My colleagues at The Talmud Blog asked me to provide a guest post about my research interests.
Notes from the field
Tucked in a quiet corner of upstate New York, around a bend in a lonely road, there stands a dramatically large brick building that once housed 300 radical Christian communists. The Oneida Community Mansion House was home to a group of Christians who shared everything among themselves, from possessions to labor. To share as they did required being in each other’s immediate presence with limited interaction with outsiders. How, then, did the Oneidans imagine themselves to connect to the world at all, let alone serve as a model for a new way of global life?
Should religious discourse be welcomed in the public sphere, or should we require that it first be translated into secular terms? Part of the concern in the debate is that such translation would be demeaning to religiously-committed people, and that they would be unwilling to do this. But in something like the Rimini Meeting it seems that the opposite is the case—translation into secular idiom may in fact be an attractive prospect to religious groups: an attempt to retain a freshness of content by changing the form, a way to express their way of life in a public forum that might invite those who might otherwise steer clear.
The Rimini Meeting is run almost entirely by unpaid volunteers. Everything from the physical construction and take-down of the arena, to its cleaning staff, to the various literary, scientific and artistic exhibits, to food services, is the prerogative of around 4,000 unpaid volunteers who give up their vacation time and pay money (covering their own travel and lodging costs) to work at this event. [...] I interviewed nearly 100 of these volunteers, including university students, factory workers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, housewives, and retirees. Among the questions I asked them was whether they would consider the Meeting a “religious” event. Nearly half of them immediately replied “no.” A handful replied “yes” right away, and the rest couched with “it depends.” But regardless of the initial answer, they all offered very much the same explanation.
This is a post about the politics of representation, postcolonial theory, and the Hollywood movie, The Help. And it begins with my Mom.
As a lawyer, I appreciate the critical importance of historical inquiry to contemporary legal challenges; as a historian, I resist attempts to demand normative outcomes from historical research. Balancing these disparate commitments is no easy feat and the endeavor warrants restraint.
But then here, on another level, a question similar to that of the Christians above arises: when is human action deemed to veer away from this will of nature and the universe?
To write about something that is noncognitive and asignifying requires an incredible stomach for loss; whatever we write about affect necessarily entails the alienation of the very thing we are trying to describe. Is the best strategy to make affect’s necessary absence from our texts as apparent as possible?
When I set out to examine the lifestyle changes of employees working night shifts in India’s call centers, I was surprised to discover how outsourcing highlights some of the important tensions between new modes of secularity and new religious modernities emerging around the world.