In this series with the Bulletin–whose title is a play on Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment, and whose alternate title is “Religious Studies Blogs: What do they talk about? Do they talk about things? Let’s find out!” (from BoJack Horseman)–we ask blog authors/curators to tell us a bit about their blogs’ history, relationship to other blogs in the blogosphere, and typical focus. Other posts in this series can be found here.
BSOR: Can you tell us a little something about the history of this blog?
Finbarr Curtis: In the summer of 2013, I sent an email to a few friends inquiring if anyone was interested in starting a group blog about whatever. Some of the initial possible titles I threw out were: “Whatever: A Blog about Human Beings, Maybe,” “Leviathan: A Blog for Freaking Out,” or “Leviathan: A Blog Hovering above Cartesian Vortices.” A lot of us like Moby Dick.
Around the same time, I read an amazing review of The Taco Bell Waffle Taco and I thought: This is fantastic. I want to write cool stuff about spectacularly disgusting fast food. So I came up with the idea of a blog about “Big Things.” I never got to realize my dream of writing about fast food as I had a middle-aged reality check when I learned I had slightly elevated cholesterol levels and have been avoiding grease. So the blog has relapsed into politics and religion and academia. I have also tended to be the predominant poster apart from Kerry Mitchell’s three posts and one by Cotton Mather.
On a practical note: when I began the blog I had just moved to Georgia Southern to begin my first tenure-track job after 8 exhausting years on the job market. So I guess I had a different motivation from a lot of current grad student bloggers as I was not thinking of anything like public exposure or career considerations. This could say something about my old age and lack of media savvy. It was only after I got a job that I had some time to write about other things. As a contingent faculty member, I felt like everything I wrote had to be for publication. I contributed a few posts to the Immanent Frame, but they were academic discourse on the web. One of the characteristics of the contingent faculty life is that your writing load is essentially infinite. You can always be doing more work. The transition to tenure-track meant that I now had finite expectations for publication and I felt like I could meet those. So this freed up time for photoshopping politicians’ heads onto monsters.
What are some of the more common themes this blog takes up?
Whatever. Often stuff in the news or in other sectors of the blogosphere. In this way the original vision of a blog about whatever lives on. Because politics, religion, and higher education are often in my consciousness these themes end up in the blog posts, but this is not by any editorial design. One of my favorite pieces is Kerry’s photo essay on self-storage and, in a way, this was closest to the blog’s original intent. Of course, now a big theme is Trump. Trump is destroying our politics, our writing, and our minds, and Leviathan and You has been ahead of the curve on this. Kerry has an excellent piece on Trump and simulacra. My Trump posts are my worst posts and I feel nauseous when I write them but I cannot help myself.
What do you think are some of the advantages of scholars blogging about religion?
I guess Leviathan and You might not technically be a religion blog. It’s more like a blog about whatever written by people who study religion. For that matter, I guess it might not technically be a blog at all in that it doesn’t really come out with any regularity. For the most part, the posts are not hot takes as much as they are lukewarm takes. They tend to come out a few days after most people have lost interest in whatever big thing everyone was writing about, but this is because my mind works a lot more slowly than the news cycle.
That being said, the biggest advantages of blogging are the ability to experiment with genre as well as the ability to reach a slightly larger audience. Stylistically, I try to write things that are readable beyond the academic world. I do not know if I always succeed in this but I try. I think it is weird when academics object to academic theory in academic writing, but I think that avoiding scholarly citations makes sense for blogs sometimes. So while there are occasional mentions of critical theorists, these are kept to a minimum and are explained. While I try to translate some of the conceptual analysis I do in my disciplined scholarship into more accessible language, I think there is a big difference between translating theory for a broader audience and offering untheorized analyses because you don’t like complicated ideas. So while Leviathan and You might sometimes reach a broader audience, it could written only by people who have read a lot of dense social theory.
While the audience for Leviathan and You is not nearly as big as most blogs and depends on the random vagaries of social media, it is probably a bit bigger than the audience for my scholarly work. I have mixed feelings about this. The most widely circulated post on the blog was a silly commentary on advice for those entering the wretched, soul-killing, trash-heap of a thing we call the academic job market. This has received over 5000 hits and this says something about how much academics love to hate on academia. A few other pieces that have over a thousand hits. I’m sure many of these are repeat visitors and bots so that doesn’t mean a thousand people have read these, but it might mean the audience is bigger than usual.
The downside is how ephemeral posts are. Almost all of the interest comes within a day or two of posting and then it is old news. This might say ominous things about our attention span? I also worry that the ephemeral nature of blogging encourages people to write too much. As academics, our job is to take time to think about things in a world full of visceral reactions, and it is not like anyone is running out of things to read. It might be okay if we have more cold takes.
How do you see Leviathan and You in relation to other academic oriented blogs that deal with questions relating to religion?
Our graphics pretty much blow everyone else’s graphics out of the water. Other than that, Leviathan and You is more amateurish and insane than more professional academic blogs like Immanent Frame and Religion in American History. Because there is no editorial direction or planning or anything like that, it is a space to throw out ideas rather than advance any coherently organized agenda. Within the study of religion, the wide-ranging treatment of different subjects might make it a much smaller version of the University of Alabama’s blogging empire. I began Leviathan and You after finishing a two-year stint at Alabama and so that influenced my thinking about new forms of media.
What kinds of methods and theories do you focus on? Do you have any preferences, requirements, or exceptions to how ‘religion’ can or should be approached?
Leviathan and You has no real focus. It is a place to play, experiment, and improvise. So there is no real discipline. This approach is different from the scholarly work I write, although the blog is deeply informed by the kind of disciplined work I do. So I guess my answer is whatever.