The Normative Turn and its Discontents

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by Travis Cooper

In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a 2015 BBC miniseries, an omniscient narrating voice opens the story as the camera hovers over an early modern British town and zooms in to focus on a public house:

Some years ago, there was, in the city of York, a society of magicians. They met up on the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. They were gentleman magicians, which is to say they had never harmed anyone by magic. Nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell. Nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust alter its course or changed a single hair on anyone’s head. With this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

The camera now enters the pub. One Mr. Segundus lists his credentials and affinities as a burgeoning student of magic, after which he submits a hesitant inquiry to the senior scholars:

I have recently begun to wonder why the great feats of magic that I read about remain in the pages of my books and are not seen on the street or on the battlefield. I have begun to wonder why modern magicians are unable to work the magic that they write about. In short, gentlemen, I wish to know why magic is no longer done in England.

The table of magicians murmurs anxiously in response to the newcomer’s provocation. Then the head of the table responds:

It is a wrong question, Mr. Segundus. Magicians study magic, the history of magic. We do not perform it. You don’t expect an astronomer to create stars, eh? Or a botanist to invent new flowers, eh?

Replies Segundus:

It is a child’s question, I appreciate, but no matter—

The head of table forcefully interjects:

Practical magic, sir, is not a thing for the gentlemen of this society. Nor any gentleman. I do hope that you have not been trying to cast spells, sir.

Laughter, again, ensues. The humbled Mr. Segundus sits down, having been temporarily beaten in the discursive spar of authority. The scholars win the opening scene, but in the longer visual narrative, these “gentleman magicians” are made mockery of by Strange and Norrell, iconoclastic aspiring magicians who seek to revive applied English magic. In the filmic arc of the story, the scholars of magic are dull frauds who have only to put their knowledge into practice and action to correct for their deficiencies. As the last scene of the series suggests, this is exactly the case. Having been banished by Mr. Norrell, the revoked credentials for magic are restored, provided that the once disinterested theorists of magic both study the magical arts and practice them.

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to apply this situation from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to a recent impasse in religious studies with regard to disciplinary boundaries. There has been recurring contention in the academic circles about the relationship between religious studies and theology. Although the conversation tends to address the seeming differences or similarities between religious studies scholars and scholars engaging in theological inquiries, underwriting such deliberations are questions about the normativity, objectivity, subject positions, and biases of scholars intent on studying the odd nebulae of phenomena typically marked as “religion” or “religious.” Jonathan Z. Smith averred that theologians and other experts in constitution theological canon were of primary interest for study by religion scholars. Donald Wiebe posited that religious and political agendas compromise the serious and critical study of religion. Against urges to distinguish between alternative methodologies within the study of religion, a more recent camp hailing from the philosophy of religion has problematized any easy distinction between theology and religious studies. The philosophers have gone as far as calling for scholars in the anti-theology collective to own up to the normative stances and agendas implied even in their own social scientific approaches. For Kevin Schilbrack, religious studies ought not to force a distinction between theological and social scientific, descriptive, or historical study but should employ a tripartite program of study that conjoins description, explanation, and evaluation. For Thomas Lewis, religious studies scholars, no different than theologians, make evaluative and normative judgments in their programs of study. Schilbrack and Lewis redefine in an increasingly inclusive manner the boundaries of the religious studies tent. Rather than exile theologians from the academy, these scholars insist, only those voices who obscure their normative stances, biases, and subject positions ought not to be counted within the fold of authorized study.

Responding to the so-called “big tent” initiatives of recent normativist voices, other scholars have pushed back. Finbarr Curtis wonders whether allowing theological inquiry within the religious studies discipline will only legitimate certain types of theological stances—namely, those preferred liberal ones with which religious studies in the United States has been influenced—while excluding those we do not. Craig Martin admits that all scholars have biases and implicit normative agendas that define and delimit their work, but similar to Curtis’s worries counters that we need a more critical and rigorous account of “normativity” itself. In other words, not all forms of normativity and stancetaking are in equal standing. On Martin’s view, the normativist pressure to readmit theological inquiry into the discipline of religious studies throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. For my own part, I’d force the question in the other direction: Objectivity is currently unpopular in our hyper-reflexive, postcolonialist milieu, but are all appeals to neutrality of equal value? Is not the collapse between all sorts of value registers disingenuous? Might not some sort of weak, mitigated, or perhaps even symbolic objectivity necessary for teaching religion in public school classrooms?

I admit that my thoughts in these matters are less than determined. On the one hand, I view my work as diametrically distinct from that of theologians that I know. On the other hand, I have good friends trained in theology or even ethics, scholars I wouldn’t in the least bit mind sharing an academic department with—and not simply because that means my data as a religion scholar will now conveniently work just down the hall. To be clear, I have mixed feelings on the subject. Further compounding an already complex situation, as a student of the history of anthropology, I’m not certain religious studies will ever be free from theology. Could it be that we need the theologians? Could it be that, as in the formational years of the discipline of anthropology, theology is to religious studies what missionization was to anthropologists? Religious studies emerges, after all, out of the theological sciences. Perhaps theologians are as much necessary, inescapable foils as they are methodological ancestors.

However ambivalent I am about the current contentions, I think what we’re seeing in religious studies, especially as orchestrated by reconfigurations within AAR leadership, is a veritable consensus shift toward the inclusivity of overt normative stancetaking within the boundaries of the discipline. The examples abound. Thomas Tweed stresses that everyone makes normative judgments by way of implicit values and calls for more discussion about values—whether they be shared or distinctive—within religious studies. Race Mochridhe argues that authorizing and evaluating religious groups that are not one’s own is a societal obligation and requirement. Constance Furey endorses a qualified form of teaching theology in public university classrooms.

To return to the Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell illustration I opened this post with, the historians of magic do not fare well. The scholars come off as foolish proprietors of worthless knowledge. The distinction between disinterested study and applied practice hits eerily close to home in terms of resistance to the programs of distinction proposed by critical scholars. Are religion scholars historians and archivists of esoteric magical texts or active practitioners in the dark arts? Must one make the choice between study and practice? Whatever the solution to this impasse in the study of religion, it may require a magic spell or two to get past it.

Travis Cooper is a PhD student and associate instructor at Indiana University (Bloomington), in the departments of religious studies and anthropologyHis research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, embodiment, materiality, gender, media, critical ethnography, visual culture, and religious experience. Travis blogs informally about his academic work here. Find out more about his research and publications here.

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