Critical Questions Series 2: Margo Kitts


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 previous responses can be found hereherehereherehereherehere and here.

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?

Advocacy, Politics, and Pedagogy in Hawai’i

Advocacy is not straightforward in religious or classical scholarship. Insofar as we privilege a certain approach, advocacy is implicit, since the choice of approach determines what rises to the level of significance and drives arguments. So yes, there is a slant – maybe not political, but conceivably poetic, psychological, sociological, anthropological, or ethical. Advocacy is perhaps more subtle in studies of ancient texts than in studies of contemporary atrocities or abuses of human rights. Yet, however historically informed and culturally sensitive, analysts of ancient texts do inevitably impose upon literary figures subjective understandings of motive and personality, albeit in combination with a studied grasp of the lived worlds sedimented into texts. An integral goal of critical scholarship is to refine continuously our grasp of the personalities and poetic worlds captured by these texts.  But there is nothing disengaged or impartial about it. We antiquarians love our heroes – Achilles, Hector, Ruth, David, Arjuna, Drona. Curiosity is sparked by this love; research is driven by it; battles for funding rage over it.

A more controversial issue than advocacy in scholarship is advocacy in the classroom. Of course we try to keep our biases – theological, political, or otherwise – out of the classroom, just as we all know that this attempt is destined to fail. Particularly in the study of world religions, how does one promote dissolution of student biases without seducing students into other biases, insinuated often by our chosen theoretical lenses? And which lenses are most appropriate? Some seemingly lack the muscle to expose puzzling human motivations, such as the motivation to commit extraordinary acts of destruction, to self and others, in service of a religious vision. We can tell students that such acts are “not really religious,” are due to ideological manipulation, are offshoots of post-modern numbness or a clash of religious imaginaries, or they represent an implosion of western imperialism, the discordant mesh of migrant and fixed communities, the consequences of traumatized childhoods, misplaced ritualized bonding, a socio-psychological urge for scapegoating, and the like. How many of those theories do not have political implications? And does any one of them, alone, have enough explanatory punch?

I haven’t stopped using critical methods in my classes, of course, but increasingly I rely on literary and cultural ploys – stories, poems, music, art, field trips, films, comedians (yes, comedians) – to seduce my students into a visceral experience of unfamiliar traditions. Are these methods impartial? Well, is music? Is a poem? No one who comes up now could be ignorant of our hermeneutic vulnerabilities. As Ricoeur taught us, religious visions and social realities, once inscribed into texts, take on independent vitality and become the subject of new exegeses for new ages and new students. We try to be historically and culturally informing for students, but the take-away is not always predictable.

We face a version of this exegetical unpredictability in Hawai’i. Most of the time the cross-pollination of Pacific Island, European, Asian, and mainland imaginations is surprising, wonderful, and personal for students. The open-mindedness of our population is delicious for liberal academics. But occasionally, lately, the meeting of different religious points of view is jarring. Here, as on the mainland, religious fervor is changing the tone. It is impossible to ignore the moral-political implications of religious thought when your students report protesting senate bills, evangelizing in Asia, feeding the homeless, or building schools on other islands (not all the same caliber of activity, you notice). I suspect that we all engage in a bit of clever sophistry to keep the peace in the classroom, but it is difficult to hold a disengaged perspective outside of it.

Margo Kitts is associate professor of humanities at Hawai’i Pacific University. Her research interests include Homeric and Hittite traditions, as well as contemporary religious violence. Her books include Sanctified Violence in Homeric Society (Classical Studies, Cambridge University Press 2005, 2012) Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual, Volume III, co-editor (Harrassowitz 2010), Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence, co-editor with Mark Juergensmeyer (Religious Studies, Princeton University Press, 2011), and Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (co-editor with Mark Juergensmeyer and Michael Jerryson; forthcoming in December 2012).

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