March 20, 2014

Orientations and Memory

by Brandi Denison

We will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past, rewrite it, falsify it, who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other; such a critique is proper (it cannot fail to be), but it doesn't count for much unless a more basic critique precedes it: a critique of human memory as such. For after all, what can memory actually do, the poor thing? It is only capable of retaining a paltry little scrap of the past, and no one knows why just this scrap and not some other one, since in each of us the choice occurs mysteriously, outside our will or our interests. We won't understand a thing about human life if we persist in avoiding the most obvious fact: that a reality no longer is what it was when it was; it cannot be reconstructed.” Milan Kundera, Ignorance

Growing up in western Colorado, my life was oriented around a variety of mountains. When I was in town, I only needed to head towards the Grand Mesa, a large, purple flattop mountain, in order to go home. At home, in order to go to school, I headed towards the sandstone rock formations that make up the Colorado National Monument.  In order to visit my grandparents, I headed towards a series of hills that formed the foothills of the Uncompahgre Plateau.  To go to the post office, I  turned towards the Bookcliffs. Growing up in a place with very little entertainment for young people, we found amusement along the river, in ditches, and in the surrounding mountains and desert. Even as I escaped what I felt at the time to be a provincial life through books, I often made my escape outside.

Now, my orientation is in relationship to the Atlantic Ocean, a powerful and massive landmark that is invisible even 50 feet from it. It has taken some time for me to get used to such a powerful, yet invisible landmark. I spend too much time inside: writing; prepping for classes; and escaping the heat. However, in my writing, I am never far from persistent orientation of the American West’s mountains.

What does an orientation towards the American West illuminate? The thing about religion in the American West is that it is not somehow specific or even unique to that place. After all, there are landscapes that are similar to the American West throughout the world. Mongolia has expansive deserts and Nepal even more impressive mountains than the American West. Other places have as much religious diversity and a similar history of colonialization. One thing that an orientation to the West does is disrupt the grade school narrative of American Religious history.  It also calls attention to other issues and frameworks that can prove useful in other settings outside of the American West. It’s not just about Indians, Catholics, and Mormons, but also about city-building, utopian dreams, court battles defining religion, the desire to find freedom, cultural reappropriation, land, both as sacred place and ownership over, difference, diversity, and identity crises.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the study of religion in the American West as an act of memory. For many of us, novelist Milan Kundera’s words will be eternally true: “we will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past. . . who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other.” We, in this imagined community of scholars, bloggers, and readers, stand united against narratives of American religion that start with the Puritans arriving on the shores of the East Coast, insisting instead that maybe the narrative starts with the arrival of the Spanish, or that it starts with the indigenous peoples who were here long before any European.

The American West was constituted in part by both cultural memories of it (through Buffalo Bill shows, early Westerns, and reenactments of epic battles) and through academic scholarship. For instance, through his Frontier Thesis, Fredrick Turner created the definitional boundaries of what that actually was.  Scholars of religion in the American West have inherited these orientations, both in the constant struggle to assert that religion is important in the West and also that the West continues to be relevant past Turner’s artificial closing. Even as this work is rooted in evidence through academic methodologies, it is engaging memory.

But, how might an orientation toward the American West allow scholars of religion to account for what memory, Kundera’s poor thing, can actually do? Individual memories are fragmented, partial, and incomplete. Cultural memories are even more incomplete and partial, even as those memories are spun to hide holes or lapses. An orientation towards memory in the American West, then, reveals that the components of human identity—region, race, ethnicity, religion—are fundamentally fluid, porous, and uncertain even as acts of cultural memory attempt to make these identity boundaries certain.

Orientation to religion in the American West is a commitment to address impartial memories, through an inherently unstable category, and within an indefinable space. Even as the landmarks of that space overwhelm and frame day-to-day movements, our commitment as scholars of the American West is to recognize that orientations are fundamentally relational. In the words of Jonathan Boyarin, in his The UnconvertedSelf, my hope with orientating my scholarship in the American West is to “keep . . .the past open, or reopen. . . a chink in the past” (118).

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