Serpents, Novelty, and Academic Fetish


by Travis Cooper

* This is a revised version of a post originally found on the author’s personal blog.

Novelty draws academics. This is no controversial claim. We cluster around the odd, the uncanny, and the strange. We gather around scenes of violence and ecstasy, field-notebooks in hand, scribbling furiously. Academics peddle novelty. Without novelty, historical accounts blur into the monotonous progression of historical minutiae, just damn things following after other damn things, as the adage goes. Without novelty, anthropological accounts suffer the same fate. Everyday life, as beautiful as scholars such as Robert Orsi paint it, can be terribly dull.

There is good reason for the emphasis on the novel, of course. “Religion is not nice,” comments J. Z. Smith. “It has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” As the laboratory that is the study of “religious” tradition and innovation in North America attests, peoples are increasingly exposed to other peoples. At downtown famers’ markets or on public transportation, especially in urban centers or university towns, one can witness an eclectic blending of cultures only possible in a globalizing world. We are met, face to face, with difference. Often in American history, groups of people have responded to the novel in similar ways: physical violence. Discursive violence found in op-eds and political cartoon caricatures. Violence exacerbated by social, gender, economic, racial, cultural, and “religious” differences.

A certain form of violence also shrouds a frequent symbol of novelty in contemporary America: the serpent. In Appalachian Pentecostal snake handling rituals, participants—recalling what they interpret as biblical injunction—take up the slender, dangerous bodies of the reptiles as demonstrations of faith and dedication. As observers note, these are scenes of religio-social ecstasy and embodied performance. Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain forever changed the way I think about ethnographic research, although it provokes more questions than it answers. What’s the job of the scholar of religion? Where does ethnography end and journalism begin? Are the two any different? At what point does simply writing about interesting things cease and the fetishizing of those very things begin?

Smith provides some insight. He writes in his provocative essay, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” that scholars must make intelligible. Scholars can work toward this goal by elucidating mythologies, ideologies, soteriologies, and sociologies. We must extract from the data in front of us its exoticism; we must override its novelty. No “human datum [is] beyond the pale of reason and understanding,” Smith writes of Enlightenment thought, implying that such a modernist endeavor is the more worthy option to “the refusal of the academy” to engage in interpretation.

I’m still thinking about Seth Perry’s recent post, “Adiaphora,” in The Martin Marty Center’s Sightings blog. Perry insightfully reflects on journalistic accounts of snake handler Randall Wolford’s death by snake bite, concluding that “we are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it.” But I wonder if such a depiction ultimately reinforces novelty and perpetuates intelligibility? “Nothing human is foreign to me,” says Smith, but comments such as the above do little to make humanness ordinary or to reduce phenomena to “the known and the knowable.” “How do we react to a faith like Wolford’s?” Perry inquires, and in doing so we might miss the point, even though it’s there in his post: snake-handlers have Facebook pages. Snake-handlers are Americans. They have loved ones. Snake-handlers are human beings. Respect, lauding, empathy: these concepts seem to me irrelevant, or at best, redundant. Are they mute points? Understand the phenomenon, says Smith. Explain it. Make it human. Use whatever means possible to make it known and knowable.

The issue as I see it is that novelty becomes a protective buffer, a defensive screen, of sorts, by which academics put distance between themselves and the subject matter. I’m an ethnographer by method, so one might be able to guess my position when it comes to strategic distancing in terms of first-hand, on-the-ground, fieldwork. Ethnographic knowledge arises from some sort of (quasi-distanced) “participant observation,” yes, but it also derives through temporally developed relationships with one’s informants.  Continually haunted by Bourdieu’s On Television, I wonder if novelty-as-defensive-mechanism is nothing more than an advertising ploy or journalistic tactic. Our task, in Bourdieu’s words, is to “reveal that which is hidden.” Producing novelty does the opposite: it obscures. It hides.

Can we get beyond novelty in our scholarship? Should we? Or might novelty be effectively harnessed? Can novelty serve as a heuristic device, a generator of productive discussions in the classroom? (Is there an issue, for instance, with the ease at which the showing of a Benny Hinn YouTube clip, or the passing around of “weird,” Christian “kitsch” type objects results in engaged student reactions? Do classroom rituals such as these make those being studied knowable?) What are your thoughts?

Travis Cooper is a PhD student and associate instructor at Indiana University (Bloomington), in the departments of religious studies and anthropologyHis research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, embodiment, materiality, gender, media, critical ethnography, visual culture, and religious experience. Travis blogs informally about his academic work here. Find out more about his research and publications here.

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One Response to Serpents, Novelty, and Academic Fetish

  1. Rich Metzger says:

    you need to interact with Ralph Hood about this novelty. You wold get a very different perspective

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