Saturday, April 09, 2005

Ave, Ryan!

Ryan's recent entry deserves to be quoted at length, so I'm stealing it and repeating it here:

Brought to you by Daniel Dubuisson, The Western Construction of Religion

Would not abandoning the idea of religion be the equivalent for Western thought of abdicating part of its intellectual hegemony over the world? A world bereft of this idea would no longer be a world that was thinkable and thus controllable by Western categories alone. This is why the West prefers to continue to espouse bad epistemology rather than abandon the description of reality according to its own canons; that is, in a fashion that in the last analysis simply does not work: Western epistemology creates or constructs the reality that it studies, since it does so only with the aid of traditional, conventional notions that it has itself in great part constructed.

How does one begin to respond to this nonsense? Theorists of religion exercise no intellectual hegemony. We religionists are in the humanities. We occasionally elevate ourselves to the level of social scientists or political theorists (by making arguments for policy in public fora, or working in government or influential think tanks), but for the most part our work is as useless and irrelevant as philosophy, theology, or literary studies. The only hegemony that theories and their makers can exercise is the hegemony over academic departments, the granting or withholding of tenure, and the procurement of limited research funding. This is, in the greater scheme of things, a trifling matter for a trifling subset of human beings. The West's intellectual hegemony, insofar as it exists, comes not from lazy or ethnocentric theories of religion, but from the interesting and persuasive results of Western scientific and political practices: the construction of superior weaponry; the development of effective Polio and smallpox vaccines; high GDP; stunning advances in life-prolonging medical procedures.

I would never claim, of course, that "Western" scholars of religion have got everything right. But please, let's attack scholarship on the basis of its rightness or wrongness, its logical consistency flowing from its basic axioms, the reliability of the evidence mobilized, and not on whether it is somehow "hegemonic" in its efforts to commit such atrocities as picking out phenomena for analysis or organizing data into categories. (The horror!) Such invective hurled against something so trivial makes me wonder about French theory: does the critical theorist intentionally inflate the importance of his strawman, so that he may strut about proudly when he is finished dismantling it?

Destroying the ghost of scholarship in the Edward Said "knowledge = hegemony" mold is going to take a long, long time.


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