A really big sinner, in my book. Now, I don’t know really much at all about the personal life of D. Smith, nor do I really care. But I do know a bit about his public scholarship and other writings, which reveal a grave sin, a seriously grave methodological sin. As an anthropologist, Smith has converted the object of his study into, an Object, incapable of any real form of subjectivity.
This review is in response to a recent blog post D. Smith put up in which he critiques the enterprise of Mormon Studies. Smith casts a highly negative view of the entire enterprise, from its participants, to its funders, to its publishers, which result in his belief that Mormon Studies is in an extremely dire situation whose redemption is far, far off. The evidence? D. Smith had to self-publish his own book blasting the beaurocracy. D. Smith doesn’t have a job because he is a Mormon and wrote about Mormons. D. Smith once got an essay rejected from Patheos.com.
Let me be clear. I share many of the overall concerns with D. Smith about the present and future state of Mormon studies. We agree that the lack of doctoral programs in Mormon Studies poses a problem for the future of the field. We agree that graduate students who do enter this field may face difficulty finding employment, whether they study at fancy schools or come out of official Mormon Studies programs (though this account is greatly exaggerated and ignores all the people who have done it). We also agree to a certain extent that scholarship on Mormonism is a little suspect for some in the academy, though this too I think is greatly exaggerated. We agree that there is some disagreement about what exactly Mormon Studies is. There have been whole conferences on this topic, so raising these questions here is not particularly new.
What is new is Smith’s particular account of how power operates in Mormonism, what he not-so-innocently calls the “Corporation,” or even more derisively, “the Correlated Fruit Company,” and his particular treatment of Mormon bloggers, scholars, and regular members who march, or will march, to the singular beat of the Correlation drum.
Smith seems to relish his “professional suicide,” in choosing to self-publish his Book of Mammon, a polemical indictment of the bureaucracy of the Church. He turns his doctoral research on the history and development of “Correlation,” at once a movement, a discourse, and a disciplining practice, into something which is inhuman, abstracted from human behavior, a Corporation. There are no humans here, only automatons. There is no humanity, only the Corporation. Subjects are simply COBs, TBMs, and “agents.” He offers us no glimpse into the heart, humanity, or explicable worldview of his objects, just reifies their status as the Other. Further, for Smith, there is no religion in the Church, no “spirit” in his terms. Mormon actions are only manifestations of the discourses of Corporation or Correlation.
Smith suffers from the classical problem in anthropology of situating oneself properly in relationship to one’s object of study. Now, the precise way in which to do this is up for debate within the field. The older models of a detached objectivity have indeed come under attack for both the colonialist privilege that is implied in the position of “observer,” as well as the failure to account for one’s own situatedness. Others have taken a controversial approach of insinuating oneself closely to one’s object of study, such as the case of Karen Mcarthy Brown in Mama Lola, who is initiated in voodoo as part of her ethnographic study. Jonathan Z. Smith’s sympathetic account of the Jonestown Massacre, which restored the robbed humanity to those “cult” members in “The Devil in Mr. Jones” provides the foundational charge of religious studies to explain religious subjects as humans. This is the ethos of the responsible scholar of religion.
In making Mormons the object of his study, Smith must attempt to navigate these treacherous waters, especially as one who putatively belongs to the community, the “insider-outsider.” While admitting that there is room for disagreement about the precise relationship that the observer should have with respect to the object of study (in this case Smith’s relationship to Mormons and Mormonism) I submit that where Smith ends up in this relationship easily falls outside of acceptability. He seems to long for a time when the subjects of anthropology couldn’t speak back, couldn’t speak for themselves. He wishes that Mormon Studies “was not guarded by its subjects.” Oh, the simpler time when anthropologists had free reign over their subjects and could freely publish whatever they wanted about them. (Because, what is apparently preventing Smith or perhaps some other unnamed professional scholars of Mormonism from publishing his work on Mormons in those Correlated-guarded presses like Yale, Oxford, Indiana, UofU, and even Signature is other Mormons?) Smith comments that one reviewer described his work as “throbbing invective.” Though the reviewer is unnamed, this impression is not difficult to derive from Smith’s prose, not only in Mammon, but in the blog post in question. Not exactly the approach scholars should take toward their subject, but when you’re Smith, invective defines the approach.
While anthropology and ethnography are often in the business of describing and accounting for the humanity of the “other,” Smith’s writing is designed to produce Mormons, “COBers,” and Mormon Studies scholars as the Other! At every turn he seeks to rob them of agency and humanity, in the grasp of “Correlation,” which like the panopticon, disciplines from afar. For instance, “let me explain why the Amateur is, in fact, an agent of the Correlated Fruit Company, otherwise called the Corporation.” The “Amateur” (in context, someone without the PhD in Athropology from ritzy school X) is nothing but a passive “agent” in the service of an agentless discourse. [Try disagreeing with him and he will instantly identify you as a Amateur and an agent of Correlation!]
This thesis is not only true of the reified and homogenous “Amateur,” but is true of the scholars and the bloggers as well. The major thesis that Smith advances here, and elsewhere, is that “online venues not directly funded by the Corporation’s widows’ mites would increasingly self-Correlate.” This indeed is an interesting idea, one which it would be great if he had any evidence. He doesn’t. It is, of course, his imagination of “the future,” and perhaps should be treated as such. The problem is that he believes that this is a future that is already present. Even Mormon scholars are drawn like moths to the flame of Correlation’s power: “[Mormon Studies] is often an auxiliary of the Public Relations Department…”
This account of power, however, is undercut in his own analysis of Mormon scholarship. Though this escape from power is only temporary. It will, Smith prognosticates, eventually be subjected to Correlation. He seems to simply dismiss the challenges to its authority offered by Mormon Studies: “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…” This is as much credit as he ever gives to Mormon Studes, a “false solution,” waiting to be coopted by the Church, something which strokes one’s own ego and fails to face “any terrifying thoughts.” Don’t be coy; tell us what you really think!
Yet, Smith acknowledges Mormon Studies as aimed at “change,” (whether this is really the goal of scholarship about Mormonism remains open to serious debate, though this point is key to getting at what Smith sees as so wrong with it). Quickly, the myth of the all-powerful, agentless Correlation must be reasserted. Smith doesn’t tell us that he is the wizard behind the curtain, insisting on its authority even while admitting it doesn’t have any authority here. He must quickly turn to a petty typographical mistake in Flake’s work as proof that Mormon scholars simply aren’t up to the task of resisting “Correlation.”
The problem, of course, is that not only is the kind of account of human behavior and of the operations of power empirically problematic, but it is not even an accurate account of Foucault’s understanding of the multiplicity of power, that discourses are constantly in flux. Or de Certeau’s account of the tension between discourse and practice. Or Butler’s treatment of the irreducibility of power to normative discourse because of the persistent threat of resignification. Or pretty much any analysis of power that sees the kind of totalitarian homogeneity that Smith sees in Mormonism as ultimately fictitious.
He does have a PhD, did he tell you? Strangely, as he offers evidence for the failure of Mormon Studies, Smith puts forth his own failures as the key evidence. When his “analysis” is rejected by two LDS editors at Patheos (one a trained religious enthnographer), it is because they too are simply passive agents of the COB. When he is rejected from his employment for the Church, it is somehow related to his hazy memory where he was “warned never to do any actual work,” because, we are to understand, had he done “actual work,” he would have disrupted the monological “Narrative.” When he is rejected from full-time academic work, it too is because of Mormonism, his own and that of his scholarship (never mind all the Mormons who are able to travel these waters just fine. Only D. Michael Quinn is worthy of mention). When his self-published book fails to be a runaway hit, reviewed in the papers and radio stations, and is not embraced by those who care “what really goes on in the headquarters of the religion of the majority of Utahns” (though he insists that what “really” went on may be fact or fiction. He won’t tell you. You decide!), it is just because most of the reviews are dullards. None of these failures could possibly have anything to do with one D. Smith, according to D. Smith.
Does the issue of beaurocracy in the Church deserve real scrutiny? Yes. Does a critical analysis of correlationism warrant sustained research and attention? Absolutely. Will an approach like that offered by D. Smith be taken seriously by scholars, especially scholars of religion? Hopefully not. For until Smith actually understands Derrida’s notion of iterability, and the ways in which the power of the church he sees as so monological is always tenuous and subject to resignification, which coincidentally, is precisely the point needed to restore humanity to his subject, his account of the Church and its power will remain woefully undertheorized. I wish for his repentance, not to return to some spiritual state, but to return to academic sense, to stop pretending as if it is anthropology that has led him to where he is when he is abusing the role anthropologists have as guardians of the humanity of human beings, to impart humanity to its subjects, not take it away.