“Working Yourself into a Shoot”: When is a Performance a Performance?

A collag with WWE superstar Lacey Evans and a police officer handing her a speeding ticket.

As some of you may know, I love pro wrestling and I think it can be good data for the scholar of religion. Let me offer a recent example that lit up the wrestling fan twitters over the weekend.

The WWE, the world’s biggest wrestling company, toured through Canada over the weekend, holding a show in Edmonton, Alberta. While driving through Canada, one of the wrestlers, Lacey Evans, was pulled over for speeding. She posted this video on Twitter Saturday.

A little bit of context here. Lacey Evans’s wrestling character is a snobby southern belle who calls the fans and other wrestlers “nasties.” She’s a “bad guy” or a “heel,” in wrestling terms. She’s uppity, conceded, mean, and rude. The “do you know who I am?!” response in the video is a perfect example of her character. Like most of her social media posts, the entire video is Lacey Evans in character.

In wrestling terms this is called a “work.” A work is everything that happens within the fictional world of wrestling. Everything you see on TV during a WWE show is a work and, with the advent of social media, more and more of what fans read from wrestlers on Twitter or Instagram is also a work. The thing about a work is that the goal is to elicit a response from the audience. When a wrestler is “working” in the ring they want the live audience to cheer them if they are a “babyface,” or good guy, and boo them if they are a heel. The video that Lacey Evans posted is her working as a heel to get a response from the audience of fans on Twitter.

Well, she’s a good worker. The tweet went viral. It was even picked up by the Toronto Star. The video produced a backlash among wrestling and non-wrestling fans who replied to her defending Canada and chastising her for her attitude. The backlash was so strong that eventually Evans had to send out another tweet admitting that the police officer in the video was in on the work the whole time and that she was just “doing her job” to entertain the fans.

In wrestling terms, this second tweet is called a “shoot.” A “shoot” is something real or legitimate. It breaks the fictional world of the work. It’s something not part of the show or part of the character. Notice that the statement is signed “Sgt Estrella.” That’s a reference to Lacey Evans’ real name, she was a Sergeant in the Marines before she was a wrestler. She used her shoot name to sign the statement.

What I find interesting about all of this is that wrestling fans want to get worked. Since the 1990s, most wrestling fans know that the WWE is scripted entertainment and that the performers in the ring are working together to tell a story through their matches. In short, we all know it’s a work. This has made it a lot harder for wrestlers and wrestling companies to work the fans and get the responses they want from them. The companies need those responses because it’s the emotional response and enjoyment of getting caught up in the show, in the work, that makes fans spend money. Getting worked is also the fun part of wrestling for fans. They want to get sucked into the fictional world of the show. Wrestling companies need to work the fans and the fans want to be worked.

But here Lacey Evans worked everybody. Everybody who watched the video and got mad got worked. They lost themselves in the story she was telling about herself as a sassy, rude, arrogant, southern belle from America, talking back to a polite Canadian police officer. She even got the cop in on the work! This is great heel work. This is what wrestling fans should want. But instead the backlash was so big Lacey Evans had to break character and shoot. She had to admit that it had all been a performance.

But here’s my question, which was the real performance? It’s easy to see the first tweet and video, where Evans is working, as a performance. But isn’t the second tweet a performance too? Evans puts her biography out there as a former law enforcement officer and marine as a performance to show that she really isn’t the person she was previously performing to be. She selects the aspects of her identity best suited to the moment to perform the part of a supporter of law enforcement. And, that performance is still bracketed by her “PSA Listen up nasties” which sounds like her working character. It’s a shoot inside a work trying to answer another work.

It’s performance all the way down.

This whole situation is what the most famous wrestler of all time, Hulk Hogan, would call “working yourself into a shoot.” Because all of us are always performing. We’re all working.

REL Receives Four Year, $350,000 Grant from the Luce Foundation

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama is very pleased to announce a $350,000 grant from the Henry  Luce Foundation to fund a significantly expanded version of its American Examples Workshop (piloted in 2018-19 with the assistance of UA’s College of Arts & Sciences).

With this new grant, the Department will call for applications and select up to nine early career scholars (ranging from ABD to tenure-track) to be brought to the University of Alabama three times throughout the calendar year for workshops on research, teaching, and public scholarship. Contingent, alt-ac, and other non-tenure track scholars will be especially encouraged to apply. The workshops are an effort to assist early career scholars of America to entertain a shift in focus that has been successfully adopted by members of the Department. As the original American Examples workshop described it:

The study of religion in America, or American religious history, has most often sought to discover what is uniquely “American” about American religion… What if we instead approach America as one site among others, an important and useful but by no means unique example, that might reveal larger cross-cultural insights about religion, social formations, identities, and more? What if we did not take “America” and “religion” for granted? AE, then, is an attempt to do just that: develop research on religion in America that is portable, cross-cultural, comparative, and theoretically driven.

With Prof. Mike Altman as the grant’s PI and the chair of the AE Steering Committee (comprised of Profs. Steven Ramey, Merinda Simmons, and Richard Newton), the ongoing series of workshops will involve many of the faculty in the Department serving as mentors and participating in programming. In addition, the program will benefit from the logistical and digital skills of one of our MA students, who will annually serve as the AE graduate research assistant. The inaugural holder of this Luce-funded GRA position will be Keeley McMurray.

After their first year of workshops, each AE participant will return once in the following year to report on the implementation of their new skills, serve as mentors to the next year’s participants, and participate in a public event involving REL undergraduate and graduate students. The program will also produce publications, digital projects, course syllabi and a number of other resources so stay tuned for more information about this exciting new initiative in the Department.

More news about the call for applications will come later this summer as we select the 2020 cohort this fall and hold the first workshop in Spring 2020.

Argument Analysis: Legion v. American Humanist Association

Monica L. Waller, arguing for respondent in American Legion v. American Humanist Assoc., 2-27-19Jackson Foster is a freshman at UA, majoring in Religious Studies and History and minoring in the Blount Undergraduate Initiative and Randall Research Scholars Program. He is currently studying the intersections between law, politics, and religion in Dr. Altman’s REL130 course. This piece was originally published in High School SCOTUS, a national Supreme Court blog comprised of young students like Jackson.

The Supreme Court heard arguments last month in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a case involving a 40-foot Peace Cross situated in a Maryland public park. Before (and since) the argument, American Legion has received special attention from the constitutional scholar and layman alike. It has been enveloped in media scrutiny (see Nina Totenberg’s Cross Clash Could Change Rules For Separation Of Church And State); it is one of the first Establishment Clause cases in the Kavanaugh era, and it may spell the end of the Lemon test.

While constitutional considerations carry great weight, they miss the heart of this case. American Legion does not so much implicate the Establishment Clause or the Lemon test as it implicates American civil religion. The questions argued in the case, therefore, can be nicely distilled to one: Is the cross civil or sectarian? Continue reading

Prof. Altman Works with APAEP

Religious Studies Professor Michael Altman will be teaching with the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP) once a week this spring semester. He will be leading a course titled Religion in America to incarcerated students at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, AL. Continue reading

Alex Ates Wins SETC Young Scholars Award

Last semester Prof. Merinda Simmons mentored graduate student Alex Ates in an independent study — a program designed to help students earn credit while researching specific material that typically manifests into a conclusive project.

Alex, an MFA student in the Department of Theatre and Dance, compiled data on the Free Southern Theater before writing a compelling essay on the groups’ confrontation of “American moral contradictoriness”. The community theater group was founded in Mississippi in 1963 with the goal of combining art and politics on stage to promote social justice across the American South.

At the end of the semester, Alex compiled his research in a paper titled, “Powerful Contradictions on Charged Stages: Theater Revolutions in the Jim Crow South”. The project recently led to his selection as the 2019 Graduate Student Winner of the Southeastern Theatre Conference Young Scholar Award. He will present his paper at the 2019 SETC Young Scholars Panel Presentation in Nashville, TN.

Alex’s Independent Study with Prof. Simmons was not his first time working with the Religious Studies Department. Last year, he consulted with another faculty member, Prof. Altman, before successfully directing The Christians in the fall semester. His career as a graduate student at the University of Alabama and his recent nomination as the SETC Young Scholar Award Winner demonstrates his skill for researching, writing, directing, and acting.

Congratulations Alex

iamalexates.com

 

Welcome Back 2018, Part 4

Here’s the final installment in our four part welcome back series.

If you’re new to the Department, be sure to swing by our office (MA 212) to get some cool swag to start the year off right. And introduce yourself to Prof. Altman, our new Undergrad Director.

And Finally…Welcome Back! from UA Religious Studies.

Summer Plans: Prof. Altman

We asked the faculty what they were up to this summer; after all, just because the Spring semester is done doesn’t mean they’re all off gardening. And so this is what we learned…

Prof. Altman will be spending the summer doing a lot of reading in primary and secondary sources for two projects. Indeed he has stacks of books piled high in his office. First, he is working on a journal article tentatively titled “Evangelical, Evangelicals, Evangelicalism” that re-describes what so many American religious historians have categorized as “evangelicalism” in America. Second, he is in the very early stages of a large research project that seeks to understand religion in America by putting it into the broader context of European political philosophy after the Reformation. He is wondering if both of these projects might end up being the same project in the end. Prof. Altman is also teaching REL 100 during the summer term and revising his REL 502: Religious Studies and Public Humanities Foundations course and REL 241: American Religious History courses for the coming fall.

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.

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.