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.

 

On graduate school orientation

A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.

On graduate school orientation

You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.

This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.

Just breathe and listen.

I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.

I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. I know one guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite. Continue reading On graduate school orientation

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.

 

Review Redux: Gospel According to the Klan

Available at booksellers everywhere, pretty much :)

Well, folks, believe it or not, Gospel According to the Klan has now been out for three months, and slowly, the book is getting some reviews mostly online and at some news outlets. They are mostly good, (and sometimes they are tough). Additionally, I am still getting used the prospect of people reading (and buying) my book. So, here’s what folks are saying:

Michael J. Altman, Remembering When the Klan Tried to March Through Town:

That said, Baker’s book is an extremely important work. Her analyses of gender, nationalism, and material culture are strong and useful for anyone looking for a model. Furthermore, her use of the periodical literature and analysis of  representation and rhetoric offers me a model for my own work with representations of Hindus and Protestants in my sources. The chapters hold their own as individual readings and can be put to use in a number of undergraduate courses while the book as a whole ought to be a part of any seminar on race or nationalism and religion.

Just take the dust jacket off if you read it on an airplane–I discovered that the hard way.

(I feel like that line should be attached to all promotional materials. I included an image of the cover as a quick reminder of why that might be the case.)

Ina Hughs, Two New Books Offer Peak Behind the Klan’s Sheets, Knoxville News Sentinel

From Baker’s perspective, the Klan has a convoluted and somewhat misunderstood past. She puts a lot of focus on the religious implications of its history and the role religion plays in nationalism.

Kevin Boyle, The Not-So-Invisible Empire, New York Times

At the end of the book, though, Baker steps back from her texts. Suddenly her analysis becomes more pointed. Yes, the Klan had a very short life. But it has to be understood, she contends, as of a piece with other moments of fevered religious nationalism, from the anti-Catholic riots of the antebellum era to modern anti-­Islam bigots. Indeed, earlier this year, Herman Cain declared that he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet. It’s tempting to see those moments as Pegram does the Klan: desperate, even pitiful attempts to stop the inevitable broadening of American society. But Baker seems closer to the mark when she says that there’s a dark strain of bigotry and exclusion running through the national experience. Sometimes it seems to weaken. And sometimes it spreads, as anyone who reads today’s papers knows, fed by our fears and our hatreds.

Kenny Paul Smith, A Brave New Book, Religion Nerd:

I have called Gospel According to the Klan a brave new book. This is so for two important reasons. Firstly, Baker has exposed something about American cultural history that many of us may not wish to see: namely, that both religion and mainstream society participate in the ugly, even violent, side of American nationalism….Secondly, Baker has also exposed something unpleasant about the rest of us, those who do not concur or sympathize with Terry Jones and feel repulsed by exclusionary religious nationalism (Christian or otherwise): namely, that we have a tendency towards forgetfulness, and towards imagining American history and the American mainstream in ways that reflect our own preferences.

Not too bad so far, I think. I’ll post other reviews and commentary as they become available. Please feel free to post or send any feedback on Gospel directly to me. I would love to hear what other readers think, feel, like, hate, etc. about the book.

 

Reading Roundup for RiAH

Here’s what I posted today at the Religion in American History blog:

Wednesday Round Up: Must Read Edition

While Paul is away, the blog will go on (and on) with a new series on religion and masculinity (see Charity’s first post here) and the long overdue return of the Gender and the American Religious Historian series. We have to keep all you readers busy, so y’all breathe a deep sigh of relief when Paul returns. Anyone, contributor or guest poster, who would like to submit posts to either the masculinity or the gender series, please send it along to kellyjbaker (at) gmail (dot) com. The more the merrier!

Happy Wednesday everybody! Here are some must-reads for the middle of the week.

First, the Center for the Study of Religion & American culture posted the proceedings from the second biennial conference. The proceedings from the 2009 meeting are also available. RiAH bloggers provided our thoughts on the conference (Elesha’s here and here, Janine’s here, Paul’s here and mine), and now, the excellent papers are available to all of you who missed the lively conference.

Second, check out our own John Fea‘s “Can the Study of History Heal the Culture Wars?” at Patheos. Here’s a snippet:
…I could not help but wonder if the thing that ails us most is not our failure to engage in activism, but our failure to understand and empathize with those with whom we might disagree. Perhaps our failure to bringing reconciliation and healing to our divided culture is, at its core, a failure of liberal learning, particularly as it relates to the study of history. Christians and secularists can team up in social justice projects, and Barack Obama can give stirring speeches about ending the Red State-Blue State divide, but until the American people develop the discipline of listening to one another, we will remain stalled in our attempts at reconciliation.

Third, Craig Martin interviews Manuel A. Vásquez about his More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford 2010), which I will be reviewing a bit later for the blog. Martin describes Vásquez’s project in these terms:

More than Belief is very much a “theory” book, as it provides a comprehensive introduction to modern and postmodern theories (feminist, anthropological, sociological, philosophical, psychological, neuroscientific, etc.) relevant to the study of that thing we call “religion.” Along the way Vásquez criticizes each theory considered, selects the best elements of each that he finds worth saving, and synthesizes the useful remainders into his own general theory of religion. What was astonishing to me about the book was the scope: Vásquez moves from the mind/body problem in Plato and Descartes to the rejection of dualism by Spinoza and Nietzsche, to the origins of phenomenology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to social constructionism in Foucault and Butler, to Deleuze and Haraway, to cognitive science of religion, and so forth (this list includes highlights from only the first half of the book—I wasn’t joking when I said “comprehensive”!). Vásquez ends up arriving at a naturalist but non-reductive materialist theory that emphasizes embodiment, practice, and global social networks.

And here’s Vásquez on the role of theory in the study of religion:

Today, I am far more skeptical that theory can solve all social problems. Although some of my Jesuit teachers were killed by the military during the Salvadoran civil war precisely because of their ideas, I am keenly aware that there is always a painful gap between theory and practice (even when theorizing is a form of practice). Moreover, I do not see the theorist as some sort of Sartrean emancipatory hero, always choosing freedom over bad faith. As Bourdieu tells us, being an authoritative theorist requires a habitus, a habitus that is formed by one’s privileged trajectory in the fields of knowledge production. Still, I do theory as a critical engagement with particular problems or impasses. I agree with Foucault that theory should be driven by a “limit-attitude,” a situated “permanent critique of ourselves.” It should grow out of “our impatience for liberty.” As such, theory should be a passionate endeavor “oriented toward the ‘contemporary limits of the necessary,’ that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” This normative stance, which implies that theory should be useful not just in academia, but, to the extent possible, to our being-in-the-world, is a corollary of a materialist epistemology that stresses immanent becoming.

For more the rest of Martin and Vásquez’s conversation, parts one and two are available.