Sean McCloud is an associate professor of religious studies who teaches, researches, and writes about American religions and religion and culture. He is the author of Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-93 (2004), Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (2007), and co-editor of Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics (2009).
In this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, we ask scholars of religion how they negotiate the difficult line between “politics” and scholarship.
The line between scholarship and politics or, if you like, between theory building and political commitments, is a notoriously difficult one to negotiate. For some, scholarship should only be about describing and explaining, while for others advocacy (i.e., changing the world for the better) is also an important part of what we do in the academy. While making explicit one’s historical and institutional circumstances, along with the logic and process behind one’s methods and theories is an important step in addressing this issue, it still does not answer the question of advocacy—whether or not it should be done or what counts for it in the first place. With reference to your own experience, institutional affiliation and scholarly identity, what are your thoughts on this matter?
Rusted Wrenches and Organic Intellectuals
We need to be the counter friction to the machine
The rusted wrench that foils the scheme
The broken gear that stops the system
The bloody fist that is tired of listening
“Now or Never” by The Nids (written in 1990, two years prior to grad school)
Even if one grants that “politics” and “scholarship,” or “theory building” and “political commitments,” are separable things, is it possible to describe and explain human activities, groups, and concepts in ways that don’t wittingly or unwittingly advocate some view of the world that has the potential to benefit some humans at the expense of others? Words, discourses, taxonomies, and that which we include and exclude from consideration—these have material effects, right? While I think I can empirically demonstrate that they do, I would also like to think that they do because my background inculcated into me (in ways I can never be fully cognizant of) a strong aversion to the pain and unfairness of inequalities. While not being an explicit “advocate” of particular policies, programs, or people in my scholarship, I hope that “describing” the symbolic and material violences emitted by particular discursive formations can work to destabilize and topple them. Such academic analyses might entail the dismantling of terms such as “mainstream” and “fringe” or the “denaturalization” of class, race, and gender stereotypes (it should be no surprise that three of my favorite academic writers are Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, and Beverley Skeggs). Yet, at the same time, as a stranger who has now spent a while in the strange land of academia—a place that others from my social location rarely find themselves in as undergraduates, let alone professors—I am constantly questioning if any of the work I do (the classes I teach, the public talks I give, the articles and books I write that end up being read by very small numbers of other academics) has any material consequence—positive or negative—in the larger world.
Organic intellectual, forgot what’s yours
Pursuing your interests, academic complacencies
Never thought that you would make it this far
Never thought that you would be an American dream
Now you are a living symbol, perfect example of
Just make sure you don’t let them know where you are coming from
“1/x” by Nat Turner (written in 1994, two years into grad school)
Sell-out. Class betrayer. Do other academics ever feel guilty that they hold a job they love and have the opportunity to research, teach, and write about subjects that fascinate them? When I first started grad school, I asked myself, “what good am I doing for people like those I grew up with, those who raised me, those who don’t go to college, those who do know what it is like to be hungry, know what government cheese tastes like, and understand through experience how a family illness, broken-down car, or unexpected cost can throw you and yours into a spiral of unpaid bills, debt, tension, sorrow, and deep feelings of hopelessness and loss of control.” I still ask myself this question. On most days I am unsatisfied by my answer.