Entanglement and the Future of Religious Studies

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Congratulations to David Morgan, Leela Prasad, Mark Brettler and Hwansoo Kim for the recently published article: "Entanglement and the Future of Religious Studies" https://humanitiesfutures.org/papers/entanglement-future-religious-studi...

Entanglement and the Future of Religious Studies

David Morgan, Leela Prasad, Marc Brettler, and Hwansoo Kim Duke University
Drawing by SKM.
Abstract: This paper describes a series of four events on the theme of entanglement, convened by Duke University's Department of Religious Studies; each section is authored by the convener(s) of the particular event. Taken together, the sections offer an overview of the theme's usefulness and importance in new approaches to materiality and music; text and technologies; embodiment; and national borders and transborder exchange. Entanglement as a concept is shown to transcend long-established limits and embrace fluidity, allowing more nuanced understandings of the past and the future in multiple areas of the humanities.

Entangled Materiality and Music

By David Morgan

On December 1, 2016, two panels of graduate students in the Graduate Program of Religion, convened by David Morgan and Joseph Winters, presented four papers from their respective research projects around two themes: religious material culture and the study of religion in contemporary music. The students and the titles of their papers were: materiality panel, Jamie Brummitt, "The Entanglement of Objects in Antebellum American Protestantism" and Andrew Coates, "Fundamentalism’s Entanglement of the Senses in American Fundamentalism"; and music panel, Scott Muir, "Religion Should Appeal to the Hearts of the Young:” Jim James’ Entangled Blend of Hippie Spirituality, Hipster Secularity, and Southern-fried Religion," and I. Augustus Durham, "Name Calling and Its Entanglements: Blackness and Interpellation." Professor David Morgan responded to the first panel; Professor Joseph Winters responded to the second. General discussion followed each response.

Entanglement is an especially useful framework for the study of the material and musical cultures of religion because it avoids essentialism, on the one hand, and reductionism, on the other.

Both panels contributed to the theme of entanglement by exploring the degree to which religion is not limited to formal worship and institutional authority, but extends through popular culture, commerce, and the everyday life of modern consumers. Religious themes, iconographies, and practices are part of cultural self-styling, consumer tastes, social cohort formation, generational identities, and subcultures defined by youth, race, gender, and ethnicity. The first panel focused on 19th and early 20thcentury American material culture; the second on contemporary music.

Entanglement is an especially useful framework for the study of the material and musical cultures of religion because it avoids essentialism, on the one hand, and reductionism, on the other. Essentialist theories of religion argue for a single, universal essence as defining all religions, while reductionist accounts urge that religions are really “nothing but” politics or economics or social forces or psychological dynamics. Entanglement avoids both extremes: religions are social and cultural phenomena, and accessible to historical analysis; they are not timeless essences, and they are not mere expressions of economic or social factors. They are better framed as intermingled social, economic, and cultural processes that may be traced over time.

The implication for the future of the humanities seems clear: the humanities need to become more integrated with the study of the sciences and social sciences in order to study religion with a variety of methods and to view it anew as unfolding in human activities from healing and human interaction with nature and the physical universe to commerce, the political order, and social conflict.

This suggests that the study of religion needs to be situated within the interdisciplinary space of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Religion is not confined to theological or philosophical study, but is robustly at work in everyday life, in political settings, in forms of social organization, in commerce, in various ideologies involving authority and power, in material culture, and in the arts. Religion is not a pure form of experience best scrutinized in any particular activity (e.g., mystical experience or ritual performance), but rather a phenomenon taking place in a great variety of human behavioral contexts, including home life, the public sphere, scientific inquiry, literature, and the life-long formation of bodies at work in ideologies of race, gender, class, and ethnicity.

The implication for the future of the humanities seems clear: the humanities need to become more integrated with the study of the sciences and social sciences in order to study religion with a variety of methods and to view it anew as unfolding in human activities from healing and human interaction with nature and the physical universe to commerce, the political order, and social conflict.


Entanglement of Texts and Technologies

By Leela Prasad

The inaugural panel of the year-long series called Entanglement: The Art of Between and Beyond was convened by Leela Prasad and Mark Goodacre and titled "The Entangled Word: Textuality and Technology." Held on October 28, 2016, the morning’s session focused on Indic literary cultures and the afternoon’s session on the New Testament. The aim of two sessions was to explore questions such as: What is the ground between orality and literacy? What is the role of modern media and broadcast technology in creating the in-between? What are the publics in the interface between ancient and the modern?

Our first speaker was Professor V. Narayana Rao, Visweswara Rao and Sita Koppaka Professor of Telugu Culture, Literature and History in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. Professor Rao, a pioneering thinker in Indic Humanities, gave a talk titled "Imagined Biographies and Unwritten Readings: Concepts of Authors and Texts in Indian Literatures." In it, he identified patterns of authorial identity and authority across thousands of years of Indian oral and written literatures, arguing that fixed author-text equations set amidst a chronological imagination don’t work at many levels because they misrepresent the far more fluid ways in which knowledge, creativity, and authority seem to work in early, medieval, and modern India. Telling the audience rich stories of how poets are remembered in the oral tradition, Rao pointed out that in such a tradition, "poets who never belonged to the same time period meet each other, poets whose historical existence is doubtful appear speaking verses, and—what is more difficult for us to accept— they exercise a power to make and unmake kings and even threaten gods." But because colonial-era scholars influenced by Western epistemes or orthodox classicists dismissed the oral tradition as deluded and fictive, sophisticated concepts of author, text, and modes of reading began to vanish. One of the major losses in the intellectual neglect of the oral tradition was the ability to see that in Indic literary cultures, it is the text that creates the author, not the other way around. This means that as contexts of citation or performance change, the "same" author is given a new biography that meets the new context. Authorship is a form of invention, and texts find their authors, who can be entangled nonhuman actors. The radical takeaway from this talk was how important it is to keep revisiting notions of historicity and creativity in the humanities, and not to default to imperial paradigms of thought.

The radical takeaway from this talk was how important it is to keep revisiting notions of historicity and creativity in the humanities, and not to default to imperial paradigms of thought.

Professor Adheesh Sathaye, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at University of British Columbia-Vancouver, was our second speaker in the Indic literary cultures session. Professor Sathaye’s talk, titled "Breakout Moments: Using Digital Technologies to Capture the Dynamic Life of Sanskrit Proverbs in Medieval India," was a brilliant illustration of the very mobility of "text" and "author" that Professor Rao had discussed in his talk. Sathaye presented part of his larger project in which he studies how different sorts of texts interacted with one another over a span of a few centuries in medieval India. He showed how the interplay of proverbial sayings and tales from a very popular 13th–14th century anthology of "corpse-spirit" tales (the Vetālapañcaviṃśati) could be visualized through a phylogenetic software called "Mesquite." Mesquite allows Sathaye and his team of collaborators to create a cladistic tree for assessing the movement of the text across regions and communities over time. And a second program called "Gephi" uses a graph database to create a visualization of how hundreds of proverbs are networked throughout the Vetala tales. The findings explicitly showed the limitation of imagining the text as something bounded and static; rather, as tales disperse into other genres, finding new contexts of usage, new ways of imagining societal matrices becomes possible. For religious studies, these talks, deliberately steered toward literary materials, implicitly but most persuasively showed how critical it is to think of "religion" not through a univocal lens of a theological transcendent but rather as an entangled modality of being, making, and moving.

The first speaker in the afternoon session was from Duke’s own Department of Religious Studies, Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, whose paper "Overestimating Orality" looked at some mis-applications of theories about orality in research on early Christian texts. He disputed the way in which New Testament scholars frequently use the term "secondary orality" in a way that is in contrast to its usage by Walter Ong, and in a way that misunderstands the interaction between tradition and text.

The second speaker was Chris Keith, Director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible and Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. Keith is an expert on the application of social memory to research on Christian origins as well as on issues of orality and literacy. His presentation discussed the ways in which understandings of orality, literacy, and social memory shed light on the emergence of early Christian texts and traditions, noting the extent to which assumptions derived from “form criticism” of the early to the mid-20 th century had impacted negatively on the field.

New interdisciplinary methods of conducting research can dramatically alter established assumptions about "text" and "authorship"…

The afternoon session concluded with some stimulating discussion of Keith’s and Goodacre’s presentations, drawing in also the related themes from the morning presentations.

Three important insights emerged from the two sessions of the panel: (1) new interdisciplinary methods of conducting research can dramatically alter established assumptions about "text" and "authorship", twin concepts whose use and influence in the humanities and certainly in "religious studies" has been historically magisterial; (2) fields conventionally considered distant from each other (Indic literary cultures, New Testament studies) have in fact a great deal in common methodologically and epistemologically, and conversation between them contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the relevance and "content" of the term "religion"; and (3) cross-field and cross-method approaches are necessary to the "future of the humanities" because they will enable us both to gain nuanced understandings of our pasts and to better imagine our entangled futures.


Entangled Bodies

By Marc Brettler

I convened the February 9, 2017 Entanglement meeting, on Entangled Bodies. After my brief introduction on the meaning(s) of entanglement and it usefulness for the study of religion, Mark Smith from Princeton Theological Seminaries spoke on "The Embodied God of the Hebrew Bible," Kalman Bland, from Duke (emeritus) spoke on "Animals as Human: Kalilah Vedimnah," and Carl Ernst from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill spoke on "Sufism and the Yogic Bodies." Each talk was followed by lively questions and answers, and all the talks were followed by a robust discussion between the panelists. (Originally, Amy Hollywood from Harvard University was also scheduled to present on "Transcending Bodies," but unfortunately she had to cancel.) This event was well attended, with approximately 30 different people cycling in and out between the various talks.

When approached, most of the panelists were not aware of the term "entanglement" and its initial penetration into the humanities, but all the presenters took their assignments seriously, read up on the concept, and used it as a key part of their presentations. This gave coherence to three very different presentations with very different chronological and geographical foci. In the roundtable, all acknowledged that they found entanglement a useful concept that they would continue to use in their research and teaching, and each commented helpfully on how the introduction of this concept changed their scholarly perspectives; this conversation continued with a small group over dinner.

Religion scholars lag behind in integrating the insights of this field, and the use of this perspective [that of entanglement] will help integrate the study of religion more firmly into the humanities, where it is more broadly accepted.

The material from the introduction, largely based on the recent book by Ian Hodder, An Archaeology of Relations between Humans and Things (2012), offered, I believe, some general principles that could benefit all students of religion. It suggested a move away from strict historicism and interest in priority and influence, which too often bogs down the study of religion. It highlights the importance of studying religious material culture in addition to religious texts. Hodder’s definition of religion as fixing entanglements that matter is novel and thought-provoking. Finally, Hodder’s observations that the beginning point of religion is that "something is wrong with the world" was especially apposite to the political events in the news at the time of the event, and the notion that studying religion from this perspective might be helpful offered some optimism at time that otherwise tended to generate pessimism.

Through the specific examples offered and the roundtable discussion, many audience participants expressed a willingness to "try-out" entanglement in their own work. Religion scholars lag behind in integrating the insights of this field, and the use of this perspective will help integrate the study of religion more firmly into the humanities, where it is more broadly accepted. Furthermore, entanglement invites types of comparisons that are especially useful in the undergraduate classroom, since undergraduates rarely have the historical tools and knowledge needed for the more traditional study of religions. As such, in some ways I see the introduction of entanglement into the academy as comparable to that of new criticism, which has made texts much more available and friendly to students as it eschewed extensive historical and biographical study. The underpinnings of entanglement are, I believe, more robust and defensible than those of new criticism.


Entangled Lands

By Hwansoo Kim

On March 30, 2017, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its fourth and final workshop on entanglement, titled Entangled Lands. Two scholars had been invited to speak: Rachel Havrelock, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, gave a presentation on "Untangling Religion and Nationalism in Israel-Palestine"; and Pierce Salguero, Associate Professor of Asian History and Religious Studies at The Abington College of Penn State University, gave a presentation on "Entangled Histories of Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China."

As for the future of the humanities in general and religious studies in particular, both speakers recommended that we encourage the interweaving of scholarship in religious studies with other disciplines… with interdisciplinary cooperation, we can appreciate the significance and breadth of the concept of entanglement and evoke a sense of how entangled the humanities themselves are and need to be.

Although these presentations focused on very different regions of the world, both highlighted the entanglement of histories of national borders with histories of religion and culture. Professor Havrelock focused on the contested borders along the Jordan River that separate Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. She argued that these borders were created neither on the basis of biblical stories nor on the basis of natural terrains. In fact, they were the result of the British and French colonial expansions after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century. What’s more striking is that the driving force behind the creation of these borders was the burgeoning oil economy that the British and French empires facilitated to funnel oil to Europe. Ever since, people in these regions have mistakenly taken for granted that the lines drawn by the European colonialists coincided with religious, cultural, and national boundaries, as if they had existed for a long time. To ameliorate current political tensions associated with these borders, Professor Havrelock proposed a regional approach that avoids projecting fixed national myths and identities on the areas defined by these borders. Rather, the approach treats these areas as fluid, with people living side by side who embrace fluid ideas and allegiances.

Professor Salguero discussed the interplay between Buddhism and medicine in China and India. He brought out the complexity of the relation between religion and medicine in the region and placed Asian religious and medical traditions within cross-cultural and global frameworks. This approach aims at rediscovering the major vehicle of transborder exchange, decentering biomedicine in the study of Buddhism and health, and thereby reconstructing the agency of individual actors in negotiating the reception of Indian medicine by the Chinese. He urged that the future study of Buddhism and medicine should question the significance of nation-states and instead emphasize multiple centers and peripheries as well as illuminate multidirectional transfers among special configurations of power.

As for the future of the humanities in general and religious studies in particular, both speakers recommended that we encourage the interweaving of scholarship in religious studies with other disciplines. They suggested that with interdisciplinary cooperation, we can appreciate the significance and breadth of the concept of entanglement and evoke a sense of how entangled the humanities themselves are and need to be.