I Know It When I See It

A few days ago, we said farewell to two American friends who are moving back to the United States after living here for two years.  To celebrate their departure, a group of us met at a local bar, where we drank heartily and, as might be expected of inebriated academics, engaged ourselves in loud and non-sensory debates about the definition(s) of religion.

At one point, I interrupted a colleague, well into his animated defence for some sort of non-normative stipulation concerning the acts and actions of the religious individual, with a rather slurred (and, so I thought, final) argument:

‘Religion’ is like pornography.  I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it! 

A day or so later, I was reminded of my impressively theoretical comparison of ‘religion’ with ‘pornography’ whilst watching an episode of Parks and Recreation.  Throughout the episode, Leslie Knope, the kind-hearted, passionate, and frighteningly meticulous protagonist of the show, finds herself defending a painting, within which a female centaur (that happens to look like her) is shown topless.  Because the painting is to be placed within City Hall, there is an almost immediate objection to the art as ‘pornography.’

Here’s an important clip from the episode:

So, aside from the fact that in my drunken brilliance I had, rather than determine an astute means of defining ‘religion,’ merely plagiarised a hilarious television show, I still think there is some value to my comparison.

Here’s what I mean.


The origin of Justice Potter Stewart’s expression, “I know it when I see it,” comes from his concurrent opinion on the 1964 Supreme Court case, Jacobellis vs. Ohio.  The case itself dealt with the conviction, and fining, of Nico Jacobellis, the manager of the Heights Art Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Jacobellis had played a film, Louis Malle‘s The Lovers, which both the Cuyahoga County Court, as well as the Supreme Court of Ohio, had found to be ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic.’

Here’s the trailer of the film, for those curious:

While the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction, and thus found the film, and Jacobellis’ showing it, to be protected under the First Amendment’s permission of free speech, they struggled to present a definition of ‘pornography,’ against which they could determine the obscene from its opposite, whatever that might be.

In his short concurrence, Justice Stewart tried to sum up, as simply as possible, his reasoning for the decision.

He stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

In a curious backstory, shared to Yale Law School librarian, Fred Shapiro, by fellow alumnus, Ray Lamontagne, Justice Stewart’s claim that he would ‘know it when he saw it,’ actually came from his clerk, Alan Novak:

You might be interested to know that the Potter Stewart quote was actually provided to him by his law clerk, Alan Novak ’55, ’63 LLB. Justice Stewart was a great justice and I do not want to take anything away from him. But he was stuck on how to describe pornography, and Novak said to him, “Mr. Justice, you will know it when you see it.” The justice agreed, and Novak included that remark in the draft of the opinion. 

Regardless, Stewart’s simple test became somewhat standard, until the 1973 case of Miller vs. California, when the Court created a three-pointed test for gauging obscenity:

  1. The average person, applying local community standards, looking at the work in its entirety, must find that it appeals to the prurient interest.
  2. The work must describe or depict, in an obviously offensive way, sexual conduct, or excretory functions.
  3. The work as a whole must lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values.”

So, what does all this have to do with my conversation at the bar?

Part of our debate that night picked up on the old standard argument about not only what religion is, but how we might determine the difference between something religious and something that is not religious.

We did the rounds of the usual theoretical conclusions: the biased failures of substantive approaches, the broad implications of functionalist definitions, the trouble with comparisons when categorising, and the de facto determination of just about anything as religious when considering the dimensions that make up one’s religious beliefs and actions.

After concluding our short journey through the standard method and theory syllabus, we ended up back where we started: how do you tell the difference between something that is religious (religion), and something that is not (secular)?

How, we might have phrased the question, do we tell the difference between the ‘sacred’ beliefs of someone who is sitting in a church, speaking to their ‘God,’ and someone who is sitting in a stadium cheering on their local team?

My answer, thanks to the confidence one finds after his or her second pint, was:

I don’t know how to tell the difference, but I know it when I see it.

Is this a bad answer?

It’s leans perhaps a bit too precariously toward the substantive side of the debate, essentially arguing that what I think is religious is defined as such for no other reason than my own convictions, yet it’s also rather clarifying in its simplicity.

Yes, while I do indeed accept that my opinion on the matter is biased by my purview, I also believe there is definite value in the fact that what I think is ‘religious,’ by means of knowing it when I see it (a young boy reading the Torah vs. a young boy attaining the rank of Eagle Scout), dismisses much of the ambiguous, dare I say, often unhelpful, discourse on which we tend to focus perhaps a bit too much of our time.

That is, while deconstructing and theorising the limits and layers of the two rites of passage listed above, it’s rather obvious that these are not identical things.  One is religious, and one is not.

In other words: while my argument here that we might simply ‘know’ the difference between these two rituals isn’t perfect, and though it is biased by means of its dependency on one’s opinion, at least it isn’t mired in years and years of theoretical debate.

After all, just like how I might be able to determine something as ‘religious’ when I see it, this methodological approach seems to me that much better than the theoretical discourse of the last century, merely because I know it is.

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One thought on “I Know It When I See It

  1. Pingback: Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review | everything is fiction

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