What the Foucault (Do We Know)?: FSU's Grad Symposium Redux

Kelly J. Baker

As I am still recovering from a whirlwind weekend at Florida State University's Tenth Annual Graduate Symposium, I wanted to note how much I enjoyed my time this weekend and what a boon this conference is to religious studies graduate students. What you all should know from the outset is that I am not a neutral observer. I love this conference, and Mike Pasquier and I even organized it long, long ago. (Hat tip to our own contributor Emily Clark was the organizational guru this year).

Now, I did not attend every panel nor did I attempt to, so I encourage readers and participants who attended other panels to send their reflections along. What I was able to do was to talk to graduate students of alma mater and other institutions about their own work and mine as well. The paper presenters swung for the fences, and I enjoyed their energy, evidence, and historiographical strategies. Grads in American religious history presented on papers ranging from Emily Post to Christian manhood to the Holy Land Experience to body studies to Burning Man to border saints to the problems of "lived religion" to beards and shaving. The brilliance of this symposium is that it allows a welcoming and encouraging environment for grads to present their work with feedback from the likes of John Corrigan, Amy Koehlinger, Amanda Porterfield, Kathryn Lofton, and Sylvester Johnson to name only the Americanists. (Any graduate student in religious studies writ large should plan to go next year.)

The keynote with the best title ever was "What the Foucault Do We Do Now?" with Matthew Day, Sylvester Johnson, Matthew Kapstein and Katie Lofton interrogated the place of power in the study of religion, the institution of the academy, and the genealogy of religious studies. The panel paired scholars of ranging interests from methods and theory to Buddhism to American religious history and posed the question of how power (read Foucault) functions both for our subjects of study but also for our positions as scholars. For the interest of RIAH readers, Day, Johnson and Lofton proved to engage exactly what is at stake in religious studies from very different positions. Johnson prodded the strange bifurcation between the academy and the "real" world, and he argued compellingly that just because the origins of religious studies are bound to colonial endeavor does not mean we (religious studies scholars) should burden ourselves solely with origins. Instead, our knowledge and expertise applies to the "real" world because the academy, despite various attempts, is still bound to our contemporary moments. We are experts, we have power, and we should use it.

Lofton employed IBM advertisements to discuss the merger of power and subjectivity. She suggested that these particular ads did not uplift individuals but rather created a powerless collective at the whim of power grids, bad traffic, and other mundane problems of contemporary life. Each of us faces the similar hum drum, and the ads questioned our agency even in how companies market products not to me or you, but some amorphous us. From ads to religion, Lofton noted that perhaps religion is best understood as repository in which things, ideas, and brands collect. My sense was that religion was archive, hodge podge, even bricolage in this analogy. To understand religion is to understand the pile-up.

In my assessment, Day's contribution offered the opposite of Lofton--religion as empty. Day was troubled by the category of religion, the discipline of religious studies. Building upon Bruce Lincoln and Russell McCutcheon, Day argued that religious studies scholars don't problematize religion, so that as a category religion is valueless because of its infinitude. He asked can it be art or sports? Moreover, he wants religious studies scholars to question the reliance upon "experience" as a measure of religion. What does it mean? Or more importantly, what is at stake when we gesture to experience? Day's critique suggested a need for a critical edge about what is religion and what we study when we assert religion as our subject matter. Moreover, does the gesture to experience limit our subject matter?

During Q&A, I asked Lofton and Day to compare their stances about religion as repository or as empty. What is at stake in empty or full? Their answers are theirs, but I couldn't help but wonder what my own assessment of this was. Part of me wants to claim the middle path of "can't it be both?", but that is terribly unsatisfying. The power of religion as a category is what is at stake in their assertions, and I wonder how often religious studies scholars interrogate what exactly religion is in our own work. Is it empty or full? Is it value-free or value-filled? Do we craft our own categories of religion as experience, belief, practice, etc? Do we use the categories of those we study? In my own work, I confront the strange yet different assumptions about "good religion"(read helpful and therapeutic) versus "bad religion" (read harmful or malicious) because I work on the "bad." The commentary usually moves something like "bad religion" is not religion at all. What is religion becomes, then, essential to how to approach the Klan, the hate movement, or even my newer fascination with apocalypticism. How I make the case that this is actually religious becomes significant. I point to the pile-up: theology, ritual, practice, and belief that all show the Protestant nature of the Klan. Yet, I could also point to the emptiness (malleability) of Protestant as a label, of religion as a construct, yet I don't. I could though. Empty or full?

Graduate students, if these kinds of questions are interesting to you, plan on attending next year's symposium at FSU. If they aren't, plan on attending or presenting anyway because you can't beat the encouraging environment, the weather, or the chance to ask, "What the Foucault do we do now?"


esclark said…
Kelly - What a great breakdown of the session! And I still stand by my description of that panel as "jammin'."
matt gallion said…
Hands down, it was an amazing roundtable. Nice response.

And I couldn't agree more, this is quickly becoming one of the most important--and most fun--shindigs out there for us scholarly, nerdy types.
Anonymous said…
Kelly--Glad to see that good discussions are going on at FSU. I have fund memories of the Grad symposium of which I was a part some years back. Very helpful breakdown of Day and Lofton analyses of religion.

Curtis J. Evans
I found the conference one of the most positive, encouraging and low-stress scholarly environments I have ever been a part of. I left (and returned) to the frenetic world of organizing students and teachers for a better funded university (and especially History department), a world where it often seems a forbidden luxury to discuss theoretical questions like the meaning of religion and the role it serves in society. I think both Day and Lofton agreed that religion was a "placeholder" of sorts, but while to Lofton it was a placeholder for authority, especially authority about yourself and what is "good for you," for Day it was hardly worth calling "religion" if that's all it is.

Please, all, correct me if I am wrong, but to me Day and Lofton were really not fighting over what religion was, but who ought to have the power to call something religion. The only thing I'd add to Kelly's expert summary is Day's recurrent emphasis on Marxism, his own class position and his position within the academy, and his own personal experience when he was training in the field of Religious Studies. While Lofton issued a theoretical and cultural reflection on religion and power, Day issued a much more personal plea (which began and ended with the admission that few would be convinced) that religion ought not expand to encompass everything powerful, because by that move it would be drowned in nothingness. After Kelly asked her question, Day's immediate response was to defer (perhaps only symbolically) to Lofton because, said Day (and I'm paraphrasing from memory) "You're at the Ivies, you have more authority on these matters than I do."

In my impression, Day and Lofton were not really fighting over the meaning of religion, but Day was concerned with the power some have to define what religion is and what religion isn't, and Lofton was inviting us to recognize that authority of deciding what truth is as the essence of religion. If you see truth as a Foucauldian regime of power, the term religion is little more than a placeholder for will-to-power. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that both ultimately agreed on this point.
Day found that horribly unsatisfying and Lofton found that an extremely important observation.

What I am still wondering, perhaps a bit like Kelly, is what is at stake in arguing about this. Why can't it be both?
Anonymous said…
That you, Kelly, for writing up this fantastic summary and distilling the questions and concerns at the heart of this panel. As an FSU grad student (you and I talked briefly outside about your work, teaching, and forth-coming book), I was on the working side of the symposium and wasn't able to attend this particular panel, so I'm happy to read different participants' reactions to the panel and the whole symposium in this forum. So thank you for instigating the conversation, and I hope that it can continue next year at our 11th annual symposium!

Jenny Collins-Elliott
Kelly J. Baker said…
Janine,I think this whole conversation revolved around who has the power of construction and definition and who does not. Moreover, Day's use of class analysis, I think, is useful, especially his commentary on how "taste" is informed and created. It made me wonder about the academic systems of "taste" too and the class status/anxiety of the academy as well.

All this being said, everyone plan to go to next year's 11th annual symposium! (And Jenny, I love to brag on anything FSU!)

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