The New Metaphysicals:

Institutions, discourses, practices… and life-in-the-world

posted by David Smilde

I tell my students that sorting out emic and etic meanings is not simply a methodological hoop they need to jump through. On the contrary, it is the central task of their research from beginning to end. Georg Simmel pointed out long ago that social science has a task altogether more complex than the one Immanuel Kant set forth, as it seeks to categorize things that are themselves categorizers. And when these categorizers are our peers, the situation is that much more complex. Any social science of the present in effect studies and interprets people who are themselves actively studying and interpreting people.

Much of the last century of the sociology of religion can be thought about as orderings and re-orderings of emic and etic concepts. Twentieth-century secularization theory amounted to an imposition of etic onto emic, as secularized scholars were sure that the people they studied would soon think and act like they did. And the current move towards a “strong program” strikes me as the converse: a projection of emic onto etic. Religiosity based on autonomous moral orders of beliefs and values has come to be viewed as “religion” in general—or worse yet, a fundamental characteristic of human nature—rather than as a historically particular form of intellectualized Western Christianity.

The dilemma only becomes more complex when one realizes that social scientists are not alone in categorizing the categorizers; they in turn get categorized by the categorizers. The portraits social scientists create get appropriated by their subjects, used, and fed back to social scientists. Like a Cherokee Indian wearing a headdress to fulfill tourists’ stereotypes, respondents can make etic meanings emic when these meanings fit their purposes.

This is precisely the “entanglement” that Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals masterfully addresses. Few books so adroitly and so fruitfully work through the interplay of emic and etic, not merely as a methodological obstacle, but as a substantive issue. Bender’s study of the social structure of American mysticism reveals a sort of collusion between academics and metaphysicals to occlude the fact that mysticism has a social structure and a history, and that it has been and still is an important part of the American religious experience. Bender traces the way early twentieth-century social scientists developed conceptualizations of religious experience as individual, pre-cultural, and ineffable in order to remove it and thereby protect it from spaces that were then regarded as inherently (or at least soon-to-be) secular. Metaphysicals themselves push this portrait as part of their own emphasis on pure, otherworldly mystical experience existing outside of mainstream culture (although thoroughly modern and scientific).

Bender sets out, not to narrate an untold, hidden history, but rather to portray a loose culture of American mysticism consisting of practices that are inscribed in bodies, times, and spaces, and are carried in discourses and embedded in institutions. This portrait is a remarkable synthesis of the lived religion perspective with field theory and Wuthnowian neo-institutional analysis of culture. The result is a sort of heavier, more robust version of practice theory that succeeds in providing a portrait of a loose, yet durable, social structure. Among its virtues, this portrait of the social-structural embeddedness of mysticism, its historical continuity, its centrality in the American experience, its non-marginality, and its non-ephemerality, de-naturalizes the view of religion as a body of beliefs belonging to a collectivity, which guides the behavior of individuals and provides the foundation of society. Bender shows us that there are alternative forms of spirituality that are viable, enduring, and widespread. Understanding this “spirituality in non-spiritual places” helps undermine the attempts of cultural conservatives to pose a conflict of the “faithful” versus the “faithless.”

I am strongly sympathetic to Bender’s focus on practices, discourses, and institutions, as it explains the constitutive power of culture without relying on over-rationalized structuralist images. But let me suggest another—not incompatible—possibility for understanding cultural continuity: metaphor theory.

The centerpiece of most metaphor theory is simply that one of the most basic ways human beings make meaning is by attaching images or symbols from a better known “source domain” to an inchoate “target domain.” For our purposes here, the inchoate target domain can be a predicament—or “situation” in Kenneth Burke’s sense of the term—and the source domain can be a set of religious symbols (including not only ideas but bodily practices). So, for example, among the Evangelicals I study in Venezuela, a common inchoate predicament such as “I want to be a good husband, but I lose control when I drink” is made meaningful through meanings from the Evangelical source domain, which says, “The Devil seeks to control human beings and has ready access when they consume alcohol.” This metaphoric coupling leaves an educated, middle-class professional like myself a little flat. But for many lower-class Venezuelan men whose unviable pater familias cultural ideal gets bifurcated into a marginal home life versus a macho male drinking culture, this metaphoric solution is compelling indeed.

In Bender’s case, it seems to me that there are certain characteristics of the American experience in general, and the Cambridge experience in particular, that produce a common, recurring set of “situations” to which mysticism provides a satisfying metaphoric solution. Cambridge entails some pretty unique conditions of collective living when seen in comparative historical terms: a population with a lack of ethnic or any other common narrative ties to space; many people with the high educational levels associated with skepticism of traditional beliefs; a post-materialist context in which basic necessities are fulfilled, and questions of identity are addressed in abstraction; a mobile and transient context that spurs spiritual seeking. All of these long-term social-geographic characteristics produce a common set of predicaments that make people receptive to the practices that Bender rightly portrays as embedded in institutions, literatures, and discourses. To be more concrete, when Bender s enjoins us to “investigate how those [sacred] irruptions take place and work to locate the institutions and practices that contribute both to their occlusion and to their continuation,” I would add a third question: We should ask how these irruptions fit into the lives and struggles of those experiencing them. What situations and predicaments do these irruptions give answer to? What life projects do they facilitate? My guess would be that many in this context confront an accentuated version of the classic American predicament that asks, “How can I be an individual, yet part of a community?” Others in this context of higher education are certainly faced with the desire to be spiritual yet scientific; still others in this space of life-course transition want to be culturally deep, yet break with their cultural past.

Bender’s focus on how institutions and practices provide continuity over time is a much needed expansion beyond the strong program conceptualization of continuity through cultural autonomy. But bringing metaphor theory in could have enabled a more complete conceptualization of the thought-as-action and practice-as-project that one actually sees in Bender’s ethnographic descriptions. And this would not have undermined the emphasis on culture and history. Of course, existing cultural formations both structure the predicaments we confront and provide a repertoire of solutions. But focusing just on the structuring power of culture is like focusing on the structure of the professional Chess world to understand the Fischer-Spassky “match of the century.” It will explain a lot, but probably not what is most interesting. In Bender’s actual ethnographic storytelling, she indeed focuses on the concrete situations and practices of her respondents’ lives-in-the-world. But the conceptual framework provided in the conclusion is more supply-side than the actual empirical analysis.

Pointing out what else could have been done is, of course, a weak critique, and it ought to be taken as evidence that the book is good to think with. Indeed, my overall emotion in reading The New Metaphysicals was awe at the amount of fieldwork that must have taken place to obtain this ethnographic material, at the level of erudition needed to reach this conceptual depth, and at the amount of head-in-hands thinking that must have gone into developing this argument. In our book-a-year academic culture, such examples of scholarship-as-craft are far too few.

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One Response to “Institutions, discourses, practices… and life-in-the-world”

  1. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    I am suspicious of every discussion of “spirituality” that makes no attempt to distinguish religion from superstition. I believe that while religion may be impossible to isolate, that is not the case with superstition. Bender, insofar as everything I have read confirms, does not employ a distinction between spiritual and superstitious.

    While I grant to sociology of religion its privilege to analyze whatever might claim one of the synonyms of “religion,” the lack of a disciplined designation of superstition seems to me to invalidate claims to any such sociology as scientific.

    Psychology, long ago, identified the training that behaviorists employ to reveal superstition in non-humans. Although I have not followed the literature, I am convinced that the description of behavior that repeats what the subject was satisfied with on the most previous similar occasion requiring action qualifies as superstitious. Yes, we all are superstitious, but we are not all spiritual, even if we so designate ourselves.

    In addition, Bender’s awareness of the tension between her ‘new spirituals’ and science ought to have indicated as a misconception of cause and effect in the practices she calls spirituality. By whatever name, superstition is instinctive; religion is not.—Cross-posted from Religion in American History.

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