Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Matt Sheedy

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by Matt Sheedy

A few days before the death of J.Z. Smith, on December 30, 2017, I was thinking about writing a follow-up post on the comparison between temperatures in parts of Canada and the U.S. with temperatures on Mars, which had resurfaced in the news media amidst the recent Arctic cold front.

Back in January 2014, I had been stuck by the ease with which media commentators had latched-on to this comparison and wrote about it here on the Bulletin blog, using Smith as my theoretical touch-point.

I began by drawing on Smith’s essay, “In Comparison Magic Dwells” (Imagining Religion 1982), where he recalls J.G. Frazer’s distinction between magic and science, noting how magic is classified as “a confusion of a subjective relationship with an objective one.” (21)

Smith then uses this example to talk about a similar error commonly found in the human sciences (including the study of religion), writing:

[C]omparison has been chiefly an affair of the recollection of similarity. The chief explanation for the significance of comparison has been contiguity. The procedure is homeopathic. The theory is built on contagion. The issue of difference has been all but forgotten (21).

With this idea in mind, I argued that drawing parallels between temperatures in parts of North America with temperatures on Mars was an example of comparison by contiguity, where apparent similarities were being used to explain complex phenomena, while ignoring important differences. The differences in this case were rather significant since comparable temperatures were only found on the surface of Mars in a few select areas, as measured by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Moreover, the surface temperature was markedly different than the air temperature, which, back in 2014, reached as low as minus 193f.

Of course the Mars comparison does work as a playful analogy (though perhaps hyperbole is a better term). As someone who traveled to Winnipeg and Toronto over the holidays, two cities gripped in a polar vortex, I get it. The problem arises when analogies like this one slip into common usage as though they are describing something that is conceptually meaningful. This, to paraphrase Smith, is mistaking a map for the territory.

Some examples of this slippage can be seen with the recent spate of Mars analogies in Canadian media (e.g., see this Vice News article, or this satirical piece from The Beaverton). A National Post article dated December 27, 2017, provided a more nuanced use of the comparison, although the title, “Mars and the North Pole are Warmer than Winnipeg,” reinforced the contiguity:

As Alberta was plunged into extreme cold warnings on Boxing Day, it was ironically the mountainous parts of the province that were its warmest. Banff and Jasper both escaped the “extreme cold” label by recording lows of only -19 C. This means that, for a few minutes, all of Alberta was about as cold as Mars’ Gale Crater, the home of the Curiosity rover. Mars is subject to pretty violent temperatures shifts, and Curiosity regularly encounters temperatures below -80 C. But this week, the highest temperature experienced by the rover were -23 C. A Calgary Boxing Day shopper, therefore, might have found themselves getting into a car that was literally colder than a Martian spacecraft. 

Despite the more nuanced description here, this comparison doesn’t do any conceptual work with these important distinctions, and simply falls back on this highly selective instance of similarity in order to claim a general correlation. One obvious problem here is that the comparison is being made to a planet that is inhospitable to human life (just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall) and thus cannot be tested as such. This parallels a familiar problem in the study of religion, where terms like ‘numinous,’ ‘the sacred,’ and ‘religious experience’ have been used as trans-historical and cross-cultural concepts, despite the fact that they lack any testable criteria.

For another thing, it has always been as cold as (the surface of) Mars somewhere on earth. We just never bothered to make the comparison until it began to effect large cities like Chicago in an age of social media, where the meme could easily spread.

Perhaps part of the reason for this meme’s return (at least in a Canadian context) is that it functions as a form of one-upmanship over those cites that can’t seem to hack the cold weather. In this sense, claiming that one’s city is as cold as Mars acts as a symbol of toughness and endurance (esp. when Canadians compare themselves to the US), or, in a Canadian context, of authenticity, where cities like Winnipeg and Edmonton can feel superior when comparatively warmer places like Toronto or Vancouver complain about the cold weather (our minus mercury is bigger than yours, type thing). But I digress.

Something I’ve learned from J.Z. Smith is to pay close attention to the kind of work that comparison does in either reinforcing similarities that tell us very little, or, conversely, in drawing our attention to important differences that can tell us a lot. The latter point is nicely illustrated in Smith’s essay “A Matter of Class,” (Relating Religion 2004), when he writes:

Classification, by bringing disparate phenomena together in the space of a scholar’s intellect, often produces surprise, the condition which calls forth efforts of explanation (175).

In calling forth efforts at explanation, the two or more things being compared are therefore less interesting for what they might share on the surface than for what new directions their differences may provoke, thus unsettling our normal ways of thinking. In one example, Smith illustrates this problem with the term “fundamentalism.” Pointing out its coinage in the 1920s to describe a particular type of Protestant Christianity and its relation to biblical criticism, he observes that “fundamentalism,” when used as a generic category, obscures the particularities of, for example, Islamic versus Christian variations–a distinction that can make all the difference in how we go about explaining things. As he writes in reference to certain “Islamic” varieties:

It would be better to classify these other ‘fundamentalisms’ as instances of ‘nativism’ or ‘revitalization’ movements, thus emphasizing, among other matters, their setting in colonial and postcolonial histories, a setting that is not present in Christian fundamentalism. (175)

One passage from Smith’s work that continues to stay with me, perhaps more than any other, is from his biographical essay “When the Chips Are Down,” where he describes his “early interest in botany and fascination with taxonomy …” (19). I can still remember the light bulb that went off in my head as Smith prodded me to think about religion in relation to biological classification, and the idea that variation—whether we’re talking about reptiles, mammals, Sikhs, Hindus, or Muslims—is all that we have. Noticing these variations, big or small, between seemingly similar groups, or by bringing together disparate examples to call forth a new type of explanation (see e.g., “Fences and Neighbours: Some Contours of Early Judaism”) showed me that the study of religion is a boundless field, limited only by our imagination.

Matt Sheedy (Ph.D) is currently Visiting Professor of North American Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and atheism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native American traditions in popular and political culture. He is currently working on a manuscript that provides a critical examination of Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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