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?

Game of Thrones, Season One: A (Critical) Review, Part One

“The American Tolkien,” bragged Lev Grossman, for Time Entertainment—I cringed when I heard it.

I was raised on books. My family read voraciously, in most genres, and in both what I’d now call, with my B. A. from a Liberal Arts university and M. A. in the humanities, “commercial” and “literary” fields. This differentiation bears a degree of literary snobbery, I agree, even though postmodern approaches to film and art have obscured the boundaries between what was once construed as “low” or “high” art. Admittedly, this review might come across as sort of high-brow. I agree, but this is not my intent. And I digress. In my elementary years, I consumed the Boxcar Children, The Hardy Boy mystery series, and innumerable other fantasy and adventure tomes. Latter, in my pre-teens, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings while many of my friends spent their time playing Nintendo 64s and watching Sportscenter. In Catholic high school, I fell in love with literature and its categories: American lit, Brit lit, and most of all, Greek mythology. I noticed the differences between 14-volume teen-entertainment sets, and the timelessness of those articles of literary canon that we digested and were tested on in classes. But the theorist in me also problematizes my thinking: Who sets the literary canon? Who sets the criteria that sets this canon? Who decides which are the best examples of literature to be sampled by schools across the nation? Foucault’s analysis of institutions comes to mind. Not only that, but what is art? Is there good art and bad art? Who determines (and replicates) these categories? Although working in the field of visual art, theorist Cynthia Freeland speaks to these issues.

Suffice it to say, a taxonomic ability to separate literature (and media more broadly) into categories is seared into my cognitive faculties. It’s an ability that comes in handy as a J. Z. Smith-influenced scholar of religion, one that impairs my ability to enjoy very much of what we call “pop” entertainment—at least, not without a high degree of irony. (NBC’s Bachelor and Bachelorette are important exceptions. It’d be easy to blame my wife, but I ultimately have no excuse. I study culture, media, consumption, religion, and emotion, so, obviously, I’m hooked. The show is so bad, but so good.)

And now to the material at hand: George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones, and absurdist Tolkien comparisons. To begin, I read the opening book in the series. I was at times impressed by Martin’s sporadic witticisms and ability to weave together multiple, but interrelated storylines. There’s no question that Martin knows how to craft a compelling storyline. I was hoping for a realist, gritty, medievalesque, dragon-and-armor epic. In a way, I got what I wanted. I had heard, through the proverbial pipeline, that Martin develops deep character personalities, with contested moral identities, like real, everyday people–people like us, the viewers. Martin’s works, proponents praised, captures the world in all of its realism, in its chaos and meaninglessness. In my experience, however, the book both reinforced my preconceptions of Martin’s writings as commercial literature and challenged it. When I use the word commercial I simply mean marketed for mass appeal and consumption, sometimes at the risk of losing artistic nuance, and I indeed imply, perhaps, that such a work might be borderline sensationalist. Contrary to my expectations, however, I finished the book eager to wanting to know what happens, and with mixed emotions. I’ll explain, below.

Second, I’ve had a similar reaction to HBO’s rendition of Martin’s book, which I’ve recently just finished viewing. Again, I had high expectations. Film versions are entirely different animals than their print predecessors, sometimes even for the better. The season’s cover, after all, hails it as a “crowing triumph,” “red-blooded and raw . . . rich . . . cinematic . . . brilliant.” So when I finally got a hold of the five-disc set of season one, I was hyped. And for a while into it, I was caught: The blood! The layered stories! The lineages! The hints of terra incognita! The incest! The history! The tragedy! The cosmology! The complexity! I compared the fold-out lineages and territorial map of the DVD with Martin’s originals on my Nook. But the hype wears off pretty quickly. One learns to predict the bloody impaling and slicing and de-limbing of bodies to the right and left of EVERY, SINGLE military skirmish. The nudity, mostly from scenes staged within brothels and whore-houses, is a-dime-a-dozen. One recent review, in fact, has described these particular scenes as “sexpositions” in that they contain crucial plot material, nearly always in the form of character dialogue, while a minimum of two minor characters go at it in some interesting position (more on this term later). I’m looking for the right word, here, but based on my own experience, one becomes desensitized to these scenes. What am I trying to say, here? The scenes become redundant: that’s it. They become expected, predictable, and cliché. Don’t mistake this critique as puritanical modesty; don’t think that I support tighter media regulation. This, after all, an HBO series. And it is, after all, Rated R. Actually, I enjoy realist literature and film that captures life in all of its ambiguity, and portrays the depths of relational human beings in all dimensions, including their identity as sexual beings. I dislike artistic censorship, it’s true, but I really like art. I’ll just come out with it: Martin and HBO, especially, objectify sex and women’s bodies. Refrain! Refrain! I admonish as I watch, addressing Martin himself to a degree, and also the HBO screen-writers that gleefully overextended many of his explicit-yet-still-titillating scenes of eroticism. Martin, I argue, are you not aware that in art, sometimes less is more—sometimes vague or abstract descriptions fire the imaginations of the readers? Take a lesson from your fellow novelist James Joyce, who, in his Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, says it by not saying it, says it by showing it, nay, shows it in crafted, brilliant, provocative, phantasmagoric phraseology and artful word-craft. To give too much is to make for lazy, inept readers (and viewers). I don’t want to bracket my imagination; I want to partner with the artist in an active dialogue. On Game of Thrones, sex is commodified. It serves a dull purpose, a dual purpose: To exploit the attention of the viewers in moments of lagging plot-line and to enter details that are crucial to the plot arch. As I’ve implied, it gets a little redundant after a while. To return to the term introduced above, James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly (EW), argues that Game of Thrones includes “infamous scenes of ‘sexposition,’” which he defines as “noun: the strategic use of sexual activity to make expository dialogue more lively.” This isn’t art, though; it’s artifice. It’s cheap entertainment, reminiscent of what one might find in the adult video section of the now disappearing video store. Like the Greek literary device of deus ex machina these scenes are merely convenient and predictable fillers-of-space.

What are your thoughts, so far, those of you who have seen the show and read the book? Am I too hard on Martin? In my next post, I’ll consider Martin’s construction of characters and personalities. Stay tuned.