A Response to “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications, and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies”

* This post is one of several responses to Kelly J. Baker’s essay “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies,” which can be found herehere and here.

by Rachel McBride Lindsey

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the question of evidence, in various guises, exploded when the daguerreotype became a popular form of preserving and conveying forms subject to decay. In fact, for many early patrons of daguerreotype portraiture, the new medium was too true to nature for their own likings, the evidence of their likeness too bold. By the end of the century, photographs were not only lauded (and lamented) for their truthful depictions of what the camera recorded, but also approached as hieroglyphs for deciphering what was revealed through the material world. For turn of the century Protestant Americans, photographs of Palestine revealed the Holy Land of the Bible and portraits of the dead revealed the promise of celestial reunion and bodily resurrection. For Americans living in the nineteenth century, photographs were not only records of existence but evidence of things unseen.

In her article “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions,” Kelly J. Baker raises critically important questions of “evidence” in American Religious Studies as they relate to the relationships fostered between researchers and data, researchers and terminologies, and researchers and audiences, be they peer or public. For Baker, “evidence” is a capacious category that demands careful reflection upon the sources, topics, and interpretive paradigms that not only energize our work but that define the edges of our conceptual cartography. Curiously, her most concise definition is tucked away in a footnote where she clarifies that “by evidence, I mean the sources of our studies whatever they may be.” These sources may include “texts, artifacts, ephemera, and fieldwork” and the mode and method in which they are mobilized “construct the category of religion over and over again dependent upon what the evidence demonstrates.” Her point—again, in the footnote—is well-taken.

In this article she is less interested in the particular dynamics of an archive of sources than in “how some evidence is employed to mark legitimate religion/religions” (Baker 2012, 10; her emphasis). The conceptual and procedural application of the designation of sources as evidence, rather than a catalogue of those sources, takes the cake. What is more, for Baker, there is no clear subject—Religion—in need of evidentiary defense. Because any definition of religion is dependent upon, and thus subordinate to, the sources engaged, the definitional project is undermined entirely. So what does evidence in the study of religion defend? Exactly.

Baker’s thoughtful reflections demand equally engaged reflection. But for all the effort she expends to carry us with her, she seems to drop us off in front of a door that she does not open: what are the criteria by which sources become evidence? More to the point, at what point are “forms” subsumed into the larger, and for Baker, more salient category of evidence? She is acutely aware of the researcher’s implication in the taxonomies she or he employs. The fulcrum of her article reveals her command of the stakes involved: “the question of evidence for the study of American religions . . . is not necessarily to interrogate forms of evidence but rather to think of the consequences of cordons and limits, the labeling of the inconsequential, the tangential, and the dangerous. What our objects of study are is a less interesting question that what our objects of study can and cannot be” (5). But of course the two categories she identifies—“forms” and “consequences”—are entangled and to subordinate one to the other risks replicating the mechanisms of legitimacy she so clearly works to expose. In short, the question of archive, of form and curatorship, is just as important to the conceptual dance she demonstrates we are already performing.

Discussions of form have been, admittedly, throttled in low gear for so long that artifacts seem conceptually stagnant and are treated as inert objects that are consulted and then marshaled as evidence to support the researcher’s thesis. Indeed, I would argue, there is a retrospective quality to evidence that differentiates it qualitatively from sources. The point here, though, is that Baker slips quickly from her nod to “forms of evidence” to “objects of study,” a move that glosses specific artifacts to focus instead on the “pluralist fantasies” that have conditioned categories of analysis (6). And yet artifacts and archives are not a wholly different question than the one Baker presses. Archives are cordoned no less than topics, even to the point of being inconsequential, tangential, and dangerous. The push for a wider variety of artifacts—film, architecture, dress, images, and so forth—has contributed little to the looming interpretive frameworks, or especially to “the hidden moral structure,” that continue to define the field. Rather than dismissing forms as “less interesting,” and ultimately less consequential, to the conversation she initiates, would it not be more productive to identify forms as integral to the consequences in which they are implicated?

The larger question that Baker’s article leaves me with, though, cuts to the heart of disciplinary identity: why “evidence”? Baker’s work, she explains, often invokes refrains of incredulity—“you study them?”—which, upon reflection, she has diagnosed as cultural and disciplinary regulations of legitimate subjects of study and, by extension, the sources that can or cannot be consulted to defend those implicit boundaries. For Baker’s own scholarship, and for our disciplinary self-understanding, the questions of what evidence is and what it does haunt the relationships researchers forge with their subjects even as they all too often reanimate the dusty corpses of the interrogating past. Zombies indeed.  The full weight of her argument is careful, incisive, and entirely relevant to a field whose model of territorial expansion is beginning to show the fissures of a neglected infrastructure.

Still, I am left with the question of why evidence? Why, if it is so fraught, so epistemologically and methodologically overburdened, why does “evidence” remain a viable mode of analysis? The term itself invites comparison with its legacies in legal, scientific, and theological practices, comparisons that more often than not violate the disciplinary objectives of inquiry in the study of religion. If our objectives are not to prove but to demonstrate and explicate, what does the conceptual paradigm of evidence actually contribute?

Rachel McBride Lindsey is Associate Director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on material and visual cultures of American religion, particularly photographs as material archives of religion and the role of media in defining categories of individual and collective identities. Her current book project is entitled A Communion of Shadows: Vernacular Photography and Religion in Nineteenth-Century America.

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