Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | June 12, 2015

Door Number 2, I guess …: A Reflection on #RAAC2015

Last weekend I was in Indianapolis for the 4th Biennial Religion and American Culture Center’s conference (#RAAC2015). I went 2 years ago in 2013 and loved the the conference. It’s small, it’s just my subfield, there’s only one panel going at once, and the set-up is a conference in the round. It’s intimate and it actually feels like a conversation. The comments from the pre-set panelists are always thought-provoking. And the RA&AC always publishes the comments later in the summer. This is both great for those who weren’t able to attend and for those of us who were there. I take notes, but I also allow myself to just listen and think.

The final panel 2 years ago was on the future of American religion and the study of it. I left Indy feeling energized to go and finish my damn dissertation. The final panel this year was on liberalism and pluralism as modes of interpretation. The panelists were Pamela Klassen, Stephen Prothero, and Leigh Schmidt. Klassen focused her remarks on secularization, liberalism, and pluralism as both analytical terms and historical processes. When are those terms categories for analysis, Klassen asked, and when are they characters in our narratives? Depending on our frame, we can either illuminate or possibly hide various groups and movements. We should be aware of this. I think this is a useful distinction to make both when looking at the historiography our subfield American religion and looking at the different methodological approaches of current work. But, if you were there at #RAAC2015, you can probably guess from the title of this post that I’m going to reflect mainly on Prothero’s comments.

Prothero took us through the historiography of our subfield from Sidney Ahlstrom to the ethnographic turn with Bob Orsi‘s Madonna of 115th Street and Karen McCarthy Brown‘s Mama Lola to the more recent genealogical turn and John Modern‘s Secularism in Antebellum America. Prothero argued that there was a rupture in this last turn. While those works following the ethnographic turn can risk obscuring the nation (due to a local focus), Prothero contended that the genealogical turn misses both the nation and the people. As he stated in the Q&A, he thinks genealogical works feels like the prologue rather than the play and that he finds “some of this work obvious rather than profound.” In his prepared comments, he described the field as currently having two doors for scholars to pick: the genealogical or the more ethnographic.

Pick a Door
Prothero wants people to pick door number 2. That means: tell stories about people; don’t excavate categories. I think to a lot of us in the room, this felt like a false dichotomy. Can we divide the subfield that easily? I think especially for us younger scholars who academically “grew up” with the ethnographic turn, many of us were drawn to the field because of that work and (at least I) still love it. I also find genealogical works invigorating. So why can I only do one? Aren’t people creating, deploying, and shifting the categories that monographs like Modern’s illuminate? Can’t I look at categories and people?

As you can guess, the Q&A conversation was lively. There were accusations of mansplaining, some felt “convicted,” and others found the critique of Modern’s work unfair. Many in the audience were unsettled by the panel, which means it was a very successful panel. That conversation bled into the reception that followed.

In the wake of the conference and coming home to Spokane, I’ve thought a lot about that panel and I’ve asked myself: If I had to pick a door, which would it be and why? Which method best describes my scholarship? And, I’m going with door number 2: people and their stories. [I’m sure people will criticize me for that choice, but, oh well.] I think that’s what better describes my current manuscript on Afro-creole Spiritualism in New Orleans. I’m telling a story. But wait, I argue with myself, it’s more than just a story. It’s about politics, it’s about personhood, it’s about race, it’s about authority. And the actual people in the story are hard to figure out. Beyond names, there’s very little in the historical record about most members in the seance group. With the exception of their religious practice, much of their lives is unknown. But it’s still about them and the spirits they considered their guides. It’s about what spirits advised them and why their presence mattered. It’s about what those spirits had to say and how those comments related to their context. It’s about how talking to the dead was never just talking. So … door number 2, I guess …

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