Notes from Florida State University’s Graduate Symposium


by Jeffrey Wheatley

Florida State University’s Department of Religion is celebrating its 50th anniversary this academic year and hosted an appropriately lively graduate student symposium—its 15th!—to go along with it. This year the conference theme was Religion // Culture, which promised and delivered a variety of intriguing papers. Although I cannot begin to capture all of the great conversations held at such a large graduate student conference, I can highlight some themes and questions. I mean questions beyond “what do the two slashes in the symposium theme mean?” (unclear); “is there any PBR left?” (yes); and “is symposium director Andy McKee allowed to give a talk like this on GG Allin?” (dubious), although these questions were prevalent as well…

A number of Americanist scholars descended on Tallahassee and helped set the tone. Dr. Kathryn Lofton gave a talk entitled The Status of Celebrity in the Study of Religion, which was one of her typically provocative, passionate, and entertaining keynotes. Lofton talked about the iconographic nature of celebrities—how their status as a celebrity necessitates the abstraction of their material human existence through the flows of circulation that makes celebrity possible in the first place, and also makes celebrity personages subject to the broader population’s desires. I cannot possibly capture all the topics touched on, but Lofton focused her discussion on Billy Graham, especially as represented by Grant Wacker. How, she asked, did Graham become “America’s Pastor”? Part of the answer, she claims, rests in Graham’s role, through his good looks and never-ending confidence, in making comfortable the pleasures of whiteness during the “American Century,” which Lofton emphatically insisted is over. The problems of celebrity culture, she reminds us, are not foreign to the study of religion. Within such an environment of pervasive mediation, de-humanization, and surveillance, “mistakes are forever,” she told the packed auditorium.

A roundtable with Drs. Sarah Dees, Richard J. Callahan, Finbarr Curtis, John Modern, and Lofton explored the relationship between the study of religion and neoliberalism, bringing into question whether the latter’s expansive and suggestive use throughout the symposium (and more broadly) was an analytical problem or exactly the source of the term’s value. Taken together, the keynote and roundtable emphasized the pervasive forms of cultural mediation (e.g., the commodification and circulation that defines celebrity culture) that sustain and are sustained by American capitalism. Both events also highlighted the need to identify the study of religion’s role within such a cultural and economic environment.

The graduate student papers I saw resembled the faculty contributions to the symposium in how they combined fascinating source material with critical and theoretical insights. The full program is available here. Affect, sincerity, World Religions paradigm, passion, neoliberalism, tradition, enchantment, and commodification—these popular phrases are scribbled in the margins of my notes, often accompanied with fleets of question marks. The usefulness and necessity of these vocabularies was evident even as the limitations always quickly came up in the Q&As.

I was struck by the number of presentations looking at the relationship between religion, culture, and capitalism. Timothy Rainey III revisited Booker T. Washington’s advocacy for black capitalism to question the value of the accommodation/resistance binary that many other scholars have used to assess Washington. L. Benjamin Rolsky examined the neoliberal economics driving the hip hop industry today. Kali Feels looked at neoliberalism and how missionaries conceive of their work. Dan Roeber situated the promise of Disney’s enchantments within Charles Taylor’s account of a secular age. Andrew Meland used the concept of “spirit of capitalism” to understand incarceration.

A panel on “Credulity, Belief, and Curious Things” was especially strong. Charles McCrary asked, “what does the sincerity test test?” Megan Leverage looked at how the Latter Day Saints have lately publicized Joseph Smith’s seer stones in order to provide an explanation of the relationship between materiality and textuality in Mormonism today. Joshua Urich situated P.T. Barnum’s attractions within the broader development of American skepticism. Michael Graziano provided a lively analysis of how the CIA used religion during the Cold War. It was great to see panels like this one at a graduate student conference that had enough common ground for an actual conversation to start.

With the symposium still fresh in my mind, I want to conclude by noting that this brief account of the symposium lends itself to a type of abstraction. I give names. I gesture to claims. But the vibrant reception discussions and intimate socialities I experienced at Florida State’s graduate symposium are not conveyable in any meaningful way through a blog post, or at least not this one. These moments that I cannot exactly convey here are exactly what academic fields like the study of religion need.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a doctoral student in American Religions at Northwestern University. Jeff holds an MA from Florida State University. He is primarily interested in studying religion alongside politics, race, and imperialism. His current project explores the dynamics of race and religion within US colonial governance of the Philippines. Other research areas include secularism, capitalism, theory and method, and US Catholic history. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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