I am very excited to be teaching the Big Questions course that is being rolled out with the newly revised Core Curriculum at Singapore Management University. Each year, the ‘Big Questions’ rotate themes. This year, it’s Happiness and Suffering. I’m told that next year will focus on ‘global and local.’
Some people have asked me how a geographer like me can teach such a philosophical course. I often respond with an answer that I once heard from a prominent feminist geographer as to what geographers do, that our readings are quite ‘intellectually promiscuous.’ Our discipline focuses on the examination of space, what it even is and how that interacts with human agents and non-human actors, so there is an element of theory that is shot through all of our work. I see teaching something like ‘happiness and suffering’ as an opportunity to move from the theoretical to the philosophical, to be invested not only in the applicability of ideas about space but also to test whether how we think about the basic concepts of feelings, affect, interiority, the self, and so on are even sound, even as we are interested in how they come to be deployed in space.
It is in this sense that I’ve articulated my sections of the course to be focused on the philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular dimensions of happiness and suffering. There is a field within academia called happiness studies that I understand to try to measure what happiness is, while alleviating suffering. What I want to do is to locate such discussions in a broader theoretical conversation about the structures of feeling and what Charles Taylor calls a secular age. In some ways, teaching the course in this way is, like all of my other colleagues who are trying out pedagogical pathways into this topic this year, a grand experiment to see whether these ideas will interest students who are faced with a real world in which they’ll have to work and build lives.
Teaching begins soon, so I must sign off on this update and keep up with my preparations. I’m very excited to meet my students.
I’m writing from the Hilton in San Francisco’s Union Square on this second day of the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting 2016, which this year takes place from March 28 to April 2. I’m happy to report that we had some very successful sessions yesterday for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group, and the events this week seem to be gathering momentum for geographies of religion to become increasingly mainstream within the discipline.
The paper I presented at this year’s AAG was titled ‘”Under a Vast Sky”: Religious Protest Art and Hong Kong Localism’s Demystification of Urban Ideologies.‘ Along with some brilliant graduate students Natalie Hyacinth (Royal Holloway, London) and Laura Cuch (University College London), I co-organized a series of incredibly well-attended sessions titled Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City (March 28). The sessions were titled: 1) Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion, 2) Exploring Faith Through Participatory Public-Engagement Art, and 3) Negotiating Difference and Urban Space; I chaired the first session and presented my paper in the third session.My abstract was as follows:
The 2014 Umbrella Movement democracy protests in Hong Kong have been noticed for their production of protest art featuring religious themes in makeshift street shrines and sanctuaries. I claim that such religious protest art, which has been a staple of Hong Kong urban heritage preservation (or ‘localist’) politics since the mid-2000s, offers geographers an opportunity to theorize the ontological nature of religion in global cities. While both religious and artistic production are often seen as belonging to the realm of the purely subjective (sometimes to the point of mystifying material processes), Hong Kong localists – usually describing themselves as a ‘post-80s’ and ‘post-90s’ younger generation – have attempted to use religious protest art since the mid-2000s to exegete the Hong Kong government’s urban vision of the Special Administrative Region as an international financial centre as itself a religious artistic vision, one that demolishes local Cantonese cultural geographies to make way for urban spectacles of conspicuous consumption. Based on ethnographic interviews conducted among 45 Hong Kong Christians in 2012 and an audiovisual archive collected from 2013-5, I argue that Hong Kong localist religious art demystifies the seemingly secular state vision of Hong Kong as a global capitalist city by exposing its theological logics. Localist religious protest art thus works against superstition by recasting the symbolism of the urban landscape in Hong Kong. This paper thus contributes to the creative study of religious cultural geographies by showing that reversing the conventional theoretical wisdom on ideology, as religious art reveals the secular as superstitious.
I am happy to have received some very good feedback and supportive comments, including from colleagues from Hong Kong, on this paper. But more as a point of pride, I’m ecstatic to say that this was among the most well-attended and diverse sessions in the history of GORABS. We had a series of excellent papers, as well as the honour of having Harriet Hawkins (Royal Holloway, London) and David Gilbert (Royal Holloway, London) as discussants to our second and third sessions.
This year, as the Chair of GORABS, I also organized a few more sessions, two of which have a time change for today. They are as follows:
GORABS ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, March 30, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.
GORABS BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.
On Thursday, March 31, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.
CHINATOWN WALKING FIELD TRIP:
This walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown covers the largest Chinatown in the United States. It will be of interest to geographers studying ethnicity, race, religion, and China. Food is available throughout, and much street shopping will be involved. The walking trip is sponsored jointly by the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems and China Geography Specialty Group. We will depart at 2 PM on Thursday, March 31, from the Taylor Street Entrance of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and will return to the same building at 4 PM.
Looking forward to seeing everyone in attendance this year – it’s been fun so far!
In the Vancouver Sun, Douglas Todd has given the Canadian public a fascinating discussion piece on the limits of liberal multicultural democracy. I’m quoted in the piece, so I thought I might offer a few critical reflections in light of what Todd says.
Todd’s piece takes its departure from what he describes as the rise of ‘religious extremists’ and what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls ‘homegrown religious radicals’ due to contemporary Canadian migration policy. Interviewing Liberal politician Ujjal Dosanjh and the Laurier Institute’s Farid Rohani, Todd finds these liberals of colour are themselves concerned that new migration trends to Canada are bringing more forms of abusive patriarchy within families, opposition to interracial and interreligious marriage, refusal to fit into the unspoken secular sartorial code in Canadian workplaces, and homophobic discrimination. On that last point, Todd reaches out in collegial fashion and quotes me: ‘Both Rohani and Dosanjh are aware of widespread anti-homosexual beliefs among many religious immigrants, which can lead to actual discrimination. And University of B.C.-trained scholar Justin Tse has cited the strong degree to which many Chinese Christian immigrants find Canada’s human rights laws regarding homosexuality “ridiculous.”’ The main point of the article, in turn, is that Canadian liberal democratic values are under strain from these new migrations and thus needed to be guarded more carefully. What’s smart about the article is that Todd seldom quotes from white Canadian public figures; all of the quotes are from people of colour, including me.
In many ways, Todd represents me fairly well. The attitude that Canadian human rights legislation is ‘ridiculous’ is a direct reference to my dissertation, which was cited in the South China Morning Post saying the same thing – that many of conservative Cantonese evangelicals with whom I spoke in Vancouver felt that Canadian human rights legislation was ‘ridiculous.’ That this is what my dissertation actually finds among conservative Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver means that I feel very well-quoted and thankful that Todd has reached out yet again in a such a fine showing of collegiality.
But because this is a discussion piece, I also feel that I’m allowed to register a bit of collegial dissent from Todd’s conclusions. This is because I think Todd and I, while recognizing each other as colleagues in the public forum, are working on two fundamentally different social projects.
While Todd makes the case that Canada has to guard its liberal multicultural democratic values, my project is to interrogate why it is that some migrants — in my case, some (but not all) Cantonese-speaking Protestants — were opposing the very liberal things that Todd wants to guard. I don’t pass judgment; I ask why. This is because the social (and arguably, political) thrust of my academic project is in many ways informed by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his call for mutlicultural societies to practice the ‘politics of recognition.’ What this means is that various communities in the modern world have taken on certain identities that they don’t want to be unrecognized or misrecognized; misrecognition, in fact, can be viewed as an insult. What we have to do, Taylor proposes, is to recognize the other — to get past simple disagreements to understand precisely how the other’s identity is formed and how that othered identity is in fact part of the ‘we’ in this society. Taylor himself has put that into political practice: at a time when controversy erupted in the mid-2000s over head-coverings in Quebec (as Todd notes about Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values, it’s still under contestation), Taylor teamed up with Gérard Bouchard to form a commission to get every voice possible on the record about the practice of multiculturalism/interculturalism in Quebec, including all the nasty stuff people wanted to say about the hijab, niqab, and sundry. The result was a report titled Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, in which Taylor and Bouchard painstakingly detail the problems with interculturalism in Quebec, report on every possible voice that they heard during their time on the commission, and propose that what’s needed is an open secularism, a sort of society where religion is not excluded but in fact included in everyday public deliberations.
In many ways, that’s what that section in my dissertation on Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver calling Canadian human rights legislation ‘ridiculous’ is trying to do. To stop at that assertion of ‘ridiculousness’ is to cut the project short right at the beginning. If you read the dissertation (yes, it is publicly accessible), you’ll find that my question then goes to why these Cantonese evangelicals thought that Canadian human rights legislation tended to be ‘ridiculous.’ As the South China Morning Post succinctly quoted me in May, it’s because the sort of rights-based legislation around sexuality (hate crime bills, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc.) went against a certain vision of a ‘rational, orderly society.’ As I discovered, this wasn’t so much a ‘culture’ thing — ‘Chineseness’ was frequently invoked and qualified by my interviewees — but aperformative agendathat understood best practices in civil society to be the creation of private, family-based economic units in which the second generation could be trained to become productive, private citizens in Canada. This means that sexuality is only the tip of the iceberg; other issues that contributed to what they might call the ‘irrationalization’ of society included the legalization of marijuana (medical or otherwise), harm-reduction drug treatment (some spoke of methadone; a few contested halfway houses in their neighbourhoods; most spoke of Vancouver’s inSite safe-injection program), the Anglican Church of Canada’s embrace of religious and sexual pluralism, and the building and expansion of casinos. The Cantonese evangelical public activism that propels this vision is certainly not un-Canadian; it is Chinese Christians wading into the fray of the partisan debates around what it means to be Canadian. That is, the fact that it is a socially conservative, privatized understanding of Canadianness does not make it un-Canadian; it makes it part of the debate around how Canada should be constituted as a nation.
My dissent, then, from Todd’s otherwise excellent, provocative discussion piece is that Todd seems to be portraying new immigrants, including the Chinese Christians that I studied, as bringing their religiously-based homeland politics to contest our hard-won liberal, multicultural, democratic Canadian values. But as my dissertation clearly states, the reasons that some Cantonese evangelicals thought that their rational, orderly vision of society was under assault tended to be modern and secular. It wasn’t a sort of backward homeland politics being imposed onto Canadian values. After all, this sort of politics of privatization comes from the need not to protect ‘culture,’ but as a business strategy in a globalizing world. This sort of rationality may be ideologically ‘conservative,’ but it is rooted in a very modern version of how society should operate. It may be theologically informed (as I argue elsewhere, what isn’t?!), but the reasons given for this rational, orderly society sound rather more to do with the very secular goal of maximizing private participation in the market economy. One may not agree with this sort of vision for a ‘rational, orderly society,’ especially one so rooted in the politics of privatization. But one cannot disagree that it is a vision.
In other words, I’m collegially dissenting from Todd’s piece because I don’t think that Canadians need to stand on guard for liberal, democratic, multicultural values. Instead, what’s more needed is a recognition that the ‘other’ is one of us, locked into the deliberations of democracy of which we are all a part. Contrary to Todd’s interview with Tung Chan in which Chan says that we need to ‘educate’ people and then let them go their merry way, this public deliberation is itself educative. It’s because it’s in deliberation — public, honest, open, and even heated deliberation (like the Bouchard-Taylor Report) — that we realize that the solution is never ideological entrenchment, but openness to the other as fellow citizens, persons even. Talking softens us. What perhaps needs emphasis is not so much the part of the national anthem to ‘stand on guard’ for Canada. It’s rather that if this is indeed ‘our home and native land,’ well, then, it is ours together. We need to keep talking.
My review focused on how Wilford’s book was put to work when Asian American evangelicals took Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren to task for an insensitive Facebook photo in September 2013. Recounting what took place leading up to the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church, I argued that Wilford’s book helped to nuance some of the on-the-ground conversation about Warren’s photo, helping those who were involved in the activism to understand that Warren situates himself within a distinctively Southern California postsuburban geography. The service that geographers like Wilford do for the community is to help make activism more precise, getting to the heart of issues and steering conversations in productive directions.
I want to thank Tristan for his hard work in pulling this review forum together. This forum originated as an ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ 2013 Annual Meeting; I was later invited by Tristan to step in to take one of the reviewers’ place. While I originally submitted a review to the forum prior to the activity around Warren’s photo, I decided to submit a new review after the activism that put the book itself to work on the ground. This was helpful because I have previously reviewed the book for Religious Studies Reviewand the AAG Review of Books, and I did not want to repeat myself. Focusing on activism gave me a fresh lens from which to look at Wilford’s book, and I’m thankful to Tristan for pulling it off so well. Many thanks to Justin Wilford for writing such a rich book. We are all indebted to his labours.
Let me tell you a little bit more about the talk, what prompted me to generate this topic, and why I’ve chosen to give it first at the Catholic Newman Center.
WHAT’S THE TALK ABOUT? The talk itself combines three conversations that are unlikely companions: anti-Catholicism in America, the same-sex marriage debate over the last two decades, and prospects for racial solidarity in the twenty-first century. The Roman Catholic Church in America and the proponents of marriage equality seem to have been locked in a die-hard zero sum game. On the Catholic side, there seems to be a push toward a more just society through religious freedom, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American prejudice toward Catholics. On the marriage equality side, there seems to be a push for more sexual equality, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American propensity toward heteronormativity. The discourse goes that if we overcome anti-Catholicism, we will have overcome “the last acceptable prejudice.” If we overcome barriers to marriage equality, we will have overcome “the last civil rights struggle.” The problem is that these two “lasts” seem locked in an epic battle to the finish.
My talk calls both sides to revisit the racialstruggles from which they both borrow. The trouble with the arguments on both sides seems to me that they both implicitly think that the struggle for racial justice is a done deal.
But is it? And if it isn’t, what new unlikely solidarities can be called forth? How have Catholic already been tied to racial and sexual justice movements? And if, as Andrea Smith would put it, new unlikely solidarities are developed (or have already been developed!), how would it reframe the epic “last” battle for equality?
WHY THIS TALK I’m a scholar who works on public spheres. Oftentimes, these publics are conceptualized as “secular.” I agree that publics might be secular if we were talking about secularization as a theological process. But if secular means that these publics are non-religious, then I think that’s a mistake.
I came to this conclusion while working on Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with the public sphere. It was there that I began thinking about the same-sex marriage debate, as many of my field subjects in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong were concerned with opposing same-sex marriage. Far from imposing their religious views onto the public sphere, though, they often adapted their arguments to be more secular so as to attempt to effect maximum impact.
The accusation that religion was entering the public sphere struck me as a very Catholic way of putting things. It reminded me of how many of the founding works in the social science of religion were in fact positioned against the Catholic Church; due to the work of folks like Andrew Greeley, however, I should note that this is much less the case nowadays. It led me to think more about how Catholics approached the marriage equality and religious freedom questions differently from their evangelical allies. It made me curious about how Catholics engage the public sphere differently from evangelicals and yet how they have worked together over the last thirty years.
There was also a lot of talk by the Cantonese Protestants about the race question, accusing LGBTIQ activists of basically stealing from race to advance their “special rights.” That made me think about how some LGBTIQ scholar-activists themselves (such as Judith Butler and Jasbir Puar) were themselves conflicted about whether advocating for things like marriage equality cast the race problem as essentially settled when it was not. At the same time, it made me ponder over whether the religious freedom activism also borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement. It made me think about how all of this talking about the “last acceptable prejudice” and the “last civil rights struggle” may have contributed to a Supreme Court decision like Shelby County v. Holder where race is seen as a done deal in comparison with more purportedly important and contemporary civil rights struggles.
The result is this talk, that is, my musings on topics beyond the scope of my immediate work, has direct bearing on my future work. I see this talk as a place to voice what I have been thinking about for a long time and to get a conversation about this unlikely bundle of topics going.
WHY THE NEWMAN It’s one thing to theorize all of this in the secular classroom, which I have been doing in my American religion class. There, we have dealt with anti-Catholicism, race, and sexuality issues. It’s another thing altogether to try this topic out on people with faith commitments.
That’s where the Newman comes in. Yes, I think my musings can be developed into an academic paper in a “secular age” (as Charles Taylor would put it), but the Catholic Newman Center is a place to try this out to make sure that Roman Catholics who very much obviously have a stake in the anti-Catholicism part of the talk might be able to give some feedback. With the references to Butler and Puar, I’d be just as happy to shop this around to LGBTIQ activists as well (some of whom, mind you, might also be Catholic).
However, I think there’s something particularly Catholic about this talk that I do want to highlight. It seems that what is intriguing about Catholicism as classically conceived might be its solidarity dimensions. It’s this that I want to explore in this talk.
Consider this an attempt to hear directly from the publics that I research about how I conduct my research. I look forward very much to this talk and especially to the conversation that will follow. My hope is that we will be able to imagine some unlikely solidarities that can be built in order to contribute to a more just and peaceful world.
With the successful completion and defence of my doctoral dissertation, I am pleased to announce that the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has sent me a note to tell me that I have completed all of the program requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Geography. This means that I officially have a PhD in hand. The degree will in turn be formally conferred at the next Spring Convocation in 2014.
I am happy to share the link for my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, from cIRcle, UBC’s online repository of theses and dissertations. I am in the process of finalizing the details as I start a postdoctoral fellowship externally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This will take place at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Professor James Wellman, Jr. I will be starting on a new postdoctoral project there (details forthcoming), and I will also be trying to turn this dissertation into a book while generating academic journal articles from it.
The defence took place at 9 AM on 3 December. After the chair read the rules (including the very ironic statement that ‘latecomers will not be admitted’), I gave a 25-minute presentation on my dissertation. This was followed by almost two hours of questions from each of the examiners; David Ley voiced the questions from the external, Paul Cloke. I passed the entire ordeal with minor revisions, which were completed in one day and then submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies with the approval of the committee. The dissertation was archived today.
The defence covered many of the fundamental points of the thesis’s overall argument. The dissertation set out to answer the question, What are the imaginations and practices that constitute the engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region? The argument was that most Cantonese Protestants unintentionally but inadvertently reinforced the secularization thesis as a theological practice when they engaged in such public activities because they tended to reinforce the privacy of religion while leveraging an essentialized ethnicity to maximize their impact on secular public spheres. Accordingly, most of the questions addressed this central question. Many asked me to defend my view that secularization and ‘religion’ are not binary opposites but fall under the rubric of ‘grounded theologies.’ Others poked into whether my assertion that transnational linkages between Hong Kong and the North American sites were sparse could be generated from the empirical material (it can, if one takes a grounded public/private split seriously, which forms the basis of my argument about secularization). Still others interrogated my spatial re-orientation of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ to signify how congregations relate spatially to their civil societies.
I am very grateful to each of the committee members for reading the thesis with such care. I am also extremely thankful for my friends who attended the defence and critically engaged me during the public discussion. I am told that few candidates have so many friends who attend, let alone ask such pointed–yet supportive–questions. These were from members of the community, one of which asked me to point hopeful ways forward for Cantonese Protestant theologies (revealing my very open positionality as a confessing and practicing Christian) and another of which asked me to relate my findings to parallels and contrasts with the black church (speaking into very interesting emerging conversations in theology about race and theology). For more about my personal theological practice, including my strange connection with the black church, see here.
I will emphasize that what it means that I have a PhD in hand is that now I am recognized by the academic community as someone who has demonstrated that I can do research and teach in my field. In other words, I am now officially qualified to learn more. This does not signify the end of things; it means that I’m at the very beginning of a very long journey. I have a lot more to learn, a lot more to think about, and a lot more to stay in conversation about. That I am revising the thesis into publications suggests that I will do much more thinking about the topic in addition and connection to my postdoctoral project, and for that, I will appreciate the chance to remain in conversation with those who are interested. The program is completed, but the conversation is just starting. I am grateful and excited.
POSTSCRIPT: for those who want to read the periodic updates I had on my program, they can be found here:
A note about what was on my comprehensive exams list in January 2011. The fields were 1) geographies of religion, secularization, and social theory, 2) ‘Pacific Worlds in Motion’: migration and ethnic studies (including a lengthy section on Asian American and Asian Canadian studies), and 3) Asia-Pacific urban geographies: political economic and social/cultural perspectives.
Passing the comprehensives and advancing to PhD Candidacy on 28 January 2011
Approval of the doctoral proposal (prospectus, for American students) on 31 March 2011
After the Hong Kong field work, I came back to write up the thesis. While publications emerged over the course of 2012-2013, I did not post any more updates because I was, frankly, writing, writing, and writing. A full draft was finished in August 2013. Comments from the supervisory committee arrived in late September 2013, and the final draft was submitted to the external for defence on 4 October. The defence then took place on 3 December, and the program requirements were completed on 9 December.
Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group Call for Papers AAG 2014: Tampa
The AAG’s Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group invites papers and session to be submitted for sponsorship for the AAG’s Annual Meeting in Tampa, FL in 2014.
GORABS promotes the use of religion as a geographical analytic. Historically, the group has focused on how religion impresses a human impact on the environment and vice versa. Complementing these environmental approaches, more recent work in geographies of religion have revealed that religion is a productive lens through which to understand and debate secularization processes, the intersection of religion in social identity formation, the role of religion in cultural processes of placemaking, and issues of religion in political geography. Geographers of religion are contributing to current conversations and challenges in race, gender, sexuality, age, migration studies, critical geopolitics, global development studies, political ecology, hauntological approaches, post-secularization, piety movements, evangelicalisms, and public religions. Religion has thus progressed beyond being an object of study or subject of inquiry in geography, but a way by which to practice human geography critically.
We are interested in papers and sessions that will push these emerging conversations further. Specific topics that we encourage incluude:
Gender, religion, and sexuality
Youth, childhood, and religion
Religion and migration
Critical geopolitics, critical development studies, and religion
Religion and post-humanist approaches
Debating approaches to religion and the environment: cultural geography and political ecology
Debating the post-secular
Geographies of evangelicalisms
Geographies of race and religion
Geographies of religion in Latin America
Geographies of ‘Asian’ religions
Papers and sessions can be submitted online through the AAG’s paper submission console. During the submission process, please contact the GORABS chair, Justin K.H. Tse, at firstname.lastname@example.org to request sponsorship for your session. To organize sessions, we also encourage you to contact GORABS with a call for papers before widely distributing a call so that GORABS sponsorship can be listed along with your distributed call for papers.