Now listening to: Atmosphere, 'Seven's Travels'
Especially recommended: Track 4, "Reflections"
These are the things on my mind tonight:
1) the everpresent twist academia takes on religion to make it speak an acceptable language, and the angry swivel science does when religious studies starts stepping on its heels.
2) various (also sundry) texts and arguments related to european witch trials around the 13th-17th Century.
3) the movie showing this weekend at the Guild at 45th St. Landmark Theater, "The Last King of Scotland", which was alot harder to watch then I thought it would be. It's good, go see it; but don't plan on partying afterwards.
Let's start with the portion of my argument that I'll draw from thing #3. There's a scene late-midpoint in the film where a (less idealist-struggling-for-a-foothold, more playboy-suddenly-looking-down), young scottish dr. is asked to give his opinion about affairs of state. (The physician is played by James McAvoy, who gets to do the dramatic floating pose Keanu Reeves does in 'Constantine', only since they didn't want to do a green screen you get to see the mechanics of how such a pose might realistically be achieved. Seriously. Check it out. You may be suprised how easy it looks on screen.) He's being asked by the Ugandan dictator Amin, played by Forest Whitaker. If you're a better history student than I was, you might know the general way this convo is gonna have to play out, but basically, the Doc is an advisor to the Dic(tator), and General Amin is railing at Dr. Garrigan for not stopping him from expelling the whole Asian population from Uganda, which is pretty much killing him now in the foreign press. Young Dr. says, "I DID tell you", and the General comes back with, "but you didn't PERSUADE me". And I recognized something in that relationship. Something about theory and practice, and why you don't really want to see either of these personified because the character sketch will be a little heartbreaking. Because each 'person' will see in the other a solid stereotype and depend on it accordingly; and then consider it imperative to subvert that stereotype in their own case, as an oversimplification of their lovely fuzzy reality, and the bathwater jettisoned in each case takes with it a certain sphere of responsibility, without which we'll never get a decent baby out from under all the dirt.
Working backwards, we hit thing#2, which has to do with witches. Most of our primary source materials on these are court documents. There's some letters, some sermons, some suchall as well, but that's going to provide even less insight into the 'popular'mind; it'll be even more open to charges of elitism, which is about as original a sin as sending a fruit basket and just as bourgeoishly impolite. One 'gap' we can see develop through these documents, is how the (1) impact of theology and imperial policy on these trials from 'above' -- as inquisitors and accusors alike learn how to phrase their questions and frame (which word I use here in its rhetorical sense, not it's legal one) their witches so that the larger moral world view will be consistently supported and satisfied -- commingles with (2) the stresses, pressures and needs of the 'popular' body coming into the courts from 'below' (how's all this for our very own mystical cosmology, i ask you?), in such a way that (3) these two lines of agency meet in the (relatively rare, considering the potentials) combustible kindling at the feet of the damned. Which is to say, we can watch trials through history become more streamlined as both prosecutors and defendants learn to speak the acceptable language, previously sanctioned by both church and state, which now forms the ideological state apparati of Justice and Rights.
And thing #1, which I think I can best illustrate by telling you the story of a certain Dr. Bob Pape, who recently came to the University of Washington to argue, persuasively, that suicide bombings are the result of occupied territory and not particular (for example, religious) ideologies. He came to speak at a symposium the UW Jackson School hosted on 'Religion & Democratic Cultures', stocked primarily with various social-scientifically inclined scholars of religion. Dr. Pape was our sole political scientist, for which he apologised profusely, knowing he was about to knock everybody's knees out from under them, providing you take 'knees' to mean 'reason for studying as/what one does'. Apparently, certain scholars may have taken him up on his invitation to scrap, and though I wasn't there to see it, (conscientious teacher that I am), I hear it was good going all around. I did see the public lecture that evening, and aside from the necessary embarassment of that question, packed with paranoid misinformation, which always gets posed whenever Iraq comes up, I think everybody came away intrigued, if not persuaded.
Oh, persuade. The word we started with. What do I mean by/need from 'Persuasion'? Something like a role, or at least an angle on the role, of Scholars of Religion. Scholars in my experience are critics, not advisors. I know the other kind exists, I just haven't found a way to their hearth myself. But that's not really material - criticism and advice work equally well in my paradigm-about-to-be-posed.
Pape's argument is, really, that at least in the most basic sense of government defense planning, there's no need for an understanding of Islam because it isn't the faith of the occupied that's biting our foreign policy in the feed-proffering-hand, it's the occupation of the faithful. The operative noun is more predictive than the substantive adjective standing in for the 'popular' mind. Which is only a problem if your discipline sees its importance in prediction (not to be confused with prognostication, which is wholly in the questioned and therefore disallowed in us as answer. Because the future is no more always/already ordained than the clergy. Ahem.); but much of mine does. It's what they argue over wine glasses and pineapple wedges. Not necessarily to excuse the obviousness of said wine and wedges, because they're not really rare in most of our general experience. Which is why comparing a scholar in the academy, struggling for the chance to tell the Status about the problems with its Quo, to a fictional whiteboy in a real blackworld, is more conceit than conducive. But. Still.
We see in the history of many things, not least of which witch trials, that rhetoric matters. First, it evolves to a state of perfection, honed on the arguments and information of the minds between which it grows. Then, having proved itself transcendant under these most scientific conditions, said rhetoric becomes a fixed argument which, planted in the foreign soil of 'in practice', begins to operate on the popular (can I leave the scare quotes off this time?) mind. And it gets changed in the process, no question there's always been a give and take, but at the moment my interest is in the end-product of intellectual scholarship. I do think there's space to make the argument that my worry is a pre-Enlightenment one (or, pre Post-Colonial-Criticism. or pre-Daily Show. Pick your line of demarcation.), but that conclusion seems so clean I'd wonder what's left over in the water it got bathed in before coming out for presentation.
The responsibility of scholarship. To say something new, and not to lie about it? To hold a past to a present? To secure a certain future? What, if anything, does religion offer to scholarship? Is it more important as a population, a text to be studied, a geographic space, or as a particular methodological addition, a way of looking at other texts as much as a text in itself? Is it better, safer, to use it as a noun or a verb? Probably the former, but there's less potential for blasphemy or hierophany there, and I think those are deeply, humanly useful as well. You'd think I'd be better able to answer this question than I was a year ago, but: No. I am, however, inclined to think that whatever conclusion I come to, it won't be enough simply to conclude. There'll be the necessity of persuasion, of speaking to Power in such a way and with such force that it takes them seriously. It's entirely panic-inducing to think that might hinge on my person being taken seriously. That I wouldn't be able to separate my work from my life in any of the safer, ivory tower ways.