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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]