JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—J. Barton Scott

January 10, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

J. Barton Scott (Ph.D. Religion, Duke University, 2009) is Associate Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He works on the intellectual and cultural history of religion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a focus on South Asia and its global connections. He teaches courses on social and cultural theory, media and material religion, and religion in political thought. His fellowship research project is titled The Piercing Virtue: Isherwood’s Guru in Adorno’s Los Angeles. Bart is one of our 2023-24 JHI Faculty Research Fellows.

What are your main research interests?

I’m interested in religion as a site for the making of colonial modernity, and as a lens for studying our modern world. To date, my work has focused mostly on modern South Asia, especially nineteenth and early twentieth-century India, with a focus on anticolonial thought, secularism, print culture, public sphere theory, religious controversy and violence, and other such themes. My first book, Spiritual Despots: Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule, explored how nineteenth-century Hindu thinkers responded to and creatively appropriated certain ideas from British Protestants. My second book, Slandering the Sacred: Blasphemy Law and Religious Affect in Colonial India, moves between Britain and India to show how blasphemy law—and religion itself—got reinvented by the colonial encounter. These days, I’m primarily interested in modern Hinduism on the global stage.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

At the JHI, I’m beginning work on a new book project titled The Piercing Virtue: Isherwood’s Guru in Adorno’s Los Angeles. When British novelist Christopher Isherwood fled his beloved Berlin in 1939, he moved to Los Angeles, where he fell in with the expat intellectuals of what Thomas Mann called “German California.” Much to those intellectuals’ chagrin, he also fell in with the Ramakrishna Mission, one of nineteenth-century India’s most successful religious exports, declaring himself a disciple of chain-smoking Bengali guru Swami Prabhavananda. To Isherwood’s German Marxist friends (like Bertolt Brecht), the hierarchical power relation inherent to guru culture felt suspiciously close to fascism. To his queer friends, his decision to renounce sex must have seem equally strange. My book project takes the odd friendship between Isherwood and Prabhavananda as the starting point for a theoretically-inflected inquiry into global guru culture in the years surrounding the Second World War. Los Angeles was abuzz with religion during these years, with Jiddu Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley, L. Ron Hubbard, Aimee Semple Macpherson, and others on the scene. By the time that Theodor Adorno, another German expat, arrived in L.A. in 1941, the city was not only a capital of the culture industry. It was also a spiritual capital—a site of ascetic experiments that mediated global politics, but in ways that could not be reduced to the terms of what Adorno called the authoritarian personality (as described for example in Stars Down to Earth, his book about California newspaper astrology). If we want to think about religion, empire, and global politics in the present, I argue, there is no better place to go than mid-century L.A.

I borrow my project’s title from Emily Dickinson, who in one of her poems described “renunciation” as the “piercing Virtue, the letting go a presence for an Expectation.” Renunciation, says Dickinson, is a choosing against the self, the redefinition of the self around an absence. My project is thus—in keeping with this year’s JHI theme, “Absence”— working to theorize renunciation or asceticism as a form of willed absence, whether of sex, material comforts, or a lost place (Calcutta, Berlin). What, I ask, were the political uses of asceticism in the 1940s and 50s? What is the political potential of asceticism today, when our untamed desires are killing the planet?

How has your JHI Fellowship experience been so far?

I can’t imagine a more congenial setting for a productive year of thinking and writing! The other fellows are doing such fascinating research, and we have wonderfully collegial conversations over lunch and sipping coffee in the hallways. I am so grateful to the JHI and its tireless staff for making this dream of a year possible.

Can you share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

I spent December trying to get caught up on the current cinema. My movie loyalties for late 2023 are currently split between two films. Anatomy of a Fall is one the most riveting psychological dramas I’ve ever seen, but I’ve been cautioning friends who are writers married to other writers to stay as far away from it as humanly possible. Saltburn is an eye-popping soap opera of a film— sort of Brideshead Revisited meets The Talented Mr. Ripley. Do all the plot twists make sense? Who cares. Just sit back and enjoy the insane ride. From earlier in the year, I am still thinking about Kiran Rao’s Lost Ladies, a cleverly conceived yet heart-warming feminist romp about confused identities. You can read my full take on it in the Journal of Religion and Film.

What is a fun fact about you?

I have recently rediscovered Scrabble. It remains a rollicking good time.