Friday, August 23, 2013

Comparative Religious Ethics: Preliminary Problematics (Part one of several)

Warning: this entry is not particularly funny.  It also uses several annoyingly big words.

This year I will be taking comprehensive exams as another step in my process of academic consecration.  We all have the processes by which we are certified to get paid to do stuff, so I’m not here to complain about that.  Rather, I’m gathering thoughts and decided that I should submit these ramblings to whatever public scrutiny this blog may attract in order to gain some outside perspective while I write.  All this being said, I study comparative religious ethics but am uncomfortable with the term "comparative"...and "religious"...and "ethics.”  Here is a brief outline of what makes me uncomfortable with each term and its application in the academic subfield of comparative religious ethics.

Comparative: When one endeavors to study a person or group of people they are implicitly engaged in an act of comparison (comparing their data to some kind of ideal type or mode of categorization, or past experience, etc.).  In this sense, then, all studies are comparative, this field simply attemps to make the comparisons explicit. In order to engage in explicitly comparative work, then, one must make a conscious and continual effort to maintain a certain amount of differences between social groups/works/people being studied in order for the “C” to remain…however, one must simultaneously produce enough similarities to warrant a comparison (develop an overarching category (see: Religion, below).  This tiered act of taxonomic ordering carries with it the same problems of all social orderings (yes, “all.”  There are problems with universal/absolute/general declarations, yadda yadda, sorrynotsorry), namely the valuation of objects ordered (some things, voices, works, people are given more value than others).  Further, only those endowed with certain amount of recognized power are able to successfully implement their orderings…which makes one wonder: from what position does the scholar of CRE speak?  Certainly a question to be asked of all scholars, but comparativists seem especially prone to embrace the ever-comfortable-even-if-highly-problematic position of “neutral scholarly distance.”  This brings me to

Religious: Declaring something “religious” and something else “not religious” or “secular” is a tactic used by some social groups to disregard/discredit the claims made by other communities or dissenters within their own.  It also tends to imply that some experiences are above/beyond the social sphere.  When a scholar takes the distinction between religious and secular as her or his starting point – taking the distinction as a given or natural – she or he runs the risk of re-producing the various social mechanisms that are used to maintain this distinction (voices silenced alongside unexamined ideas of the proper mode of collective life).  In other words, one chooses sides in a social argument without explicitly choosing sides (thereby concealing/ignoring that the analyst is a social actor her/himself with a dog in this fight).  Further, when one assumes that there is some kind of otherworldly, extra-social realm that can not be subjected to critical scrutiny, she or he provides justification for the very social consequences of those claims – certain ideas and social orderings (as well as their consequences) are “off limits.” With regard to CRE, when one explicitly compares one or more “religious” person/group/work, is she/he merely multiplying these difficulties?  Finally, there is the tricky concept of

Ethics:  A study of ethics or morality is typically couched in terms of reflection on the good or best individual life or mode of collective living.  I can’t do this.  I can’t suspend the power question (as one might have guessed) long enough to reflect on what it means to live a good life (perhaps there’s more examining to do here on what my actions/scholarship imply about the life worth living).  Collective existence depends on inequality.  Reflections on the good life ignore this fact or attempt to find a way around it.  Further, when the inequality becomes deeply entrenched in a state bureaucracy (or any highly organized social grouping; see: Weber) the ability of enforcement mechanisms to silence critique grows exponentially.  Those charged with maintaining the status quo and those giving inequality a prettier fa├žade create a situation where the critic is forced to join the game or suffer the consequences.  Ethical norms are conventions used to maintain certain social arrangements and to ignore these arrangements in the pursuit of reflecting on the good life is highly problematic (This critique can be made on a macro level, as I just have, or on a micro level when examining various smaller social groups – for instance, the ethical norms and values that make one a good scholar (originality, lack of plagiarism, scholarly respect, etc.) are conventions that allow for easy replication of a community of scholars).

My goal in this blog series is to examine these preliminary (though informed) theoretical difficulties in my field of study (and the practice of scholarship more generally).  I’m not sure how many posts this will entail, but it will be at least three more – at least one each that more fully examines my misgivings with the scholarly act of explicit comparison, the academic study of religion, and the academic study of ethics (probably in that order).  Several more may crop up over the course of these musings (I have a feeling that once I start thinking about it, I’ll see that I’m making a lot of assumptions about what counts as scholarship and that the universal declarations above may not entirely hold up).  I also hope that anyone who reads this will raise issues and point me towards other areas that I overlook or have not completely thought through.

On the other hand, I might see something funny and get distracted.

Please feel free to comment here, facebook, tweet, or e-mail me re:this series of posts - will only share your insights by name if you do so in a public forum or permit me to in private correspondence.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fantasy Football Sleepers

Fantasy Football Season is back and most Fantasy Leagues are drafting in the next week or so.  In common Fantasy Football parlance, a "sleeper" is a player that not a lot of people know about who may end up having a big season and scoring lots of imaginary points for the owners of their imaginary teams.

Because there are few things in life more enjoyable than reappropriating terms that are important to some groups in order to mock/belittle/subvert their goals/intentions/beliefs, I would like to propose the following re-definition of Fantasy Football Sleeper.

Fantasy Football Sleeper (n): One who is wildly bored and gives less than a single damn about Fantasy Football.  This person does not want to read/hear/watch anything Fantasy Football related.  Fantasy Football makes the Fantasy Football Sleeper desire to club him or herself over the head with a smartphone opened to a twitterfeed full of Fantasy Football talk until he or she falls asleep.

Are you a Fantasy Football Sleeper?  Do you not give one back up RB about how many extra points the Detroit Lions' kicker missed?  Declare it loud and proud #FantasyFootballSleeper.

Some #FantasyFootballSleepers even get roped into co-owning a team with their spouse (sorry, Abbey).

Thanks for reading

Friday, August 16, 2013 my wedding ring

I have been tempted to blog several times over the span of my most recent hiatus but have decided to faithfully abide by the motto: “If you can’t blog anything nice, don’t blog anything at all.  Unless it’s about the Miami Heat then, by all means, blog away.”

(That being said, if you wish to hear my opinion on the humanities in general, the Edward Snowden leaks, The Manning verdict, Reza Aslan’s interview on Fox/his book that I haven't and likely won't read/the academic study of religion, or anything related to the coup in Egypt, let me know if you find yourself in my neck of the woods and we can have a beverage or seven and a likely colorful, certainly off-the-record chat.)

This blog post, however, hits closer to home.  Last week, I lost my wedding ring.   The conversation went something like this:

Abbey: Where is your wedding ring?
Tommy: No clue.
Abbey: When did you last see it?
Tommy: A couple days ago.
Tommy’s thoughts: This happens all the time, usually I take it off when I’m eating a sandwich somewhere weird – it will turn up, it always does.
Abbey: Where did you see it last?
Tommy: Ummm, wherever the last place I took it off was.
Abbey: …
Tommy’s thoughts: It will turn up, always does, even if I don’t spend all day looking, but since this time you found out that I misplaced it,
Tommy: I’ll look for it.

After checking all of the normal places I typically remove my ring, I started trying to recall various places I may have taken it off – as we are in a new house with new counters we have yet to really develop an organizational system for most of our things (my wedding ring included) nor do I have a constant place where I eat sandwiches.  After looking everywhere (in coffee mugs and under gnomes, behind/in/around books, in the car, in every pocket of every article of clothing I had unpacked, etc.) I gave up for the day and continued unpacking.  Abbey was still rattled that evening.

Tommy: It will show up.
Abbey: I just need to come to terms with the fact that it’s gone and we’ll probably find it in a random box in 20 years.  We’ve thrown away so much paper from so many boxes, it might even be gone forever.  I’m sad now, but I’ll get over it.
Tommy’s thoughts: Damn it.

The next morning, I continue looking for the ring.  No dice.  I’ve literally [on a side note, the dictionary definition of “literally” has changed and it literally can be used just – literally – for emphasis instead of its former, more literal meaning…literally] looked everywhere that I could.  Abbey was upstairs with Vivian and I picked up a pile of clothes from the middle of the entranceway.  The ring was there.  THE RING WAS ON THE GROUND!!!!  I AM THE GREATEST HUSBAND EVER I FOUND IT!!!! (It is entirely peripheral to the point that I was the one that lost it in the first place, shut up).

I march upstairs with the ring held high.

Abbey: You found it?!
Tommy: I found it.
Abbey: Where was it?!
Tommy: Remember that pile of clothes I said I’d move two days ago?
Abbey: …
Tommy: It was under that.
Abbey: …
Tommy: least I found it...
Abbey: You need to find a permanent place to put your ring from now on or never take it off – I don’t care if you are eating a sandwich in the laundry room.
Tommy’s thoughts: I bet I can find something super tacky on Amazon for really cheap.
Tommy: I promise I will find a place to always leave my ring whenever I take it off.

I have named her Kiaya after Kiaya Ufgood (imdb says I spelled the name right, the youtube clip does not), Willow’s wife in the movie Willow - aka the greatest cultural object of the 1980s.  She is now a permanent fixture on our counter and faithful guardian of my ring.  Thanks Amazon!!

Thanks for reading