Definitions are Never Innocent

by Kate Daley-Bailey

Russell McCutcheon’s recent post from Culture on the Edge blog has me contemplating definitions.

The way that descriptions, encoded in definitions, tacitly reproduce theories, sets of interests, and ways of prioritizing, paying attention & ignoring, is pretty evident in the commonsense definition of ritual that many of us walk around with — and, sadly, which many scholars adopt and use as well.

McCutcheon’s post highlights the latent ideological baggage already at work in definitions. He does not lament the inevitably invested nature of definitions themselves but rather the tendency of some scholars to ignore the normalizing interests at work in the definitions they employ. Definitions are necessarily limiting. They function by isolating particular relationships between words and concepts. Oddly, while we champion the stability and sobriety of definitions… they are in actuality great paragons of the volatile quality of language… monuments built upon the shifting sands of a matrix of meanings. Why else would we need massive tomes (dictionaries, lexicons, etc.) to track their vacillations?

In the history of scholarly definitions of religion, for example, it is germane to note how often these definitions employ what Thomas Tweed has labeled ‘orienting metaphors’. The stability and neutrality of ‘the definition’ is illusionary; its usefulness is dependent on its ability to link that which we don’t know with that which we think we do know (religion as ideology, as culture writ large, as neurosis, as a reflection of the ‘Real’).  By employing a definition, one has already affirmed a series of relationships between ideas. As a type of discourse, definitions are strings of utterances which are dialogic, polyphonic, and historically contingent, to use Bakhtinian terminology. And yet, definitions are so often touted as or castigated for being the very opposite (monologic, monophonic, and ahistorical). Rarely does instability or contingency engender confidence and so the evidence of the strings linking the utterances are erased and we are left with unmoored and isolated doctrinal statements whose authority lies in repeating them to ourselves over and over again until they need not be spoken at all.

As types of definitions go, substantivist and culturalist definitions are equally susceptible to this type of tautology. At this point, these definitions become ‘givens’. ‘Givens’, that which goes without saying, by their nature, escape the semantic dissection by which other concepts are evaluated. Anything that ‘goes without saying’ should give us pause. It has rendered itself not only exceptional (thereby immune to scrutiny) but it has also rendered itself invisible.

William Arnal, in one of the opening chapters (titled “Definition”) in the Guide to the Study of Religion, demonstrates the problematic nature of the ‘given’:

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that, while the academic study of religion may be a recent enterprise, the popular use of the term ‘religion’ is not. Even when we (wisely) refuse to claim that we understand religion, at the level of common sense we are fairly certain that at least we know what it is. (21)

Arnal’s observation stems from Darlene Juschka’s astute insight that it is precisely in the most institutionally and ideologically entrenched disciplines (think Classics) “that it does not even occur to anyone to ask the question of definition in the first place” (21). Regarding the entrenched nature of such concepts, what obligation does a scholar of religion have to her readership to disclose her own ideological choices as well as the choices made by others within the discipline’s history? What are the consequences of the obfuscation of said choices? I concur with Tweed’s estimation in Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion that scholars meet their obligation by “being clear about the type of definition offered and attending carefully to the choice of orienting trope, since definitions imply theories and employ tropes” (29).

I do not think scholars of religion are disingenuously ‘stacking the deck’ to merely affirm their own theories of religion. I am of the mind that due to a myriad of factors, such as the entrenched nature of our topic, the high stakes engendered by such demarcations, and the ideological clannishness so evident in our scholarly institutions, illustrating one’s theoretical choices and demanding that others do so as well is often detrimental to academic advancement. On the other hand, scholars who dismiss the ideological implications at work in all definitions are culpable of a type of scholarly negligence. Perhaps it is best just to ask budding scholars of religion to ruminate on Roland Barthes’ adage regarding language (which applies doubly so for a definition)… it is never innocent.

Katherine Daley-Bailey received her A.B. (2001) and M.A. (2004) degrees in Religion from the University of Georgia. She is currently teaching part-time at the University of Georgia. Daley-Bailey’s primary research interests are Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Theory and Methods, and Religion in Popular Culture. A regular contributor to the online magazine, Religion Nerd, she is currently working on her own column for the magazine, ‘The Sacred and the Strange,” which highlights the sometimes paradoxical nature of religious matters. In 2007, Kate co-authored a chapter titled ”Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying: Freedom in Confined Spaces” with Dr. Carolyn Jones Medine, a professor at the University of Georgia.

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6 Responses to Definitions are Never Innocent

  1. Area Frenchman says:

    Kat, floating signifiers are indeed the semantic tools of the artfully political teacher-preacher. You nailed it! The internal dialogic of disseminating ‘definitions’ is a complex dialectic of symbolic association and political affirmation. It’s never power neutral. Kinda like a floating signifier navigating a pedagogical river with the help of a GPS set on an ideological route.

  2. Kate says:

    Thank you, Area Frenchman!

  3. Chris says:

    Thank you. I am dis/heartened by this article.

    On the one hand, I am heartened by this to the degree that it shows that I am not alone. As an undergrad I have had this debate too many times, and too often with the most unlikely people i.e. my profs. I would have thought that we are all starting with the assumed position that all language is symbolic and constructed by and within its social environment. Alas, I am mistaken.

    I am (somewhat) disheartened to learn that this is still a point worthy of discussion.

    Thank you for the article.

  4. Kate says:

    Thank you, Chris, for your response. While there really is ‘nothing new under the sun’ regarding this issue… my concern is not that everyone is coming from a situated context but rather that we often forget that everyone is coming from a situated. The great irony, for me, at least, is that I am also aware that my focus on the contextualilty and situated-ness (is this even a word?) is based on my own context and situation. And while I do not perceive my acknowledgement of any of this as disenchfranchising my view, it does deflate it a bit… or at least, I hope, restrain it from turning into a type of dogmatism. Thanks so much for joining in the conversation… I, too, am happy to know that I am not alone. I’m of the mind that there actually a good number of students and scholars that have had this same experience. We should keep talking about it… what we study, how we study it, etc. and move beyond the ideological paralysis this tension can sometimes engender.

    Thanks again,

  5. caroline daley says:

    Your Father is so proud. I am sure.

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