Serpents, Novelty, and Academic Fetish

Novelty draws academics. This is no controversial claim. We cluster around the odd, the uncanny, and the strange. We gather around scenes of violence and ecstasy, field-notebooks in hand, scribbling furiously.  Academics peddle novelty. Without novelty, historical accounts blur into the monotonous progression of historical minutiae, just damn things following after other damn things. Without novelty, anthropological accounts suffer the same fate. Without the strange and uncanny—the disconcerting—ethnographies of everyday life cycle into myopic drudgery. Everyday life, as beautiful as scholars such as Robert Orsi paint it, can be terribly dull.

There is good reason for the emphasis of the novel, of course. “Religion is not nice,” comments J. Z. Smith. “It has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” In the laboratory that is religions in America, religious peoples are increasingly exposed to religious peoples. At downtown famers’ markets or on public transportation, especially in urban centers or university towns, one can witness an eclectic blending of cultures only possible in a globalizing world. We are met, face to face, with difference. And difference, while it retains its identity, is novel. Often in American history, groups of people have responded to the novel in similar ways: xenophobic violence.

A form of violence also shrouds a frequent symbol of novelty in contemporary America: the serpent. Snakes, actually, are minor characters in a plot whose protagonists wield the slender bodies of the former, furiously, in scenes of religio-social ecstasy and embodied ferment. Although Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain forever changed the way I think about ethnographic research, it provokes more questions than it answers. What’s the job of the scholar of religion? Where does ethnography end and journalism begin? Where does the line between writing about interesting things and the fetishizing those very things begin and end?

Smith provides some insight. He writes in his provocative essay, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” that scholars must make intelligible. Scholars can work toward this goal by elucidating mythologies, ideologies, soteriologies, and sociologies. We must extract from the data in front of us its exoticism; we must override its novelty. No “human datum [is] beyond the pale of reason and understanding,” Smith writes of Enlightenment thought, implying that such a modernist endeavor is a more worthy option to “the refusal of the academy” to engage in interpretation.

I’m still thinking about Seth Perry’s recent post, “Adiaphora,” in The Martin Marty Center’s Sightings blog. Perry reflects on journalistic accounts of snake handler Randall Wolford’s death by snake bite, concluding that “we are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it.” Such discourse, I’m convinced, reinforces novelty and perpetuates intelligibility. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” says Smith, but comments such as Perry’s do nothing to make humanness ordinary or to reduce phenomena to “the known and the knowable.” Perry doesn’t seem to understand what he’s missing, even though it’s there in his post: snake-handlers have facebook pages. Snake-handlers are Americans. They have loved ones. Snake-handlers are human beings.  Respect, lauding, empathy: these concepts seem to me irrelevant, or at best, redundant. They’re mute points. Understand the phenomenon, says Smith. Explain it. Make it human. Use whatever means possible to make it known and knowable.

The issue as I see it is that novelty becomes a protective buffer, a defensive screen, of sorts, by which academics put distance between themselves and the subject matter. I won’t comment on the value of said distance; I’m an ethnographer by method, so you might be able to guess my position when it comes to first-hand, on-the-ground, fieldwork. But, drawing on Bourdieuian theory, I would advise fellow ethnographers and historians that this defensive mechanism is also an advertising ploy, a journalistic tactic. Our task, in Bourdieu’s words, is to “reveal that which is hidden.” Producing novelty does the opposite: it obscures. It hides.

And, of course, the million-dollar, pragmatic question: How? How do we get beyond novelty in our writing and research? How do we actually do it?

What are your thoughts?

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