Pagan Rites in Space

Yes, cosmonauts apparently all pee on the back right tire of the bus that carries them to the launch pad, before they take off.

At least the guys do; but the ladies are said to bring a vial of urine to pour on the tire.

It’s a ritual. Continue reading

The Hegemony of Normalcy and the Academic Study of Religion

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Daniel Jones is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. His research focuses on critical discourse analysis of the intersections of religion, nature, science, and humanity.  His research interests also pertain to theories of religion, culture, communication, and anthropology.

“The hegemony of normalcy is, like other hegemonic practices, so effective because of its invisibility.”-Lennard Davis

“We must… take account of the persistence of a model of interpretation and the inversion of its sense, if we wish to engage in a genuine critique of critique.”- Jacques Rancière

For those of us involved in the critical study of religion, we often find ourselves embroiled in debates about what the object of our study actually is. For we are a tribe of diverse scholars with diverse methods. I, for one, cherish Bruce Lincoln’s “anti-disciplinary” sensibilities, and nomadic approaches to scholarly inquiry (think Braidotti, Deleuze/Guattari).

How we each “find” data depends on the relationship between what we see and the discourse that precedes (and thereby makes possible) our observation. It shapes our view of “religion” as observational data—what it is, does, or where it might be absent or found. Continue reading

Why Do They Touch the Phallus? Or, Diverging Theories of Ritual

One night during my fieldwork among Brazilian migrant communities in Japan, I was invited to a dinner at Daniel’s apartment. He and his girlfriend frequented a local Brazilian evangelical church that I was studying. After the dinner, they started talking about the “strange festival” in Komaki, a city one-hour drive away from where they lived. The festival took place the previous week (on March 15 2014) and they came across its footage online. The Hōnen Festival at Tagata Shrine is best known for its 280 kg (620 pound), 2.5 meter (96 inch)-long wooden phallus, which is carried around on the streets during the celebration. The object is supposedly the embodiment of prosperity, bountiful harvest, and fertility. The youtube video above can give you some idea of what Daniel and Sachi saw.

“Nossa (Wow)! These women flock to the phallus and try real hard to touch it! They think they can get pregnant that way!” They exclaimed in a critical tone. Laughing hard at the whole comicalness of this festival, I responded, “Ah, c’mon, it’s just fun, that’s why most people try to touch it! Do you really think these Japanese women believe in it?”

Yes!” They answered.

Continue reading

Messing Up at Starbucks, or the Ritual Order of Choice

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I’m a regular customer at Starbucks. Several times a week, I walk into one, order a drink, wait for it, say thank you, and walk out. I’m sure many of you do the same thing pretty often, if not every day, without even thinking about it.

But I once failed miserably at this banal procedure. It was my first year in the US and I had just arrived from Japan, so many things were still new to me. But Starbucks was definitely not new. I had spent so many hours there studying as an undergraduate student in Japan that it felt like my habitat, even though I was now in Boston. I walked into one store and everything looked familiar – the menu, employees’ uniform, and interior.

“What would you like, ma’am?” It was my turn to order. “Café misto, please?” I answered (or something of the sort). Then the employee – a nice young woman – said something that I had never heard before: “holetoopercetskimhaffanhafforsoy.”

OK, that’s how it sounded to my unprepared ears, but she was in reality asking me: “whole, 2%, skim, half&half, or soy.” After some back-and-forth, I figured out that she was asking me to choose what kind of milk I wanted them to use to make my drink – a choice I had never been given or heard of in Japan. By this point, the nice young lady who was dealing with me was visibly frustrated. She probably thought I was having a hard time understanding English. Instead, I was having a hard time trying to understand why on earth choosing the kind of milk matters at all. I was having a hard time because they had violated the ritual I thought I knew so well – and in that ritual, milk was a non-question. Anyway, I eventually said what I honestly thought:

“Um, can you just pick one for me? I honestly don’t care what kind of milk it is.”

And the young woman looked at me as if I were an alien. Now it seemed I had violated her ritual as well. In that ritual, I imagine, no matter how little you care about the thing, you still pick something. It’s on you. The choice is on you. I don’t remember what happened next. All I remember is my thought as I walked out of the place: It’s just milk!

But of course it’s not just about milk (although if you think that way, great!). It’s about how many of our daily little rituals are predicated on tacit assumptions about how the world functions, which in turn reflect cultural, ideological, and political orders that shape our lives. In forsaking the small right – and in fact the obligation – to choose (but never outside of the neat options they created and bind us to), I think I violated one of the most cherished ideals in the US, which is the myth of personal choice. By “myth,” I don’t mean a fake story but a shared narrative that becomes so valuable to a group of people that an alternative reality becomes difficult to conceive. You think I’m stretching it too far? Here, listen to Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and author of The Paradox of Choice“In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle… We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.”

Have you ever said “um, skim milk, please,” when you actually didn’t care that much about the choice? Well, independent of your internal state (i.e. even if you actually didn’t care), you performed a little ritual there, which in turn reinforced what sociologist Erving Goffman called the “ritual order” – the social hierarchy, structure, and ideology that we constantly and often unconsciously reaffirm by daily interaction rituals.

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From consumerism to politics to romance, the idea of choice plays a powerful role in how people navigate the social terrains in this country. You choose the right product/candidate/partner because it/he/she is for you! In reality, most of the products you are interested in may be coming from the same region in China. In reality, no matter how much “freedom of choice” there may be, people tend to marry within their own class/ethnic/racial groups. But the idea and ideal of choice remain an important driving force in US culture, and you can see people exercise it in many rituals, big and small. Think of election day. And think of the type of milk you pick at Starbucks.

You think I’m wrong? Next time you are asked to choose – kinds of dressing, cheese, milk, anything – say, “I actually don’t care. Can you pick one for me?” Trust me, you don’t want to be looked at like you are an alien after a while. And you are being an alien, because you apparently don’t know the ritual.

The Right Question

The other day I received an email asking where, in my work, I think with the category religion instead of just thinking about it.

It’s a common distinction; do we, as scholars, use the word religion, defined however we might define it, to name things in the world that we then describe, compare, interpret, and maybe even explain, or, instead, do we study how social actors use that very word in going about their own daily lives, i.e., examining its role, however they may define it, in helping them to establish a sense of place, self, and other?

With or about? Continue reading

The Problem with “Misrepresentation”

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 Anastasiya Titarenko is a rising Junior pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies and minoring in Educational Studies. She is currently living in Accra, Ghana, and will be spending the next six months traveling to Ukraine, Italy, and New Zealand.

“YOU’RE going to AFRICA?!”

“Wow, I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and help the poor.”

“Where is Ghana?”

“Are you going to go on a safari? You better send me pictures.”

There are just a few of the responses I received when people heard that I would be spending five weeks in Accra, Ghana this summer. Americans (and perhaps Westerners in general) have earned a reputation for not being very conscientious of the world, and are said to consider the continent of Africa to be one homogenous entity plagued with poverty, AIDS, and the animals seen in The Lion King. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “the misrepresentation of Africa,” and is argued by scholars to be the result of twisted literature (i.e. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad), television, journalism, and other forms of media.

If you would like to read more about this “misrepresentation,” I encourage you to Google it. You will find many TED Talks, dissertations, and op-eds on this topic. I, however, would like to explore it from a different (perhaps more unpopular) angle.

To represent something is to reproduce it in a different form. Take, for example, a geographic map, which seeks to reproduce a specific place. Imagine, for a moment, that you were planning to take a self-guided walking tour of Chicago and you needed a map. What would a “good map” look like for this occasion? To start, it would have to be a map of Chicago. It would have to be a convenient size for me to carry around and refer to while walking. It would probably have streets labeled, museums, monuments, and historic places indicated, and perhaps a few good places to eat marked.

These characteristics make it a “good map” only because they serve my interest: they represent the geographic location in a way that helps me navigate the area. The cartographer responsible for the creation of this “good map” – just like any person tasked with the representation of any thing, in any form – must choose what they include and exclude from their representation. Not every tree, blade of grass, stop sign, or house can be included.

If a “misrepresentation” is an inaccurate depiction of something that exists in the world, then to not misrepresent something is virtually impossible. Just like a cartographer developing a map, choices must be made about what to include and exclude in every piece of media.

What is fascinating, then, is that not every piece of media is classified as a “misrepresentation.” I would like to venture to say, then, that the classifier “misrepresentation” is used only when something is represented in a way that does not serve the classifiers interests. It would be like the map for a self-guided walking tour of Chicago lacking street names: it is still a map of Chicago; it just doesn’t look like what you want it to look like.

All of that being said, I am not advocating for everyone to repress their gut-reactions and merely shrug their shoulders when a piece of media represents something in a way they do not agree with. Rather, we should pay attention to these reactions and consider why we have them – consider the institutions we have been a part of and the media we have digested that has impacted our perceptions. Finally, we must consider what our responsibility is in the representations we manufacture.

Whether it is an article about Africa or a map of Chicago, every representation brings with it a set of consequences (some with more at stake than others). When I wear my ‘amateur scholar of religion’ hat, I propose that we refrain from making value judgments on representations and shift our focus to the question of why some representations are considered more legitimate than others.

Lecture on Evolution & Religion

ALLELEOn March 31, Dr. William Lee McCorkle presented his research as part of the Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution (ALLELE) series, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences. His lecture, titled “Religion, a Cultural Virus,” offered a crash-course on the academic study of religion and focused on the advantages of an evolutionary theory of religion, as well as highlighting his work at LEVYNA, the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, which he helped to establish.

Dr McCorkle was introduced by Professors Chris Lynn (Anthropology) and Eleanor Finnegan (Religious Studies).

If you missed the lecture, you can watch it below! Fair warning: the lights dim at about the ten minute mark so that the live audience could more easily read Dr. McCorkle’s slides.

Religion, a Cultural Virus with Dr. Lee McCorkle from UA Religious Studies.

If you want to learn more about interdisciplinary approaches to the study of evolution, then check out UA’s new Evolutionary Studies minor.

 

So what’s your theory of religion?

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If you’ve been following what’s going on in Oregon over the past few days then you know about the armed stand-off that involves members of the Bundy family, among other ranchers, occupying the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge, as their stand against the federal government’s land-use policies (maybe even the federal government’s legitimacy). Continue reading

How Your Phone Defines Religion

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As the Faculty Technology Liaison to the College of Arts and Sciences at UA, I am part of a Mac Administrators forum. I was surprised to notice the exclusion of deities from emoji eligibility while glancing over an update notice. After some investigation, I was surprised to learn about the selection factors of the Unicode Consortium.

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In fact, the Unicode Consortium has produced a very detailed report, “Emoji and Symbol Additions – Religious Symbols and Structures,” for which “The objective has been to have symbols and structures of major belief systems worldwide represented with an emphasis on filling up existing gaps in the encoded symbol repertoire.”

The report is an excellent “common sense inventory” for what ready-to-hand assumptions exist for thinking about the study of religion. For example, the emoji for “place of worship”  is that of a person kneeling in prayer under a roof. What does this representation include or exclude from considerations about religion?place-of-worship

Explaining Nags, Witches, and Evil Stepmothers

Picture 1Did you hear the radio story this morning on folklorists attempting to explain why, all across culture, old women so often appear as evil characters in fairy tales and myths…? Continue reading