WIERD Methodology: Some Problems with the Study of Sexuality

December 9, 2012

The title of this blog post refers to a 2010 paper entitled “The WEIRDest People in the World?” by J Henrich, S. Heine and A Norenzayan. WEIRD is an acronym for White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. In the paper, the authors argue that most psychology studies take as their sample study group undergraduate college students who generally fit the WEIRD acronym. They argue that this sample is not very indicative of humanity as a whole and we should be very wary of using this group as indicators of general human psychological states. As they say, the WEIRDos “are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers.”

At first, I was skeptical of the acronym. I thought, why are we creating a new acronym for a problem covered by the term “eurocentrism”? But, WEIRD actually points to the demographic of study, and has some value specifying that group. However, I find that the more important issue is the methodology that makes this acronym meaningful: the lazy and ethnocentric science of human behavior.

I am quite approving of science that aims to find generalized human characteristics, also known as “human nature”. The problem is when lazy science puts the cart before the horse. As an example, let me point you to a BBC documentary about nudity I stumbled across last week.

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The Zombiepocalypse and Religion: Be Careful What You Wish For.

November 1, 2012

George Romero's Night of the Living DeadThe Walking Dead

Zombies have been a mainstay in popular culture since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Today’s most popular incarnation is The Walking Dead tv-series. While I read the Walking Dead graphic novel, I have only recently caught up on the television show. Watching the series puts me in mind of a few insights about Zombies that a religious studies perspective can bring to the phenomena as a whole. In this post, I only want to touch briefly on a few things: the apocalyptical or dystopian aspect of the zombie myth, the underlying ideology of the myth, and, of course, some observations about us that our zombie stories tell us.

First, I’d like to talk about Zombies AS myth.
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Fuzzytheory Roundup

October 5, 2012

I’ve noticed that I have had a few more people viewing my blog as of late. For new visitors, i would like to point out some of my more successful posts–the posts I like the most, and my most popular posts.

The most popular post by far has been A History of Fair-Skin Preference in South Asia, which seems to have hit on a topic of interest for readers.

Recently, there has been great interest in the post What is the Subaltern? It is now the second most viewed post. I like my summary of the basics in this post as well.

My series of posts on the Hijras is some of my favorite posts on this blog, and somewhat popular. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Some basic theoretical stuff about homophobia is a global context can be found in Homophobia and the Post-Colonial Predicament.

I do like my posts on sexuality–which are obviously inspired by Michel Foucault. You can see a sample in Our Sexuality.

For those who come here with an interest in Buddhism, try Buddhism Does Not Exist, or Foucault and Buddhism: Redux.

Looking back, I’m surprised I have a couple of posts on Joss Whedon’s universe. Try Whedon and Orientalism for starters.

That is probably enough to get started.

Thanks for coming to my blog, and Enjoy!

Modernity vs. Tradition

October 4, 2012


I found this image circulating around and realized that I had a rote speech from my lecturing about the categories ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ and thought I’d share.

The term ‘tradition’ is new. It is an innovation. It is a signifier that only makes sense in relation to ‘modernity’. The two terms are mutually necessary pairs that evoke each other, stated or not, whenever deployed. That is, tradition is modern construct. To use the term ‘modern’ is to be traditionally modern.

The most interesting thing I take from these insights is really quite practical. Tradition is a modern recreation of a fictional past–the imaginations of innovators make tradition. Any invocation of tradition is actually a ruse. The moment we can conceive of the modern is the exact moment we create tradition. Before we imagined the modern, there was no tradition in the sense that we use the term now. It was just the way that things were. With the modern, everything is up for grabs and we’ve forgotten the way things were. To remember tradition, it must be re-created. It is made anew.

Thus, tradition is actually the most modern of phenomenon. Let’s see some examples.

In India, tradition, when invoked, often points back to the infinite past of Hindu culture and speaks of norms, like those of the Laws of Manu, that are in all actuality the joint construct of British scholars, missionaries, administrators, and Indian elites, be they pandits, rajputs or brahmins. That is to say, what is constructed as tradition is actually something made wholly new in the 19th century by the complex process of colonial and cultural exchange with its notions of cultural essentialism.

In West Asia, the various ‘fundamentalisms’ of Islam were created as anti-colonial responses to European colonialism. Immasculated and denegrated, Arabs and other people of color found a united resistance through this shared recreation of Islam. It is actually somewhat more complex than this, as much of the Islamic revolutions of the 60s-80s were undoubtedly also resistance to the fact that secular leadership in West Asia was concieved to be too much under the power of the West. And then when the West turned on West Asia, as it did in Iraq (which was the most ‘progressive’ part of Asia), this tendency only continued. My hypothesis is that the West, perhaps only partially unwittingly, actually played a large role in creating what it now calls Islamic fundamentalism.

Look at Asian diaspora in North America or Europe. It often holds on far more stridently to what it sees as ‘traditions’ of the homeland.

The global resistance to alternative sexualities and genders under the guise of tradition fits the same pattern: before colonialism, most regions had come to terms with it in their own way, were convinced to denounce it through colonialism, and now in the postcolonial moment understand that denunciation as ahistorical tradition.

There are many more examples that can be made. Often we find it oxymoronic, strange or even hypocritical when those who we associate with ‘tradition’ take advantage of what we see as ‘modern’ (like technology… twittering monks for example). In fact, it is the same activity under different labels. We only think this way because these terms modernity and tradition serve the purpose of obfuscating and calcifying power-relations, both real and discursive. Fundamentalists get much credence for their traditional stance, and can hide their innovations behind the veil of ‘tradition.’ Modernists too, can veil their conservativism behind the seemingly progressive stance of the ‘modern’ (take for example, the old-timey racism of the New Athiests).

Monks owning cellphones is no different than an Atheist with the bible on the shelf.

What does this insight allow us to do? It allows us to see far more clearly the ways in which people strategically use the categories (and all their associated semiology) modernity and tradition to get other people to do what they want, for one.

It may also allow us to see way to step past these categories–either in a dialectical way, or in a revolutionary way–and conceive of a world that cannot so easily use the enmity attached to this binary for divisive purposes.

Suffering Porn: The Flip-side of The White Savior Industrial Complex

March 25, 2012


As many may have been exposed to, the KONY 2012 kerfuffle has been getting quite a lot of attention lately. There have been many responses critical to this particular “charitable cause” which I will not rehash here. However, I do want to point to an article by Teju Cole entitled “The White Savior Industrial Complex“. It is quite an insightful and careful piece about how contemporary development and privileged concern plays out large-scale. It carefully dissects the effects of a (perhaps) well-meaning but (usually) harmful system of aid towards the “developing world”–otherwise known as the formerly colonized “Other”. Cole says,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.” To state this obvious and well-attested truth does not make me a racist or a Mau Mau.

What Cole is pointing to here is the larger discourse of Orientalism making complicit a racism that allows the superior Westerner a position to “save those who cannot save themselves”–which at once dis-empowers the abject Other and empowers the righteous Self. The problem, that Cole touches on, is that Orientalism is never divorced from global systems of power: be they economic, political or developmental. How do we “save” Africa, India… the developing world? Look to Iraq and Afghanistan for examples. Look to dismal but quite intentional track record of the IMF or the World Bank. The righteous salvation of the West  on the other is almost always allied in ways that empower or enrich the West. To debate how much good is done to the Other is to concede that the West decides what is good or bad for the Other.

This analysis is large, broad, complex and global. And necessary. However, there is a flip-side to this broad global analysis. It is an analysis of the insidious ways that Orientalism and neo- or post-colonial discourse impacts individuals to support the White Savior Industrial Complex. It speaks to the individual psychological payoff that individuals get when they think they are helping the Other and think they are being charitable. It is an analysis that may not itself be charitable. I have called it for a while now “Suffering Porn”.

The Sunday afternoon commercials that show malnourished African children with distended bellies and flies buzzing on their faces is Suffering Porn. The stream of news footage of refugees, or oppressed Muslim women, or whatever may be the Third-World calamity of the day is Suffering Porn. KONY is Suffering Porn.  Read the rest of this entry »

Chimps Ahoy!*

March 4, 2012

Recently, there have been a couple of articles on Gawker about “bonobo lesbian relationships“. My humor juices got flowing about this, and so I thought I’d mix theory and my wacky humor in one post.

When talking or thinking about sexuality, most North Americans tend to adopt understandings that circulate North American culture, most often along the lines of gender differences or clearly delineated sexualities. Those who have read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality are in some ways at an advantage for being able to acknowledge that most of our ideas of sexuality come from the 19th century with small transformations over time, but no real substantial difference from the way people thought and constructed sexuality a century and a half-ago.

To summarize Foucault, Read the rest of this entry »


January 18, 2012

While I am not normally in the business of providing emotive comments about certain topics about religion, this post by Alas quoting Barbara C. Sproul’s view of fundamentalism is interesting. Normally, I would ask something a little more hermeneutical about fundamentalism, such as: What kinds of needs or reasons or socio-cultural meanings does fundamentalism tap in to or allow to be expressed that make it a popular choice in the contexts in which it is popular. Again, I am genealogical about these things. None-the-less, from a theological viewpoint, Sproul’s comment is interesting.

Colonial Terror in North America

January 17, 2012

Angry Black Lady: “You have no idea what Martin Luther King Actually Did.”

In terms of global colonialism, we forget that North America is still a post-colonial region. Take the message of this link as one set of proof (and add it to other sets of proof, like the treatment of indigenous peoples).

Orientalism and the Colonized Mind

November 14, 2011

This post is a more indepth examination of Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism as a discourse and how, post-colonization, the formerly colonized have internalized colonial epistemes, often described in psychological terms. Some (Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993) call this phenomenon the post-colonial predicament in general, and some call the particularly psychological aspect of it the colonized mind. Post-colonial scholars call for a process of de-colonizing the mind in response.

Orientalism, in the sense that I will be using it throughout my analysis, refers to a systemic discursive regime—a way of thinking, speaking and thus acting—that reifies a distinction between East and West, Orient and Occident, that perpetuates a hierarchy privileging the West. This usage of term was conceived by Edward Said in Orientalism.  As Said argues:

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Derren Brown and Religious Studies

May 23, 2011

I am in the process of watching Derren Brown‘s new film Miracles For Sale. I have seen his earlier work, including another film on the subject of what we might call belief systems or religion, Messiah. Derren Brown is a mentalist and magician that is well-known in the UK, and is frequently critical of what he might call the more dubious practices within the realm of “religion” or “spirituality”. His film and tv show work on the subject typically uses the skills of mentalism to mimic the such phenomena as physic powers, faith healing and so forth.

His latest film’s premise is to take a “man off the streets” and train him to be a faith healer. The sensational climax is when this ‘faith healer’ “passes” as a faith healer in Dallas, Texas. Throughout the film Derren plays up the notion of faith healing as a scam and to “debunk it”, framing this as a moral issue of revealing scam artists.

You can see a clip here.

While Watching this film, it has come to me that this would be a perfect film to address to a 4th year or graduate seminar class about the nature of the discipline of Religious Studies. I would ask the students what is the first thing that comes to mind or what they might think about the show–framing their answers to be as if they were a response by a professional academic of Religious Studies. I predict a number of responses from students that I would take issue with. And I would want to fail them for all of these responses. Read the rest of this entry »