Thursday, May 21, 2009

Purdue, Indiana 4.4.92: Big Men and Illusions of Control

At the Purdue Conference. . . . The response to my paper was muted, cautious, hostile. What strikes me is how different was the reception of the AAR Religion and Literature group to a trial version of the same paper. At the phrase “wall-to-wall discourse,” the latter group laughed. Yesterday, icy, uncomprehending silence. As I read the paper, a row of glowering big men sat at the head of the audience, snickering to each other when something struck them as worth laughing at, but otherwise maintaining a united front of hostile refusal to hear and engage my points—only to combat them, and to show me that I did not belong.

This is, of course, partly due to sociological factors. There are more women in literature than in theology. Theology and religious studies are still the domain of privileged, older, sober men. This incident itself in some ways demonstrates the validity of the very sociology of knowledge critique that the men in theology combat. . . . .

I see more and more the male cast of the fear of “undisciplined” discourse. It has everything to do with hierarchy and male bonding. Men are pack animals, always sniffing to see how they’re doing in the order of the pack. Male life is—and thus much social life is—bounded by hidden rubrics that privilege the pack and its leader, who is invariably the biggest, loudest, most aggressive male. . . .

A masculine, control-oriented theology must make each person declare his stance, mentor, school. Ostensibly, this is to offset subjectivity, to discipline, to assure that all players operate under rubrics that control the conversation and keep it fair and objective. Actually, it is about gaining control—when I know where you come from, I can pull out my stock arguments/weapons for those of your school and combat you.

The response to Janet Fishburn’s paper was vehement. The old boys simply refuse to permit any uncontrolled (by them) discussion of homosexuality, because this discussion touches too abrasively on the central male power symbols, has too much potential to expose them as cultural constructs and not the little gods of objectivity they imagine themselves to be.

Art: in its male control game, theology excludes art, relegates it to the feminine side of the ledger. One may cite a verse of poetry here and there as ornament or decoration, but the artistic must never be granted theoretical power, because it channels the dark, numinous, messy, uncontrollable. Much of the contemporary battle is vs. letting esthetic criteria enter theology. By declaring that art is frill and foppery, by feminizing it, male theology keeps its disruptive potential at a distance.

Ultimately, the cultural universe in which male theologians intent on dominating live rules out the religious itself, since religion is born of the same impulse that gives rise to art.

And, of course, it didn’t escape the attention of several of us giving papers that the conference was set up deliberately to assure that we ran the gauntlet of male control. The papers selected for presentation were, on the whole, leaning to the left end of the political and religious spectrum.

After we had read our papers, a respondent—always from the hard right—took them apart, and we were given no chance to respond. And all this was to the clear delight of the big men who dominated the audience, and sat sneering through each paper, and guffawing with delight at the response.

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