(Syllabus) “SAVAGES,” “MYSTICS,” & “MODERNS” (Theories & Methods in Study of Religion) (Classics)




REL 601

Fall 2017



This introduction to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century classical theorists of religion keys the discussion of religion in such a way as to accomplish two things. [1] To consider what we can learn about “religion itself,” theorized as a human phenomenon combining and mixing up social, political, psychological, and spiritual elements. [2] A critical look at the theorists themselves, most notably what particular constructions of “primitive origins” and “religious experience” tell us about the modern (i.e. western) (mostly Christian, post-Christian) social imaginaire in its social, political, psychic, aesthetic, and affective dimensions. The study of religion thus stands out as an object in its own right in relation to religion, now viewed as a theoretical object putatively put on view to orient the critic’s understanding of his or her own putative modernity.



Course Requirements

Class participation

Weekly Critiques (1 page) (required, but not for credit)

Mid-term paper (5 pages)

Final paper (12-15 pages)



Marx, Marx-Engels Reader (second edition)

Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Fields translation)

Weber, Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, (Kalberg translation)

James, Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin edition)

Freud, Totem and Taboo (Strachey translation)

Freud, Future of An Illusion (Strachey translation)

Masuzawa, In Search of Dreamtime: The Question for the Origin of Religion

Achebe, Things Fall Apart





8/30   Class introduction

9/6     Origins, Others, Culture, Religion

Masuzawa, In Search of Dreamtime, Introduction and chapter 1

Trinh Minh-Ha “The Language of Nativism” in Woman, Native, Other,

Charles Long, Significations, Part II:  “Religion and Cultural Contact”

Masuzawa, “Culture” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies

Smith “Religion, Religions, Religious” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies


9/13  Marx,

from the Marx-Engels Reader, “On the Jewish Question,” “Communist Manifesto,” “German

Ideology,” Capital, Volume One, pp.319-29 on the commodity fetish

Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish II” and “The Problem of the Fetish IIIa”

          Geller, “From Rags to Risches: On Marx’s Other Jewish Question,” 197-212




9/27   Max Muller

Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, “The Perception of the Infinite,”

“The Worship of Tangible, Semit-Tangible, and  Intangible Objects,” The Ideas of Initity and Law,” and “Retrospect”

Masuzawa, In Search of Dreamtime, chp. 3

Susanne Manchard, selections from German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion,

Race, and Scholarship


10/4   Durkheim.

Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Introduction, Bk I, Bk II chps 1, 3, 6, 7, 8

Masuzawa, chp. 2


10/11 Durkheim

Elementary Forms of Religious Life,  Bk. III and conclusion

“Individuualism and the Intellectuals”


10/18 Weber

Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, chps 1-4


10/25 Weber

Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, chp 5

“Science as a Vocation,” “Politics as a Vocation,” “The Sociology of Charismatic Authority”


11/1   James

Varieties of Religious Experience, preface and lectures 1-10


11/8   James

Varieties of Religious Experience, lectures 11-20 and postscript


11/14 Freud,

Totem and Taboo


11/29 Freud

Future of An Illusion

Masuzawa, In Search of Dreamtime, chp4


12/6   Achebe

Things Fall Apart







Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Mourning Becomes the Schlemiel” – a Guest Post by Jeffrey Bernstein

Beautiful guest post by Jeffrey Bernstein, as I read it, on mourning, melancholy, and the Jewish, as read through the prism of Gimpel the Fool. It originally appeared (where else?) at Menachem Feuer’s Schlemiel Theory blog, hand down the best site around for the intersection between Jewish philosophy and literature.

Schlemiel Theory

Unknown-2I. Psychoanalysis has taught us that comedy—in particular, the joke—is a discourse through which serious issues can be articulated in a manner that can be tolerated by an intended recipient. It has not (to my knowledge) said anything about the relationship between comedy and sadness—in particular, mourning.  Aristotle tells us that tragedy allows for a moment of catharsis—be it intellectual or emotional—in which the audience is able to resonate with the dramatic events being seen.  Can comedy or comedic situations fulfill a similar function?  Can it teach us, or model for us, anything having to do with, e.g., sorrow?  Is the insight of the Kotzker Rebbe to the effect that there is no heart so whole as that of a broken heart relegated to the discourse of lamentation alone?  These fragmentary reflections are a first attempt at exploring this question.  The schlemiel, as a figure of derision, is a particularly…

View original post 4,197 more words

Posted in uncategorized | 1 Comment

Paradigm Shifts in Jewish Studies


On FB, Naomi Seidman recently asked all of us about whether or not there are any new paradigm shifts in Jewish Studies and in the sub-fields in which we work. From my perch at Syracuse, I’d like to suggest that a way forward might be in turning away from “subjects” and the “social construction of identity.” In particularly, this means a turn away from the so-called linguistic turn in which bodies are signified like texts and texts like bodies. Dominated by literary theory, this was the theoretical model that drove so much Jewish Studies in the 1990s under the impress of “postmodernism.”

After postmodernism and the critics of totalities (Derrida, Foucault, Levinas), Jewish Studies would look, in particular, for the human in relation to biological bodies, including animal bodies, to all kinds of networks, science and technology and media, topographies and ecology and ontologies, mind and possible worlds, including the possibility of non-human agencies. A new paradigm in the humanities, writ large, and in Jewish Studies, writ small, would pick up cues from our current mediated environments, saturated as they are by science, tech, and images.

Currently in the humanities, some of this has already found expression in Material Feminism, Affect Theory, and Post-Humanism. As always behind the curve, Jewish Studies has not really come to any of the discussions framed by theorists like Deleuze, Irigaray, Latour, and Karen Barad. But precursors there are, at least in Jewish thought. Here I would look to work by Norbert Samuelson, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Elliot Wolfson, Michael Fagenblatt, Sergei Dolgopolsky, Aaron Gross, Shaul Magid, and Kalman Bland (z”l).

Instead of just looking at “Jews,” we might want to start looking at other things in the world around us. I’m not entirely ready with Magid to call this “post-Jewish,” but I’m almost there. What matters most in these new approaches would have less to do with that absolutely exhausted concept “identity,” the more or less isolated but always constructed Jewish “subject,” “text” or “body.” The Jewish Studies nodal point would related to the imbrication of Jewish “singularities” into large networked bodies and affects, into big systems of exchange and data fields, into science, nature, and new ontologies.

Go to the movies, read a new novel, go to a museum or gallery where they show contemporary art. There are alternative models in the humanities out there whose rules are relatively easy to learn. The trick in Jewish Studies is to figure out how to make these work.

Posted in uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

They Were Replaced (Confederate Swag At New York State Fair 2017)


Well, that’s over with, but I am not entirely sure what, exactly it was. The New York State Fair’s done with for this year. According to reports, the fair organizers  “agreed” with vendors that the vendors would not be selling Confederate wares. There were only a few small bits here and there; and on the first few days of the fair, a couple of people scattered here and there who felt emboldened to come to the grounds with their own flags from home. There was one woman in her late 30s or early 40s wearing one like a cape over her shoulder. And the creepy appearance of a Confederate flag and a Texas flag in full flutter one evening in the back corner of a back parking lot. I have been going to the fair for some ten years and am sure I’d have noticed Confederate flags. No doubt they felt in this political climate permission to crawl out from under the rocks. And then that was that. I kept looking  for it. Over the next few days, the signs seemed to vanish. For all that, among the mostly white crowds early on in the fair, this was Trump country. By last night, the last Sunday of the fair, “they were replaced” by a larger, racially diverse crowds of young people, teenagers and twenty-somethings. Apart from a few shirts on display at the t-shirt vendors, I saw no one actually wearing Donald Trump shirts or hats among the fair goers, although family members noted perhaps one or two.

Posted in uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guns & Christ (White American Icons at the New York State Fair 2017)


Year after year, the t-shirt and t-shirt decal (?) stands consistently (there are only a few of them) reflect the most rancid side of the New York State Fair, or I’m sure of any state fair. No doubt a signal part of our current Trump moment, this year there just seems to be more explicit 2nd Amendment expression, and that this year, that vibe is much more on-show and aggressive. At least that’s the way it seems, but I’m pretty sure I’d have picked that up in years past. The aesthetic style is declaratively bold and over the top. I do not believe for a minute that the people who parade around the fair grounds dressed up like this have done so without a second thought. It’s deliberate. As you walk by them and soak up the image, your blood soaks and curdles. I’ll say, though, that truth be told, on the basis of what people are actually wearing one would be have every right to suspect that there are definitely more guns than God in this corner of upstate New York.

Posted in uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Brown Cow & Human Hand (New York State Fair 2017)


Check out the “rhizome” established by the animal hide, machine, and human hand. Here across the hairs along the ridge of the back, to get that show sheen on the cows requires very careful razor work. Intent and gentle on the work, the dairy farmer did not appreciate my attempt to crack a joke.

Posted in uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Social Worlds (New York State Fair 2017)


The New York State Fair is an index to some of the different social worlds I habituate during the course of the year, commuting back and forth between New York and Syracuse. Back again to the New York State Fair, where I spend countless hours. Not so many this year. Circumstances beyond control got me up late and I had to drive back to New York Sunday night. We’re back on Wednesday night. The back and forth of being there, being  here, going back has a whiplash effect. Got back late last night and checked the news about Houston and went to see what was happening on FB and Twitter. It’s a peculiar social mix and sense of physical presence and spatial awareness. There are the largely upstate and rural white working class crowds at the Fair, the strange student body at Syracuse, my quiet little office freshly repainted and reorganized at the university, my small corner in New York City, a rich diversity, on the edge of Harlem, more urban, more relaxed then the vibe this year at the State Fair. Attached to all that is my online academic, Jewish and Jewish Studies networks with are our own sense of anxious intimacies. Especially at the start of the school year, my social world is caught up in the transversal between upstate and the city. This year, it’s much less pleasant.

Posted in uncategorized | Leave a comment