Live from Cambridge, its Ways of Knowing: The 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School!

As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in the Braun Room at Harvard University’s School of Divinity.  It’s Saturday morning, the 24th of October.  Later this afternoon I will be presenting one of my post-thesis research projects in a paper titled, “An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse.”

Though I gave a very similar paper at the BASR annual conference last month, a few things have changed.

Firstly, I’ve shortened a bit, for the benefit of the audience.  As well, a more complete description of this project will appear next week.

Secondly, I’ve learned a few more things this week about stereotypes.

While I’ve written about stereotypes before, and though I accept that they play a very large role in ethnographic work, I was once again surprised at how my learning about a ‘foreign’ culture provided a number of challenges to the normative assumptions I had established about Harvard, Boston, and the people who occupy both.


Let’s begin with Boston.

Those of the more fictional-minded, such as myself, might have constructed some assumptions about this city via the numerous depictions over the years presented to us by artists such as Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck, and his writing partner, Matt Damon.

In fact, let’s take these three perspectives as examples.

Scorsese’s film, The Departed, won four Academy Awards in 2007: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  In it’s opening weekend, the film earned over $25,000,000.  Worldwide, it earned roughly $290,000,000.  The plot of the film involves an insightful look into organised crime in South Boston.  Here’s a description from its IMDB page:

In South Boston, the state police force is waging war on Irish American organized crime. Young undercover cop Billy Costigan is assigned to infiltrate the mob syndicate run by gangland chief Frank Costello. While Billy quickly gains Costello’s confidence, Colin Sullivan, a hardened young criminal who has infiltrated the state police as an informer for the syndicate is rising to a position of power in the Special Investigation Unit. Each man becomes deeply consumed by their double lives, gathering information about the plans and counter-plans of the operations they have penetrated. But when it becomes clear to both the mob and the police both discover a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin are suddenly in danger of being caught and exposed to the enemy-and each must race to uncover the identity of the other man in time to save themselves. But is either willing to turn on their friends and comrades they’ve made during their long stints undercover?

As well, here’s the trailer:

With The Town (2010), directed by Ben Affleck, we get yet another insight into the crime world, this time focused on Charlestown, which, as the film tells us at the beginning, is the centre of bank and armoured car robbery not just in the United States, but in the world:

One blue-collar Boston neighbourhood has produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere in the world.

Here’s a description of the film, once again from its IMDB page:

The Charlestown neighborhood of Boston is renowned for churning out a high number of armed robbers, generation after generation. These robbers never leave their Charlestown life on their own volition, the neighborhood where there is an unwritten code to protect that lifestyle. Such robbers include friends Doug MacRay, James Coughlin, Albert ‘Gloansy’ Magloan and Desmond Elden. Doug and James in particular treat each other like family, as the Coughlins have realistically been as such to Doug since Doug’s mother ran off and Doug’s father, Stephen MacRay, was sent to prison. James’ single mother sister, the drugged out Krista Coughlin, and Doug have a casual sexual relationship. The foursome carry out a mostly successful bank robbery, but due to circumstances take the bank manager, Claire Keesey, hostage for a short period before releasing her physically unharmed. They find out that Claire lives in Charlestown, so they want to ensure that she did not see anything that could incriminate them if they were to ever run into her. As such, Doug begins a personal relationship with her to find out what she knows and what she’s told the police and the FBI, who have taken charge of the investigation. He learns that she has kept some information from the authorities for her own protection but information that could identify James in particular. But Doug slowly falls for her, as she does for him. Ultimately, Doug dreams about leaving his Charlestown life to be with Claire anywhere but there. But Doug has to try and keep his true identity from her, and keep the fact that he is seeing her from his colleagues. But leaving is not as easy as he would like as he and the gang are tasked with a big job by a local gangster named Fergie whether Doug likes it or not. And Adam Frawley, the FBI’s lead investigator, comes into evidence that links the foursome to the bank robbery and a subsequent armored car heist, so is on their tail for evidence that will send them away dead or alive.   

Here’s the trailer:

Lastly, Good Will Hunting, which won two Academy Awards in 1998 for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), presents a dichotomous look at the differences between the distinct world of higher education and the working class.  With this representation, not only do we get an insight into these differences, we also discover how an individual raised in one context struggles to accommodate his identity when he is placed within the other.

Here’s a description:

A janitor at MIT, Will Hunting has a gift for math and chemistry that can take him light-years beyond his blue-collar roots, but he doesn’t realize his potential and can’t even imagine leaving his childhood Boston South End neighborhood, his construction job, or his best friend. To complicate matters, several strangers enter the equation: a brilliant math professor who discovers, even envies, Will’s gifts, an empathetic shrink who identifies with Will’s blue-collar roots, and a beautiful, gifted pre-med student who shows him, for the first time in his life, the possibility of love.

Here’s the trailer:


So how do these three films play into my assumptions about Boston?

As I argued in a previous post, fictional representations, particularly in film form, can be useful data, as long as we use that data in a responsible way.  That is, we need to accept that as ‘fiction,’ these representations are the product of artifice, which also means they were designed with a specific goal in mind.  Given the three examples above, we might thus assume that the goal intended was to provide the viewer a glimpse into the class differences within Boston, that tend to shift toward organised crime.  

While this might be a valid conclusion for anyone who views these films, it’s not necessarily the case for those who actually walk the streets of the neighbourhoods represented.  Which is what has happened so far in my case.

During my week here, I’ve witnessed no crime, nor have I found myself within the context of any of these films.  However, I might also responsibly accept that my experiences have been isolated to the specific time I’ve been here, as well as to the locations within which I’ve chosen to spend that time.  Additionally, I might equally add that the reason I’ve not not witnessed the sort of events depicted in these films is because I’ve not actively looked for them.

My conclusion, then, is perhaps best made via the following thesis:

Our depictions of culture, either fictional or ethnographic, are isolated representations that, though we may emphatically defend as authentic, are unique to our own perceptions, and thus can never truly be so.  That is, even when we try to ensure that our representations honour our subjects with as much authenticity as possible, we can never truly grasp the reality of a place and its people because, no matter how hard we try, our representations are, by their inherent nature, the products of artifice.

We should keep this in mind.

After all, I came to Boston expecting The Departed, The Town, Good Will HuntingThe Boondock Saints, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River.  What I got was something entirely different: my own perspective.

It’s sort of like how before I came to Edinburgh, I expected Trainspotting, only to have found my assumptions both pleasantly challenged, as well as validated.

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2 thoughts on “Live from Cambridge, its Ways of Knowing: The 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School!

  1. Pingback: An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse | everything is fiction

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

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