March 19, 2012

Is the RAW Cooked?

An enquiry into the significance of a category that is perhaps past its due date
By Mary L. Keller

At the meeting of the Religion in the American West (RAW) Seminar in San Franscisco, 2011, a question was posed that got my interloper gears turning. I’ll begin with that question, explain why I might best be considered at interloper in RAW, and propose what might be a cooking of the RAW.

The question was raised by a historian who asked from her position as a specialist in the southern geography of the U.S., “Why would you work so hard to define a field called Religion in the American West given that many of us have been working hard for years to get out of the confines of something called ‘the American South’? And if there is something called Religion in the American West, what is it?” Let me note two things: 1) I am paraphrasing and if others can restate that question more accurately, please do so; and 2) The collegial atmosphere of this meeting was so generous and engaged that this very important question was delivered and received in the best spirit of rigorous and respectful discussion. That discussion has continued on this blog; I hope that my post perpetuates that spirit.

This question appealed greatly to me in part because I am an interloper. Having watched RAW from a safe distance for the past several years, but not really being an Americanist or an American Westist, I was participating with a sense that perhaps I didn’t really belong there. Yet I was compelled by the theoretical and evidential depth of the group; so perhaps I was hoping that I might belong. But as the “not-a-southern-historian’s” question registered itself across the length of our corporate table, I wondered whether maybe this question of why one would carve out a geographical regional identity, and how one would attempt to articulate what was meaningful about such a category, maybe this question would solve my identity crisis by cooking the RAW, so to speak, or if not cooking it, exposing it for closer scrutiny. My fundamental concern was this: If you say “American West” have you not already employed the “mindscape” of manifest destiny? The mindscape serves as a mask that orients Euro-Americans to their eastern homelands and obscures the reality that for 12,000 years the Indigenous inhabitants had been networking north and south along the spines of mountains and veins of rivers.

I was trained in history of religions with an emphasis on critical theory as it was applied to meta-theoretical frameworks across the university. Located as I was, it was the “hermeneutics of suspicion” upon which I had focused, from Edward Said and Talal Asad’s respective critiques of Eurocentric orientalism, to Charles Long’s theoretical reorientations begun in Significations, to French feminism’s linguistic turn, and postcolonial theories of raced and hybrid identities. I arrived at the RAW seminar thinking that the fundamental issue was how this group imagines “human centers” on the cultural geography of North and at least Central America. Does RAW begin with 12,000 years of human ecology moving nomadically along the spines of the Continents, moving with rivers and seasons, for which the ancient civilizations of Central America serve as the natural “center” from which to orient one’s studies? Or does RAW replay the Eurocentric re-centering of meaning by placing the “origins” of meaning in the conquest and settler cultures as they moved north from Mexico and west from the east coast of the U.S.?

My experience of listening to the papers of the RAW seminar was of being very impressed by the authority, rigor, and insight of the presenters—I would like to work with such intellectuals! These are, I hoped, my people for future AAR meetings. But then the question was cast out across the waters of our plastic wood grain veneer table, like a wooly bugger, and I bit.

This is a wooly bugger.
West of what? If we are West, we are west of the East Coast of the U.S. And from a postcolonial perspective, why would any people imagine themselves any more differentiated by their relationship to a landscape than any other people? While each landscape will have a unique impact, why would this landscape exert a bigger impact unless a people was imagining themselves to be bigger people? Is that not a repetition of the Romantic impulse to imagine the sublime as the source for a uniquely “whole” human? Does the moniker RAW reflect more than anything else the desire to imagine that a landscape was empty until conquest arrived? Does RAW exert the cartographic reasoning of Eurocentric meanings described by Gunnar Olsson in Abysmal that necessitate the masking of what we are really up to? To make the Marauder’s Map come to life in Harry Potter, you must tap it three times while saying “I’m up to no good.”

I’m thinking of animal and geological metaphors as an alternative organizing moniker that would not, in the end, provide regional specificity but rather would relate the American West to the newest zones of contact between Indigenous and settler populations on the globe. This would be a shift from “The Home on the Range” that I fear is intrinsic to the name RAW, toward a nomadic political economy of the sacred as people adapt to Climate Change. The seminar would make better sense to me as a traveling feast, a place that would draw together Indigenous rights advocates seeking to articulate new modalities for self-governance and sovereignty from South America, to David Chidester’s work on the shifting political economy of the sacred in South Africa, to circumpolar responses to global warming. Would there be a way to maintain a glocal attentiveness in this group—allowing for both the focus on regional specificity and relationships of contiguous space on the one hand, always paired with an outreach toward global “frontiers of contact” on the other? Could we call it Frontier Zoology? Did you notice how I just invoked the first person plural, as though I belonged?


John-Charles Duffy said...

Mary's post is an extension of thoughts she shared at the RAW seminar in San Francisco. I was struck then by her metaphor of the Rockies as the mountainous "spine" of the Americas (a metaphor she repeats here). I like the metaphor as a device for thinking transnationally.

Just this past week, I've been thinking about new ways to approach a "grand narrative" of American religious history (e.g., for survey courses) that can decenter the conventional eastward-looking, Protestant-centered narrative. As I was thinking about that, it occurred to me that "the West," understood as a category that moves geographically over the course of U.S. history, is helpful as a way to keep Native Americans in the narrative from start to finish, i.e., because "the West" has been the principal site of Native-Euroamerican contact. After reading Mary's post, I'm seeing why "the West" is a problematic label for the contact zones I have in mind when I use that term. I certainly agree with her that these contact zones--these continuing contact zones--are critical for narrating American religious history, whatever language we use to describe them.

Professor Keller said...

Thanks for the thoughts. Are you ready for a book proposal on "Spinal Contact: How the continents move us"?