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 hereherehere and here.

(Inspiration: The Lamentations of the Scholar of the “Illegitimate”)

Anthony Santoro

Let me begin by thanking Dr. Baker for the chance to respond to her doubly inspirational article—inspirational because she has given voice to much of what I struggle with as someone who also works on “uncomfortable” and “illegitimate” subjects, but inspirational also in the sense that it forced me to sit down, take a deep breath—and then another—and really reflect on my research and what Baker’s telling about when and how I need to fight particular fights. This call to “take Other subjects seriously” resonates with me on many levels, and it does so without offering an opt-out into that comfortable space wherein conflicts are muted in favor of scholarly detachedness. There are, however a couple of points that I want to respond to as a reader and practitioner.

The visual metaphor that sprang to mind reading this piece is an oil filter. There is a buffer between researcher and subject, but it is one of varying degrees; forget for a moment the regularity of an oil filter, or maybe remove it from the metal casing and bend it so that the baffles distort, and we have a metaphor for a space of comfort, to paraphrase Baker (and likewise distort, as I’ll clarify in a moment) that allows us to be comfortable in two different ways: This distorted oil filter metaphor lets us get close to the subject at the same time it lets them get close to us—it gives us the illusion of having our distances punctured while doing no such thing—the filter itself remains intact, even if distorted. But this is where I recognize my visual metaphor as a distortion:

When we interrogate legitimate/legitimating evidence, new and different trajectories might appear while avoided ones re-emerge. I do this, in part, to suggest that there is nothing to fear in the less reputable objects of study. Fear not. (3)

Oh there is definitely something to fear in here, and it’s exactly what Baker is urging that we do—self-consciously and deliberately puncture our sense of clear-sighted distance—however intact or permeable it already is—to get at our own whys (though I note that Baker recognizes that this call legitimates the irritating “nice girl” question, albeit from a different basis than the “illegitimate” version of the question: “The why plaintively remains unclear.” [5]).

So while I’m busy reading against Baker’s point in furtherance of her point, I also find myself arrested by one particular conjunction: “Our evidence is ours, and we belong to it.” (4) I get hung up on this and, with which I want to grapple. This desire to quibble with the conjunction arrested me long enough to realize I was drawing two different, and facially contradictory, inferences from the statement. First, as Baker elegantly notes, we belong to our evidence because it implicates us; it constitutes us. This was my first sense of the statement, and why I would have wanted “because” in place of “and.” Baker also tells us, however, that “By seeking to deny endorsement, the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate evidence become visible.” This seems to me to refer to a related but different problem, the problem of writing about but not on behalf of. Baker’s earlier claim, that our focus on “contamination and complicity can draw our attentions away from complexity of our research relationships”—with which I quite agree—seems to me also to lead to this problem of orientation of presentation. It’s not the denial of endorsement that flags “illegitimate,” but rather the denial of examination. Examining without endorsing is stock and trade for many of us, but—and here is where Baker’s essay really forces me to pause to take a breath—I feel indicted by her call for more self-reflection, which is to say, more distance and more self-conscious nearness. She hasn’t indicted me; I have—I’m the one who flashed an image of an oil filter, after all. Our evidence, it seems, is at least doubly constitutive of us as scholars.

There’s one more word in here that’s grabbing at me: “or”: “Embracing the illegitimate (or removing the label)…” (7) I object to the “or”; let us not mis-allocate our energies and attention in a quest to remove the label and (re)create all subjects as equal. My hunch is that such an effect would fail more—well, more casually than not; we might succeed in displacing the label further, bringing more heretofore illegitimate subjects, sources, methods, etc., into the ambit of the recognized “legitimate,” but at a cost of further entrenching the very idea that we sought to displace. Alternatively, what happens if we succeed and accomplish the dream of basic equality of legitimacy among subjects? We may have succeeded on one front, but at a cost of surrendering on the second—if all subjects are equally legitimate, then it seems to me we can give ourselves a collective pat on the back for our openness and progressive thinking, so long as we can ignore the fact that our success will have come at a cost of obviating the demand that Baker makes—rightly, and strongly—that we “do the work”—that we dig in and really look at the associated whys of what we’re doing.

No, let’s not remove the label. Let’s not preempt the conflict that we need to be aware of. Let’s not kid ourselves into a “power free zone” within which we can coolly operate. Let us rather keep the label (in-house), embrace it, and use it by contesting it. Let us “take illegitimate evidence seriously” in order to be able to “take seriously” what else that evidence shows us, so that we can see and engage with the poverty, racism, sexism, institutional problems of power and violence, etc., that our evidence also points to. And then let’s remember to take a deep breath and challenge ourselves, and our whys, in the process.

Anthony Santoro teaches American religion and American religious history at the University of Heidelberg. His research interests include religion and law, religion and capital punishment, and religion and popular culture, including sport. He is the author of Exile and Embrace: Contemporary Religious Discourse on the Death Penalty (Northeastern, 2013). 

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