On Not Knowing Where to Look

galleryThose who sustain this idealized image of culture do so … by mistaking the dominant fraction … of a given group for the group or “culture” itself.  At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions favored and propagated by the dominant fraction for those of the group as a whole…. Scholarly misrecognitions of this sort replicate the misrecognitions and misrepresentations of those the scholars privilege as their informants. (Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 8/3 [1996]: 226)

Living out one such misrecognition, my Durban roommate [when we attended the 2000 meeting of the International Association for the History of Religions world congress], Willi Braun, and I took a cab one day from the Congress hotel to the tourist bureau in downtown Durban to see a much discussed African art exhibition — art, like religion, thought by many to symbolize the authentic, aesthetic sense (an analogy used by Rudolf Otto in the opening pages of The Idea of the Holy) and struggle of a people.  But, unbeknownst to us, it happened to be National Women’s Day in South Africa and the bureau was closed when we got there.  Much like Gertrude Stein’s comment (often paraphrased by the late-Ninian Smart, or so I’m told), when we got there, there was no “there” there — a fitting example of what Žižek calls the illusion of traditional realism:

“the belief that behind the directly rendered objects is the absolute Thing which could be possessed if only we were able to discard the obstacles or prohibitions that prevent access to it.” (The Fragile Absolute or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? [Verso.2000], 37)

After a leisurely walk back to the hotel, past the imperial architecture of the British colonial-era Durban city hall and then through parts of town that looked nothing like the tourist district where we were staying, a friend who we met outside our hotel asked if we had seen the art exhibit, to which I answered “No,” then, pausing and pointing across the sidewalk, I added, “but I’ve seen that tree.”

In that precise moment, where our exchange flirted with the distinction between enthusiasm and sarcasm, between culture and nature, between the extraordinary and the ordinary, that’s where we find the myth of the given, the illusion of traditional realism, and the jargon of authenticity exerting themselves.

Prompted by seeing the above picture of little children who
are not looking at the “right” thing, this post
is an excerpt from chapter 8 of
The Discipline of Religion
(Routledge, 2003)