Theologies of Word and State: Some Reflections on the Ottawa Shooting

by Justin K.H. Tse and Matt Sheedy

Justin TseThe shooting in Ottawa on 22 October 2014 has uncovered the remarkable way that the Canadian state remains theologically constituted. In some ways, this is a relatively uncontroversial argument. The White House press conference immediately following the attacks made a link between the Canadian support for military action against the Islamic State and the deaths of both Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent on October 20 in Quebec and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the October 22. When one says that Ottawa shootings have a religious dimension, the gut response is that my argument will be about Muslims in Canada and the potential for radicalization.

However, I am less interested in the link to the Islamic State and more interested in the ways that the putatively secular, multicultural Canadian state is doing theology in this moment. The chatter in the public sphere has mostly revolved around Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970, especially because the alleged shooter was Québecois. The last time in recent memory that this sort of panic happened in Ottawa, it was because the Front du libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, and the Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte. Trudeau’s response at the time was to meet ideology with ideology. If the FLQ adopted a Marxist ideology to denounce the embeddedness of the Canadian political economy with elite American power and to call for a new Quebecois political sovereignty, Trudeau criminalized them and argued that they represented “the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in the country” that “must be stopped.” Both the FLQ and Trudeau articulated their political positions in secular ideological terms.

The responses from the official party leaders have revealed that these state ideologies have always been theological. Prime Minister Stephen Harper framed the National War Memorial where the shooting occurred as ‘a sacred place that pays tribute to those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society’ and also sent his ‘thoughts and prayers’ with Patrice Vincent. New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair cast the “thoughts and prayers of everyone here in our nation’s capital” with Cirillo’s family as an act of Canadian solidarity in a society marked by ideological difference. In addition to mentioning the War Memorial as “one of our nation’s most sacred monuments,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also reached out to the Muslim community to say that “acts such as these committed in the name of Islam are an aberration of your faith,” calling for “mutual respect and admiration…to prevent the influence of distorted ideological propaganda posing as religion.” While the debates among these party leaders has been fierce in the past, they demonstrated that they represent three strands of the same Canadian state theology: bound by our solidarity in times of war, the coming together of Canadians of all political and ideological stripes is a sacralized bond.

What the Ottawa shootings have done, then, is to suggest a way forward in the study of Canadian religion. While Jamie Scott’s The Religions of Canadians posits an intriguing suggestion that there is an overarching Canadian religion, he organizes the book by looking at the individual religious traditions at work in Canada. But the aftermath of the shooting makes one wonder whether the schematic to use for Canadian religious studies might follow ideological lines. After all, one might ask: who is left out of those sacralized Canadian bonds? That Trudeau felt that he had to reach out to the Muslim community suggests that Muslims in Canada have been framed as a perpetual other. Despite the repeal of the War Measures Act by the Emergencies Act of 1982, the invocation of the memory of the War Measures Act in 1970 should remind Canadians of the internment of Ukrainian Canadians in the First World War and of Japanese Canadians in the Second. That it has been revealed that the shooter had a criminal record in Quebec and British Columbia and was a drug addict should remind us of the class differences that engender new ideologies and political theologies. In other words, perhaps Canadian religion is not simply about the mosaic of cultural traditions that make up the tapestry of multiculturalism. Perhaps it is about the competing, yet mutually constitutive, ideologies that seek to define Canadian political theology.

Matt Sheedy: While yesterday’s shooting in Ottawa was not the first incident of aggression directed against representatives of the state in Canadian history, it was unique for a variety of reasons, mostly notably in its connection with “home grown terrorism,” “ISIS,” and “Islam,” marking the second such attack of this kind in so many days that resulted in the death of a uniformed officer.

For those who have not been following the story, here are a few, select bullet points:

*          On October 20, 2014, Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, ran over two men outside of Montreal, one of whom, uniformed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53, was killed, while Couture-Rouleau was later shot dead by police after a high speed car chase.

*          On October 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, shot a uniformed officer, Nathan Cirillo, 24, in front of the National War Memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, (Canada’s equivalent to the White House) who later died in hospital. He then stormed parliament and was shot in a hail of gunfire, which was caught on camera by a reporter and played repeatedly in a loop throughout the day.

*          Both attackers were young men who were being monitored by authorities; Couture-Rouleau had his passport taken along with 89 others on a watch-list of radicalized youth who the government had flagged as “high-risk travellers” for fear that they would commit crimes abroad; Zehaf-Bibeau was trying to obtain a passport with apparent intentions to travel to Libya.

*          Both young men were recent converts to Islam and were reported to have followed radical groups on-line, including ISIS spokesperson Muhammad Al-Adnani.

*          Many members of parliament, including the Prime Minister and leaders of opposition parties were in session very close to where the shooting took place and were barricaded behind doors for upwards of 9 hours during the chaos. There have been reports that during this time members of parliament broke as many as 15 flags poles and fashioned them into spears while the Prime Minister hid in a closest.

An event such as this brings forth waves of emotion and heightened rhetoric, which is always conditioned in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by prior events and filtered through familiar narratives that attempt to explain what, precisely, has just occurred and why.

While displays of nationalism and calls for retribution are to be expected in moments of crisis, the social effects of such discourse are always complex and hard to predict, not least because of the uncertainty surrounding possible future attacks, which, in turn, lead to calls for increased security, surveillance, and even the curtailment of civil liberties. In short, it is the stuff that fear, mistrust, and heightened rhetoric is made of.

In an interview with Giovana Boradorri a few months after 9/11, Jacques Derrida reflected on the events of that day and their immediate aftermath, which bears repeating in light of the shooting on Parliament Hill:

It is our duty to recall that the shock waves produced by such murders are never purely natural and spontaneous. They depend on a complex machinery involving history, politics, the media, and so on. (92)

For Derrida, what was most important to think about in the chaotic aftermath of such an event was how its traumatic effects were produced through what he called a “repetition compulsion” of images and ideas—“terrorism,” “9/11,” “radical Islam”—which mediate not only our understanding of what is at stake and thus narrow the terms of debate, but also contain and repress other possibilities or “iterations” by virtue of their symbolic power to give a name to what has taken place.

I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). … Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language … (87)

For those like myself who are interested in thinking about such events as a scholar of religion, one important dimension that will require close attention is how “Islam”–as a generalized concept and as a symbol that is drawn upon to describe peoples’ identities and as a cause or motivation for violent retribution–is re-produced through this “repetition compulsion” of old and new symbols coming together in different chains of signification.

While there has been much praise from US media at how well the “Canadian” press (referring to CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge) covered the chaos that unfolded in Ottawa, as well as praise for Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau’s response at a press conference following these events, this is not only an incomplete picture of mainstream responses, but also one that tends to obscure the ideologies at work in these (admittedly) more measured replies.

More sensational rhetoric can be found in “home-grown” media such as Sun TV, which rejected narratives about the confirmed mental illness of these men as “political correctness” in favor of a discourse that places “Islam” at the root cause of their motivation. For example, among several programs featured over the last few days on Sun TV include an interview with Jihad Watch’s Robert Spenser and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, both of whom are well-known for their inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric.

As I argued in post from earlier this week:

One challenge for scholars of religion … is to avoid the temptation to play into the logic of this framework, which sets up a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims … and describes complex identities through the prism of better and worse expressions of “Islamic belief,” and focus instead on the ways in which “Islam” is taken up and re-produced differently in the material world and in contexts of human interaction.

The current discourse in Canada is very much guided by this binary logic and thus needs to be carefully thought through and analyzed, including the ways that “Islam” functions as a counter-narrative or reply to tepid discourses about multiculturalism, toleration, and “true Islam,” which, as Justin Tse points out above, are conditioned (among other things) by state theologies and the interests that guide them. The seeming inability to link causation to things like Canada’s participation in foreign wars over the last 13 years that have been narrated, to varying degrees, as a “clash of civilizations,” suggests that “Islam” will continue to function as a primary causal factor for some (e.g., “they hate us for our values and freedoms”), and an alibi for others (e.g., these are not true Muslims) rather than as an important and indeterminate variable that must be treated with the nuance it deserves.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Juggling It All: Tips on Research and Writing, Part 3


* This is part three of a feature with the Bulletin on tips for research and writing. Part one can be found here and part two here.

Emma Wasserman: I’m sure organization works for a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but these efforts can also encourage delusions of grandeur and accomplishment that can stall and distract. I tend to imagine myself making guerrilla style assaults on the material. These almost always fail, but eventually–after at least a couple of years of trying–I actually win some ground.

Joseph Laycock: My first semester of college a professor told us to log how many hours we actually spent on schoolwork. He added that if we were spending less time on being a college student than we would on a part-time job, then we weren’t serious about college and should drop out. That semester I started using tally-marks on a calendar to log how many hours I worked each day. I still do it. I try to reach quotas of hours for every month. The tally-marks change my overall attitude toward work. Often people *think* they are working really hard but are actually only getting in an hour or two of actual work. Then when I work eight hours a day or more on writing, I feel *good* because I’m catching up on my quota.

I also incorporate something from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I organize everything I have to do on a grid that has four squares on it—urgent, important, busy-work, and pleasure. The goal is to acknowledge what’s just busy-work and to make time for things that are important. Around 2005, I actually made a grid on my wall with masking tape. I represent all of my projects with other pieces of masking tape that migrate around the grid. This has really helped me stay motivated and to delegate time wisely. The downside is that my office looks like the office of a lunatic. I also have a poster with a UFO that says “I Want to Believe” and press clippings about exorcisms on the walls—so that’s not helping.

Lastly (and this is a little embarrassing)—I’ve been using this website that represents banal tasks as a fantasy role-playing game (see link). So when I grade papers my virtual avatar gains XP and gold. Conversely, if I neglect tasks I’ve set out to do the tasks actually hurt my character and eventually kill him. It’s surprisingly good for motivation.

Suzanne Owen: Writing the PhD was very different. I took three months off my part-time job to write it up. As I shared a house with seven others, I posted a grid to show how many words I wrote each day. Near the end of each day, if I hadn’t written anything, I’d fear the disapproval of my housemates and forced myself to write.

Randi Warne: Admin at school (I head a unit, so there’s a fair bit of that); grading at the dining room table; writing at the dining room table; research anywhere; books to be underlined, before bed light reading; lectures written mostly at the dining room table. School: students, students, students and teaching. Note: there is no one in my home when I am working, except my husband or my cat, preferably both sleeping.

I spend a requisite amount of time fussing and fretting and thinking and avoiding, and then I book off obligations (or rearrange them) because “I’m writing.” My house is a mess, people can’t talk to me, and I barely change into day clothes. Then when it’s over, I let it sit for a day, and then edit. One exception: my doctoral dissertation. I had a six day a week writing schedule, all marked out on a calendar (still have the schedule in my papers, in fact). I wrote my diss. in 3 1/2 months, my thesis supervisor suggested changes to two sentences, and it passed “as it stands” through the Centre for Religious Studies at U of Toronto. Surreal, that whole experience.

I figured out pretty early that I couldn’t be an academic and have children, nor would I be able to continue to be married to my first husband, who would not consider moving from the urban centre in which we lived. When folks complain about baby boomers who “took all the jobs,” and had an easy life, I want to ask “Which profession?”

Merinda Simmons: For me, it’s largely been a matter of coming to terms with the way my brain works and not trying to force structure where it doesn’t fit. Like ‪Kenneth (see part one) said, I’m most productive when everything’s a bit of a mess. And like Kat (see below), I try to make projects and work chores lead into others. I’ve always got a few pots simmering at various temperatures, to paraphrase a colleague’s description years back of what we do, and I find that far more useful than tackling one big task at a time in a linear/organized way. That said, two ideas I’ve *tried* to incorporate (not very successfully, but I like the concepts all the same) are: 1) scheduling a writing “meeting” with myself for an hour a day that I take as seriously as any other meeting (i.e., no phone-checking, emails, etc)–any writing beyond that, then, is gravy. 2) having a day slated for each project (since I work on several simultaneously) … Mondays are the day I do a bit on this article, Tuesdays are for that essay, Wednesdays are for this proposal, and so on…

Kat Daley-Bailey: These are all excellent strategies… I racked my brain thinking of some practice that has been useful to me when writing/ researching. I think the best advice I ever got was to try to use my mental energy effectively. If I decided to read a book for a course, I might do a book review on it… or use it as part of research for a conference paper or post. I always try to make what I am doing overlap so that I am not putting energy into disparate things, if you will.

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

The Meaning of Islam and the Politics of Multicultural Identity, Part 1


by Matt Sheedy

The term firestorm would not be overstating the media reaction to the recent debate between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on Maher’s HBO program, Real Time.

In part one of this series of posts, I will attempt to deconstruct the logic that was at work in this debate, including Maher’s statement about Islam on his program from the week before, followed by a taxonomy of the responses it has provoked in part two in an effort to categorize these re-presentations, and to determine the ideological boundaries in which this discourse resides.

While both Maher and Harris have been criticizing Islam for many years now, the recent uproar was initially sparked by Maher’s comments on the September 26th episode of Real Time when he stated:

If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans’ deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or a drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.

At least four common tropes are at work in this narrative:

1)    Being Muslim is contingent upon adhering to a particular set of beliefs;

2)    Some of these “Muslim” beliefs promote violence;

3)    A majority of Muslims support these violent beliefs, even if they’re unwilling to carry them out themselves; and, by implication;

4)    It is therefore Muslims and “Islam” that bear the brunt of responsibility for on-going violence and intolerance in Middle East (as well as for spreading such ideas in the Euro-Western world).

The following week’s episode, featuring Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, along with guests Michael Steele and Nicolas Kristof, echoed these tropes in variety of ways. For example, Maher began the discussion by stating that, “Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles,” such as freedom of speech and belief, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, and equality for minorities, including homosexuals, and claimed that most liberals hold a double-standard when it comes to critiquing the “Muslim world.” This opened up the conversation to a variety of points and counter-points, which I’ve summarized in point-form below.

  • Liberalism has been unable to combat theocracy (Harris)
  • The charge of Islamophobia conflates criticism of the “doctrine of Islam” with bigotry toward Muslims (Harris)
  • “Islam at this moment is the mother-load of bad ideas” (Harris)
  • This position is racist (Affleck)
  • No it isn’t. It is not (Muslim) people we are condemning, but their ideas (Harris)
  • “And people who believe in those ideas” (Maher)
  • A basic liberal principle is tolerance (Kristof)
  • “But not for intolerance!” (Maher)
  • There are many Muslim’s who aren’t fanatics or jihadis, such as Malala Yousafzai (Kristof)
  • You (Maher and Harris) focus on a few bad things and generalize to the “whole religion” (Affleck)
  • Jihadists are motivated by killing apostates and represent the center of Islam; Islamists believe this too, but they work within the system; conservative Muslims are illiberal (Harris)
  • 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted (Harris)
  • 90% of Egyptians say that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion (Maher)
  • The real divide is between fundamentalists and moderates in each faith (Kristof)
  • Moderate Muslim voices that speak out are rarely heard (Steele)
  • “There are 100s of millions of nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously” and they should be propped-up as reformers of the faith (Harris)
  • Muslims are not a minority, it’s the second biggest religion in the world (Affleck)
  • Criticism should be levelled at individual actions, not the religion as a whole (Affleck)

One of the most interesting and overlooked aspects of this debate is that it takes place within a conceptual framework of (neo-) liberal ideology, where conflicts involving multicultural identity are framed around a select set of principles, which are drawn upon as the primary tool for interpreting and evaluating generalized “others” who are alleged to undermine these principles in some way. As is common in such cases, the “other” is narrowly classified by certain essential qualities, such as shared beliefs, which are represented in terms of their compatibility (or lack thereof) with liberal principles.

In this way, the debate was crippled from the start since it assumes that vast groups of people can be effectively described and encapsulated by their alleged “Muslim-ness,” which is never defined, but rather circulates around a symbolic economy of ideas and images that have been produced, for the most part, within the Euro-Western imagination.

For this reason, I would argue that most public discourses about Islam within the Euro-West tend to function not as debates about the varieties of Muslim identities—as confessional traditions, as complex theological positions produced within cultures, and as imbricated within various socio-political constellations that are constantly shaped and re-shape by internal and external forces—but rather as sign-symbols that are filled with a few, select tropes about “Islam” and “Islamic beliefs” that are made to stand-in for the whole. Some of these tropes include, as Nabil Echchaibi points out in a recent post, “Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, [and] sharia law versus democracy.”

One challenge for scholars of religion, then, is to avoid the temptation to play into the logic of this framework, which sets up a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims (see Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim 2005) and describes complex identities through the prism of better and worse expressions of “Islamic belief,” and focus instead on the ways in which “Islam” is taken up and re-produced differently in the material world and in contexts of human interaction. While this type of scholarly work is likely too complex to be represented in public discourse, it may have the effect of encouraging such debates to move away from talk of some essentialized “Islam” toward a discussion of how inherited beliefs and practices are never stable, but always re-produced in the environments in which they reside.

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, Theory & Religion Series, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Ten Observations about Teaching and Academia


by Tommy Carrico

* This post originally appear on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Sometimes, an instructor is afforded a great amount of leeway when designing a course – reading schedules, assignments, course descriptions, and policies are all left up to her.  Other times, the syllabus comes pre-prepared with all of these policies, procedures, and reading lists: the instructor’s task is to teach a course that someone else has designed. In the former situation, the instructor is able to structure the readings, assignments, and flow of the course according to her research interests, style of argumentation, and the learning goals of the course. In the latter, while it may seem that the instructor is not afforded these opportunities, I have found that teaching a pre-prepared syllabus provides a unique opportunity to examine academic discourse more generally. Rather than viewing this type of teaching assignment as unduly restrictive, I would recommend using the construction of a body of knowledge as a theoretical grounding point to tie various elements of the course together.  This is, in many ways, an approach that scholars are (or should be) quite familiar with:

1. The instructor/scholar is presented with a unified body of material;

2. This unified body of material may have been divided into sub-sections based on any number of categorizations (thematic, chronological, etc.), necessitating that the instructor

3. Identify some kind of unifying principle, thesis, or logic to this body of material and its subdivisions,

4. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of this body’s unity,

5. Draw attention to the processes by which this material and its subdivisions are presented as related and unified,

6. Make an argument based on this body of material, introducing “outside” material as necessary, in order to

7. Challenge the presuppositions of the material itself as well as its unification, in order to

8. Come to a clearer conception of the production of bodies of knowledge as well as their internal strains/contradictions, in order to

9. Render elements of these bodies (in fact, the bodies themselves) contingent and, therefore, challengeable, in order to

10. Begin the project of re-structuring, expanding, or pruning particular commonplace categories or bodies of material presented as unified.

Posted in Pedagogy | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group Program: AAR Annual Conference, San Diego, 2014


AAR Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 21-25, 2014, San Diego, CA – AAR

The CTDR Group offers an interdisciplinary and international forum for analytical scholars of religion to engage the intersection of critical theory and methodology with a focus on concrete ethnographic and historical case studies. Critical theory draws on methods employed in the fields of sociology, anthropology, history, literary criticism, and political theory in order to bring into scrutiny all kinds of discourses on religion, spanning from academic to nonacademic and from religious to nonreligious.

CTDR is sponsoring or co-sponsoring six sessions at the San Diego AAR with a workshop on the role of comparison in research on religion and panels on violence and alterity, Foucault, The Frankfurt School, French Feminisms and a re-examination of key terms in the study of religion.

CTDR’s Program with abstracts for the Annual Meeting is available for download as a PDF. (recommended for smart phones)


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

A22-222    Religion and Constructions of Violent Alterity

Saturday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM

Hilton Bayfront-Indigo B

Co-Sponsored by the Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Group

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

This panel explores the ways that religious discourse may promote the conceptualization of alterity and, in some instances, how that discourse may be a catalyst for violence. Papers rely on methods such as textual analysis, ethnography, and statistics, and draw examples from Biblical, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu traditions.

Jamel Velji, Haverford College, Presiding

Margo Kitts, Hawaii Pacific University, Responding

Chipamong Chowdhury, University of Toronto

Genocidal Violence, Conflict, and Communalism: Anti-Buddhist Violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh) 

Nathan French, Miami University

An American Takfīr? Jihādī-Salafism, the US Drone Campaign, and the Implications of a Comparative Negotiation of Permissible Violence

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

Durkheim’s Dual Stream Violence Hypothesis and Communal Violence

Sean McCloud, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Fighting Demons in the United States: Third Wave Spiritual Warfare and the Construction of the Non-Evangelical Other

Brian Doak, George Fox University

Monster Violence in the Book of Job as Moral Disorientation and Reorientation

A22-302    Applying Foucault

Saturday – 4:00 PM-6:00 PM

Convention Center-5A

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group, Business Meeting 5:50

Thirty years after his death, what is Foucault’s lasting impact on the study of social order and power? How does Foucault’s work inform analyses of the intersections of religion and the social, political, and cultural? And how might we (continue to) think differently? The papers in this session take up key Foucauldian texts, themes, and theories in conversation with specific empirical data and case studies. Topics include: confession rituals, genetic science, and memorials at Newtown, CT.

Kati Curts, Yale University, Presiding

Ann M. Burlein, Hofstra University, Responding

Daniel Moseson, Syracuse University

Foucault, Science, and Power after Thirty Years

Benjamin Fong, University of Chicago

To Judge and To Be Judged: Michel Foucault on Confession

M. Gail Hamner, Syracuse University

Foucault, Kant, and the Affective Reception of Dramatic Discourse

Business Meeting:

William E. Arnal, University of Regina

David Walker, University of California, Santa Barbara

A23-219    The Frankfurt School: Foundations and Fixations

Sunday – 1:00 PM-2:30 PM

Convention Center-28C

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

In a session that re-examines the foundations of critical theory and explores it’s contemporary uses, one paper looks at the ways in which Weberian theory was used – selectively – by members of the Frankfurt School; while another looks at the ways in which Habermasian theory uses the Frankfurt School: again, selectively. The two other papers explore relations between Adorno and Benjamin, and between Benjamin and Agamben.

Katja Rakow, Heidelberg University, Presiding

Devin Singh, Yale University, Responding

Joel Harrison, Northwestern University

Routinization, Rationalization, Renunciation: Weber’s Account of Christian Asceticism and its Relation to the History of Critical Theory

Agata Bielik-Robson, University of Nottingham

“Pulling the Brake”: Benjamin, Agamben, and the Anti-Progressive Messianism

Bryan Wagoner, Davis & Elkins College

The “Imaginary Witness”: Adorno’s Inverse Theology

Matt Sheedy, University of Manitoba

Discourses on “Postsecularism” in the Web of the Religion/Secular Binary

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

A25-120    Key Concepts in the Study of Religion

Tuesday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

Convention Center-22

The panelists in this session explore the discursive formation of key concepts in the study of religion, as well as the historiographic legacy of genealogical methods themselves. Under consideration are: human ‘agency’; ancient ‘magic’; American ‘secularism’ and ‘humanism’; and Beninese ‘religion.’ Not content merely to condemn these categories on account of labored or confused applications, the authors here explore also the possibilities of disciplined reclamation.

David Walker, University of California, Santa Barbara, Presiding

Jason C. Bivins, North Carolina State University, Responding

Shaily Patel, University of North Carolina

Many Marvels: Variations of Magical Discourse in Early Christian Traditions

Joseph Blankholm, Columbia University

The Interwoven Genealogies of Secularism and Humanism

Sonia Hazard, Duke University

The Construction of Agency as a Category in the Study of Religion

Elana Jefferson, Emory University

“Religion” and the Politics of Materiality: Confronting Immaterial Religion through Reflections on Vodoun Materialist Orientations


Posted in Announcements, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holiday Films and Discursive Celebrations: Exchange, Confluence, and The Book of Life

Book of Life Image

by Doug Valentine

Perhaps it’s the fact that I am a new dad (two weeks on the job), but I’ve paid far more attention to advertisements for children’s movies this fall. One film in particular has peaked my interest. The 20th Century Fox synopsis for the new film, The Book of Life, reads as follows:

From producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez comes an animated comedy with a unique visual style. The Book of Life is the journey of Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. Before choosing which path to follow, he embarks on an incredible adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

The film features to supernatural antagonists, La Muerte and Xibalba, two gods whose wagers effect the life of the protagonist, Manolo. Through the course of the film, Manolo is transformed into a catrina-esque skeletal figure, at which point he must journey through lands of the living and dead to reunite with his lost love. The film draws its inspiration from Mexican tradition, including Dias de Muertos and indigenous myth (the god Xibalba is a reference to the Mayan land of the dead).

The addition of a Days of the Dead-themed children’s movie for mainstream audiences is worthy of academic consideration. The film’s producer, Guillermo del Toro has expressed his excitement at the opportunity to showcase the unique imagery of Mexican culture to a new crowd, saying the film is “not just folklore memory. It’s punk, scat, rock ‘n roll modernity. It’s a colorful and playful celebration of the life of all those who came before us.” Despite this clear influence, an overwhelming majority of television advertisements for the film make no mention of the Days of the Dead (though admittedly, longer trailers available online do). Rather, the film has been billed as a “Halloween adventure” for which audiences should “grab their costumes.” The goal of my post is not to prescriptively claim 20th Century Fox should or shouldn’t bill The Book of Life as a Halloween or Days of the Dead movie, but to illustrate one more in a long history of exchanges between these two events.

Anthropologist Stanley Brandes has written extensively about Days of the Dead in Mexico and the United States (see Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: the Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond, 2007). As he notes, the northern border states of Mexico were no strangers to Halloween as early as the 1940s. However, the mass importation of Halloween merchandise following the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), coupled with a significant increase of U.S. citizens, both workers and tourists, led to the presence of the American holiday in the previously untapped regions of central and southern Mexico. This far more recent incursion, along with the rise in Mexican national identification with the Days of the Dead in northern states, has led to the mixed reception among various segments of the population toward carved pumpkins, trick-or-treaters, and costumed witches and devils on the streets of Oaxaca, Michoacán, and elsewhere.

Following a revival of Dias de Muertos symbolism during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s (see Regina M. Marchi’s Day of the Dead in the USA: the Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon, 2009 for more on Dias de Muertos and social movements), elementary and secondary schools around the country began to include Days of the Dead lessons in their curricula. NAFTA eased this process, making children’s literature on the Days of the Dead in Mexico and the United States far more readily available. Despite the light-hearted intention, these activities in public schools were not met with a warm reception by some parents. Often, issue was raised with the religious implications of the activities. Concerned parents tended to overemphasize (or only emphasize) folk aspects and what they perceived to be elements of pre-Columbian cults of the dead, rejecting the notion that these practices conformed to perceived universal Christian celebrations. In response, schools around the country have tried to strip the lessons and activities of any religious meaning and symbolism, emphasizing rather the cultural dimensions of the holiday (this discursive categorization is interesting in its own right, but cannot be addressed here). These moves, in turn, have sparked outrage among certain segments of practicing communities, who feel Days of the Dead celebrations deprived of their religious significance are perversions without a purpose.

Echoed by David J. Skal (Death Makes a Holiday: a Cultural History of Halloween, 2002), the implementation of NAFTA increased the amount of goods traveling across the U.S.-Mexican border in both directions. At the same time American shoppers were introduced to colorful wall art of dancing skeletons and intricately carved emaciated figurines, residents of Mexico were likewise finding Halloween items in their local shops for the first time. Additionally, an increase in television programming from the United States further inundated Mexicans with images of apple bobbing and werewolves on October 31st. Despite this potential conflict, Brandes points out, “[F]or most Mexicans…there is one major holiday at the end of October and beginning of November. It [does not] occur to [them] to distinguish between Halloween and Day of the Dead [sic] traditions (Brandes 124).” Days of the Dead rituals and Halloween symbolism and activities have now come to represent one celebration to a majority of Mexicans, though those who see the presence of Halloween as a detriment to Mexican national identity are quite vocal, claiming the preservaiton of the Days of the Dead is only possible through the rejection of americanismos (Americanisms), including Halloween, viewed quite emphatically as a form of American cultural imperialism.

The last half-century has seen an increased exchange in Days of the Dead and Halloween symbolism on both sides of the border, resulting in periods of representational contestation and appropriation. It will be interesting to see how The Book of Life contributes this discourse. 20th Century Fox, perhaps anticipating similar parental anxiety toward the film, has downplayed the influence of Days of the Dead and instead invited audiences to an innocuous “Halloween adventure,” reminiscent of the devaluation of overtly “religious” signifiers in elementary and secondary education classroom activities across the country. Recent developments in international film markets makes it equally possible The Book of Life will have as great an effect in other parts of the globe as the importation of literature and decoration throughout the United States following NAFTA. The Book of Life will be released nationwide this Friday. Though my son is a bit too young to make the trip, I will follow reaction to the film with great interest.

Doug Valentine earned a BS in Religious Studies and Psychology from Bradley University in Peoria, IL and an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, where he is currently pursuing his PhD in Sociology. His academic interests include cultural theory, contemporary death and remembrance rituals, transnational religion, and identity.

Posted in Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Juggling It All: Tips on Research and Writing, Part 2










* This is part two of a mini-series feature with the Bulletin on tips for research and writing. Part one can be found here.

Helen Mo: Being a very lateral/intuitive thinker, I’ve found that sketching thought-webs on coloured lined paper is great for getting around the fundamentally linear and sterile technology of word processing software. In the preliminary stages of writing, the physical act of doodling draws my ideas out into visual/spatial form. I then refine the ideas while typing them up in a Word document under colour-coded subheadings. Once they’re solidified into sentences and paragraphs I can tweak, drag around, and reorder them. Lord knows what I would have done in the age of typewriters. As for organization, I keep a meticulously organized system of folders on Google Drive, and have dedicated online documents (accessible by smartphone app) for spur-of-the-moment ideas or reading recommendations.

Karen de Vries: For writing, I love having a large whiteboard (actually I have 3) that I use to diagram or mindmap my ideas at the beginning of each writing session. Then when I come back to it the next day, I have a visual diagram of where I was and what I was thinking the day before. Sometimes it stays the same, but often I rework it. Also, write every day. Even if it’s for a small chunk of time. Writing is thinking. For keeping track of notes, articles, and keywords I use a somewhat ad-hoc filing system. Articles are all filed (digitally and paper) alphabetically by last name. Then I also have keyword files (again, digital and paper because I use both media) where I put the notes for whichever keywords or themes my current research project revolves around. When I write, I pull the most relevant files and notes into my writing realm.

Adam Miller: This may be a bit simplistic (and it may very well be something most people already do), but it is a habit I developed as an undergraduate and it has paid off so far. I always provide full bibliographic citations as I’m writing. More specifically, I provide full bibliographic citations each and every time I cite a source–even if I’ve already cited it above, even if I’m citing the same source a few times in a row.

For whatever reason, having my citations in order (and, when the writing gods aren’t being kind to me, getting them in order) helps me in a big-picture kind of way. It may not help the writing process, but it helps minimize stress caused by things that can easily be avoided. 

Also… to minimize the stacks of books Kenneth and Craig mention (in part one), and also to help me put together thoughts, I sometimes find myself typing up notes that I’ve taken. That way I can later organize them in either a single word document or several by topic, how I plan to use the information, or whatever.

Tara Baldrick Morrone: One thing that I always do (or try to anyway) is to print any electronic articles because I find that I can read them more carefully and retain more information like that than if I read them on the computer. Recently, while studying for my first comprehensive exam, I started using different colored highlighters or post-it notes (for library books) for different pieces of information (historical data, the scholar’s argument, particular themes, etc.) in books or printouts. That way, when I go back to look through the readings, I could quickly pick out whatever topic I was looking for by looking for that particular colour.

Jeffrey WheatleyTo echo what Craig Martin said, I think spatial distinctions can be crucial, at least for some of us. Light reading in bed. Discussion prep, peer review, heavy reading at library. Administrative stuff, social media, CFPs, emails, etc. at coffee shops (or just in the morning as I drink coffee). Heavy research and writing in apartment office. The transition between these spaces (walking, commuting) serve as a nice break and an opportunity to shift gears.

Karen Zoppa: It’s very interesting that no one has mentioned housework, shopping, transportation, child care – in and out of the home – as if these necessities are not part of any life, including academic life – or are we all still living the ideal cloistered life? Not to mention caring for elderly and less able family, trying to maintain friendships, and even – gasp – “fun” ! Just sayin’ . . . That “said,” I have always banked my time preciously – because if I don’t have to clean it, cook for it, feed it, comfort it, or entertain it, I better actually engage with it for the few precious hours of solitude. Good rule – never take work home – work at your campus space – even on weekends. You tend to get a lot done.

Even if the focus is on “paid” work, it is still performed in the context of domestic necessities and I am bemused that this is not addressed in a discussion about “organizational strategies.” The elephant squats in our midst.

Posted in Karen de Vries, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment