Why I was scared to attend the AAR Conference this year

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by Hussein Rashid

Like many scholars of religion, I normally make my plans to attend the annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). This year, I decided I would not attend. Some of my friends and colleagues thought it was perhaps because I was an adjunct, and had no funding to attend the most important professional conference of our discipline. This concern is real for so many of our members, but was not my issue this year. Instead, it was that we were hosting the meeting in an open carry state, and one that allowed students to carry their weapons into classrooms. As a person of color and as a Muslim, the location of the meeting in San Antonio did not seem prudent.

Some of my colleagues took to lambasting the theme of this year’s AAR, Revolutionary Love, as being too theological, or too Christian. Some even suggested that it took us too far away from our goal of scholarly research into the realm of social activism. While I am not opposed to the critique of the Christian framing, it seems like that line is as divorced from the realities of parts of the AAR membership as the AAR itself is.

If we take seriously the idea that Revolutionary Love is a call to action, it is unclear what action is being called. It is not about living wages for adjuncts, or protection of academic freedom, or the safety of vulnerable faculty.

I am not speaking in the abstract. Faculty members of the University of Texas sued to have control over their classrooms and allowing students to bring weapons into the classroom. To make sure the point is clear, they believe that the effect of having guns in a classroom would have a chilling effect on free speech. They explicitly say that they have been threatened because of the content of their courses. The plaintiffs lost the first round of the process, the request for an injunction to campus carry. In a related case, previously professors could keep guns out of their offices, but even that position is precarious.

Nowhere that I can find does the AAR acknowledge the fact that academic freedom is under physical threat, and that they are hosting their conference in such an environment. Nor do they attempt to address genuine concerns for safety that their members may experience.

In the age of Trump, the call for the death of professors in Texas is even more explicit. See item #3 in this article, where there is a call to “ to organize tar and feather VIGILANTE SQUADS and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this Diversity Garbage.”

Now, such a desire to speak to safety may be considered social activism. After all, there is an argument to be made that the world of scholarly research has no relation to what happens in the real world. As we know, the architects of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo did not receive that memo, and took scholarly research to make it real in the world.

There should be no objection to any scholar who does not wish to engage with life outside the ivory tower. In fact, that is the norm and is rewarded. However, it should be noted that there is no such thing as pure research.

For those of us who do choose to be in the world, at best we are met with indifference, and at worst are penalized. And, I would posit, that the scholars most likely to engage with life outside the classroom are those who are at the margins of the society, because of race, religion, gender, and/or sexual orientation. It is the vulnerable in broader society who seek to apply their knowledge and skills to change their vulnerability, but who are then made more vulnerable in the profession that trained them to critique power in the first instance.

Perhaps protection of our members, or even consideration of what negatively affect them, should not be a professional concern; it is unscholarly. So, when we do not consider our freedoms and our humanity important enough to act upon, it is no wonder that academia suffers the vicissitudes of Scott Walker, who thinks education is essentially an apprenticeship.

My constant reference to the adjunct nation is not simply a rhetorical point. It is a manifestation of the fact that as a guild we do not take ourselves and our work seriously enough to fight for it. If our work can be done for less than $8/hr, there is no reason for anyone to think that it should be professionalized and draw full-time salaries. We have accepted that our labor is of little value.

The AAR’s theme this year is belied by their actions. There is no love. There is not empathy. There is no compassion. It may not be the academic way, and I am happy to say that I am doing academia wrong. I believe in a mission of the humanities that allows students to see the worth in themselves and in other people; to be curious and to explore. When I hear from students from the various institutions I have taught at that they want to talk about the recent election of Donald Trump, but none of their faculty are talking about it, I believe they have been failed. What they are being taught does not match up with their experiences.

This experience of my students is no different than when I know that going to an open carry state is dangerous, but my guild does not seem to understand that point. I have to question in what are they invested. Yet, I will hear reference to collegiality on a regular basis. My pre-academic thinking around collegiality was that it was a reciprocal relationship of respect. As an academic, I understand that collegiality means not to question what happens around me, but to accept it. Power is only meant to be critiqued in the abstract, not in practice.

I skipped the AAR this year. The love is not revolutionary. It is not even love. I hope those of you who went this year were safe.

Hussein Rashid is a contingent faculty member, currently affiliated with Columbia University. He is on the AAR’s Contingent Faculty Task Force. His consultancy, islamicate, L3C, focuses on religious literacy and cultural competency.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Revolutionary Love, and the Colonization of a Critical Voice: An Outsider’s Reflections

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by Laura Levitt

I attended a recent plenary session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) national meeting in San Antonio where I heard Michelle Alexander, the 2016 recipient of the Heinz Award for Public Policy, civil rights attorney and professor of law talk about her astonishing work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). In this session, she revealed the full extent of what she has named “the New Jim Crow,” the radical degradation of people of color, of especially Black men in the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex that institutionalized these enactments and perpetuates them. She spoke eloquently about how she came to this work telling a number of powerful, piercing stories. These were stories of just a few of the myriad of young Black men who have been brutalized by this system.

The session was billed as part of the AAR president’s vision for the conference. This session was a part of something she called “Revolutionary Love.” This theme was, from the start, a decidedly Christian vision of social justice. It was proclaimed by the president, the president of not only this scholarly organization (the AAR) but also, at the same time, the president of Union Seminary, a progressive Christian bastion. Although, as a scholar of Jewish studies, I was a bit unnerved by this enactment of a Christian social justice ministry at the AAR this year, I chose not to publicly challenge this vision. I gave this president and the AAR the benefit of my doubt.

When I arrived at the conference I was eager to hear Michelle Alexander, and I entered this session without prior knowledge of Alexander’s new position as a visiting professor at Union Seminary nor her identification as a progressive Christian. I knew none of this prior to this session.

As I entered the darkened room, a vast ballroom, I joined hundreds of my colleagues for this brief session, just an hour. The podium stood high above the audience. There was a huge screen off to one side projecting close ups of the speakers. On the other side of the stage behind a large draped dais was the president, a petite blonde woman. On the other side of the dais were Michelle Alexander and Kelly Brown Douglas. Brown Douglas is a professor of religion at Goucher College and Canon Theologian at the National Cathedral. I was not aware of Brown Douglas’s work before this session or the book that brought her to this stage, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis Press, 2015). Little did I know what her presence and that of the president of Union Seminary and the AAR would mean for the conversation that ensued.

Perhaps I was naive. In retrospect, that seems quite likely. I should have known this would become a Christian theological conversation. As the president/presider made clear, the format of the session would be a dialogue between these two formidable Black women, a dialogue focused primarily on Alexander and her extraordinary work.

For much of the hour-long conversation, Alexander told the story behind her book The New Jim Crow. She spoke of the people and events that led to her radical position on the need for revolutionary change in our criminal justice system. I want to be quite clear about this. I was deeply moved by every moment of this portion of the session.

And then the conversation took, what was for me, an unexpected turn. All of a sudden the revolutionary who had sung the praises of the Black Panthers, shifted gears. The revolution became spiritual, and, more specifically, a proclamation of the power of “the Church,” of Jesus’s suffering on the cross, on the brother/sisterhood of humanity, all of us “children of God.” This was a decidedly Christian universal message. Just as Alexander proclaimed the bankruptcy of American democracy she proclaimed the revolutionary power of the Church. I could not help but hear a call to crusade, a sacred revolution in the name of Jesus Christ and I was no longer a part of this story. The discourse had shifted, profoundly. I was in a different universe.

My scholarly organization has become an arm of Union Seminary. As that institution had brought Alexander into its embrace making her revolutionary message a part of its Christian repertoire, so too the AAR was becoming a part of this grand Protestant narrative. All of a sudden I was witnessing the conflation of so many stories into something called “the Church.” That act felt to me like a repetition, another instantiation of the appropriation of a radical, a revolutionary political voice in America into a progressive Protestant Christian vision. And with her, in this iteration, the whole AAR seemed to follow suit.

If this is radical love, I want no part. Here in the words of this most compelling social critic, I no longer felt welcome. The universal proclamation of this session and its revolutionary love had no place for Jews or Muslims, for Hindus or Buddhists, and certainly not for the many atheists and agnostics of any and all stripes who are part of this scholarly organization. In our bounded differences from these well-meaning and progressive Christians, we were, it seems no longer welcome.

What troubled me most was that there was not an inkling of recognition of what it might have possibly meant to so many of us in that room to hear that “the Church” is the revolutionary answer. There was no sense that, in fact, “the Church” in some of its other guises had galvanized support for a very different vision of America as a Christian nation, perhaps a different kind of revolutionary love. But either way, Christian hegemony reigns supreme. Recent public discourse has brought us one vision of a Christian nation while the AAR president and her seminary faculty brought us another. In both cases, albeit differently, Christianity is triumphant and those of us who insist on our difference from that universal vision have no place.

Laura S. Levitt is a Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender at Temple University where she has chaired the department of Religion and served as director of both the Women’s Studies and the Jewish Studies Programs. She is the author of American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust (2007) and Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home (1997). She is an editor of Judaism Since Gender (1997) and Impossible Images: Contemporary Art after the Holocaust (2003). Her current project, “Evidence as Archive” builds on her prior work in feminist theory and Holocaust studies to ask what material evidence held in police storage can teach us about the role of all those other objects collected in the Holocaust museums, libraries, and archives. This project is a meditation on what it means to do justice to traumatic legacies through an engagement with such objects.

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Trump and the Tyranny of Authenticity

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by Matt Sheedy

In the preface to his book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (2016), Aaron Hughes writes:

Rather than judge the Islamic bone fides of such groups as Boko Haram and ISIS, why not attempt to explain and understand such groups within the larger context of globalization, religious fundamentalism, the crisis of Islamic masculinities, and the intersection of politics and religion?

He continues:

If we did this we might say that groups like Boko Haram and ISIS are engaged in acts of legitimation based on the manipulation of a set of finite symbols that the tradition of Islam considers normative (e.g., Qur’an, Sunna). In this, they are not any different than any other social group, including those that say such versions of Islam are inauthentic …(xii)

Hughes’s reflections here provide an important reminder of why talk of authenticity in the study of religion is such a fraught endeavor, since it performs a sleight of hand by directing our attention away from the important question of how and why certain groups make use of, as Hughes puts it, “a set of finite symbols” that any tradition defines as normative toward a fight over the true meaning of these symbols, which at times resembles a boxing match or even pro-wrestling.

Having just returned from the annual American Academy of Religion conference in San Antonio (which also hosts the Bulletin-affiliated North American Association for the Study of Religion annual meeting), my head is still buzzing with ideas from the dozen or so panels that I attended. As with most conferences, much of the conversation takes place outside of scheduled panels—in hallways, cafes, restaurants, bars, etc. Not surprisingly, the recent election of Donald Trump was on many people’s minds.

In popular media, discussions about Trump’s religion during the election campaign tended to brand him as an inauthentic Christian who occasionally (and poorly) attempted to play one on TV, especially among evangelicals—hence his choice of Mike Pence for Vice President. There is, of course, much to analyze here, including the argument (persuasive in my estimation), that Trump’s Christian bone fides are less important to some evangelicals than what may be accomplished on the legislative front by Pence, who is a well-known crusader on social issues associated with the “Christian right.” For many North Americans, this kind of strategic calculation is not that hard to imagine since we understand the political and cultural rules of the game much better than we do when speaking about, say, Boko Haram or ISIS. We also know that white supremacist racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic depression, resentment of “liberal elites” and “Washington insiders,” and a host of other reasons contributed significantly to Trump’s victory, which, for those of us who acknowledge these factors, amounts to an implicit recognition that religious identity is only one of many variables here, tangled up within a mash of economic and culturalist politics in complicated ways.

Debating whether or not Trump is an authentic Christian therefore tells us little, if anything, about the intersections between religion, politics, “culture wars,” race, and class, to name but a few important variables, and clearly failed to dissuade enough so-called “values voters” to make a difference. One problem here, it would seem, is that authenticity is dependent upon the boundaries that are drawn by distinct Christian (and other) groups to decide whether or not Trump merits the label, and whether they can square an endorsement in some way with their own purported values. How they do this and why, however, is a much more interesting question.

Picking up on Hughes’ remarks, I am reminded of Sarah Ahmed’s notion of affective “conversion points” in her book The Promise of Happiness (2010), which looks at how things like emotion, sentiment, feelings of affinity or estrangement, etc., are always being redirected in new ways rather than merely reproduced. From this it follows that whatever we might say about Trump’s relationship to Christianity, the attempts by some to dissuade evangelicals from voting for him by reproducing a normative set of Christian values (begging the question, whose?) misses how he was able to skillfully redirect the sentiments of a certain population by manipulating “a set of finite symbols”—nationalist, nativist, moral, religious—in such a way that the circle could be squared somehow.

In his post from last week on the Bulletin, Tenzan Eaghll draws on a number of these affective conversion points while discussing Roland Barthes’ famous comparison between boxing and wrestling, noting how the rules of the game in boxing–“evenly matched opponents, controlled rules, and fairly judged decisions”–are not those of wrestling–“emotion, dazzling lights, and sharp contrasts to shock the audience.” Whereas Trump’s opponents during the campaign were boxing, he was wrestling. Eaghll continues:

Trump began his campaign with a clear message, “make America great again,” and he constantly drew stark, comic-like contrasts between himself and his opponents to construct his vision of America. For his supporters, this was a matter of calling a spade a spade and making evil intelligible, and for his detractors it was simplistic at best and neo-fascist at worst, but from the perspective of strategy it was all part of the spectacle.

For instance, in the primaries, when Trump was up against Jeb Bush and the latter challenged him on policy and character, Trump simply ridiculed him and called him “low energy,” upending the GOP frontrunner in the process. Or in the general election, when Hillary dominated him with facts and figures during the debates, he just repeatedly lied and said “wrong” into the microphone. All the pundits were aghast at these techniques and usually gave the debates to Hillary, but Trump was the one who grabbed the headlines, for good or ill.

Bringing together Eaghll and Hughes’s observations, it seems quite clear (to us North Americans of a particular political sensibility, that is), that certain evangelicals’ (and others) disaffection with conventional politics is conditioned by the various mediums through which it is presented (e.g., within communities, in places of worship, on-line and on TV); that education and popular culture perpetuate racialized, misogynistic, homophobic, and class-based sentiments; and, perhaps most importantly from a religious studies perspective, that religious identities are caught up within these processes, shaped through and not apart from the many conversion points that collide in both familiar and novel ways.

This of course holds too for groups like Boko Haram and ISIS that Hughes points to in his recent book, who are easier to cast as pure evil (or, say, the product of things like Western imperialism and nothing more) rather than figure out how they are able to redirect Islamic symbols and persuade some people of their legitimacy, while always colliding with their own local-global crisis–Trumps’s and Pence’s of a different stripe.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better Know a Religion Blog: Leviathan and You: A Blog About Big Things

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In this series with the Bulletin–whose title is a play on Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment, and whose alternate title is “Religious Studies Blogs: What do they talk about? Do they talk about things? Let’s find out!” (from BoJack Horseman)–we ask blog authors/curators to tell us a bit about their blogs’ history, relationship to other blogs in the blogosphere, and typical focus. Other posts in this series can be found here

BSOR: Can you tell us a little something about the history of this blog?

Finbarr Curtis: In the summer of 2013, I sent an email to a few friends inquiring if anyone was interested in starting a group blog about whatever. Some of the initial possible titles I threw out were: “Whatever: A Blog about Human Beings, Maybe,” “Leviathan: A Blog for Freaking Out,” or “Leviathan: A Blog Hovering above Cartesian Vortices.” A lot of us like Moby Dick.

Around the same time, I read an amazing review of The Taco Bell Waffle Taco and I thought: This is fantastic. I want to write cool stuff about spectacularly disgusting fast food. So I came up with the idea of a blog about “Big Things.” I never got to realize my dream of writing about fast food as I had a middle-aged reality check when I learned I had slightly elevated cholesterol levels and have been avoiding grease. So the blog has relapsed into politics and religion and academia. I have also tended to be the predominant poster apart from Kerry Mitchell’s three posts and one by Cotton Mather.

On a practical note: when I began the blog I had just moved to Georgia Southern to begin my first tenure-track job after 8 exhausting years on the job market. So I guess I had a different motivation from a lot of current grad student bloggers as I was not thinking of anything like public exposure or career considerations. This could say something about my old age and lack of media savvy. It was only after I got a job that I had some time to write about other things. As a contingent faculty member, I felt like everything I wrote had to be for publication. I contributed a few posts to the Immanent Frame, but they were academic discourse on the web. One of the characteristics of the contingent faculty life is that your writing load is essentially infinite. You can always be doing more work. The transition to tenure-track meant that I now had finite expectations for publication and I felt like I could meet those. So this freed up time for photoshopping politicians’ heads onto monsters.

What are some of the more common themes this blog takes up?

Whatever. Often stuff in the news or in other sectors of the blogosphere. In this way the original vision of a blog about whatever lives on. Because politics, religion, and higher education are often in my consciousness these themes end up in the blog posts, but this is not by any editorial design. One of my favorite pieces is Kerry’s photo essay on self-storage and, in a way, this was closest to the blog’s original intent. Of course, now a big theme is Trump. Trump is destroying our politics, our writing, and our minds, and Leviathan and You has been ahead of the curve on this. Kerry has an excellent piece on Trump and simulacra. My Trump posts are my worst posts and I feel nauseous when I write them but I cannot help myself.

What do you think are some of the advantages of scholars blogging about religion?

I guess Leviathan and You might not technically be a religion blog. It’s more like a blog about whatever written by people who study religion. For that matter, I guess it might not technically be a blog at all in that it doesn’t really come out with any regularity. For the most part, the posts are not hot takes as much as they are lukewarm takes. They tend to come out a few days after most people have lost interest in whatever big thing everyone was writing about, but this is because my mind works a lot more slowly than the news cycle.

That being said, the biggest advantages of blogging are the ability to experiment with genre as well as the ability to reach a slightly larger audience. Stylistically, I try to write things that are readable beyond the academic world. I do not know if I always succeed in this but I try. I think it is weird when academics object to academic theory in academic writing, but I think that avoiding scholarly citations makes sense for blogs sometimes. So while there are occasional mentions of critical theorists, these are kept to a minimum and are explained. While I try to translate some of the conceptual analysis I do in my disciplined scholarship into more accessible language, I think there is a big difference between translating theory for a broader audience and offering untheorized analyses because you don’t like complicated ideas. So while Leviathan and You might sometimes reach a broader audience, it could written only by people who have read a lot of dense social theory.

While the audience for Leviathan and You is not nearly as big as most blogs and depends on the random vagaries of social media, it is probably a bit bigger than the audience for my scholarly work. I have mixed feelings about this. The most widely circulated post on the blog was a silly commentary on advice for those entering the wretched, soul-killing, trash-heap of a thing we call the academic job market. This has received over 5000 hits and this says something about how much academics love to hate on academia. A few other pieces that have over a thousand hits. I’m sure many of these are repeat visitors and bots so that doesn’t mean a thousand people have read these, but it might mean the audience is bigger than usual.

The downside is how ephemeral posts are. Almost all of the interest comes within a day or two of posting and then it is old news. This might say ominous things about our attention span? I also worry that the ephemeral nature of blogging encourages people to write too much. As academics, our job is to take time to think about things in a world full of visceral reactions, and it is not like anyone is running out of things to read. It might be okay if we have more cold takes.

How do you see Leviathan and You in relation to other academic oriented blogs that deal with questions relating to religion?

Our graphics pretty much blow everyone else’s graphics out of the water. Other than that, Leviathan and You is more amateurish and insane than more professional academic blogs like Immanent Frame and Religion in American History. Because there is no editorial direction or planning or anything like that, it is a space to throw out ideas rather than advance any coherently organized agenda. Within the study of religion, the wide-ranging treatment of different subjects might make it a much smaller version of the University of Alabama’s blogging empire. I began Leviathan and You after finishing a two-year stint at Alabama and so that influenced my thinking about new forms of media.

What kinds of methods and theories do you focus on? Do you have any preferences, requirements, or exceptions to how ‘religion’ can or should be approached?

Leviathan and You has no real focus. It is a place to play, experiment, and improvise. So there is no real discipline. This approach is different from the scholarly work I write, although the blog is deeply informed by the kind of disciplined work I do. So I guess my answer is whatever.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump, Barthes, and the Triumph of Wrestling

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by Tenzan Eaghll

I don’t know if Donald Trump is a sexist, racist, misogynist, bigot, or even if he is a neo-fascist, but he sure played one in this year’s election. Just like the World Wrestling champion Hulk Hogan, who presented himself as a raging patriot out to destroy all traitors and foes who challenged his vision of America, over the past year and a half Trump played the role of an American hero to crowds of supporters, promising to destroy all corrupt enemies and forces of globalization. Of course, to his detractors, the role Trump played was more akin to the World Wrestling champion Rick Flair, the pompous and arrogant millionaire who cared only for his own reflection, and they can’t imagine this orange horror clown in power, but in both cases we are dealing with stereotypes that Trump himself gave us; he presented himself as both a political savior and a bigot. At the moment, I think it is fair to say that none of us know how Trump will act once he is in the White House―it is unclear whether he will continue to race bait and engage in demagogic activities, or whether he will try to appeal to a broader portion of the electorate by toning down his rhetoric―but what is clear is that Trump was successful in the political arena precisely because he lent himself to these divisive and clichéd interpretations. In this year’s election Trump created a spectacle of good vs. evil that his supporters and detractors ate up with glee, and American politics will never be the same. Formerly, the American presidency was always held by elected officials or generals and one measly scandal could sink a candidate. From now on, star power and scandal may be what fuels American presidential candidates to victory. After Trump, it may be the candidate who presents the most grandiloquent form of truth that is granted power, not the candidate with the best policies or upstanding moral character. American politics has entered an age of spectacle.

In Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, he clearly articulated the power of spectacle in American culture when he wrote about the difference between wrestling and boxing. Whereas boxing is a sport based on training, talent, and personal excellence, American wrestling is more akin to Greek drama and bullfighting, and doesn’t even deserve to be called a sport. Boxing is about a fair contest between evenly matched opponents, controlled rules, and fairly judged decisions, whereas wrestling is about emotion, dazzling lights, and sharp contrasts to shock the audience. Boxing is a sport where you train to compete for many years and with clearly defined rules, but wrestling is about showmanship, popularity, and breaking all the rules for entertainment. Moreover, in boxing the winner is determined by training and form, but in wrestling neither of these ultimately matter, as victory is given to the opponent who can best muster the most passion and command the spectacle of images. As Barthes writes,

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense.

As one political commentator noted last year, Trump’s success in the political arena has been marked by his ability to campaign like a wrestler fights. While all of his opponents were engaged in a skilled game of political boxing, he was engaged in the spectacle of wrestling, and this was true both in the Republican primaries and in the general election. All of his opponents thought this was a contest of excellence, skill, and training, but Trump treated it like a classical drama or an endless cage-match. And while all of his opponents tried to keep the fighting clean and obey the rules, hoping for a fair decision, Trump relied on dazzling emotion, sharp acerbic comments, and surprise. As his opponents went high, he went low. With this strategy―whether it was intentional or not―Trump demonstrated that in modern American politics what counts now is not a code of ethics or playing by the rules, but dominating the news cycle with showmanship, circus, and games. He commanded the media by playing to the political passions and fears of his supporters and detractors, not logic or facts, and this, more than any other reason, is why he bested his opponents. I would suggest that the sexist, racist, misogynist, and bigoted form these passions and fears took is secondary to Trump’s larger goal: to win the presidency through shock and awe. Trump began his campaign with a clear message, “make America great again,” and he constantly drew stark, comic-like contrasts between himself and his opponents to construct his vision of America. For his supporters, this was a matter of calling a spade a spade and making evil intelligible, and for his detractors it was simplistic at best and neo-fascist at worst, but from the perspective of strategy it was all part of the spectacle.

For instance, in the primaries, when Trump was up against Jeb Bush and the latter challenged him on policy and character, Trump simply ridiculed him and called him “low energy,” upending the GOP frontrunner in the process. Or in the general election, when Hillary dominated him with facts and figures during the debates, he just repeatedly lied and said “wrong” into the microphone. All the pundits were aghast at these techniques and usually gave the debates to Hillary, but Trump was the one who grabbed the headlines, for good or ill. Moreover, whereas his opponents like Jeb and Hillary spent hundreds of millions on advertizing, he sent out free midnight tweets that dominated the headlines for days at a time. Of course, you can call this demagoguery and bemoan the demise of the political, but it worked because American politics is no longer a boxing skilled-based practice that takes place on a debate stage, but a 24h wrestling match that is determined by media coverage. Everything in American culture lends itself to this spectacle, from McDonalds to Twitter: consumption is determined by images that can be packaged with ease and brevity, not nuance and complexity.

As Barthes suggests in Mythologies, the power of wrestling in America lies precisely in the immediacy of its signification. In contrast to boxing, everything in wrestling takes on an absolute simplicity and clarity. In boxing, signification is wrapped up in the overall factors of the contest; victory is not determined by spectacle but trainers, arm reach, previous fight experience, endurance, etc; it is a sport of scientific precision. In wrestling, in contrast, you can often tell who is going to win by simply looking at the dress of opponents or the emotion that accompanies their action. The winner is usually the most masculine, the strongest, and the most quintessentially American bred hero. He is the one who not only hits his opponent within the ring, but outside of the ring as well, using and breaking every possible rule to his advantage. Remember that Hulk Hogan became World Wrestling champion in 1984 by beating the Iron Sheik, and you didn’t even have to watch the match to know that Hogan was going to win. In the world of wrestling there is no way an Iranian can beat a real American hero because we are not dealing with skill but spectacle; we are dealing with a world of flattened signification where white males carry the banner of truth. As Barthes writes, this is why the bodies and costumes of wrestlers are so important, as they determine an ideal understanding of things raised above the ambiguity of everyday happenings. In this world of images, signs correspond to causes without contradiction:

The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight. But this seed proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural expression in a gesture. The different strata of meaning throw light on each other, and form the most intelligible of spectacles. Wrestling is like a diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious.

In a similar manner, Trump won by playing into every conceivable stereotype. On a personal level, he played the role of a rich business man with a beautiful young wife, so you never once saw him out of his suit and rarely without a beautiful blonde to support him (Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, etc.). Often politicians take off their blazers and roll up their sleeves to look like ordinary working folks, but Trump never once took off his blazer or that dopey power tie. This is comparable to the fact that you never saw Hulk Hogan without his yellow shorts and his Hulkamania headband; when you are playing a stereotype you must always look the part. On a political level, Trump based all his ‘policy decisions’ by using preconceived stereotypes of Mexicans, Muslims, women, and most importantly, his opponents. With Trump, we were always dealing with an absolutely flattened form of signification, and the one he made about Hillary Clinton is the one that won him the election: “Crooked Hillary.” This is a wrestling name, make no mistake about it, and it is meant to garner an immediate emotional response in both her supporters and detractors.

By playing the role of a wrestler battling forces of evil in an attempt to make America great again, Donald trump turned himself into an object of adoration for his supporters. He separated good from evil in clear and straightforward terms that caused many liberals to gasp and shudder, but it made his supporters fall in love with him because it made justice intelligible. As Barthes suggested, this is how gods are made:

When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship.

In 2016 we tend to think of wrestling as passé and as an irrelevant spectacle of excess, but it is important to recognize that it beautifully expresses the nihilism of contemporary culture. In the future, I think we will have to get used to seeing stars and scandal driving presidential elections, not moral character or public policy, because it is the former which generates spectacle and commands the 24h news cycle. Get ready for the campaigns of Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and George Clooney. The age of political boxing is a relic of American history, it has been replaced by sound bites, stereotyped candidates, and twitter wars… wrestling has triumphed.

 

Tenzan Eaghll received his Ph.D. from the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, in 2016. He is currently an English Instructor at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Bangkok. For his publication and contact information see: https://utoronto.academia.edu/TenzanEaghll

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

American Gods, Chapter One: Setting the Themes

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by Eliza Rosenberg

For other instalments in this series, see here.

[Entries will avoid spoilers for future chapters. The references cited, however, may contain spoilers, whether in discussions of American Gods or of the traditions on which it draws.]

Introduction

Diving into American Gods proper, the aptness of the title – a working one that was never replaced – is immediately apparent. Critic Heather O’Donoghue observes that “the atmosphere and naturalistic details of the novel’s opening pages are in the distinctive hard-boiled style of American crime fiction,”[1] or what Gaiman describes as “what I thought of as an American style – clean, simple, uncluttered.”[2] Gaiman, an English expatriate, steeps not only his prose but also his settings in cultural peculiarities that lifelong Americans (although not necessarily Shadow, who we soon learn grew up in the foreign service) rarely register as peculiar: points of small-town pride; the idioms of advertising and customer service; patriotic quirks; car culture and the fast food, roadside attractions, and motels attendant on it. Robert Jones even suggests that the importance of dreams in American Gods, in conjunction with “the mythologizing of the American dream” are such “that Gaiman’s text can be read as both an embrace and a challenge to the fundamental building block of America.”[3]

Many, although not all, of gods of the title are equally unmistakably “American manifestations of supernatural figures of the Old World.”[4] One of American Gods’ themes is the power and importance of religious narratives in their own right, i.e., not in terms of what they signify or how they function, but of what they are. Gaiman stressed this theme in appearances and writings leading up to the book’s publication and he reinforces it even in the prefatory material. The formulary legal disclaimer usually found in novels’ copyright pages appears instead as an independent preface: “[A]ll of the people, living, dead, and otherwise, in this story are fictional or are used in a fictional context. Only the gods are real” (xv; “Caveat, and a Warning for Travelers”).[5]

American Gods, then, is interested in the reality of religion, however construed, rather than its metaphors, “[suggesting] that there is something beyond the cultural representations of the real”[6] and “[using] Norse (and other) mythology to explore serious issues of mortality, illusion, and religious belief.”[7] This accords with Gaiman’s stated aim of “find[ing] what it was that I responded to in ancient pantheons and then try[ing] to create a fictive structure in which I could believe as I wrote it.”[8] It is apparent from the first chapter that the “ancient pantheons” are very much alive here as round, relatable, and dynamic characters – and as the characters of often ancient, orally based, and contextually very different texts that can be so bewildering to audiences continents and millennia removed from them. Gaiman’s investment in these sources is apparent throughout, something many scholars seem to have appreciated. As Evans notes, “Gaiman considers the accuracy of his references ‘a point of honor’: the history is ‘good history,’ ‘the mythology is good, accurate mythology’ . . . . [T]his seems to refer to the explicit use of old, traditional stories (legends, folktales, myths, and so on) taken from scholarly sources, to the acknowledgment of these sources, and to the acknowledgment of issues of authenticity with them,” which “become simply another element in Gaiman’s intertextuality.”[9]

  1. American

In the previous entry, I mentioned that American Gods engages with some of the common answers to “What is ‘religion’?” – a staple semi-rhetorical question for the first session of introductory-level religion classes. In reading American Gods with a class, another semi-rhetorical question presents itself: “Is x religious?”, for values of x that do not necessarily strike alumni of post-Enlightenment Western-type education as religious. The first chapter of American Gods presents several values of x that will recur throughout the book (questions that I will address largely in the context of Anglophone North American university settings.) Is the land religious? Is the weather? Is traveling a religious activity? Is “Where’s ‘home’ for you?” a religious question?

After a bit of thought, most beginning religion students will be able to supply affirmative replies. The land itself is sacred in indigenous American religions, someone will usually offer, and many religious traditions identify certain sites as particularly holy. As for the dwellers on the land – here most notably including birds, trees, and the sun and moon – they tend to follow easily enough, as does the weather that affects the land. Some students may be familiar as well with thunderbirds or with storm deities and divine lightning bolts. In all of these cases, the religious character of the subject is something that most students will have encountered as “other,” either because it is not part of their own religious context or because “mainstream discourse” marks it as such. Widely distributed media articles, textbooks, popular culture, etc., do not proceed on the assumption that land, for example, is sacred. They remind or inform their implicit audiences that Native Americans consider it to be sacred (and, of course, mark Native Americans). Some students may have been on pilgrimages or have relatives who have been; most or all will have heard about groups of strangers going on pilgrimages, frequently through disaster reports. A few students may be deeply invested in who is at home in Tibet, Israel-Palestine, or the Americas themselves, but the majority usually will not have strong feelings on these issues, even if they are in some way directly involved with them. And so on.

The religious character of “Where are you?” is not explicit in the first chapter of American Gods, but it is inescapable. When we meet Shadow, he is looking forward to being released from prison, where “he marked off the days on his Songbirds of North America calendar, which was the only calendar they sold in the prison commissary, and the sun went down and he didn’t see it and the sun came up and he didn’t see it” (5; ch. 1, §1). Presumably he does not see real songbirds either, although one of his jobs in the prison shop is “assembling bird feeders, which was barely more interesting than stamping out license plates” (6; ch. 1,§1). These reminders of freedom of movement – the flight of birds; cars – highlight Shadow’s inability to move across or enter the land. It is a fitting irony that his wife is travel agent and has herself arranged for Shadow’s travel, upon his release, to their home town of Eagle Point, Indiana. It is a quintessentially Midwestern setting whose name evokes ambivalent national symbols: the native bird now a patriotic emblem of the land, and the people who were “displaced” from that land by the emblem-makers.

The text highlights Shadow’s own alienation from the land during his imprisonment in other ways as well. The very names of his fellow inmates – Iceman; Johnnie Larch; Sam Fetisher – evoke either the landscape itself or (stereotypes of) religious practices associated with it. In a naturalistic inversion of the pathetic fallacy, Shadow attributes his unaccountable anxiety to the very ordinary regional weather, which in the latter part of November is “oppressive, still and cold. It felt as if a storm was on the way, but a storm never came” (10; ch. 1, §1). Shadow voices his anxiety in a telephone call to Laura, who does not understand his meaning, speaking instead of the better weather in Eagle Point. He finds a more sympathetic hearing in the much older Sam Fetisher, who apparently apropos of nothing warns Shadow, “Big storm coming. Keep your head down, Shadow-boy. It’s like . . . what do they call those things continents ride around on? Some kind of plates? . . . It’s like when they go riding, when North America goes skidding into South America, you don’t want to be in the middle. You dig me?” (13; ch. 1, §1).

The warning comes too late, of course; Shadow is already mixed up in metaphors. He is literally as well as figuratively in the middle of a storm – the upper Midwest’s weather, as observed by an English author, is a character in American Gods – and figuratively embedded in a continent set on a collision course. “[You are] in the earth and under the earth,” the buffalo-headed man in Shadow’s dream tells him, speaking without moving his mouth. “You are where the forgotten wait” (23; ch. 1, §2). The figure’s buffalo aspect, like the name of Shadow’s destination, recalls an iconic native species of the land and, very specifically in this case, evokes the people displaced and destroyed by the stealing of it through the near-extinction of American bison that Euro-Americans prosecuted in the nineteenth century.

Furthering Shadow’s alienation is his disconnection from his own roots. We learn in the first chapter that his wife Laura is his only living relative. We also receive the problematic impression that Shadow lacks a defined ethnic identity, startling in the racially fraught setting of a U.S. prison. While other inmates and prison officials are described in the omniscient narrative or are identified by other characters (including Shadow) in more or less subtly racially marked terms, Shadow is described only in terms of negation, never affiliation. The inference that he “reads as” a multi-ethnic African-American comes from a white guard’s asking Shadow “what [he is]” and proceeding to offer a series of “guesses” in the most racist terms available. Shadow refuses to engage: “Not that I know of, sir”; “Maybe”; “Could be, sir” (4; ch. 1, §1). His more specific replies to a Black fellow inmate, a very different exchange in context and meaning, reveal only through silence: “Sam Fetisher stared at Shadow. ‘Where you from?’ he asked. Eagle Point. Indiana.’ ‘You’re a lying fuck’ said Sam Fetisher. ‘I mean originally. Where are your folks from?’” (10; ch. 1, §1). Shadow’s grounds for choosing Chicago as an alternative answer – his mother spent some of her childhood and ultimately died there – reveal only that he has no sense of his own origins and that no family or community claims him as their own.

In addition to being alienated from land and people, Shadow is alienated from himself (although Gaiman, as Siobhan Carroll discusses at length,[10] spares his readers another American narrative of self-actualization). The book introduces him immediately and in media res: “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.” (3; ch. 1, §1). We are not told why Shadow is in prison, and of his experience there we learn only that his physical strength prevented it from being even more unpleasant than it might have been. We only learn that he loves his wife, so much that she has occupied his mind almost completely throughout their three years of enforced separation. We do not learn Shadow’s last name until he fantasizes that “it was a simple mix-up: some other Laura Moon’s body had been dragged from the highway wreckage.” (20; ch. 1, §2). Laura changed her name when she married Shadow,[11] but it is through his wife’s name that Shadow is identified, suggesting that her taking the name was what made it his. And although Shadow’s real first name never appears in the book at all, by the third page we learn that Laura has given him another nickname, Puppy. Prohibited pets under their lease, Shadow told Laura, “I’ll be your puppy. What do you want me to do? Chew your slippers? Piss on the kitchen floor? Lick your nose? Sniff your crotch? I bet there’s nothing a puppy can do I can’t do!” (12; ch. 1, §1). Unstated in Shadow’s declaration is dependent adoration that puppies develop toward their human caregivers, the attitude behind the mugs and t-shirts printed with “O Lord, make me the person the dog thinks I am.” American Gods does not mark Shadow’s view of Laura as explicitly religious, but she is clearly, as it were, his idol. The psychology of his devotion to her is vivid, one that is familiar to all those who have been young and felt themselves to be in love.

When Laura dies unexpectedly, then, Shadow loses his living deity. His numbness in the wake of her death makes plausible his lack of resistance to the strangeness that subsequently enters his life. Life without Laura, for Shadow when we meet him, is both unimagined and unimaginable. After her death, the merely unbelievable barely seems to register as such. One of the few things chapter one directly tells us about Shadow, in fact, is that he “was not superstitious. He did not believe in anything he could not see” (7; ch. 1, §1). Nothing over the course of the story changes this. Religion in American Gods is not about the invisible, only about the unseen, and even this is left unchallenged in Shadow’s case. He never comes to believe in the unseen. Instead, he begins to see the unbelievable.

  1. Gods

Given Laura’s occupation as a travel agent, it is fitting that her arrangements are what first allow Shadow to encounter Mr. Wednesday. Gaiman’s prefatory disclaimer that “only the gods are real” helps readers avoid the mistake of thinking that the grim-countenanced traveler recalls the Norse god Odin. Gaiman’s concern for “good mythology” is immediately evident. The traits that in Norse texts “obscure [Odin’s] identity within the stories but which would have signaled to audiences his [disguised] appearance”[12] are all present in the initial description of Mr. Wednesday: a grim smile, gray hair and eyes, gray clothing, a “craggy” face recalling (gray) rocks, a false eye, and a silver necktie pin of a deep-rooted tree (26–28; ch. 1, §2). The placement of the pin on Wednesday’s necktie rather than a lapel echoes Odin’s experience with the tree the tie presumably depicts (i.e., Yggdrasil, the world-tree) as the site of his sacrificing himself to himself by the conventional means of hanging. Shadow’s earlier conversation with an old cellmate who laments the lost glories of hanging the convicted from the gallows reinforces the association (4; ch. 1, §1). Asked how he knows Shadow’s name without being told, Mr. Wednesday replies that “it’s the easiest thing in the world to know what people call themselves. A little thought, a little luck, a little memory” (28; ch. 1, §2). This is an apt reply: Norse sources consistently characterize Odin as knowing the names of all things and describe him as having two servant ravens, Thought and Memory. Even the fact that he is traveling, alone and pseudonymously, accords with traditional depictions, although it must be admitted that Odin’s ability to ride on the air offers less impressive material to Neil Gaiman than it did to Snorri Sturluson.

Odin, as presented by the Norse literati or by Gaiman, presents among the first of many opportunities in American Gods to complicate beginning students’ assumptions about how divinity can be conceptualized. Many of the common answers to “What is ‘religion’?” reveal Platonic and Christian neo-Platonic conceptions of divinity and devotion to be as influential today as ever before, although ­– or because – they tend to be received and implicit conceptions. Religion, we often hear (and sometimes think!) is “about” universal truths; about the intangible and spiritual as opposed to the physical and corporeal; about eternity and the transcendence of mortality. Holy persons, whether historical figures regarded as saints or deities whose existence is outside the empirical, are supposed to be role models for believers, to present ideals toward which they should strive, or at least to embody prevailing values and social norms (or occasionally to provide safe outlets for chaotic alternatives to them). Many instructors educated in a Western system, I would venture, can remember being disoriented to learn what they now teach: that the defining trait of divinity can be power rather than benevolence; that the holy can be abnormal just as much as normative; that the “purely spiritual” can be a footnote to the physical; that religion can be about the subjective, the mundane, and the mortal.

It is another fitting irony, then, that one of American Gods’ key images is explicitly Platonic. In the first of his dream encounters with the buffalo-headed man, which occurs immediately before his meeting Mr. Wednesday, “Shadow was in a dark place . . . Firelight flickered from wet cave walls” (22; ch. 1, §2). Both the image and the language will recur throughout the novel, and the very name by which the protagonist goes suggest the reflection visible in that allegorical setting. The novel’s concepts of divinity, however, are far from Platonic indeed, as indeed, Wanner points out, are those that the Norse sources evince.[13] The point continues to apply as Shadow encounters gods with global origins.

I will not try to list here all the ways in which the substance and narrative of American Gods unfold along distinctly non-Platonic lines. I would, however, draw attention to the way the first chapter also subverts generic conventions of modern fantasy epic – and thus, to some extent, the mythic epics on which modern fantasy often draws. Carroll points out that readers familiar with these conventions are “primed to trust Wednesday” as a mysterious, older, and clearly knowledgeable stranger who acts as a guardian of things ancient.[14] By these same conventions, Shadow might be expected to decline Mr. Wednesday’s job offer in favor of family obligations or out of a sense of unworthiness. But Mr. Wednesday, a god, is no match for the likes of, say, Merlin or Gandalf. He is not even the first physically marked, patriarchal source of information and power we meet in chapter one. Instead, he is preceded by a distinctly non-numinous allotype: a prison warden who Shadow has occasionally seen at a distance but never met and who “up close . . . looked worse. His face was oblong, with gray hair cut into a military bristle cut. He smelled of Old Spice [deodorant]. Behind him was shelf of books, each with the word prison in the title; his desk was perfectly clean, empty . . . He had a hearing aid in his right ear” (15–16; ch. 1, §1). When Shadow and the readers first encounter Mr. Wednesday, they already know the type. Those who are familiar with Norse tradition can even see the sadistically amused guard who reports to the warden as a bureaucratized Loki, one who has exchanged his cunning and disguises for a steady job that provides a uniform. Even without the shock of Laura’s death numbing his reactions, Shadow’s first impression of Mr. Wednesday is set up to be one lacking in awe.

Confounding genre expectations even further, nothing really alters this first impression. Mr. Wednesday is no misapprehended Obi-Wan Kenobi. As their relationship develops, he gives Shadow ever more reasons not only to distrust but also to dislike him. Shadow, for his part, never takes up the hero’s task, instead becoming involved with Mr. Wednesday due to a lack of alternatives and with a kind of resigned resentment of the situation. They are far from the epic pair that might have been expected – just as Shadow is no devotee of the god he serving, and just as the thoroughly traditional Mr. Wednesday proves to be a very different model of god.

Eliza Rosenberg received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McGill University in 2015. She is currently Adjunct Professor of Religion at Eastern Kentucky University. 

__________

[1] Heather O’Donoghue, From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 181–182.

[2] Quoted in Timothy H. Evans, “Folklore, Intertextuality, and the Folkloresque in the Works of Neil Gaiman,” 68. In Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert eds., The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2016), 64–80.

[3] Robert William Jones II, “At Home in the World Tree: A Somaesthetic Reading of the Body at Home in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 6. Open Library of Humanities 1:1 (2015): 1–18.

[4] Andrew Wearring, “Changing, Out-of-Work, Dead, and Reborn Gods in the Fiction of Neil Gaiman,” 244. Literature & Aesthetics 19:2 (Dec. 2009): 236–246.

[5] Neil Gaiman, American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text) (New York: William Morrow, 2016), xv. In all editions: “Caveat, and Warning for Travelers.”

[6] Rut Blomqvist, “The Road of Our Senses: The Search for Personal Meaning and the Limitations of Myth in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 21; cf. 22, n. 7. Mythlore 30:3/4 (2012): 5–26.

[7] O’Donoghue, From Asgard toValhalla, 182–183.

[8] Neil Gaiman, “Reflections on Myth,” 77. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 31 (Winter 1999): 75–84.

[9] Evans, “Folklore, Intertextuality, and the Folkloresque . . . ”, 71–72. In a similar vein, O’Donoghue, surveying online fan responses to American Gods, notes similarly that one source of its popular appeal is “an air of mystery, of the possibility initiation into academic or pseudo-academic wisdom and learning” (From Asgarad to Valhalla, 183). Mathilda Slabbert and Leonie Viljoen describe the novel as “a melding of mythology, fictional fantasy and reality and explores the mythical underpinnings of story-making” in which Gaiman “devises a refreshing contemporary mythology of his own, and presents a plausible alternative for the reader to the twenty-first century dilemma” of disenchantment and its discontents. (“Sustaining the imaginative life: mythology and fantasy in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 153; Literator 27:3 (2006): 153). Irina Raţă likewise describe’s the book as “Gaiman[’s using] old myths to create new ones . . . introduc[ing] elements from African, American Indian [sic], Irish, Norse, and Slavic mythologies, as well as numerous urban myths, phenomena, and objects of worship” (“The Role of Intertextuality in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 106; Cultural Intertexts 2:3 (2015): 103–112).

[10] Siobhan Carroll, “Imagined Nation: Place and National Identity in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.” Extrapolation 53:3 (2012): 307–326.

[11] Gaiman, American Gods, 325 (ch. 9, §2). Laura’s maiden name was McCabe.

[12] Kevin J. Wanner, “God on the Margins: Dislocation and Transience in the Myths of Oðinn,” 329. History of Religions 46:4 (2007): 316–350.

[13] Wanner, “God on the Margins” 3232–335, 350. On Gaiman’s constructions of divinity, see here especially Blomqvist, “The Road of Our Senses” and Carroll, “Imagined Nation,” passim.

[14] Carroll, “Imagined Nation” 317–318.

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Religion, Sociology, and Identity: The Contemporary Relevance of Hans Mol

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by Adam J. Powell 

Over the past five years, a number of academic organisations have expressed growing concern for the state of sociology of religion in the 21st century. Whether from the American Academy of Religion, the British Sociological Association, or the Sociology of Religion research committee within the ISA, the reflections have been univocal: the field of sociology and the sub-field of sociology of religion need to take each other seriously. Furthermore, both need to reclaim theory and explanation as central to the sociological enterprise. In pursuing theory/explanation, of course, it might be tempting to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – especially as we attempt to counter the criticism that our discipline has been too reluctant to move beyond the founding theorists. However, useful analytical tools and theoretical frameworks – building on the classics whilst avoiding the fragmentation of postmodern theory – do exist. One example, of potentially very incisive relevance for contemporary analyses of religion and society, is the theory of identity outlined by sociologist Hans Mol in his 1976 book Identity and the Sacred.

For Mol, religion is not a static cultural object but a social process by which individual and group identities are ‘sacralised’. This ‘sacralisation of identity’ entails four mechanisms whereby identity is buoyed in the face of life’s vicissitudes: objectification, ritual, commitment, and myth. Essentially, Mol believes that both the natural and the social sciences point to a dialectic between stability and change, or identity and forces of differentiation. Religion is, therefore, understood as an interminable balancing act in which systems of meaning that offer stable identities implement the sacralising mechanisms to incorporate forced changes and uncertainties. In this way, Mol connects personal and group identity with a ‘stable niche’ that is cloaked with sacrality in the process of neutralising potential threats to the collective and to the self.

Now, decades later, Mol’s identity theory seems rather insightful. Not only did his concept of religion as any meaning-system capable of conferring and sustaining an identity with associated emotions, rituals, and narratives presciently suggest an alternative to the secularisation thesis back in the 1970s, but it also underscored the indissoluble links between identity, meaning, and transcendence. As religiously-inflected passions and political volatilities collide across the globe (viz., Trump, Brexit, and sundry forms of Islamism), and as social commentators and experts betray their own inadequate understandings of social conflict, it may be of some use to reflect on Mol’s theoretical contributions. Indeed, Mol equates identity not simply with stability but with ‘the stable niche that man occupies in a potentially chaotic environment which he is therefore prepared vigorously to defend’ (my emphasis) (1976: 65). What is more, he emphasises the fragility of identity, hence the beneficial role of religion as it reinforces identity through sacralisation.

Of course, that identity-reinforcing endeavour follows, and implies, a previous transition from an old mode of being, thinking, and feeling to a new mode of being, thinking, and feeling. Mol likens this to the religious conversion and states unequivocally, ‘Detachment from any established identity pattern is painful…’ (1976: 50). If Mol is on to something about the relationship between identity and stability – about the spirited defence of an identity by a group or individual who intuits the potential agony of conversion – perhaps current events should cause less surprise. Indeed, identity may very well be a zero-sum game. When a political ideology or religious worldview impinges on an already sacred identity, we may be witnessing what social anthropologist Douglas Davies has called ‘identity-depletion’, which includes ‘life circumstances…where otherness becomes malevolent and reciprocity constricted’ (2011: 68). For example, the American political scene has witnessed a significant trend toward identity politics (i.e., gender, sexuality, race, and religion) over the past few decades, a pattern that has challenged all three branches of government (judicial, legislative, and executive) to legislate a sort of morality based on liberal values of human rights. In doing so the state seems to have entered the fray of private religious attitudes, challenging (inadvertently?) the supposed private/public bifurcation at the heart of the modern West. More importantly, however, this means that many Americans perceive a pressure to convert to an unfamiliar (but state-sanctioned) identity, or at least feel the anguish of their once-stable identity being depleted. Will individuals and groups not defend against this anticipated pain? Is there a replacement to fill the void? Mol suggests that in such circumstances charismatic leaders emerge ‘as the catalysts for the kind of change that…is already in the air’ (1976: 46). Such leaders may ease the conversion process or help reintegrate the old disrupted identity and, just maybe, such leaders sometimes look like a Trump or a Farage.

References

Davies, D. (2011) Emotion, Identity, and Religion: Hope, Reciprocity, and Otherness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mol, H. (1976) Identity and the Sacred. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Adam J. Powell is a Junior Research Fellow in Durham University’s Department of Theology & Religion. He is co-editor of Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings: Reflecting Hans Mol (Ashgate, 2015) and author of Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2017). The latter serves as an introduction to Mol’s theory of religious identity for a new generation of social scientists, including both a reappraisal of the original theory and previously-unpublished essays by Mol himself.

 

 

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