Critical Question Series 2: Craig Martin

Craig Martin1

Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Executive Secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. His books include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere (Equinox 2010) A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox 2012). 

In this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, we ask scholars of religion how they negotiate the difficult line between “politics” and scholarship. The previous responses can be found here and here.

The line between scholarship and politics or, if you like, between theory building and political commitments, is a notoriously difficult one to negotiate. For some, scholarship should only be about describing and explaining, while for others advocacy (i.e., changing the world for the better) is also an important part of what we do in the academy. While making explicit one’s historical and institutional circumstances, along with the logic and process behind one’s methods and theories is an important step in addressing this issue, it still does not answer the question of advocacy—whether or not it should be done or what counts for it in the first place. With reference to your own experience, institutional affiliation and scholarly identity, what are your thoughts on this matter?

In my previous post on the difference between confessional and non-confessional approaches, I suggested that social or political agendas should not wag the dog of scholarship. However, this is not to say that scholarship isn’t or shouldn’t be political. On the contrary, I would argue that everything is political. Knowledge is inevitably tied up with the advancement of some social agendas, the retarding of others, with the maintenance of the status quo, or with calling it into question. As Foucault claims (and with which Nietzsche would certainly have agreed), “Knowledge is not for knowing; knowledge is for cutting.” If I place, for instance, patriarchal forms of culture under the knife in my courses, it’s because I’m interested in denaturalizing their operations of power. If politics is war by other means, then education is politics by other means.

Nevertheless, I also agree with Durkheim, who claimed that “The sociologist’s task is not that of the statesman.” I have been trained to read, analyse, write, etc., but nowhere in my doctoral program did I learn the fine art of electioneering (and I doubt I would be any good at it). Analysis and advocacy strike me as very different practices. While I may attempt to denaturalize covert operations of power in the classroom (clearly a political act), I do not tell students what they should do about it. If I were called upon to justify this line I’ve drawn in the sand—forbidding advocacy for myself—I would attempt to defend it by pointing both to the fact that I’ve not been trained as a politician and, perhaps more importantly, to the fact that while all knowledge claims are precarious, imperatives are far more so.

On most days I am pessimistic regarding how deep knowledge cuts. Education is an ideological state apparatus (ISA) tied to the reproduction of class difference (see Bourdieu). In his critique of ISAs, Althusser inserts a side comment praising those within the system who throw sand in the gears:

I ask the pardon of those teachers who, in dreadful conditions, attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they “teach” against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped. They are a kind of hero. But they are rare and how many (the majority) do not even being to suspect the “work” the system (which is bigger than they are and crushes them) forces them to do.

While I’d love to think I’m such a hero, I’m doubtful. I’m a privileged middle class professor, teaching (mostly) privileged students who will graduate and enter the workforce to become middle class functionaries. My job, if I’m approaching it with a hermeneutic of suspicion, is apparently to rank or divide students into groups that—not surprisingly—tend to reflect their class of origin. While I might get students to think critically about the relation between culture and social domination for a semester or two, “the system” has in place incentives and impediments that largely prevents us from doing anything other than talking about it. Knowledge cuts, but they might be paper cuts.

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3 Responses to Critical Question Series 2: Craig Martin

  1. Amod Lele says:

    Question then (not rhetorical, I’ve struggled with variants of it myself): If that critical thinking doesn’t get them to do anything beyond talk about it, why bother teaching them to do even that?

  2. Randi Warne says:

    My view is, you don’t stop planting gardens because all the seeds don’t grow. There are always some unintended consequences. I was a tutor in an ethics class at U of Toronto and one of my students was Guy Giorno, and I absolutely refuse to take responsibility for how he turned out! Do the best you can. Some people’s lives are changed by what you teach. I expect it’s like having kids.

    • Amod: I’d *like* them to do something more than talk about it. But the two problems are: 1) I’m not sure professors are structurally in a place to make that happen, in part because 2) I think that turning the classroom into a place from which to issue normative claims would have corrosive effects on the authority attributed to professors and their scholarship (for, as I note, imperatives are precarious).

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