CRITICAL COMPARATIVE SCRIPTURES
CONVERSATION ABOUT A NEW INTELLECTUAL
PROGRAM AND PROJECT
The following is a transcript of an interview of Vincent L. Wimbush, professor of religion, founding director of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS), and creator of the Critical Comparative Scriptures (CCS) program at Claremont Graduate University, conducted on March 30, 2011. Discussants/interviewers are pioneering graduate students of the CCS program: Tia Carley; Richard Newton; Francesca Barocio; Norman Johnson; Magi Hernandez; David Olali; Melissa Reid; and Catherine LaFuente.
Tia Carley: In the introduction to Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon (Rutgers University Press, 2008), you note that “scripture” is a problematic term, especially given its connectedness to Christian hegemony, and yet you consider it the best term for what you are trying to study. What is it that you find particularly useful about the term “scripture” in comparison to something like “sacred text” or some other term?
VLW: The English term has in it several different levels or types of valances, definitions, and connotations. The term “scriptures”—I generally prefer the plural—carries with it a built-in understanding that what you are dealing with is something written, writings. At the same time, it’s a term that’s loaded and can explode in many different directions, in terms of meaning. I thought the term quite apt or appropriate…even provocative. “Sacred texts” already, in my view, over-determines the issue—one has to deal with what is meant by “sacred.” I think the term “sacred texts” forces the critic or interpreter into a kind of thicket, before he or she can move onto what I would consider the chief problem, which is what human beings use in order to instrumentalize their claims and assumptions about knowledge and power. At one level, “scriptures” is somewhat neutral. The term is simply a designation for something written, and that’s where we ought to begin our problematization of what human beings use to think about issues and to negotiate problems at a different level. I think that out of the several possibilities in English language usage, it’s a provocative term and opens windows and doors. I’m comfortable with that choice, for now.
Richard Newton: Given some of those dynamics, what distinguishes the Critical Comparative Scriptures (CCS) program—in the prior iterations of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS) or in the previous African Americans and the Bible project—from…other academic programs?
VLW: It’s radically comparative in the sense that the handle does not privilege any particular tradition or community or type of representation or registration of knowledge. It’s pretty wide open…If someone were to trace the history of this sort of initiative, it would be discovered that its evolution has been pretty steadily toward wide open comparative studies and inquiry, and that is what it is meant to represent. The use of the significant terms—we’ve already talked a little bit about “scriptures,” but we can come back to that—is a concession to privileging western scripts and language, but…we are located in the west after all. However, “signifying” is wide open as it modifies and broadens and makes more utilitarian and compelling the term “scriptures.” “Signifying” is then seen to be complex in precisely the way that the term “scriptures” is complex. It opens itself up to all sorts of inquiries from many directions and approaches. “Signifying” simply means “how we mean,” “how we define things.” And so, as I use it here it refers to an institute, a kind of collective of students or scholars who explore how human beings mean; how they define themselves; how they define things around them. It’s completely open-ended, and it doesn’t prejudice, again, certain types of instruments or representations. It is bigger or broader than the study of religion. It is certainly bigger or broader than the study of western Jewish/Christian textual traditions. No one tradition need be privileged here. I would like to think that it welcomes, that it invites partnership from many different fields and disciplines within the academy. It’s hard for me to think of an area of inquiry that would not be welcomed or would not be appropriate as part of conversation had here. If you think of it simply in terms of religion—I know, of course, the prejudices that remain, many of which have to do with how we’ve been socialized within and outside the academy to think about things—we will not get far. This is because “religion” is now popularly understood as this thing over here that’s now been privatized and represents something having to do with this or that kind of institution, type of leader, then of course, textual traditions. But turning our gaze toward how we mean as human beings would suggest that hardly any area of human inquiry would be left out. It’s radically expansive. That is or could be the criticism, that this orientation is very broad, perhaps, too broad, expansive, and encompassing. I think we’ve hardly begun the work of determining the kinds of problems that really can be addressed in connection with this orientation.
Francesca Barocio: …Do you see any challenges for the Institute for Signifying Scriptures and the Critical Comparative Scriptures (CCS) program accomplishing to find a niche within the field of Religious Studies? If so, what are some of the challenges?
VLW: …At one level, the challenges are pretty obvious. What ISS and CCS represent is a new discourse. History tells us that a new discourse or a new construal of an old discourse always has a difficult time. You have to elbow yourself, so to speak, into company, and there is often contempt for the new….it’s really quite difficult to gain a sense of legitimacy. I’d say at one level, there is the challenge of being new. There are many other challenges that result from being a new discourse in the academy, such as intersectionality. The term we often use around here, whether you like it or not, is “transdisciplinary.” What I’m thinking about, what I want represented by ISS and in the CCS program is discourse that falls within the cracks, that discourse that envelopes established discourses and goes beyond them. There are all sorts of images one can think of. I think that it’s a matter of defining a problem and determining what is needed in order to pursue it, rather than simply locating oneself within a discipline, field, department, school, et cetera. That’s fraught with difficulties. There are prejudices against those who would arrogate to themselves the right to raise questions across boundaries—of fields and disciplines. Much of what one thinks of what the traditional university historically has represented is now exploding quite a bit and falling apart. It will probably be within the course of your careers that you will likely see the creation of something quite different from what has been understood as the university, for good and ill. Historically, the university has been a place that figured out how to embrace, for its strategic purposes, that which is fairly popular for which you could gain some support—big endowment funds. We know now much about the recent history of the creation of fields and disciplines. Robber barons said, “We’ll give you money,” and schools and departments popped up. That is the reality of the modern university. However, a university worthy of the name should also be committed to finding room for those conversations that are not popular and for those inquiries that would likely cause some uproar, un-ease. What otherwise is academic freedom and tenure for? I think, in our little corner of the university, the project that is Critical Comparative Scriptures or “Signifying Scriptures,” use either term or type of expression, is an example of that which is not popular. In fact, if it is understood what’s at issue the project could cause quite a bit of uproar. It’s important that this project not be understood as apologetics or confused with tribal exegesis and the like. The project of Critical Comparative Scriptures raises questions not so much about the content-meaning of the texts of any tradition or the representations of any traditions, but the meaning of the construction of the representation in the first place and what communities are doing with the construction and the representation. In other words, the work that we/they/ya’ll make scriptures do for us, for them, for ourselves. When you think about it, since we are not in the context of the theological school or the seminary or whatever would be the corresponding sort of institution across the traditions of the world, we must ask, who would be interested in such a project? You’re not likely to gain the support of the respective collectivities or believing communities, who see themselves as owners and protectors of these texts. Thus, the pursuit of the project of Critical Comparative Scriptures requires safe space. This means that we should seek to find, where we can, fellow travellers, conversation partners, who understand that something quite different is at stake, namely a clearer understanding of human beings as we continue to experiment with what that means in terms of gaining power primarily through different modes and claims about modes of knowing. That’s an assumption that I think we ought to run with as we try to investigate what happens in different settings and different traditions. I could go on and on about what I see as the challenges. The challenges are among us. The challenges have to do with the people that are a part of our own large discourse, who may be threatened by, or at least confused by this departure—from what J. Z. Smith terms tribal exegesis. At the level of the larger academy or the university, there is the challenge of making and securing space for oneself to raise these kinds of questions. There will always be the need to explain that the project is different from a defence of religious claims and the like. Society and culture, in general, including the different confessional communities worldwide, which will not naturally or necessarily invest in a project that raises the question having to do with Critical Comparative Scriptures. The student in pursuit of the project needs some clear-headed understanding about what’s at stake and what are, as you put it, some of the serious challenges.
Norman Johnson: Can you describe your intellectual evolution as a kind of spiritual journey, and by that I mean, your own meaning-making? Are there moments for you that have been decisive, that put you on this track?
VLW: Well, the first thing I would say is that I would not want to separate the journeying into intellectual/academic on the one hand and the spiritual on the other hand. The two are interwoven, and I appreciate the way the question was constructed. Now where to begin? It’s certainly not a strictly linear evolutionary development. Although it may be somewhat circular in the sense that I see almost every day, certainly each year, the connections between what I am doing now and what naïve but nonetheless compelling questions that occurred to me in my youth. There’s a sense in which I am experiencing myself in a kind of recursive experience. I find myself going back to those initial questions that were raised. It would be better, of course, if you raised the question with my elders or maybe even siblings who could give testimony about this. I’m aware of positioning myself, but probably mainly being positioned by others, as a kind of precocious type who raised a lot of questions. I didn’t have the answers. If someone were to testify that I thought I had the answers, then I would be greatly embarrassed, because it’s clear to me I had no answers. I do recall being positioned as someone who raised questions all the time about what was fundamental about this or that, and I also remember that my maternal grandmother sort of forced me into—my goodness this is embarrassing because I was too young to know anything about what was going on—a situation in which I would be a resource person of sorts for elders who were seeking the truth about texts. This included the Bible, but it went beyond it. I remember there were some novels and other texts. We didn’t really have encyclopaedias and Google then as we do now. Encyclopaedias were sort of new then. The concept of the encyclopaedia was sort of odd even. So I would be the resource person. On a regular basis, I would find answers to the questions that we all raised. That sort of anticipated my scholarly career. However, I had clearly flirted with religious leadership in the church, because elders thought that if you were smart that was what you should do. It was the default position. I learned soon enough that I was not suited for religious leadership, and so the scholarly thing I sort of backed into. Early on I became interested in philosophy, but I soon disabused myself of that discourse as the way to go mainly because it seemed a bit too ahistorical. I remember complaining that I could not find myself in anything that I read, which was a problem. As a result, I seemed to experience a kind of suffocation. I do remember the kind of play that I associated with the operations of exegesis as something that allowed me to manipulate the cards a bit so that I could find myself and my story within those operations. That was the beginning of my turn toward biblical studies. Yet the years in graduate school discouraged me again because there were very few moments that allowed me to think consistently and in disciplined ways about my own thinking and think about my own social location and identity. The only moment I can think of was a moment I stole for myself. I was asked to think about contributing an article to Yale Divinity School’s community rag, and I decided that I would use that as an occasion to get back to some of those questions that I had been dealing with as a youth. I saw at that point that I could make the connection, but it would have to be my own doing; that it would have to do the heavy-lifting. So I went through a fairly traditional course of study (although students and teachers thought the program was avant garde!). I committed myself to working to make the connection; to begin to connect the dots in the circle in a way that would make me comfortable. This allowed me to take initial steps in forming the project that soon became the African Americans and the Bible research project. I think you were a part of the first steps that I took in that direction (motioning toward Norman Johnson). Of course it seemed not to fit anywhere in the curriculum at that point, but I think it proved to be an open window for students. It certainly was for me. Thereafter, I continued to work on sort of dual levels, all the while thinking that it was important for me to continue to make the kind of connection to which I had committed myself much earlier. The story-telling can go on, but I think that may be enough to indicate that I saw questioning as intellectual questing and questioning as part of self-formation and spiritual journeying—if you want to call it that—all as one effort that didn’t put aside one for the other. I think that is the perennial challenge for scholars, especially in the humanities—to figure out the most creative way to include the self and its interests in the work that you do. I don’t claim to have gotten it right. It is an ongoing challenge. Not to take it up is to engage in a kind of blinding of the self. Let that be enough for now.
Magi Hernandez: As the work of ISS and CCS has grown out of your African Americans and the Bible project, naturally most of the work seems weighted toward the study of historically dominated peoples in the United States and the subaltern regions. But as your field grows, other voices and other groups are beginning to join the discourse. I’m particularly curious—this is motivated by my living in England for a few years—about the groups that are identified historically as the dominator and often do continue to function as such. Yet within them are historically dominated peoples who work as both within the one group, for example Catholics in England. As the work of CCS grows, how do you see those types of voices joining the dialogue and the particular nuances of that bifurcated view of a person coming from that point of view? Then there’s another group of people, like my own children, that self-identify as being mixed-raced, intercultural, and refuse to be locked into the definition that “you are Hispanic simply by your last name” but stand up and say, “I am Hispanic” and “I am English” and “I am Mexican” and “I am Norwegian.” How do those two groups begin to work into the methodology and the types of projects that will come out of CCS?
VLW: Well, it seems to me that there are several questions and issues that you put forward here. Let me begin by saying that I want to make it very clear that the study of scriptures is really a study of human beings: the evolution of their consciousness, their forms of representation, relations of power, et cetera. This goes far beyond texts or textedness. We should all begin at this level with this kind of assumption. “Scriptures” is just a handle for an investigation into modes of existence among human beings. Amongst the questions that must be raised, given that set of assumptions, has to do with which human beings and which collectivities are to be privileged. Who do we take most seriously, given the built-in limitations for what we aim to do? The reason I want to “privilege non-dominance,” which is the way I want to put this for now, is precisely because there’s a history of not taking as seriously as we should their experiences, their representations, and their voices. It goes beyond simple solidarity, although that’s clearly there. It has to do with taking the opportunity to learn more. Think of this analogy. In terms of medical research or science, we know that we learn far more about history and the evolutionary course of diseases the extent to which the subject who’s researched or studied is other than a middle-aged white male, the traditional default demographic. I think that it’s important to make the subject of our study someone other than that demographic. Now, you can also broaden that to say, given our interest, that the subject should be other than the so-called “world religions,” the dominant religious formations. We know from our engagement of some scholarly material that we ought to make a distinction between “world religions” and “religions of the world.” So one way of getting a handle on the privileging of non-dominance is that we are studying not simply “world religions,” which is the default focus in religious studies programs, seminaries, and divinity schools in North America and Europe. In the field of religion, it is rare that the focus is on, for lack of a better handle, “religions of the world.” I would prefer to use terminology something like “modes of being human among peoples who’ve not been at the center.”
By applying pressure to put focus—some focus, not all the focus—on those who are not at the center what more do we learn about what it means to be human or the different ways in which people have tried to be human? What more then do we learn about that aspect of trying to be human that we call “religion” or “spirituality?” The privileging of the non-dominant has to do with forcing us to open up, to be more comprehensive, more encompassing in terms of presuppositions, assumptions.
I think I’ve addressed the first part of the question. In regards to the second part of the question, I don’t associate dominance and non-dominance with race and ethnicity, in any strict terms. After Foucault, everybody now understands that power is not just some thing over there; as if “Oh, let’s just go over there and get some power.” Power always has to do with relationships. Power is inherent in how you and I relate to one another. If there are no human beings around doing things there is no power. I’m talking about how human beings relate to one another. For me, it’s not strictly about race. I didn’t say this is just about black people or just about brown people or just about tan people. Anyone who studies history knows that it’s more likely to be the case that the oppressed are going to have more melanin in their skins. That’s just how it’s worked itself out. However, I’m not hyper-determinist in this regard. It has nothing to do with the focus on a particular people. That’s why, again, someone else other than myself, charting the history of my programmatic initiatives and scholarship, might say, “He just moves too fast. We can’t keep up with what he’s doing.” That’s why I could never be satisfied with leaving the research project at African Americans and the Bible. I can’t leave it at African Americans and I can’t leave it with the Bible. Now I’m always going to be interested in black peoples because those are my people. And I’ll always be interested in the Bible as that text that black peoples have wonderfully and poignantly “mis-read.” However, I want to provide a safe space that will facilitate research on complexities in both those arenas. For example, we should examine the assumptions built into the way in which we talk about people. British and other Europeans “created” “Africans.” These people weren’t running around saying, “We’re Africans.” We’re this tribe or that tribe. Black people were invented because white people said, “We’re over here, and we’re in charge, and they got to have a name.” I understand how that works, and of course, some categorization is necessary. However, the scholar needs to be aware of how these things occurred, under what circumstances these categories were invented, and work with that complexity. I hope I’m addressing the question. You should come back at me if I’m not addressing it. If “scriptures” really is just a handle for human beings and the funny things they do with one another, then inherent in that is power relations and power dynamics. I want to make sure we do not, as part of this type of project, simply replicate the sort of focus on these dominant collectivities. There is, of course, room for each student to pursue a course of study that would include the major world religions. The “critical” part that goes with “comparative” means questioning what that very category means. The religion department that is only divided into the major dominant traditions has made a powerful set of assumptions and ought to be challenged in that regard. That’s part of the reason “religions of the world” is emphasized in the CCS program. I’m not forcing anybody to major here and there. The aim is to keep us honest and as critical as possible, in so far as we are investigating human beings orienting themselves in particular ways. It’s all human beings in theory, which means “different modes of spirituality” and “different modes of being religious.” It probably requires different language and different categories. That’s how I understand dominant and non-dominant and the interest in privileging those who have not been at the center of the critical gaze or the critical operations.
David Olali: So do you think humans, as we have come to understand human beings from history and from our environment, are forever trapped in the invention of scriptures? What would you say humans are doing when they are not inventing scriptures?
VLW: They are doing a lot of different things, David. I am not making the claim that scriptures or scripturalizing captures everything. I am making the claim that we have not even begun to investigate what that means. Again, I see “scriptures” as a kind of freighted abbreviation for the advancement of an instrument by which human beings direct themselves; through which they negotiate difference; by which they register their claims about knowledge and power. Now that’s an awful lot when you think about it. That’s why I’m okay with using the same category in order to explain what takes place in the so-called “simple societies”; some would say “primitive societies.” If you use “scriptures” in the way in which we define it here as a kind of ground-zero for analysis, so to speak, of the modern era and its traditions of textualization, and you probe the meaning of that and how that functions, you will find that the same function has always obtained. It seems to me that this is an assumption that ought to be put on the table in all human societies. That is to say, you find a kind of an instrument of or symbol or sign of center-formation around which differences are negotiated, which tells us that this is a place of authority or that it is a figure of authority or of authorization, even. It can be found in a text. It can also be found in another kind of instrument that may be considered quite odd if you’re a Presbyterian living in the western United States. However, if you live somewhere else, a text might be considered an odd instrument. What I’m trying to uncover is the different kinds of operations, or rather what kind of operations scriptures name in human societies. It seems to me that that is the warrant for comparative analysis. My understanding is that this has to do with claims about knowledge and power. Now, you can say there are lots of other things that are going on, but that’s the big one, it seems to me. That’s the big enchilada. Now, I don’t want to be in the position where I need to claim it’s everything, but this is something that we still know very little about because we don’t know, for example, a lot about the social psychology that subtends it. How it is, for example, that human beings can actually be convinced that in a text or some other object exists the authority upon which to construct society? That’s an amazing—you may say—an amazing phenomenon or trick. It might under certain discursive circumstances be called magic, superstition, and so forth, reflecting the power of popular conviction or the means by which popular convictions are established. Something like this establishment of popular conviction subtends every society that we can name or reconstruct. Yes, there are other things, but this is a pretty powerful set of issues or problematics. So it’s a stand-in, it seems to me, again, for the knowledge/power issue. Does that help?
Melissa Reid: In your introductory essay “Rhetorics of Restraint” (in Discursive Formations, Ascetic Piety and the Interpretation of Early Christian Literature [Semeia 57 and 58; Scholars Press, 1992]), you describe asceticism as “a universal and complex phenomenon” and that it “provides a focus upon a concrete phenomenon as topic that can be argued to be one of the most important for the understanding of religious sensibilities and religiously-inspired orientations to society and culture, ancient and modern east and west.” The way in which you have described scripturalizing is reminiscent in some ways of the way in which you’ve described asceticism. Would you care to comment on whether or not you see a connection between the two phenomena; and secondly, aside from scripturalizing and asceticism, are there other universal phenomena that pertain to, or define, scriptural economies?
VLW: Let me first say that I retain an interest in askesis as a history of religions problem. It may be, again, someone else studying what was happening in the academy, or part of the academy during the period in which I was being academically and intellectually socialized, who may have a different perspective on this matter. I should like to note a few things about the movements and circles and conversations with which I was associated in years past. Studies dealing with asceticism as phenomenon are similar in many ways to the cultural-critical studies of scriptures, that is, scriptures as social-cultural phenomenon. By that I mean I moved from an initial interest in and focus on—which makes perfect sense, given my social location—ancient Christian/late antique traditions having to do with askesis to a broader interest in the modern and contemporary west, to full-blown, full-throttle comparative study. In the mid 1980s I initiated a research project that was part of the old Institute for Antiquity and Christianity here at Claremont Graduate University. I convened meetings of New Testament scholars, so-called Intertestamental scholars, and Patristic scholars for a number of years around issues pertaining to askesis. After a number of years, it seemed to me very important to broaden the circle of conversation partners so that we could engage in a discussion about comparative asceticisms. As a result, I lost a number of conversation partners because many felt somewhat threatened by the prospect of a broader conversation. Many thought it would be unwieldy and that they would have little to learn from the disciplinary others—or, perhaps, too much to learn without confessing such. At any rate we lost some folk, but the comparative focus went forward. I believe we were one of the first, if not the first joint program unit of the National Meetings of AAR and SBL. The unit obtained for a number of years. Sessions there focused on the ascetic dimension in society and culture which meant transgressing set field boundaries and the questions and operations. This meant that the other major traditions or so-called “world religions” and the so-called “little traditions,” were within our gaze. The conversations were hard but rewarding.
I took a somewhat similar step with respect to scriptures. I have lost some conversation partners along the way for some of the same reasons: as many thought that the comparative asceticism project was unworkable, that the categories don’t translate nicely; it would be awkward to have conversation; and on and on went the explanations, if not excuses. I think one can see some parallels in the reactions of scholars to ISS and CCS and the approach to scriptures. For me clearly what was a stake—what remains at stake—is a kind of a history of religions’ approach—making askesis a history of religion problematic and making scriptures the same kind of history of religion problematic. I would say that I see both categories as window-openers to a complex view of human striving, human questing, humans searching for—fill in the blank—fulfilment or something like that. I always assume that human beings are always trying to find some sort of fulfilment or wholeness, or the like. If you don’t assume this your humanities-oriented research is going to collapse. Everybody gets off track. Sometimes you get into situations where it’s difficult to find your way forward, except to fall back onto disciplinary operations and positions. But in point of fact, it’s impossible to understand our history and contemporary situations without assuming that by and large human beings are trying to find a place of contentment or wholeness. I think both these categories provide open windows to help us understand more clearly what human beings are up to.
I can make at least one other kind of connection between the two phenomena. It’s no accident, it seems to me, that the texted traditions associated with the world religions are also associated with particular radical world orientations. I can be made to back away from the modifier “radical.” There’s a connection between investment in textual traditions and particular forms of askesis or spirituality. They sort of go together, and bringing them together may very well open up other kinds of windows into what’s at issue among the scriptural civilizations and with particular forms of askesis. One could argue that the scriptural civilizations have invented the type of askesis that has most influenced us—the ideology of radical world renunciation or world abnegation (“this world is not my home”). It’s no accident that those are the people of the books, the texts. History of religions, then, can be quite helpful as it forces us to compare that kind of orientation of world renunciation to those traditions, perhaps all pretextual traditions, that have a wider array of representations and forms of spirituality and orientations to the world. I may very well some day get back to that sort of analysis—via analysis of scriptures. It would be fascinating to see what more could be done with that on the other side of some critical comparative work on scriptures. They go hand in hand. In a sense it’s not surprising to me that there seems to be a profound connection there. I have only hunches about that for now, but its worth pursuing. I’m not going to let go of either project. It makes sense to relate forms of otherworldliness and their politics to the scriptural religions and the politics of scripturalization that’s part of these world civilizations.
Catherine LaFuente: You mentioned that you anticipate that there will be changes in the academy over the span of our careers…where do you see the CCS program in the future, say thirty years from now? How do you think it will have an impact on the greater academy as a whole and Religious Studies in particular?
VLW: Well, I don’t know. I can tell you what hopes I have for it. I see some things on the horizon. Things are quite volatile right now; frankly, quite fluid. In the end, a lot will depend on what you all do and what influence you will have in that context. Frankly, my hope is that you’ll have influence far beyond the academy. I don’t assume all of you will end up in the academy, perhaps you all will. As to what may be the situation for the CCS program in thirty years or so, I don’t know. I hope we will continue to press the point that this is bigger than “religion.” As Jonathan Z. Smith puts it, “religion” is this thing that scholars sitting at their desks have come up with in order to explain people. “Religion” is this thing we created a few “weeks” ago in order to textualize peoples; in fact, to enslave them within the framework of textuality. I mean before we created the category “religion” human beings were understood to be far more complex. What we refer to as “religion” today was really their whole worldview. So I would like for Critical Comparative Scriptures as an intellectual project to continue to press the point that the major problems that we human beings deal with—again, knowledge and power or discourse and power—are really about far more than “religion” as defined in that way, and therefore it can be an exciting challenge for research scholarship in the humanities, and I should add the social sciences, to realize this truth. It provides a different kind of lens or a more comprehensive approach to gaining a handle on human complexity. The CCS project or discourse surely ought to be located somewhere in the academy; but it should not be marginalized and thought of only in terms of the study of religions. This is because that discourse is for the most part the study of the dominant peoples of the world and their collectivities and practices. CCS is a challenge to people who study literature, a challenge to people who study history and the social sciences. It’s a kind of hook or handle that’s far more compelling, it seems to me, because it involves socio-cultural-psychology, power dynamics, history, anthropology, and so forth. Also—I think this is just putting another argument made earlier in a different way—it moves us away from an antiquarianist orientation that recovers mainly the remains of the powerful. CCS allows for the focus to be placed upon the dynamics of contemporaries who then can be historicized and compared and put in critical perspective to others, past and present. It seems to me that such a project makes the inquiry far more compelling than a study of religions program that would mainly be about texts. I think it explodes the study of religion as the study of texts and puts the emphasis on where it should be, on people—what they do, how they speak, how they comport themselves, and the power dynamics. It seems to me a rather radical challenge to the way in which we’ve thought about human beings. Problematizing texts in this way may help make release human beings from their prisons of textualizations.
Tia Carley: So we’ve talked somewhat about the role the ISS has taken in relationship to continually dominated peoples. I think the mission statement says something like “the ISS work has the aim of creating a just and a civil society of free-speaking, free-thinking agents.” However, in his chapter in Theorizing Scriptures, Leonard Harris likens signifying to “self-mutilation” and he says that it offers no sure route of escape, at best it provides “psychological solace, voice and presumes a sense of authentic authorship, and at worse, signifying is a useful method through voicing self-hatred and self-mutilation.” How do you respond to this criticism, and how can we, as students in CCS, ensure that our scholarship helps to advance the aims of the ISS in creating a just world instead of being the means of expressing self-hatred?
VLW: First, I really think it’s an agenda that you all can embrace, and what you do will ultimately make the difference in addressing this issue and many others. Regarding Leonard Harris’s essay, frankly, I remain quite puzzled by it. We’ve remained conversation partners for years, I consider him a very creative voice, one of the few professionally trained philosophers of color in North America, and an all-around good guy. However, I am puzzled by this argument by a philosopher. It’s quite clear to me that, again, it’s relations of power that explains change in the world. For example, consider what’s happening in the Middle East—just for starters, and then consider the ripple effect from there. But let’s consider the Middle East for starters. Whatever may be considered the set of influences or determinants on what happens—we don’t know ultimately what’s going to happen but we hear the clamor for regime change, a change in the order of things. The change that will likely come about and the change that has already come about evidenced by the people who have taken to the streets and the squares, to me, is an example of what’s being argued about in the mission statement of ISS and the CCS statement. We are imprisoned by—I would say enslaved by—signs and symbols, words and discourses. It could otherwise be termed “systems of signification.” When human beings have broken out of such enslavement it’s been through the introduction or advancement of alternate signs and symbols or through the explosion of all systems of significations. That is, again, what I think other theorists have argued of late about what is ultimately at issue regarding the history of power, from Foucault to Michael Mann. I guess I don’t understand the argument that it’s only discourse or that it’s only signs because that’s what we live by. What I’m saying is that in Egypt and in Libya, and in many other places people have come to the recognition that “Oh, this is not right.” The fact that you get to the point of saying “Oh this is not right” is major. It means that something has tripped you on to an-other level of critical awareness or consciousness. That’s how slavery ends. That’s how you begin to run away from enslavement and obtain freedoms. In other words, that’s how you position yourself to run away from enslavement of whatever kind. I guess I’d like for you all to go to Indiana and ask Harris what this is about. He’s a philosopher, for god’s sake. Thomas Friedman in the New York Times yesterday—I don’t know if any of you saw this—argued that among the factors that account for the changes that are taking place in the Middle East are their ideas, their signs, their symbols, and, again, I would term it “systems of signification.” He didn’t use my language, but this is the way I’m translating him. He basically said that the first thing you ought to consider is the fact that the young people, the protestors, are plugged into what going on around the world. They are wired. He mentioned ‘Goggle earth’ and also mentioned that Obama is a factor. It’s about what Obama represents in their view. I hadn’t really thought about that. They see a dark-skinned man elected president of the empire of the twenty-first century. Now, they don’t know that he’s getting hell here because of that. What they see is this dark-skinned man, whose middle name is Hussein. You can’t keep people down when they’re aware of this. You can’t just bring in this nineteenth century style big-man-in charge-of-everybody. That’s not going to work. Basically Friedman was saying that it’s discourse, it’s signs, it’s symbols. These people could have taken to the streets and to the squares at any time. We have to try to understand why this hadn’t happened before? For one thing, a system of signification tells you the way things are is natural. This is the way it’s always been. This is the way it’s supposed to be. But there’s been some interference—and it’s been sign-ificant interference, as a kind of play on words—into that naturalized system. It’s the Wizard of Oz. Until somebody or something moves the curtain aside you just think that’s the way it is, and then you realize it’s all smoke and mirrors. What world doesn’t turn around signs and around signifying operations? The regimes and their big men of this empire and of empires throughout the world and the Middle East have always worked within and been sustained by a system of signification. You convince people that this is the way it is. Many consider this to be fairly innocuous. The little island of Great Britain used to rule a great part of the world. They didn’t have that many guns. There aren’t that many guns in the world. They didn’t have that many ships. The British weren’t that many in number. They told people “y‘all need to be in on this system.” They convinced people they needed to be within the system. So that’s what I mean by signifying. It’s all motored by the ideological. I thought Michael Mann settled that. That’s pretty clear to me. So I don’t consider anything about this to be passive. In fact, it’s quite powerful. In other words, what we’re studying is how the wizard of Oz became and remained the wizard of Oz. The young folk in the Middle East, by virtue of interferences in the discourse, have tripped themselves onto a different level of consciousness. They’ve discovered that the world is much bigger; it’s quite different; they know things can be different; they are different in other places. It seems to me that it is signifying systems that create reality. Insofar as we think that god speaks through, or in relationship to a text, we are part of and subject to a signifying system. It is for us a particular type of psychological and ideological enslavement. There’s no getting out of it unless there is a significant amount of work done on problematizing how “reality” has come about. It is the work to be done. It is hard work. So that’s the beginning of my answer to Leonard Harris and others about the work of signs and symbols and signification.
Every movement in history that we have any record of has turned around the kinds of issues I’m talking about. No state has ever had enough instrumentality of force to make it work on that alone. Regimes always use a signifying operation to make it work and make us make it work. As a result, no one has to stand guard because we’ve convinced you that it’s natural and that it’s inevitable. Now that’s power.
Richard Newton: In your personal publication history you’ve often assumed the role of editor for a number of volumes. I wonder what the scholarly practice of editing, as opposed to perhaps the monograph or journal articles means to the comparative study of religion and also to the critical theorizing of scriptures?
VLW: Well, I’m not sure how to respond to that exactly, Richard. I’m not sure if the assumption is that I shouldn’t do all of this organizational work and focus only on writing lone-ranger projects.
Richard Newton: No, I guess the way I was approaching it is rather that editing is the unique skill of bringing together voices other than one’s own, which in the academy it always seems to be individuals speaking about themselves, sometimes even to themselves.
VLW: That’s exactly right. Yes, I’ve taken on the role of organizing forums, conferences, conversation events, which I think in part has to do with the fact that I feel professionally safe enough and empowered to do so. Over a decade, I’ve done quite a bit of organizational work to facilitate conversation that had the potential for creating different kinds of projects or new projects, projects focused on broader concerns, bigger questions. I consider them new, even risk-taking. There are a number of factors here. There’s the politics of the academy. I’m opposed to the grind of publication—just getting things out to get things out. I think the corporatized university is organized this way. As a result, it forces young scholars to write and publish more and more about less and less. I think that’s a problem. The pressure is upon the lone-ranger to write these monographs that are more and more about arcane matters. The pressure to publish means that there is a fear of slowing things down, of diving more deeply, and of taking risks. I’m just stating the politics of it. Some of you will face this. Some of you will be chafed by it. Be smart about it. You have to figure out your own way around this. I think that you’ve identified an aspect of my career and what kind of response I made to pressures along the way. It’s not just about editing. That was sort of the end product. It really was first investing the time and finding the monies to support gatherings for conversation and collaboration. The asceticism group, is an example. That was a project that I led for about seven years, and then finally shortly after that the comparative focus just did not, for a number of reasons, continue. I would feel better about it having continued without my leadership. I don’t want a thing to fail because I’m no longer the leader. A couple of years after I gave that up, it floundered. It went the way of the wind. Yes, there is organizational work and conceptual work, and then the end product is usually a published edited volume that represents the conversation. Here’s what I think is the significance of it, but, again, it will be left to others to have the final word. It allowed me to be part of something bigger than the little issues that usually define a monograph. I think the collaborative work has the potential of having more of an impact on a field or on the discourse. Again, in time, others will be the judge of whether that proved to be the case or not, but that’s what I was banking on. I took a risk with that in mind. I have just recently finished the second draft of what I consider to be a major lone-ranger project, which comes to me as a result of the many years of facilitating conversation with scholars from a number of different fields. I am the beneficiary—my scholarship is a beneficiary—of having been part of different types of conversation over the years. I think in the end even the single scholarly project will benefit from that kind of conversation. You simply could not create a new opening in a field, or even reform it, with a single text. You’ve got to experiment a bit, and that means, again, slowing things down to have conversation and to have conversation across the boundaries. One of the things you might take note of is that I tend to seek conversation with individuals in fields far outside my own. In fact, individuals in my own field sort of say “What’s wrong with him?” “He doesn’t want to talk to us.” However, that’s how you learn, and there are risks involved in that because it means that you put yourself in a position of being the learner all over again. I understand this to be a kind of an example of ascetics of learning. It really means slowing down, shutting up, listening to other folk, seeing what they have to say. I think that is a hallmark of good and lasting scholarship. It is a way to construct the scholarly career. I am not arguing that it is the only way. But it is the turn that my career has taken. Early on in my career I did what everybody else does—the grind, getting stuff out. Then at a certain point—I’m not going to say which particular year, as though it’s some magical number of some sort—you make the decision for yourself. At a point I said this has to be slowed down. I want to think more deeply and more broadly about matters. That led me to do what I did. First you have to have enough of a profile, enough of a reputation, to draw people to you in order to have conversation. You have to be strategic about these things. I think they are in phases. I don’t know how much longer I will have high energy years to do the work I want to do, but I’m at a point now where I’ve got half a dozen or more book projects that I’m ready to work on. However, this is after spending some years really listening and diving deep in a number of different directions. The way my next book, which will be published late 2011 or early 2012, is conceptualized and argued is a result of those years of conversation. In essence, what I did was to facilitate the creation or near-creation of a discourse that I then went onto model with my own writing. That’s an explanation, at any rate, for that. I decided I was uninterested in writing anymore of the kinds of books that had defined the field into which I was socialized. There are too many problems with it. In fact, I think, every so often a field should be recreated, revamped, reconstituted, and reconceptualised. If it’s not, it grows stale, and it’s going to die. Things will go on in dying mode for a long time. People will continue to pay for it and invest in it. However, my view is that it was gone a long time ago.
Francesca Barocio: You have described confessional communities and apologetics in your responses. I’d like to follow up with the question: how can the ISS help resolve the rift, if any, between academia and the applied realm, meaning faith communities or however you define it?
VLW: Let me try and answer this question by making it the question I want it to be. I think that ISS and the CCS project are not only relevant but frankly, quite compelling outside the academy. Now in the end I think it’s going to depend on folks like you to ensure this, but here’s my thought or hope. I think there’s something really quite powerful about having your own tradition put under a critical but sensitive microscope with the aim of engaging in, as much as is humanly possible, truth-telling about its history, its origins, the complexity of its evolution, issues about difference, issues about power/exploitation. There’s something quite liberating about that because it may in fact allow you to embrace it again or on different terms. That is a possibility. What I would say is that for my own situation it has allowed me to position myself—and it’s hard to get to this point—as a critic of tradition or traditions that have shaped me. As a critic I can dismiss or walk away from what appears to be destructive elements or elements that don’t represent the kind of evolution that reasonable people would expect and pay more attention to what could be considered fundamentals or that which contributes to the ongoing quest for the fulfilment of wholeness that we all want. It is possible that that kind of critical gaze puts you in a position to embrace the tradition for what it is and also negotiate distance, as you need it. It frees you from having to fall into apologetics and defence. I think that’s a good thing. Finally, I think it gets to be interesting only when you get to point where you pull back the curtain, to return to the image of the Oz figure. At that point you can either sort of walk away and be contemptuous of all efforts and say “This Oz is just a little round man, you know, doing stupid things,” or you can stay the course and try to figure out what the people in the Land of Oz are attracted to; what it is that compels their interest and submission to the game being played. In other words, you can try to figure out what they have negotiated with the Oz figure and how to go forward with that, perhaps on different terms. So things might really get interesting with the kind of critical gaze and honest truth-telling that this project encourages. I can’t determine how others will react. Some may say “No, no criticism can be accepted.” There’s going to be little basis for contact or ongoing engagement with that kind of response, but short of that it may be possible for everybody to see things a little bit differently. I don’t see this as simply radical deconstruction. I think more is at stake, and that’s why I put the matter in terms of our quest to understand the human quest. I want to understand why people do such and such, and I don’t assume people are just stupid. There’s a good deal of obfuscation, masking, destruction, and pain inflicted. You have to deal honestly with that, but there’s a reason that people stay the course in so many situations or traditions. I want to find out what they are in it for. We think we know, but some humility is in order to get at that. The last point, to emphasize it again, is that I think simple radical deconstruction is just that, simple, and nothing simple can help us get at human beings. We are much too layered for that. So this sort of work or project that is ISS and CCS can be positive. There is a possibility for rapprochement. But everyone has to be less arrogant and less contemptuous of the other, in order to move us to this other place. There’s a kind of poetry and aesthetics that is also involved in scripture-making that we ought to find out more about…in scripture-making we find some of the most beautiful and haunting representations created by human beings. We need to understand more about them.
Norman Johnson: I think my question actually complements what Francesca has asked but is more content focused on the Bible. Given the place of the Bible in Christian communities, what hope do you have that this project will influence biblical interpretation in non-academic communities or in Christian communities?
VLW: Well I think you can see that I was anticipating your interest. We must understand that the Bible is of course only one example of scripture and scripture-making. Much that pertains to this situation can translate outside of Christianity and the Bible; but it is where we are located, so it ought to be of ongoing interest. There’s not a whole lot more to add to what I’ve said before except to say—your interfaith interest, Francesca, could help with this—I think the extent to which religious leaders and devotees in general know more about others’ traditions and discourses the better off we are. There’s a kind of violence in the type of education that people typically receive which proceeds as though, with some exceptions, the others don’t exist. You then find yourself in the real world discovering that these people do indeed exist, and we need to learn more about them. We’ve got to figure out how to negotiate differences. This type of thinking ought to be built into progressive education and socialization. The world religions really turn around an ideology of exceptionalism and the concept of difference. That kind of violence is really quite problematic, and it’s hard to dial back from that. I wish the ISS had the funds to model a kind of community education that could help the one understand the others. In fact, from my point of view there are more similarities than differences, but each tribe sees it as in its strategic interest to discount the other. That’s the way we’re trained. If you think about how you grew up, the other was considered infidels and heretics and it goes on and on. We need to model a different kind of education around these issues, and I think ISS could be instrumental in that. Again, the ISS is not like a seminary. The seminary curriculum educates you within “x”-tradition. Some seminaries may consider themselves on the edge of the progressive, which means throwing in a little bit of the other here and there. That’s not what I’m talking about. Religious studies programs, for all the touting about being critical in the university, tend to reflect the dominance of the world. The seminary and the religious studies programs really are pretty much the same, but even in their respective corners of the academy the tricks are played so that they operate around a kind of difference and are rarely problematized so as to seriously engage across traditions. I think we could, with some support make a difference in that arena, but it means being taught not only about your own tradition but also your own tradition embedded within a far bigger and more complex world. It means teaching your tradition, including your text, with the consciousness of the others next door and their traditions.
Magi Hernandez: Professor, in forty years from now when Tia is writing your biography, what are two pieces of information that you would want included. You referenced earlier the story about your grandmother kind of framing you as the-go-to-answer man. That seems to be a scripturalizing instrument for you. First, are there other events, poems, stories, or things that have happened in your life that are formative to you personally, that have functioned as scripturalizing instruments? Secondly, as you think about how this program has developed, what has been the most unexpected and intriguing turn that you’ve seen come out of the program?
VLW: Frankly, I’m not sure I know how to answer much of that at this point. I’m still very much evolving. In a way I’m just gearing up, and so I don’t want to fall into too much nostalgia just yet…But here goes my best attempt at addressing your question: I think my biggest contribution will be seen as facilitating the turn. I think there’s a lot of opposition and challenges yet to be faced. We don’t have a natural constituency to support us. Again if you think in strategic terms, which I try to do, you survive and thrive if you have a natural constituency in the increasingly corporatized university. We don’t have that. It will have to be a university or some other kind of institution that will see the importance of supporting fairly unpopular causes. That’s just the short-hand for now. You can put that in different way. In other words, we are not the group representing “x”-council, “x”-denomination, or “x”-world religion, so we have no natural constituency right now. That constituency has to be found or cultivated, and that ongoing work will be left up to you. I have been constantly surprised and heartened by the few students who add so many exciting and creative ideas by virtue of their different backgrounds and sensibilities, students who have come to the table to participate in the conversation, to be part of the building of this project. Through the years I’ve been heartened by this because it’s felt rather lonely here. The whole SBL presidency was quite a shock, because what I would often hear is “Wimbush is just out of the field.” Some of you all would just come right out and tell me this. So it’s been graduate students who come and give me encouragement. If this initiative and program is going to survive, it will be because you all ensure its survival, at least for an-other important step. We are not working in institutions that are wealthy, and so we are all here out of some sacrifice. I think we’re discovering that we better be clear about the importance of this work for us as human beings seeking fulfilment and refreshment. None of you around the table is here because you think there are monetary rewards aplenty. Therefore, you must be in pursuit of some other thing.
Now I’m not sure how to respond to the first part of the question…Maybe the best way to think of what tends to drive me is the opportunity to conceptualize programs and projects, some of which I’ll pursue myself, and I have committed to pursuing these projects over the course of the rest of my career. However, I am not going to stay in any one psychic or intellectual place for a very long time. I know that much about myself. I’m pretty restless as an intellectual, and it’s not really an instrument that drives me. I find the opportunity to create, to raise new and different questions the thing that satisfies me. That’s what I understand ISS and the Critical Comparative Scriptures to be all about.
Olali: My next question comes from my understanding and my interest in subjugated peoples and my ideas on power and how it is at work in the world. I’m wondering if there are any essentialities behind your need to speak for, or to represent, or project the subjugated or less-privileged societies or communities. What are the politics behind this, and do you find the privileged or dominant groups accepting, or willingly bringing about a just situation? Do you envisage justice, and/or the salvation of the subjugated peoples? What is the agenda here?
VLW: No, I don’t think I am equipped, that the Institute is equipped, or that the university for which I work is equipped, to address all those challenges. It’s certainly not to secure the salvation of the poor. It’s naïve for us to think that that’s going to happen through the work of these institutions. What I think I can contribute is some giving of voice, some better understanding of who these folk who are not located at the center are and want, even as the whole concept of center changes or grows more complex…What I have in mind is, again, some kind of window opening and mirroring all at once. I think it’s important that we engage in work that throws light on who we are and where we’re located; how we’re represented in the world. The privileging of the non-dominant, again, doesn’t mean that I’m not working with students who want to work on the Roman Empire or the British Empire, et cetera. The question is about how to set up the project and what angle to take. I always want to provide the opportunity for students to find that other or different angle. I don’t pretend that the focus on any group results in their salvation or the salvation of the world, but I think we can make a small contribution toward helping us to see ourselves more clearly and others see themselves and the world more clearly. What you do with that mirroring and window opening is, of course, all a matter of your exercise of freedom. That’s really what I have in mind in saying that, for example, the ISS would hope to contribute to a fairer or more just world, insofar it facilitates a better understanding of how we contribute to the world and how we participate in it. Scriptures is just one angle. I don’t claim it’s the only angle for getting at that. I don’t think you can have anything that amounts to a fairer or just world or to position yourself for a redress for getting at that without each of us seeing the self and the other more clearly. Scriptures is just a prism for getting at that. I’m pretty big on mirroring and window opening. I think that’s an important contribution and will defend it. In more ways and on more levels than one it’s critical.