Tag Archives: method and theory

The Elusive I

I’ve been thinking about academic writing and the absence of the I, the signifier of the first person. Some disciplines find the I useful as a method to that places you, the author in the text. The scholarship marked explicitly by your person, as if it could be any other way. Religious studies, however, is not entirely sure what to do with the I.

For some, relying on the first person becomes a marker of confessional identity, religious commitment, or activism. For others, like ethnographers of religion, the I is a necessary part of their practice. The scholar must be present because of the interactive relationship between you and subject. You must use the I to place yourself in conversation, events, and analysis. Sometimes, you need to note where you are and what you think. Often, this will require a shift to the first person.

My own training in American religious history seemed nervous about the I. For a long while, I was also nervous about what the use of I in my own scholarship and writing might mean.

My own journal articles (except for my article on evidence), my book (except for the introduction and afterword), book reviews, conference papers were all shorn of the author’s presence. I deleted (almost) every instance of the I.

In graduate school, advisors explained that “I think” “I feel” “I believe” weakened your arguments. This made you seem wishy-washy, ambivalent, or unconvincing. Make claims forcefully, they told me. Don’t qualify your analysis with I. Yet, I wanted to seem ambivalent because I was. I wanted to signal that this was my opinion, not a definitive statement about the subjects that I researched. I wanted less certainty, not more.

What I came to realize was that inserting your self into academic work made one’s work somehow lesser. Absent authors made bold arguments. Who needs visible qualification when you can stay hidden behind your evidence and arguments?

Graduate training eroded my presence in my scholarship. Not all of my courses sought to remove the I, but most massaged the personal pronoun away. The I slipped away in edits, revisions, and finished papers.

Our scholarship was not about us (but it always is). Objectivity was dead (except we played at it anyway). Subjectivity was an apparent flaw in the system; it couldn’t be avoided (but we tried to valiantly to eliminate it). Scholarship was about something bigger than us, perhaps nobler. It was a product of intellect, work, sources, and analysis, not bounded by the limits of our bodies and experiences (except it always was).

The I drifted away.

Even though I resented these unembodied approaches to scholarship, I acquiesced anyway. Sometimes, I still fought. I tried hard to include “I think/I feel/I argue” in early drafts of my dissertation. This was my perspective; I was fallible. Why couldn’t my prose reflect my own ambivalence, my tentative assertions, and my attempts to figure out things that might not have easy answers?

Yet, I removed the first person in draft after draft; the partialness of my scholarship smoothed away with a quick tap of the delete key. My claims and analysis appeared more assured than I ever really felt. The I was the bearer of my uncertainty, so I excised it. False sense of certainty took up residence in my work. My arguments appeared more and more convincing while I felt less convinced.

I faked certainty. I wished for doubt.

When I decided to take time away from academia, my writing transformed. The I exploded upon the page. I couldn’t contain my use of the first person. I, marked by the use of the I, appeared in every piece that I wrote speaking to doubt, heartbreak, pain, and ambivalence. Finally, I found a place in the text. I shuttered myself for too long, so now I reclaim my voice, my person, in each essay. What would my scholarship look like now? I’m not entirely sure.

What I now wonder (and fear) is that the removal of the first person in academic writing is an attempted removal of our selves from our scholarship. Editing out the I becomes a way to separate our selves from what we research, write, and analyze. Yet, what might we lose in this removal? How does the shift from first person to third person affect the way we write about our subjects and how we construct our scholarship? What happens if bold arguments can only occur with a shift away from the first person? Why don’t we want to mark our uncertainty and our ambivalence? Perhaps, we should start.


Ghostly Matters

image_miniWe need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there–Avery Gordon

On a whim, I reread portions of Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination last week. I picked it up because I need convincing and cajoling. I needed someone to inspire me about research, scholarship, and revolutionary possibility. This is the book is one of a handful of books that inspires me about the academic craft; there are many, many more that make me dislike the academic craft as a whole. But, Gordon is enchanting as she conjures enchantment, haunting, and loss, both historical and personal. We are all haunted, and she demonstrates why this matters. She makes me imagine what scholarship could be like if only we let ourselves experiment more and worry less. She makes me feel that my scholarship can be valuable to our world by changing the way we look at people, things, systems, institutions, and culture. Her helping “hand” makes me want to ignore disciplinary boundaries and expectations. She provides a guide to writing in ways that conjure the past but also the historical present beyond linear narratives and obsession with dates. She inspires me to be a different scholar than the one I was trained to be.

To say that I love Ghostly Matters is too simple of an explanation; it feels like a trite attempt to describe my affection that doesn’t hint at the depth of my emotion. This book forever changed the way I view the responsibilities, ethics, and the craft of scholars, and Gordon’s encouragement leads me to think that scholarship can be something more than what we seem to limit ourselves to, if only we can take up her radical challenge. Maybe we could offer our helping hands to others to reimagine what we do and why we do it.

Gordon’s tangled path is littered by absence, seething and demanding attention. Absence of knowledge, history, and evidence unsettles and discomforts, but more importantly, points to structural inequalities, terrible histories, and the consequences of the capitalist system. Ghosts appear and reappear. They stalk us. We are haunted by those who suddenly become visible. They are unfinished business. Ghosts reminds us of past injustices and the need for future reckoning. History is haunted; we are haunted. Haunting becomes unavoidable; it tells us something important. Gordon writes that haunting is:

a paradigmatic way in which life is more complicated than those of us who study it have usually granted. Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither premodern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it. This confrontation requires (or produces) a fundamental change in the way we know and make knowledge, in our mode of production (7).

“[L]ife is more complicated than those of us who study it have usually granted” is a sentiment that haunts me. This statement recognizes the sheer complexity of what we call life as well as the desire to fit the messiness of life into neat narratives that cleave away that what makes it the most fascinating. Life is more complicated than we have granted it and, possibly, too complex for us to easily explain (away).  What Gordon makes clear is that the common phrase “life is complicated” is not a banal, throwaway explanation provided when we have no clear answers, rather she notes that this phrase is “the most important theoretical statement of our time” (3). We often underestimate the analytical work of such a statement, which involves both power relations of particular times and places and “complex personhood.” Gordon catalogs power:

Power can be invisible, it can be fantastic, it can be dull and routine. It can be obvious, it can reach you by the baton of the police, it can speak the language of your thoughts and desires. It can feel like remote control, it can exhilarate like liberation, it can travel through time, and it can drown you in the present. It is dense and superficial, it can cause bodily injury, and it can harm you without seeming ever to touch you. It is systematic and it is particularistic and it is often both at the same time. It causes dreams to live and dreams to die (3).

How we account for power in both “systematic” and “particularistic” becomes crucial to our renderings of life. Complex personhood is the other key component to Gordon’s focus on life is complicated, which attempts to understand the ambivalence of human agency. Humans are equally as messy as the thing we call life. Complex personhood “means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others” (4). More importantly,

Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward….Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning (4-5).

Complex personhood makes me hesitant as a scholar to proclaim that I can know exactly what the people I write about want, dream, desire, imagine, or claim. My claims, at best, can be provisional. I can guess, but I can’t know. It suggests that straightfoward is only a part of an explanation that cannot fully provide what we know about individuals or their lives. Subtle meanings abound, and they are more elusive.

Complex personhood reemphasizes both the tentativeness of what we can learn and write about another. They are opaque, even we think they are transparent. Transparency, the straightforward, is only one dimension to personhood, and we can never forget that.  Complex personhood forefronts narrative and imagination, institutions and power, labels and lack of labels, and knowledge and feeling. Gordon encourages respectful engagement with those we study and cautions against easy interpretations. Gordon’s discussion of complex personhood signals the ambiguity of people and life. Her approach feels tentative and ethical. It abandons the folly of certitude and reduction for the ambiguous and the absent. I love it. Ghostly Matters makes me want to be a better scholar and person, and there aren’t many books that accomplish this feat.


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.