A Duck, A Giraffe, and A Package Called “Religion”

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by Philip L. Tite

A data-driven giraffe walks into a store run by a theory-driven duck. The giraffe turns to the duck and orders an object for purchase as a present for her research assistant.

“We only deal in discourses in this store, I’m afraid,” replies the duck.

“Oh, that’s okay. I’ll take a discourse. Could you gift wrap it for me?” says the giraffe.

Ten minutes later, the giraffe walks out with an object of discourse as happy as can be.

***

While my little story may not win literary awards (if it does, then do let me know!), it does illustrate a quandary that I have struggled with in my journey through method & theory circles in the field of religious studies. It is a problem that I briefly touched on in an article I published in the Bulletin a year ago on studying religious experience and Gnosticism.

There has been a tendency in some theoretical circles to reduce all objects of study to merely being discourse, as if claiming that everything is a language game of signification resolves the problems attached to the substantive use of terminology. Rather than discourse emerging from objects of study – i.e., as prediscursive “things” – objects, it seems to be argued, are seen as the product of discourse and thus are the product of the scholar within contingent contexts (post- and intradiscursive “processes”).

The term “religion” is an obvious lightening rod in our field. Rather than a self-referential category, where the category is the object and thus should be reproduced as a substantive quality within scholarly descriptions, this line of theorizing encourages us to move beyond reproducing insider truth claims toward looking at the discursive power dynamics evoked by the use of the taxon. Critiques of the colonial foundations of much of modern scholarship has been one of the most common approaches in deconstructing the taxon that serves as the “membership banner” for our discipline (and yes there are certainly disciplinary, institutional, and financial implications to how “religion” is understood as a taxon for the discipline and not just as an object of study). The end point seems to be that scholars of religion don’t have a unique object that they study (“religion”). Rather, by even engaging in the use of the taxon at merely a descriptive, self-referential level, scholars are complicit in the construction and manipulation of that taxon. We simply become caretakers or tour guides of “the World Religions.” Thus, what we are encouraged to do is to not study religion (as religion doesn’t actually exist as an object) but to study the underlying power dynamics associated with the evocation of the designation “religion.”

All good so far. Or at least it seems to be. Many of us walked into the academy (into the store run by our duck) in order to get our hands on an object we saw in the catalog labeled “religion.” And while in other stores down the street we saw on the shelves all sorts of wonderful descriptive objects all nicely packaged (e.g., our “intro to” courses, which were more “survey of” courses we later realized), when we finally met the ducky store clerk – our delightful method & theory instructor/scholar/mentor – we surprisingly discovered that there was no such thing as “religion.” We had been duped by the adverts (= World Religions Paradigm) and had bought some charlatan’s potion we thought was Hinduism or Christianity or Neo-Paganism or Buddhism or whatever else we thought we were purchasing (whether that potion was packaged in a wrapping of sociology, psychology, history, or philosophy [alas, often another word for theology]). Mostly we just got scammed by phenomenology. All our wonderful packages were nothing but empty boxes with pretty bows and fancy labels. It was all just sui generis malarkey.

But then we started to buy into the method & theory view of “religion as discourse.” The irony, however, is that what we then purchased from our friendly duck was also an object, a non-object object – an object of discourse. We just didn’t realize we still had objects. We thought we just had discursive power relations to study.

As someone who really likes the work of scholars such as Russell McCutcheon, Jonathan Z. Smith (especially with the Canadian pronunciation of  “Z” his work just comes all that more alive), and Craig Martin, among many others, I am continually finding that I bump into objects. Not sui generis objects, however. But still objects. And I constantly bump into people (some who act like they are sui generis) – often people who self-identify as “religious” – who take the most offense at the deconstruction of “religion” (as if this theoretical approach was an anti-religion attack on them or their insider community). I find this conflict – this debate – fascinating, especially when this all blows up at academic conferences or when I get blank looks from non-academics who identify or know/avoid people who identity as “religious” when I mention that “religion” is nothing more than a constructed taxon. If it’s really a constructed taxon – a reified concept from the halls of scholarship, European colonialism, and the so-called Age of Reason – then why do people act like they are religious and claim to be card-carrying members of a religion?

Are there objects in the study of religion? I think so. Are these reified concepts. Absolutely. But these are not prediscursive objects. Rather, these objects are discursive products that take on substantive “impact” because they are part of discourse, they are part of competing but very real realities in which interlocutors interact and fight for normative status; i.e., once those objects are generated (or reified) then they do become objects. They are realities for those embedded within those discourses and thus these objects do need to be studied as substantive entities; i.e., objects around which new discourses (including competing discourses) arise and from which new or reworked objects emerge. To use Russ McCutcheon’s grammatical analogy (“A Tale of Nouns and Verbs: Rejoinder to Ann Taves,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80.1 [2012]: 236-40), there does not seem to be only “nouns” and “verbs” – with scholars choosing one or the other to study and thereby situating themselves as sui generis or postmodernist scholars // critics or caretakers // outsiders or insiders // delightfully aloof or irritating anachronisms – but rather there are syntactical relationships between verbs and nouns by which those verbs and nouns take on dynamic, contingent force within identity formation. Without objects there can be no discourse. And without discourse, there can be no objects.

So do we as religious studies scholars have objects to study? I believe so, though not conveniently packaged items from our shopping catalogs (= textbook descriptions). They are objects that arise within and through discourse. They are “real” because insiders perceive them as real and thereby act on those objects as if they are real. Thus, these objects – as products of discourse – have an impact as part of those human interactions we are studying. Interactions are narrativized and performative moments of activated perceptions (sometimes clashing perceptions) of “reality” (and perhaps “reality” is nothing more than the rule book arising within and for those very interactions).

So to return to our giraffe and duck: On one side of our field we often have voices who say, “I study data not theory”, while on the other side are those who declare, “I theorize, I don’t study objects (= religious traditions).” Perhaps we can – and should – do both. After all, even when we walk out the door with our theoretical critiques, those very critiques are objects we’ve purchased. And for those who walk out believing they just have an object in a box, are they not already engaged in discursive power dynamics by the very act of owning that seemingly innocuous box?

So yes we can study “religion” – just not “religion.”

Philip Tite is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington and also teaches at Seattle University in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

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