"Things Do Things"

Emily Clark

Those of us who were in Atlanta for the AAR have had nearly a week to recover from our self-inflected wounds of staying up late and social networking over lagers and ales. We have also had a little under a week to digest the wide-ranging, quality panels and papers we had the opportunity to hear. One Saturday afternoon panel that continues to stick out for me was the Author Meets Critics panel for Thomas Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Though the book came out in 2006 and in 2009 the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published a review symposium, including a response from Tweed, this 2010 session in Atlanta drew quite a crowd. Based on his years in the field of religious studies and American religious history, Tweed defines religion as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing upon human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.”

Unfortunately Ivan Strenski (of University of California, Riverside) was unable to attend, but the three other respondents/“critics” led off an engaging discussion that ranged from scholarly moral obligation to the agency of “things.” Chip Callahan (University of Missouri) reflected on Tweed’s book in light of his current research on the religious lives and worlds of New England whalers. Callahan found Tweed’s work helpful because his use of dynamic water metaphors allows us to focus on the everyday lives of our actual subjects. Marie Marquardt (Agnes Scott College)’s reflections on Oscar, a Mexican migrant “outsider” living in the US who she met during her fieldwork, demonstrate how a theory or definition that is itself “on the move” resonates well with subjects who are on the move. Also recognizing Tweed’s dynamic definition, Grant Wacker (Duke University) spoke about the “positionality of the observer” and the “motility of data,” along with amusing anecdotes from his years of working with/near Tweed in North Carolina.

During his response and the Q&A session following, Tweed reflected on his past projects and his forthcoming book on the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He spoke of the moral obligations we as scholars have to our subjects, living or dead. Both ethnographic work and archival work exists in a world of “moral entanglement.” Tweed also drew our attention to the significance of artifacts – for “buildings perform roles” and “statues have agency.” “Things do things.” Scholars of material culture have long called for the importance of stuff, but material culture can easily be overlooked by discussions of power and authority. Tweed’s short but poignant phrase “things do things” got me thinking about destroyed things. I’ve blogged before about Hurricane Katrina and Avery Gordon’s notions of haunting, as the absence of pre-Katrina buildings lends a ghostly presence to the Crescent City. Not only are dwellings important, the Q&A also prompted Tweed and the respondents to reflect on those who are excluded from home. In addition to looking at how/why some people are unwelcome from particular dwellings, destroyed dwellings and our subjects’ response to their destruction and absence is significant. Do they rebuild? Do they move? Do they forget? Or how do they remember? Non-things do things too.