Below you’ll find an Older Essay written for MainStreetPlaza
The Bananality of Mormon Studies: A Personal Encounter
T’other day: during a jaunt through a simmering intellectual salon called Facebook, I learned that by adding a flavored pudding mix to one’s banana-bread dough, why, the resultant increase in relative moisture renders the final product altogether de-light-ful. Here I too strive by way of personal anecdote and even cultural analysis to add something like that secret pudding mix secret to the banana bread that has become Mormon Studies; or is it reversed? To the Mormon Studies that has become so much banana bread, I mean to say, I hope to mix insight into how it has become rather moister of late, and not, you see, because some priest has cast it upon the waters. Anyway.
Now, that metaphor has some leftover utility, just like spotted bananas my kids sneer at, unless concealed by cake. What should we do with all these belearned Mormons, many with post-graduate education, and many more graduates of professional schools, eager to learn lesser educated Saints how to acquire the baubles of intellect and without concealing the garish flair of faith. These green bananas, let’s say. Become a Mormon Scholar! Or, a Mormon who studies Mormons and or Mormonism, historicosociologotheologiphilosophically speaking. Grow one’s Faith, and even get published was the basic premise when it all started.
The vast majority of practitioners of Mormon Study are amateurs, I mean to say. Green. And what of it, elitist schmuck, is not this the Age of the Amateur? Indeed. Having devoted the better part of my adult years to the actual study of Mormon culture, language, and history, having even got a PhD for my troubles, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, let me explain why the Amateur is, in fact, an agent of the Correlated Fruit Company, otherwise called the Corporation. Some call it, wrongly, The Church.
A personal account, then. Before nightly slaving away on the index of my dissertation, I was by day employed to conduct media research for a subsidiary of the Corporation, for the Presiding Bishop, the CPB for those in the know. I worked at the COB, the Church Office Building. I was to assess the cultural and spiritual effects of media produced in the Audiovisual Department. Sounds exciting, I know, but peel back the peel. It was a miserable job, in no small part because I was warned never to do any actual work (or that’s how I recall it now), and before I was “laid off” in December of that year I was creating online surveys that measured the impact of a training film designed to teach Temple Engineers how to check the batteries on smoke alarms. Really.
So, I ended up teaching college for a few years. Then I became a convenient plug for gaps in the departmental budget. Removing me, that is. Yet, while Visiting Assistant Professor I managed to knock out not only a draft of a book about the way grammar shapes speculative imagination, but also got several chapters deep into a novel concerning an 1880s polygamist baseball club in Utah Territory. And I wrote what eventually was titled The Book of Mammon.
Again finding myself unemployed, I dutifully twisted the work into something utterly unpublishable, unning man and book alike. Sent the manuscript to a Mormon publisher, just to be sure no one would indeed ever publish it (or read it, if published). Thanks but no thanks. I sent the MS to a few friends, and some rather liked it. Having recently dealt with another editor at a quasi-academic press who suggested I “play up the coltishness of the religion” (I doubt “colt” was a pun), and another copy editor who changed an academic essay to read “antipolygame” where I apparently misspelled “anti-polygamy,” why, I bethought myself, who needs these guys? So I decided to … wait, pretend you’re a bishop in the Church of Academia, OK? I decided to publish the book. Myself. It feels good to confess that sin. I illustrated it, designed the cover, and so on. Called it an “independently published book” in hopes that it might borrow something of the cachet of independent film.
Copies were sent to prominent persons of high rank in Mormon Studies Circles. Some held high seats in Bloggernacledom. One replied that though it was fucking brilliant, I had written a book that should never be published. Professional suicide was kindly given and probably fair prognostication. Others ignored it. One threatened to quit a particular blog if a review ran. An undergraduate said it was full of hubris. A legitimate scholar wrote a review, or rather, a “review” that warned, though I am an Angry Man, and it an Angry Book, Mormons should give me an ear nonetheless. This reviewer forgot to mention that the book was about the culture and recent history of the Church Office Building, where I also worked; but that theme was, I suppose, an oblique sentiment silenced by throbbing invective. A friend with rather better social skills proposed the review not be posted, anywhere. MSM bore similar non-fruits. Mammon was, of course, rejected as altogether unsuitable for discussion at the liberal Salt Lake Tribune, on Utah Public Radio stations, and other media outlets apparently uninterested in the corporate side of Mormonism. I mean, who cares what really goes on in the headquarters of the religion of the majority of Utahns? Here the bananas took on a distinctly yeller, or maybe just jaundiced, cast.
Andrew Ainsworth at Mormonstories.com kindly interviewed me for four hours, and MSP also posted an interview. Then, the big break. The portal keeper at Patheos.com invited me to submit an essay, “off-the-cuff and not too academic,” scrying the Future of Correlation. It was for their upcoming Future of Mormonism series, and as I had a (apparently unread) dissertation on the history of Correlation, I was deemed both faithful and credentialed. The essay was sent on a Friday at deadline, its author hoping the Portal Keeper would post it without a glance. I heard nothing other than thanks, and waited until Monday for it to post. Would they really post an essay that suggested the LDS Church would become virtual religion, its Prophet updating His Facebook Status to read Prophesying? The Editor, Supervisor of the Keeper, suggested that day I revise the essay because it was too oblique, and perhaps a bit sly for the presumed readers. Revised, dumbed down, lamed up, altogether crippled of humor, the revised essay was marched out. Much more in line with the others, Editor replied, great work, just a little copy-editing. Next day I was told the essay was too much an angry one-sided rant, its tone not at all in key if it was to sing with the choir there. So I revised, counseled the work, twelve-stepped it, resubmitted. Nothing. Perhaps, I replied, you might indicate the offending passages? No. Perhaps the employment of the Portal Keeper as a half-educated Priestcrafter in the Church Education System has something to do with the sudden turn to “tone” as the essay’s irresolveable and unspeakable problem? Editor replied that s/he knew not of what I spoke. I sent a link to the CES catalogue wherein Brother Keeper was listed as teaching Book of Mormon this fall at the local institute. That was the end of our dialogue. Perhaps the author’s bio was finally glanced at, and Mammon was noticed. The banana had shown its spots.
So? In the essay about “The Future” I suggested that online venues not directly funded by the Corporation’s widows’ mites would increasingly self-Correlate; that is, conduct discursive surveillance and patrol the borders of the sayable. Why? Correlation is a term for a genre whose contours shift, and thus whose “pragmatics” as we say in anthropology, whose social effects, are measured in practical ways every Sunday, every home teaching, every FHE. What is appropriate is vaguely defined, and that means those with cultural power get to say what is Correlated; failing that, what is not offensive to one’s neighbor, real or imagined, can be the measuring stick of Correlated.
What can be said about Correlation is also likened unto the phrase Mormon Studies. It has no definition; it has only defenders of an undefined ideal. An ideal even more dependent on uses of language, under assault by imagined enemies: Anti-Mormons, and The Overly Faithful (TBMs?). All three are merely projections, stereotypes, from discursive acts disseminated by identifiable outlets (e.g., ULHM, Deseret Book, Dialogue), and in the future I hope to read an excellent dissertation on their interdependent development. Each genre offers medicines for venal diseases contracted when one’s mind lingered too long in a dark alley, the back pew, or some frottageal dorm. Each genre of Mormon discourse seems to engender more disbelievers in, than converts to, its cause.
Thus further self-correlation is prescribed, and reactions emerge.
Mormon Studies is something like a half yellow, half green, prematurely spotted banana, when unpeeled reveals bruising enough to inedible but to the desperatest of apes; or to be no banana at all, but something merely bananal. It is the ape of academia, the hooting jackanapes of the Corporation, and the jack-in-the-box of the AntiMormon. Verily witness the trinity, three in one, one in three. A mystery, without shape or form, passions or art. Like “The Church,” a name tossed about but which in practice names nothing tangible; only a way that is neither straight nor narrow, but curved and yellow, not forever durable but rather set to expire three days from the date of purchase. These are slogans. Tweet away.
I mean to say this: The name “Mormon Studies” apes on Cultural Studies, but does so without the architecture of its better angel. There are no tenured professors to train the next generation, rigorously but fairly in the ways of serious analysis, research, and writing. What of the much ballyhooed Chairs in Mormon Studies, or Masters Programs? Chairs are the enemy of Mormon Studies, for Chairs are given to professors preferred by benefactors; the market holds sway there. Without the protection of tenure, and a funding source independent of the subject studied by the Chaired, such positions are to Mormon Studies what Swiftboat Veterans For Truth are to documentary film. Masters Programs without terminal doctoral degrees are akin to banana trees genetically modified to bear no fruit. Look good in a greenhouse, but don’t punch the ol’ meal ticket.
So Mormon Studiers have three options. First, cozening by the Corporation. Need I even say this option merely extends the work of Correlation already done freely by so many bloggers, editors, and essayists? Seekers after COB should sign up with CES and be done with it. There can be no middle ground where God is thought to punch in and hold conference calls; get in line or get out of the way, a social key easy to carry about in such places.
Second, part-timering the Mormon scholarship while buttering one’s bread with serious work in other fields: lawyering, selling, knitting, whatever. This is often good enough for God, as Book of Mormon prophets, at least, ate bread earned by sweat rather than got by taxation. But. Half of one’s heart being given to a work grows only half-hearted work; no matter how many late nights and early mornings one devotes, it generally remains a hobby. Perhaps one blogs while pursuing degrees in some distantly related fields or paying occupations, attends or even presents at some conference that is not General but nevertheless faith-promoting. The damage done by hobbyists can be seen at the MHA, for example. Tiny obsessions, perhaps one’s great-granddaddy’s milch cow versifications, are allowed so long as they do not disturb The Narrative chanted by the Church History Department and its echoers. Sure, a little controversy is required, but nothing that would question the basic purity of the journal, the conference, or the blog. Hobbyists believe that sincerity, pluck and pure determination supplement a lack of training, earned craftsmanship, and the need for total sacrifice to the discipline. Thus Correlation emerges while hobbyists remain, content to lead lesser Weekenders.
Third, attempting to write serious scholarship with an eye single to Mormonism. Sound promising? Give D. Michael Quinn, no meager scholar, a call. I was asked by a dean during a job interview if I was a Mormon; he being Evangelical noted certain facts on my CV. I was told by a colleague too, that if I only downplayed my research on Mormonism, my attendance at the U of Utah, my last name, I would be on the tenure track. Despite millions spent on PR, Mormons remain a most despised religious group, equally so on the Left and the Right hand. We should content ourselves with the knowledge that the Spirit of Contention flees when these opposed parties slander Mormons. Replace the word “Mormon” where it occurs in daily conversations around the nation’s campuses and offices with the word “Jew” and one has grounds for censure. Otherwise, chortles ensue.
If you can convince academia that Mormons are legitimate subjects for study, and that you can do it without preaching or cryptoconverting, you are a better scholar-actor than I. Or you are clearly not Mormon, say, B. Carmen Hardy, one of the few outsiders who doesn’t try to write as an insider (Jan Shipps, anyone?) and who also does brilliant work. If you can convince the Utah State Legislature that your proposed major leading to advanced degrees in Mormon Studies is worth funding, despite the subject-independent stances necessarily taken by your students, your program is already DOA when it comes to respected scholarship. Outside Utah all of Utah is Mormon, and that means rejection letters. Your graduates will adjunct in your department.
There are no options, I mean to say, for Mormon Studies. It’s a genre, not a discipline. Mormon Studies is now the ghetto of Correlation, for it is cheaply built (relative to the Corporation’s expenses) and far away, and not offensive enough for a pogrom. It is often an auxiliary of the Public Relations Department, and getting at the Truth is not really in their job description. Just like the word “The Church,” or Correlation, it too has no single referent. Thus it gains sense only as a tool: to slap with, to lament its impotency, hardly visible but when extending already existing Powers. It is a word for Unofficially Correlated, for Hobby, for Woefully Naïve, and the reasons are obvious. The only groups with real interest, that is, interest enough to pony up for scholarship, are the Antis and the Corporation (and subsidiaries like BYU). They have interests in the conclusions reached, they imagine converts come from your pens. Mormon Studies is a word for not-quite-passionate-enough to be Anti, not quite self-referential enough to be faith-promoting. So, what’s the point, you might be asking? Not about this essay, I assume that was asked some time ago, but the point of Mormon Studies?
Bananas pair well with milk, but never with meat. Another slogan, perhaps, but there’s religion for ye. The point of Mormon Studies? Just as the phrase refers to many distinct discursive practices, the purposes are likewise varied. To create a “faith” that seems free of official propaganda, or a “community” where the “mind” is valued, in short, to design a falsely secular solution to spiritual malaise; to change the course of the Church, that is, until one gets a Red and High Seat; to enrich the gospel with unofficial resources (“Hegel, Whitehead, or Peirce, anyone?”) that are all too easy to Correlate; to write a navel-gazing thesis; to be a big fish in a small pond (“Given this, let me mention Bakhtin/Kant/Foucault, but not face any terrifying thoughts”); to revise our History in the image of the Present (Kathleen Flake’s inconceivably championed pamphlet on the Smoot hearings and train rides thereabout provides plenty of evidence contradictory to its “thesis,” and even captions a photograph of the Joseph Smith Memorial as, ironically, raised to the memory of “Joseph F. Smith” (pictured, no less; see p.113).
What can be the effect of Mormon Studies? Until a generation of tenured scholars cranks out research read by students in the discipline, and then by “natives” who may squirm, and journals and Chairs are independent of benefactors, subscription or donation; until there is evidence satisfactory to academia that Mormons can write without ulterior motive about Mormons and Mormonism, the point of Mormon Studies seems to be: to stroke one’s ego where Church has left it unattended, or after unattending oneself from Church in mind or in body, to convince oneself that a community, any community, can’t be wrong. Either way, call its seed Correlation.
Meat doesn’t go with bananas; Cain made an offering of the field, Abel grilled fresh lamb. See where bananas got Cain? The gods, says Roberto Calasso, prefer the incense of burned flesh, and savor the salt wrung in our devotions. So let us return to my personal tale. The Book of Mammon exists, and that is enough for me. It’s no masterpiece, but its pretty good, I think. Sorta complex. I’d like people to read it, sure, but not people who have in interest in saying it says something it don’t say. It ain’t about bureaucracy, or validating Weberian typology, or an angry hypermasculine rant, or confirming the Divine Mind in Correlation. It’s about numbers; how numbers change things, make new things possible, like a new religion. It speaks to believers in some sort of Mormonism who can’t seem to find much to believe in at Church, and gives a few reasons for why the Spirit has apparently fled; or to non-believers who’d like to learn and laugh at the same time. Whatever. However, the book reveals fractures I never discerned before.
Before my experiment to publish independently, I believed the blogs independent from the Corporation. In truth their dependence is all the greater because the relationship to Official Mormonism, qua Correlation, remains uncertain. Mormon blogs are the eager beaver awkward and paranoid summer intern at the Corporation, trying extra hard because never convinced it will be asked on board, thanked, appreciated. The hard fact, obvious enough, is that blogs are no solution to the structural problems of Mormon Studies; in fact, blogs make its realization perhaps impossible, creating props for the closet unbeliever, stumbling blocks for others, and costuming in priestly robes the Bananarama called, wrongly, The Church.
In the spirit of Mormon Studies at its facilest, let me paraphrase Derrida, who said maybe tongue-in-cheek that we’ve reached a point in history where only the Messiah can save our asses. In a more defiant spirit, let me mention the opening scene of Thomas Pychon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Pirate Prentice after “pissing, without a thought in his head” and waiting in vain for the German rockets to hit his flat in England, enters a bananery, “among the pendulous bunches, among these yellow chandeliers, this tropical twilight. . . .” There follows banana mead, banana omelets, banana cassaroles, mashed bananas, banana blancmange, waffles, sandwiches, kreplach, croissants, oatmeal and jam, all banana; a “sharing of the conjuror’s secret” and more plainly, in the “high intricacy” of this communion eaten by pals, “it is not often Death is told so clearly to fuck off.” Until Mormons fear extermination, and this from someone other than our own determined, best of intentions People, Mormon Studies will remain another loaf of mealy bananality. Wrap in foil, share with neighbors; a gesture, bland and not offensive, a gift sometimes welcome; but lacking the good priestly rites, a quickening charity, leavening of flesh and heft of sacrifice that would send its image knocking, knocking on heaven’s door. Saint Peter’s first question? Is that a banana in your pocket, or are you just happy to see heaven?