Response to Hughes and Warne’s Death by Area Studies

In response to this, I wrote the following comment: 

I think the post’s authors have misfired in this post and misfired at the wrong target. While, their experiences at Canadian universities sound difficult given the training they’ve received, I believe there is something other than “Area Studies” (a redundant and derogatory term for cultural geography) going on here. In times of economic crisis, departments and schools will retreat to conservative hiring ground, unaware perhaps of the larger consequence to those who have dedicated their studies to other areas. In the current economic crisis in Europe, universities are devaluing the humanities more broadly, with particular attention for those that provide immanent and oftentimes minimal critique of neoliberal policies. This I believe ought to be the authors’ real target here. It extends from hiring policies, to the fencing off of the academic commons to the devaluation of the basic principles of teaching.

In a more specific frame however, I have a real issue with the framing of their phrasing that this narrowing will “boundary…data in such a way that the “meta-questions” and critical discourses that characterize much of current intellectual discussion, intentionally or not, will be discouraged or overshadowed, much as Christian studies (theology) overshadowed the field in years past.” Now, I am not sure why Christianity is aligned with theology here but that’s another day’s argument. Critical discourses do not arise in a vacuum but are themselves products of specific forms of knowledge production which can equate criticism with some unreconstructed form of Enlightenment. Much “current intellectual discussion” that passes for critical reflection is made irrelevant by its own abstraction. Meta questions are bloody brilliant but they ought to be ground out in an excavation of the present conditions as we find them. Religious Studies (inexplicably bracketed at the top of the post) belongs to no one discipline or field of study. It is often difficult to get sociologists of religion to attribute any meaning to the spatial relations inherent in religious landscapes (hence my aversion to Area Studies). ‘All places are the same except when practices occur in different places’ is the common refrain. We need a little more inter-disciplinary solidarity if we are to have any chance at connecting with the reversion to the “traditions” turn.

Having said all of this, there is much of value here in this post but it needs to be connected with a couple of broader issues of relevance to the ‘meaning of the academy’ we keep seem to be having.