Like all conferences of the elite, the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature are theater. There’s a level of make-believe that goes into transitioning from our quotidian concerns to those befitting the sacred gathering. The #sblaar14 Twitter feed bears witness to participants changing in and out of character, from a journeyers delayed at the airport to an expert panelist.
Often we are pretty good at playing the part of the sage or the eager disciple. It’s hard for me to imagine that seemingly self-important traditions like conference gatherings would continue otherwise. But there are holes in our objectifying methods, moments where it becomes all too clear that we, too, are a discursive spectacle worthy of scrutiny.
Perhaps, this is why #SBLAAR14 bingo was a such a hit. The game sheet is akin to the notes from a theatrical workshop, remarking on those quirky affects that ruin the performative illusion.
This observation came to me when I saw that a White colleague had yet to check off the “accidental racism” square on her bingo sheet. I shared my disbelief by noting that just fifteen minutes prior, a White member of the SBL pulled me aside to learn how to navigate the conference hall. There was nothing out of the ordinary until he stopped mid-sentence and took notice of my name tag. Our meeting prompted him to forget what he had rehearsed, and forced him to improvise:
“Oh…you don’t work for the convention center, do you?”
To riff on Kanye West,
“If you picture events like a
bow black tie, what’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys. What’s the life expectancy of black guys? The system’s working effectively, that’s why!”
If you’re asking about my motivation, I assure you that it is not to call out any one particular form of discrimination. Rather, I aim to impress that such awkward moments reflect the reality that the so-called apolitical, discriminating objectivity claimed by the guild’s method actors needs work.
Other data might include the following tweets:
“So I pointed out that there were no women on the Q panel. Room fell silent, then defensive air kicked in. #sblaar14”
“We should play a new game at #sblaar14 called ‘homeless or aar’ in which we try to socially locate people on the street. #HomelessorAAR”
I don’t know the story behind the aforementioned tweets and prefer to think that their original contexts would assuage my concerns. But as is, the performances they represent leave something to be desired; do they not?
Let us not act as if the scholar’s claim of enlightenment is so different than those of the communities we choose to study. Critical inquiry would remind us that “all of the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Were we to remember and explore this, then we’d truly be playing our part.
Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.