Monday, December 8, 2008

New issue of Anthropology Matters

...is now online here! Below is the official announcement...

Anthropology Matters Journal
Autumn 2008 Vol 10, No 2
ISSN 1758-6453

The latest issue of the Anthropology Matters Journal contains new research from seven PhD or early-career anthropologists. Their topics range from how one "kills time" in Albania and Georgia (by Frederiksen) to the lively carnival experience in Spain (by Salazar-Sutil). Some reflect on the different ways in which they have adapted classical fieldwork to fit their specific topics, including Craciun's reflections on practicing anthropology "out of the corner of one's eye", Wiencke's use of colour drawings as part of his fieldwork, and Enav-Weintraub's experiences of "sensing the political" in the West Bank. Finally, Klein and van Steenwyk both examine marginal communities and how they interact with society: people with variations of gender identity and/or sex development in South Africa , and the Deaf community in Australia .

All articles can be found on the Anthropology Matters website.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Learning how to read her body: Rebecca Lester's "Jesus in Our Wombs"


I recently bought Rebecca Lester's monograph Jesus in our wombs: Embodying modernity in a Mexican convent. This is one of the few monographs I've been able to find that specifically deals with the topic of the female body within a Christian community (Caroline Walker Bynum's work is another excellent example).

Lester did her fieldwork among a group of young women who were training to become nuns in a Mexican Catholic convent. She writes of each young woman:
"As she progressed in her training, she learned how to read her body - its sensations, inclinations, energies, temptations, frustrations - as indicators of how successfully she was managing this relationship between worldly and spiritual demands. She learned to view her body as the domain of negotiation between these two existential frames, a negotiation that became manifest in the very inclinations of her flesh." (p. 5)
Lester's descriptions from her fieldwork and interactions with the postulants are very well written and really give the reader a feel for what life must be like inside the convent walls. I enjoyed the way she presents her findings. She takes the reader on a journey through seven stages that the postulants go through: brokenness, belonging, containment, regimentation, self-critique, surrender, and re/collection. These chapters form the heart of her study for me. They touch on a range of bodily actions, thoughts about bodies, management of bodies, and so on, including how the postulants started to regiment their bodies to become more silent, more economical in movements, to have the right intentions when eating, to be able to kneel for longer periods of time, to become more aware of their shifting inner instincts and desires - in short, to create a mindful body (p. 179).

I will take Lester's work with me as one of my guides as I continue to think about the female body among women in Lutheran church and mission circles in Norway in the early twentieth century. I'm still searching around for other monographs that address the female body (and not just women's ways of being) in a specifically Protestant community.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Female hunger (quote from Susan Bordo)

A while ago I wrote a blog post about the (self-)disiplining of the female body and the issue of taking up room, filling space. I was reminded of some of the same self-disciplining when I read one of Susan Bordo's great reflections on female hunger the other day:
"On television, the Betty Crocker commercials symbolically speak to men of the legitimacy of their wildest, most abandoned desires: 'I've got a passion for you; I'm wild, crazy, out of control' the hungry man croons to the sensuously presented chocolate cake, offered lovingly by the (always present) female. Female hunger, on the other hand, is depicted as needful of containment and control, and female eating is seen as a furtive, shameful, illicit act, as in the Andes Candies and 'Mon Cheri' commercials, where a 'tiny bite' of chocolate, privately savored, is supposed to be ample reward for a day of serving others (Bordo 1986). Food is not the real issue here, of course; rather, the control of female appetite for food is merely the most concrete expression of the general rule governing the construction of femininity that female hunger - for public power, for independence, for sexual gratification - be contained, and the public space that women be allowed to take up be circumscribed, limited." (18)

- Bordo, Susan. 1989. The body and the reproduction of femininity: A feminist appropriation of Foucault. In Gender/body/knowledge: Feminist reconstructions of being and knowing (eds) Alison Jaggar and Susan Bordo, 13-33. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The male gaze - the male voice (quote from "Sensorial Anthropology", David Howes)

"Those familiar with feminist critiques of the 'male gaze' and the phallocracy that gaze institutes ... may, like myself, have cherished the idea that in more ear-, less eye-minded societies, like that of the Suya [of central Brazil], women's senses would not be as suppressed. But the Suya case dashes that expectation. In place of the 'male gaze' there is the 'male voice': 'plaza speech' - the most valued form of oratory - is only spoken by fully adult men ... In short, there is a politics to the Suya sensory order and a markedly sexual politics at that." (177-178)

- Howes, David. 1991. Sensorial anthropology. In The varieties of sensory experience: A sourcebook in the anthropology of the senses (ed.) David Howes, 167-191. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Toward an anthropology of Christianity

I've just read and enjoyed John Barker's recent book review essay in the latest issue of American Anthropologist (vol 110, no 3), "Toward an anthropology of Christianity". He reviews three books: Fenella Cannell's edited volume The Anthropology of Christianity, Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson's edited volume The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity, and Webb Keane's monograph Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter.



As John Barker says:

"The three volumes under consideration here, along with a symposium edited by Joel Robbins (2003) [in Religion vol 33], have a more ambitious aim: the development of an anthropology of Christianity. This is a significant move, not so much because it legitimates the historical and ethnographic study of Christianity within the discipline - that battle has largely been won - but because it suggests that anthropology can provide a unique perspective." (377)
In other words, the authors combine ethnographic study of Christian communities, practices and meanings with larger questions.

In Cannell's edited volume, the larger questions circle around themes such as conversion, words and things. I especially liked the chapters by Simon Coleman and Fenella Cannell on the use of words (recitation, speaking, reading, writing), combined with the use of material things in the process (notes, books, gifts). Their focus is on Christian communities in Sweden and the Philippines respectively. David Mosse's chapter combines words and bodies among Catholics in South India, Eva Keller looks at words and the process of exploration among Seventh-Day Adventists in Madagascar.

I've already written a post on Engelke and Tomlinson's edited volume. The themes that come out strongly in their volume are meaning and ritual.

And at some point I should write a separate post on Webb Keane. His work examines the relationship between subjects, objects, and language. In particular he looks at how Protestant Christians in Indonesia draw moral boundaries around themselves (as modern subjects) through constructing proper relationships to language and to objects around them. It gets complicated. But intriguing...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gender and concrete

Material World recently posted a note on the project Gender and the Built Environment. I looked at their case studies and especially enjoyed these two:

"Planning the non-sexist city" While I know of the debate around how/whether shapes within a city reproduce phallic symbolism, and that some planners and artists try to counter this by providing more "containing" spaces, I had not thought of the fact that cities are sexist in another respect too: women's journeys across a city landscape are often more challenging than men's. As long as more women hold primary day-to-day responsibility for their children than men (dropping chidren off at school, picking them up, buying school supplies, buying medicines, driving them to activities, etc), their journeys across the city are often constituted of a series of shorter stops that criss-cross the city grid. City lay-out and transport systems, on the other hand, are often designed on the assumption that journeys across the city will occur as straight lines: driving from the suburb to the center, and then back to the suburb. Women's journeys are made more challenging, therefore, by the relative lack of public transport options and amenities needed for their types of journeys. This sentence from the case study made me smile: "The true position of women in society can be gauged by the length of the line/queue for the women's toilets."

"Girli concrete" The shape of cities also reflect qualities that have come to be associated with "masculine" characteristics rather than "feminine" (though I won't go into the problem with these labels here!). Suffice to say that city surfaces are mostly hard, impenetrable, square - think of concrete, metal, glass, straight lines, etc. Two women at the University of Ulster (in Northern Ireland) are now working on what they call "girli concrete." They are mixing concrete with materials that evoke new associations - lace and cashmere cloth, for instance - and they are drawing out round and playful patterns. I have posted some of the beautiful results below - also check out their blog Girli Concrete.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

PhD in comic book format

Yesterday I came across Ju Hui Judy Han's 24-page comics - she has drawn up her PhD research in comics format! I actually read all of it, so much easier to read than hundreds of pages of dissertation... and very interesting. She is a cultural geographer and is studying Korean missionaries. Highly recommended!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

When rituals don't "make meaning" ("The Limits of Meaning", Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson)


I've just finished reading all (yes, all - the collection is that good!) the chapters of The limits of meaning: Case studies in the anthropology of Christianity, edited by Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson (2006). One of the reasons I decided to read all of it is that the volume has a core theme running through all the chapters: When and how does Christianity create meaning, and when do Christian rituals create what seem to be the limits of meaning, the absence of meaning, or meaninglessness?
What should we make, for example, of a church service in which a person gets up to give the sermon, but then fails to say anything and sits down again (as described in the chapter by Matt Tomlinson)? Or what should we make of a service in which the speaker purposefully leaves a long silence after his sermon, which makes the congregation start to feel increasingly awkward (as described by Simon Coleman)? Instances such as this, occurring in the middle of Christian rituals, challenge the assumption that rituals are invariably "meaningful" or that they always "make meaning".
I found this line of thought interesting, and have collected three quotes here about the "unclarified spaces" of rituals - ambiguous, absurd or chaotic spaces:
"The historian of religion J.Z. Smith has argued that 'ritual precises ambiguities' (1987:110). This is itself a perfectly ambiguous phrase, and purposefully so. Ritual makes things clear; it also makes them unclear. Ambiguity and clarity are mutually constitutive." (Matthew Engelke, p. 79)
"For something to be illogical or uninterpretable, ethnographically, is for it to be absurd. To interpret ritual as agency or world-making (De Boeck and Devisch 1994; Devisch 1993) as a productive process is to eliminate the possibility of ritual manifesting the absurd, the meaningless, and the helplessness of humans in the face of larger forces - whether political, economic, or divine ... When we, as ethnographers, embrace the possibility of indeterminacy in ritual, we also acknowledge the realm of the sacred: that which cannot be spoken." (Erica Bornstein, p. 100)
"Rituals of meaning-making necessarily create the possibility of a vague and chaotic realm in which meanings might be present but cannot be made, or might be absent and have attention to be called to such absence." (Matt Tomlinson, p. 141)
Engelke, Matthew and Matt Tomlinson, eds. 2006. The limits of meaning: Case studies in the anthropology of Christianity. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Alienation by the observation of an other (quote from Carrie Pemberton)

"As a woman who had birthed five children, literally under the male obstetric gaze, I had been surveyed, noted, measured, scanned, calibrated and monitored in a hitherto unprecedented manner. My body was both an intimate arena of new conversation between myself and the child who was becoming, and an incubator for a scientific quest which had nothing to do with my relational inter-subjective life with my child. With every injection, urine sample, weight check and pelvic measurement I experienced my bloated body undergoing personal erasure as the scientific gaze scanned me in every detail but lost my subjectivity. I felt objectified, and my sensate intimacy with my child diminished, as s/he withdrew into uterine secrecy. Even though she kicked and swirled inside, my own knowledge of her passed ineluctably from myself, her conceiving and birthing mother, to those who charted units of blood, urine, fats, sugar, hormones. This is modern knowledge. This is what it is to be.

"Irigaray's analysis of the differences between women in their places assigned by men, as mother, whore, virgin, alienated, literally thrust or torn apart by the phallogocratic order in which she abides, resonated deep inside me. I ached with the hole in my persona left behind by the crisis of childbirth, and I was lacerated by cool obstetric observations of my 'incompetence', from the incompetence of uterine contractions, to the difficulties presented by 'inverted' nipples. I was left in no doubt as to the frailty of my female flesh. And yet I had birthed: gloriously, outrageously, divinely. A competence essentially sexed outside of the male domain. Yet I felt displaced.

" 'Woman has not yet become subject. She has not yet taken her place. And this is a result of a historical condition ... for woman is still the place, the whole of a place in which she cannot take possession of herself' [...] 'scattered into x number of places that are never gathered together into anything she knows of herself ... and yet these remain the basis of reproduction in all its forms' (Irigaray 1994:227) [...]

"As I settled into research soon after the birthing of my last child, and read Irigaray for the first time, I realized that my mandate from my supervisor to research, chronicle and abstract theological themes and concerns in the work of certain African women theologians had some disturbing reminiscences of my own recent experience of alienation by the observation of an other. I, the alienated, was in the process of de-subjectifying those whom I was researching [...] I too was in danger of ripping apart, dissecting and scattering whilst the objectified subjects of my enquiry were rendered inert. How was the violation to be averted, and the touching of lips, the jouissance of life, the interplay of subjects to be manifest?" (Pemberton 2005:250-251)
Pemberton, Carrie. 2005. Whose face in the mirror? Personal and post-colonial obstacles in researching Africa's contemporary women's theological voices. In Gender, religion and diversity: Cross-cultural perspectives (eds) Ursula King and Tina Beattie, 250-261. London and New York: Continuum.

Irigaray, Luce. 1994. Speculum of the other woman, trans. Gillian Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Attentiveness (quote from Harriet Harris)

"Janet Martin Soskice ... draws on Iris Murdoch's notion of 'attention', to express the idea of 'a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality' (Soskice 1992:60). Drawing principally on Murdoch and Charles Taylor's work, Soskice shows that paying attention is a moral effort, as when a parent attends to a child and so 'tries to "see more" in Murdoch's sense, or to be "more fully there", in Taylor's' (Soskice 1992:70-1) ...
Soskice seeks emphases within Christianity that can yield a more engaged notion of both God and humanity. She suggests that God looks on us with the gaze of attentiveness ...
But most philosophy of religion works with a model of God and a parallel model of the rational agent, as beings who enjoy an ideal vantage point by virtue of being detached; able to rise above it all ... Now I would like to advance a stronger claim, that being attentive rather than detached not only takes moral effort, as Soskice says (Soskice 1992:70), but that it is conducive to advancing truth." (Harris 2005:55-56)
-- Harris, Harriet. 2005. On understanding that the struggle for truth is moral and spiritual. In Gender, religion and diversity: Cross-cultural perspectives (eds) Ursula King and Tina Beattie, 51-64. London and New York: Continuum.

-- Soskice, Janet Martin. 1992. Love and attention. In Philosophy, religion and the spiritual life (ed.) Michael McGhee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Methodological belief (Tina Beattie, Matthew Engelke)

I have just read Tina Beattie's chapter "Religious identity and the ethics of representation: The study of religion and gender in the secular academy". I remember hearing Beattie speak on this subject a few years ago at SOAS in London, and I remember finding her very inspiring.

This particular area of her work speaks to the long-standing discussion around the religious or non-religious position of the researcher who studies religion (an excellent intro to this debate is Russell McCutcheon's compilation The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion). Beattie questions the need, which is often felt by researchers, to cast the study of religion within a post-Enlightenment rational framework. "Rationality" here is understood as that which keeps the researcher "objective" or "detached" from the "object" of study, observing and describing it as neutrally as possible. Beattie is interested in how the methodology might potentially change when researchers explicitly acknowledge their own (ir)religious position as a factor in the research process.

In particular, she is interested in two strands of thought related to this question: (1) the religious faith of the researchers who carry out research on gendered aspects of religion and religious communities, and (2) the religious faith of the women and men whom they study. Both of these strands, Beattie suggests, carry the potential for a deeper critique of the "rational" study of religion and a deeper understanding of the roles that faith plays in people's lives and stories. She argues that the language of faith, including concepts such as prayer and transcendence, may promise an alternative epistemological locus for researchers who wish to take tenets of feminist research seriously (such as questioning the image of an omniscient researcher).

So far so good. But how is this done in practice? Beattie's chapter lays out the theory, but it is difficult to find good examples of research where this has actually been attempted - where researchers have parted ways with "methodological agnosticism" (or "methodological atheism") and have instead incorporated a thoughtful approach to "methodological belief" into their work. The closest I have come so far is not an actual example, but more of a review essay: Matthew Engelke's short article "The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on 'the inner life'":
"Evans-Pritchard and Turner worked against what [Katherine] Ewing calls the 'reductive atheism' (1994:572) that often characterizes the main currents in the anthropology of religion influenced by Durkheim. Each had strong religious convictions themselves (both were converts to Catholicism), and each tried to fold their 'inner lives' into the work of their anthropology." (p 4)  
"when we read their work we should also take note of the moments when they slipped out of a clearly 'professional' frame and treated such considerations as a mixture of personal and intellectual challenges - when belief, in other words, became method. This may not have resolved all of their anthropological concerns, but then again perhaps that was not the point. Perhaps the point was to suggest that the study of religion, even in the tradition of scholarship indebted to Durkheim, often retains something ineffable." (p 8)
- Beattie, Tina. 2005. Religious identity and the ethics of representation: The study of religion and gender in the secular academy. In Gender, religion and diversity: Cross-cultural perspectives (eds) Ursula King and Tina Beattie, 65-78. London and New York: Continuum.

- Engelke, Matthew. 2002. The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on "the inner life". Anthropology Today 18(6), 3-8.

- Ewing, Katherine. 1994. Dreams from a saint: Anthropological atheism and the temptation to believe. American Anthropologist 96(3), 571-83.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Gendered spaces (quote from Jorunn Økland)

I am always interested when I come across the work of Jorunn Økland, a fellow Norwegian who now teaches at the University of Sheffield (England), and who writes on the intersection between gender and space. This week I read a chapter by her on space, gender and religion:
"one way of making spaces meaningful is to associate them with a particular gender ... 
For Massey, '"place" is formed out of the particular set of social relations which interact at a particular location' (Massey 1994:168). Add to the set of social relationships a kind of discourse that more or less explicitly constructs and structures the activities taking place there as male or female, and you have gendered spaces ...  
Character, action and place are intimately linked to each other and stand in a legitimizing, reinforcing, dialectic relationship with each other: type 1 performs action 1 on place 1; since type 1 performs action 1, type 1 becomes type 1. If one is located on place 2, one performs action 2 and is type 2, etc. In my own work, this insight has been particularly helpful to illuminate how the distribution of ritual patterns of actions (roles) between men and women serves to gender sacred places" (Økland 2005:152-153)
-- Økland, Jorunn. 2005. "Men are from Mars and women are from Venus": On the relationship between religion, gender and space. In Gender, religion and diversity: Cross-cultural perspectives (eds) Ursula King and Tina Beattie, 152-161. London and New York: Continuum.

-- Massey, Doreen. 1994. Space, place and gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Missing Grantchester

This week I am missing Grantchester orchard in Cambridge. The walk through the fields, along the river, the green deck chairs, the lawn under the trees, the scones and clotted cream and strawberry jam and English afternoon tea...


Photo: wjmarnoch


Photo: wjmarnoch


Photo: KK07


Photo: gasindius

Friday, July 25, 2008

The body in the pulpit: écriture féminine and female clergy (Elaine Lawless)

So I am reading about gender. Right now I'm trying to understand écriture féminine.

Ecriture féminine has evolved into its own brand of feminist poststructuralist/literary theory - primarily associated with the French feminist "holy trinity": Hélene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Ecriture féminine is sometimes translated as "writing the (female) body". It's based on the proposition that forms of patriarchy have systematically repressed, invalidated or ignored women's experiences. In particular, a connection is drawn between experiences tied to women's bodies and to texts. Ecriture féminine is expressed e.g. through modes of bodily praxis or modes of writing (women's or men's) that pinpoint a certain unease with prevailing social relations, challenge them and alter them.

I have just read an article by Elaine Lawless on women clergy in the United States ('Writing the body in the pulpit: Female-sexed texts', Journal of American Folklore 107:55-81, 1994). She argues that even just the presence of a female minister in church can at times act as écriture féminine. She focuses on the figure of the woman pastor in the pulpit: a female body, heavy with allusions, covered in vestments, heavy with religious meaning and authority. This female body might pose certain threats - threats to theological ordering, to fixed gender roles, to the perception that God can only be understood through and in human male terms.

Seeing a female figure in the pulpit can also suddenly raise the question of gender and sexuality in the lives of the congregants. Lawless argues that male pastors in the West have for long been associated with a certain degree of asexuality. But when a woman steps up to the pulpit, she suggests, it becomes much more difficult for congregants to regard her as asexual - especially if she has been or becomes pregnant - and this in turn raises the question of bodily experience and sexuality for them inside the church, rather than outside it: "At the very best, the woman presents a dilemma in that she forces a confrontation with sexuality for everyone involved" (p. 62). In this way bodily experiences - female, male, human - can suddenly be included more visibly in the religious space.

While Lawless presents very interesting ethnographic material, I'm not sure I agree with her that female ministers or pastors cannot be perceived to be asexual in the same way as many male ministers. I agree that the female body comes laden with sexual signification. But it also seems to me that in some instances female ministers can take on - or be placed in - the same apparently asexual role as some of their male colleagues.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New project

I have started organizing a set of folders with archive material that I collected four years ago, and have not really looked at since. The material contains notes, correspondence, manuscripts, minute books, articles, meeting reports, etc etc, from some of the so-called "mission feminists" in early twentieth-century Norway. And today I have spent some time collecting together books from our shelves that I want to read (or skim...), articles on gender and Christianity that I've been saving, stray references that I've noted down on green post-its regarding this project.

This is an anthropological project again, or more precisely historical anthropology. My specific case study is a network or movement of women who were active as part of the Norwegian Mission Society in the first decades of the twentieth century. They managed to secure the right for women to vote within the Society, they managed to get a woman formally employed at the headquarters of the Society in Norway, and so on. I'm interested in how they blended gender and theology - sometimes they would use what was perceived as "feminine" traits (e.g. feminine piety, an emphasis on intimacy) in order to try to get their will, at other times they would use theological arguments (e.g. related to Jesus' conversations with women).

Over the next months I'll try to carve out time to read about gender and religion. I always like this phase of the research process.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Eucharist and expenditure



A few weeks ago Ben Myers over on Faith and Theology posted a quote from a new book by William Cavanaugh, Being consumed: Economics and Christian desire. Cavanaugh comments on one of the tensions that should strike him and others who take the Eucharist in our society:

We live our lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts; the stories overlap and compete... (2008:89)
This reminded me of Derrida's essay "From restricted to general economy", in his Writing and difference, in which he critiques how systems of meaning are made to make sense. A system based on Hegel's philosophy of forward movement, for example, has to be made to make sense by silently repressing various "blind spots". Such a blind spot, Derrida suggests, is

the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so irreversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity - here we would have to say an expenditure and a negativity without reserve - that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or system. (1978:327)
In other words, they can no longer be determined as negativity in the Hegelian sense of a negative move that fits in with the overall positive thrust of history. The expenditure that Derrida speaks of is of a more "radical" kind; a kind that does not fit in, that plays itself out without reserve. This is the "blind spot" of a Hegelian system within which elements must be made to fit.

I wonder if the Eucharist might be seen as such an expenditure and negativity without reserve, no longer determined. Its symbolism draws on the received tradition that here was a God who chose to try to engage with human beings by dying. Of course, it is possible to interpret this in a Hegelian spirit and to see it as simply one move in a cosmic Christian narrative that will end in a new heaven and earth. But perhaps it is also possible to interpret some of the pull of the Eucharist as a drawing towards just the moment of death. The ritual offers the possibility of pausing at the destruction: an "irreversible expenditure" that does not make sense within our normal economies.

Derrida too goes on to mention the relation to alterity (e.g. God) as an example of something that can destabilise our restricted economy. God is an absent presence, an impossible presence. This is especially clear in the Eucharist, which claims to offer an impossible presence - body and blood in bread and wine - as an impossible gift - freely (Or not so freely? Hard to tell with the Eucharist).

In any case, all that to say that the quote from Cavanaugh made me think...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Taking up room and filling space (Juliet Miller, Louise Bourgeois)

The last two chapters in Juliet Miller's The creative feminine and her discontents focus on the work of two artists: Cornelia Parker and Louise Bourgeois. I like so many of the works that she discusses, especially of course Parker's exploded garden shed ("Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View").

But I was particularly struck by some of Bourgeois' pieces. "The Destruction of the Father," for example, is a large open mouth-like cavern, filled with smooth forms that might be teeth. In the middle is a table with smaller forms on it.

For Bourgeois, it harks back to memories of childhood dinners that were ruled over by her father in a nervous and stifling way. In her later imagination, she tries to break with the claustrophobia of those dinners by reconstructing it: this time, in her art work, the father is thrown on the table, dismembered, and devoured - creating a different and more disturbing form of claustrophobia in the viewer. Bourgeois rekindles the memory and embodied experience of having to perform "nice", as a girl and young woman, and in this work, as Roger Cook says, "Louise is determinedly not nice" ("Critical essay", Harvest vol. 45, 1999:150). Instead she creates a space for her rage and violent feelings.

"The Destruction of the Father" was made in 1974. Two and a half decades later, Bourgeois made the three towering steel constructions for the opening of the Tate Modern in London, which she named "I Do, I Undo, I Redo".

Each of the three constructions had a set of steps and mirrors at the top, and visitors were invited to enter into them. The coupling of love and destruction - "I Do, I Undo" - were here followed by the possibility of reparation, "I Redo". But, as Juliet Miller points out, the most powerful thing that the towers communicated was their enormous size and the way in which they filled up the space. Miller argues that historically and culturally in the West, "femininity" and being a woman has been associated with making and containing space, such as in the home, rather than moving into, filling out or affecting space (p. 30-31). Bourgeois' sculptures then are also interesting in the way they challenge what it means to be a woman: "Here was a woman taking up room and filling space with a freedom and abandon not usually associated with the feminine" (p. 117).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Have you destroyed anything lately? ("The Creative Feminine and Her Discontents", Juliet Miller)

I came across Juliet Miller's book The creative feminine and her discontents: Psychotherapy, art, and destruction when I read Michèle Roberts' review of it in the Guardian. I went ahead and bought the book, and have since thoroughly enjoyed reading through the thoughtful, provocative and stimulating chapters.

One of Miller's central themes is that "to bring something new into being something else has to be destroyed" (p. 12), and I like the way she discusses different ways in which destructive and aggressive drives can productively be given more room in our lives (and especially, in terms of her argument, in women's lives) - not in order to act out the violence against others, or to turn it against oneself, but rather to use it in order to gain freer and more creative expressions.

Quote for today:
When Marion Milner discovered in A Life of One's Own that she was terrified of the force of her internal patriarchal God, this cannot all be explained by her introjects of patriarchy but also, as with Matisse and Freud, as an expression of her fear of the creative archetype in all its uncertain raging power. Dionysus, as the embodiment of energy and new life, can also be raving, fearsome, and out of control. However, to be creative the archetype has to be engaged with. For women, disobedience of the patriarchal strictures against creating may be a beginning. Disobeying God, as Eve did, could be understood as part of the powerful side of the feminine archetype that comes into play when one point of view is too rigid. (p. 14)

I like the ambiguity of this brief passage. Miller seems to be drawing connections between the Christian patriarchal image of God on the one hand, and a powerful creative archetype on the other - and then the tricky question is whether this powerful divine creativity can actually be engaged with.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Inhabiting Christian spaces

I have been thinking about how to turn (parts of) my PhD dissertation into a book manuscript. I think I finally have a complete draft outline with chapter headings and topics, etc. There is still a lot of thinking and reading and rewriting that needs to be done, but all in all it feels great to have a complete outline. I will leave it to one side for a while now and ask a few people for feedback.

The working title is Inhabiting Christian Spaces, and in general it is about how we shape the spaces that we inhabit, and how those spaces then in turn shape us. In particular it is about how Norwegian missionaries who went to Natal and Zululand in Southern Africa in the nineteenth century tried to shape certain spaces (the "mission stations"), and how these Christianized spaces in turn came to shape the missionaries' Christianity.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the (draft) introduction:
Umpumulo is the most beautiful place I know. Not because of any particular splendor, though the warm, hard-packed red earth, the hundreds of shades of encapsulating green, and the tall blue sky do something to your senses. I lived at Umpumulo in the late 1980s because my parents were missionaries for the Norwegian Missionary Society (NMS), working at the Lutheran Theological College at Umpumulo, near Maphumulo in the so-called “homeland” of KwaZulu, South Africa. The students at the college, most of them black, were monitored by the apartheid government. At one point my father was ordered to leave the country by the government because of his work at Umpumulo. The order was later withdrawn, though for us it lingered in the air. Umpumulo was a contested space and had been for a long time – since around 1850, to be exact.  
In 1850, Umpumulo was set up as the first Norwegian mission station among the Zulus. Its history, like that of the other Norwegian mission stations among the Zulus, is filled with contradictions. The Christian faith tradition of NMS, which in the late 1980s was underlining that the gospel held a message of racial equality, had a century earlier made an unresolved shift toward developing a theological justification for colonialism and racial inequality.  
In fact, two subtle shifts in emphases occurred among the first missionaries for NMS in Natal and Zululand from 1850-1890. The first was their shift from being in agreement with an abstract idea of equality between all Christians, whether European or African, toward developing practices that facilitated European rule over African converts, and putting forward a theological justification for European political rule over African people. The second was their shift from an abstract idea that it would be desirable to travel among the Zulus in order to reach as many as possible with the gospel, toward a firmly established “station strategy” (Simensen et al. 1986:230), that is, a strategy of building up and residing on permanent and physical mission stations on the African landscape. This book considers the connection between these two shifts. In short, how did the mission stations produce difference? And how did the act of inhabiting these Christian spaces influence the missionaries’ Christianity?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

As on a darkling plain

I like this nineteenth-century poem by Matthew Arnold, which Ian McEwan uses in the novel Saturday.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

By Matthew Arnold (1867)

Friday, June 20, 2008

There is grandeur in this view of life (Ian McEwan's "Saturday")



"Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet." (Opening sentence)
A couple of people have told me they didn't get excited about Saturday. But London (where the novel is set) is one of my favourite cities, and Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. I especially like the way he is able to pose moral questions - what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be human towards others - within an explicitly secular frame of reference.

In Saturday, the main character Henry Perowne is preparing for a normal Saturday, squash game, grocery shopping, seeing his mother, and a visit home from his daughter, when his car scrapes along another car and he encounters Baxter. Through the remainder of the day he comes up against many questions. Most of them concern how we live in the West today, with the knowledge of scientific, medical advances, and a so-called war on terror. Our genotype has become "the modern variant of a soul." If we were to see a burning plane descending towards a city, one thought would inevitably spring to mind.

What does it mean to be a person in this world? I was struck by a couple of the thoughts that Henry Perowne had during the course of the Saturday. He has read a biography of Darwin and is "faintly depressed by the way a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages - bottled, like homemade chutney." At another point he remembers clearing out his mother's house: "It took a day to dismantle Lily's existence [...] her life, all lives, seemed tenuous when he saw how quickly, with what ease, all the trappings, all the fine details of a lifetime could be packed and scattered, or junked." Although these thoughts were laced with sadness for Perowne, there is something very down to earth and true about them as well.

In this context, it is all the more noteworthy that Perowne knows, when he encounters Baxter, that it matters how he behaves towards him.

And without giving too much away, the book ends with an image of Henry Perowne kissing the nape of his wife's neck, and the scent and warmth of another body, and what it means, come to stand side by side with the bleaker thoughts. Which I like.

I noted down the phrase "There is grandeur in this way of life" because it seemed to capture some of the book's question as well - it is a phrase that repeats itself in Henry Perowne's early drowsiness on the Saturday morning, before everything starts to happen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Blessinz. Srsl. (LOL Bible)

Believe it or not I have been delighted to discover the Bible in kitty pidgin. Here is the beginning of Genesis 1:
Boreded Ceiling Cat makinkgz Urf n stuffs
1 Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.
2 Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz. 3 At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz. 4 An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin. 5 An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!1
6 An Ceiling Cat sayed, im in ur waterz makin a ceiling. But he no yet make a ur. An he maded a hole in teh Ceiling. 7 An Ceiling Cat doed teh skiez with waterz down An waterz up. It happen. 8 An Ceiling Cat sayed, i can has teh firmmint wich iz funny bibel naim 4 ceiling, so wuz teh twoth day.
9 An Ceiling Cat gotted all teh waterz in ur base, An Ceiling Cat hadz dry placez cuz kittehs DO NOT WANT get wet. 10 An Ceiling Cat called no waterz urth and waters oshun. Iz good. Read more...


Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Christians who don't read the Bible (Matthew Engelke's "A Problem of Presence")



I took Matthew Engelke's book A Problem of Presence with me on holiday. He writes about a congregation known as the Friday Apostolics in Zimbabwe. The most striking thing about this Christian group is that they refuse to read the Bible. In their view, the Bible is a material object that eventually falls apart, like other material objects. It seems "stale" to them. Above all, it doesn't communicate "live and direct" with God, which is what they are looking for. Since it is seen as a sort of physical obstacle for their faith, they have dispensed with it.

Engelke presents a very nuanced and perceptive reading of how the Bible has become this kind of thing - "a mere thing" - for the Friday Apostolics. He touches on how this is in many ways an apt response to the way that Biblical literacy was introduced to Southern Africa in tandem with colonialism and the wish to replace African cosmologies with a European world view. While other African groups have chosen to claim the Bible and make it their own in the struggle against colonialism, the Friday Apostolics chose to remain suspicious of it. But more importantly, Engelke argues, they have at the same time chosen to re-interpret the theological "problem of presence." All Christian groups in some way have to come to terms with the question of how to relate to a God who is simultaneously present and absent - an invisible, intangible God whom believers have to relate to through more tangible words, images, objects, actions. The Friday Apostolics have concluded that the material book known as the Bible - and many other material objects - do not "work" when they seek to establish God's presence. They don't want a "thingified faith" built on things that fall apart. They want something more solid than that.

Engelke has found a fascinating case study. But what really makes it interesting to read is how he ties it into broader issues that are so important in Christianity, and in the anthropology of Christianity - issues such as materiality, presence, representation. The book made me think again about the fact that "what things mean, and what they can be used for, is neither settled nor certain" (p 33).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Remembering idle pleasures

So we're back from holiday. I bought both Saturday and Beloved on our trip and enjoyed them both very much (posts in due course...). I also bought another more random and whimsical book entitled The Book of Idle Pleasures, edited by Dan Keiran and Tom Hodgkinson, which basically has short paragraphs on 100 idle pleasures - such as taking a bath, poking the fire, waiting for the tea to brew, not opening letters, autumnal sneezing, and so on.

I had a great time browsing through it while on holiday. Now that I'm back home and have sat down to catch up with Anthropology Matters correspondence, consultancy project, translation, paper I need to revise, etc, the idea of idle pleasures seems a little farther off... But nevertheless here is an idle pleasure that I do like:

Waiting for the Tea to Brew
"Enforced idleness is a rare treat. Those brief moments in life where for one reason or another you are forced to just stop and think. In waiting rooms, queuing, for example, or even just sitting on a train. Waiting for the tea to brew is one of such moments. It doesn't offer enough time to 'do' anything else so you just have to sit and wait, salivating at the prospect of your golden brew. If you do attempt to do anything in the time it takes tea to brew you always take too long or too short a time to do it, leaving the tea too strong or too weak. The teapot is fully aware of this fact. The only way to gauge the time perfectly is to sit, do nothing and watch." (Dan Kieran, p.12)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Summer reading

We're going on vacation for a month. I'm going to bring two books that I've been dipping into over the past year, but have not yet read all the way through:

And then I am thinking of buying one or both of these...
 

Monday, May 5, 2008

"A small good thing" by Raymond Carver (Eucharist and moment of grace)



In our reading group last week we read the short story "A small good thing" by Raymond Carver. I found it to be quite a hard-hitting story, especially since it's set in a contemporary setting that I could relate to - the shopping centre, the hospital - and also because it's written in such matter-of-fact, hard, clipped sentences. But the story did allow the reader a moment to re-orient herself right at the end, and I thought the experience of reading a hard story and then finding this moment of grace, as it were, at the end, was quite profound.
I don't think it's giving too much away to say that this moment of re-orientation involves simply sitting down around a table with coffee, cinnamon rolls, and a dark loaf of bread. While the darkness is still there in the bread, something nourishing has entered the story as well. I like that Raymond Carver chooses to depict this moment of re-orientation and personal nourishment with the physical act of eating - showing that our physical bodies are always there and always important.
In our group we talked a bit about whether parallels could be drawn from this moment to the Eucharist - there is the breaking of bread, the darkness and nourishment, the brief grace. I think it's a good image, though I also think that there are different layers of communion going on in the short story and in the Eucharist, some of which overlap and some of which don't. They are two different rituals. On the one hand, the Eucharist is highly stylized, with a mass of "intended" meanings that mesh with the more personal, random meanings of the participants. On the other hand, sitting around a table with coffee and cinnamon rolls is less stylized, more unpredictable and immediate, and more open to be shaped by the personal meanings that are brought along. I'm not even sure that most people would call it a ritual. But I think both can be effective.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Missing the Guardian Review

It seems that sometimes when people have gotten used to reading a certain newspaper or publication, and they switch to another one, they find all kinds of reasons why it's not as good as the first - it doesn't have as much material, it has a less appealing lay-out, it doesn't have as nice pictures, it doesn't have their personal favorite series, and so on. True to form, since we've moved from England to the States, I have tried to switch from the Saturday Guardian to the Sunday New York Times, and have found that the Sunday New York Times - specifically the book review section - doesn't have as much material, has a less appealing lay-out, doesn't have as nice pictures, and doesn't have a series on writers' rooms!

Maybe I'll get used to it later. But for now, I am going to ask for an overseas subscription to the Saturday Guardian Review for my birthday. Then I can get that weekend feeling by settling down with the Review, coffee ... and maybe ... a donut.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When the blood creeps (Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me")

A final post on Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me. As you can tell the book troubled me - in a good way. O'Hagan chose to use one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poems as an epigraph, and the first time I read it I had to read through it twice.
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
It is taken from the collection "In Memoriam A.H.H."
I think it's both beautiful and haunting, even eerie. Hilary Mantel used the phrase "the heart is sick" from this poem as the title of her review of Be Near Me in the Guardian, whether alluding to Father David or to the villagers who surround him, I am not sure. But the repetition of the phrase "Be near me" in the poem sounds as if the author is also able to imagine and accept consolation in the midst of this heart-sickness.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Father David (Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me")

I think I might have been too hard on Father David in my last post. The reason that I decided to read Be Near Me in the first place was because I read Andrew O'Hagan's "In truth" in the Guardian - his reflection on one of the moments that led to the character of Father David:
I was alone in a cafe near the Rue Balzac when the first seeds of Be Near Me were planted. [...] I remember noticing a grey-haired priest who was sitting alone at a table beneath the window. He stared at his hands and after a while he stirred his coffee and a tear rolled down his cheek.
That's all he says about the memory. But it was enough to make me interested.

O'Hagan says that he imagines Father David's voice to have about it "something both wise and deluded at the same time," which I found to be true, and also that Father David's narration "may animate a true moral drama in the mind of a sensitive reader."

I did find that I was continuously slightly confused, while reading, about whether I liked Father David or not. O'Hagan is adamant that a character does not need to be likeable, but I think in this instance it goes back to his point about a moral drama. Father David wishes to give a full account of himself. I was confused about whether I liked him or not because I could not quite decide how immoral it was for him to harbour such illusions about himself - and, by implication, how immoral all of our life illusions are in general... Towards the end of the book, though, I was intensely concerned for him when it became unclear how his story would finally end - and whether, with his growing awareness of some of his delusions, he would decide to live or die.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Room for life, stifling life (Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" and Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me")



I have been thinking about the difference between Gilead and Be Near Me. I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson a bit over a year ago, and I loved the picture she slowly paints of an old preacher in a little town, Gilead, in Iowa. He is looking back over his life. I remember that one of the things that struck me was how much room there was in the book for imperfection. The old preacher, John Ames, does not try to present a particularly rosy view of his past, but yet as he reflects on his family history and on God and on random, everyday observations, it feels like he brings things to life.

Andrew O'Hagan's priest in Be Near Me, Father David, is quite different. He takes up the post as Catholic priest in a small town in Scotland for a year, and during that year finds himself increasingly drawn to the rowdiness and disorderliness of some teenagers. He starts hanging out with them. As he tells the story of that year, and brings in moments from his past, it becomes increasingly clear what is going to happen. It also feels very sad, as Father David (and the reader) slowly becomes aware of how hollow his faith is.

Both books deal with love. Marilynne Robinson has given her character a young wife and son to love, and this in some way redeems the memories of previous times when he walked through the night-time streets of Gilead alone. Andrew O'Hagan, on the other hand, has given Father David in Scotland only a past love that ended too quickly. It was at that point that David escaped into the role of a priest.

Both books also deal with beauty and the things we surround ourselves with. Father David enjoys wine and rose bushes, music and books - but while these things seem beautiful at first, they gradually start to seem very empty toward the end of the book. His life charts a progression of beautiful objects, and it seems to me that O'Hagan suggests that the objects in themselves are beautiful, but that the way that Father David uses them - to define himself, as he is devoid of other meaningful definition - hollows out their beauty. John Ames on the other hand fills up his pages with moments of beauty that he enjoys, such as watching his wife and son blow soap bubbles at the cat, and the beauty in life suddenly seems to spring out of nothing, in all kinds of instances.

I have been wondering about these two priests, and the difference between them. One of them is able to create and bring life to what he observes, while the other has hollowed himself out. One draws on the church as something that fills his life and blesses its imperfections, while the other gradually comes to realize that he has used the church as an escape, a means to cut himself off from life.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Coffee cups

Before we even knew that we were going to move to Athens, GA, we were visiting and bought this coffee cup. It says THINK.



Then when we were going to move here it felt good to know that I already had something from Athens that I really liked. After we'd moved we bought another one. This one says PAUSE.



The cups are made by Rae Dunn - and I have just found out that she has a blog called Rae Dunn . . . Clay.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Down to earth (Patricia Hampl)

Once a month I go to a reading group where we talk about authors who have incorporated Christian themes and experiences into their writing. So far we've read Flannery O'Connor and Frederick Buechner, and last week it was Patricia Hampl (all from the collection "Listening for God," edited by Paula Carlson and Peter Hawkins).

The excerpt that we read from Patricia Hampl was taken from Virgin Time, a memoir in which she thinks through her Catholic upbringing and her current quest / questions. One of the things that struck me about the excerpt we read (chapter 6) was the way in which she contrasted the clouds in the sky with the more solid earth beneath it. As in her childhood encounter with one of the neighbors:
He allowed me to assist him in rooting out his dandelions [...] I introduced religion while he plunged the dandelion gadget deep into the lawn.  
No, he said, he did not go to church. "But you do believe in God?" I asked, hardly daring to hope he did not. He paused for a moment and looked up at the sky, where big, spreading clouds streamed by. "God isn't the problem," he said. 
Some ancient fissure split open, a fine crack in reality: so there was a problem. Just as I'd always felt. Beneath the family solidity, the claustrophobia of mother-father-brother-me, past the emphatic certainties of St. Luke's catechism class, there was a problem that would never go away. Mr. Bertram stood amid his dandelions, a resigned Buddha, looking up at the sky, which gave back nothing but drifting white shapes on the blue.
This is one of the first encounters in chapter 6, and it frames what follows: between the clouds in the heavens, with their elusive and insubstantial character, and the ground, with all its dandelions, solidity, and (mistrusted) certainties. The ground may be more tangible, but it is also more difficult.

In terms of space, and how Christianity relates to spaces, it is interesting to see how Hampl at the end of this chapter locates God - or religious contemplation - at ground level, rather than up above. The encounter with her neighbor is matched at the end of the chapter by an encounter with a woman whom she passes on the street every day. Patricia Hampl, as a girl, was intrigued by this woman because she looked up and smiled at her every time - "a complete smile" - and because she seemed to be praying. Nevertheless the woman "didn't look up to the blank clouds for a response," but down at the ground as she was walking.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Anthropology Matters


We have just released the latest issue of Anthropology Matters - the online anthropology journal that I am currently editing. All the articles in this issue are written by former MA students who are also dedicated youth or community workers. They use ethnography to understand what's going on around them in present-day Britain.

I think all the articles are worth reading for anyone interested in engaged anthropology, Britain under New Labour, political participation and citizenship, and youth and community work. There were two that particularly grabbed my attention because of my own interests.

First, Saffron Burley's "My dog's the champ" is the most insightful analysis of the phenomenon of young men owning "fight dogs" that I have come across - and far more thoughtful than average media portrayals. It did make me think differently about the young hoodies with stocky dogs in tow that I used to pass on the streets when I lived in North Hackney, London.

Second, Paul Hendrich's "Charting a new course for Deptford Town Hall" presents an engaged discussion of the history and current symbolism of a sculpted town hall that is now owned by Goldsmiths College (University of London), and which boasts a ship (a trading vessel? a slave ship?) as weather vane. He charts ways of responding that acknowledge the "horrible histories" of the building, but overwrite these with new associations. -- The fact that we were able to publish Paul Hendrich's article was suddenly made all the more important when I received news in January that he had tragically died when he was hit by a lorry on his bicycle. Although I don't know his wife and one-year old daughter, many warm wishes and thoughts have gone to them while I was finalizing this issue.

In addition to the contributions by Saffron Burley and Paul Hendrich, Rachel Ashcroft writes on how political participation can (and has) become de-politicized in Britain under New Labour, Helen Clark examines some examples of how youth in London have experienced such participation in practice, and Beccy Blow presents a nuanced discussion of whether one can "empower" a person with learning difficulties. And if you're interested in "folk devils," Rayen Salgado-Pottier explains what they are in her aptly entitled article, "A modern moral panic."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Writing and eating God

Another post on the regional AAR/SBL conference. I followed the Women and Religion panels, and I was especially struck by one session, entitled Women, Writing, Theology.

Min-Ah Cho from Emory started by presenting her paper "The body, ever hungered and ever desired," in which she drew a picture of Hadewijch of Antwerp's explorations of the Eucharist - eating it, sensing the body of God intimately melded with her own, writing it. Meghan Sweeney from Boston College then spoke about the connections between self-authoring and self-authorizing. She used the example of presenting a conference paper to draw out how performance exposes us - but also legitimates. Wesley Barker, also from Emory, reflected on some of her own experiences in finding her voice as a female author and female theologian - particularly in her ongoing conversation with others. Her paper, "From othered to otherwise," drew on Luce Irigaray to pose the question of what it means to identify as a woman when writing within the space of (scholarly) language.

At the end, Prof Wendy Farley from Emory responded to all three papers. Many people commented afterwards how her response had been akin to a final prayer, in which all the preceding concerns were swept up and woven together. She spoke of the different ways in which we police ourselves internally, as we write, and as we attempt to fit in with academic traditions and gendered expectations. Then she turned to the other face of writing, and spoke of the connection between writing and eating - being nourished as one finds one's voice - and of what it might mean to be called to write and eat God.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Soundscapes: the female voice in ritual

Two weeks ago I was at the regional AAR/SBL religion conference in Atlanta, and sat in on several enjoyable sessions. One of the papers that has continued to intrigue me since then was read by Jessica Starling, University of Virginia, who has done research on female priests in Japanese Temple Buddhism. Her paper touched on the question of how sounds impact our experience of religious rituals. Specifically, she raised the issue of how a female voice fills a ritual space, as compared to a male voice, and what this different soundscape means.

She described how she had once heard another woman softly wonder out loud, following a ritual led by a female priest in a Japanese temple, whether this ritual was indeed effective. The ritual, usually led by a man, is typically associated with the speaking and chanting of a male voice - a deeper voice, which carries further. The experience of listening to a woman's voice is different. It evokes different associations and, at least in this particular case, it confounded expectations and led to doubts about the authority of the ritual. I find it intriguing how rituals can jar and mesh with our senses like that.