Cultural Diversity as Cultural Dogma

We hear a lot about cultural diversity today, and those who espouse it like to say that respect for it in the West is a result of non-Western influences and is a recent phenomenon. This is a rather surprising claim, for two reason: first, because there is probably no society outside the West that is as interested in what other societies have to say, and second, because the value of diversity, far from being a fad of the past few decades, is a dogma of at least the past two centuries. Why and how to pursue diversity is a story that begins in the Enlightenment, and certain Enlightenment texts could serve quite literally as its Bible.

Samuel Fleischacker, The Ethics of Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 208.

Religion as Analytic Fiction

I thought a lot about the field of Religious Studies over the fall semester. Religion was an important theme in a course I took under ethno-historian Raymond DeMallie, titled History of Anthropological Thought. For my term paper, I traced the use of religion as an analytic construct in North America from the proto-anthropological era of the Bureau of (American) Ethnology up to Clifford Geertz’s famously encompassing definition of religion as a cultural system. I analyzed a number of important definitions of religion from the position of someone training in the methods of anthropology but working primarily from the Department of Religious Studies. I won’t bore you with a summary of that essay here, but I will highlight several theorists I consider relevant to these issues.

While I researched for the essay, I wrestled with a number of questions: What is Religious Studies? What is religion? What has religion to do with society or culture? Does religion produce societies and cultures or is it produced by them? If scholars can reduce religion to some vague postulate to be identified vastly across the spectrum of human socio-cultural formation, does the subject then deserve its own field of study? Is religion really a universalized special form of socio-cultural formation, something that is truly distinct from other analytic categories, such as kinship, politics, economics, and so forth? Like all scholars interested in the study of the study of religion, I wrestle with these questions every time I pick up a book or article themed in this direction. These are in no way new questions, although they are relevant to me at this important juncture of my academic training.

Unfortunately, the word religion has become so sedimented in our academic vocabularies I fear it is rendered meaningless. Is not the word an empty descriptor, a vague signal that has no substantive value with the exception of clarifying a field of study? Consider, for instance, this application of the term from my own university department’s web page. Religion, such a description infers, is universal, ubiquitous, and influential. It is a force that exists before other institutional categories (e.g., literature, politics, art, and economics) and serves to shape and influence said categories. Yet, other than a “major force in human experience” that shapes other important institutions, the description provides no concrete definition. Vague definitions, however, demonstrate another point. Scholars themselves don’t exactly agree about what religion is. I give this example not to criticize my department’s webpage but to show the difficulties in definition and description of contested secondary categories.

Claude Levi-Strauss, in an obscure passage in his Totemism, speaks to these issues:

But the human sciences can only work effectively with ideas that are clear, or which they try to make so. If it is maintained that religion constitutes an autonomous order, requiring a special kind of investigation, it has to be removed from the common fate of objects of science. Religion having thus been defined by contrast, it will inevitably appear, in the eyes of science, to be distinguished as no more than a sphere of confused ideas. Thenceforth, any attempt to make an objective study of religion will have to be directed to a domain other than that of ideas, one which has be distorted and adapted by the claims of religious anthropology. The only approach routes left open will be affective (if not actually organic) and sociological ones which will do no more than circle around the phenomena. . . . Conversely, if religious ideas are accorded the same value as any other conceptual system, as giving access to the mechanism of thought, the procedures of religious anthropology will acquire validity, but it will lose its autonomy and its specific character. . . . This is what we have seen happen in the case of totemism, the reality of which is reduced to that of a particular illustration of certain modes of thought (103-104).

Levi-Strauss speaks conjecturally, here, but his thoughts underscore my questions. Is religion really an “autonomous order”? Should scholars define it “by contrast” to other formative systems? Does religion require “a special kind of investigation”? Modifying his words for my own purposes, I worry that at worst Religious Studies departments constitute nothing more than “sphere[s] of confused ideas.” Bronislaw Malinowski, earlier than Levi-Strauss, warns against such artificial programs of inquiry. “An Ethnographer who sets out to study only religion, or only technology, or only social organisation,” he writes, “cuts out an artificial field of inquiry, and he will be seriously handicapped in his work.” By defining religion (“Religion is x and y and z but not a or b.”) and lifting it up and above and apart from other systems of socio-cultural formation (“I study religion, not economics.”), I worry that scholars construct an artificial field of inquiry.

To clarify, I don’t necessarily feel that religion as secondary term of analysis is a bad thing, although some recent anthropologists such as David Schneider go as far as declaring the “quartet of  institutions” [i.e., kinship, economics, politics, and religion] as “vacuous,” “empty,” and ultimately, useless. For these scholars, scholarly terms of meta-analysis, terms originated during periods of imperialist expansion, lose their meaning. I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s conceptualization of the simulacrum. In media theory, this refers to the idea that images-qua-symbols no longer retain external referents. The images themselves retain symbolic meaning (and possibly) apart from any historical linking to a concept, idea, or presence. This may be what has happened to the construct in focus. Scholars project religion, as a category, onto cultural practices (“This is religion; that is religion. That is not religion.”) and fail to recall that the term itself is second-order. Religion, in a way, is a fiction. It’s etically derived. The real issue, at least from my perspective, is whether or not religion is a productive fiction. Does the term help us? Is it useful? Does the term elucidate or obscure?

Scholars are human, too, just like Levi-Strauss’s anthropological subjects, and we look out into the world and try to make sense of various phenomena via analytical and classificatory systems. As academics, we need useful terms regardless if they are problematic. I think in the pragmatic sense, Religious Studies is important in that it draws together eclectic scholars who are studying analogous things and asking analogous questions of human histories, cultures, and societies. But religion should probably not be construed as anything more than an analytic construct. I don’t really believe in religion proper–religion as some vague thing spread across all human cultures, so to say. But I am committed to religion as a scholarly term of contestation. Religion as an analytic fiction–to be determined and defined per researcher, per research context–is helpful.

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?