Mormon Studies, and Other Fundamentalisms
Part Five of Interviews with Myself
I want to address,
Daymon, an issue that some of your research, I think, maybe talks about, or
OK. What is that?
business. It’s a good thing we have all
these outlets now for Mormon culture,
and that with blogs, journals, and scholarly research we have a way to thrive,
faithfully, and not be reliant on those guys at Correlation.
Look, Daymon, this is the problem with scanning someone’s
research, particularly when it explores the cultural processes by which social
imaginaries are formed –
I can’t get into it here.
But, the problem is that one can read my research from a correlated
perspective, and believe one understands it, and yet, extend the frontlines of
Correlation in the very act of misreading.
That is to say, one cannot simply announce that this text, article, or
word is now free from Correlation; or presume that one’s cultural work, because
it wasn’t run through the COB, is not itself a patchwork of Correlation. You’re just being fooled by names for things,
and missing what they refer to.
But doesn’t that lead
to the paranoia that everything is Correlated?
It could, and sometimes should, but only if one doesn’t
really understand the dynamics by which Correlation sustains itself, and merely
sees the results and has some notion about what it is. A lazy reading, in other words, has as its
fruits that sort of paranoia. But an
informed reading can give one directions for escaping a seemingly
So, how do we get
outside Correlation? Isn’t it proof that
we have journals, blogs, and conferences, that Mormonism is thriving as an
Is the existence of parasites, maggots, and bloating gases
evidence that a corpse is alive? There
may be life there, but a corpse is a corpse.
What are you saying?
Let’s take the basic assertion that there is a Mormon
Studies. Just because one has the name
of Mormon Studies, that is no reason to assume it is the same sort of thing
that other people call “X Studies”. Anymore
than, this article is or is not Correlated, so that means I can read something
else into the text. This is a point, an
argument even, that I made in an article posted on this site (Bananality of Mormon Studies). Unfortunately, the post was taken over by a
proponent of Mormon Studies, who proved something: in the action of reading my
work as a way of reading my soul (the review of me/my work was titled, D.Smith
is a Sinner, though later it was admitted by the author that he hadn’t read
much of what I’d actually written).
That what folks call Mormon Studies is nothing like, say,
African or Jewish Studies. That is, peer
reviewed by tenured or tenure-track faculty whose primary focus is the
research, its progress and regulation by factors outside the immediate sphere
of the researchers themselves. There are
always personal politics in academia, but there is also, always, original
research. That is, a complex interaction
of dependencies and independencies which ensure that, over time, consensus can
be used as a sign of an increase in knowledge on a subject.
Consensus is a sign?
Yes, but not always.
In Mormon Studies we have carved out many little circles for finding
consensus, and taken these as signs of increased knowledge of the subject at
hand. But this is not the case. For example, I recently read a blog post that
listed all the journals devoted to Mormon Studies, in one fashion or
another. The conclusion, hastily given
and poorly thought out, was that this is a sign of a thriving intellectual
community. Hardly so. It could be; if there was just sooo much
research being done on a subject, that no single journal could publish all the
results. But that isn’t the case. What we have are hobbyists and amateurs,
pulled from a potential market of maybe a million readers, who get on a
hobby-horse, and write about it. Mere
quantity means nothing, but a sizable market.
Their inspiration typically comes from a single journal, which is then
the target site for publication. But
given enough people, and donors, or enough wealth aggregation, and a
potentially unlimited subject matter vaguely glossed by the phrase Mormon
Studies, given all these, one should not be surprised that many journals exist
which have as their purpose the publication of texts which contain the words
“Mormon” in them, and which have citation expectations, and a passive narrative
voice. Merely imitating various
scholarly genres, and the market makes the self-deception possible.
Yes, well, consensus within a community of scholars – a
combination of academics, professional researchers at labs, policy makers and
so on – is taken as a sign of more or less certain knowledge. Evolution, in one form or another, for
example, cannot seriously be doubted, and even if certain soft points exist in
the overall claims of the theory, that is precisely why it is called a theory,
and not a fact. A fact names a single
proposition which describes a simple reality, easily evidenced to the senses; a
theory names a series of related facts, and so by its nature cannot be grasped
at a glance. So the “truth” or
validation of a theory is only the thing left over after many attempts at
breaking it, at disproving it. The
consensus stands in where the “truth” is merely silent, and gives pointers to
new students, journalists, and the like, who’d like to start to understand the
subject. What is missing in Mormon
Studies, among other things which would make it a legitimate scholarly
endeavor, is this arrangement that consensus induces reason to believe in a
theory, because consensus is manufacturable here, by means other than invalidation
over a long period of time.
I don’t get it.
I can’t make it much simpler for you, but I will provide
examples. But don’t get bogged down in
what are pedagogic exemplars, and confuse them for evidence I am marshalling
for the theory. OK?
Got it. Not really, but go ahead.
Fine. I can’t teach
you everything to be learned by cultural anthropology, but I can analyze
Mormonism, if you let me. Look at Mormon
Fundamentalism as an example of Mormon Studies.
The same processes are at work, and indeed, the only difference is that
they called themselves Fundamentalists (on a poorly understood analogy with
Christians), rather than Scholars. But
look at the details, and not the names.
When the imagined community of Mormons turned plural marriage into a matter,
into a sign, of belief in Mormonism in general; and then, in public, a few
speakers imagined to be “leaders” publicly renounced this relationship by which
plural marriage was a sign of authentic believers, it made it possible to form
a coherent group which could imagine itself, and I mean by that any individual
“member” could imagine the group as existing, thinking, and so on; so the group
could imagine itself within the sign-relation previously accepted by
Mormons. But in order to maintain
consensus, and thus, oblige the imaginary as something which could passively
compel the sign-relation to continue, they had to sever certain communication
points with the other Mormons. So they
“broke off,” physically moved away sometimes, mostly stopped reading certain
journals, paying subscription fees, and participating in the rituals. And so, they become, over time, a place where
new consensus could be seemingly found.
That is, became a distinct culture (though actual consensus is
irrelevant; what I’m talking about is imaginable consensus, keep in mind).
OK. How is that like Mormon Studies?
It isn’t like it, it is very much the exact same thing, but
from a different era. An era which, in
fact, made possible the abuse of scholarship as a way to form “break off”
cliques, though now without the veneer of religious purposes. Mormon Studies is merely the latest
translation of the basic process of cultural division and reformulation; the
process is the same, but the names we give it differ. But don’t be fooled by names. Look to what is named, and you’ll see that
Mormon Studies is a breed of Mormon Fundamentalism.
Because they break
Not simply that.
Fundamentalism in Christianity was grounded in a way of reading the
Bible – the King James Version – which required closing communication channels
that seemed “outside” the faith: namely, the voice and writings of bible
scholars and biologists; those who questioned the referentiality of the tales
(and so, their authorship), and those who supplied new tales of origins. And
Fundamentalism was merely a strain of Protestantism, but rather than pose a
text against the priest, they posed a text against the latest cultural
authority who spoke from a position of power, in a language difficult to
understand. Now in Mormonism it works
rather differently, in the particulars, but the process is the same.
I’m listening. Really, I am.
Sure. Anyway. New spaces for reading “consensus” were
generated by Mormons in the 1930s, and theses were called sects, or
religions. New spaces were generated in
the 1960s, in part due to the low cost of paper, the ease of attending college,
a boom in young adults, and other utterly non-spiritual factors; in the 1960s
new spaces of consensus were manufactured, and these were the journals that
became the basis for people to claim the existence of Mormon Studies. The name, like that of Fundamentalism, came
long after the cultural divisions were securely in place. And the approach to reading, publishing, and
citing texts is very much the same in Mormon Studies.
But Mormon Studies is
different from apologetics, like FARMS.
Not anymore, and the fact they changed their name to Mormon
Studies Review merely gives the game away.
The name means nothing, obviously, except that most names are not owned
by some party who controls the usage.
Branding. Anyway. The first
unofficial, seemingly scholarly routes for writing about Mormonism and reaching
some sizable public (by that I mean, consisting of persons unknown, and of too
many persons to ever really know them all; hence, generic notions stand in as
“people” or a “church” or a “community”), the first ones were vaguely
conceived; once blatantly apologetic spaces appeared, the seeming scholarly
nature of the other spaces was secured. Like
the editorial page making objectivity a possible reading in other articles. Just like the polygamist fundamentalist
Mormon sects made possible the seeming normalcy of non-polygamist Mormons. Whatever the notions found outside Mormonism,
and remember that most Americans don’t distinguish polygamists from other
Mormons, whatever these views of Mormons, Mormons could conclude they were themselves
mainstream, normal, super-patriotic Americans, because at least they weren’t
like those Mormons. Just so, Mormon Studies could posture it
wasn’t like FARMS, and when it was clear that something like Correlation
existed, now the posture is that, We Aren’t Correlated! Funny, and foolish.
What about consensus,
Each little group requires a demonized alter ego group:
membership is found in the relationship among the “members,” and also in the
reading of different groups as being distinct.
Inside each group, as most anthropologists would tell you, the
differences are almost non-existent. Yet
each group is certain those other guys are totally different. Consensus in Mormonism is manufacturable in
ways it isn’t inside, say, academia, in particular, in the sciences. So we cannot read “consensus” as a sign of
anything other a seeming agreement in a small circle. More often than not, however, consensus is
merely a fiction read from the non-public presence of dissent. Since long before Correlation we’ve made
statements uttered in public the default for what is real, and so, a consensus
can be manufactured merely by public relations.
If one disagrees, one does so silently, or as an individual; because the
public spheres of Mormonism are not designed for individual dissent. To dissent publicly, as an individual, is to
speak for oneself, and not for the “group”.
And so, the trend after Correlation has been to quote some public
utterance, for this is a sure way to cover one’s ass, and to indicate that one
is not speaking as an individual, but as a member of a group. Enunciating the “mind” of the group, as it
were. But this has nothing whatsoever to
do with the truth, so much as ability to mobilize capital which can be used to
buy or manufacture new public spheres for the manufacture of consensus.
But there’s lots of
dissent, and it isn’t all consensus in Mormonism.
Obviously! But that’s
the point, is that the reality of things hardly matches up to the diagrams of
them, which images are then presupposed, acted against, and by reacting, given
life, even if founded on untruths. Many
dissenters in Mormon Studies merely founded new public spheres, so that their
“dissenting” voices were protected by the new seeming consensus of the new
community, and thus, what was once a dissenting voice becomes another orthodoxy
in another circle. And that is both
Fundamentalism and Mormon Studies.
apologetics, though. Doesn’t that differ
from Mormon Studies?
Not really. Here’s
why. An apologist has a stake in
research resulting in one outcome, versus another. They hardly convince anyone other than the
already convinced ,and so, their research takes on a ritualistic feel, a sort
of cultic power, because it borrows much from the priestly circles, and not
merely by defending them. If the
research doesn’t come out the preferred way, it doesn’t get published in the
apologist’s journal, or presented at their conferences. That is the basic criteria, and that differs
from science. Controversial findings are
difficult to publish in the sciences, but not if they are founded on
recognizably good methods, with good records and data, and rely on sound
reasoning. These become championed by
increasing numbers, particular by those not at the top of the field, until the
theory is accepted. But in apologetics,
the voices are already scripted, and there can be no negotiation, and there is
no interest in “compromise”.
No. That scripting
and silencing is merely the most obvious thing one can name Correlation, and
it’s easy, because it sounds evil to discriminate between voices. But Correlation in Mormonism, is more
profoundly, a way of imagining consensus, of imaging reactions to a text, that
a text (or a statement, talk, or whatever) says something about the speaker,
about his or her soul, and so, every text is not merely a conglomeration of
statements about the subject at hand. But
also, and more importantly, a sign of something about the speaker: about his or
her spirituality, obedience, or any other intangible thing referred to by
abstract nouns. Literally, a text can be
made to index anything about the speaker, in principle. That’s culture. And in Mormonism this is what Correlation
does, but without giving any firm way of reading a public text as a sign of a
I don’t get it.
I can’t teach you everything about Correlation here. You’ll have to read, and think, carefully on
your own. But look at it like this. What are the standards for getting something
I don’t know. Purity of doctrine, truth, and so on?
Not at all. There are
no standards, except that it doesn’t contradict a Correlator’s interpretation
of his little book of official sayings, officially constructed and handed out
by Correlation. That’s it. It’s very vague, and badly done, and that is
the point: there are no standards, which means this. Paranoia, imagining of what the standards
are, and so, self-Correlation is the norm.
That is, one must imagine what the text is going to say about oneself,
as read by persons both known and unknown.
Thus, the clearest way forward is to quote already published
That’s what they do in
Literature reviews are totally different. That is, when done correctly, a matter of
demonstrating coverage of reading, so that one isn’t merely duplicating
previous research. In Mormon Correlation,
citation is a way of ensuring that one is duplicating previous findings.
In Mormon Studies?
It depends, sometimes
more like the scholarly method, sometimes more like the Correlation way. Sometimes in the same journal, sometimes in
the same article or book. That’s the
problem. But look. My point is that Correlation is not a word for a single bad or good thing, which can
then be removed, undone, or foisted upon someone; but rather the word merely
names a small sample of a wide phenomenon in Mormonism, which is itself
commonly found in American culture. The
existence of the word makes it possible to imagine one is or is not
Correlated. But the problem is this:
people, individually or collectively, are not correlated, or correlatable; only
Doesn’t that mean by
having non-correlated channels for distributing texts, we can get beyond
Not at all. By text I mean, the way signs AND their
interpretation are put together; that is a text. A fundamentalist way of reading assumes that
a text is independent of the translation of it, and so, you find
fundamentalists in every stripe are those who insist they need not defend their
reading of a text, because their reading is IN the text.
In a way, it is.
Yes, and that is why it seems true to them. But the truth is more complex, and it is that
every interpretation is found in the text.
So every text means
No, no, no. By “text”
I mean the interpretation of a seemingly independent sign-configuration, to be
technical. So, yes, all
“interpretations” are found in the text, by definition; but that merely means
that we ought to spend our time justifying our reading against another’s, and
in finding rationale for justifying such, which can be used by persons capable of
devising alternate readings of a text, or, giving alternate texts from a single page
of writings. It should compel our
charity, not our desire for purity, orthodoxy, and so on. But it doesn’t give reason for “anything
goes,” or “it’s just opionions.” That simplification makes the law a matter of power, and that is just as
dangerous. We can come to agreement
about how to read a text, and that is what academic disciplines are: lines that
describe how agreements are made concerning “texts” that range from laboratory
results to English literature and the like.
That doesn’t exist in anything called Mormon Studies, that basic
agreement about how a text is to be read, argued about, and so on.
When we look for consensus in that way, then we have moved
toward creating a rational, mature Mormon Studies. That is not topical, or subject driven, or a genre imitation. But
rather, any “study” is an exceedingly difficult achievement only a few times seen in the
history of humanity. That science is now
so prevalent is merely a sign of the power of the truth, and not a sign of the
inevitability of consensus as a way of getting power. Think how scarce real science was, say, two
hundred years ago. A rare
accomplishment, just as democracy is.
Calling something democracy is no more a guarantee of democracy, than is
calling something “X studies” a sign of scholarship.
When, however, we demonize alternate interpretations as
evidence of perverse spirituality, or defunct souls, then we are merely looking
to break off and form our own little sect.
All of Mormon Studies, so called, is mostly Sectarianism, for that
reason. Having a public venue for saying
the word “Mormon,” inside the confines of an imitated genre (e.g., scientific
essay, personal essay, memoire, and so on), is not a sign of the existence of
Mormon Studies. It merely means that
there are enough people around to provide the capital required to keep the
space from collapsing (and given an ever widening gap between rich and poor,
fewer people are needed in order for a public sphere to inflate, and that is
one reason why wealth inequality is dangerous).
And enough people to seem like a community, that is, to be greater than
one’s personal sphere of friendship, to seem like it is composed of strangers,
strangers who can stand in and carry stereotypes. Like totems, that is. ‘We are this kind of people’ – that sort of
imagining is possible only when generic people exist, and generics can only
exist where one is not personally familiar with everyone claiming
membership. Wards, for example, don’t
have “identities” the same way that churches, nations, and corporations
do. Notice, also, that “corporate
culture” only became a term after corporations had branch offices, and more
employees than anyone could every know, in a lifetime. Generic persons become the blank pages on
which consensus can be inscribed.
And that is the truth
of Mormon Studies?
The truth? No. But, this is why the internet has boomed that
particular sect of Mormonism: because identities are utterly opaque, ambiguous,
and the number of members of a community often explicitly identified (e.g., 1456
users; 17 currently online); and start up costs are minimal. The numbers are there, but not anything else
by which actual persons could be known.
And so, the genericizing of people, and their carrying of a stereotypes,
is ramped up like never before. So is consensus
so much easier to imagine, as one can merely start a new blog, a new journal,
or conference, online, because the start-up costs are so little, compared to
what they were in the 1960s, or, the 1860s.
And so, consensus?
No longer a fair sign of anything, except the cheap start up
costs of public spheres where consensus can be postured at, and our inability
to have empathy and to understand one another.
Mormon Studies must develop around a different logic than that which
makes science something a student can step into, and be trained in, and
contribute to. One cannot merely start
up a biology journal, and get contributors, and seem to be on the same level
as, say, Nature. Though financial start up costs are minimal,
of course, there is vast cultural capital which must be present; think-tanks
and corporate funded “institutes” have the money, try to buy the cultural
capital, and sometimes succeed, but often at the cost of doing actual research.
You mean, the money
corrupts the research?
No, I mean, the cultural capital is at last acquired, and,
lo and behold! The journal accidentally publishes real research, despite what
the funders want, because there is an institutional framework in place that
came along with the cultural capital.
Propaganda cannot play with the sciences for very long before it becomes
either a joke or converts to doing legitimate work. Nothing like that exists in Mormon Studies.
And that is where Mormon Studies falters: we have no way of assessing or
reading Cultural Capital, except, by and large, if something seems “authorized”
or “approved” by “the Brethren” or “The Church.” That, my friend, the lack of cultural capital
being generated outside certain channels, and the ease with which financial
capital can be marshaled to give us new public spheres like blogs, that is why
there is no Mormon Studies. What counts, for, say, Dialogue, is not convertable in FARMS. There is no unifying currency.
You seem to have a
problem with amateurs. What’s your
You see, Mormon Studies thrives on amateurs, who have
hobbyhorses, and but little grasp of the process of scholarship (a grasp which
takes many years of practical labor to understand). They provide the capital for inflating public
spheres, and the audiences for the imagining of a public where consensus can be
found. And they inflate the number of
publications any single, new student would seemingly be required to read before
writing on a topic, without providing any institutionalized support for that
reading. Grad School gives stipends for
students to get their feet under them, to let them read and not produce anything. Mormon Studies lacks any institutional
support, unless you are being trained for seminary or institute, and those have
their own problems, of course. So, as a
result of the ease with which amateurs can “enter the market,” indeed are
forced to do so as amateurs and not as professionals; and the low costs of
starting up oneself as a Mormon Scholar; there is very little direction to the
entire endeavor, very little progress that can be pointed to, and, yet, many
journals, articles, blogs, conferences, and books exist. Hence, occupations with high wages, and some
downtime, are those most likely to produce Mormon Studies articles.
And software folks.
And retired guys. Old ladies. Bingo. All driven by intellectual property
litigation, copyright, IRAs, Finance, Social Security, and so on, just as the American economy
has been for three decades. One doesn’t
find auto workers or clerks writing on the Book of Mormon, or theology, or DNA. But one also doesn’t find many biologists
doing actual research on DNA and the Book of Mormon, so much as writing off the
cuff editorials on the subject, stuffed with enough to sound like the science
they regularly do. And one doesn’t find
those articles being published in scientific journals, so much as in Mormon Studies
venues. And all these amateurs inflate
the public spheres, and at a certain point the barriers for new amateurs to
enter into the sphere become too great, and then, another journal shows up. The start up capital is easier to acquire
than the cultural capital, you see. And
so the number of “members” of each sect is fixed, like any ward, and so every
Mormon journal and group-blog plateaus, because the start up costs for a new “sect”
are minimal. It’s not like you’re
apostate if you start a new blog, rather than a new church. But the difference is mostly in the words,
and not in the realities. Got it?
I do. Sort of.
Corpses are fertile, you see, but all the parasites,
maggots, and so on, are not signs of life.
So, are you saying
amateurs are maggots?
Jeez. Yep. That’s what I’m saying. I’m a bad person. You can read as much on many reviews of my
writing. Thanks for demonstrating the
basic problem of Mormon Studies.
NEXT TIME: Why
Archaeology Can Prove Nothing, And Amateur Mormon Apologists Who Read
Archaeology And Then Trot It Out, Are Unwise..