Theory & Religion Series: Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow

1000x1000
by Travis Cooper

Paul Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (1977) was a game changer. As a novice anthropologist of religion, picking my way slowly through the history of American anthropology—and conducting fieldwork at the same time—encountering Rabinow was nothing less than an emancipating experience. The book extended my critical aptitudes and altered the way I think about (and do) fieldwork.

Reflections was, in its day, quite controversial. Rabinow’s advisor, Clifford Geertz, cautioned against publishing. And Pierre Bourdieu, who contributed the afterword to the 2007 edition, expressed some ambivalence (xv-xvi). Rabinow himself calls it “a studied condensation of a swirl of people, places, and feelings” that might have been “half as long, or twice as long, or ten times as long” (6). Suffice it to say, the book is difficult to classify. It has a literary texture to it and reads like mixture of travelogue, diary, theory of ethnography, and critique of anthropology.

Reflections is worth reading if only for the ethnographically rich, novel-like details of the anthropologist’s relations with informants. Rabinow’s accounts, after all, involve adventure, social awkwardness, sexuality, and religious and political conflict. The book’s greatest value, however, are the concise musings on ethnographic method and cultural theory (i.e., the reflections in Reflections).

I’d recommend the book for use in religious studies classes, especially courses geared toward or framed with method and theory. Undergraduates will appreciate Rabinow’s narrative prose and scandalous content; advanced graduate students will value his consistent methodological considerations.

Ultimately, Reflections underscores a number of (now) axiomatic themes in the academy and accomplishes several important tasks.

(1) Rabinow demystifies fieldwork. “Fieldwork is a dialectic between reflection and [ethnographic] immediacy,” Rabinow writes. “Both are cultural constructs” (38). The book is one of the first serious accounts on the doing and entailing of the ethnographic method.

(2) Rabinow deconstructs “the field” and expands the ethnographer’s purview. Fieldwork, he argues, is tantamount to an anthropological rite-of-passage. “At the risk of violating the [anthropologist’s] clan taboos,” he provokes, “I argue that all cultural activity is experiential, [and] that fieldwork is a distinctive type of cultural activity” (5). His hyper-reflexivity finds scholarly elaboration in religious studies currents such as Russell McCutcheon’s recent self-characterization as “carrying out a detailed ethnography of scholarly practice for the past twenty years” (2014, xi).

(3) Rabinow dispels the misguided notion of the pristine, exotic other. He submits that “the view of the ‘primitive’ as a creature living by rigid rules, in total harmony with his environment, and essentially not cursed with a glimmer of self-consciousness, is a set of complex cultural projections. There is no ‘primitive.’ There are other men, living other lives” (151).

(4) Lastly, Rabinow diminishes the purity of ethnographic data. The anthropologist “trains people to objectify their life-world for him. Within all cultures, of course, there is already objectification and self-reflection. But this explicit self-conscious translation into an external medium is rare. The anthropologist creates a doubling of consciousness” (119), thus demonstrating the complex mediations of data at all levels.

Reflections will remain a valuable work for those interested in the method and theory of ethnography for some time to come.

Posted in Theory & Religion Series, Theory and Method, Travis Cooper, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

SBL – Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship: November 21-25, 2014, San Diego, CA

hero-image-San-Diego-skyline-dusk

SBL – Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship

November 21-25, 2014, San Diego, CA

Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship critically evaluates suppositions in and underlying biblical scholarship, including how an explicitly non-religious approach differs from what is even now represented as historical-critical scholarship, especially when compared to other secular disciplines within the Humanities (history, classical studies) and the Social Sciences (e.g., anthropology, sociology).  This year Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship is sponsoring or co-sponsoring three sessions at the San Diego AAR, with a workshop on the role of comparison in research on religion and panels on among other things textual and ideological criticism and academic freedom and Biblical Studies.

SORAAAD       

Friday, November 21, 2014

Comparison and the Analytical Study of Religion     Program PDF

Location disclosed to those registered. To register place “SORAAAD – 2014 – Registration” in the subject line of an email addressed to ctdr.group@gmail.com.

 

S22-131  Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship

November 22, 2014,  9:00 AM to 11:30 AM

Room: 300 B (Level 3 (Aqua)) – Hilton Bayfront (HB)

Randall Reed, Appalachian State University, Presiding

Paul Michael Kurtz, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

A Rock in the Tides of History: Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Gunkel, and the Academic Enterprise (25 min)

Brooke Sherrard, Iowa State University

Biblical Archaeology as Biblical Theology: G. Ernest Wright’s Construction of Rigid Ethnic Boundaries in the Ancient Past and the Mid-Twentieth Century (25 min)

Gwynned de Looijer, University of Durham

The Scholarly ‘Construction of the Qumran Sect’ (25 min)

Bryan Bibb, Furman University

Ideological Constraints and “Literal” Translation of the Bible (25 min)

Ron Hendel, University of California-Berkeley

Biblical Inerrancy and Textual Criticism: A Curious History (25 min)

Discussion (25 min)

 

S24-234   Academic Freedom and Biblical Studies

November 24, 2014,   1:00 PM to 3:30 PM

Room: 410 A (Level 4 (Sapphire)) – Hilton Bayfront (HB)

Rebecca Raphael, Texas State University–San Marcos, Presiding

Jim Linville, University of Lethbridge

In Search of the Biblical Flintstones? Some Thoughts on Creationism, Academic Freedom, and Scholarly Obligation(30 min)

Hector Avalos, Iowa State University

Academic Freedom and Creationism in Public Universities (30 min)

James F. McGrath, Butler University

Can University Walls Keep Out the Internet? (30 min)

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University

Freedom of Religion and Academic Freedom: Symphony and Cacophony in Confessional Higher Education (30 min)

Discussion (30 min)

Unit Chairs

James Linville        james.linville@ule.ca

Rebecca Raphael    raphael@txstate.edu

Posted in Announcements, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

AAR Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group: November 21-25, 2014, San Diego, CA

San-Diego-skyline

AAR Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group 

November 21-25, 2014, San Diego, CA

The Cultural History of the Study of Religion group is devoted to historical inquiry into the social and cultural contexts of the study of religion and into the constructions of ‘religion’ as an object of scholarly inquiry.” This year CHSR is sponsoring or co-sponsoring four sessions at the San Diego AAR, with a workshop on the role of comparison in research on religion and panels on the study of religion in distinctive institutional settings the impacts of this on constructions of difference, French Feminisms and  an author-meets-critics panel on Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion.

SORAAAD       

Friday, November 21, 2014

Comparison and the Analytical Study of Religion     Program PDF

Location disclosed to those registered. To register place “SORAAAD – 2014 – Registration” in the subject line of an email addressed to ctdr.group@gmail.com.

A22-121   Local Accents: The Study of Religion in Distinctive Institutional Settings

Saturday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

Hilton Bayfront- 410A

This session explores how the category of “religion” gets constructed on the ground in specific academic institutions. Each paper explores a detailed case study: the American University in Beirut; Ursula Niebuhr at Barnard College; and the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. Taken together, the papers form a springboard for a critical discussion of the role of “difference” in the formation of religion as an object and discourse of study in the American academy.

Diane Segroves, Ball State University, Presiding

Caleb McCarthy, University of California, Santa Barbara

Rethinking the Teaching of Religion at the American University of Beirut, 1900-1930

Leslie Ribovich, Princeton University

A Woman’s Religious Work, Protestant Privilege, and Interfaith Ideals: The Story of Ursula Niebuhr and the Barnard and Columbia Religion Departments

Lucia Hulsether, Harvard University

Residual Battle Fatigue: Racial Formations and the Discourse of Religious Pluralism at Harvard Divinity School, 1960-1975

Eugene V. Gallagher, Connecticut College, Responding

Business Meeting:

Ann M. Burlein, Hofstra University

Randall Styers, University of North Carolina

 

A24-209 Feminism and Subjectivity in the Study of Religion

Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM                               

Convention Center-9

Co-sponsored by Sociology of Religion Group,

Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group and

Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group,

or STAR (the Social Theory and Religion Cluster).

STAR Business Meeting, 3:20 pm

2014 marks the thirty- and forty-year anniversaries of key works in French social theory, including Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language (40th anniversary) and Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman (40th) and An Ethics of Sexual Difference (30th). In honor of their legacies, the panelists in this session explore related questions of feminism and subjectivity in the study of religion. With reference not only to Irigaray and Kristeva, but also to Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, they treat critical turns in affect theory and speech act theory, the ethics of alterity, and the discursive formation of subjectivity as a crucial category in the study of religion.

Morny Joy, University of Calgary, Respondent

Abigail Kluchin, Ursinus College

An Alternative Lineage for Affect Theory: Returning to Irigaray’s Speculum de l’Autre Femme and Kristeva’s Revolution du Langage Poétique

Wesley Barker, Mercer University

Signifying Flesh: The Ambiguity of Desire and the Possibility of Alterity in Irigaray’s Ethics of Sexual Difference

Samantha Langsdale, University of London

Framing Historical Women’s Agency: A Critical Reading of Speech Act Theories

Constance Furey, Indiana University

Hermeneutics of Intersubjectivity: Foucault, Butler, and Limit Experiences

Business Meeting:

William E. Arnal, University of Regina;

Randall Styers, University of North Carolina;

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

 

A24-319  Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013): Critical Engagement

Monday – 4:00 PM-6:30 PM

Convention Center-25C

Co-sponsored by Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group and SBL Religious World of Late Antiquity Section

This session will include four responses to Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Cosponsored by the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group and the SBL’s Religious World of Late Antiquity Group, the panelists will consider both Nongbri’s account of the pre-history of the concept of “religion” and the implications of Nongbri’s work for future scholarship.

Cynthia M. Baker, Bates College, Presiding

Andrew Durdin, University of Chicago

Religio without Religion: Reflections on Recent Debates in Roman Religion and Religious Studies

James Broucek, Iowa State University

Historicizing the Concept of Religion: A Prerequisite to Critical Research, or an Intrinsically Interesting Subject?

Kathleen M. Sands, University of Hawai’i

The “Religious” and “Secular” Meanings of “Playing Indian”: An Assessment of Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

Nathan Rein, Ursinus College

Beyond Religion: Directions for Research Following Nongbri’s Before Religion

Brent Nongbri, Macquarie University, Responding

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , | Leave a comment

SBL – Re-describing Early Christianity: San Diego, November 21-25, 2014, San Diego, CA

hero-image-San-Diego-skyline-dusk

RE-DESCRIBING EARLY CHRISTIANITY

The Redescribing Early Christianity Seminar contributes to the study of early Christian history by problematizing current consensus views, unexamined assumptions, and categories; recontextualizing and redescribing the key data through comparative analysis; and accounting for the configurations of texts under view in terms of social theory. Redescribing Early Christianity  is sponsoring or co-sponsoring  four sessions at the San Diego AAR, with a workshop on the role of comparison in research on religion and panels on Greco-Roman Religion, Evolutionary and Cognitive Approaches to Early Christianity and  Social and Practice Theory in the Redescription of Early Christianity.

Program Unit Chairs

William Arnal       william.arnal@uregina.ca

Erin Roberts             erinroberts@sc.edu

SORAAAD       
Friday, November 21, 2014
Location disclosed to those registered. To register place “SORAAAD – 2014 – Registration” in the subject line of an email addressed to ctdr.group@gmail.com.

S22-320

Greco-Roman Religion

11/22/2014

4:00 PM to 6:30 PM

Room: D (Level 3 (Aqua)) – Hilton Bayfront (HB)

Theme: Redescribing Greco-Roman Antiquity: Somatizing Practices

James Hanges, Miami University, Presiding (5 min)

Chris de Wet, University of South Africa

Breaking Bodies and Building Theologies: The Discourse of the Suffering Slave in Early Christianity (25 min)

Pieter J.J. Botha, University of South Africa

“On Their Way to Nowhere?” Exploring Body, Identity, and Place in the Jesus Movement (25 min)

Michael Pope, Brigham Young University

Blood, Sweat, and Smears: Bodies Portentous, Bodies Politic (25 min)

Gerhard van den Heever, University of South Africa

“Somaticising Practices”: Relocating Epiphany in the Making of Early Christianity (25 min)

Discussion (30 min)

S23-139

Redescribing Early Christianity

11/23/2014

9:00 AM to 11:30 AM

Room: Indigo Ballroom D (Level 2 (Indigo)) – Hilton Bayfront (HB)

Theme: Evolutionary and Cognitive Approaches to Early Christianity

Erin Roberts, University of South Carolina, Presiding

Risto Uro, University of Helsinki

Explicit and Implicit Religious Knowledge in the Study of Early Christianity (10 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Istvan Czachesz, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Cognitive Science and Network Theory in the Study of Early Christian Origins(10 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Anders Klostergaard Petersen, University of Aarhus

The Early Christ-Movement from a Cultural Evolutionary Perspective (10 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Petri Luomanen, University of Helsinki

Towards an Evolutionary Account of the Formation of Christian Identity (10 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Break (10 min)

Discussion (40 min)

S23-243

Redescribing Early Christianity

11/23/2014

1:00 PM to 3:30 PM

Room: 300 B (Level 3 (Aqua)) – Hilton Bayfront (HB)

Theme: Social and Practice Theory in the Redescription of Early Christianity

William E. Arnal, University of Regina, Presiding

Willi Braun, University of Alberta

Toward a Theory of the Social: An Assessment of the Work of Theodore Schatzki (10 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Maia Kotrosits, Denison University

Diaspora Theory and the End of “Early Christianity” and “Early Christian Identity” (10 min)

Discussion (15 min) 

Heidi Wendt, Wright State University Main Campus

Not Twelve, But Five: Theorizing Christian Practice in the Second Century (10 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Gerhard van den Heever, University of South Africa

New Arrivistes in the Context of Older Traditions: New Religious Movements and the Weaving of Christ Cult Groups into a New Religion (10 min)

Discussion (15 min)

Break (10 min)

Discussion (40 min)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Call for Papers: The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology, The University of Chicago, March 6, 2015

university

The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology

The University of Chicago

Friday March 6, 2015

Both to the discomfort and excitement of psychologists, scholars of religion, and religious practitioners, the overlap between the histories of psychology and religion is rather significant. Like philosophy, psychology was once pegged, in the words of Frank E. Manuel, as the “newest handmaiden of true religion.” However, with the emergence of new experimental methods in the late nineteenth century and of psychoanalysis (an inherently anti-religious discipline, according to its founder) in the early twentieth, psychology attempted to distance itself from religion, though with mixed results. Although psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals today understand their respective disciplines to have grown increasingly scientific and thus less “religious,” the various ways in which psychology and religion were interrelated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be used to tell a different story.

On Friday, March 6th, 2015, the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Martin Marty Center will host The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology, a conference exploring the relation between two problem children of modernity.  We welcome contributions from scholars in any discipline whose research is concerned with the relationship between religion and psychology, from both an historical and a contemporary perspective.  Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

*            The ways in which the boundaries of and between psychology and religion are erected and blurred;

*            The relation between modern clinical categories like anxiety and depression and their theological counterparts;

*            Religiously-inspired quasi-psychologies, psychologically-inflected quasi-religions, and other spiritual hybrids;

*            Religion and the dynamics of family life;

*            Therapeutic techniques drawn from religious or spiritual practices;

*            The psychology of religion, pastoral psychology, and other fields that integrate psychology and religion;

*            The rise of the psycho-pharmaceutical approach to mental life and its effect on traditional therapeutic and pastoral counseling;

*            Religion and psychology as anchors of disciplinary power.

The conference will be keynoted by a roundtable discussion between:

Tanya Luhrmann

Watkins University Professor in the Anthropology Department at Stanford University, and author of Of Two Minds (2000) and When God Talks Back (2012)

Jonathan Lear

John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and author of Freud (2005), Radical Hope (2006), and A Case for Irony (2011)

Jeffrey Kripal

J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Rice University, and author of Authors of the Impossible (2010), Mutants and Mystics (2011), and Comparing Religions (2013)

Please send 300 word proposals for 20-minute papers to the conference organizer, Benjamin Y. Fong, atbfong@uchicago.edu, by January 5th, 2015. Paper presentations may come from any discipline and address any topic but should seek to offer general conclusions about the relation between psychology and religion (a request to which the keynote panelists have already agreed).  Submissions should also include a separate document with the author’s name, contact information, and institutional affiliation.  Participants will be notified by January 20th.

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law

9780226779751-1Kolby Knight

Perhaps no one has fleshed out the complex interaction between religion and law better, and is more qualified to do so, than Winnifred Sullivan. As former vice president of the North American Association for the Study of Religion and current professor of religious studies and law at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, Sullivan brings a wealth of expertise and methodological range to the topic. In her latest work, A Ministry of Presence, Sullivan analyzes the complicated place of chaplains who work outside of religious institutions and whose ‘presence’ in VA hospitals, police departments, and the military presents legal quandaries about the public role of individuals who serve an explicitly religious purpose.

Sullivan situates her study of chaplaincy in a broader examination of the ways in which legal thinking on religion has evolved and continues to shape religious practice in the public domain. Sullivan is particularly interested in the “ways in which the prevalence of the secular rule of law itself acts a disciplining force on religious life.” (15) The change in the role of the chaplain, according to Sullivan, provides a window into just how much legal thinking on religion has changed over the last fifty years. Whereas chaplains once were justified as a way to accommodate religious pluralism (i.e. to accommodate diverse religious particularities), recent court cases have focused on the function of chaplains in facilitating a spirituality that is increasingly defined as a natural and universal component of human existence. This shift means that chaplains no longer serve primarily on behalf and within their own confessional traditions but rather assume responsibility for fostering a spiritual health now considered integral to the very operation of government.

Sullivan’s work revolves around and is animated by the concept of “spiritual governance.” Sullivan relies on Foucault’s notion of governmentality to explore the disciplinary role of chaplains in instilling and promoting a spirituality that recent court decisions have defined as conducive to and compatible with the goals of secular government. The Supreme Court has moved from regulating religion on the grounds of church/state separation toward what Sullivan sees as a ‘horizontal’ and ‘bottom-up’ regulatory formation in which the chaplain now operates.  In the most recent Supreme Court case considering the legality of government endorsed chaplaincy, Nicholson v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2008), the court rejected the FFRF’s claim that the funding of VA hospital chaplains constitutes an endorsement of religion by arguing that chaplains serve in a clinical capacity that produces secular results. Framing the role of chaplains around their clinical responsibilities rather than their ‘sacramental’ presence, the Supreme Court relied on a clear distinction between religion and spirituality. (39) The decision focused on the chaplain’s role as efficacious to the patient’s spiritual health, avoiding altogether the FFRF’s argument that protecting and promoting ‘spirituality’ constitutes a religious establishment. While the FFRF considered the employing of VA chaplains a means of sacralizing healthcare, the courts justified chaplaincy by secularizing its function and effects. (39) In light of the court’s decision, Sullivan raises a sarcastic but important question that highlights the implications of tying chaplaincy to utilitarian health outcomes: “One might ask if it would not be a rational extension of such a position to charge atheists higher insurance rates.” (43)

Nicholson is but one example of a broader trend Sullivan sees in the chaplain’s development as a facilitator of spirituality across ‘religious’ identities. (32) Alongside tracing out the legal history, Sullivan looks at documents within particular institutional contexts (e.g., VA spiritual assessment guidelines, US military spiritual fitness tests), as well as ethnographic data compiled by her and others, to investigate how the chaplain’s role is understood today at the level of the institution and the individual chaplain. The army’s concern with soldiers’ spiritual fitness, for example, reveals how spirituality has increasingly been conceived in terms of its utilitarian value. The chaplain aids the military in developing spiritual fitness among soldiers while also acting as a kind of religious expert in informing soldiers on the religious particularities of their enemy. (an emphasis which has been accentuated by the “War on Terror”) Military chaplains occupy an especially complicated position, wrestling with the ambiguities of war and their contribution to it. In this sense, Sullivan is sympathetic to the personal dilemmas faced by military and other chaplains. At times, she even commends chaplains’ “ministry of presence” for resisting the modern obsession with utility, even while having to negotiate their presence under modernity’s concern with the endgame. (176-85)

Sullivan is both sympathetic to the work of chaplains and critical of how the Supreme Court has defended their role as neutral and universal. Sullivan is especially critical of what she calls the dominant ‘legal anthropology’ of the day — that is, how the court has begun to articulate and defend an essential spirituality. This has been challenged by groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation as well as Christian and Muslim chaplains who do not want to work under the prescribed spirituality of the courts. (159-60) Despite these challenges, the non-coercive, nonsectarian role of chaplaincy continues to be defended. Sullivan creatively argues that the language of ‘spirituality’, though it operates a lot like the language of Protestant ‘nonsectarianism’, has allowed the Supreme Court to open up a qualified place for religion in the public sphere even as a few judges have decried the anti-Catholic legacy of nonsectarianism. Importantly, Sullivan examines the court’s insistence on neutrality in relation to the necessary credentialing component of the chaplain’s qualification. Her careful rendering of this tension between the court’s universal language of spirituality and the chaplain’s necessary and credentialed ‘religious’ particularity positions chaplaincy as a focal point in the working out of what Sullivan calls the “new jurisprudence” on religion. (140)

The Ministry of Presence is an important contribution to ongoing scholarly discussions in religious studies, American history, politics, and legal studies. The reader is indebted to the depth and nuance of Sullivan’s legal knowledge as well as her willingness to engage recent historiographical and theoretical trends in the study of religion in the United States. In contrast to John Lardas Modern’s recent work on spirituality as a site of negotiation between religion and the rationalism of modern science, Sullivan shifts our attention to how the language of spirituality in the legal setting has conditioned religious life in the United States at least as much as “genealogy of spiritual experimentation in the US.” (32) The language of spirituality, according to Sullivan, has not only made a place for chaplains but has enabled and produced a variety of spiritual practices that the courts have increasingly defined as a natural aspect of human life. Sullivan’s most recent work provides a compelling window into the world of the chaplain and the laws that shape it. But more importantly, Sullivan has contributed much to our understanding of the many ways religion continues to influence ‘secular’ legal trajectories, and vice versa.

Kolby Knight is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies nineteenth-century American religious history, with particular interest in how ideas about Catholicism and Catholics themselves have influenced religious and legal discourses in the United States.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poppies, Poems, and Soldiers Bodies

ad_142067697by Matt Sheedy

November 11th marks Remembrance Day in several commonwealth nations such as Canada, the UK, and South Africa, and, much like Veterans Day in the US, is commemorated with ceremonies to honor soldiers past and present, especially those who were killed in battle.

The most notable symbol of Remembrance Day is the red poppy, which is typically pinned to one’s lapel and worn in the weeks leading up to the event, especially in Canada and the UK. This year there is a massive art installation of close to 900,000 poppies surrounding the Tower of London in commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the First World War (as pictured above), while in Canada poppy sales broke all records, due in part to the recent murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was shot by a “lone wolf” gunman as he was standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, on October 22.

The use of the poppy as a symbol for Remembrance Day is linked to a 1915 poem by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Fields,” based on his experience in the battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. It begins as follows:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row,
/That mark our place; and in the sky
/The larks, still bravely singing, fly
/Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Among other things, these lines have been memorialized on the ten-dollar bill, and are the closest thing to a “sacred” text in the collective Canadian imagination. Despite this status, however, the closing lines of the poem are rarely heard these days in official ceremonies, though they were ubiquitous during the First World War as a tool of propaganda, especially in the federal elections of 1917 in the heat of the Conscription Crisis. They read:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high.
/If ye break faith with us who die
/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
/In Flanders fields.

As historian Ian McKay observes, these militaristic sentiments gave way to a more circumspect reading in Canada by the war’s end, as the horrors of trench warfare and the massive death toll—“the war to end all wars”—were revealed and a social narrative of “never again” began to take hold. The use of the poem today, with the poppy as its’ symbolic emblem, has been re-inscribed in ever new chains of signification, and is commonly linked with the “support our troops” slogan, popularized during the war in Vietnam and reproduced during the so-called “war on terror.”

One thing that remains consistent throughout this nearly 100-year historical narrative is the sacralization of soldiers’ bodies as the focal point of public attention, where the real personal sacrifices of those killed or wounded in battle are attached to concepts such freedom and democracy, including pro-war sentiments like those mentioned above that urge us to continue the battle lest they die in vein, to anti-war sentiments, such as the white poppy campaign, or the startling number of veteran suicides in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One thing that interests me about this narrative is how it resembles many public discourses about religion, where simplified representations of complex historical and contemporary phenomena are filled with meaning that reflect the ideas and interests of those who take them up in the present, which then become charged by reference to some imagined sacred past. Pierre Bourdieu offers a useful way to think about this problem in his book Language and Symbolic Power when talking about the use of political and religious language:

Specialized discourses can derive their efficacy from the hidden correspondence between the structure of the social space within which they are produced—the political field, the religious field, the artistic field, the philosophical field, etc.—and the structure of the field of social classes within which the recipients are situated and in relation to which they interpret the message. (41)

In this sense, the discourse surrounding Remembrance Day has at its core the idea of sacrifice that is reflected differently depending on the structure or make-up of the field in which it is represented. For those in the military or with families and friends touched by war, for example, it tends to mean something very different than for those who don’t have such a personal connection. Here the rhetoric about soldiers’ bodies serves as a powerful device for creating “affective publics” that must use these sacralised bodies as the primary site of discourse in support or opposition to the wars in question, past or present. What is often minimized or excluded from these debates are the complex histories, motivations, and interests that guide the decisions to go to war in the first place, to say nothing of how such ventures may or may not be linked to ideas like democracy and freedom.

It would seem that a similar dynamic is at play when we talk about religion in the public sphere, where a select set of simplified ideas and symbols are made to stand-in for complex historical and contemporary phenomena, thus reducing countless identities to the most dominant representations that are available in a given time and place. This can be seen with public discourses about Islam, for example, as I argue in a recent post, quoting Nabil Echchaibi, with common tropes such as “Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, [and] sharia law versus democracy” often standing-in for the whole.

Here I would suggest that one important task for scholars of religion is to identify the different social fields and “affective publics” in which talk about religions are taken up and interact so as to better understand the ways that dominant public representations of religion influence (and in some cases shape) the very terms of the debate.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth, and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment