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December 12, 2006

The Sweeping vs. The Narrow

Still thinking of the rather large question of method in historical and social science research.

Spoke with a colleague today who remembers when the sort of feminist inquiry into continuities in oppression of women in various times and places went out of fashion -- to be replaced by the study of inequities in gender relations in specific cultures.

Hope there is interest in learning of continuities in disbelief in across societies. That is what most interests me. Why do people disbelieve? What form do such disbeliefs generally take? How have they developed and changed. An anthropologist who listened to my paper insisted that I also note that different times and places have been more or less hospitable to disbelief. And, yes, that is interesting and important and certainly part of my book, too.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 12, 2006 10:01 PM


This is, I agree, the fundamental question your work at this moment must ask. The manner in which you choose to address it will determine how your book participates in the transdisciplinary theoretical project(s) of the past 30 years (with which you have in quite important ways aligned yourself in other projects). That project seeks to address 'large human questions' in ways that no longer take western, Enlightenment categories for thinking them for granted -- thus seeks to address them through an acknowledgment that this thing called 'the human' is neither monolithic nor 'natural.'

The days when feminist theorists (to use your colleague's example) addressed the 'continuities of oppression of women in various times and places' are over because they could only go as far as their methodological ground allowed them to go... they essentialized the multiplicitous conditions of women as *Woman*: that all women everywhere shared such oppressions, in mostly the same ways, regardless of cultural specificities (+ a whole range of other critical factors). That kind of theorizing was still fundamentally grounded in Enlightenment categories of 'the human.' Thus, if you choose not to acknowledge the very real theoretical and methodological problems associated with that humanistic discourse you not only disregard the critical work in the humanities and social sciences that have fundamentally altered the ways in which we think about language, culture, etc. You risk marginalizing your work from much important contemporary critical scholarship, pedagogy, etc.

More importantly, though, your work already constellates itself with that project, no? To challenge that methodology and refine it in order to address the questions of your particular project here would seem quite valid. Ignoring it would come at the risk of losing a crucial audience and base of support for this important book (and make this book an aberration in your own series of projects). 'Translating' that methodology for a more general, not necessarily academic audience -- one not steeped in all this critical, philosophical discourse -- in order to talk about disbelief across cultural, temporal borders would seem to be the particular strength you bring as a cultural historian, or at least that is how I have read your work to this point....

Posted by: JM at December 12, 2006 11:14 PM

Yes, this is the argument, to which I was not doing justice.

First response: some of the comments on the subject of belief and disbelief I find most sweeping and, consequently, most invigorating come from one of the mothers of this scrupulousness: Jacques Derrida (in his essay "Faith and Knowledge," which haunts my essay on the Holy of Holies and will haunt sections of my book). In spiraling in on certain elemental questions of consciousness connected to religion, he is characteristically attentive to the limitations of the language we use (noting, for example, that since "religion" lacks cognates in other Indo-European tongues, when we speak of "religion" we are "speaking Latin"). Nevertheless, Derrida does manages to make his way towards larger questions of the sort that intrigue me (toward question that are not, in fact, exclusively European Christian). Derrida (and his pals) have crafted a marvelous language of the hem and haw. In deference to my audience, I will want to take a more direct path. I don't think they will be wanting a tangle of etymologies, doubts about the nature of doubt, or meditations on the limitations of the Enlightenment. But I think you are right, JM, that such hesitations/qualifications/acknowledgements will have to be in there in some (less intricately woven form). Indeed, I think you are right that they are part of the story (or "story") I am telling -- the late-20th century part, perhaps (which, since I have lately been stuck in the 4th century, seems somewhat far away). I had Derrida's note on the word "religion" in an endnote. Probably it should be invited to join the main text. But I am still going to allow myself to talk in my way, as he does in his way, about the "nature" of "human" "religion." And my way will, I fear, involve less rigorous use of quotations marks than his.

Posted by: mitch at December 13, 2006 8:05 AM

Perhaps I am merely saying the same thing as JM, but I'm saying it less elegantly and less persuasively...but it seems to me that a simple point can also be made, by putting different words that you and JM did in quote marks: there is a difference between assuming that there is "a" history of "disbelief" and that there are important histories of "disbeliefs." It may be the case that there are continuities--in disbelief, in inequity and in oppression of women. But at the least, the case would need to be proved rather than assumed. And potentially, the differences will turn out to be as important, or more important, than the continuities. Clearly, historians and anthropologists start out from fundamentally different positions here, and this always becomes clear, from the questions that are asked to the way the story is told (that is, stories are told). And you align with the former. But I'd argue that newer feminist work is much more persuasive, and is much more able to intervene, precisely because it no longer starts out by asking how is the oppression of x group of women the same as it's always been, across time and across space. Philosophically, where is the warrant for the notion that religious belief, or disbelief, has "an" essential nature? I really don't think this is about a tangle of Englishtenment belief at all. So, if you are going to turn to continental philosophers, why not turn from Derrida with his large questions, to Foucault, who really is attentive to language and how words "mean" differently at different moments of history, and Bourdieau, whose notion of social and cultural capital is productive here. That is, what kind of capital is gained by "mastering" or avowing religious belief, or disavowing it?

Posted by: george at December 13, 2006 4:09 PM

george, I for one very much appreciate your very intuitive comments and always gain perspective reading them. I invoked the Enlightenment conception of the human here because i think that it is going unchallenged in Mitch's text thus far, what I have read. There's too much of that grand historical sweep of which he is fond that goes uncritically unchallenged, agreed. Also agree that Derrida + Foucault [OK, + Bourdieu if you must] will help him work out his theoretical and philosophical 'warrants' more elaborately. And that this is fundamentally necessary.

But I was especially grateful for the reminder that 'a' history of 'disbelief' (singular) is hardly what this is about...

Posted by: JM at December 13, 2006 9:57 PM

I think allowing others so much voice in your work is a mixed blessing. In fact, at this point, I see it as only as a hinderance.
You started with a vision, it has evolved as this thing has unfolded, but by now you have all you need; stop listening to anyone but yourself. Shut the door and turn off the computer (I can break it for you if that would be a breach of contract). Maybe you should retreat to Tucson--72 and sunny!

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 14, 2006 11:22 AM

you have a point Jay!
though there is an analytic voice that will be running through the narrative that I have had some difficulty adjusting. this isn't going to be a book about Derrida and Foucault, but the discussion about the global and the local, about simularities and differences, that their work has illuminated will help me calibrate that voice. it is a question of a few paragraphs. maybe I'll post them.
wish I could escape to sunny Tuscon!
classes have ended. papers and articles are behind me. it is looking like time to retreat into my study and just read and type.

Posted by: mitch at December 14, 2006 5:51 PM

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