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Posts Tagged ‘power’

Not a “real” academic

This post is inspired by Rebecca Schuman’s post from a couple days ago. Go read it now. Also, check out the #NotARealAcademic on Twitter to see what other folks are saying.

A few years ago, I was at a graduate conference presenting on a panel on post-graduate life. I was the “part-time” panelist, the one who had not secured the vaunted tenure-track job but was adjuncting at a big state university. When I wasn’t teaching, I was in charge of my toddler. On the drive to and from the university, I dreamed of seeking some sort of balance between home life and career. As I drove back and forth, I mulled my life decisions. I agonized over my choices, but I realized that I wouldn’t have made different ones. More importantly, I couldn’t imagine putting my career before my partner and child, and I still can’t. That’s my decision, and it will always be my most important one.

Perhaps, I was not the best panelist to discuss the life of the post-grad.  I pretty much lacked sleep because of my anxiety about doing everything wrong, work, life, and especially motherhood.  Doubt was a constant companion, but so was naïve hope about the job market. I was waiting for my moment when all of the trauma would be washed away by THE JOB that tenure-track position that I had been trained for. Sure, the job market turned south, but surely, I could find a job, right? My book was coming out, and I had several articles coming soon. My advisor suggested that I was a strong candidate, and my CV made me a contender. My mantra was just a little more time and things will work out. Things work out for others, so why not for me? I still had hope at this point (I don’t any longer).


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.


Blogging, Motherhood, Essentialism (Historiann style)

This cowgirl is for you, Historiann!

Historiann has an excellent post up about her refusal to adopt parent or non-parent status as a blogger. The comments section are worth a look for all of you who affiliate or don’t with parental status. Here’s a brief excerpt:

For the most part, this is because I blog with my professional identity up front, not my personal life or reproductive history: in other words, I blog as Historiann, not Mommyann or Not-mommyann. I’m qualified to write about history and politics because of my training and expertise in American history, whereas I don’t think that motherhood alone (if it pertains to me) would qualify me to write about anything other than my personal experiences as a mother. As a good feminist historian, I don’t believe that there’s anything essential, unifying, or eternal about the experience of motherhood. But, this refusal to identify myself either as a mother or a nonmother has also raised questions of authority. This becomes apparent when commenters disagree with me [when I write about motherhood from my perspective as an American women’s historian]—they sometimes assume that I’m not a mother, and therefore question my authority to write about issues pertaining to maternity. I had thought that essentialism went out of style in feminism more than twenty years ago—but the blogosphere makes it apparent that essentialism about maternity endures, even among women in the academy.

Authority as maternity is an important concept, and I think her larger point is about how this essentialism means that women becomes coded primarily as “mothers” or “mommies” in opposition to their academic agendas. Yes, women use maternity as will to power as well, but as a junior scholar, the question for me is more how does motherhood *mark* me  or *not* as a scholar. (For instance, I once had a colleague a while ago tell a student that “I was just a mommy” as opposed to scholar, writer, lecturer, budding fashionista, etc.) Gender matters, and so does the construction of supposed parenthood. What strikes me about Historiann’s post is how the label functions particularly for women to somehow suggest that we aren’t serious, dedicated, or scholarly as our male counterparts, in spite of their status as parent or non-parent. Perhaps, her strategic move is the best one: keep them guessing. I fear that I am too obvious, too easy to pigeon hole.

A couple of weeks ago, I typed up a post about my own struggle with how to parent, to write, to research, and to teach (not to mention how to stay sane), but I didn’t post it. This occurred partially because it would mean reflecting personally on my academic blog, but also because I wasn’t sure how this might appear to potential employers, collaborators, or anyone else if they happened upon this blog. Yes, maternity can function as will to power, a claim of authority over women, but  as Historiann notes, it is also as weighty tool to wield against women as well. Essential claims about motherhood signal all we need to know about a woman is parent or not.

So, now, I post Historiann’s excellent run-down of the situation, and perhaps, I’ll add my own contribution soon (or not).

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]