Spring 2019 Courses: African Gods/Western Museums

NEW COURSE!!

Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new course that will bring Rel@UVM students into conversation with the curators at the UVM Fleming Museum! With the museum scheduled to renovate its Africa and Ancient Egypt Gallery over the next two years, students in this seminar will have an opportunity to help research some of the objects in the museum’s collection and to provide input into how the museum might organize the display of objects in the gallery.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar will examine African indigenous religions from the perspective of material culture in order to understand how the colonial encounter between Africans and Europeans impacted the creation, use, interpretation, and display of religious objects. At the same time, we will investigate how African religious objects have been displayed and interpreted in Euro-American museums. In doing so we will explore how African religious objects were transformed into “art” as well as the ways in which the value and authenticity of such objects are determined by different participants, including practitioners, scholars, museum professionals, and museum visitors. We will draw on a variety of media—including hands-on workshops with objects from the Fleming Museum’s collection—in order to consider the impact and interpretive work that the display of African religious objects has on the viewer in the Western museum.

Spring 2019 Courses: Religious Literacy

NEW COURSE!!

We are excited to offer this new course on Religious Literacy, taught by Professor Trainor.  Whether you want to better understand the role of religion in current events, or you want to dive deeper into debates such as the relationships between religion and science or religion and law that are central to how we understand life today, this is the course for you.  You will also be asked to consider how the study of religion might help shape your life after college–how it fits in with a variety of careers, such as politics, medicine, law, counseling, journalism, or the arts, and also how it provides preparation for living in an increasingly globalized world.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: Religious literacy entails a basic understanding of the history and contemporary manifestations of religion, including central texts (where applicable), beliefs, and practices as they are shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts, as well as the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place. While all Religion courses speak to issues of religious literacy, this course takes religious literacy as its primary site of investigation. This course is designed, therefore, to introduce students to key topics in the study and application of religious literacy, such as theories and histories of the term itself, public expressions of religion, and profession-specific engagements with religion. For example, during the middle unit of the course, students will undertake a case study of “mindfulness” in North America, exploring its development as a “secular” phenomenon, its uses in medical, educational, and entrepreneurial settings, and its ties (historic and contemporary) to religious practices, texts, and beliefs. This intermediate-level course asks questions about religion in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories in this field and prepares students to apply what they learn to a variety of possible professional settings.

Spring 2019 Courses: Islam & Race

NEW COURSE!

Islam & Race is a new course in Religion
and counts toward University D1 requirements.
Why this course? Why now?
Hate crimes are on the rise against every minority. We have seen calls to ban refugees, ban immigrants, and ban Muslims. We talk about countries as “Muslim states.” When we hear “Muslim” we think “terrorist.” Many Sikh Americans who wear turbans are victims of anti-Muslim crimes.
All of these grim facts reflect a racialization of religion—a process that collapses many identities, ethnicities, languages, nationalities into one overarching race. We can’t understand things like an uptick in hate crimes, how Sikhs are prominent victims of anti-Muslim violence, how whole countries can be seen as the same as each other because of religion, how very different communities are seen as the same, and how “Islamophobia” became real without understanding how Islam and race are conflated, constructed, and operate.

COURSE DESCRIPTION

Islam is not a race—religions are not races—but Islam and religions can and are racialized. In this course, we examine how Islam and Muslims (those who practice Islam) come to be seen as a cogent race. The racialization of Islam and Muslims is global, and in this course we will reference transnational and historical patterns of race, religion, and Islam, but we focus on North America to keep our scope maintainable. The course takes theoretical ideas (definitions of race and religion and the racialization of religion) and explores them in case studies related to Muslims—and those imagined to be Muslims—in North America. We explore notions of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” as they play out for Muslims as well as Islamophobia, surveillance, and the category of “Muslim” itself.  This intermediate-level course asks questions about Islam and race in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories of the study of religion and the study of race, preparing students to apply what they learn to other religion courses, other religious traditions, and in daily experiences of a world marked by religious and racial identifiers.

COURSE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Examination of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” through primary and secondary materials as well as a lot from films, TV, Twitter, and music!
  • Guest lecturers via Skype and (fingers crossed) in person
  • Skills-focused assignments: writing for multiple audiences; assessment of sources; creative and independent project

COURSE OBJECTIVES

  • Students will develop an awareness of “race” as it relates to North America and Islam/Muslims, which includes historical and contemporary issues .
  • Students will develop an appreciation for their own assumptions of race, religion, and Islam.
  • Students will come to understand the intersection of race, religion, and Islam, including how these ideas come to affect people’s lives, community structures and practices, and institutions.
  • Students will develop critical thinking skills that will empower them to discern diverse viewpoints analytically, thoughtfully, and rigorously.
  • Students will work on transferrable skills, such as critical reading and writing, in order to interpret and evaluate course materials, popular culture, as well as books, articles, media, and more.

Spring 2019 Courses: Comparing Religions

This course uses three “case study” religions to explore the questions of “What is religion?” and how can we begin to compare religions? We’ll look at stories, rituals, beliefs, and social roles from Buddhism, Islam, and Navajo religion, using the theories of scholars of religion. We’ll explore how religion can be intensely personal, involving visions and experiences that change a person, and change the course of history. We’ll grapple with the ways religions shape our understanding of what it means to be good or evil, and what it means to be a human, or a god, or an animal, and what happens to us after we die. We will work together to explore the diversity we find within religious traditions, reflecting complicated relationships between religion and culture, demonstrating that religion, far from being a fixed object that we can pin down, is fluid over time and across the globe.

Spring 2019 Courses: Introducing Islam

Islam is, in our post-9/11 world, a feature of the daily news; nearly 2 billion people worldwide identify as Muslims; and Muslims have been a part of the American religious landscape since the slave trade moved Muslim Africans to our shores. No doubt, this is an historic and yet timely topic, very much worthy of our attention. But how much do you really know about Muslims or Islam? This course examines the history of Islam, focusing especially on its variation over time and location. By examining practices and writings of Muslims in multiple locations, we will complicate the idea that Islam is a discrete, universal set of ideas, practices, or beliefs.

Spring 2019 Courses: Religion, Health, & Healing

NEW COURSE!

Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new intro-level course on “Religion, Health, and Healing” this spring. Given Professor Brennan’s areas of expertise, the course will emphasize religious cultures found on the African continent. However, the case studies considered center on the role of religion in ideas about health and healing, as well as how disease and illness are interpreted and acted on through religious means.

COURSE DESCRIPTION:

This course is a comparative and cross-cultural exploration of the relationships between religion, health, and healing. Through a consideration of case studies from the US, South Africa, Niger, Ethiopia, and Egypt (among others), we will examine how religion shapes people’s understanding of health and well-being and provides them with a means of interpreting and responding to illness, suffering, and death. Drawing upon interdisciplinary approaches that include religious studies, anthropology, history, music, and ethnic and gender studies, we will consider the diversity of ways in which religion both reflects and shapes ideas about health, well-begin, illness and disease. We will consider topics such as: spirit possession and altered states of consciousness, the importance of sound and music to healing processes, issues of race, gender, and sexuality in relation to religious worldviews and healing systems, and the possibilities and potentials for integrating indigenous healing practices with Western bio-medicine.

COURSE OBJECTIVES

• Students will develop an awareness of the diversity of attitudes towards religion, health, and healing in both Euro-American and non-European cultural contexts.

• Students will develop an appreciation for the assumptions upon which their own ideas about religion, health, and healing are based.

• Students will come to understand the intersection between religion and healing in a variety of contexts, including how such ideas came to be, how ideas about religion and healing are articulated in a variety of forms including ritual, biography, and political action, and how they are represented in a variety of media including scholarly writing, popular media, and films.

• Students will develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to analyze information and evaluate arguments from diverse viewpoints and multiple perspectives.

• Students will develop critical reading and writing skills that will allow them to interpret and apply the knowledge acquired in this class.

Recent & Upcoming Faculty Speaking Events

Our faculty are on the move, offering public lectures on their varied fields of expertise around the country. See below for details!

In February, Prof. Erica Andrus talked about science fiction, Battlestar Galactica, and religion at The Ohio State University’s Symposium on Religion, Narrative, and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In early March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be part of a panel at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later that same week, Prof. Kevin Trainor will be in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He will be a guest speaker in a major event on relics and reliquaries titled Sacred Access.

 

 

 

 

 

And, at the end of March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be at Duke University as a keynote speaker. Her talk is titled After the Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad in South Asia.

The Reading List: Schatz and Stahl’s Rad Women

When Prof. Brennan issued a call-for-posts about what we were reading, I assumed I’d write about something serious and scholarly: what I’m reading for class (currently: Durkheim in REL100) or for my research (currently: Meer’s edited volume on racialization, religion, antisemitism, and Islamophobia) or as part of attempting to keep up with the field (next on my list: Aydin’s brand-new book on “the Muslim world”). Yet as I sat to write my post, I kept coming back to what I was reading that was serious, but perhaps not as scholarly: two books, Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, have been in constant rotation as part of my regular reading routine with my nearly-4-year-old daughter. The truth is, these books are rather serious, rooted in scholarship, and speak to what I’ve been thinking about broadly in and outside my classroom and as part of my research.

This won’t be the first time I use our academic, departmental blog to talk about what is ostensibly children’s literature. It also won’t be the first time I try to convince my reading audience that children’s literature isn’t only for children, doesn’t only communicate childish ideas or ideals, and needn’t be compartmentalized to my parenting. In fact, I’ve found that both of these volumes have driven home simple–but not basic–ideas about representative parity in my research and pedagogy, the importance of the study of religion (and its regular absence as we talk about radical activisms), and how the act of reading is itself political.

I will forever claim parenting victory for my then-2-year-old asking to be Patti for Halloween.

We bought Rad American Women A-Z for my daughter a couple of years ago. She loved it. Big, bright, graphic illustrations helped; the alphabet as a central motif didn’t hurt; I assume my excitement about each and every featured woman¹ didn’t hurt, either. She really loved this book. (As in, my 2.5-year-old daughter insisted that she be “P is for Patti Smith, the punker” for Halloween.) The book itself features American women that represent a wide swath of historical periods, racial and ethnic identities, as well as expressions of gender and sexuality. The women represent diverse fields and aims, too, ranging from athletes to education activists, doctors to musicians, architects to strike leaders. Poignantly, “X” is reserved for the “the women whose names we don’t know,” a purposeful acknowledgment of the erasure of women in historical memory and contemporary settings alike. I’ll confess to weeping nearly every time I read this page.

Table of Contents for Rad American Women A-Z

Opening pages, with contents listed via map, Rad Women Worldwide

When Rad American Women’s sequel came out last year, we added it to our rotation. Rad Women Worldwide takes an even larger historical scope, starting in “ancient Mesopotamia” and including contemporary, notable women like Malala Yousafzai. These women, too, represent multiple regions, eras, races, ethnicities, mother tongues, and areas of excellence. They include LGBTQ+ activists like Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera,
anti-authoritarian women’s organizations likeMadres de la Plaza de Mayo, athletes like Junko Tabei, and anti-colonial, anti-imperial native activists like the Quintreman Sisters. Like the original volume, Rad Women Worldwide includes a poignant entry that jolts the reader into seeing the silenced; here, it is titled “the Stateless,” and focuses on the disproportionate number of refugees who identify as women. Like “X” in Rad American Women, “the Stateless” is a hard page to read without choking up.

Reading these two books with my kiddo has meant admitting to her and myself how few women–American or not–I had ever learned about. I have considered myself both a feminist and an activist for my whole life. I’ve done my gender courses. Heck, I’ve even taught them. And yet, it is a shocking realization to have only heard of many of the featured Americans and not recognize even a third of the “global” women. (And, yes, of course, my own identity is at play here: a cis-hetero-white-Jewish-lady may have heard of Emma Goldman [of course!] but not of Filipino doctor Fe Del Mundo [I had not].)

Reading these books regularly–often just a few full entries at a time–also underscores the lack of gender parity in my syllabi and bibliographies for published work. Following the lead of many other scholars, most of whom identify as women, I have tried to make a point to have women not only represented in my syllabi–sadly, a feat in and of itself at times–but to have women represented in a way that reflects women’s participation in the academic production of knowledge. Which is to say, #noallmalesyllabi and #noallmalebibliographies. Schatz and Stahl go to great lengths to remind their readers that for every woman they’ve included, dozens and dozens have been excluded by their authorial choice, or as “X” and “the Stateless” remind us, by systemic and intersectional oppressions.

So these books remind me, in their simple composition, to ask: who am I leaving out? Which systems of purposeful omission am I participating in when my citational practices are heavily white, heavily male? How can I fix that–or, more to the point–how can I fix that so I do not preserve and reproduce sexist, racist trends in the writing of history and production of knowledge? After all, I think: my daughter is listening to me read, watching me model how to make sense of these rad women.

These books also remind me that when we talk about activism, we often ignore religious foundations for that activism. While Schatz and Stahl do a genuinely incredible job of showcasing women in their complexities, the presence of religion is largely absent–even in activists and historical personas for whom religion was a primary motivator. For example, the Grimké sisters, abolitionists who are oft-read in American religious history courses for their use of Biblical literature, are described as Quakers but their activism is not described in terms of their religion. As a scholar of religion, it seems an obvious omission and beyond begging the obvious question (where is religion?) such omissions beg questions about our conceptualizations of secularism, activism, and (perhaps assumed) progressivism.

I’m reading a number of books simultaneously like a good professor ought. In fairness, I also read a ton of silly books made for kids with my daughter that I slog through and attempt to sound excited about. These two books, though, ostensibly aimed at a younger reader (though, admittedly, perhaps not a not-quite-4-year-old), aren’t just for kids. These two are well on their way to becoming dog-eared and well-worn parts of our family library. As I read them aloud, I am often thinking not only of how radical it is to simply be reading to my daughter about powerful women whose lives represent an imperfect fullness of human identity and expression. I am also thinking about how much more they underscore the ways I need to continue to strive for representative parity in my research and pedagogical bibliographies, the ways in which religion is somehow omnipresent and absent when we think about radical activisms and activists, and how the act of reading–aloud or otherwise–is always already a political act. The books that center this kind of reading, both with and for my kiddo, will be on my reading list for the foreseeable future.

  1. *”Woman” and “women” in these works indicate those who identify as women. We can infer this based upon Schatz and Stahl’s inclusion of trans* and GNC women.

The Reading List: Kindred by Octavia Butler–Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

by Todne Thomas

“History is not the past. It is the present.  We carry our history. We are our history.”  – James Baldwin [1]

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred Adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

This month I’m reading the graphic novel version of Kindred adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings.  Originally a novel written by the African American science fiction author Octavia Butler, Kindred tells the story of Edana, an African American protagonist who involuntarily time travels between the present and the plantation era and is forced to save her own life and intervene in the lives of her ancestors.  In particular, Edana (or Dana) is catapulted to the past to save the life of her white plantation-owning ancestor Rufus Weylin and to shape the fates of her enslaved black progenitors Alice, Hagar, and Joe.

In this visual adaptation, Dana’s story emerges out of the black and white print of fiction into the colored hues of the graphic.  The life Dana shares with her white husband Kevin are colored in warm creams and ambers.  The palette of plantation time is more variegated and intense and increasingly consumes their regular sepia-colored present as Dana’s trips to the past last longer for days and weeks.  Blues and greens evoke nature, greenery, crops, and the coolness of river water and the day sky. Evening purples and candle-light yellows color scenes of domesticity and fugitive flight.  The color contrast between Edana and Kevin softened in the context of a domestic comfort (for which they also had to fight) are transferred into scenes that belie no ambiguity signaling the thickness of the color line that bracket white versus black experiences. All the myriad hues of the plantation scenery together attest to the multiple forms of violence and vulnerabilities of plantation life that were experienced by enslaved populations.  The scenes of physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse, of forced separations and the lived conditions of white supremacist terrorism experienced by Dana and the enslaved come off the pages via the frequent pace of their occurrence. They are many.  They are undeniable, especially now because of their visuality.

Though Dana is a time traveler, her passage between a sepia present and a colored past, do not leave her unscathed.  Dana is not merely a witness to plantation violence.  She intervenes in the lives of plantation residents—the plantation-owning Weylins (and Rufus in particular) but most often in the lives of her black ancestors—by advocating for the enslaved and trying to prevent acts of violence, providing medical assistance to the injured, by teaching young enslaved children to read, and even sustaining physical injuries for actions that are interpreted by plantation authorities as insolence.  Edana is beaten and whipped.  She returns with a swollen black eye after being beaten during an early journey in which she nearly escapes rape by a slave patroller.  She carries the scars from a brutal beating by a plantation overseer on her back during another passage home.  During her last voyage from the past, Dana kills Rufus Weylin after he attempts to rape her, but is so quickly transported that her arm—lodged against a wall—is left behind. As spoken by Edana in the Prologue scene that opens the novel, “I lost an arm on my last trip home.” Thus, Edana’s body bears the literal marks of her confrontation with history, however supernaturally mediated.  The traumas of a slave past/present are indelibly imprinted on her form.  But more than that, Edana’s experiences with slavery dramatically changes her visage.  Adeptly depicted in the visual novel, Dana’s demeanor alters.  The increasing occurrence of resident facial expressions—stone cast face, down turned eyes, and suppressed rage—tell their own tale of enslavement; a silent story of slavery as a process that can never truly be heritable, but must be experienced, witnessed, embodied, and broadcasted via the dimming of eye lights, the slumping of shoulders that broadcast resignation.

And yet for all of Edana’s changes, somehow over the course of his coming of age, Rufus changes very little.  The Weylin heir’s childish demeanor and behavior both remain.  The same petulant squinting of the eyes is matched by an enduring pattern of impetuous behavior.  Rufus pursues his own desires and interests for power, sex, and money with almost no concern for the human costs borne by others that result from those choices.  The reliance of him and his infirmed mother (who must eventually be carried) on the bondspeople they exploit illustrate the stunting infantilizations that accompanied planter privilege.  The impetuously furrowed brow of Rufus, the repetition of one-dimensional scripts that evoke, dictate, and predict pseudo-familial care on the part of slaves remain.  Here, James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time hold relevance.

This past, the Negro’s past; of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that if often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible—this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.  I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.[2]

From Baldwin’s purview, the underside of the struggle for humanity engendered in African Americans’ resistance to the abjection of blackness is the stasis of white supremacist privilege, missed opportunities for humanistic engagement, communion, and growth.  For all of interventions Edana made, sometimes hurtling unwittingly across time-space continuums, to save Rufus’ life over the years, Rufus cannot manage to see Edana as kin, her labor as love, her body as her own.  And because of this, this refusal of humanity, Rufus cannot be saved.  Edana is a time traveler, a prophet, a healer, a teacher, even a heroine, but ultimately, Edana is not a savior.  Not for lack of capacity, but because white supremacist plantocracy, for all of its imprints on slave bodies also indelible scars the characters of white beneficiaries, it is irredeemable.  Neither grace nor forgiveness is available for such a non-recognition of humanity.

And, this is the truly revolutionary part of Butler’s Kindred to me as a scholar of religion and race. The novel does not present a resolution or transcendence of the experiences of the slave past, but rather a complex embodied memory that holds a solidarity for some ancestors and a rejection for those who fail to recognize their shared humanity with their descendants.  Genealogy is excised, exorcised even.  Anti-black violence is not absolved. In the midst of an activist context shaped by Black Lives Matter, and its queer women of color leadership’s call for a valuation of black lives and the black life matter of black bodies, this non-forgiveness for the violation of black bodies is profound.  To not forgive, to not give up one’s body/sexuality for white supremacy, to defend one’s body (even from an ancestor) illustrates a thick love for self and black enfleshment in the midst of processes that threaten to commoditize and dehumanize black people.  In his contemplation of black intellectual writing in the Age of Ferguson, Julius B. Fleming, Jr. asks, “What can you do when you study the shattering of your own flesh, when you teach the historical destruction of that flesh, write about it, present on it, find it tucked away in the recesses of archives the world over?”[3] For me, Butler’s Edana and Duffy and Jennings’ graphic adaptation of Kindred provides an answer through their depictions of Edana, a political and spiritual ancestress, a sankofa archetype that calls for an immanent engagement with the past in the present.  More broadly, these conjoined works offer us conceptual and visual portals to excavate black history, to come face-to-face with our nation’s past, our physical and political resemblance to our ancestors in times that are mutually imprinted by anti-black violence and shaped by the metaphysics of fugitivity and freedom movements.

 

 

[1] James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, film, directed by Raoul Peck, (2017; New York: Magnolia Pictures).

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 98-99.

[3] Julius B. Fleming, Jr., “Shattering Black Flesh: Black Intellectual Writing in the Age of Ferguson,” American Literary History 28 (2016): 832.

The Reading List: Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History

I currently participate in a small reading group with colleagues from the Political Science, Romance Languages and Linguistics, and Religion Departments. Many of the works we have read explore the relationship between politics and religion in the context of modernity, and we recently discussed Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004.  Fasolt is Professor emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, and he has written extensively on political, social, and legal thought in medieval and early modern Europe. The Limits of History is noteworthy for its use of a relatively narrow historical case study—an examination of the work of the seventeeth-century German scholar Hermann Conring (1606-1681)—as the springboard for a broad historiographical critique. Fasolt’s engaging and lively analysis moves deftly from close readings of Conring’s works on political authority to a wide-ranging theoretical examination of the social and political implications of historical research.

This work is of particular interest to me in connection with my own research on Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrimage sites, specifically my exploration of historical narratives employed by advocates for the authenticity of Batathota cave temple (shown above in my 2016 photograph) as the true site of Divaguhava, the Cave of the [Buddha’s] Midday Rest, one of the sixteen great pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka linked to the tradition that Gotama Buddha visited the island three times during his lifetime. For those who know something about the modern history of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourses, it is probably not surprising to observe that these narratives, as identified and employed by advocates for the site, are not simply collections of “facts” about the past; rather, even a cursory analysis suggests that these narratives, whether as transmitted through published texts or mediated through oral accounts presented by lay officials at the site, serve a variety of social ends that might be characterized as “political” or “religious” (both of which are vexed categories that demand careful unpacking, particularly when contrasted with one another). What is less obvious is the political work accomplished by my own historical analysis, and this is precisely where Fasolt’s analysis provides some crucial insights.

The substance of Fasolt’s critique is relatively straightforward. He seeks to raise historians’ awareness of the links between historical analysis and the emergence of several key features of western modernity. According to Fasolt, freedom and progress depend upon the distinction between past and present, which the work of historians creates. Historians, through their commitment to discovering what “really” happened in the past on the basis of historical evidence, make possible the emergence of an individual subjectivity characterized by freedom from the past. The doing of history, he suggests, has become so naturalized that we have lost sight of the social and political conflicts that gave rise to it. He writes: “History enlists the desire for knowledge about the past to meet a deeper need: the need for power and independence, the need to have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot be forgotten. Whatever knowledge it may pick up along the way is but a means toward that end” (Introduction). Thus historical work is an exercise of power, one that can have dangerous consequences, particularly if those who undertake it regard it as “a natural, neutral, harmless, and universally applicable form of thought” (32). As he puts it: “The past, as a familiar saying goes, is a foreign country. Historians are just as active in invading that foreign country, conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline, and annexing their territories to the possessions of the present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description of history’s political effect” (Introduction).

Does this lead him to conclude that we must stop doing history? Not at all. The problem isn’t that we seek knowledge about the past. Rather, the danger of an unreflective historical consciousness is its intrinsic imperialism, at least when it is universalized and naturalized by the quest for objectivity: “History, in all its variations, continues to draw strength from the conviction that there is nothing wrong with the standards of objectivity, only with their implementation” (35). Drawing on the metaphor of a camera, he describes those who operate within an historical consciousness as acting “like the photographer who never looks at anything except through the lens of his camera. We seem to have lost the ability to recognize that history is merely one way of looking at the world, a good way (because our freedom depends on it), but one that neither shows everything to us nor shows anything without refraction” (32). Evoking the language of religion (which is surprisingly absent from his analysis of Conring’s own works), he observes: “Seen from outside … history rather appears to be the intellectual form that secularized Christianity has given to its preoccupation with the salvation of the soul. It is the same preoccupation that was in earlier times cast in the forms of theology and canon law. History is the ritual examination (especially by experts officially trained and licensed) of certain objects (mostly preserved in archives, libraries, and museums) without which the distinction between past and present could not support the weight placed on it by the established church— that modern church embodied in the nationstate whose symbols are printed on every dollar bill and whose members worship at the altar of nature. History serves to keep the modern world united. It is linked to violence in the same way that Christianity was formerly linked to the Crusades” (230).

These are powerful assertions, and they raise troubling implications for those of us who, like myself, regard historical analysis as foundational to our critical work. How does it reposition, for example, the way that I think about my work on Batathota cave temple? While I am only beginning to attempt to work through the implications of Fasolt’s historiographical critique, at least one possible direction for further reflection comes to mind: the recognition that historical discourses are culturally embedded in complex ways, both in the Euro-American tradition of Buddhist studies within which my own work is situated, and in the postcolonial emergence of Sri Lankan nationalist and religious discourses. What is at stake in asserting that a particular event is “historical,” for example, the visit of Gotama Buddha to a particular Sri Lankan cave? The asking and answering of that question by lay officials at Batathota cave temple, and by me as a North American scholar of Buddhism, point to important areas of convergence and difference that I hope to explore in greater depth as a result of having encountered Fasolt’s rich and illuminating book.

Constantin Fasolt. 2013. The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.