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After Deconstruction: Reassembling the Study of "Religion/s" and Other Dubious Categories

Panel Chairs: Egil Asprem, Ann Taves | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

Many of the critical categories in religious studies–including "religion" itself–are problematic and unstable concepts that often mask normative, theological or ideological biases. They distort rather than aid critical scholarship, and an abundant literature since the early 1990s has aimed to deconstruct them. But after we have dismantled problematic categories, then what? This panel examines four categories, focusing on the means for, potentials of, and the problems involved with deconstructing them. Starting with an evaluation of the effects of dismantling "Gnosticism" within “Gnostic studies”, the panel examines the practical import of deconstructing categories that have constituted fields and subfields–including the new vistas of research afforded by such exercises and their less fortunate consequences. Individual papers on "religion", "magic", and "esotericism" take cues from the case of Gnosticism as they explore specific methods for de- and reconstructing research, and explore emerging alternatives.

Dylan M. Burns

Gnostic Studies without "Gnosticism"

In 1996, Michael Allen Williams published the influential monograph Rethinking “Gnosticism”: Arguments for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton). Over the course of the next fifteen years, Anglophone scholarship largely abandoned “Gnosticism,” experimenting with the study of sources once dubbed “Gnostic”—particularly the Nag Hammadi Library—without recourse to the term. “Gnosticism” has survived, and for the better; many scholars define and use the term, but with greater care than before. Moreover, the post-Williams effort to describe Gnostic sources in terms of Early Christianity rightfully underscored their embeddedness in early Christian communities, rather than a hypothetical “Gnostic religion.” The experiment had unintended consequences, too: a “chilling effect” temporarily shrank the field, and the experts’ denial that there was any conversation about “Gnosticism” to be had led scholars in other fields, such as Judaic Studies, to neglect Gnostic sources entirely. Nearly twenty years after Rethinking “Gnosticism”, the conversation about it begins anew.

Bernd-Christian Otto

“Magic” Research without “Magic”?

Even though the category of “magic” has suffered severe criticism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, we are witnessing an unprecedented boom in the study of “magic” in numerous disciplines. In fact, a thorough examination of the concept of “magic” may not lead to its mere “deconstruction” but rather to the (re-)construction of novel and promising domains of research: (1) the historicization of the concept may reveal important insights into processes of Othering and identity formation in Western history; (2) the identification of its numerous semantic nuances may ultimately lead to its disentanglement as a second-order scholarly category, thereby arriving at a more differentiated and less fragile and ethnocentric conceptual apparatus (an approach recently dubbed “Patterns of Magicity”); (3) the growing research on “Western Learned Magic” reveals a fascinating and under-explored Western “tradition” of ritual texts and practices. This “tradition” used to belong to the domain of private, occultist historians, but has today (finally) made it into Academia.

Egil Asprem

Overcoming Strategic Essentialism and Category Inflation in the Study of “Esotericism”: A Building Block Approach

“Esotericism” presents conceptual problems that are parallel to, but more serious than, those encountered in the case of “Gnosticism”. Like the Messina definition of Gnosticism, “esotericism” has been problematically defined in both historical and typological terms. Unlike Gnosticism, however, its historical scope has never been clearly delimited, permitting an inflation of the category to cover highly diverse currents spanning millennia. One of the mechanisms which has permitted this “category inflation” to happen is an implicit form of “strategic essentialism”: understood as an “umbrella term” for “rejected” currents that have no definite home in the academy, “esotericism” has been strategically useful for mobilizing research efforts. This situation presents a delicate dilemma: the category is theoretically unsatisfactory, but dismantling it comes with the risk of impeding research on a practical level. This paper suggests a way out through a definitional pluralism based on a building block approach.

Ann Taves

Will a Building Block Approach Undermine the Academic Study of Religion?

In discussing what a building block approach (BBA) might offer to the study of religion, scholars worry about its implications for departments devoted to studying religion. A BBA, however, is not merely deconstructive; it puts deconstruction in service of understanding how more basic elements are combined in various historical and cultural contexts to generate different formations, including schools of thought, traditions of practice, and academic disciplines. Recognizing that our departments -- like religions -- are formations need not destroy either "religion" or "the study of religion," but allows us to view both as historically contingent formations structured and maintained by complex cultural concepts, such as religion. As insiders to the academic study of religion, we can ask if this historical formation needs to be reformed or reconstituted. I argue for reform based on a revitalization of the comparative enterprise that draws on the BBA to set up comparisons that include but are not limited to “religions.”


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