Drawing the Circumference      



Vincent L. Wimbush

“Within the Circle”

    While on their way [to the Great House Farm], [the slaves] would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune….They would sometimes sing the pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home…they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning in themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do. 

    I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then beyond my feeble comprehension…

    (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself [1845]) [1]

This excerpt is part of the poignant reminiscence of an experience from Frederick Douglass’s years as slave. The experience provoked in him during a later time when he understood himself to be a “free” and “modern” person thoughts about the thoughts of an enslaved, subaltern peoples. Such thoughts in turn provoked a number of considerations, problems and challenges he became convinced were basic to issues of freedom and enslavement--matters having to do with critical thinking, interpretation, and engagement of the world; with positionality; with what can and ought to be the focus/foci of interpretation; whether interpretation or meaning is subjective or universal; whether all phenomena or experiences are interpretable and subject to textualization; what “texts” are, what forms “texts” may take; and how “texts” can and should be addressed. What might one who having come into thought and speech not as one of those Hegel termed “master,” but as a “slave,” born into subalternity, have to tell us, about self-consciousness and about the complexities of interpretation, and about texts and textures in relationship to self-consciousness and interpretation?

Modern and postmodern societies and cultures are obviously textually formatted and determined. Power arrangements can hardly be imagined or effected apart from texts and textuality—the current explosion of forms notwithstanding. Academic cultures are metonymic of the text-ed nature and orientations of such cultures. Within academic cultures modern biblical interpretation seems to represent hyper-textuality, if not text-fetishism, with its unrelenting focus upon and orientation to (one of) western culture’s formative, center-ing “texts.” Such interpretation has always had and (in spite of some eruptions here and there and now and then) continues to have as its primary focus issues having to do with the discrete narrowly-defined (“canonical” and extra-canonical ancient collected) “text”—its original and ongoing forms and representations, its original and ongoing meaning(s), its original ancient social world contexts, its aesthetic qualities and psycho-social appeal. That such text-focus has spurred enormous scholarly activity and production, that it has helped legitimize and undermine dominant orientations, power dynamics and traditions, that it has fueled popular social-cultural discussion and debate and controversy—these statements cannot be denied. Notwithstanding the modern and postmodern eruptions of interpretive methods and approaches, without gainsaying the experimentation and creative initiatives in connection with the explosion of methods and approaches in evidence in our times, and in spite of the embarrassingly late and slow-trickle “admission” of the interpreting “others”--persons of color and women, and those from hemispheres south and east –into the western-style academy as teacher-scholars of the Bible, the primary focus of interpretation of the Bible has not been fundamentally altered.  

Given what literacy and texts signify and effect in the western symbolic order, the persistence of the text-focus in critical biblical interpretation is hardly benign; it is reflective of a particular and most determinative and consequential positionality, one that that is decidedly, as Douglass put it, “within the circle.” This positionality has to do with the acceptance not so much of one particular content-meaning position, but with the acceptance of the acceptance of the culturally-formed agenda that involves the social practice of seeking meanings (and “meaning” itself) in relationships to (the content and or aesthetic qualities of) the texts. Such an orientation is reflective of the situation that Bourdieu attempted to explain with reference to the “field of opinion,” in which (ranges of) “ortho-dox” and “hetero-dox” views are argued for, thereby contributing to the “mis-recognition” of the realm of “doxa,” the arbitrarily constructed realm of the undiscussed. Within the “field of opinion” interpretive practices are cultivated and battles are ensued over the right content or aesthetic qualities of the texts, as the realm of “doxa,” that discursive space that frames and envelopes the “field of opinion,” normally goes without questioning. [2]

Outside the Circle

What is normally not discussed “within the circle” that includes the “text” that is “the Bible,” for example, is the prior phenomenological question, raised most pointedly by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “What is Scripture?” [3] But such a question represents only the first nodal point in the theoretical-analytical space outside the circle. In such space the interpreter is compelled to begin the questioning not about an ancient moment, to ask not so much what is the meaning of this or that text, but: what is the meaning of the social-cultural invention and uses of such “texts,” what is the meaning of meaning-seeking in relationship to the “texts” called “scriptures” (or “the Bible,” or “the Qur’an”)? What psycho-social, social-cultural work is done in relationship to such “texts,” what is performed or effected, what relationships are structured, what is communicated, what is masked, what stories are told, what convictions and sentiments and passions are conveyed, in relationship to such “texts”?  In this other discursive space, beyond the circle of text-ed interpretation, the interpreter is allowed to re-position or foreground the “text” that is the Bible as a rather freighted abbreviation for complex social-cultural phenomena and dynamics and politics. It is as though Douglass were asking not so much what is the meaning of (the content of the “text” of ) the slaves’ songs, but what is the meaning of their meaning-making, of their coming into speech/song at all? And why in this and not that way? Only outside of but in complex engagement with their immediate circle—“drawing” the circle--could such a question be raised.

Drawing Circles: Scriptures in Los Angeles

Research assistants of the Claremont Graduate University-based Institute for Signifying Scriptures have engaged in, and in this article present as summary sketches the results of, research projects that involve the raising of the questions and issues listed above. These projects represent the “drawing,” or critical description and engagement, of different discursive circles—“fields of opinion”--in which center-ing, viz. “sacred” “texts” are engaged. This “drawing” is a multi-disciplinary, multi-field preliminary excavation—not (merely textual) exegesis!--of complex situations, dynamics, practices, stories, rhetorics, that take place in relationships to texts called “scriptures,” and, in this case, in and around Los Angeles. Each project is a preliminary sketch or drawing not of what “scriptures” (in terms of content) mean, but how “scriptures” (as shorthand for social-cultural phenomena, politics and dynamics are made to) mean, how they are made to work, in a particular circle or place. Each circle or place represents an interpreting community considered by most measures and judgments to be ex-centric or subaltern. What might we learn about the community and about the social-cultural phenomenon of  “scriptures” through focus upon such communities? [4]   The “drawing” work, as Douglass’s narrative reminds us, can be done only in complexly-construed and complexly-modulated interpreting positions both outside of and in critical engagements with the circles within which “scriptures” are found.

The projects sketched below do not aim to exhaust thinking either about “scriptures” or about Los Angeles. Rather, they attempt to model for the beginning of the twenty-first century an alternate critical interpretive project for the study of “scriptures” as the study of social-cultural, psycho-social, socio-political and discursive formation and orientation. They challenge and invite students of “scriptures”—of traditions from around the world-- to be students of (scripturalizing) societies and cultures and to join them in their positions “outside the circle” and in their practice of nonetheless engaging and “drawing” “circles” of scripturalizing practices, poetics, and politics.  

[1] From The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. with introduction by William L. Andrews (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 37-38.
[2] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (trans. Richard Nice; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 164.
[3] What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993)
[4] See Satya P. Mohanty, Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 202-203, 205-206, 211-212, 216, for a fascinating discussion regarding “the epistemic status of cultural identity.”

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