path I needed to enter. A few days passed (I later found out it was because he was waiting for me to finish my thesis proposal) and he sent me the path. He had already had it for another error he had encountered earlier on in his domain configuration.

I fixed it. I entered the path in the right line of code and it worked! Sierra and Emma had already entered almost 70 of the items and I was able to get the rest in that afternoon. After some tweaking and cleaning up from Mike, we have the project you see now.

So here’s why I bring any of this up in the first place: I had no idea that the one computer science class I took a few years ago as a math major would help me with a project in the humanities in grad school. But it did. I don’t know PHP, but I know the basics of reading code and can identify errors with a little bit of work. Maybe the new triple threat is a student who can not only think critically, but also work collaboratively and fix broken code.

Cross posted on Sarah’s website.

A Student Report from WordCamp Birmingham

WP y'all graphic

This past weekend (October 21-22), I attended the annual WordPress conference in Birmingham, Alabama: WordCamp Birmingham. You may be asking: If she’s in an MA program for Religion in Culture, why does she need to go to a WordPress conference? An important aspect of the program is a focus on digital and public humanities — how we convey our research through digital media and to unconventional audiences. Part of that focus results in developing digital skills like WordPress to present our ideas and ourselves professionally to the general public. In fact, building a WordPress site was the first project we tackled in REL 502: Public Humanities and Religious Studies.

The conference was set up to serve all levels of experience ranging from complete newbies to experienced programmers. It was designed with three types of sessions going on at once all day long: blogger, business, and developer. Within each room, there was a flow to the sessions that would aid people who went for only one of the tracks, but we were encouraged to jump around to whatever felt appropriate for our individual needs. I dabbled around in each of the categories, discovering that most of the newbie stuff I had down (even though I still can’t seem to figure out how to make comments work properly on my own site) and the vast majority of the programer/developer side of things went way over my head. As far as the business sessions? I only went to one because the rest really didn’t seem that applicable to me, at least in this stage of my online presence.

The regular sessions went from 9:00am to 4:30pm on Saturday. On Sunday, two workshop sessions were offered in the afternoon. Again, three choices were given for each and everyone was encourage to attend the one most appropriate for their needs. These workshops were less geared toward the three categories set out on Saturday. Instead, they offered ways to make everything we had learned the day before applicable to our own sites. In addition to the sessions and workshops, WordCamp offered a “Happiness Bar” where you could go at any time and get individual help with anything that you might be struggling with on your site. And of course, no conference would be complete without t-shirts, free stuff (stickers, pens, more t-shirts, etc.), food (lunch from McAllister’s, Frios Gourmet Pops, Margarita Grill), and prizes (I won a year of free hosting from Known Host).

My notes from this conference go on for more than 10 typed pages and I now have an incredibly long list of things to do based on what I learned. Here’s a taste:

  1. Explore ways to fix my comments problem
  2. Make my site accessible to individuals with disabilities
  3. Research things like: Jetpack, See Jane Write, and SEO
  4. Set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console for my site
  5. Consider participating in #bloglikecrazy this November

Of course, this list goes on and I’m sure I’ll be adding more as I become more aware of and acquainted with WordPress. For now, I’ve got plenty to digest. I learned what’s behind the screen of domain registration, what task runners were, methods to connect with an audience, how to rebrand when necessary, why SEO matters, and many more aspects of using WordPress.

WordCamp is definitely the kind of conference you could attend over and over again and always learn new things. And because there are conferences in several major cities throughout the year, there’s almost always one happening soon fairly nearby. I, for one, plan on going to the one in Birmingham again, and maybe even WordCamp Atlanta in April if I need a refresher before then.

Beyond gaining skills for my personal site, this conference helped me to explore questions about the more technical side of what a digital religious studies could look like. There are odd tidbits that will help along the way (like making sure that image has alt-text). But there are also larger themes that are still stewing in my brain. The next project we tackled in 502, Omeka, operates in a similar manner to WordPress and can work alongside it. As it turns out, WordPress can be used for so much more than just blogging.



The AAR Conference Stories Project

As part of our REL 502 Religionus Studies and Public Humanities foundations course, our graduate students are putting together a collection of stories about people’s experiences at the annual American Academy of Religion national meeting. The AAR is more than an academic conference, it’s also a social and cultural event and we want to try and capture the aspects of the meeting that don’t show up on the conference program. We will take the best stories we can gather and use them in an upcoming episode of our podcast, Study Religion. To submit your story, call our AAR Stories hotline at 205-626-9346 and leave a message or record yourself telling your story and email the audio file to Put “AAR Story” in the subject line.

We want to hear your most interesting, funny, exciting stories from the AAR!

The Study Religion Podcast is BACK!

The first episode of our department podcast, Study Religion, for the new school year is all about, well, firsts. I talk to our first cohort of graduate students in the new Religion in Culture MA program about being the first students in a new program and how the first semester is going. Next I sit down with Prof. Vaia Touna to talk about a big first in her career: her first book. We also talk about how societies use the past and history to represent themselves in the present. And I learned something about Greek toast.

Give it a listen!


P.S. If you listen to us on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a comment and a rating! It really helps other folks find the show!

What Counts as Buddhist? Jazz, Anime, and Modernities

Image from Anime Saint Young Men

Image from Anime Saint Young Men

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced the 2017 recipients of its so-called “genius” grants, a five-year fellowship of $625,000 awarded to individuals of “extraordinary originality and dedication.” Among them was a composer and musician Tyshawn Sorey, who is “defying distinctions between genres, composition, and improvisation in a singular expression of contemporary music,” according to the Foundation’s website.

Where does his inspiration to “defy distinctions” come from? Some of it is Buddhism, the composer says in one interview. When asked “how other art disciplines affect his work,” Sorey responded:

Well, besides art disciplines…Zen Buddhism, literature, and painting has had a very profound affect on my work in many ways as well as the way I listen to music, which is really no way at all – positively speaking. Those two things are the primary generators for my work, as well as the experience of everyday life…which, for me, is improvisation in all senses.

Zen Buddhism shapes the way he listens to music, which is “really no way at all – positively speaking.” There is a “way-less way” to listening, experience, and improvisation. With this oxymoron, Sorey invokes the dominant image of Zen (and Buddhism), which is radical non-dualism, total spontaneity, and positive emptiness. In the same interview, he elaborates on this Zen-inspired world further:

… it was only natural for me to simply listen to the music for what it was.  I mean, there was never any real “way” I became aware of my interests in music and creating, because it was already there from the get-go.  … later discover that I became somewhat of a “jazz purist”.  It became apparent to me that I was listening to music in one “way”; that it was time for me to eliminate the idea of taste, likes, and dislikes and take from whatever I listened to and let it be a part of my musical makeup.  I believe that every listener of music listens in their own way, and I did not want to listen in ANY WAY…but to JUST listen – no feelings that “something sucks” or “something is catchy”, etc.  then, my tastes would not let me fully experience what was happening in the moment.  To listen to something without “listening”.

Here, then, is one face of Buddhism that is gaining more traction in the contemporary West (if the award of “genius” grant is any indication of social currency): countercultural simplicity (“simply listen”), pure experience (“jazz purist” “fully experience”), and flow-like immersion in nothingness (“no taste,” “listen without listening”). The discursive undertone of Sorey’s answers echoes what David L. McMahan called “Buddhist Modernism,” which constructs Buddhism as a practice of the free spirit. “… Buddhism is a religion in which you don’t really have to believe anything particular or follow any strict rules. … Buddhism values creativity and intuition and is basically compatible with a modern, scientific worldview” (MacMahan 2008:4).

And here is a sample of Sorey’s music which, as the title (kōan, a zen style of questioning) and album cover indicate, has been inspired by this Buddhism:

Did it sound Buddhist to you? Does this count as Buddhist – to whom and how?

It is perhaps ironic, then, that in the nation known as the founding place of Zen, another face of Buddhism has been gaining much media attention and popularity. Don’t get me wrong, the narrative of Buddhist Modernism is in Japan, as well. But here, I’m referring to Saint Young Men, the comic-turned-anime that won the prestigious Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for talented comic artists in 2009. This “heartwarming comedy” (from the comic cover) tells a story of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ living as roommates in a humble apartment in a Tokyo neighborhood. They are, the comedy goes, “taking a vacation” from their demanding godly duties to enjoy the unfamiliar but exciting life of regular humans. Here are some quick scenes:

The anime makes fun of widely-known concepts associated with Buddha and Buddhism among contemporary Japanese people, such as compassion (“Buddha smile”) and enlightenment (“truth of the universe”). The humor is in the placement of these highly idealized values within the daily life of imperfect human beings. This Buddha “shoots a Buddha smile” while double-clicking on an internet website and comes closer to “the truth” in a public pool’s communal shower. He is deeply human and yet not just human, and this tension leads the audience to laughter.

Clearly, this Buddhism does not emphasize the qualities of Zen-inspired Buddhist Modernism. It does not advocate pure experience, total spontaneity, or countercultural emptiness, and when it brings up such stereotypical notions, it mostly does so to poke fun at them. Some readers may be surprised that this kind of anime comes out of a country that is, statistically speaking, majority Buddhist. Actually, many people who say their affiliation is Buddhist simultaneously assert that their self is “non-religious” in Japan. This is a result of the modern history of encounters between Japan and Western nations, during which the country’s elites popularized the idea that some Japanese “religions” were not really “religions” because they were not about inner conviction but about public ritual (See Hardacre 1989, Josephson 2012). ” Consequently many people who identify with the narrative of “non-religious Japanese” associate their Buddhism not with their internal belief or essential identity but instead with the realms of “family,” “tradition,” “kinship,” “ritual,” “history,” and “culture.” To such people, it is entirely sensible to claim that “my family is Buddhist but I’m non-religious.” There is some distance between “Buddhism” and “‘me’ as the inner subject” in this kind of cultural framework.

So perhaps the contrast between Tyshawn Sorey’s Zen-music and Saint Young Men‘s comical Buddha reveals not just the multiplicity of Buddhisms but also the multiplicity of Buddhist modernities—that is, the ways in which people in different parts of world use “Buddhist” themes to reach out to their visions of the world.

** An earlier version of this post spelled “Hardacre 1989” incorrectly. It was a typo due to carelessness, and the author sincerely apologizes.

**Professor Ikeuchi is teaching REL 372: Buddhism in the Spring 2018 Semester.

The REL Journal Group: Durkheim and Data Edition

The following exchange between Prof. Mike Altman and Sarah Griswold, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Mike Altman: Sarah, for our first journal reading group you chose the article “Durkheim with Data: The Databse of Religious History” from a recent issue of JAAR. What’s the gist of the article and why did you think we should read it in our group of MA students and faculty?

Sarah Griswold: The article is basically an introduction (and justification) for the Database of Religious History. This database is meant to serve two purposes: to be a database for “religious groups” in the premodern world and to provide evidence for a theory of religious evolution. In effect, the database tries to play both fields of holding and providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The article mostly reads as an attempt to draw more scholars in in order to add data to the database.

As far as why I thought we should read it, there were a few reasons. First, as someone with a background in both the humanities and math, I think understanding how and why qualitative data is quantified is really important to understanding and critiquing the purpose and use of databases like this one. Second, as the humanities (and particularly religious studies) moves more and more towards digital projects, we need to be aware of what’s out there so we can emulate what is done well and improve on what is lacking. Finally, the article also offers us insight into the theoretical workings of the project itself. Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within, making the move from qualitative to quantitative data suspect. That, I think, can be quite telling of the ultimate success or failure of a project of this size.

MA: As a student in this new MA program that has an emphasis on digital and public humanities what can you learn from this article and what can we as a program learn?

SG: Personally, this article reinforced the importance of thinking through the categories you use when quantifying data. It can be easy to point to something you “know” is religion and label it as such without thinking about why you’ve decided on that label in the first place. It’s also interesting to think about the collaboration across disciplines that these projects require. It would be impossible for one or two scholars to gain all the skills needed to make these things even work. It turns out that group projects exist in real life too and not just in school.

As a program, I think the biggest take away is to pay attention to the developments of these projects. Because the DRH has a capacity to refine their methods, I don’t think they should be entirely dismissed as uncritical. There are positive and negative take aways from critically examining any digital project. Learning more about digital projects and examining their goals and functions can and will tell us a lot about how to move forward in our own individual and collaborative projects.