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.