"maybe it's 'cuz 'cuz
we're all gonna die die"

Friday, April 06, 2007

Book Cover

Book Cover
In conjunction with teaching RELS-327 ("Religion and Violence"), I have been rereading Inga Clendinnen's Aztecs: An Interpretation. I really like her work and always have since I first read it. It's provocative and challenging, even though I am also perfectly aware of the fact that she doesn't have the kind of academic credentials for the study of Mexica religion that earn real respect in the field. I don't think she knows any Nahuatl, though she doesn't come right out and say so. Still, though, despite the fact that her interpretation is far from canonical, it has a kind of immediacy, depth, and urgency that I think is really appropriate and useful for a course like this one. A couple of years ago, though, I also picked up a copy of Davíd Carrasco's City of Sacrifice and finally, this semester, I started to read it. I'm not very far into it yet, but I am really impressed.

Carrasco's reputation around Harvard was that he was something of a rock star. Graduate students who worked with him noted that he frequently compared himself, primarily in terms of popularity, with Cornel West. Others said that his teaching was, well, scintillatingly interesting, but that undergrads tended to walk away without a clear sense of what it was they were supposed to be learning. For a while there was this story that circulated around the department about how he showed a video clip to his undergrads of a group of monkeys performing something that looked very much like a religious ritual. The grad students said that student reaction to this tended to be a lot of buzz and fascination -- they talked about "the monkey experience" -- but no discernible, measurable, concrete gains in skills or knowledge. This used to be something of a cautionary tale for me. I thought I knew better than to fall into this trap until I started teaching, myself. Then I discovered that it's a less clear-cut problem than I thought. It's harder to avoid than I expected, and -- more problematic -- I found that there were times I wanted an effect like that. I wanted to present students with a provocative, interesting, even mysterious problem or idea, and just let them mull it over, and the fact that there wasn't a tidy take-home message to walk away with didn't prove that I was thinking superficially about teaching outcomes. But I digress. The point here is that Carrasco had a reputation for a kind of superficial flashiness, not for analytical rigor.

This book has surprised me, then, because of the breadth and complexity of Carrasco's knowledge. Within the first thirty pages, he draws perceptive connections linking Tenochtitlan to Italo Calvino, Charles Long, Merleau-Ponty, Michael De Certeau, and Paul Wheatley. What I'm finding particularly striking is the sharp contrast in the fundamental stance toward the material that Carrasco adopts as opposed to Clendinnen's. Clendinnen writes like a historian. She begins by trying to bring the sources to life, by trying to thrust us into the middle of everyday life as experienced by the Aztecs. She is perfectly forthright about acknowledging the limitations of her ability to do so, but she tries anyhow. She operates like a painter, aiming at a layered, vivid, complex and many-sided picture of the society, its physical environment, and its mentalité. Her use of language is artful, and she seeks a visceral response from the reader. She hardly ever really talks about "religion" in any conceptual or abstract sense.

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Codex Mendoza, frontispiece
Book CoverCarrasco, however, uses the canonical language of the "Chicago school" of American religious studies. He uses Latin (orientatio) and Greek (archè) like a good Eliadean should. I keep expecting him to start talking about sacred centers, noumena, ontophanies, or "the wholly Other." I am now particularly sensitive to this kind of thing because I have also recently been toiling through Tim Fitzgerald's Ideology of Religious Studies, and Fitzgerald has a tendency to scoff at this kind of talk -- he thinks it's a more or less meaningless substitute for careful social observation. He does not, as Clendinnen does, start by trying to plunge the reader into an alienating, disturbing, dramatic world of violence, theatricality, and movement. Instead he begins by carefully circling around the key concepts he wants to talk about, primarily the concept of "city," along with the theme of center versus periphery. He constructs an elaborate contextualization of his own work, setting himself into a broad intellectual lineage of religious-studies discourse on urbanization and colonial societies. He begins his analysis not with a mise-en-scène but with a close reading, focusing on structural elements, of the frontispiece of the Codex Mendoza. He uses this to build a self-conscious and elaborate textual structure in which he will then go on to situate his work.

Well ... it's late, and I've kind of run out of steam here. I do think that the contrast between Clendinnen, who is really a historian with a kind of journalistic style, and Carrasco, who is a religionist through and through, is pretty instructive and says something about the nature of scholarship -- at least, one particular kind -- in religious studies -- at least, this particular branch of the discipline. I'm not sure whether what it says, ultimately, is positive or negative. But it does strengthen my sense that there is a canonical, disciplinary foundation for religious studies more generally, and in my view that can only be a good thing, even for people (like Fitzgerald) who have made it their business to mount a fairly devastating critique of that foundation.

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