Interviews and Reviews

An Interview with Jonathan VanAntwerpen – Imagining The Immanent Frame

The Immanent Frame

Jonathan VanAntwerpen is a program director at the Henry Luce Foundation, where he leads a grants program that aims to promote innovative thinking about religion across multiple social and cultural contexts, to expand and diversify critical intellectual engagement with religious ideas and spiritual practices in the United States and beyond, and to advance public knowledge. He is co-editor of a series of books on secularism, religion, and public life, including The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia University Press), Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press), The Post-Secular in Question (NYU Press), Habermas and Religion (Polity), and Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press). 

Prior to joining the Luce Foundation in 2014, VanAntwerpen served for a decade on the staff of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). As founding director of the SSRC’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere, he led a team that conceptualized and launched The Immanent Frame, an innovative digital publication featuring original writing by hundreds of scholars across the social sciences and humanities. He served for several years as editor-in-chief.

Shortly following its launch in late 2007, The Immanent Frame was named an official honoree of the 12th annual Webby Awards. The Revealer recognized The Immanent Frame as a “favorite new religion site, egghead division,” and CNN called it “exceptionally eye opening.” In 2011, the editors of The Immanent Frame partnered with Killing the Buddha to launch Frequencies, a collaborative and experimental digital project co-curated by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, and co-produced by Nathan Schneider and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. Frequencies was named an official honoree of the 16th annual Webby Awards. Two years later, VanAntwerpen and other editors of The Immanent Frame launched Reverberations, selected as a nominee of the 18th annual Webby Awards. 

In addition to his editorial work and writing on secularism and religion, Jonathan VanAntwerpen has written on the emergence of the field of transitional justice, on American philanthropy and the politics of truth and reconciliation, on transformations in higher education, and on the history of the social sciences. Originally trained as a philosopher, he received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.

The views and opinions expressed by Jonathan VanAntwerpen in this interview are his alone, and do not necessarily represent those of the Henry Luce Foundation.

The Immanent Frame was launched in the fall of 2007. That might seem to some readers like a long time ago.

A lot has unquestionably changed since then. It can be hard to recall precisely what digital publishing looked like in the first decade of the 21st century, especially given the scale of transformations we have witnessed in recent years. This was, in certain respects, the heyday of what some people have called Web 2.0. Back then, we used the word “blogosphere,” a term coined just a few years earlier, and we felt that it meant something significant. Individual writers were making their names – and in some cases, making a living – publishing their own blogs. The year that we launched The Immanent Frame, studies suggested that there were already nearly 60 million blogs online, many of them interconnected, with more being invented each day. So blogging was increasingly prevalent and widespread, but also controversial and unevenly adopted, and the dynamics of the blogosphere at that stage, at least in my experience, were only partially informed by corporate social media. Facebook and Twitter were ramping up but were nowhere near as ubiquitous or as powerful as they are today.

At the same time, prominent critics were decrying the increasingly mainstream embrace of blogging. Major media outlets were home to more and more blogs, some of them incubated from within, others developed independently and then subsequently acquired. I read recently that the New York Times was hosting more than 50 different blogs during this period. There was this feeling of experimentation, of trial and error, and a sense of the possibilities this afforded for new forms of public discourse and intellectual conversation. And there was a related concern about how technology was reshaping the production and circulation of public knowledge, particularly in the case of journalism – something that has only intensified since. 

One sector that was slower than many others to absorb these shifts was higher education, and I would say this was perhaps especially true of faculty members at the more “elite” institutions. These were scholars based in schools and departments in which peer-reviewed article publication in a small number of specialized journals, or books brought out by well-established and highly regarded university presses, remained the coin of the realm in recruitment, evaluation, and promotion. In these contexts, blogs were often seen as strange and suspect, academically unserious and lacking in intellectual rigor. Graduate students and junior scholars with a penchant for blogging, or an interest in related forms of more experimental writing, were encouraged by the guardians of their fields to avoid these activities altogether – or barring that to make sure that any blogging they did remained in the shadows, kept off curriculum vitae and hidden from hiring committees. I think this dynamic both has and has not changed over the course of the last decade. Academic norms regarding what forms of scholarship really matter for tenure and promotion appear to have remained relatively stable. But there also seems to be more room for innovative forms of intellectual engagement, and new kinds of potential visibility for scholars that do this kind of writing. Whether to call it blogging is another matter.

Was The Immanent Frame originally envisioned as a blog?

We originally imagined it as a multi-author blog, though an unusual one in certain ways. In terms of digital platform, it was a WordPress installation, with an elegant site design (by Ravi Rajakumar) that made The Immanent Frame look and feel like a blog. And there were already other collaborative intellectual projects active and visible in the academic blogosphere, like Crooked Timber, that we could look to for inspiration. 

We were also looking at other sorts of digital experiments. In 2000, journalists Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau had launched an online literary magazine called Killing the Buddha, inviting readers “both hostile and drawn to talk of God” to join its editors in “building an electronic Tower of Babel, a Talmudic cathedral of stories about faith lost and found.” Killing the Buddha was edgy and compelling, and a forerunner in the world of digital publishing about religion. Utne Reader had called it one of “15 sites that could shake the world.”

In a more academic vein, at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) – where I was working with Craig Calhoun and others to establish and grow a new program on religion and the public sphere – there had been a history of earlier web-based publication initiatives, stemming initially from the Council’s rapid response to 9/11. In the days after September 11, 2001, the SSRC invited leading scholars to quickly produce short and accessible essays that were posted simultaneously in a web forum, and widely read. This online collection of essays later became the basis for a pair of books, published by The New Press, and the Council subsequently developed a series of online essay forums, either in conjunction with program work that it already had underway or as a vehicle for exploring potentially promising new lines of work. So that was another model, and one that was close to hand, given where I was sitting. 

When we first started conceptualizing The Immanent Frame, before we even had a name for it, the SSRC was just getting started in thinking about the possibility of blogging. Despite the Council’s history of web-based essay forums, its main website was still very static (and this was true for many organizations at that point). At first, SSRC blogs were developed mostly off to the side. Alex De Waal, a program director at the SSRC, and an expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, had launched a blog called “Making Sense of Darfur.” Alex was listed as the blog’s editor, and his blog would regularly host guest contributions. But he was also a public intellectual in his own right, and “Making Sense of Darfur” was in large part a vehicle for extending his analyses of what was happening in Sudan. The blog had been successful, and the Council’s recently expanded communications team was eager to start others. I was a green program officer, still learning the ropes, eager to improvise and try new things, and – not least – looking for ways to avoid turning back to work on my PhD dissertation (which I was supposed to be doing alongside my part-time program work). So I agreed to launch a blog, around the edges of the activities we’d been funded to undertake in the Religion and the Public Sphere Program, which was at that point less a full-fledged program than a small set of fledgling projects, supported primarily by a grant from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs. And yet, I had no interest in being a blogger.

We agreed that I would be the blog’s editor. And we decided that its broad focus would be “secularism, religion, and the public sphere,” which was coming to define much of the work that we hoped to do through the SSRC’s expanding religion program. In conjunction with that program, I was already working with Michael Warner and Craig Calhoun to organize a series of conversations focused especially on the topic of secularism. As director of the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, Michael had convened a year-long seminar with leading scholars of the secular, drawn from different disciplines, and we were building in part on that earlier work. We organized a wide-ranging colloquium on secularism, and simultaneously began to plan for a collection of critical engagements with Charles Taylor’s massive and sprawling A Secular Age, a book which had not yet been published. We had an academic conference in the works, to be hosted by Yale University (where Michael had recently moved), and I was receiving early versions of chapters for an edited volume that Harvard University Press later agreed to publish. Drafts of these chapters would be circulated for discussion prior to the event at Yale. I communicated with several of the contributors, secured their agreement to publish shorter versions of their draft chapters online, edited their pieces for length, reviewed the revised essays with their authors, and queued them up for publication. After a brief introductory post, we pushed them out one blog post at a time. And that was how we got going. 

But first you needed a name for the new blog. Where did that come from?

“The Immanent Frame” is a chapter title, and a key concept, in Taylor’s A Secular Age. After trying out several duds, somehow I landed on that. It stuck, and I guess it resonated. I think our early readers were responding to the name of the blog, which is both specific and somewhat elusive, to the critical engagement with Charles Taylor’s work, and to the promise of a broader set of creative interventions and interdisciplinary exchanges on the topic secularism, as a growing concern across multiple academic disciplines. But there was also something novel about seeing established scholars “blogging,” and engaging with each other online in a forum like this. Our first substantive post was from the eminent UC-Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah, followed by a contribution from his Berkeley colleague Wendy Brown (a marvelous political theorist with a very different take on Taylor’s work than Bellah). Then, happily, Taylor himself jumped in to make an immediate response. We quickly followed these first contributions with several others, on A Secular Age and a range of different topics, folding in substantial disciplinary diversity and significant intellectual disagreements from the beginning. That was in keeping with the SSRC’s own mission and approach to its work – the Council is an organization that was founded, almost 100 years ago now, in the name of interdisciplinarity – and it became a central part of our signature and style too. 

Like just about everything else in Taylor’s big book, the immanent frame is a contested concept, a disputed framing. Built into its formulation, you could argue, is what Stanley Cavell might have called an arrogation of voice – the use of the first-person plural to describe the conditions of experience in a secular age, to say something significant about what “we” all now share in common. But within that master narrative is also, and centrally, an attempt to enfold and understand disagreement, diversity, and vast plurality. We intentionally aimed to make room for some of that, and for the contesting of the frame itself. 

You’ve been using the first-person plural quite a bit yourself. What’s up with that?

Not long after I started working with the SSRC, a colleague teased me about how quickly I’d begun to use the word “we” to describe things I was working on. In many academic contexts, especially those that I have had the privilege and opportunity to pass through, it’s all about the “I.” That is how you make your mark. Many years ago, when I was just starting graduate school in philosophy, I read a book by the American literary historian David Damrosch called We Scholars. It is, as I recall it, a trenchant critique of this individualist model, and a plea for a different form of scholarly community. That’s something I’ve sought to pursue, in one form or another, in nearly all of my work, and it’s a significant part of why I’ve gravitated toward the kinds of things I do now.

The work of imagining and reimagining what The Immanent Frame was, where it was going, what it might yet be, was in my experience always a common enterprise. Our editorial team was an evolving group of graduate students, freelance writers and editors, and SSRC staff members – and as with all successful publications, they powered the work. Because ours was of necessity an experimental venture – we were learning by doing – they also substantially shaped the site’s direction, focus, and spirit. A few years after our launch, I took several months off for a writing sabbatical – to finally complete a full draft of my languishing dissertation – and things just got better while I was away. That was the result of the impressive labors of scholars like Ruth Braunstein, who had been centrally involved from early on, and who played a key role for a period as managing editor. Now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, and a former member of the editorial board for The Immanent Frame, which was constituted after I stepped away from its work, Ruth was a graduate student at NYU during those early years. Nathan Schneider – a current editorial board member and a faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder – was another early member of the editorial team, a gig he gamely accepted while working primarily as a freelance writer and journalist. Nathan’s interview series for The Immanent Frame, which he called “Deathless Questions,” involved thoughtful conversations with some of our contributors and a wide range of other scholars and thinkers. For a time, it became one of our most popular features. Meanwhile, many other talented and insightful students, writers, and editors joined us along the way, bringing with them their own intellectual passions and curiosities, and moving The Immanent Frame in important and exciting new directions.

Through the efforts of this ever-evolving editorial team, we sought to develop the sense that this wasn’t just another avenue of academic publication, digital or otherwise. We, as editors, were not primarily invested in acting as gatekeepers. Rather, we were aiming to build, support, and sustain a new kind of community of scholars – even if “community” isn’t precisely the right word for the networks of critical cross-disciplinary exchange we were seeking to stimulate. While we didn’t have the capacity to publish everything, we aimed to err on the side of inclusion, folding in an increasing number of voices and perspectives, as our list of contributors quickly stretched into the hundreds. Although we sometimes had extensive back-and-forth with authors prior to the publication of their essays, we never practiced anything like the traditional academic forms of pre-publication evaluation and critique. Instead, we relied on a version of what has been called post-publication peer review. This was a place to try out new work, new ideas, new arguments, and – not least – new styles of writing and new forms of intellectual engagement. And, as you did so, to know that some of your disciplinary colleagues, and often a range of less specialized readers, would be paying attention and not infrequently responding with some immediacy – and perhaps with some argumentative energy – to what you wrote. Working within what one former president of the SSRC has called the “scholarly borderlands” – locations where multiple fields and disciplines intersect and interact – together we were seeking to open and enlarge an interstitial space of exploration, creativity, and intellectual possibility.

You have spoken on previous occasions about the potential role of digital media in reshaping the production and circulation of knowledge in these sorts of “interstitial spaces.” Where did this idea come from?

This is a line of thinking that I borrowed in part from the sociologist Gil Eyal, who has written about what he calls “spaces between fields,” which can be messy, unregulated, and unstable territories of opportunity, improvisation, and change. We shouldn’t overstate the productive possibilities associated with these sorts of social locations, and the digital landscape is far from the space of untrammeled freedom it was sometimes imagined to be in the relatively early days of the open internet. In a previous period, there was a good deal of talk about the cultural and intellectual possibilities of the web, and even staid commentators – who steered away from the language of liberation in their discussions of technology –enthused about the ways that more participatory forms like blogging were a welcome and positive departure from traditional modes of publication. By contrast, I especially appreciate careful analyses of what has and has not changed, and attention to the values associated with older forms as well as the possibilities opened by emergent ones.

It’s interesting that it has now become possible for some early practitioners of blogging to get nostalgic about it. Listening to Tressie McMillan Cottom speak about this recently, I was struck both by her acknowledgment of a sort of nostalgia for the web 2.0 era, in all of its messiness and humanity, and by her resistance of that nostalgia because, as she put it, what we are often nostalgic for “is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table.” Forms like blogging made the table bigger, in some respects, but they didn’t eliminate issues of exclusion or asymmetries of power. And now we’re seeing a range of new forms emerging or expanding. Some of these – the increasingly widespread use of digital newsletters and Substack, for example – are reminiscent of blogging in certain ways. Others, like podcasting, are opening new possibilities. And through it all, despite what some worried, we haven’t stopped reading and writing books. 

In fact, The Immanent Frame seems to have retained a strong interest in engaging with new books. How do you see its work now?

What we initially came to call the “book blog” is still quite active, and it continues to be creatively reimagined. A book forum at The Immanent Frame on “new inquiries into the secular,” for example, produced a dozen and a half essays responding to four recent books, including work by Emily Ogden, Susan Lepselter, Pamela Klassen, and Graham Jones. More broadly, the current work of The Immanent Frame is stronger than ever. Mona Oraby, a professor at Amherst, has served as the editor for the past several years, working closely with a diverse editorial board and with staff members at the Social Science Research Council. One of the things that the current editorial leadership of The Immanent Frame has done is to keep expanding the discourse in compelling ways – in terms of both form and content. 

Mona and her colleagues have also kept adding new voices to the mix. When I visit The Immanent Frame now, I see the names of those whose work I know I need to read, emerging scholars I have not yet come to know, people I want to meet, to listen to, to engage. For me, that was consistently the greatest pleasure of having the immense opportunity to be involved with The Immanent Frame and the related constellation of projects and activities interwoven with it: being in the orbit of such a wide range of impressive thinkers and writers, and through our work together coming to understand first-hand just how many of them were also complex and wonderful human beings. 

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