This summer, Prof. Vaia Touna will travel to Trondheim, Norway to participate in a Religious Studies Conference hosted by NAASR and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The lectures will focus on critiquing the work of Prof. Jonathan Z. Smith, a religious studies scholar at the University of Chicago who passed away in December 2017. His expansive work in the field frequently complicated classification and description (among other scholarly tools) and provided reform for modern pedagogy.
On page 117, in the essay entitled “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination,” we read the following:
But if my hypothesis is correct, there can be no such thing as a non-relativistic representation of historical reality, inasmuch as every account of the past is mediated by the language-mode in which the historian casts his original description of the historical field prior to any analysis, explanation, or interpretation he may offer of it.
We read this classic Hayden White piece (originally published in History and Theory, Vol. 14/4 Beiheft 14: Essays on Historicism : 48-67) in a faculty reading group in our Department last Friday, that met for the first time, during lunch. I’ve not read the essay for years; yes, I first went looking for what I’d previously underlined in my copy of the book but the above sentence jumped out at me for the first time (to be honest, it was only when a colleague quoted it during our discussion, which made me flip through some pages looking for it). For, as I later elaborated, in agreement with another colleague who detected some curious ambiguity in White’s essay, this sentence nicely captures his place as a transitional figure.
For at least with some of us who have been influenced by his work, reading that sentence now seems to be just a little unsatisfactory since it reads as oddly conservative, and thus not nearly as radical as it likely read forty years ago. Continue reading
Among the assorted knick-knacks that line my office’s shelves—ranging from such relics as photos of friends and family or gifts I’ve accumulated over the years to a selection of tattered romance novels shelved long ago among my books by mischievous students—is a nicely matted and framed “fossil” of Knightia, a long extinct genus of small boney North American freshwater fish, dating to more than 35 million years ago (or what scientists know as the Eocene epoch), and which was recovered from the well-known (to fossil hunters, at least) Green River Formation in southwestern Wyoming.
I bought it one summer, heavy wooden frame and all, about ten years ago in a gift shop in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, at the same time that I purchased for my Department’s library a number of other so-called artifacts, such as the stereotypical dancing Shiva statue and the Thai-styled bust of Buddha, complete with its intricately carved curls. (What a disappointment when people learn I got these in Iowa City!) I never anticipated writing about my framed piece of sedimentary rock that, for whatever reason, has found a home among the Cs in my shelving taxonomy (yes, I shelve books by author’s surname, so?), though I have often used it in classes to illustrate a point or two about discourses on origins; I now realize that this rock might have some uses outside of the classroom. Continue reading