Cara in the Wilderness on Critiques of “Experience”

Cara Curtis

Ethnography of Religious Experience

Precis: Critiques of the Idea of “Experience”



This week’s authors deliver something we have perhaps all been waiting for: a view from the “other side,” voices that are skeptical of at least some dimensions of the concept of “experience.” These authors present important pushback on some assumptions about experience that were for many decades allowed to go unchecked within religious studies, and in doing so, for me at least, raise more questions than they provide answers. Robert Sharf, for instance, points out that religious studies has constructed experience as a mystical and therefore unassailable category: “By construing religion as pertaining to a distinct mode of ‘experience,’ the scholar of religion could argue that it ultimately eludes the grasp of other more empirically oriented disciplines” (269). Ann Taves shares this critique and advocates a new “building block” methodology to try and help (or perhaps, make) scholars be clearer about how “experiences deemed religious” come to be that way. Don Seeman’s critiques are in a slightly different though overlapping vein: with Emmanuel Levinas, he is concerned that scholars’ unitary emphasis on “meaning” in ritual precludes our ability to give accounts of experiences so traumatic they exceed the possibility of meaning-making. These are all important contributions, yet as I outline below, the critiques themselves are at times problematic in ways that leave me unsure where to turn or how to deal with the important questions they raise. I’m in a bit of a methodological wilderness after these readings, you guys. Maybe on Wednesday you can lead me out!

Because Sharf’s and Taves’s pieces share much in common, I’ll work with them together first, outlining three critiques they make and my critical questions to those critiques, and then move to Seeman. The first critique they share, mentioned above, is the mystical and overly “special” way that scholars of religion have constructed experience. This is what Taves refers to as the “sui generis” nature of experience, which allows it to be cast as “a special aspect of human life and culture set apart from other aspects” (3). Sharf adds that “we assume that in so far as experience is immediately present, experience per se is both indubitable and irrefutable” (277). He concludes his paper with the lament that “all attempts to signify ‘inner experience’ are destined to remain ‘well-meaning squirms that get us nowhere’” (286). My question in response to this critique is: are we so sure that experience is always (studied as) something that is mystical, inner, and irrefutable? I understand the legacy coming from William James that they are trying to counteract. But the way we have studied “experience” in this class suggests to me that anthropologists, and even increasingly scholars of religion, understand experience more as the sum total of events, sensory inputs, meanings, practices, etc that converge on an individual in their lifeworld. It seems that maybe Taves is trying to get at this with her “building block” approach. Do we agree with Taves’s and Sharf’s assessment here? Do we think that Taves’s is a helpful response?

Taves and Sharf’s second critique brings out a tension between phenomenological approaches and those concerned with the “really real” (not that these have to be opposed, but in this discussion, they seem to be). Sharf and Taves are clearly in the latter camp. Sharf critiques phenomenology for its tendency “to fragment reality into ‘multiple objective worlds’” (284). He clearly believes there is a right and a wrong way to look at things, as becomes clear in his discussion of Radhakrishnan and Suzuki’s efforts to bring “experience” to their respective traditions. A phenomenologist would argue that whatever the nefarious consequences of this activity (Westernization, colonialism, etc), the scholar should try and understand what is important to people in their contemporary lifeworlds—i.e., Zen Buddhists today may authentically understand “experience” to be part of their tradition. For Sharf, this would fail to tell an important story of Western epistemological colonialism, the “real story” of how experience got into Asian religions. My question here is: how do we balance these interests, which both seem important? Is the “zoom in/zoom out” approach that Kleinman and others advocate adequate here? Is there room in the methodology Taves proposes to account for this balance—for example, does declaring outright that religion is not a sui generis phenomenon leave enough room to take seriously religious traditions’ claims to exceptionalism in a phenomenological sense? How phenomenological can we be as scholars, really?

Let me move to a third area of critique before I get too worked up. Taves, especially, carries a concern about interdisciplinarity and religion being able to converse with the sciences (she says as much in the SSRC interview). I am concerned that her project (at least potentially) makes the study of religion too scientific, to the detriment of certain types of insights. I realize there is a tension here, and it is important for the humanities to not become unable to speak outside themselves and insular to critique. But I worry, for example, that Taves’s “building block” methodology, which “allows us to understand how humans have used things deemed religious (simple ascriptions) as building blocks to create the more complex formations (composite ascriptions)” is overly eager to find clear, scientifically understandable origins of religious experience (9). I see the opportunity it opens, namely greater clarity and breadth within the term “experience,” but worry about what it concedes epistemologically. If we draw out a perfect map of “how the building blocks came together,” is this not just as simplistic as the “kinship charts” so favored by early anthropologists? Again, what are the downsides of “finding the (one) truth”? In a quest for truth, both Taves and Sharf talk about mystery and indeterminacy as if it is a bad thing. Certainly science thinks so. Is there a way we can push back on that assumption, and the more problematic parts of scientific epistemologies more broadly, without retreating into the evasion and exceptionalism that Taves and Sharf justifiably critique?

I think this is a good point to transition to the Seeman piece, because he is also concerned about the insights of scholarly work being overly determined by particular epistemologies—in his case, the way that implicitly Protestant epistemologies have forced “meaning” into all ritual. Part of Seeman’s concern is to make visible the “genealogical affinity” between this epistemology and dominant ritual theory, and the other part is to raise the question about what to do when certain phenomena do not fit this dominant theory—namely, extreme suffering (63). This strikes me as a very important question not only in light of the intellectual history that Seeman sketches, but also in view of contemporary tendencies to want to “find the beauty” in even wretched contexts, to resist narratives of total victimization (an impulse I definitely feel).

However, Seeman’s insights also raise very difficult methodological questions for me. The first relates to Levinas’s concern to “allow the reality of pain to force analytic attention away from the general and towards the irreducible quality of the particular” (61). Certainly, this is an important step, especially in light of all Seeman has traced through Geertz and Weber. Yet I wonder if too much emphasis on alterity and particularity may make it difficult to turn back to the “interhuman,” which Seeman advocates for at the end, particularly given the extreme circumstances discussed here? Does emphasizing pain’s extremity risk exoticizing it past the point of human relatability? It would seem paradoxically then that we want people both to be able to empathize with this suffering while also understanding it is far beyond the realm of “meaning.” Relatedly, I found myself wondering in this piece how to talk about radical pain at all if it resists all meaning, and whether it really does. Levinas’s “medical gesture” is a practice rather than a discourse, as Seeman says (70)—but does that mean it is without meaning? Even as Sarah’s grief defies meaning in Shapira’s telling (66), doesn’t this very witness convey a meaning of its own? My aim here is not to argue about semantics, but to wonder about how best to represent something that defies representation. Is there a different set of terms we could be using, like perhaps distinguishing between “internal” and “external” meaning? Do we automatically create meaning every time we talk about something, and if so, how do we talk about things that defy meaning? Surely it is important to talk about them.

So you see I wasn’t kidding when I said these articles raised more questions for me than they answered. One meta-question I have, coming out of my engagements with Taves and Sharf especially, is about how we take important critiques seriously even when we also have problems with the underpinnings of the critiques themselves. How do you sort it all out? It seems important to engage these debates substantively, yet it also feels like one could get bogged down forever in a methodological back-and-forth. How does one move forward responsibly, while also knowing that a “perfect” methodology is unlikely? Perhaps here is a good moment to think back to the other ethnographies we have read. Certainly each of them had its imperfections (except of course Don’s 🙂 ), perhaps even problems related to the critiques we read this week. And yet we also learned things from them. How would we sort out what is of value, what we would critique, and the relationship between these? How will we allow for imperfection and the possibility of future critique in our own ethnographic work?


2 thoughts on “Cara in the Wilderness on Critiques of “Experience”

  1. I have to admit, there were a few times that I wanted to yell “Why are you trying so hard to make them like you? They (Science folk) don’t care about you!” to Tave’s article. I’m not a scientific person. In fact, my high school chemistry teacher told me I never would be because I “make everything much more complicated than it really is.” As we’ve said repeatedly, there is an efficaciousness about science that makes its influence really palpable in the U.S…. which is perhaps why Taves finds “interdisciplinary” work that favors science so appealing. Indeed, there is still something really tempting (and nerve wracking) about this emphasis on interdisciplinary work. I’m with you, Nick, the objectivity makes me nervous. But, the points she raises about experience are important ones. I cannot apply for a USAID grant by suggesting that I will do qualitative, phenomenological research with HIV positive people in Kenya. Sui generis does not bode well for this kind of work. The more “accessible” religious experience is, the more it is able to speak with larger academic structures. Do we risk relinquishing a privileging of religious experience in interdisciplinary work? Moreover, Is religious experience as “sui generis” as Taves thinks it is? Given the readings we have done thus far, it’s worth asking. Are our authors suggesting that religious experience is in a class all its own? I would also like to parse some of Sharf’s argument. Cara, I think you do a nice job of summarizing his contention with Western epistemological colonialism. I also share your tension with this argument. In conclusion, given the writing on alien abductions, it seems like an important time to bring my favorite religious experiencer back to the fore. SNL provides some generous ritual, too:

  2. Cara, you jumped right into the deep! These readings definitely raised a lot of questions for me as well. My focus in reading these articles quickly moved to some bigger issues and questions around outsider/researcher and insider/informant – and the interpretative power dynamics at work in how anthropology and more specifically the ethnographic project derives its validity in the first place. For me not tending to these bigger questions of knowledge production as a whole seems to reify Western intellectual hegemony and leave those studied as objects subject to further “scientific” scrutiny. Taves’ brand of interdisciplinarity actually scares me as it implicitly places a trust in “objectivity” that I do not think is possible in an academic and intellectual environment fueled by capitalism and privately funded research. It also fails to acknowledge the long history of scientific abuse many communities have suffered at the hands of western intellectuals. I read Taves interdisciplinary methodology as invasive and requiring even more of researched communities while offering nothing in return. I needed Taves to address how this would actually benefit those communities who are the focus of said studies.

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