Notes from FSU’s 16th Graduate Student Symposium

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(photo: Thomas Whitley)

by Tim Burnside and Haley Iliff

With the timely theme of Religion & Conflict, and during one of Tallahassee’s scarce weekends of tolerable weather, the Florida State University’s Department of Religion hosted its 16th annual graduate symposium. One might even call it a sweet sixteen. Dutifully headed by Matt Coston, with support from Andrew Gardner, Giancarlo Angulo, and a dedicated team of graduate students, the symposium provided engaging academic discussion, with the added bonus of partying with new and old friends. Fueled equally by food, friendship, and free alcohol (despite the notable lack of tequila), this year’s graduate symposium did not disappoint.

Duke University’s Dr. J Kameron Carter delivered a passionate and sobering keynote address entitled Quantum Tongues: An Insurgent Ecstatics of the Sacred, which set the tone for the weekend. Diving deep into literary criticism, black studies, and critical theory, Dr. Carter used the poetry of M. NourbeSe Phillip’s Zong! (2011) to speak of blackness as both constituted in material—often dehumanizing and objectifying—capitalist exchanges yet dwelling beyond both the physical and the ontological. Zong! was named after the British slave trading vessel transporting Africans. When the voyage took longer than anticipated, those aboard the ship began throwing cargo overboard, including the captive bodies of black men and women stuffed below deck, to claim the insurance on the lost goods. Such secular practices of law and rationality constituted a “secular Eucharist” for Carter, a holy naturalizing of white supremacy, while blackness demanded urgency beyond the politic and beyond the essentialist ontological categories defining consumerist relations. Watching Carter masterfully use Phillip’s disorienting poetry, where sentences, stanzas, and even words themselves broke alongside the dehumanized black bodies was both disheartening and impassioning, unwavering in his look at the gruesome realities but always looking beyond the real and beyond the obvious to find resistance in the unsettling of naturalized oppression.

These deeply material groundings (always bound up with slivers of the unspeakable) typified the symposium at its best. Sher Afgan Tareen explored the affect of businesslike professionalism in religious education among Muslims in America. Seth Emmanuel Gaiters exposed the entanglement of religion, secular, and race through his reading of spirituality within #BlackLivesMatter. Christina Carter captured the de-colonizing medicinal practices of spirit possession in Venezuela. Jeff Wheatley and Andy McKee (also speaking on behalf of Danae Faulk who was unable to attend) took part in a lively Author Meets Critic roundtable responding to Finbarr Curtis’s The Production of Religious Freedom. Speaking to the limitations of freedom, both Dr. Curtis and the respondents provided a fitting end to the conference.

At a panel on “Religion and Information” (which should totally be an AAR panel soon, btw), Jacob Hicks showed the nitty-gritty of selling religious freedom to revolutionary Americans through meticulously combed newspaper advertisements. Meredith Ross spoke to the physicality of church library reading initiatives, speaking as much to the act of creating a Christian citizen as to the importance of how posters were designed. Meagan Leverage’s paper focused on Metallica v. Napster to explore Satanism as constituted by the public, scholars, and Satanists themselves. The panel typified the symposium by navigating the rocky terrain between grounded materialism and unwieldy, unspoken, discourses.

The roundtable on religion and conflict featured a diverse (one could almost say conflicting) cast of participants in Drs. Michael Jerryson, Atalia Omer, and Jamil Drake. The scholars spoke to their own understanding of conflict, namely the prevalence with which it persists, and aimed to both inspire and inform. Most striking was the conversation on messiness and the job of the scholar when presented with the conflicting rhetoric of America’s declared war on varying concepts (Islam, poverty, crime, etc.), and the scholar’s ability to clean up that mess. Dr. Drake’s words struck the most resonance with us during the discussion stating “it’s a mistake to think we can clean up [the mess]. The trash is endless and unmovable. We’re on a shipwreck.” This image of shipwreck echoed the keynote’s own poetic use of the murdered slaves aboard the Zong. The simile moves beyond reality and into the lyrical, the linguistic, the ever-contextualized discursive apparatus of academic cataloguing which points to the thing but is never the thing itself. But the trash is real, and the danger facing so many of those put in progressively precarious positions by current governmental administrations has tangible, embodied, and often devastating consequences, regardless of critical theory’s inability to capture such dangers effectively.

But, of course, the best part of any academic conference, what is uncontainable in a blogpost, was the effervescent conversation during receptions and in between panels. The words on paper (or rather text on screen) of this post may hint at what symposium was, but it cannot capture the presence of friends and scholars drinking and eating and conversing. In this tension, be it the limitations of words or the difficulty of holding both Indian food and beer, Florida State’s symposium provided the warm experience of what academic conferences should be: abstract, difficult, but always aware of the mechanisms that create such situations and the experience of what it means to be caught within them.

Tim Burnside is an MA student at Florida State University. His research focuses on religion, health, and race in the twentieth century.

Haley Iliff is an MA student at Florida State University. Her research focuses on religion, gender, and politics in the nineteenth century.

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