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19 September 2013

Religion and the AgSIT Model of Genre

I'm currently reading Jennifer Lena's Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music with my senior-level Religion thru Music students. So far, it's living up to much of its hype. I'll likely reserve a full review for a later post. I do have one major critique so far:

Lena argues that it's exceedingly difficult to identify currently existing avant-garde genres because they're both fleeting and indistinguishable from contemporaneous creative circles that don't meet her definition of avant-garde. Perhaps, I would argue, that is because avant-garde genres never "really" exist at all but are only retrospectively created as part of the mythology generated around a genre, written largely during the industry-based phase and then completed and canonized during the traditionalist phase. It is much the same as religions looking back on their early, formative, or proto- periods and depositing meaning upon events that were meaningless or even dissonant at the time. For example, one can see that the historic Jesus' death was a real bummer for his most devoted followers, but this group decided only later that his death was actually profoundly meaningful; sense-making is always retroactive. (From the sociological agnostic perspective, it is really inconsequential whether there was a preceding and divine meaning for the event.)

While discussing this with my class, I realized, in fact, that religions seem to follow Lena's AgSIT genre trajectory pretty faithfully (pun definitely intended). Religions begin (or not) in an avant-garde phase that is loosely organized, with uncertain ideals, and are quite innovative (even if derivative); they may then become a Scene with better organization, well-formed ideals, and established borders; they may then become Industry-based which, while not corporate in nature, is isomorphic in its bureaucracy; and finally, they may then become Traditionalist, studied, supported, and actively endowed. This looks kind of like (a modified version of) Church-Sect Theory in which NRM's or sects coalesce, establish a regional or local prominence, gather respectability as a Church, and then wither into obsolescence as a denomination. It's not perfect, but it's worth exploring.

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