Theses on Professionalization Series: Matthew W. Dougherty


In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single theses, addressing its contemporary relevance and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world.

Matthew W. Dougherty

Theses 1. Academia is unlike other professions in that the pre-professional period of training–which includes coursework, dissertation research and writing, and teaching assistantships–is not akin to an apprenticeship. Accordingly, there is no direct linkage between the accumulation of credentials and admission to the profession, no necessary relationship between feeling oneself to be qualified and the ability to obtain full time employment as a university professor.

The value of McCutcheon’s first thesis lies in its canny assessment of the gap between the expectations of the market and the listed requirements of the Ph.D program. Reflecting on it as a current doctoral candidate, my main reaction is twofold. First, most doctoral students I’ve encountered already seem to be aware of the realities addressed in this thesis, even if they are not aware of what, precisely, are the “extra” things they need to do beyond the program requirements. Second, because of disparities in the amount of time and prior preparation graduate students have it is critical for their mentors to reflect on this thesis and think about how they can help their students learn the many skills necessary to survive in academia that are not conveyed by the credentials accumulated in graduate school.

Most doctoral students I know started graduate school already knowing that they couldn’t count on finding jobs in higher education, let alone tenure-track ones, simply by ticking off the boxes on their program’s list of requirements. My peers and I are already dogged by the feeling that there is always something we could, and probably should, be doing to better our chances on the job market: cultivating an online presence, talking to potential collaborators at conferences, publishing additional articles, or finding mentors to help with our self-identified weaknesses. At the root of all this activity is the belief that, ultimately, doctoral students are responsible for our own education and professionalization. Whether a new Ph.D gets a job or not is, if you listen to most doctoral students I know, a function of that student’s success or failure at professionalizing above and beyond what the program requires.

Approaching graduate school this way holds both promise and peril. It encourages thinking intentionally about one’s doctoral training, which can have personal as well as professional benefits. If graduate school is to be more than simply an exercise in getting a job, if there is joy and fulfillment to be found in scholarship and research, then one of the most vital goals of graduate education has to be for students to become intentional about their own learning and thinking. Academia holds out the promise, even if it is often illusory for the increasing number of contingent faculty, of a career spent researching whatever one finds most interesting. When doctoral students take charge learning to direct our careers and research while there are still mentors readily accessible to help, we are preparing ourselves for such a life far better than when we concentrate on simply accumulating credentials.

But expecting graduate students to discern what they must do to professionalize and to take steps in their own time to fill those needs has its dangers. It ignores the fact that not all graduate students have equal amounts of time “free” after teaching, coursework, and research to work on professionalization. For example, those with family responsibilities such as young children or aging parents—a group that includes disproportionate numbers of women and people of color— have significantly less extra time available to strategically professionalize themselves after hours and on the weekends than those without. Neither do all graduate students, even as separate Master’s degrees become more commonplace in our field, arrive in doctoral programs having had equal amounts of exposure to academic culture and knowing equally well where to direct their energies. Knowing what conferences are most relevant, which books to read, how to write a book review, or how to craft an academic CV are all necessary skills for success in our field. Some doctoral students will have acquired many of these skills during their undergraduate years, but others will not. Often, this is a result of class divisions: colleges and universities that don’t expect many of their graduates to go into academia will be much less likely to offer opportunities to learn skills relevant to that field.

With that reality in mind, graduate students can be expected to take responsibility for directing their own education, but they cannot be expected to learn to do so without help. This is where McCutcheon’s thesis has the most value from my perspective: in reminding mentors of graduate students of the realities of getting a doctorate in today’s market and helping them to be clear—to themselves and to their students— about what it will take to succeed. Sending, even by omission, the message that accumulation of credentials is enough does the most harm to those students with the least additional time or prior knowledge of academia.

Fortunately, although, again, most doctoral students I’ve met are remarkably self-directed, not all professionalization has to happen in students’ “spare time” or entirely under their own steam. I have taken graduate seminars that required students to create syllabuses or write book reviews— assignments which teach research and argumentation while having a more direct relationship to daily life in academia than does the traditional seminar paper. New student orientation in my program includes discussions of the job market and advice on assembling a teaching portfolio. Many of the professors I’ve served as a Teaching Assistant have taken the time to observe me teaching and to discuss strategies for improvement with me. These were all concrete decisions that the professors in my program made to help their students keep sight of the longer-term goal of professional development rather than focus only on the short-term challenges of coursework and teaching. My hope is that reflection on McCutcheon’s thesis will encourage mentors of graduate students to make choices that foster the growth of specific professional skills without assuming that work on professionalization must happen in addition to, or even in competition with, the normal demands of a graduate program.

Matthew W. Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studies race and religion in North America from 1500-1860, focusing on missions, whiteness and Native American Christianities.

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NASSR Notes: Robert Yelle


NAASR Notes is a feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

by Robert Yelle

My current book project, , develops a theory of certain exceptional states commonly identified as religious (think Victor Turner’s “liminality”) as expressions of sovereignty. Earlier chapters focus on exceptions to the political and legal orders, drawing on Carl Schmitt’s analogy between the sovereign decision and the miracle—as well as on the manner in which both of these analogous ideas came under assault as a result of the rise of a theory of polity and divinity that emphasized normativity and the rule-bounded nature of sovereignty. Later chapters, drawing on Georges Bataille, consider apparent exceptions to the mundane economic order—as in the case of destructive sacrifices or the biblical Jubilee, which returned farmers to their land, and released debtors from debt. I argue that such exceptional moments in some cases represent the idea of a plenary sovereignty associated with what is called by political theorists the constituting power: the power to make or unmake a legal order. In some cases, such as the Jubilee, such moments may even represent the idea of a return to a condition that is before and beyond the constraints of social order, and play a role in the imagination of the polity analogous to that played in modern social contract theory by the fiction of a state of nature.

The book engages with a number of theoretical trends in the contemporary study of religion, as well as with political and economic theories. I have been particularly influenced by Giorgio Agamben’s readings of Schmitt, as well as by rational choice theories of the economics of religion, which appear to me to overstate the convergence of homo economicus with homo religiosus. Although of course these are a single species, the behavior of this species seems to me more complex than some current theories, which make utilitarianism the basis of a universal norm, allow.

Although I have been researching these topics for about six years, most of the book was written during a fellowship in 2013-14 at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University Law School. Since moving last fall to a new position as Professor for the Theory and Method of Religious Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, where I chair an interfaculty program, I have had little time for writing. However, through conversations with colleagues, I have been able to think through some of these issues a bit further. Dr. Anne Koch, who teaches in our program, has compiled an open-access online bibliography on the economics of religion that is hosted on the LMU website, and recently published an introduction to the subject that should become one of the basic works in the field: Religionsökonomie: Eine Einführung (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2014). The economics of religion is an exciting field in part because it is so new, and there is so much that still needs to be done. A few years ago, I organized a NAASR panel on the topic that featured presentations by Greg Alles, Gustavo Benavides, and myself; my own presentation previewed ideas in Sovereignty and the Sacred.

One idea that recurs throughout the book is that of singularity—not in the sense in which this is used in contemporary accounts of artificial intelligence, but rather in the more basic sense of uniqueness. The sovereign, in many traditional Christian political theologies, enjoyed a power that was unique and, to some extent, unpredictable, at least in the sense that it could not be subjected to external constraints. This is the idea that binds two different illustrations of God’s absolute power (potentia dei absoluta) in the High Middle Ages: the miracle, which breaks natural law, and the divine command, which breaks the moral law, at least as far as humans understand it, by prescribing bloody sacrifices and other forms of violence, as well as apparently irrational rituals. The reasoning of those who favored divine command theory was as follows: no command is good in itself, but a command is good because God commands it, or else God would not be free and omnipotent. Sovereignty is equivalent to freedom, if not arbitrariness.

Carl Schmitt argued that this notion of absolute sovereignty, which had been extended from God to human rulers, was proscribed under Deism. Although my colleague Heinrich Meier has told me that Schmitt was referring to French Deism, his contention fits English Deism perfectly. In the 18th century, Deists such as Matthew Tindal and Thomas Morgan condemned the God of the Hebrew Bible as arbitrary and capricious, and insisted that human reason was sufficient for morality and salvation. Concurrently, they argued that miracles, if they ever existed, had long ago ceased.

The idea that miracles had ceased by the end of the Apostolic age was actually advanced early in the Christian era, but it acquired a special significance in English Protestantism, where by the beginning of the 17th century it was already a mainstream idea deployed against Catholics in particular. In the first chapters of my book, I show how the proscription of miracles articulated with transformations in ideas concerning divine and royal sovereignty, transformations that, in the Deist period, shaped some of the background of our modern ideas of polity. I also trace how such transformations informed later ideas of disenchantment, which, as I have argued in previous publications, can be traced directly to earlier theological narratives. In fact, Schmitt already pointed us in this direction when he labeled Max Weber’s theory of the routinization of charisma as a “Protestant political theology”: by presenting disenchantment as an historical event, Weber was actually taking sides in a theological debate. Weber’s account of modernity as the rise of “calculability” (Berechenbarkeit) echoed earlier Deist efforts to eliminate the arbitrariness associated with the idea of a sovereign deity.

It is striking to me how little is known still about the impact of such theological ideas on our ostensibly secular modern age. While scholars such as Talal Asad and Michael Saler have identified disenchantment correctly as a narrative, the origins and consequences of this narrative demand further attention. Asad traces disenchantment to Romanticism, but Romantic nostalgia—as expressed for example in the trope of the vanishing of the gods from the world, or the “death of Pan”—was actually only a later echo of earlier Christian triumphalism at the defeat of paganism and Judaism. For example, in the 1660s, the theologian John Spencer, who is more famous for his later work on ancient Israelite ritual, argued that Christ’s death on the Cross was the event that silenced the pagan oracles, caused miracles to cease, and ushered in a new era in which religion would be “sedate, cool and silent.” This was important, he argued, because if God were to continue to work through miracles, prophecies, and other events that defy reason and order, then human beings would live in fear for their lives, and for their salvation. Think of Spencer as “patient zero” in a modern trend toward disenchantment: even though he was not the first, he represented a nodal moment or local apex of the proscription of the miracle. Spencer also illustrates how disenchantment is not merely one narrative among others, but a variant of the central soteriological narrative of Christianity, a variant that had lingering implications for what Weber described as the modern insistence on “calculability.”

I enjoyed Ian Cuthbertson’s recent contribution to this series, where he discusses magic, disenchantment, and reenchantment. While agreeing with much of his approach, it should be clear from the above that I think a too-exclusive emphasis on recent centuries, much less on recent decades, can at best provide only an incomplete account of what the stakes of discourses of disenchantment have been for modernity, in terms of not only religion but also politics—these two categories being in fact inseparable. There is a lot of historical spadework, as well as of critical interpretation, that needs to be done before we can say that we have a full understanding of the genealogies of religion and the secular.

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On the Nature and Ends of Critique in the Study of Religion: Part Two


Edited by Craig Martin

Recently Critical Research in Religion (CRR) posted an editorial titled “How Can Mainstream Approaches Become More Critical,” written by editors Warren S. Goldstein, Roland Boer, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin. The editorial identified four sites where critique could be more critical: religious studies, theology, biblical criticism, and sociology of religion. They outline strengths and weaknesses of present forms of criticism at these sites, and suggest ways we could, as scholars, push the existing boundaries. Why be more critical? They emphasize the role of scholarship in improving the human condition: “At this moment of potentially renewed energy, we believe that an increased familiarity with critical theory broadly speaking could be mobilized more fully to refine and describe the study of religion as a matter of scholarship in the service of human interest” (5).

The editorial was shared widely on Facebook, and an extensive exchange took place on my own Facebook wall, largely between one of CRR’s editors, Warren S. Goldstein and Russell McCutcheon. I found the discussion interesting and revealing of a number of fault lines between different critical approaches in our field, so with the permission of those who commented, I excerpted and edited (primarily for clarity) the discussion for publication here.

Notably, this discussion has already generated responses. Roland Boer responds to the thread on his blog with a post titled “The Implicit Imperialism of the ‘Critical Religion’ Approach,” and Matthew Baldwin responds with “Parsing Boer’s Concept of Religious Studies.”

The contributors to the discussion include myself Craig Martin (St. Thomas Aquinas College) Matthew Baldwin (Mars Hill University), Warren S. Goldstein (Harvard University), Russell McCutcheon (University of Alabama), Per Smith, and Ian Wilson (University of Alberta).

Part One can be found here.


Per Smith: Russell, as a theorist do you actually reduce values to institutional norms? Or do you replace values or the explanatory power of so called “values” with something else (that’s an earnest question)? My (bad) joke about algorithms was supposed to suggest that stopping at social norms reduces explanations of human behavior to rule following. I assume you believe that something reproduces that behavior. I’m happy to agree that “values” are analytically less useful than other alternatives, but people have come to understand their own reproduction of social norms through values talk. Social institutions may actually be chief among them, working ceaselessly to ground normative behavioral expectations in “values.” The academy is no exception. I guess I see you as resisting that, but then aren’t you also resisting institutional norms around understanding behavioral expectations through so called values? There is nothing wrong with that—in fact there may be benefits to doing so—but I’m not sure it completely answers Warren’s question. What if we recast the question more generally: to what end does one resist values talk? If that end cannot itself be tied to a series of values, then how does one describe the benefits, especially within a cultural field that relies on values talk?

Russell McCutcheon: When I hear an appeal to these things called values I generally find rhetorics of ahistory, transcendentalism, normativity, often wrapped up with an appeal to individual depth of being, the human condition, etc. Thus I steer well clear of that term, “value,” and, in these pithy comments, happily redescribe it as norm if by that I now get the reader’s eye on institutions, on history, on contingency, on interpellation and the co-constitution of self/group, and on the means by which what we call values are portrayed/perceived as self-evident and thus disengaged from circumstance. So a thoroughly redescribed discourse on values is what I’m aiming at here.

Matthew Baldwin: I’m all for progress—especially those forms of it that Warren described above—but I think that scholarship cannot bear the weight of the demand being placed upon it by the idea that it must be “critical” in the terms being proposed in the editorial. If we assert that scholars must either pursue a (sometimes hard to discern or define or agreed upon) progressive social agenda, or be maligned as insufficiently “critical,” then we shift the grounds of the term “critical” as it is ordinarily used in most disciplines, in favor of the (historically situated) Frankfurt-school definition of Critical Theory (along the lines of Raymond Geuss’ account of it—he was a teacher of mine). It’s not entirely clear to me, in any case, that the progressive achievements described above are the result of any past scholarship at all, let alone scholarship that meets the definition of “critical” being proposed. Scholarship always plays a role in change, but only as a participant in larger matrices of discourses and action. I think the individual scholar is well served by observing institutionally agreed upon norms; more so than by deciding upon values and then acting upon them. And they’re even more well-served by critical doubt about their own positive influence on social progress. I have no doubt that one’s values influence one’s decisions about what to do with one’s time, but it is doubtful whether we can occupy these highly endowed chairs of social privilege in our own time and yet credibly claim to promote progress away from the status quo with our studies of “religion,” whatever it is that we mean by this term.

Craig Martin: Warren, I’m not sure Russell and I agree completely about all of these issues, but I think we’re agreed on a central point. In my own words: I think that as scholars and teachers we must relentlessly historicize and denaturalize what presents itself as beyond history or as natural. I do have interests (my preference is to frame this in terms of interests rather than values) that drive my scholarship—e.g., I’m not a fan of patriarchy and I find that capitalism is exploitative. This might lead me to attempt to historicize or denaturalize patriarchy or capitalism. However, what I strongly attempt not to do is to thereby naturalize an alternate set of interests—e.g., I don’t want to present feminism or socialism as divine in origin, as reflecting universal truths or values, or as truly just. To say that feminism is truly just merely naturalizes a new set of social interests. Instead, I’m more likely to show how patriarchy has its own idea of justice, tied to one set of interests, and feminism has another idea of justice, tied to another set of interests, and to leave it to my readers or my students whose interests they share. That way I’m never appealing to universal truths or values, thereby violating the imperative to historicize. Instead, “truths” always turn out to be relative to various social interests, and although it’s pretty clear to my students where my interests lie, I don’t presume their interests are the same as mine and I don’t try to naturalize mine. In this way I’m most definitely political—how could denaturalizing a regnant discourse not be political?—but I don’t think I’m advancing “values” or “progress” in the way you seem to want. Consider this quote from The German Ideology: “For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society.” I feel like it’s my job as a scholar to keep a spotlight on this process or movement, as opposed to engaging in the movement itself by presenting my interests as universal. And, to reflexively look back on the game I’m playing by citing Marx: of course I only cite Marx because I assume it’s a shared authority between Warren and me—by no means is Marx intrinsically or universally authoritative, although by continuing to cite him can have the effect of naturalizing his authority.

Ian Wilson: Craig, although we do not want to present our interests as universal—I totally agree with you here—in the classroom environment our interests come across as authoritative in some way within our institutional contexts (whether we like it or not), right? We are the “professors,” after all. How can we then avoid promoting some kind of interests, even if unconsciously? I also imagine that you appreciate it when a student with different interests than your own changes her/his mind and adopts your interests, no? In other words, don’t you think we implicitly advocate for our interests anyways and always? Is it even possible not to?

CM: Ian, absolutely, no doubt! I think that absolute transparency and reflexivity is impossible, and yes, we carry authority with the stamp of approval from the institutions that have hired us to teach. But I think that’s not a free pass to go nuts with it but rather a reason to be all the more careful. It’s an asymptotic goal, not an achievable one, in my opinion. In an attempt to be reflexive, we talk about my authority in the classroom, and I try to draw attention to how my interests might lead me to present the material one way or another. I literally ask them what motive or agenda drives how I organize my courses—thus turning the spotlight on myself in order to denaturalize my authority. I don’t know if it works, but I try.

IW: I haven’t actively focused on myself and my assignments/lectures yet, though I try to point out, from time to time, the politics of the classroom/university. Perhaps I’ll try integrating an assignment/discussion that focuses on my own assignments and discussions. I’ve heard of others having students design assignments in order to point out these very things in the process.

CM: Ian, it’s something that a more junior instructor or a minority might find precarious. I can question my own authority in the classroom without losing all of my authority. I imagine a woman teaching about feminism or a black man teaching about white privilege might not have the same experience. This has got me thinking that the ease with which I can denaturalize authority in the classroom might be part of my white, male privilege.

Warren S. Goldstein: Russell, Craig, and Matthew: Okay, I am thinking about values in both Nietzschean and Weberian terms (naturally both of which influenced the Frankfurt School). But if we think about major historical movements, slave morality (to use Nietzsche’s term, including Judaism, Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Socialism) was based on a set of related values and the further extension of them: freedom, equality before god, political equality, economic equality. So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I would make a case that we need to go with what has been historically efficacious (while acknowledging that each of these movements has also had its regressive institutionalization). Yes, there is a tendency to universalize these values. But isn’t this what gives them their impact? Isn’t this why some of us are interested in the study of religion to begin with? I agree that there are conflicting values and conflicting interests. But finding those common threads (values) which unite the majority of a society against the self-interest of a ruling minority is the key to progressive social change.

CM: Warren, I guess where we differ is that, as a scholar, I think those values you’d like to advance are another type of propaganda. As a citizen, it’s exactly the kind of propaganda I might get behind (I not using “propaganda” here in the pejorative sense), but in the classroom and as a scholar I feel like it’s my duty to try to show how it’s still another type of propaganda. Perhaps I’m too much of a relativist for your tastes?

WSG: Craig, I think you need to distinguish between teaching and research. One of the best ways to teach is to present multiple positions, leave it open, and have the students grapple with it. In research, on the contrary, we make arguments. We take a mass of facts, assemble them and present them as a narrative. By the way, both your and Russell’s positions strike me as somewhat postmodern. I am not a big fan of the term propaganda. In addition, I think those who hide behind value neutrality or objectivity in reporting are not being honest. I don’t see the use of values as manipulation of the masses. Or, another way to think about it, would Martin Luther King or Gandhi (to name just two) ever have achieved anything without appealing to some common values?

CM: Warren, when you say “postmodern” is that a pejorative? I don’t identify as postmodern, but I’m most definitely a post-structuralist. I think we’re agreed on those, e.g. sociologists, who hid behind value neutrality. That’s frustrating and they lack self-reflection and theoretical sophistication. As concerns Martin Luther King or Gandhi, of course they wouldn’t have achieved what they did without appealing to common values! But they weren’t scholars of religion, they were—in my opinion—successful propagandists. When I teach about historical figures like that, I focus on how they manipulated their cultural inheritances in order to construct an ideology designed achieve the social or political goals they desired. But that’s what separates me from them: they’re doing political work, while I’m analyzing how political work is done. I think what their first-order discourse is data for my second-order analysis. For instance, I teach a class on “The Evolution of Jesus,” where we look at pro-capitalist and pro-socialist Jesuses. While my political sympathies lie with the authors of the pro-socialist Jesuses, in class (or in my research) I’m inclined to analyze how they manipulate the New Testament for their particular goals. On the one end we look at things like liberation theology, on the other end we look at Bill O’Reilly’s book on Jesus. But in either case my goal is the same: to reveal how the appeals to Jesus’ authority function and how authors project their own values backward in time.

WSG: No, I don’t mean postmodern as pejorative. I meant it as an emphasis on cultural relativism and a refrain from metanarratives. As for being a scholar, I see it as inherently political. I don’t see you can separate the two. Maybe in this respect, I am following Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

CM: I too think I’m following the 11th thesis, insofar as I want to denaturalize dominant narratives, but I probably wouldn’t go much farther than that in attempting to bring about “change.”

RM: I’m not trying to persuade the students of anything, to be honest. In classes I’m modeling for them a certain way of talking about what people do/say, a way that is authorized by a disciplinary framework in which they have enrolled when they walk into my class; I’m initiating them into a way of talking about, redescribing if you will, the things human beings do, seeing the people we study all as historically mundane but interesting nonetheless–ourselves included, inasmuch as we’re people too. And then inviting students to consider if there is, for them, any utility in adopting and further developing this framework themselves and talking about the world in this manner—for whatever ends they may wish to pursue.

PS: Russell, aren’t you trying to persuade them that thinking a certain way about these topics is worthwhile? One might also think that the approach is consciously “value neutral” or at least value free.

RM: Well, I’m trying to show them what is possible to talk about if we accept these parameters, starting points, and if we therefore acknowledge these limitations. Whether they think the results are worth remembering, engaging with, or reproducing at another site is entirely up to them. I take myself to be their data more than their teacher—I am the native informant of a certain way of talking about the world, in which we start with the assumption that people do not possess transcendental knowledge and are, instead, duking it out and/or collaborating over a host of things and doing so by contingent means. They (i.e., the students) are the participant/observers.

WSG: Or there is another way to go: I am teaching a lecture course at Harvard Divinity School in the fall on “Classics in the Sociology of Religion.” While providing students with all of the canon in mainstream sociology of religion, I am also engaging in a critique of it by presenting the apocrypha. I shall call the students’ attention to this from the beginning that I am putting a particular spin on the whole thing. It is not quite a balanced and neutral approach but the intention of it is to push the discipline and the students’ understanding of it beyond the boundaries.

CM: Which classics and which apocrypha?

WSG: It is based on one of my Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (MTSR) articles. Weber and Durkheim are accepted classics. One can also add Troeltsch and Niebuhr. But I am adding Marx, Engels, and Kautsky—particularly in relation to Weber and Troeltsch. I would also like to cover Bernstein but really don’t have enough time to assign him. As far as Durkheim, we’ll look at The Division of Labor in Society and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; for Weber, we will look at The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Economy and Society, Sociology of Religion, and “The Economic Ethics of World Religions” (covering China, India, and Ancient Judaism); for Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity (we’ll have no time for Predecessors of Modern Socialism); for Engels, The German Peasant Wars; for Marx we’ll read the typical early texts; for Troeltsch, Social Teachings; and for Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism.

RM: Here’s a suggestion—read your MTSR article for the first class, spend the rest of the course reading all the primary sources needed to chase down your footnotes and references, and then come back to that same MTSR essay at the end. In other words, read your essay on day one and then they have to sit down and say “To understand what Goldstein is going on about who all do we have to read before we come back to his article?”—and then they make the reading list with help from you and the course is on chasing down the background to the essay.

WSG: Thanks Russ! Good idea.

RM: That model is then an explicit exercise in scholarship—chasing down references, reading background, etc.


In lieu of a conclusion or summary of the discussion, instead I’ll take the last word by noting two things that stood out to me in this conversation.

First, it appears that these competing forms of criticism or critique are working with different models of subjectivity. I suspect that for some, a somewhat liberal model of subjectivity lies behind the desire to liberate subjects from oppression; others, by contrast, seem to be deploying a post-structuralist account of subjectivity, whereby subjects are theoretically displaced by fields of discourse and power—in which case “liberation” ceases to have the same theoretical purchase.

Second, I found it extremely interesting that all of those who entered this particular fray publicly present as cisgendered males. In the “Preface” to The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of ‘Religion,’ Russ McCutcheon and Bill Arnal argue that “critique” in the study of religion itself needs to be historicized: “What are the conditions of possibility of the kind of critical stance toward the concept of religion that this book embodies? What is the shape of that discourse, and who participates in it” (xiii)? In addition, they find “striking … the homogeneity of those involved and most prominent in [this critical] discourse, who are typically (albeit certainly not exclusively) male, ‘Western” … and Anglophone” (xiv). I found the voices of women in our discussion conspicuous by their absence.

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On the Nature and Ends of Critique in the Study of Religion: Part One


Edited by Craig Martin

Recently Critical Research in Religion (CRR) posted an editorial titled “How Can Mainstream Approaches Become More Critical,” written by editors Warren S. Goldstein, Roland Boer, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin. The editorial identified four sites where critique could be more critical: religious studies, theology, biblical criticism, and sociology of religion. They outline strengths and weaknesses of present forms of criticism at these sites, and suggest ways we could, as scholars, push the existing boundaries. Why be more critical? They emphasize the role of scholarship in improving the human condition: “At this moment of potentially renewed energy, we believe that an increased familiarity with critical theory broadly speaking could be mobilized more fully to refine and describe the study of religion as a matter of scholarship in the service of human interest” (5).

The editorial was shared widely on Facebook, and an extensive exchange took place on my own Facebook wall, largely between one of CRR’s editors, Warren S. Goldstein and Russell McCutcheon. I found the discussion interesting and revealing of a number of fault lines between different critical approaches in our field, so with the permission of those who commented, I excerpted and edited (primarily for clarity) the discussion for publication here.

Notably, this discussion has already generated responses. Roland Boer responds to the thread on his blog with a post titled “The Implicit Imperialism of the ‘Critical Religion’ Approach,” and Matthew Baldwin responds with “Parsing Boer’s Concept of Religious Studies.”

The contributors to the discussion include myself Craig Martin (St. Thomas Aquinas College) Matthew Baldwin (Mars Hill University), Warren S. Goldstein (Harvard University), Russell McCutcheon (University of Alabama), Per Smith, and Ian Wilson (University of Alberta).


Russell McCutcheon: The closing lines of the editorial read: “In each religious tradition, there is an invaluable content, which through criticism calls for redemption.” I really don’t understand what this is saying. Correction, I know all too well what this is saying.

Warren S. Goldstein: So which is it: you understand or you don’t understand?

RM: “Correction” suggests I do, all too well. Why even get involved in the game of what is or isn’t valuable? What ’are you trying to redeem? Why not just study social processes without trying to’ save humanity, your object of study, or whatever it is you want to save, rescue, or deliver?

WSG: Excuse the use of the term “redemption”—just playing on the contradictions. To the point—are you suggesting that religion has no content that is worth preserving?

RM: It has tons of content worth preserving—all the people we study think so. And it also has tons of content worth pitching out the window—or so another group of people think, no? But the question is why limit the study of religion to playing that game, by those normative rules—the game of figuring out what’s more valuable? Why not historicize or theorize that whole framework by studying it rather than taking sides in the value debate?

WSG: Because it is the values which enable us to strive for a more “just,” “egalitarian,” “free,” “democratic,” etc., society. Without them, we would be amoral and slip into a worse state of affairs. For many, things are bad enough now. The point is to make them better. As stated in the editorial, value neutrality is fine for understanding, but we are political and aim for higher ground. Sound familiar?

RM: And this is where I think this approach is highly problematic, for your sense of “freedom” or “justice” or “worse” or “higher ground” is no more grounded or authoritative than anyone else’s (it’s reflective of self-interest and, inasmuch as I share your interests, I’ll nod affirmatively, I guess, but if not…). But if this approach is admitted to the game of the academy, then any number of other no less troublesome positions are (rightly) going to want admission too—and benefit from all the perks that come with it. So no, that’s not the game that I’m paying qua scholar and not how I’ve used the word critique over the years.

WSG: I’m not claiming objectivity. Of course it is subjective. But how do you engage in critique without a set of values (whatever they are)? How do you “evaluate” social conditions? Are you in favor of value neutrality?

RM: I’ve written much about this very topic over the years, and I can’t rehash all of it here, but it seems to me the objectivity/neutrality debate is long over with. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes, and it also doesn’t mean we get sucked into a groundless rabbit hole either. Just because the rules of English aren’t woven into the fabric of reality doesn’t mean we can’t talk to each other, or type, like we are now. And it also doesn’t mean that “hat” ends up signifying anything and everything. This objectivity, truth, value, neutrality-talk seems to be a debate 20 or 30 years old.

WSG: The debate itself may be over but I think that, at least in sociology of religion, “value neutrality” pervades the entire sub-discipline. At least from my perspective, no one wants to say anything negative about those they are studying. On the contrary, too many are far too sympathetic.

RM: And that’s a problem—I’m in complete agreement. But I don’t think the solution is criticisms but critique, if by critique one means a rigorous historicization of such things as subjectivity, normative claims, etc., as carried out within the disciplinary parameters within which we work.

WSG: But how do you do so without using values? You still haven’t answered the question. Can you spell it out in a few sentences?

RM: I use tons of values in my work: don’t copy, return your books to the library on time, cite your sources, don’t split infinitives, listen carefully to people when you intend to describe what they’re saying/doing, shake their hand and say hello with a smile when you meet them for the first time, spend time on Facebook talking with colleagues, etc. Tons of values. I’m not trying to be silly here. But—and here’s the kicker, right?—none are grounded in the existential fabric of the universe. None float free of my subject position within a specific situation. None have authority beyond a specific setting. They’re all grounded within the institutional parameters of the profession that has credentialed me as an authority on a very specific/narrow range of things. (As a landowner I work with other values, as a son yet others.) I don’t know anything, qua scholar of religion, about justice-in-the-raw. As a citizen or a brother or a husband or son, etc., I may have all sorts of views on that, but as a scholar it would be a classic example of the fallacy of misplaced authority, I would argue (and that’s the key part—”I would argue”—I have to persuade you, give evidence, show implications, and not just assert or claim it) to listen to me going on, in a normative manner, about freedom or justice. So the values I work with are authorized not by my insights into the human condition but by my social group and the place I occupy in it. No reason you should wish to respect those values but inasmuch as you want to play along (be a student in my class, work with me as a colleague, etc.), my guess is that we will mostly give assent to those values and use them inasmuch as we’re within this institution that “values” books and debate and writing, etc.

WSG: I have no disagreement with you here—that values are socially situated and not objective. But I still maintain that it is impossible to engage in critique without them. Otherwise, we just engage in mere description. But to take this a step further, can some values become universal—or at least move in that direction? That is, is it possible to build consensus around them?

RM: If values are socially situated then the question is not whether some values can go in the direction of universality but whether some social situations (that ground those values) can go in the direction of hegemony. As for consensus, my use of the term hegemony indicates that I don’t think it’s really about consensus but, instead, subjectivity…

WSG: But values (like equality) can also be counter-hegemonic—that is, they can be continually extended (“revalued,” to use Nietzsche’s term). One also needs to consider when values come into conflict with each other (like economic freedom vs. economic equality). Behind this are conflicting actors with different interests.

RM: Agreed. Successful hegemonies are always managing and domesticating (or trying to) the competitors that inevitably comprise them—not always successfully, of course. So instead of working to achieve justice, as a scholar, I’m interested in historicizing it and so studying competing or even contradictory discourses on justice and the competing or even contradictory social worlds each legitimize—as well as the techniques used to paper over the competitions and contradictions, leading us to think/act as if we can just talk about justice as some real, tangible, settled thing.

WSG: So, you are deconstructing in this case justice and thereby engaging in a critique of the concept itself. But driving this is in fact another value—“the quest for truth,” as we stated in the editorial. Is it possible to get away from it? In this respect, there is a certain paradox in what you are doing.

RM: I’m not questing for truth. Honestly. No irony. I’m deploying a set of institutionally-relevant methods to talk about things I find curious, in hopes it has utility for others who may happen to share the curiosity. Truth isn’t the game I’m playing.

WSG: –Is “scientific truth” an actual reflection of the processes you describe?

RM: “Accuracy of description” is equivalent to “agreement on the conditions of the descriptive exercise itself.” So “truth” is equal to “the reproduction of truth conditions.”

WSG: It sounds value laden to me. It is a question of bringing it to the surface—of making it conscious.

RM: As I said above, sure, I have tons of values as a scholar or university professor, but they’re all institution-specific, none of universal or existential import.

WSG: I agreed with you there. But maybe I am a romantic hoping that somewhat of a consensus can be built around a certain set of values that drive forward progressive social change.

RM: That sounds like Habermas.

WSG: Yes, except I think he is too utopian in this respect. I take conflict for granted but just hope that those in the rearguard will slowly wither away.

Per Smith: The laundry list of “values” Russell produced above are not values, but behavioral rules—those rules among them that are in fact “institutional” could be considered norms (but not values). Values transcend specific rules of behavior by definition. Associating norms with values can answer the “why” questions that inevitably come up when valueless norms are named (though I’m not arguing that values are the only answer or even the best answer). So why does Russell return his books on time? Why does he shake hands? Why does he listen? Why does he cite his sources? Are there values, values that transcend the individual rules, tied up in the answers to those questions? I’d wager there are, at least for some of them. Besides, if there weren’t any values hiding in those answers, some might be lead to believe that the Russell described above is in fact no more than an academic algorithm.

RM: I’m quite happy, Per, to reduce what I see as overly ambitious transcendental value language to humdrum laundry lists of institutional norms. That’s what I was getting at. And Warren, it sounds to me like you want your historical cake and utopian icing too—there’s conflict but ultimately not really?

WSG: Yes, that sounds delicious. Chocolate cake with Vanilla frosting—the type one might find in Colorado. What shall we call it? But to the point—haven’t those turning points in history always been marked by acute conflict and aren’t these conflicts always expressed in ideological terms, which are based on opposing sets of values that have material interests underlying them? At least in terms of the forces of progress, haven’t the values that have guided them often been somewhat utopian? Perhaps it is just a motivational thing, but unless people have a vision of something better, they have no incentive.

RM: And by “progress” you mean?

WSG: Progress can be measured against specific values and these values (concepts) can be operationalized (e.g. freedom, equality, justice, democracy, etc.). This type of political, social, and economic progress is not linear. Since the process is contested, it is marked by movements and counter-movements, advances as well as reversals.

RM: The interesting thing is that we all critique late nineteenth century rhetorics of progress—it’s a rhetorical term of no analytic use to me, to be honest. Change is one thing, progress—loaded as it is with ahistorical teleology—is something entirely different to me.

WSG: As much as people complain about capitalism today (and it still has its downside), when you read about the conditions that Engels describes in his book about Manchester in the 1840s, they are deplorable: child labor, no factory regulations or housing codes, extreme pollution, etc. When the Left Hegelians were writing in Germany at the same time, there was an absolute monarchy and censorship. Or think about where you live—in the heart of the deep South. At one time there was slavery, then sharecropping and segregation. Even though many African-Americans are still part of the underclass, hasn’t there been progress in their overall conditions—the right to vote, economic opportunity, etc? Yes, it does sound somewhat teleological, and the progress has not been linear, but it has been there. I am not utopian where I think that ideals can ever be completely realized. But it is these values that have guided collective action which have enabled progress to be made.

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By Deeksha Sivakumar

Religion has always provided a reliable and recognizable brand name in the realm of the market where choices are too many. This is especially so in India, where Hindu gods have more celebrity appeal than any movie star and “Hinduism” quite actively involves itself in branding and public relations (PR). This usually occurs in three very visible ways:

1) Gods’ Celebrity appeal: Anything sold by a company named after a god, or endorsed by a god, celebrates success. Moreover, customers are more likely to think that those products have authentic powers to cure, heal, and enhance their lifestyle. This is very easy to regulate, because most Hindu gods come with favorite herbs, scents, objects, vehicles, animals, etc. They lend themselves to be easy brand ambassadors for their chosen goods and services. Sandal paste, flutes, yellow silk garments, peacocks, and butter, these are a few of Krishna’s favorite things. Gokul sandal powder and Brahma Herbs are popular brands associated with deities.

2) FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) companies promote prasādam and ritual offerings during major public festivals. Much like concerts in America where RedBull and Radioshack offer energy drinks and entertainment, FMCG companies inspire local masses to buy their products by supporting public rituals.  Recently in the Durga Puja of Bengal, rice and clarified butter companies paid for and offered their special ingredients to make the prasādam, which would be distributed among the visiting devotees.

3) Big corporate sponsors foster competition among practioners for festival displays and decorations by offering large cash prizes, especially during Navarathiri in Tamil Nadu. Local Newspapers provide certificates and publicity for winning doll displays in Arcot district. The abundance bestowed by the goddess during this festival is celebrated and interpreted as charity from media and wealthy family-owned companies. There is a social obligation to share the prosperity from the goddess with everyone else. Participating in such rituals is encouraged by the gods. When Navarathiri season begins, buying is essential to the festival itself. The market is encouraged and promoted every season. From an economic standpoint, Hindu rituals, festivals, and everyday life seem indispensable to support an economy based on goods and services.

In an American context, by contrast, this sort of overt use of God(s) to sell butter or soap would likely been seen as manipulative. Though religion affects our choices of cereal or President, god isn’t visibly endorsing them, and isn’t allowed too; because goods and services explicitly marketed through god’s aid may offend “secular” or non-religious sentiments. However, choice isn’t always an unhindered act. In choosing, we are often acting out of things that affect us, and god or religion is no exception. Also, while choosing is seemingly permitted to the consumer, the endorser, in this case god, isn’t allowed to choose anything at all.

To religious people too however, it may seem trivializing to associate an omnipotent god with basic human choices. Here, religion is incompatible with branding as it is considered politically incorrect and rather irreverent to mix religion and quotidian goods. Religious festivals like Christmas always talk about sharing rather than buying in a “true” Christmas sense. It seems rather hypocritical to me to identify that selling/buying goods and services is modern and inauthentic, and real Christmas is about giving. In order to give, one must buy or take, and the idea that objects trade hands thus accruing value is an antiquated one. To create this value, good marketing is required.

But after all what is irreverent and inauthentic about an act that sustains so much of our world like marketing and branding does? Religion, taking on a good marketing strategy always ‘catches us young’ and brands our choices with god(s). We are taught religion in most families before we are taught about sex. We are taught to do things that god likes us to do and stay away from things that god would punish us for, labeling some actions, in other words, as ‘endorsed by god.’ Just like any good marketer must create branding for a good or a service, religion’s marketers too must seek to create good faith among the masses. In this sense, the idea that branding is something outside of religion’s purview is quite absurd. To me, religion and marketing often go hand in hand and borrow technologies and strategies from one another.

Posted in Deeksha Sivakumar, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, South Asian Studies, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

NAASR Notes: Luther H. Martin


by Luther H. Martin

I have always been interested in a scientific approach to the study of religion, i.e., in explanatory models for that study. I was trained as a biblical scholar, and upon whatever theological trajectories biblical scholars might embark, they do know what theory is (even though most still operate out of nineteenth-century theory), they do know what counts as evidence, and they do know how to distinguish between explanation and religious understanding—at least the best of them do.

When I was teaching, I began to notice that students would come to my classes from other departments where explanatory models were offered for their subject matter, while in religious classes, they would be presented only with phenomenological descriptions. The reason, I suppose, is that explanatory models are critical and “reductionist” whereas departments of religion generally offer what I have called “religious appreciation courses.” For “religion” (or faith, or spirituality) seems to bear an a priori cultural assumption of virtue—in contrast to what is labeled in popular sources, and even in the halls of academia, as “inauthentic” or “corrupt” religious practice; flying airplanes into high buildings in the name of god, for example, is not “true” religion. Consequently, I became, in the 1990s, a strong advocate for the cognitive science of religion as offering the most promising explanatory paradigm to date for a scientific study of religion. Since my retirement in 2010, I have continued publishing and reading in this scientific vein of evolutionary and cognitive theory—the latest being E. Clark Barrett’s The Shape of Thought: How Mental Adaptations Evolve (Oxford University Press, 2015).

In 2014, I published a collection of essays that represent my intellectual history from the 1950s to the present (Deep History, Secularly Theory: Historical and Scientific Studies of Religion, Berlin: de Gruyter) and, in 2015, I published another collection of essays with a focus in my historical specialty of Hellenistic religions (The Mind of Mithraists: Historical and Cognitive Studies in the Roman Cult of Mithras, London: Bloomsbury). As the subtitles of both of these volumes indicate, I have always sought to apply a scientific perspective to a historiography of religions (and to the real-life data controlled by historians as a confirmation/falsification of artificial laboratory findings). While I welcome empirical and experimental evidence for the study of religion, it is the “presentism” of that research by many cognitive scientists of religion, i.e., their neglect of human history that has most recently begun to bother me. (See my review of Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods.Religion 44.4 (2014): 628-637).

The recent intellectual history of Western scholarship is marked, from the beginnings of the twentieth century, by a “turn within.” This emphasis on interiority, and consequently on subjectivity, is apparent in fields as diverse as psychology, medicine, literature, and art. (See the remarkable historical study by Harvard neurobiologist Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012). One of the exciting outcomes of this twentieth-century turn within is, of course, the contemporary fascination with and research on brains and on cognition. As a species, however, Homo sapiens have a geopolitical as well as an evolutionary history. In addition to our shared behavioral and cognitive proclivities, human populations are phenotypically adapted to particular times and places, and while these adaptations to geography and to our deep history are not deterministic, their legacies do constitute a constraining weight upon our present. Consequently, I have now begun reading, in addition to evolutionary and cognitive theory, such books as Norman Yoffe’s, Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations, Cambridge University Press, 2005; Peter Turchin’s, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, New York: Plume, 2006; Ian Morris’, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010; and Robert Kaplan’s, The Revenge of Geography, New York: Random House, 2013.

Alas, despite my readings in what might be considered scientific historiography that complements a cognitive science of religion, I have, in my dotage, become quite resigned to the probability that any scientific approach to the study of religion will never become dominant in our modern universities (see L. H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80.3 (2012), 587-597). But, apart from the aforementioned cultural bias that “religion” is somehow quintessentially “good” (sacred?) and, therefore, beyond the pale of criticism and explanation, the question remains: why not? While I have no purchase against the pursuits of religious interests (in an appropriate context), why is it not possible to attend any professional conference on religion anywhere in the world that is devoted, for those of us that are interested, solely to a scientific study of religion? And, why isn’t religion taught in the modern secular university according to the same scientific criteria that most other disciplines have embraced for over 150 years, even within the humanities (apart from “literary theory”)?

Despite my curmudgeonly remarks, I nevertheless look forward to auditing the NAASR discussions on theory in Atlanta, and I still have very good friends in the academy that I look forward to seeing again, both in Atlanta and in Erfurt.

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NAASR Notes: Robyn Walsh

Strange Pencils

by Robyn Faith Walsh

Of late I have been exploring networks of “elite cultural producers,” to borrow a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu—that is, persons responsible for the creative production of literature, art, and similar cultural artifacts. I am increasingly interested in the interactions, exchanges, and processes of these agents because I think there may be new theoretical work to be done in how we (re)describe the role of the perceived author and her/his audience as well as the making of objects we might describe as possessing an element of ‘art.’ This is ground that was tread in some measure by earlier ‘death of the author’ debate(s). However, I would like to foreground a slightly different point of emphasis: how to account for creative license, particularly when “doing” history.

Artist creativity or creative license as a category of human activity is something that sociologists, philosophers and those who study aesthetics have rightly folded under the umbrella of culture. Even the most innovative acts of creativity or imagination are tied, in some measure, to certain conventions of the medium in which they are expressed. However, as someone who studies the ancient world, it can be difficult at times to pin down the influences, cross-references, motivations or even technologies of certain artists, writers, and so on. And when scholars attempt to use something like an ancient text as data for asking/answering certain questions about the social practices or networks of the past, it is not always clear how to account for materials that might be a product of creativity or imagination.

While I do not wish to overstate the case, in my work on the ancient Mediterranean I often rely on the notion that I can read between the lines of a given text to detect useable information about its writer and the social world in which they live. This is held in tension with the awareness that authors frequently fabricate various facets of their subject matter(s). The difficulty this poses is, if I cannot refute or corroborate certain information elsewhere, I have to question continually the reliability of my source material. This brings to the fore a broader question: in any creative production, how much can one rely on the creator to truthfully communicate anything about “real life”?

To get at this question, I have been researching and speaking to (more) contemporary authors and artists about their processes. Increasingly, I find that making concrete claims about reality in literature and art is a pretty slippery business at best. To loosely quote a discussion between a painter and an aspiring writer from the movie Blue is the Warmest Color (2013): artists tend to invent rather than expose.

Take a minor example from Pablo Picasso’s paintings of Françoise Gilot.

Gilot is a painter and was Pablo Picasso’s mistress and the mother to two of his children in the years after World War II. She is still living and, in 1964, penned a memoir Life with Picasso (London, Virago). Her memoir is compelling for a number of reasons (her account of Picasso’s reaction after she gave away his pet goat is particularly amusing) but most important for me is that, in addition to offering new insights into his process, she both directly and indirectly debunks a number of theories about Picasso’s work. After reading her memoir, I read additional transcripts and articles documenting more recent interviews with her. These revealed some interesting patterns related to creative license. I’ll speak to her discussion of Picasso’s dialogues with networks of painters and poets in the moment, but first, a cautionary tale for scholarship. Take this interview with Gilot concerning Picasso’s 1951 painting “Woman drawing (Francoise)”:


Phyllis Hattis Fine Art via Bloomberg, accessed May 3, 2015.

In this painting Gilot is pictured drawing in a style reminiscent of one of Picasso’s influences, El Greco (see El Greco, Portrait of Jorge Manuel Theotokopulus, c. 1600-05, Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville). She is also pictured using an odd, rounded pencil affixed to her desk. Speculating on the deeper significance of this pencil, certain art historians have suggested that it faithfully represents how Gilot worked: she tied her pencils to her desk in order to prevent her children from taking them or knocking them from her hand as they played.

When presented with this academic proposal, Gilot dismissed it as a total misreading of Picasso’s motivations:

“That’s hot air. Pablo imagined that pencil. It had nothing to do with anything he saw. He had such a fantastic visual memory, and most of the time he drew from what was in his mind.” (Dodie Kazanjian “Life After Picasso: Françoise Gilot,” interview for Vogue April 27, 2012)

If Gilot is to be trusted (elsewhere in the interview, again: “… I never used a pencil like that, so it’s pure imagination”), art historians have missed the mark in reading into this particular feature. Evidently not every element of a creative composition designates meaning beyond the creativity and aesthetic choices of its author.

Building on this latter point, allow me to offer another example from the world of poetry. Below is an excerpt from the poem “Make Believe” by Jaswinder Bolina:

We will eventually be archaeology, but now in America

I tell my young daughter the new headlights are a bluish-white instead

of the murky yellow of my upbringing.

She’s busy with her bubble-making, her dig in the flower bed,

her pantomimed banquet, phantom guests

dining on her small handfuls of weeds and grasses…

Brandy in soda water, a xylophone jingle of the ice, I sit in my Adirondack

without my minute, Midwestern wife

who Tuesday returns from her summit in Cleveland.

It’s that time when I’m alone in America with my young daughter who startles

herself realizing the woodpile beneath that black oak is itself formerly a tree …

(from Phantom Camera, Western Michigan University, 2013: 12-13)

Now, if I knew nothing about Bolina, his life, or his influences, I might understand by virtue of the title of this poem that he is playing with double entendre and that the entire piece is a product of imagination. The use of double entendre in itself would be a literary practice that one could analyze as an element of cultural production and might signal a difference in how to approach analyzing the text.

But I can also tell you that, when Bolina reads this poem at various poetry events, his audience, without fail, asks him questions about his daughter and family life. In the interest of full disclosure, Bolina is my fiancé and, to the best of my knowledge, he does not have a daughter or a Midwestern wife. This poem is engaging the language play of John Ashbery and the appeals to intimacy characteristic of Robert Hass. Bolina has imagined these characters and is in conversation with a network of fellow poets. It is this engagement with literary practices that I believe is where we must begin to account for creativity when evaluating artists.

To draw an analogy between the approaches to Picasso, Bolina and the ancient world, imagine that I’m reading Bolina’s poem 2,000 years from now in a context in which my material data is extremely limited. Imagine I have no extant evidence of Ashbery and no biography of Bolina at hand. But I’m interested in saying something about rural American life in the early twentieth century. It would be tempting to cite Bolina’s poem. And, interestingly, even if the details he provides are a product of imagination, they are not necessarily an inaccurate description of the period and location I want to describe.

But this does not mean I can wholly separate Bolina from his social network of other writers. As a scholar, I can no more assume that Bolina is offering a faithful representation of life than I can assume Gilot sketched with a strange, rounded pencil.

Just like the scholars of modern art and culture who have realized that creative acts are expressions of their cultural milieu, scholars of history must remain attentive to the plausible and practical aspects of the creative process. For example, artists and writers tend to communicate and share their materials within fairly established networks. Both in antiquity and modernity, the most immediate and formative social context for the production of any kind of cultural product tended to be circles of like-minded consumers and critics. These circles can be comprised of living contemporaries (e.g., The Algonquin Round Table), past exemplars of the field (in antiquity: Homer, Hesiod or the authors associated with the Second Sophistic), or conversation partners across disciplines. Gilot, speaking of Picasso’s influences, cites his dialogues with poets like Guillaume Apollinaire, competitors (e.g., Georges Braque) or idols long dead (e.g., El Greco).

When a poet adapts a line from a fellow poet, or a painter borrows from another painter, it gives us a clue as to the artist’s process, social location, influences and conversation partners—the field of cultural production. This is identifiable data. And perhaps this is as concrete as we can be in our evaluations of artists, writers and texts if we are looking for data on social realities. If we speculate beyond these parameters, we risk “filling in the blanks,” as it were, with anachronisms, assumptions or the accumulated discourses associated with acts of history-making and tradition. And as time stretches between the evaluator and the artifact being evaluated, this risk increases.

When it comes to the ancient Mediterranean, these connections and conversations between authors/artists are more difficult to spot for a number of reasons. One, of course, as I’ve mentioned, is a limited and fragmented historical record. The other is the veil that tradition can place over our sources. I have a co-authored piece forthcoming with David Konstan on some of the literary overlaps between the canonical early Christian gospels and other forms of what we term “subversive biography” (*full citation below). It is clear that these gospel authors are aware of a diverse range of biographical types and are in conversation with social peers (i.e. other writers), yet we continue to emphasize in scholarship that they are selecting their materials based on the desires of their fellow Christians. Why extract these writers from their literary networks when we imagine their social worlds? I suggest it is because we are hopeful to learn something about the early Jesus movement and the so-called “early Christian communities” and our desire to find a touchstone to that tradition has influenced how we read these texts.

But if we treat the gospel authors as authors with artistic license, we must contend with the possibility that these are writers acting as writers. To my mind, this means that it is possible, even likely, that they simply made most of it (many of the details, moments, histories, and characters) all up.

*The forthcoming piece referenced above: David Konstan & Robyn Walsh, “Civic and Subversive Biography in Antiquity,” in K. de Temmerman, ed., Fictional Lives. Ancient Biography and Fictionality. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

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