What the Foucault (Do We Know)?: FSU Grad Symposium Redux

I can never look this cool. Bummer.

As I am still recovering from a whirlwind weekend at Florida State University’s Tenth Annual Graduate Symposium, I wanted to note how much I enjoyed my time this weekend and what a boon this conference is to religious studies graduate students. What you all should know from the outset is that I am not a neutral observer. I love this conference, and Mike Pasquier and I even organized it long, long ago. (Hat tip to our own contributor Emily Clark was the organizational guru this year).

Now, I did not attend every panel nor did I attempt to, so I encourage readers and participants who attended other panels to send their reflections along. What I was able to do was to talk to graduate students of alma mater and other institutions about their own work and mine as well. The paper presenters swung for the fences, and I enjoyed their energy, evidence, and historiographical strategies. Grads in American religious history presented on papers ranging from Emily Post to Christian manhood to the Holy Land Experience to body studies to Burning Man to border saints to the problems of “lived religion” to beards and shaving. The brilliance of this symposium is that it allows a welcoming and encouraging environment for grads to present their work with feedback from the likes of John Corrigan, Amy Koehlinger, Amanda Porterfield, Kathryn Lofton, and Sylvester Johnson to name only the Americanists. (Any graduate student in religious studies writ large should plan to go next year.)

The keynote with the best title ever was “What the Foucault Do We Do Now?” with Matthew Day, Sylvester Johnson, Matthew Kapstein and Katie Lofton interrogated the place of power in the study of religion, the institution of the academy, and the genealogy of religious studies. The panel paired scholars of ranging interests from methods and theory to Buddhism to American religious history and posed the question of how power (read Foucault) functions both for our subjects of study but also for our positions as scholars. For the interest of RIAH readers, Day, Johnson and Lofton proved to engage exactly what is at stake in religious studies from very different positions. Johnson prodded the strange bifurcation between the academy and the “real” world, and he argued compellingly that just because the origins of religious studies are bound to colonial endeavor does not mean we (religious studies scholars) should burden ourselves solely with origins. Instead, our knowledge and expertise applies to the “real” world because the academy, despite various attempts, is still bound to our contemporary moments. We are experts, we have power, and we should use it.

Lofton employed IBM advertisements to discuss the merger of power and subjectivity. She suggested that these particular ads did not uplift individuals but rather created a powerless collective at the whim of power grids, bad traffic, and other mundane problems of contemporary life. Each of us faces the similar hum drum, and the ads questioned our agency even in how companies market products not to me or you, but some amorphous us. From ads to religion, Lofton noted that perhaps religion is best understood as repository in which things, ideas, and brands collect. My sense was that religion was archive, hodge podge, even bricolage in this analogy. To understand religion is to understand the pile-up.

In my assessment, Day’s contribution offered the opposite of Lofton–religion as empty. Day was troubled by the category of religion, the discipline of religious studies. Building upon Bruce Lincoln and Russell McCutcheon, Day argued that religious studies scholars don’t problematize religion, so that as a category religion is valueless because of its infinitude. He asked can it be art or sports? Moreover, he wants religious studies scholars to question the reliance upon “experience” as a measure of religion. What does it mean? Or more importantly, what is at stake when we gesture to experience? Day’s critique suggested a need for a critical edge about what is religion and what we study when we assert religion as our subject matter. Moreover, does the gesture to experience limit our subject matter?

During Q&A, I asked Lofton and Day to compare their stances about religion as repository or as empty. What is at stake in empty or full? Their answers are theirs, but I couldn’t help but wonder what my own assessment of this was. Part of me wants to claim the middle path of “can’t it be both?”, but that is terribly unsatisfying. The power of religion as a category is what is at stake in their assertions, and I wonder how often religious studies scholars interrogate what exactly religion is in our own work. Is it empty or full? Is it value-free or value-filled? Do we craft our own categories of religion as experience, belief, practice, etc? Do we use the categories of those we study? In my own work, I confront the strange yet different assumptions about “good religion”(read helpful and therapeutic) versus “bad religion” (read harmful or malicious) because I work on the “bad.” The commentary usually moves something like “bad religion” is not religion at all. What is religion becomes, then, essential to how to approach the Klan, the hate movement, or even my newer fascination with apocalypticism. How I make the case that this is actually religious becomes significant. I point to the pile-up: theology, ritual, practice, and belief that all show the Protestant nature of the Klan. Yet, I could also point to the emptiness (malleability) of Protestant as a label, of religion as a construct, yet I don’t. I could though. Empty or full?

Graduate students, if these kinds of questions are interesting to you, plan on attending next year’s symposium at FSU. If they aren’t, plan on attending or presenting anyway because you can’t beat the encouraging environment, the weather, or the chance to ask, “What the Foucault do we do now?”

[Cross-posted at http://usreligion.blogspot.com]


What Would Oprah Do?

In the film, Monsters vs. Aliens, a delightful riff on alien encounter of movies of the 1950s, aliens appear, they aren’t nice, and the clueless U.S. government headed by an equally clueless President (Stephen Colbert) attempts to find a ready solution to the alien menace. As the staffer, generals, and advisors make rapid fire suggestions, one staffer proclaims: “It is at times like these that I wonder: What would Oprah do?” In the face of disaster, Oprah becomes the go-to guru of not only self-empowerment but also national salvation. What would Oprah do, indeed?

In her new book, Kathryn Lofton engages not only what Oprah does but what she is. The Immanent Frame posted an interview with  Lofton about Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011). While I will blog about the book later (I need to crack the packaging), the interview gets to what is at stake in the study of Oprah, her show, her brand, her influence for American religious history.

Here’s my favorite snippet of the interview:

NS: What is it about how American religious history is studied now that has left Oprah not well-enough understood?

KL: I would say that the “how” of what we study is less problematic than the way we cordon our topics, which is very much an inheritance of our role as seminary church historians. I want to see more books written about objects that seem unlikely for religious studies,such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas. Moreover, I think our disposition toward our subjects is often too tender for our own good. If, on the one side, we’ve been formed by our seminarian genealogies, on the other, we inherit an abused mentality, one that flinches constantly at the possibility that elsewhere in the humanist ranks we’re being mocked for proximity to the religious subject. And so we appear, I think, often too defensive of our topics, believing they need caretaking before exposure to the imagined Marxist menace. So, if there is a critical edge to the book, it is to goad us to be less worried about explaining our subjects to their cultured despisers, and instead to pursue the mediations of their belief systems, the multiple functions of their ritual reiterations, and the social systems to which they reply and in which they participate. (Emphasis mine)

This question of what *counts* as evidence for American religious history as what, perhaps, does not is a crucial one that I have struggled continually with in my work. What *counts* as American religious history? The interview with Lofton compounded questions that have plagued me for weeks about how to understand the role of popular culture, consumption, and “secular” millennialism in the context and essential to how we talk about Americans, religion and practice. What evidence if cordoned? What evidence do we despise? What evidence receives a free pass? What would Oprah do?

Oprah, by Lofton’s standards, problematizes the work of American religious historians by injecting pop culture as a necessity to the larger vision of Americans and their religiosities. My particular interests are those “objects that seem unlikely for religious studies, such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas.” My first post on this new blog was on zombies and consumption, and obviously, zombies might not fit nicely or neatly into the canon (academic not weaponry). Lofton’s interview suggests that there is also something clearly at stake in how we define something as religion and someones as the religious. (Moreover, there is something crucially important about the academic subjects we treat “tenderly” and those who do not merit such generosity.)

Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters takes us a similar call of addressing what Americans are devoted to, and according to this excellent book, Americans find sex, celebrity, science, music, and guns sacred. In December of 2010, Laderman reflected on what we believed: war, money, sexual boundaries and the natural world to name only a few. Laderman, like Lofton, pushes the boundaries of what is religion and makes us consider what tropes, narratives and themes we deploy to construct stories of the religious lives of Americans. The question becomes not so much what would Oprah or zombies do, but what does their study show? How might we use popular culture to craft stories and as historical evidence?

All of this preliminary posturing is a way for me to say that Lofton’s book is now at the top of my reading list, and I can’t wait to see what Oprah can do for American religious history.

Zombies, Millennialism and Consumption

While perusing facebook yesterday, I happened upon a friend’s event, entitled “Zombie Apocalypse.” The end via shambling, brain-eating zombies is scheduled for December, 22, 2012, so please mark your calendars. It seems that the zombie apocalypse follows very closely behind the Mayan calendar’s end on December 21 of the same year (unless you believe new estimates.) What was striking to me was not that such an event existed, since facebook is a world of random events, fandom, and strange pages, but rather the number of people attending said event. According to the event page this morning, 521, 035 people are attending, 80, 798 are maybe attending, and 289, 558 have politely declined their invitation to a gun-toting, gore-filled end. While some might still be shilling for the Mayan apocalypsis, zombies appear to be the vogue way for the world to end.

Zombies have become a sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre staple. From the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead to Romero’s zombies and their legacies in film to Max Brooks’s franchise of World War Z and the survival guide to various anthologies (The Living Dead I and II, Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and my personal favorite Zombies vs. Unicorns), the zombie apocalypse is a cottage industry. While I could reflect on what the zombie apocalypse teaches us about (in)human nature, gore, or the necessity of high power weaponry, I think the more pressing and interesting point for scholars of American religion and popular culture is the pervasiveness of this genre and the continued presence of catastrophic millennialism in American popular culture.

Michael Barkun discusses the “pervasive millennialism” of American culture in which end times theologies and scenarios are popular and consumable. Pervasive millennialism works because of the commodification of these ideas. Do you need to be briefed in the Mayan calendar? Buy this book or dvd. Need to survive zombies on the front step? Please purchase one of the many survival guides, necessary hardware, and stock up with food. Need to ride out the looming end (of any variety)? Please buy your rations for a year at Costco. Want to know how the world looks post-Rapture? Purchase the Left Behind series. Perhaps, one wants to survive post-apocalypse? Download various films via Netflix, read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or maybe not, or pick up any number of young adult fiction titles from Carrie Ryan (zombies) to Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games trilogy), pick up survivalist gear and stock up food. We can consume the end and all its possible varieties. What is clear from the proliferation of end times products is the hope and fervor that the right products can save us. Read, watch, stock and prepare.

In her excellent book, Tourists of History (2007), Marita Sturken argues that cultures of fear and paranoia bolster “consumer practices of security and comfort” (5). This “comfort culture” allows Americans to purchase goods that supposedly might protect us, and this “culture of comfort functions as a form of depolitization and as a means to confront loss, grief and fear through processes that disavow politics”(6). We consume supplies to comfort ourselves in the face of global war, domestic politics and personal strife. Moreover, Sturken claims that often Americans seek to be “tourists of history” who remain distant to the sites they visit, where they are often defined as innocent outsiders, mere observers whose actions are believed to have no effect on what they see” (10). As I read Sturken’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe apocalyptic consumption functions as a “culture of comfort.” Purchasing survival guides or survivalist training, reading books, watching films that direct us how to kill zombies, purchasing a year’s worth of food can all provide comfort. Americans are often “tourists” of the apocalypse.

Apocalyptic thinking is rife with paranoia, conspiracy and fear, and the genre of apocalyptic tales is as well. Consuming (products of) the end provides comfort that the end is not quite here but could be. Products can “save” us. The comment sections of the “Zombie Apocalypse” event page makes this obvious: what weapons, cars, tools, etc. might you need. Folks discussing the merits of a Louisville slugger over various guns or axes or other household objects. Part of my interest is the question of what does this mean about not only apocalyptic thinking but also about more secular visions of millennialism? What is at stake if we are “tourists” of the end? Why does consumerism go hand-in-hand with visions of catastrophe and the undead?

It is at this point that I wish Katie Lofton’s book on Oprah was on the shelves. Now granted, I imagine Oprah doesn’t have much to save about zombies but I bet Lofton has much to say about how products can save and how consumerism can become religious practice and devotion. Moreover, if half a million people are excited about the prospect of taking down zombies, then what is at stake in the consumption of this particular end? Why is the zombie apocalypse comforting? And why am I more and more convinced that apocalypticism functions as a comfortable rhetorical and imaginary space? If the apocalypse provides comfort, products can save us, then how might we understand the role of popular culture in the study of American religion?

[Cross posted at Religion in American History]