Identity at the Crossroads of अवतार and Avatar: What’s Real about Hatsune Miku?

Hatsune MikuAs a young lad in the 1984, I listened to the song by Rez Band that asked “Who’s Real Anymore?” Wendy Kaiser’s answer implicitly raises Holden Caulfield’s indictment of “phony” against the evangelists of her time. According to Kaiser, their televised personalities were not really Christian because their bottom line was money rather than real evangelism.

Intellectual discussions about real versus not-real begin long before the 1980s. These discussions track along different lines, too. Questions concerning claims about reality have been topics in the histories of philosophy from around the world. Debates about realism and non-realism are debated among the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Philosophers of religion concern themselves with this issue, as well as critical theorists who variously engage arguments such as Carl G. Hempel’s Theoretician’s Dilemma.

An interesting example arose in my class, “Survey of Asian Religions,” where many students met the pop star Hatsune Miku for their first time. Miku is perhaps the most successful and prolific pop artist in human history. Already famous in Japan, Miku’s introduction to many North American fans tour was as the opening act for Lady Gaga’s ARRTPOP Ball in 2014, where she appeared just as Tupac Shakur did in 2012 at Coachella. She has hundreds of songs in English now available on Bandcamp as well as full albums on on iTunes and Amazon. She has over 4,000 commercially available songs as well as thousands more available non-commercially.

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How to Be Curious

Among my courses this Fall semester — starting in a little over a week — is one on theories of religion; in one way or another I’ve taught elements of a course like this many times (in fact, my intro course even touches on some of these topics), but rarely in a seminar devoted to nothing other than attempts to account for why people are religious.

So deciding what to do in the course is always something worth thinking about.
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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.

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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.” Continue reading

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.