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 façade 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.
Thanks for reading.