Where’s Waldo?

This morning, a friend on Facebook used wordle.com to create a tag cloud for the online program book of the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR)–the largest professional association for scholars of religion. Another version is posted here.

It’s hardly a scientific or systematic representation of what scholars of religion work on, and I’d hate to draw too many conclusions about the field simply from the frequency of certain words’ appearances in panel titles, paper titles, and abstracts for papers. (E.g., “University” is so large surely because it appears in almost every presenter’s institutional affiliation, which appears with every paper in the program book.) However, noticing how tiny the word “theory” is (I leave it to you to find that particular Waldo), it prompted me to wonder what a tag cloud for a truly social scientific conference on religion might look like–one that studied people rather than the claims they make. That is, would we find “experience,” “theology,” “Christian,” and “God” so prominent, and “history,” “human,” “people,” “culture,” and “order” so small…?

Search the online program book for yourself–type in some interesting key words and see what you come up with.

Deep Impact

I remember a speaker who would hold the vowels in the first syllable of the word “meaning”–saying “meeee-ning”–signalling to the audience, I guess, that he really, really meant it, much like those who don’t just mean something, like when they extend either their good wishes or deep sympathies, but, instead add that they “sincerely mean” this or that. When it comes to the word “meaning,” I’ve noticed that lots of people do this in my academic field (the study of religion); often associating a hand gesture with this linguistic affectation: some sort of reaching out, maybe the hand slightly opened upward, as if loosely cupping and then displaying a precious object–somehow trying to signal, I gather, the extra mile that they are going to convey the significance of their words. But, despite the highlighting that they behaviorally give to their words, they are, after all, just words–sounds produced by the body and decoded (or encoded?) by ears and brains. Yet somehow, as listeners, we tend to think that they are actually meaningful, sounds and characters on a page or a computer screen that somehow carry this thing we call meaning (for example, did you notice my choice of “convey” two sentences ago? Much as when we “speak from the heart”…). As I’ve often told my students, you can’t hear or read your own language and not “hear” and “see” it as language, as having a meaning. Continue reading “Deep Impact”