The Privilege of Being Banal

Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris

The Privilege of Being Banal:
Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris

Chicago Book Salon
Wednesday, May 18, 2022
7 pm (Paris Time/Central European Time)
12 pm (Chicago Time/ Central Standard Time)

Please join us for a Chicago Book Salon with Elayne Oliphant (New York University) who will present her new book The Privilege of Being Banal: Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris published by the University of Chicago Press.

The discussants will be Stéphane Gerson (New York University) and Jeremy Walton (University of Rijeka, Croatia).

France, officially, is a secular nation. Yet Catholicism is undeniably a monumental presence, defining the temporal and spatial rhythms of Paris. At the same time, it often fades into the background as nothing more than “heritage.” In a creative inversion, Elayne Oliphant asks in The Privilege of Being Banal what, exactly, is hiding in plain sight? Could the banality of Catholicism actually be a kind of hidden power?

Exploring the violent histories and alternate trajectories effaced through this banal backgrounding of a crucial aspect of French history and culture, this richly textured ethnography lays bare the profound nostalgia that undergirds Catholicism’s circulation in nonreligious sites such as museums, corporate spaces, and political debates. Oliphant’s aim is to unravel the contradictions of religion and secularism and, in the process, show how aesthetics and politics come together in contemporary France to foster the kind of banality that Hannah Arendt warned against: the incapacity to take on another person’s experience of the world. A creative meditation on the power of the taken-for-granted, The Privilege of Being Banal: Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris is a landmark study of religion, aesthetics, and public space.

Elayne Oliphant is an assistant professor of anthropology and religious studies at New York University. A scholar of Catholicism and Europe, she studies the tenacity of racial, religious, and class privilege in France. She has published numerous articles on modern and contemporary art and its relationship to Christianity, legal rulings regarding the public display of the crucifix in Europe, and the power and privilege of Christianity in France today. Her first book, The Privilege of Being Banal: Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris, was published in the spring of 2021. She is currently working in a new research project exploring the relationship between the Catholic Church and slavery in France in the 19th century, and the work of Black activists to address France’s overlooked history of slavery in the present.

Stéphane Gerson is Professor of French, French Studies, and History at New York University and former director of the Institute of French Studies. He is a cultural historian of modern France, with special interests in the nineteenth century, Vichy France and its aftermath, and questions of place, memory, political culture, and margins and center. Stéphane Gerson is the author of the prize-winning The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Cornell, 2003); Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom (St. Martin’s, 2012, translated into French, Tallandier, 2016); and a memoir, Disaster Falls: A Family Story (Crown, 2017, translated into French, Alma 2020). In 2007, he co-edited with Laura Lee Downs Why France? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination (Cornell) and in 2019, he edited France in the World: A New Global History (Other Press), the U.S. edition of Histoire mondiale de la France (2017). Gerson is currently writing the historical ethnography of a family story, Les gestes de notre guerre, 1942-1994-2024, and editing a collection of essays on personal family history, Scholars and Their Kin: Experiments in Historical Writing (University of Chicago, 2024).

Jeremy F. Walton is a cultural anthropologist whose research resides at the intersection of memory studies, urban studies, the comparative study of empires and imperialism, and critical perspectives on materiality. He recently inaugurated the research group “REVENANT—Revivals of Empire: Nostalgia, Amnesia, Tribulation” at the University of Rijeka, Croatia, with support from a European Research Council consolidator grant. Prior to this, he led the Max Planck Research Group, “Empires of Memory: The Cultural Politics of Historicity in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Cities,” at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. Dr. Walton received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2009. His first book, Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey (Oxford University Press, 2017), is an ethnography of Muslim NGOs, state institutions, and secularism in contemporary Turkey. His writing has appeared in a plethora of scholarly and popular journals, including American Ethnologist, Sociology of Islam, Die Welt Des Islams, History and Anthropology, The Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies AssociationJadaliyya, and Sidecar (The New Left Review). REVENANT, which Dr. Walton designed, is an interdisciplinary, multi-sited project on post-imperial memories and legacies in post-Habsburg, post-Ottoman realms, and post-Romanov realms. 

This event is organized by The University of Chicago Center in Paris in partnership with the University of Chicago Press and the France Chicago Center.