Posts Tagged ‘language’

May 30th, 2017

Practice and performance in ritual language

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Practice and performance in ritual languageDoes it make a difference to think of ritual language such as prayer in terms of a relation between practice and performance? I do not mean this in the sense that a musician practices an instrument in preparation for a concert performance, or an athlete practices in preparation for performance in a competition. I mean it in the sense of practice as carrying out a particular activity in a regular or habitual way, in contrast to performance as a marked or highlighted form of action distinct from everyday action and addressed to an actual or imagined audience. Someone may engage in the practice of singing every day, but may also sing every day for an audience, real or imagined. One can identify a continuum of “degree of performance” between informal everyday speech and formal ritual utterance. . . .

Focusing specifically on prayer as a mode of utterance present both in ritual events and in everyday life allows for a rethinking of practice and performance as simultaneous modalities of action. The simultaneity of performance and practice in this theoretical or conceptual sense is not the same as the collapsing of performance into practice in prayer that I observed ethnographically. In this sense, any act of prayer has both a practical and a performative component. Practice is guided by a logic while performance is impelled by a rhetoric. Both are necessary features of prayer as ritual language.

October 3rd, 2016

A cautious rapprochement: Habermas and Taylor on translation and articulacy

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Conversation Statue Downtown Calgary WinterIn the past ten to fifteen years, discussions around the contested role of religion in the political public sphere have often centered on Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, for many obvious and legitimate reasons. Not only are the two thinkers some of the most well-established in their fields, but they also share a deep appreciation of one another. Habermas’s reflections have perhaps drawn the bulk of attention and pushback, as religion had previously gone nearly unmentioned in his good half-century of academic work. Taylor also rarely discussed religion explicitly in his early career, but his more recent reflections seem to flow more naturally from his oeuvre, and come as less of a surprise to his readers.

In 2015, Taylor and Habermas were honored together in their shared reception of the Kluge Prize. While the two share significant overlap in their general push for a more accommodating role of religion in secular society, it is still worth taking a closer look at their divergences, particularly with regard to their views of language. Taylor has just released the first installment of what is to be a two-volume series entitled “The Language Animal.” We haven’t heard much from Habermas in recent years, but much of the secondary literature still focuses on his notion of the “post-secular,” mentioned in his 2001 speech in Frankfurt, as well as his 2005 volume Between Naturalism and Religion. His 2012 essay collection, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, has received less attention but shows a slight shift in emphasis. In what follows, I seek to provide an overview of Habermas’s and Taylor’s respective notions of “translation” and “articulacy,” and to accentuate their differences in order to consider where this discourse may go from here.

March 5th, 2014

Are academics cloistered?

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Recently, The New York Times published an article by Nicholas Kristof that lamented how academics, cloistered like medieval monks, have retreated from the public policy arena. Kristof cites a few institutional reasons for this phenomenon, including the decline in humanities funding, but also critiques academics for marginalizing themselves. The column has, unsurprisingly, triggered a debate among academics, policy-makers, and journalists about the merits of Kristof’s arguments, as well as potential causes and solutions.

October 28th, 2013

Odd to each other

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It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.

June 5th, 2012

Translating Islam in South Asia

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At, three former International Dissertation Research Fellows (IDRF) reflect on Ronit Ricci’s Islam Translated.

May 1st, 2012

Three dots and a dash

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“It resists classification…”

Language is a funny thing. Take my epigraph, for example: three words from the fourth paragraph of Frequencies’ project statement. I find these three words interesting—worth re-reading, even un-reading, rather than just reading—because of the contradiction that they carry along with them; for they unsay what it is that we think they just said.

Like I said, language is a funny thing.

November 2nd, 2011

Where did religion come from?

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When an interviewer for the Atlantic Monthly blog asked me “What prompted you to write this book?” I apparently replied, “Deep desire to know everything: what the universe is and where we are in it.” I don’t deny that I said it—it’s just that I would have thought I would have given a more pedestrian reply, because I am a sociologist, with a Ph.D. in my discipline and some 40 years experience as a professor at Harvard and Berkeley. And I am quite aware that early in the last century Max Weber, in a famous 1918 talk called “Science as a Vocation,” warned that “science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and this will forever remain the case.”

July 14th, 2011

Critiquing reductionism

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There are reductive categories . . . that have been and should be abandoned in scholarly discourse because the terms are inherently pejorative. But there are other terms—such as religion—that, while not explicitly denigratory, can very rarely be used without legitimating a deeply problematic political position.The issue is ideology and not only oversimplification.

July 8th, 2011

On reductionism

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There’s something attractive about a neat typology, and also something we seem to loathe about the compartmentalization entailed. So what I want to do here is open up some more conversation on this ambivalence.

July 7th, 2011

The politics of inaccuracy and a case for “Islamic law”

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Since the process of understanding divine law is not a uniform or singular one, there are multiple interpretations of what divine law is, and, consequently, there are many schools of Islamic legal thought. The sharīʿah-fiqh distinction is one that is clearly recognized in Islamic jurisprudential texts and beyond. While I am still in the process of undertaking a thorough historical study, I suspect that the conflation of the terms sharīʿah and fiqh became normative among Muslims in the modern era—particularly in the context of Islamist-based resistance to imperialism. Regardless of the precise genealogy, the use of the term sharīʿah rather than fiqh in contemporary Muslim discourses has political motivations and ramifications; in other words, it is essentially about power.

December 13th, 2010

Crosswise logic

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My previous post sought to humble the principle of non-contradiction, and thus the logic of consistency it defines, finding it inadequate for thinking the temporal world in which we live and breathe and have our being. Parmenides first articulated this principle, calling “equally deaf and blind” those who would not think consistently according to it, those “hordes without judgment, for whom both to be and not to be are judged the same and not the same, and the path of all is crosswise (palintropos).” Without compromise, he recognized the conflict between his principle and our world of change and diversity. Consistently, he rejected time and the logic needed to understand it. His target here was Heraclitus, who claimed that “a thing agrees in disagreement with itself; it is a crosswise harmony (palintropos harmoniē), like that of the bow and the lyre.” This post aims to explain his earlier, contradictory, but nonetheless more accurate logic.

July 22nd, 2010

Separating public space

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Concluding a class trip to the Supreme Court, Maureen Rigo and her class from Wickenburg Christian Academy, Wickenburg, AZ, stopped to pray on the Oval Plaza in front of the Court steps. The Supreme Court police ushered the teacher and her class from the steps, having deemed their behavior unlawful—actions that bring to the fore questions of the religious neutrality of public space and the application of the First Amendment.

July 12th, 2010

A rhetorical challenge

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Criticism from counterterror experts targeting President Obama’s recent attempt to curtail the demonization of Islam and Muslims by way of limiting the number of rhetorical references to Islamic radicalism makes the headlines.

July 9th, 2010

What ends we mean: A reply to Vincent Pecora

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Pecora writes that I claim his “use of the term ‘secularization’ must be secretly eschatological” and that he “cannot escape from transcendence.” Actually, I didn’t intend to make either charge. When I asked if Pecora’s idea of secularization as an ongoing, open-ended project was eschatological, it was a genuine question, not an accusation. Now I’m a little embarrassed because he seems to think that it was obvious that he did not intend the term that way at all. Still, not all the causes of my initial confusion have been resolved. Let me try to state them more clearly.

May 10th, 2010

The soul of academia

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The concept of the soul has an important place in the conceptual apparatuses of towering figures of modern social thought such as Georg Simmel, W. E. B. DuBois, or György Lukács. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, philosopher Stephen T. Asma wonders why the concept still lingers in academia despite the justified skepticism of most present-day academics.

March 24th, 2010

What is a metaphor a metaphor for?

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Haiti has always suffered from a plight of representation:  “Black France” for Jules Michelet, “a tropical dog-kennel” for Thomas Carlyle, Haiti forced imagination high and low. For V.S. Naipaul, a later connoisseur of caricature, the “desert of Haiti” is the source of the “nothing” that he claims as a West Indian legacy. In their coverage of the earthquake, the media represented Haiti as a passive, neutered object of disaster,  with no history, no culture, nothing except images of rubble, pain, dirt, and misery. How did the news dare to show piles of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves after the earthquake?  To talk about the smell of urine?  To focus on women in postures that could only be called abject? What do the representations of Haiti tell us about the force of metaphor?  And why are these metaphors so crucial to North Americans? What is a metaphor a metaphor for?

January 19th, 2010

Giving up the Holy Ghost

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Christian ModernsKeane’s account is convincing, but it is important to contextualize the semiotic ideology he defines. I could be misreading Keane here, but it struck me that he reads Calvinists’ views of the Lord’s Supper to glean how they imagined Christian truth. But I would argue that in the hands of Calvinists, this semiotic ideology would only be employed to explain other people’s false religions. The Lord’s Supper was downgraded to the status of metaphor because, like all works, it could play no instrumental role in salvation. What Catholics and idolaters shared in their formal prayers and ritual performances was an overvaluation of human agency and institutions at the expense of the sovereignty of God and the surprising work of the Holy Spirit, which could not be contained in any external institutional, material, or linguistic forms. Against empty forms and rituals, Calvinists sought the real, active, vital presence of the Spirit that animated and invigorated the human body and the social order. To this end, the Holy Spirit worked through what can be described as a metonymic operation that stressed immediate contact and presence.

December 18th, 2009

No view from nowhere

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keaneI’ll start with a comment about my own angle of approach. There is of course no view from nowhere, and it is one task of the commentators to point out the blind spots that any perspective inevitably brings with it. As an anthropologist, my aim was not originally to construct a critique of modernity or of Christianity. The book emerged out of a long series of attempts to grapple with the challenges my research in Sumba presented to certain common sense assumptions about persons, materiality, and language. I came to see those assumptions as characteristic products of the liberal and secular world that produced the habits and disciplines within which many of us live, and thanks to which, in part, the book itself was written.

October 5th, 2009

Spiritual machines: An interview with John Lardas Modern

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Salvador Dali, Discovery of America (Wikimedia)

John Lardas Modern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College, draws on Beat poets, phrenologists, prison reformers, and Moby-Dick to show why taking technology seriously forces us to think differently about the boundaries of religion. His article “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan” appeared in the December 2008 issue of Church History. His book Haunted Modernity; or, the Metaphysics of Secularism is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

December 21st, 2008

Heraclitean spirituality: ephemeral selves

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<br />“That it cannot break time and time’s greed—that is the will’s loneliest misery.” Thus spoke Zarathustra. To try to escape this misery, according to him and his ventriloquist, Nietzsche, the will can travel one of two roads: it can fashion an eternity, with the promise of a redemption there, outside of time; or it can reconcile itself to this greed, somehow working through it, seeking a redemption here, in the midst of time. The first road is that of transcendence; the second, of immanence. When we decide for ourselves which road to travel—not only in grand moments of crisis and conversion, but also in humble moments every day of our lives—we implicitly answer the paramount question of our losing battle with time: how shall we overcome this, the will’s loneliest misery? […]

September 12th, 2008

Why do we want to know?

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“Evangelicals”—getting a handle on the concept requires asking why we want to know.

August 29th, 2008

The measurement of evangelicals

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Despite the fact that there is considerable journalistic and scholarly discussion today concerning the role of evangelicals in American public life, the label itself has become a contested term.  Just who should be labeled as evangelicals? And what serves as the basis of unity for those so gathered together under that label? Does the stipulated definition of evangelical exhibit any explanatory power either historically or currently?  Or, is the term so contested that it would be better to abandon the use of the label altogether? […]

August 4th, 2008

Evangelicals and the relational self in Venezuela

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Anglophone scholars have long struggled to find a terminology with which to study non-Catholic Christianity in Latin America. We are used to studying Christianity in terms of Catholics versus Protestants, with “Evangelicals” being a subcategory of the latter. But Latin Americans tend to divide Christians into Catholics versus Evangelicals. To make matters worse, when scholars go to Latin America and start talking to those who call themselves Evangelical, they quickly realize that these are what would be called Pentecostals, as spirit baptism, faith healing and speaking in tongues all play a central role in their religious practice. […]

April 18th, 2008

“Trust me”

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On Sunday evening at Messiah College, the two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination agreed to talk in a “deeply personal” way about “issues of faith and compassion and how a president’s faith can affect us all.” […]

April 1st, 2008

What we talk about when we talk about shari‘a

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A few clarifying points are in order regarding an essay of mine in The New York Times Magazine that drew on a new book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, out this past month from Princeton University Press. I began the essay with the recent lecture of the Archbishop of Canterbury to frame an irrefutable and I think interesting contrast: in the West, the word shari‘a is treated as radioactive, while in many places in the Muslim world (I quoted statistics from Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan) substantial majorities say they favor making the shari‘a into the source of law.

March 21st, 2008

Class, nation and covenant

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Over the past few days, Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech has been accessed millions of times on YouTube and dissected in dozens of articles. Understandably, most of the analyses have focused on race. That, after all, was its central theme. Or was it? […]

January 25th, 2008

Historical notes on the idea of secular criticism

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In an essay entitled “Secular Criticism,” the noted literary critic Edward Said wrote that “Criticism…is always situated, it is skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings.” To this I would merely add three questions: First, what work does the notion “secular” do here? Does it refer to an authority or a sensibility? Second, since criticism employs judgment, since it seeks conviction – of oneself and of others – to what extent does it therefore seek to overcome skepticism? Finally, if secular criticism regards itself as confronting the powerful forces of repression, finds itself open to all “failings,” can we say that secular criticism aspires to be heroic? […]

December 21st, 2007

What inspires us & what holds us together

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secular_age.jpgHaving escaped for a few seconds from the Commission, I had a chance to read many of the very interesting posts to the blog. With many I agree, others not. But there are two points where I obviously failed to communicate what I wanted to say (possibly because that is incoherent, though I hope not). […]

November 2nd, 2007

Problems around the secular

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secular_age.jpgOne great problem is that the term “secular” is a western term, and corresponds to a very old distinction within Christendom. Then it goes through a series of changes in order to surface in such neologisms as “secularization,” and “secularism.” But even so, some of the original meanings carry over. These terms are then applied unreflectingly to what are seen as analogous processes and ideas elsewhere, and the result can be great confusion. […]