Richard Newton

Representation and Research Design for Religion

The Anthropology of Scriptures: Correcting for Progressivist Retrograde in the Study of Religion

Saturday, January 23, 2021
11:00 AM-1:00 PM CST | 5:00 PM-7:00 PM UTC-Time Zone Conversion

Richard Newton - University of AlabamaThe politics of representation appear to be taking center stage across the humanities and social sciences. Institutions have allocated space to discuss not only whose work counts as scholarship, but also for whom scholarship must come to account. Put differently, the academy has a diversity problem, and it has issued a call for proposals on how to fix it. For those more firmly rooted in the ivory tower, this request cannot but look like progress. At the same time it moves those hailed from the margins of scholarship into a position of critical retrograde, a preoccupation with matters only germane to a modernity left behind and never relevant to the moment under construction. Many in the academy have grown comfortable with the deconstruction of the past. Still unnerving is the deconstruction of modes and processes that have not passed. Consequently, the history of religions frequently elides relativist descriptions with the relativising of analysts and their claims.

The elision takes many forms, but its dynamics are textbook. There is the presentation of a problematic–systemic, vexing, and entangling. Then there is the declaration of value–the statement that says in no uncertain terms that the institution is not problematic or is committed to working through the problems as demonstrated in any number of programs or initiatives. And finally there’s the statement of values–the solidifying of the unimpeachable purpose and intentions of the institution. Any questioning of the latter is a misunderstanding or bad-faith take on the part of the asker. Progress becomes a recipe for gaslighting rather than an invitation to critique.

Building on this observation, I contend that this also inhibits the kind of cutting social analysis that can surface the politics of representation, identity formation, and cultural development. But essentialism is ill-equipped to make sense of people without translating them into phonemes for fetishization, commodication, and dismissal. The celebratory status of the public intellectual perhaps may be the most conspicuous example; its deleterious effect, the most egregious. The undeciphered text or unmined archive always promises a richer picture, but at what costs? The push to diversify syllabi and bibliographies is well meaning, but as these curatorial efforts overwhelmingly remain matters of inclusion rather than effectuall engagement, the cited only manifest at the level of subjunctive haunting, never as scholarly agents who change the discourse at hand. How might scholars of religion turn away from its routinizing–or better said, rootinizing–fixation on the exotic?

In this workshop, Richard Newton facilitates a strategy session on sticking points regarding difference in scholarly labor. Topics to be discussed will include cultural appropriation, position statements, the ideology of naïveté, racism as (the) discipline, the value of values, and the methodological politics of definition. We will approach each as a vantage from which to reorient ourselves to the work that we do, the challenges we face, and the possibilities for going forward.

This session fuses dialogue and reflection prompts that will bring participants to read drama in which our scholarly labor is a part. Drawing upon his research into the anthropology of scriptures, Newton fuses dialogue and reflection prompts to reframe discourses of representation. Participants will work toward coming to terms with the fine line between making difference and making a difference in our teaching, research, and service work. We will surface the stakeholders and power brokers with whom we negotiate. And we’ll begin to build a toolbox of resources and competencies for aligning our work with empowering methods and fruitful objectives