Wednesday, July 15, 2015


One of the tasks of this month is revisiting and revising the syllabus for "Theorizing Religion," my old standard course. (Under one name or another I've taught it all but a very few of the years I've been in the profession.) I've told people that this revisiting, and its enactment, will likely be the main venue for rendering explicit what the year in China has done for/to me as a scholar of religion. But I didn't expect the effect would be quite so strong and quick...

I met yesterday with the brilliant young woman (an alum, too) who covered the course in my absence. I'd encouraged her to make the course her own, and was looking forward to learning from her innovations: she's more political, interested in different traditions than I, and has a different generation's sense of what's important. Just before we got together I called up the 2013 syllabus on my computer for a quick look ... and found, to my shock, that it left me completely cold. I could remember being pleased with new assignments I'd come up with to meet student interests (and blindnesses), and pretty satisfied with the outcomes, but, looking them over yesterday I found myself entirely uninterested.

I don't think it's just that it's been a while, and that you had to be there at there at the time, and that my sense of the "demands of the day" has been dislocated. It took me a while to find a way to describe it - it only came to me today. It's not that Chinese religion, or the scholars I encountered there, have reoriented my understanding. Rather, something perhaps best called disoccidentation has happened to me. To borrow a word from Dipesh Chakrabarty, the American religious (and religious studies) tradition has for me been "provincialized." It seems of at best local interest. And local in the way nonwestern traditions have been rendered local by colonialism and its legacies: not important for people elsewhere to learn about, and maybe not even important for people there to understand. Better to teach them about a clearer, more central, deservedly normative instance.

But if my thinking has been disoccidented, it's also been decentered. The American context has been provincialized, but there's no new center. (Certainly not China.) Let me take a few days to see where this upset takes me...

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