Tag Archives: Jonathan Z. Smith

Setting Terms

I never met Jonathan Z. Smith, although he was hard to miss at conferences. By the time I was a doctoral student his writings were deemed essential reading in several areas of religious studies. Smith, like a few renegade scholars, had doctoral training in one area but went on to teach himself far more diverse subjects, earning him rare accolades as someone who understood a vast amount about religion. That’s something you can do if you have a university willing to back you up. The usual formula for academic success (degrees from Ivy League schools, one of which must be Harvard, dissertation published by Oxford University Press, and letters of recommendation from one or two key players) encourages extreme specialization. Siloed thinking. Only when you’ve found a school that believes in you can you branch out like Smith did. Like most people in my field, I’ve read his stuff.

Scholars can be remarkably naive about how “the system” works. Most, for instance, don’t know that Academia.edu is a for-profit website. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; most of my old papers are available on Academia. The thing is, publishers may not want you to post your research there. You see, academics often believe the results of their research should be free. Thing is, someone has to pay for publishing it. It’s not cheap to publish books or journals. Undercutting a publisher may seem like fun, but then the book prices go up and everybody’s mad. These things are interconnected. Jonathan Z. Smith would’ve understood that.

For reasons poorly comprehended, some academics get publishers’ eyes and they want to build this person up. It may be—more than likely is—that an early book sold well. Nothing says academic veracity like lucre. The more books printed with one’s name on them, the better known said scholar becomes. Some even make it to the level of public intellectuals. It’s not a journey over which an individual has much control. Quite often it’s the support structures offered—steady, tenure-track job, ready acceptance at prestige presses, media exposure. Smith, like my doctoral advisor John C. L. Gibson, never used a computer. Try to get a university post today with that stance. I dare you. He set his own terms. In a world where being an academic means knowing an awful lot about a very little, the shadow of those who’ve earned the right to say a lot about a lot lies long on the ground. But it’s a good idea to ask your publisher before you decide to post things on Academia. Be informed about this little bit.

Not Devil’s Tower

The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.

The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.

“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.