CFP: North American Hinduism Group: AAR 2013

 I’ve taken on the role of co-chair of the North American Hinduism Group this year. Here’s our call for proposals for this fall’s annual AAR meeting:

The North American Hinduism Group seeks proposals on the topics listed below for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Please contact the listed organizers if you wish to contribute to the following themes:

For a possible cosponsored session with the Tantric Studies Group, the transmission of Hindu tantra to North America — Lola L. Williamson, Millsaps College, lola.williamson@millsaps.edu

The use and interpretation of Hindu texts in North America — Jennifer B. Saunders, Stamford, CT, jbsaund1@yahoo.com

Priests, pundits, and the promotion of Hinduism in North America — Alexandra Kaloyanides, Yale University, alexandra.kaloyanides@yale.edu

Hindu temples as sites of healing (for the individual, family, or community) in North America — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, hamilton.aimee@gmail.com

For a possible cosponsored session with the Religion and Politics Section, Hinduism in the American political consciousness — religion, identity, and citizenship — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara, anya.pokazanyeva@gmail.com

Hinduism in Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, Pennsylvania, and/or Delaware — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, hamilton.aimee@gmail.com

Food and festival in North American Hinduism — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University, hamilton.aimee@gmail.com

Images and material culture in North American Hinduism — Alex Kaloyanides, Yale University, alexandra.kaloyanides@yale.edu

Conversion in North American Hinduism — Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, sgandhi@kzoo.edu

For a possible cosponsored session with the Childhood Studies and Religion Group and the Religion and Migration Group, the transmission of tradition to North American Hindu children — Rita Biagioli, University of Chicago, rbiagioli@uchicago.edu

Hinduism in the American West — Michael Altman, Emory University, mjaltma@emory.edu

Transcendence and North American Hinduism — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara, anya.pokazanyeva@gmail.com

North American Hindus in the academy: deconstructing insider/outsiders — Leena Taneja, Stetson University, ltaneja@stetson.edu

Who’s missing in the field of North American Hinduism — Leena Taneja, Stetson University, ltaneja@stetson.edu

For a possible cosponsored session with the Body and Religion Group, North American Hindu women: their practices, bodies, and lives — Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, sgandhi@kzoo.edu


AAR Redux: Roundups, NY Times Story, Twitter Fail, and Butchering the Elephant #sblaar

The American Academy of Religion’s annual shindig is over and with Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and a fridge full of leftovers it’s back to work. I won’t do a full recap, but I will say that my favorite two panels were both “author meets critics” style. One on Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption and another on John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I got nonspecific Protestantism on the brain; or as someone on the Fessenden panel described it, “nefarious Protestant hegemony.”

Over at Religion in American History, Karen Johnson posts about the feast of great panels at this year’s meeting. Meanwhile, Matt Sheedy thinks through the experience of conferencing.

And if you haven’t seen Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article on the AAR’s decision to shun the Hyatt over it’s labor dispute with hotel staff be sure to check it out. It’s been blowing up my Facebooks over the weekend. Apparently it blew up Craig Martin’s too, as he posted a response to the story that argued the newspaper article misrepresented and exoticized the AAR.

I tweeted Oppenheimer a link to the Martin post and he responded:

That seems fair enough.

Speaking of Twitter, I think it’s time for the AAR to step up its game when it comes to organizing the use of social media at the annual meeting. The tweets were all over the place, under different hashtags, and with no idea which panel they were reacting too. The #sblaar hasghtag was a mess. And this was with only a relatively small number of attendees tweeting. Without going back and sifting through the tweets (and was anyone even archiving them?), all I remember seeing were tweets from religious studies folks I already knew about panels I was already in (mostly related to secularism, American religion, or pop culture) or biblical studies types. (BTW, those NT and OT folks are much harsher on each other via tweet than us Americanists. We’re downright cuddly.)

The AAR needs to include a “Social Media” info box in all of the pre-conference and conference books they send out that lays out the hashtag (that includes the date, e.g. #aar13) and recommends how to identify the panel (e.g. #A14507). And someone needs to archive these. Ever the social scientist who knows how to code his data, Jonathan VanAntwerpen offered great examples of how AAR tweets should look next year:

Reflecting on the conference as a whole, though, I think the use of Twitter, split mostly between Americanists and SBL-ers, and Martin’s critique of the Oppenheimer piece are examples of a larger theme I noticed throughout the weekend. The AAR is a fractured society. We have folks arguing for a liberal political theology while other folks analyze Protestant hegemony in American culture. Even on the same panels I continually see a divide between papers that are rigorously critical and those that are, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “woo woo.”

Often in introduction to religious studies courses the instructor will trot out the well worn story of the blind men touching the elephant. We all describe different parts of this big religion elephant. The story can be an apology for a big tent approach to theory and method or a lesson in perennialism. But that story doesn’t really capture the state of the field and the AAR right now. We are not all blind men feeling the religion elephant. There are some of those blind men out there, grasping after this thing called religion as if it was the elephant in the room and finding different aspects of this giant unknowable beast. But there are also others standing in a corner yelling “There is no damn elephant!” And then there still others who can see the elephant and are standing over it with knives in hand ready to butcher the pachyderm, hoping to dissect and parse its organs in order to discover how it ever came be in the first place.

The challenge for the AAR in the next 10 years is to find places for all three of these folks and maintain some sort of institutional identity that can hold them. Can it provide a space for the blind men to debate the nature of the elephant? Can it offer a podium and megaphone for those who want to deny the elephant of religion and claim the animals of ideology or culture as their species of study? Can it sharpen the tools and provide the laboratory for the dissection–after all an elephant requires a lot of space? We shall see. But in the next year, let’s just get a better hashtag.


Frequencies and the Aesthetics of Spirituality

 

Theologians. They don’t know nothing. About my soul

-Wilco

Frequencies, the collaborative genealogy of spirituality curated by Katherine Lofton and John Modern, has become quite a brand across the religion blogosphere. The folks at the Immanent Frame have been posting a series of reflections on the project and its 100 entries ranging from chicken sandwiches to iPhones to my own adviser writing about LSD. The posts themselves are remarkable and the reviews have been excellent as well. I especially appreciated the bitchy essay from Martin Kavka and the musical musings of Jason Bivins.

The most striking thing about Frequencies in my eyes is its beauty. There are moments of wonderful prose, yes, but the collection is striking to gawk at on the screen. More than that, Frequencies has its own aesthetic. So, I have one question for Frequencies, a question I don’t see anyone asking:

What if Frequencies looked like this

…or this

…or even this?

What happens if we take the same text, the same objects in the collection, and reframe them? What if Finbarr Curtis’s essay on his father and the American Dream appeared surrounded by patriotic kitsch instead of smooth lines and a beautiful piece of art? What if Patton Dodd’s thoughts about evangelical Eugene Peterson looked like they were posted by a Sunday School teacher and Gary Laderman’s history of LSD looked like a Deadhead blog? Would we still see these objects a spirituality? How would the meaning of these texts shift in a different aesthetic? How much of the spirituality resonating through Frequencies is in its aesthetics? It just looks like spirituality–doesn’t it?

Compare Frequencies, the genealogy of spirituality, with the American Academy of Religion’s website. The AAR is the institutional hub for the study of “religion”–that thing that spirituality is so often not–and its website stands in stark contrast to Frequencies. So much news and so many menus. You have to scroll down a page with the colors of doctor’s office wallpaper. Or, to go to a paragon of institutional religion, look at the Vatican. A brown background? A giant picture of the Pope in the center around which myriad links to various departments and documents circle. Look at Christianity Today. So much stuff. So many pictures. It’s just so complicated. Now go back to Frequencies. There are no resonances with those other sites. They are on a different aesthetic wavelength. Frequencies has no institutional news, no leaders, no sidebars and frames. It is clean and sleek. It is spirituality–right?

Now, look at Apple. The iPad sits in front of you like the hamburger in a Hardee’s commercial.  The menu across the top is full of one word options and there’s not much to scroll down to. It’s all right there in black, white and gray. It’s clean and sleek. Now I understand why the image of a cup of coffee illustrating Adam Frank’s “science” entry fits so well as the wallpaper on my iPad. There are resonances between Apple and Frequencies–they share an aesthetic wavelength.

Art plays a big role in Frequencies, illustrating many of the entries. The artistic resonances emerge when we look Frequencies alongside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. MoMa is clean with big pictures and simple menus of black and white. The menu items are verbs: visit, explore, learn, support, shop. Frequencies asks you to seek. There are resonances.

I keep wondering about the musical resonances of Frequencies. It’s metaphors invoke sound–frequencies, tune in, wavelengths. Yet it is a startlingly silent website. What is the soundtrack for Frequencies?

I started this post with a Wilco lyric. Check out the cover to that album on the right. A Ghost is Born could be the soundtrack to Frequencies (listen to “Handshake Drugs” while you read  Luís León’s “cannabis club” entry). The cover fits right in with the artwork and feel of Frequencies. A simple egg. White on white with grays and black, while Jeff Tweedy doubly negates theologians. Again, resonances. We could look to other bands for other resonances. Who else might offer the audio for Frequencies words and images? Maybe Arcade Fire? How about Bon Iver? It might be a stretch, but how about Lana Del Rey? Who do you think of? Resonances?

Apple, an art museum, and indie rock, what does this all point too? What is this aesthetic wavelength we’ve tuned into? What do all these resonances mean? (All due respect to John Corrigan’s “meaninglessness”.) I think they point to two things. First, these resonances point to the cultural location of Frequencies within the American middle brow–that space of public radio, iPads, indie rock, the Atlantic, and SXSW. Some of its contents such as automatic writing or This American Life come from and appeal to middle brow America. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of the site and the inclusion of these objects alongside others like Eugene Peterson or Chick-Fila lift these “lower” objects up as spiritual and middle brow. Putting “Eugene Peterson” into the format of a poorly constructed webpage with Jesus fishes down the side highlights the ways Frequencies engenders spirituality in the mundane. Eugene Peterson is spirituality in sleek design next to LSD and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Put him in Comic Sans Serif font next to a Zondervan NIV Bible and a set of Precious Moments figurines and he’s just evangelical.

This leads to the second point. When Frequencies claims to be a genealogy of spirituality it also admits to being part of the spirituality family–a family located within middle brow culture. To me the project is less of a Foucaultian genealogy and more of an Ancestry.com genealogy. It is the grandchildren and great grandchildren tracing out their lineage. There are resonances across the middle brow cultural spectrum, from high end consumer electronics to MoMA to indie rock, because they too are all children in this great family of spirituality. They all share similar cultural DNA that we could trace out historically if we tried. Frequencies is not just a catalog of culturally middle brow spirituality, it is a child of  culturally middle brow spirituality.

For me, Frequencies is the Portlandia of spirituality. Like the incredible hipster sketch comedy show, Frequencies smartly digests, analyzes, and catalogs hipster culture and in the process produces some of  best pieces of hipster culture. It slides back and forth from critiquing the culture and situating itself within the culture. Likewise, Frequencies is more than a genealogy of spirituality, it is a prime example of spirituality, down to the aesthetics of the flickering pixels on the screen. It just looks like spirituality.


Narrativity in American Religions, Transmedia, and me on Hinduism: Panels I Plan to Check Out at the AAR

via Wikimedia commons

The American Academy of Religion is nearly here! Over at Religion in American History, Kelly Baker has put together a great list of panels on religion in America. Also, Kelly and I will be tweeting our observations, thoughts, and snark throughout the weekend.

Due to the limited travel budget of a Ph.D. candidate (who already spent a weekend at the ASA), I’ll only be in lovely San Francisco for Saturday and Sunday. Here are the panels I plan to check out:

First, a star studded panel on “Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions”

Saturday – 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
Room: CC-2006

Each participant in this roundtable has written a monograph and/or edited a wide-ranging synthetic collection touching on religious diversity and conflict in North America. In a format emphasizing dialogue with the audience, they will reflect on the priorities, methods, and trade-offs involved in shaping such narratives. What are the optimum structuring themes? Are certain decisions about periodization and/or organization by tradition especially helpful? Do certain emerging themes need special attention? What overall logics, themes, values, or theoretical orientations offer optimum coherence (and/or productive incoherence) and structure (and/or productive lack of structure)? Such questions lead naturally toward wider discussions about the implicit structuring priorities and methods running through our field(s) at large. Overall, the panel seeks to spark a productive discussion of the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, of different underlying narratives and emphases. In this way it hopes to respond to the challenge of clarifying priorities in our field.

Theme: Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions

Panelists:

Thomas Tweed, University of Texas, Austin
Janet R. Jakobsen, Barnard College
R. Marie Griffith, Harvard University
Mark Hulsether, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

 

Second, an interactive session from the Religion and Popular Culture Group:

Saturday – 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: CC-2005

Rachel Wagner, Ithaca College, Presiding

Transmedia is the intentional distribution of related storylines or experiences all relating back to a core hub of experience, of branding, or of narrative. Transmedia includes the video games, films, books, apparel, publicity events, fan-fiction, promotions, costumes, and toys associated with a given franchise such as Halo or the Harry Potter universe, or brand names like Nike and Coca Cola. Consumers are not passive consumers of transmedia; they explore, discover, create, and transform, in some cases marketing themselves as transmediated entities. In this panel, we offer entrée into the world of transmedia via a series of short presentations describing key issues in the intersection of religion with transmedia, followed by an hour of open debate in which we will be joined via Skype by Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment and a well-known industry producer of transmedia storytelling. This discussion will show how an analysis of transmedia exposes the intimate connections between religious practice and media production, branding, and marketing.

Theme: Finding Meaning in the Space Between: Religion and Transmedia, an Interactive Panel

Panelists:

Mara Einstein, Queens College
J. Sage Elwell, Texas Christian University
Rubina Ramji, Cape Breton University
Ted Friedman, Georgia State University

Third, a panel on religion, sexuality, and bodies:

Sunday – 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: CC-3020

Sa’diyya Shaikh, University of Cape Town, Presiding

Theme: Contesting Bodies, Configuring Sexuality

Jill Peterfeso, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“I Am a Daughter of My Heavenly Father”: Transsexual Mormons and Performed Gender Essentialism
Nadeem Mahomed, University of Johannesburg
Sexual Diversity, Islamic Jurisprudence, and Sociality
Samira Mehta, Emory University
Negotiating the Interfaith Marriage Bed: Religious Difference and Sexual Intimacies
Jason James Kelly, University of Ottawa
Ecstatic Desire: The Evolution of the “Erotic” in the Work of Jeffrey J. Kripal

And finally, my own panel on Hinduism in North America (which I know you’ve added to your schedule):

Sunday – 5:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: MM-Yerba Buena 11

Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, Presiding

The construction of the category of Hinduism, in any case a complex and contested issue, is further complicated in the context of North America by the predominance of a Protestant “lens” that shapes all categories relating to religion (including, of course, the category of religion itself) and by the emergence of self-identified practitioners of Hinduism who do not identify themselves as Indian. The papers in this session will explore these issues from a variety of perspectives and with a focus on distinct phenomena related to the category of Hinduism in North America. The first paper will problematize the frequently encountered conflation of the categories of “Hindu” and “Indian” through an examination of the Hindu culture of Indo-Caribbeans in Queens, New York. The second paper will focus on the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign and the various Protestant assumptions from which this ostensibly Hindu project operates. The third paper will investigate events in American cultural history that allowed Protestants to distinguish Hinduism from other traditions, enabling them to “see” it for the first time.

Theme: Constructions of Hindu Selves and Hindu Others in North America

Michele Verma, Rice University
Indo-Caribbeans in the United States: Cracking the Conflation of “Hindu” and “Indian”
Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara
Faith on the Mat: Hindus, Protestants, and the Construction of Yoga
Michael Altman, Emory University
Sightings and Blind Spots: The “Protestant Lens” and the Construction of Hinduism

Responding:

Steven W. Ramey, University of Alabama

See you in San Francisco!


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