An Interview with Jonathan VanAntwerpen

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One of Jonathan VanAntwerpen’s most notable projects is The Immanent Frame—an innovative digital forum that publishes original work from hundreds of eminent academics on a wide range of topics.

VanAntwerpen has organized and led scores of workshops, conferences, consultations, community conversations, and public events in addition to his work as an author and editor. He has organized conferences at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, Yale University, and other institutions with the help of researchers, journalists, editors, activists, artists, and policymakers.

The experimental digital project Frequencies was born from a VanAntwerpen working group on spirituality, political engagement, and public life in the United States, while the digital forum Reverberations was born from a grants program on the study of prayer across multiple academic disciplines and diverse religious traditions.

Co-edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen after a large event with notable thinkers at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York City. In addition to comments from Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West, an afterword by Craig Calhoun is included. It has been translated into Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, among other languages.

Jonathan VANANTWERPEN | Program Director | Doctor of Philosophy | Religion and Theology Program

The Post-Secular in Question (NYU Press), Habermas and Religion (Polity), Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press), and Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press) are some of VanAntwerpen’s other co-edited volumes. He worked for the Social Science Research Council for ten years (SSRC).

Aside from serving as acting director of communications, at the SSRC he helped to build a new program on religion and the public sphere, as well as conceive of and plant the seeds for a new initiative on knowledge and culture in the digital age. When he moved to New York City, he was hired by the Henry Luce Foundation as Program Director for Religion and Theology in 2014.

The Immanent Frame and other inventive and experimental digital initiatives were the ideas for our conversation with Jonathan VanAntwerpen, which we were able to set together. Below is an edited portion of this interview. It is Jonathan VanAntwerpen’s sole responsibility to communicate his opinions and not those of the Henry Luce Foundation.)

How did you first hear about The Immanent Frame?

Since the fall of 2007, the debut of The Immanent Frame has been a matter of luck and coincidence. This blog was originally planned in collaboration with program work at the Social Science Research Council to be multi-disciplinary and multi-author in nature with an emphasis on secularism, religion, and civic engagement (SSRC). It was the goal of the SSRC to launch a series of new projects and research activities on religion, secularism, and international affairs with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Teagle Foundation, and Ford Foundation.

Work on religion and public life quickly expanded into a far-reaching and wide-ranging project. During the course of the program’s development, we began to develop more comprehensive plans for a wide range of conferences and workshops.

Jonathan VanAntwerpen (@jvanantw) / Twitter

The SSRC was also beginning to experiment with novel applications of digital media, drawing on an earlier history of web-based initiatives and emphasizing the public value of social science research, or what we sometimes termed “public social science.” This is where we came up with the idea for The Immanent Frame, which we launched before we had a name or even a notion of where we were heading or how to get there.

At the Henry Luce Foundation, Jonathan VanAntwerpen serves as the Program Director for Religion and Theology at the present time. Before beginning his work at the Luce Foundation in 2014, he spent the previous decade on the staff of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in New York City. While there, he established and developed a new program on Religion and the Public Sphere, launched a suite of experimental digital publishing platforms, served as acting director of communications, worked to incubate a new initiative on knowledge and culture in a digital age, and organized and convened a wide range of academic and public events.

In addition to his work at the SSRC, VanAntwerpen was the leader of a group that conceived of and launched The Immanent Frame, a cutting-edge digital publication that features the original writing of hundreds of academics from a variety of fields, including the social sciences and the humanities. He held the position of editor-in-chief for a number of years.

The Immanent Frame was recognized as an official honoree of the 12th annual Webby Awards not long after the website’s initial launch in the latter half of 2007. The Revealer acknowledged The Immanent Frame as a “favorite new religion site, egghead division,” while CNN described the website as being “exceptionally eye-opening.” Frequencies is a collaborative and experimental digital project that was launched in 2011 through a partnership between the editors of The Immanent Frame and Killing the Buddha.

The project was co-curated by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, and it was co-produced by Nathan Schneider and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. The sixteenth annual Webby Awards has recognized Frequencies as a deserving recipient of an honorable status. Two years later, in 2004, VanAntwerpen and several other editors from The Immanent Frame founded Reverberations, which was subsequently shortlisted for a Webby Award at the 18th annual ceremony.

In addition to his work with these digital publications, VanAntwerpen is the co-editor of a number of books that focus on secularism, religion, and public life. Some of these books include The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (published by Columbia University Press), Rethinking Secularism (published by Oxford University Press), The Post-Secular in Question (published by New York University Press), Habermas and Religion (published by Policy), and Varieties of Secularism in (Harvard University Press). Although he began his academic career as a philosopher, he ultimately decided to pursue sociology and earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

The thoughts and opinions that Jonathan VanAntwerpen has shared in this interview are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Henry Luce Foundation in any way, shape, or form.

What were your goals in coming to this interview?

Our initial intention was to explore and experiment in the “scholarly borderlands,” areas of academic study and intellectual engagement that have been referred to as “fuzzily defined areas of academic research and intellectual engagement.”

Is there anything we can do if we use new technology in a deliberate and proactive manner? We want to promote innovative, multidisciplinary research and make it more widely available outside of the typically specialized academic circles in which it is all too often contained.

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Jonathan VanAntwerpen - Founder of The Immanent Frame

How does this mesh with our bigger goals? A few significant and underutilized features of new digital platforms, such as blogs, could be harnessed and used to develop and distribute more robust forms of public social science. We had some hope that they might be able to.

In the end, the public, non-academic aspects of the work we contributed to were probably understated. Ideas, discussions, or exchanges that appeared on The Immanent Frame did, on occasion, reach a wider audience.

We were still largely operating in our own little corner of an enormous diffuse and ever-expanding discursive universe despite the efforts of hundreds of contributors and their critical thought, passion, and dedication to their work and writing, not to mention the work of the creative and energetic editorial team that powered the daily activities of The Immanent Frame.

There is a lot of noise and confusion in the public sphere, especially on the internet. In the aughts, the first decade of the 21st century, this was especially true. It’s possible that we had the freedom to be creative and try new things back then since things were a little more haphazard and unorganized.

What was the surprising outcome of this project?

If you’re paying attention, there were many—and, if you are, I think there always are. The Immanent Frame had an unexpected side effect when we were able to launch a new project on American spirituality a few years after its inception.

I could go on and on about this issue for days. There are so many different ways to look at it and so many different ways to understand it. There are also so many different ways to misinterpret it.

The more we learned about the subject, the more we understood that our tiny working group needed to expand into something broader and more comprehensive. Frequencies were born from this idea, which we called “a digital compendium that summons spirituality “as an ethereal frequency, as an expression of cultural technology, as an array of resonances and reverberations in the ether of experience.”

For the Frequencies project, The Immanent Frame collaborated with Killing the Buddha, an online literary journal, in order to experiment with new ways of presenting The Immanent Frame’s publication style and see how far we might push it.

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Even we were taken aback, which I believe is typical of truly participatory and adventurous projects. It’s hard to exaggerate the value of this specific collaborative project’s wide output and careful curation, but I was recently reminded of this when I went back to Frequencies in honor of its tenth anniversary.

What an intriguing and difficult issue! I’m not sure whether I have any specific knowledge or insight into the matter at hand. Things that once seemed experimental or hazardous have either become more commonplace or may have simply fallen by the wayside as a result of media consolidation and appropriation. As well, the current ethos of newsletters and podcasts seems to be reminiscent of an earlier self-publishing period, though with a different set of constraints and inside a vastly different digital order than the one that prevailed at the time.

Looking back on the work we attempted in the past, I am fascinated by the present initiatives to “reimagine the internet” in ways that would grasp and extend the promise, openness, and creativity that have been associated with Web 2.0, even if I am uncertain precisely how to interpret or evaluate them.

Where did the concept for The Immanent Frame first originate?

The Immanent Frame was first designed as a multi-contributor blog dedicated to the topic of secularism, religion, and the public sphere. It was launched during a time when blogging and the “blogosphere” had substantially more resonance than they do today. We envisioned it as an experimental platform for new writing that was sometimes more improvised, collaborative intellectual discovery and cross-disciplinary communication, as well as critical discourse that was passionate while maintaining a respectful tone, and so on.

When we first started The Immanent Frame, there were already close to sixty million distinct blogs present on the internet in one form or another, according to some reports. Many of them were linked together, resulting in the formation of networks for the spread and circulation of ideas that grew to stand in contrast to more established forms of media and the production of information.

We were operating on the periphery of this still relatively new and expanding space of digital publishing while also drawing on work-in-progress that would eventually find its way into more traditional forms of academic publication, such as a series of edited volumes that emerged from workshops and other events organized in tandem with our online efforts. These workshops and events were held in conjunction with our online efforts. These volumes were eventually released by a variety of university publications, some of which include Harvard University Press, Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, and others.

Interview with Jonathan VanAntwerpen Founder of The Immanent Frame

Long before we got around to publishing the volumes, we encouraged many of our anticipated contributors to try out their ideas first in what was at the time a somewhat unusual online forum. This was done well in advance of the publication of the volumes. In the beginning, one of the primary goals of The Immanent Frame was to serve as a space and a platform for people to carry out the aforementioned activity.

This online community was meant to be more relaxed and open-ended than other publication venues, and in that sense, it had a kind of family resemblance to other existing blogs, including some collaborative endeavors in what was becoming known as the academic blogosphere. The goal of this online community was to encourage discussion and debate on a wide range of topics, and its members were encouraged to post whatever they wanted.

At the same time, rather than providing our contributors with direct access to publishing their posts via the site’s backend in WordPress, we built out instead a small and soon-growing editorial team. This team is comprised of freelance editors and writers, graduate students, and staff members at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), which is an independent and interdisciplinary research organization with which The Immanent Frame was affiliated, and where it continues to have its base of operations today.

This editorial team collaborated closely and thoughtfully with each of our diverse individual authors, the majority of whom were seasoned academics and researchers from reputable institutions. Not only did our editors proofread and copyedit the content, but they also encouraged authors to write in a more accessible mode appropriate to the diverse and broadly non-specialist audience we were seeking to reach and cultivate. Sometimes, our editors even strategized with the authors about the most effective ways to do this.

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