Podcasts have become increasingly popular in academia, probably due to the increasing availability of technology across many Universities in the U.S. as well as abroad. For example, I’ve recently been listing to Invisibilia on NPR as well as a variety of podcasts produced by the Religious Studies Project. In my own graduate cohort we are currently in the process of creating our own episode of the department’s podcast Studying Religion. Under the guidance of Dr. Mike Altman, in one of our two foundations courses this Fall, we have begun learning the standard methods for creating a podcast, also benefiting from the advice of a digital expert at the University of Alabama.
Being the only one in our group to have produced podcasts in the past, I had a few pro tips for the others, such as how to save time (and, if you’re not affiliated with a university and lack resources, how to save money too!) in the production of a podcast. Most notably, I mentioned to my colleagues that a closet full of clothes, with the door closed, could function perfectly well as a recording studio, to which the expert at UA replied that while a closet could certainly fulfill that function the recording studio is ideal.
Naturally, the social theorist in me began to wonder what interests go into identifying something as a ‘recording studio’. Could it be the structure of the room itself? I think not, for both my closet and the ‘studio’ are ostensibly identical in structure in that they are rooms with four walls, no windows and a single door. So, could it be the content perhaps? Maybe, although beyond whatever high tech recording equipment it might have, the studio has noise-suppressing padding that is pretty much identical to my clothes, in that they are just objects that to fulfill the same purpose (i.e., suppressing sound). So instead of seeing them as all that different, I would like to suggest that the recording studio is only a recording studio, and my closet is only my closet, because we arbitrarily label them as such.
Sure, the recording studio that we’ve booked at UA may provide a public space that is more comfortable for collaborative podcasts (yes, it’s a little larger than my closet), but I remain convinced that there is no inherent quality or essence to the recording studio that demands that it be labeled as such within our system of language; it is only a ‘recording studio’ because we authorize that particular string of phonemes to create a word that we agree refers to an item in our material reality.
After all, doesn’t Marc Maron record his famous podcast in his garage—err…, his recording studio?
Although language is an established system it is always evolving; it is social and thus collaborative, with no single agent to which it can be traced. Thus, no labels within language – whether recording studio or closet – refer to any static phenomena or natural object outside of language or discourse. Yet, despite claiming this, as scholars we often draw on bits of language as though they have a viable or obvious trans-historical meaning. ‘Religion’ is one such word sometimes taken to have a self-evident meaning that does not require temporal nor contextual elaboration (the old “I know it when I see it” school of thought). But, if we can posit that this word religion – like that other term, recording studio – only appears to refer to something outside of language because we authorize it to, because we use it that way, then perhaps we can begin to understand why it is problematic to make assumptions about the existence of something called ‘World Religions’ within the academic study of religion—as if they’re just out there, somewhere. And perhaps we can also understand how some might want to study how language (and the institutions in which it functions) is used to delineate not only religious from secular but particular factions of religions from one another, as if this one is more authentic, proper, or maybe even ideal, than that one.
But, who am I to tell you what to think about your notion of religion? After all, I’m some grad student who records podcasts in her closet, or should I say her home recording studio…?