Michael Bérubé is shamelessly campaigning for “Worst Professor in America,” and last time I checked he was steam-rollering other candidates. I feel a little chagrin on behalf of the true-red lefties over whom Bérubé is exerting his imperialistic superpower might, but more than that I’m frustrated that an ostensibly “democratic” poll omits any option of writing in a candidate for Worst Professor of whom the Front Page organization might not have heard yet (say, because they work at a small, obscure Episcopal seminary). My students deserve the right to denounce me, and Front Page throttles their free expression by precluding them for voting for me for the Worst.
Richard Kieckhefer’s inaugural lecture “Bewitchment of the Imagination: Mythologies, Witchtrials, and Public Anxiety in the 15th Century” gave my own imagination an exhilarating kick. I can’t adequately summarize Richard’s finely-woven thesis, but it involved distinguishing conventional accusations of miscellaneous sorcery (cursing cattle, love charms, and so on) from prosecutions in the context of an articulated mythology of witchcraft (involving elaborate scenarios of ritualized behavior) — then further identifying two specific patterns of mythologies, one evident in the Vaudois inquisitorial prosecutions and one in Paduan juridical proceedings. The former, it seems, was imposed on the trial by the inquisitors’ expectations; the latter emerged as an expression of common expectations relative to witches (strega sg.) and their behavior. He tied these distinctions into the social function of witchcraft persecution, the social locations of accused witches, and the ways imagination functions to generate, intensify, rationalize, and focus manifestations of mythological power. The lecture was great, I had the privilege of sitting next to Barbara Newman at her husband’s inauguration for the chair in religious studies for which she holds the twin appointment in English, and merely soaking up the ambient intelligence of the audience made me temporarily smarter. Alas, only temporarily — but it’s a start.
I’ve been contemplating my “justice as fetish, process as idol” blogpost for months now, and haven’t gotten to the point that I have a claim even close to readiness. Partly it’s because I’ve been wrestling the last few words of the book review into submission (that’s a joke, friends, a joke), and partly because other topics intervene — such as blasphemy. I was thinking about the ways one might mount an argument against blaspheming other people’s deities. If those quarter-baked ideas come round to anything, I’ll post them.