Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion
Social and Rhetorical Techniques Examined
Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion is the first in a series of books from a “scholarly working group” organized in 2012, and going by the name “Culture on the Edge.” This group is best known for running one of the better blogs associated with the academic study of religion. Although all seven members of the group contribute to the volume, the primary focus is on the work of Russell McCutcheon. In fact, two-thirds of this volume is comprised of six reprinted McCutcheon articles, with the rest of the book devoted to providing commentary on these articles and weaving them into a coherent book about identity.
Claiming Identity is focused around an approach to the study of identity which is strongly influenced by Francois Bayart’s claim that “there is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification” (8). As such, the book focuses on various discourses related to how individuals and groups identify themselves, as well as on how scholars engage in the identification of those whom they study. Steven Ramey perhaps best sums up the practical import of this approach in the afterword, where he suggests that it presents an opportunity for scholars to focus on how people use labels, rather than whether or not those labels are appropriate (224). After all, if there is no identity, how could there be a correct label?
Although this volume is identified first and foremost as being about the study of identity within the study of religion, it is fair to say that this book is more broadly about how scholars of religion engage in their craft. There is no scholar working in the field whose work is unaffected by the issues being addressed here. A scholarly study of religion could not exist at all without acts of identification that construct what is and what is not relevant, what is or what is not religion. Yet it is not just religion that is problematic, but terms like culture, society, identity, gender, race, politics, citizenship, insider/outsider, “the other,” and “the West.” All of these concepts require acts of identification, have fluid meanings which are tied to the contexts within which they are used, and are subject to various interests and motivations.
Definitional problems are a well recognized challenge within the academic study of religion (itself a label chosen instead of “religious studies,” which reflects certain interests), and while there seems to be a significant number of scholars who have grown somewhat apathetic towards these issues and want to get on with the so-called real work, there is nothing to study without identification, and those identifications make a world of difference. Although Claiming Identity is unlikely to interest or persuade scholars who are tired of debating these issues, or those whose work relies on clear and concrete identifications (for example, much of the current work in the cognitive science of religion), that likely has more to do with entrenched divides within the field than with the successes or failures of the present contributors in making their points.
The oldest reprint, from when McCutcheon was still a graduate student, deals with Mircea Eliade, and is perhaps one of the few spots in this collection where the text drags a little. The essay is theoretically rigorous, but it is liable to leave the reader feeling as if they know more about Eliade’s life than they ever wished to know. Most of McCutcheon’s essays in this compilation focus on him engaging with the work of one or two other scholars, including Eliade, Ann Taves, Jeffrey Kripal, Robert Orsi, Paul Courtright, Bruce Lincoln, and Daniel Dubuisson. The commentary, meanwhile, tends to draw on examples from popular culture or the commentator’s own research to give a more concrete illustration of the theoretical interests at work in McCutcheon’s writing.
In some ways this volume proves its own point, inasmuch as it demonstrates that reprinting these articles within a new context causes their meanings to be reframed and thus, to some degree, modified. Even so, if you have read most of McCutcheon’s articles already, or have access to them, there is little reason to purchase this book, as the new content, although of generally excellent quality, proves too brief to justify the cost. This book undoubtedly, however, has merit as a classroom text, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level. Undergraduates may especially benefit from some of the outstanding commentary, such as Miller’s “Who is the Nigger?” and Craig Martin’s “Conceptual Colonialism,” both of which are timely and thought-provoking pieces which could fit into an undergraduate curriculum with or without the associated McCutcheon articles. Of course, calling these pieces “commentary” is just one more act of identification meant to convey a degree of respectability and authority, and one can imagine how opinions might change if they were labeled differently, as stand-alone pieces, as responses, or as loosely connected anecdotes.
Neil George is a Ph.D. candidate in Humanities at York University.
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