Where do ideas come from? What difference do methods of scholarship make in generating new ideas and perceptions that we then channel via writing into theoretical conversations that resonate with others, or at least with other scholars? Uncanny or rational, spiritual or empirical, the genesis of thinking cannot be pinned down. Insights may come to us when we’re intentionally trying to attract them; when reading a book, writing an essay, or debating a point. They may also come at us unbidden—while dreaming, riding a bicycle, nursing a baby, walking the dog.
For this essay, my charge was to write a response to a conversation about one of the other books featured in “Modernity’s resonances: New inquiries into the secular.” I couldn’t pick just one.
Christina Verano Sornito characterizes Susan Lepselter’s evocative ethnography of UFO stories as “one of those books that flashes up as a revelation in method.” Lepselter hones in on “apophenia” as the crux of her argument: the ways that people make meaning by perceiving the intersection of seemingly unrelated phenomena. At once diagnosis and method, apophenia, Sornito argues, helps to reveal how both UFO experiencers and academics use pattern recognition to make meaning. Attempting to craft just the right mix of the familiar and the strange, both kinds of narrators hope to provoke their listeners and readers to see the world anew.
Lepselter’s revelation in method stems in part from her willingness to conjoin the analytical and the personal, and perhaps even the fictional, in her writing. This is a methodological approach that is not new to ethnography or to history, especially when religion is the subject of study. Nevertheless, it’s an authorial move that is still risky. Courtney Bender’s account of her irritation-provoked ghost story, in the introduction to this forum is a case in point. In writing The Story of Radio Mind, I often thought hard about when to enter the narrative directly. Other times, my part in the story came to me as sentences waiting to be put on the page. These words summoned me via the voices of my children or through recurring visions of lightning flashes on a river named after a spirit.
Ideas come from experiences, as Mei Zhan shows in her discussion of “analogical yearnings,” or the desire to lay two perspectives side-by-side to make sense of them through comparison. She learns from her daughter’s first-grade teacher that “analogies are hard.” Elementary school teachers, who apparently now use “thinking maps” when teaching children to “think scientifically,” find the analogy map difficult to teach. When Zhan experiments with her daughter at home, her child’s analogy veers into unexpected directions, but gets much more interesting as a result.
Narrating this example, Zhan draws us into her life as a mother, while also placing what she learns there in relation to what she knows as an anthropologist. Referencing “forefathers” of anthropology including Boas, Tylor, Durkheim, and Lévi-Strauss, she points out how anthropology itself was born of analogical imaginations that built one-way bridges to progress: “They all imagined anthropology to be like something else—more rational, more secular, more masculine, and more prestigious.” But as she makes clear, even with all these “mores” anthropology was still based on stories: “Each node on the analogical chain—as it is conjured one by one—tells a story of its own that extends into other relations, comparisons, and ways of thinking and being.”
How scholars narrate what we learn from reading and research, from daily life and embodied experience, from what we remember and what we forget, is at once method and revelation, art and artifice.
Consider Franz Boas, who also has a cameo in my book The Story of Radio Mind. An ethnographer who was busy up and down the northwest coast, gathering and purchasing stories that were often first collected by Indigenous men and women who were ethnographers in their own right, Boas based almost all of his scholarly credibility and production on these stories. Celebrated as an early anthropologist who condemned the “scientific” racism of evolutionary anthropology, Boas added up these stories into big arguments, such as in his 1901 article “The Mind of Primitive Man” (and his 1911 book of the same name).
For Boas, the bridge of analogy was not just a process of comparative thinking but one of remediation, making science out of “mythology, theology, and philosophy.” Though as far as I know he didn’t use the word “apophenia,” Boas considered the ways that “new perceptions amalgamate” to be at the crux of understanding the human mind. The “difference in the mode of thought of primitive man and of civilized man” in this regard, he argued, “seems to consist largely in the difference of character of the traditional material with which the new perception associates itself.” Boas, a “secular” Jewish-American father whose mother was an innovator in the Froebel kindergarten movement in his native Germany, continued: “The instruction given to the child of primitive man is not based on centuries of experimentation, but consists of the crude experience of generations.” Remediating Indigenous stories from their “traditional material” of oral narratives into ethnographic books was a way to give them scientific value, in Boas’s eyes.
Building on the work of scholars including Maureen Atkinson and Paige Raibmon, I show in my book how Boas’s commitment to scientific remediation depended on the intellectual labor of Indigenous peoples such as Ts’msyen folklorist Odile Morison and Tlingit ethnographer George Hunt. Though Boas contested the racism underlying its premise, the very “primitivity” of the peoples he saw himself defending was a lie for more than one reason, and I urge scholars of modernity, religion, and the secular to stop using the word, even in scare quotes.
Boas is only one example of how scholarly art and artifice, or Kunst and Künstlichkeit in his mother tongue, are made out of analogical stories born from life. What difference does it make that Freud first thought through the uncanny in letters to his wife’s sister who was also his lover, as Allen Shelton tells us? What does it matter that Max Weber first gets to the heart of his argument about labor as “calling” in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (referenced by Donovan Schaefer) by disparaging young German women—especially those who were not Pietists (read Catholics)—for their “inability to adapt to new forms of labor, to learn, and to focus the mind’s reasoning capacities, or even to use it”? In Weber’s analysis, young women who refused to produce more sewing even when paid more by the piece just didn’t understand value: they were, in his words, demonstrating “complete incomprehension” of the need for understanding work itself as a “calling.” Weber seems to have not comprehended that there might be multiple political and bodily reasons for young women to reject working faster when paid by the piece as they craned their necks, squinted their eyes, and strained their backs. By contrast, Emily Ogden’s account of Cynthia Gleason, a textile worker who became the “first American mesmeric clairvoyant,” clearly demonstrates the bodily and psychic toll of such labor.
Revelations in method stem from human relationships, disciplinary commitments, the materiality of mediation, and unexpected inspiration. Writers of books are also readers, friends, parents, teachers, and storytellers who carve into words their ideas and arguments within affiliations shaped by promises, power, and disappointment. I believe that books are all the more interesting, and even more convincing, when their authors go a certain way to narrating and acknowledging how their ideas are inspired by such affiliations. And their arguments are all the more credible when, as Mei Zhan suggests, they situate the forebears whom they cite as writers who were themselves shaped by similar affiliations.
As a young student I found myself in an introductory political theory course my very first semester at McGill University in the mid-1980s. I had little idea what political theory was, but it took no time at all to be transfixed by the professors who took their turn pacing the floor at the front of the darkened lecture theatre or occasionally interjecting questions for each other. Listening to Charles Taylor and James Tully elaborate the writings of Plato, Karl Marx, or John Rawls, I gathered ideas in my coiled notebooks, never distracted by a cellphone or a laptop. Back then I was concerned to find patterns that would help transform a world crazed by nuclear proliferation and stymied by obdurate academic resistance to using gender-neutral language. But those lectures—intellectually electric conversations that they were—must also have led me to find inquiring into the resonances of modernity by way of thinking about religion and secularity a pursuit both worthwhile and revelatory. My guess is that all of the writers who contributed to “Modernity’s resonances” would agree: to be read with care, and then to learn where one’s words lead another’s perceptions, is a gift of critical connection limited neither to secular nor to religious ages.