Stars Upon Thars

“This so-called real world is the same place we’ve always been, of course….”

So said Greg Johnson, in the close to his public lecture the other day (read the conclusion to his paper here). This is an exceedingly important point, I think; the university as a whole, and of course the Humanities in particular, are often accused of being disengaged from this real world; the privileged, “ivory tower” (a phrase we get from the Song of Solomon–hardly a working class text itself, but I digress) that we in the university inhabit is thought somehow to be secluded, and thereby protected, from the rest of the world. This otherworldly realm of merely immaterial ideas (as it is characterized) is therefore something apart from the material world of matters that matter.

Students of religion with a keen eye should recognize something familiar here: the old notion of sacredness. But not as it is used by those who think it names some secret somethingness–that is, those who talk this talk of fake versus real worlds. No. Instead, recall what the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, wrote (and which was published one hundred years ago this year, in fact) about what it means to make (the infinitive verb is key) something sacred: to set it apart and to forbid it (and voila, as French sociologists say, more infinitive verbs make their appearance). Such students will likely recall that, for Durkheim, the word sacred doesn’t name some mysterious or precious substance or kernel lurking deep within the thing called sacred; and so “to make” something sacred does not mean to place some spell on it or change its very nature in some magical way.

Instead, for Durkheim, to sacralize simply means human ingenuity and labor; some generic item in our environment can be seen and used in a new way by members of a group inasmuch as they create and enact a rule system around it for a set of purposes that they happen to have–e.g., anyone knows that a table can easily become an altar if, for example, only I can touch it and not you, if its only use is this as opposed to that, and if it is placed here in just this way and not there in that other way. (We all know people who turn, say, church pews into rustic benches and transform old churches into cool lofts with hardwood floors, no?)

But there’s more, of course: if you contravene these rules then there’s going to be trouble!The rules are policed because there are those who benefit from them. And for those who follow these rules–those who grant both the rules and those who police them, legitimacy–a sense of group membership results. Or as Durkheim wrote in the closing page of Book 1, Chapter 1:

For students who have mulled over the critical scholarship that has built on Durkheim’s work since 1912, it won’t be difficult to see how this act of act of separation generally comes with an act of judgement and thus ranking–that is, a value system attends the separation, such that what the rule system allows us to see as here is judged to be better than what we now see as there, this is now seen as original and primary and that is judged subsequent and secondary; I am authentic and you are fake. Having stars or not on your belly is an arbitrary difference, of course…, until a set of practices is put in place to rally and rank one group over the other. Dr Seuss understood this.

Given that we breathe and eat and talk and act up here in the ivory tower, just as people do down there in the real world (did you catch the up/down reference? Does it imply something…?), the curious listener, with one ear attending to Durkheim, might start to wonder about what is going on when someone makes a claim about “the real world,” implying that others are somehow less than real. Given that people everyday put to various uses all of the skills that are practiced in universities–as Johnson made plain in his lecture, which focused on how members of indigenous Hawaiian groups read and write and listen and debate and work the US legal system to their group’s advantage–then that curious listener might start to wonder a little more about just what makes the university so different–different according to whom, from what, and by what standard?

They’ll notice that sometimes the distinction is premised on government supported institutions versus the free market. But since tax dollars are spent all over the economy, it’s a little tough to maintain the distinction in any sensible way–for instance, do you recall the auto industry “bail out”? Consider when the US government, under President Carter, co-signed a loan in December of 1979 to allow Chrysler to borrow $1.5 billion, to save it from going under? Or more recently, recall the US government’s 2009 intervention in an auto industry that was then on the edge of a complete collapse, a loan program now estimated to be worth over $25 billion. With news like that, it’s tough to hold onto the myth of the free market, against which one can judge the shortcomings of the supposedly protected ivory tower.

I could never imagine anyone calling the auto industry an ivory tower, even though it today exists in the US largely because we all collectively, through our tax dollars, put a safety net underneath it to protect from, yes, the free market. Why is that…?

As Johnson made clear, we always were in the real, material world, it’s just that in the daily tug and pull of social life there are those who wish to prioritize parts within it, to their benefit and to the detriment of others–after all, there’s only so much of everything to go around. In this zero sum game, there’s something at stake for being able to represent your interests as natural and their interests as artificial and out of touch–just listen to the way politicians distinguish between “the national interest” and “special interests.”

So the next time someone tells you about the privileges of the ivory tower, asking you what you’ll do when you get into the real world, look a little closer and you might see an arm wrestling match shaping up. And if you look closely enough, you may even see a star on their belly.

3 thoughts on “Stars Upon Thars

  1. First, I want to thank the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for hosting me and for making me feel so at home. Thanks also to the students–Andy, MG, Brandon, and others–for your engagement and questions. What a wonderful department you have! Thanks also to Russell McCutcheon for his response to my conclusion. As is often the case, Russ made more–and more sense of–my comments than I managed to.

    One question in particular has come up in several conversations subsequent to my lecture. Namely, why do I insist on calling the quotidian political and legal actions of the Hawaiians I am studying “religious”? The fact that I have had this question posed to me flags the fact that I moved a bit too quickly in setting up some of my points about “religion in real time.” So let me back up a bit and flesh out the issue briefly. The reason I insist on calling the actions religious–and I very much should have elaborated on this point–is because they are in the service of and participate in propelling discourses and practices about the centrality of the ancestors to ongoing Hawaiian religious life. My operative definition of “religion” follows Bruce Lincoln’s (see, for example, his Theses on Method, reprinted in Gods and Demons (Chicago 2012), so I’m always looking for claims and actions that appeal to authority that is greater or other than human (by Western standards, at least) and which construct themselves as sharing in that authority. Thus, in the context of my lecture, my argument is that defending the integrity of ancestral remains through upholding due process, for example, is ultimately religious insofar as that nitty gritty work is what enables Hawaiian to make and advance the claim that the ancestors sustain them, give them moral authority over the land, and so forth. The actions of the Hawaiian activists I describe might well be analyzed as civic or political, which they are. They become religious in my view when considered in the broader framework of appealing to greater than human authority vested in the ancestors and the claim that they speak and act on behalf of the ancestors.

  2. So then, thinking back on Ray White’s question during your lecture (that is, could we look at the legal system itself in terms of the category “ritual”), I think we could redescribe the court as a site where–in the case of your Hawaiian data, at least–two conflicting ritual systems are meeting (and not necessarily on equal footing, of course), both of which are marking the world as ordered and thus understandable and both of which are authorizing those markings and understandings by appeals to timless/more-than-huamn/contingent referents–the Law, on the one hand, and the Ancestors on the other (both of which are in the deep past and thus transcending time). And voila, the point of purchase that a scholar of religion has on this material…?

  3. Well, my first reaction is… stay off my turf, pal. I happen to know some of those protesters you saw in the video…

    Ray’s point and yours are both really good ones. I could have done more to set up my analytical framing of the issues, so I’ll do that post-facto in the cheapest of ways–quoting myself. The following are a few paragraphs from “Courting Culture: Unexpected Relationships between Religion and Law in Contemporary Hawai`i,” in After Secular Law (ed. Sullivan, Yelle, and Taussig-Rubio, Stanford UP, 2011):

    Four interrelated features characterize contemporary intersections of indigenous religious traditions and law: 1) law is often a proximate cause of indigenous cultural claims in the present; 2) the very laws that promote cultural claims frequently fail to recognize them; 3) despite this failure, such claims may take on cultural and religious vitality outside the confines of law; and 4) frequently this vitality is not a function of newly achieved cultural consensus but is instead characterized by considerable friction. In these ways law stimulates the animating principle of culture: the energy created and released—here latent, there explosive—by people attempting to inhabit shared but contested spaces, resources, and identities.
    Examination of these dynamics begins with a U.S. federal Indian law pertaining to reburial and repatriation, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Passed in 1990, NAGPRA is still fairly untested in important respects, and thus studying claims under it affords a rich opportunity to analyze law and religion in the making. The statute includes Native Hawaiians and Alaskan natives under its definition of Native Americans. Hawaiians in particular are at the forefront of exerting interpretive pressure on both the letter and intent of the NAGPRA , primarily through vigorously stretching its evidentiary parameters. In a remarkable spirit of cultural goodwill and impracticality, legislators authorized guidelines for evidence that range from hard science—carbon 14 dating, for example—to oral tradition, including testimony of “traditional religious leaders.” These diverse and frequently incommensurable forms of evidence are to be weighed equally, with simple preponderance being the standard of proof. In practice, this creates tremendous difficulties at a variety of levels, as it pits competing epistemologies, sensibilities, and narratives against one another.

    Law Beyond Rules and Rulings
    I am interested in what takes place at the strained limits of law, the geographies—indeed cosmographies—of law’s edges and what Annelise Riles has termed the “expressive dimensions” of law: its capacity to construct meanings and elicit stories. While silencing many, law also provides stages for people to find and project their voices in the process of articulating cultural narratives. Perhaps the central aspect of these expressive capacities of law is the role metaphor plays in cultural construction and contestation. Metaphorical imagination and speech are the enabling aspects of all identity claims; they are the connective tissues that sustain linkages between valorized aspects of the past—imagined or real—and the needs and desires of the present. Despite its pretensions of discursive neutrality, law solicits certain metaphors while foreclosing others. Law configures a space characterized by attempts at cultural translation, tensions and frustration when such attempts fail, and occasional episodes when cultural metaphors are embraced across socio-political lines. A cultural study of legal discourse therefore presents tremendous opportunities to fathom cultural claims at the flashpoint moments where expression and assessment are compressed into singular performative moments.
    One aim of this study is to build upon and respond to analyses of colonial histories in Hawai`i by insisting that contemporary indigenous activities in the legal sphere are forms of robust cultural expression, circumscribed though they are by realities of power and representation that seldom favor native peoples. Thus, while I take seriously Talal Asad’s critique of scholars’ tendency to overestimate cultural agency in such settings, my studies persuade me that this critique risks obscuring the ways indigenous people continue to exercise considerable agency, even in the most Western of legal domains.
    A beginning point for this study is to assume that instances of apparent legal nonsense—namely, native claims that run counter to Western conventions of truth-claiming and truth assessment—might be better viewed as making good cultural sense. Cultural sense is not something coaxed from the ethers of time; it is made in real time—veracity in the moment, as it were. In Hawai`i, tradition—whether in the form of ocean canoeing, subsistence agricultural practices, or hula —is undeniably a function of the present. The Hawaiian situation is not exceptional, only exceptionally well documented because of proximity to and engagement with Western media, ranging from the academic to the touristic. Variable though they are, all discourses of tradition share this presentist quality, even and especially when devoted to drawing attention to the past and putative connections with it. An appreciation of the living dimension of traditions requires a present-centric theory of cultural articulation that resists equating authenticity with antiquity and apparent cultural continuity. From this theoretical perspective, I chart how contemporary cultural aspirations and interests are enunciated in the idiom of law and how the language of law enables new cultural articulation.
    Another dimension of my inquiry into the generative intersection of law and culture poses questions inflected by critical engagement with the asymmetrical realities of the landscape at hand. How do laws such as NAGPRA structure the conditions of possibility for certain native claims to be acknowledged while simultaneously working to deny the validity of other native claims? Part of the answer concerns the colonial categories at work, categories that misalign with native cultural realities. The more fundamental problem has to do with the gap between the way the category of religion is constructed by legislators and legal audiences and the way it is engaged in practice. In crafting NAGPRA, legislators made room for religious evidence In practice, however, “religious” evidence has turned out to be playful, dynamic, metaphorical, non-homogenous, and decidedly contentious, even internally so. Although legislators seem to have thought that the problem would be devising fair ways to weigh religious evidence, a greater problem has emerged: How to weigh religious claims at all insofar as one of their principal characteristics is devoted resistance to any kind of empirical assessment or exogenous standardization. This dynamic is rendered all the more complex when a Western empiricist category such as lineal descent is engaged in practice by forms of speech and reasoning, like the Hawaiian genealogical imagination, that are strikingly and unapologetically religious in character insofar as they rest upon non-falsifiable claims.

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