A Horse is an Automobile without Wheels

September 8, 2012

In memory of Kenneth Morrison

Thirty years ago I published a book titled Beyond “the Primitive:” the Religions of Nonliterate Peoples (1982) that was intended to establish some less biased position or stance from which to appreciate and understand folks living in small-scale cultures, tribal or, what was for some time called “traditional,” peoples.  While studying at the University of Chicago, I found that much of the heritage of the academic study of religion was established in the study of what was called “primitive” people and in those days there was only a nascent awareness of the inappropriateness of this term.  It was the primitives that told us how religions got started in the process of human cultural development and the issue was variously framed in evolutionist terms (in which case magic preceded the rise of religion) or essentialist terms (in which religion, being essentially inseparable from divine creation, existed in the earliest of times found in “primitive” cultures evidenced by the presence of a “high god”).  In a fascinatingly illogical position contemporary people who live in small cultures were considered to represent these ancient people, the people “of the beginning.”  My teacher, Mircea Eliade, perhaps the most influential religion scholar of the twentieth century, was a major proponent of this approach, constructing his influential understanding of religion, one still present in popular understandings, by exemplary studies of “primitive people,” especially the aboriginal people of Australia.  Decades later my book Storytracking: Texts, Stories, and Histories in Central Australia (1998) attempted to place this approach in a constructive and comprehensible context (or history) if a critical one as well.

In the early ‘80s I knew that the study of religion, and religion in the popular imagination, needed somehow to get beyond “the primitive” because I could discern that imagining ourselves, in our advancement and accomplishment, framed as the finished results of what, for better or worse, was once primitive was inappropriate to both our self-understanding and our understanding of the time-warped breathing representatives of ancient people.  Yet, as the naïve subtitle of the book reveals, I was far from free of the prejudice of the position I opposed.  The term “nonliterate” identifies folks in terms of something they are not and even the simplest logician knows this is at best a hedge to hide ignorance.  In the first chapter I took the trouble to discuss the term “nonliterate” carefully distinguishing it from “preliterate,” and the associated terms “illiterate,” “unlearned,” and “unintelligent,” which I declared as obviously prejudicial.  Yet, somehow I believed that among the most important shaping aspects of culture is the mode of communication; well, this wasn’t wrong.

It isn’t that I didn’t understand the limitations of this term; it was that I couldn’t come up with an alternative that was anything less than utterly awkward.  I rejected “oral” because orality doesn’t cease in the presence of literacy.  Later, I started using the term “exclusively oral” which is, while perhaps a tad more accurate, still a backfilling; backfilling in the sense of attempting to understand a horse as an automobile without wheels, it just doesn’t really work in this direction.  Still, I urged my readers, “If we are careful it [that is, nonliteracy] is not a highly prejudiced perspective and it permits us to recognize our genuine differences as well as our vital similarities.” (7)

Until today, when I remembered it and gave it a quick read, I hadn’t looked at this book in decades. Despite its near-fatal flaw, it raised some of the concerns that continue to shape my research and compelling interests.  For you see, what I could feel (perhaps much more than anything I consciously knew) at that time, was that the academic study of religion is bound in the deepest ways to writing, to the translation, analysis, and interpretation of “texts” (writings) both, as we so often distinguish them, those we consider “primary,” that is, written by our subjects, as well as “secondary,” that is, those that are created in the ongoing process of translation, analysis, and interpretation.  Everything is writing or must be rendered as such for the study of religion to have an object and methods of study.  Put more honestly and boldly, writing is essential for religion to exist.  Jonathan Smith, my teacher at the University of Chicago, clearly established that religion is the invention of the scholar.

My studies of Native Americans and, later, those indigenous peoples in African, Indonesia, Latin America, and Australia, could only be “studied” if what we invented and called their religions could somehow be captured as “texts.”  The invention of religion is the determination of a body of texts.  It was and remains common and accepted practice to rely on ethnographic monographs as somehow “substitute primary texts” for cultures that do not write, that do not produce their own “primary” texts.  And later scholars, such as Lawrence Sullivan, suggested that we need to consider such religious objects as canoes, for example, as themselves “texts.”  And Manuel Vasquez, who will be presenting the Lester Lecture here next month, has written much about this stressful effort in his 2011 book, More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion.  The issue put simply is this: can we appreciate and understand (study in some sense we’d call academic) people without a fundamental dependence on texts, on needing to backfill them into some modification of something we know like an automobile.  So you see my term “nonliterate” is precisely such a backfilling.  We know literacy; so can we imagine the not of literacy?  And, of course, when we do so we always get something that looks more like broken automobiles rather than anything remotely like horses.

In Beyond the Primitive, inspired by the efforts of Jonathan Smith, I attempted to establish “a place on which to stand” (the title of the second chapter) and clearly my studies of dancing which have unfolded over the last quarter century, just this month culminating in the publication of Dancing Culture Religion, and my current obsessions with movement and gesture and process are all continuing the pursuit of the issues I glimpsed in the early ‘80s.  But unexpectedly as I have begun to embrace the looping, interactive, enactive, playful, seductive,“ing-ing,” structurality dynamics, I am finding greater and greater appreciation for the constitutive forces of writing, as both noun and verb, but especially as verb, on contemporary societies.  I have given up “stance” and “position” in favor of the vitality of movement, interaction, play.  Because writing shapes our identities in the most fundamental ways, at the level of conception, reason, technique, and gesture, that is, our ontology, we cannot escape backfilling any more than we can escape our being.  But, imagining ourselves so, we at least can imagine the strangeness and humor of our inescapable plight of trying to comprehend a horse we’ve never seen by considering it an automobile without wheels. Backfilling is perhaps inescapable to those with language and memory (thus, humans), even without writing, yet, what we must appreciate, and dare I say celebrate, is that backfilling is a distinctive marker of the being that is constituted in the presence of writing.

We must then attempt to grasp the implications of realizing our being in writing, the thing and the process.  Jacques Derrida powerfully argued this position in his Of Grammatology (1967) and we have yet to fully appreciate, perhaps because we have been so stunned, the importance of his position.  I know that I scoffed at it and have persistently denied it.  And I did so because the people I have studied and loved to hang around didn’t write; surely we can’t deny their reality.  Yet, I think I now understand that this concern with writing is perhaps of a different kind.

To comprehend, appreciate, and somehow embrace this reflective mode, so clearly marked by writing, is my present challenge.  Through long efforts to somehow get at movement itself (movement in its moving) and dancing (the energetics of all dance movement) I have denied, at least temporarily, interpretation, analysis, and interpretation because of what I perceived as their threatening distance from their subject.  Whereas dancing exists only in movement, self-movement living movement, writing seems to exist only in the object, the trace.  The challenge surely is to comprehend that the trace is never stable or dead for it exists only in service to the movement of the actions of the writing that creates it and the movement of the actions of reading that recreate it.  The very ontogeneticity and anatomy of writing is inseparable from movement—self-movement, living movement.

The imaginative enterprise of understanding the “oral” when we are the “literate” has been, I believe, best done by Walter J. Ong in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy (Jack Goody and others have also contributed much). This is a book that every writer, every scholar, every literate person interested in self-understanding, should read.  In his attempt, backfilled though it is, to imagine that never-seen horse (orality), at least comes to understand and appreciate in much greater depth the automobile (literacy) and its profound influence on who we are.  I’ll want to write more about orality and literacy soon, yet here I must develop more of the implications for the study of religion and, certainly even, the academy itself.

Study is bound to and inseparable from writing.  Not just written texts, but the very mental and technical (gestural) processes of study.  But, clearly, phenomenologically at least (I’ll argue with Derrida another day), texts, writings, and the mental, technical, processes point to, are about, something, some real thing, some real processes, that they are not.  Phenomenologically there is a reality beyond text and writing.  And it matters.  I think that there is some naiveté that comes with the naturalness with which we take for granted that writing and the written, as somehow universal, is representational in some way that need not concern us.  That is, we think that the world that writing is about or captures, the reality to which writing refers, is outside of writing yet adequately, even perhaps perfectly, represented by it.  We consider “good” writing as that which most perfectly represents what is not writing.  We consider that the “good” study of texts is that which reveals what the text represents.  And, quite remarkably, we have come to believe that reality is available for study, for experience, only as mediated by texts.  Thus, for example, we seem to prefer the study of ritual texts to the study of ritual performance and experience.  Years ago I remember feeling rather threatened and defensive, devoted academic that I was, when students would suggest that to actually live and experience something religious was surely more important than reading books about it.  Unfortunately these suggestions seem now to come increasingly less frequently from students.  We need to take this question seriously.

For, you see, I believe that the greatest challenge to the study of religion today, in fact to the entire academy, is to come to some new ways of understanding our subjects, aspects of ourselves and of the world in which we live, without the damaging amputations that eliminate experience and vitality and process and change and play and paradox and movement.  In my study of dancing I have found that the most common strategies used to appreciate dancing involve taking the dancing out of the dancing, to make dancing into something other than what it is.

But I am not simply suggesting that we abandon writing, abandon study, abandon the academy.  No, I am calling for a deeper appreciation of writing, especially as a process of exploration and investigation and evaluation and revelation.  We must revitalize writing to save the academy.  In comprehending ourselves in some ways by examining the relationship of orality and literacy, in appreciating and being able to articulate the constitutive powers that writing has on our reality, we may begin to see that writing is not some passive vehicle or innocent tool that functions only to mediate and communicate, but rather that writing is at the heart of our reason, our sense of coherence, our comprehension, our cognition, our conception, our perception, indeed, our very reality.

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone has insightfully shown that it is through movement that we discover our world and ourselves; we come to be through the groping (to invoke Leroi-Gourhan’s notion of tâtonnement) movements that connect us, by touch, with the world.  What we must recognize and go on to explore and deeply appreciate and to work to master is that writing too, as gesture, as action, is such a groping movement, one that in some forms we call academic, that reaches out to touch the world.

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