Alan Cole, Professor of Religious Studies, Lewis and Clark College 

"Fetishizing Tradition: Desire and Re-invention in Buddhist and Christian Narratives"

Summary (download complete paper here--all rights reserved by author)

On February 14 the Institute for Signifying Scriptures kicked off the spring Brown Bag Lunch Discussion Series with a presentation on “Fetishizing Tradition: Desire and Re-invention in Buddhist and Christian Narratives” by Professor Alan Cole from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. The presentation traced the re-creation of tradition through the comparative-analytic wedge of Buddhist and Christian narratives, arguing for the emergence of a developmental model that describes the dynamic process of tradition re-making.  Cole highlights moments at which narrative overcomes past tradition and makes itself the center of tradition.  In other words, narrative is the active agent that co-opts past tradition and asserts itself as the locus of tradition.

The presentation builds upon Cole’s publication titled Text as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahayana Literature.  This earlier work demonstrates that Mahayana Buddhist authors, writing near the beginning of the Common Era, rhetorically used the tropes of renunciation in order to argue that one only becomes fully Buddhist by renouncing old Buddhism and converting to the Mahayana approach.  The central feature of renunciation in older forms of Buddhist tradition was playfully tweaked in order to become the basis for abandoning older tradition and embracing the new.  He identifies the Lotus Sutra in particular as a narrative that craftily taps into the characteristic features of older traditions but re-directs and re-orients this impulse for the emerging new tradition. The previous heterogeneous tradition becomes a crystallized symbol that the new tradition uses in its own narrative; past is fetishized and thereby surpassed.

As professor Cole clarifies, his use of “fetish,” to which the title of the presentation points, should be understood in line with Marx.  Fetish then is the way humans “perceive, latch on to, an object, idea, or narrative as magically summing up a complex matrix of disparate parts.”  Cole named national flags, brand name logos, zip codes, and sports teams as examples of fetishes. What he wants us to see is that all identity construction is in varying degrees fetishistic, and in this presentation fetish sets up a circularity: to accept that a new narrativized fetish is functioning with the authority of the preceding tradition is to accept that the fetish can speak for, redefine, and assume the authority of the older tradition. This is how fetishized narrative overcomes a diverse tradition and supplants it.

The bulk of Cole’s presentation then seeks to analyze how Paul and the Gospel of Mark fetishize prior tradition in the service of creating new tradition. In this process, the established ritual of temple sacrifice is reconstituted and reduced into the sacrifice of Jesus as God’s son, which in the new narrative purports to be both symbol and supersession of the prior significance of sacrifice. Cole admits that Paul’s letters themselves cannot be categorized as narrative, but they depend upon a “narrative-based bargain” proposing that God’s sacrifice of Jesus, the son, does away with temple sacrifice. One’s acceptance of this proposal completes Paul’s bargain and is in some senses performative: by assenting to Paul’s fetishistic narrative, one becomes part of the new tradition governed by the one universal sacrifice, is no longer bound by prior strictures of sacrificial law, and gains salvation.

Unlike Paul’s letters, the Gospel of Mark is by all accounts a narrative, even as biblical scholars may argue about gospels’ genres. Cole brings out what he calls the “to-and-fro” motion within Mark, wherein Jesus comes from the source of the old tradition—God—and proceeds to challenge it at every turn. As paradigm of prior tradition and as Jesus’s progenitor, divine will kills Jesus around Pesach, that time of year when first-borns are ritually or symbolically sacrificed according to narratives in the Pentateuch. That killing performed by the one to whom sacrifices are usually made has the dual function of being both the ultimate sacrifice and the nail in the coffin of traditional sacrificial requirements. The prevailing customs and institutions are revolutionized through fetishizing them and weaving them into a new narrative.

In his comparison of the Lotus Sutra, Paul, and the Gospel of Mark, Cole shows how one idea or symbol is made to emblemize a tradition’s both appealing or salvageable aspects and its criticized elements at the same time as that fetishized symbol is used to defeat tradition. In some very fundamental ways, the symbol, the regnant tradition, and the new system are all identical, he says. Such a narrative positions the reader to acknowledge the symbol as fulfillment of the previous system, leading to an agreement with the critique of that system and then the revitalization of a new system that in fact relies upon the one it declared obsolete.

Excavating the imaginative and inventive work humans do with religious traditions is central to the purposes of ISS. Cole’s presentation helps us to see the specific work that narrative accomplishes in positioning readers to both accept and deny elements of the past in order to construct an invigorated present position. His intuition that narrative accomplishes this trick as a solution to the heterogeneity of the prior tradition—which may be growing in all directions and in some senses out of control—offers much for us to think about precisely because it has to do with the negotiation of difference and the (re)constitution of social units through narratives such as scriptures.

Questions for Further Discussion:
Surely Mahayana Buddhism and Christianity were able to establish themselves through fetishizing prior tradition, but are there cases in which this approach has not successfully launched new, lasting institutions? What accounts for the success or lack thereof?

When traditions exceed a threshold of heterogeneity, does survival actually require narratives (oral or written) that fetishize tradition that simultaneously upend it, or are other solutions for overwhelming heterogeneity in evidence in Buddhism, Christianity, or other religio-cultural complexes?

How does nostalgia function in the model that Cole proposes? Might it motivate the toppling and reinscribing of tradition or does it resist the change?

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