Identity Politics and Identity Spiritualities

Soteriology at the Intersection of Race and Religion?


Jim Perkinson





his project anticipates North America's immediate future as a battle-ground of creolized racial identities and, in light of that anticipation, seeks to contribute to understanding the relationship between spirituality and racialization. It will explore the ways in which religious symbols have been mobilized in discourses of racialization to "spiritualize" or contest particular forms of political identification. Ultimately, I want to help formulate ways in which spiritual identity can be constituted in collective commitments that maintain a clear practical distinction between the absolute wholeness towards which they aspire and the contingent approximations they achieve in history. The particular argument here will invoke a 19th century transvaluation of religious symbols by oppressed slaves who developed a living critique of their own commodification as property by means of a "transcendent"1 communal practice.

At stake in a postmodern world of violently colliding cultures, I would argue, is a new religious task: galvanizing deep (in a sense, even "absolute") commitments to partial projects. Or said another, and perhaps more helpful, way, religion that pursues peace in the new millennium will have to be able to use symbols of the absolute in ways that secure self-consciously partial identities (or at least identities that have as integral to their field of commitment a recognition of their own limitations and a constitutive valuing of the other who lies beyond those limits). How is it possible to develop multi-dimensional religious (and racial) identities in a "sound-bite" world that continuously flattens its public discourse to one dimension?

While such a re-envisionment of religious identity might seem utopic and hopelessly unattainable, the alternative seems patent and increasingly perilous. In a world of readily available high-tech weaponry, religious symbols serving as badges of ultimate sanction for various forms of ethnically-coded struggle over power and resources begin to take on apocalyptic significance. Here, Sarajevo, Ayodya, Tel Aviv, and Belfast speak ever more suggestively into the multicultural mix in North America itself, giving frightening prospect to the horizons of struggle growing out of Waco and Oklahoma City. Religious vision in the twenty-first century, it would seem, cannot afford not to think utopically.

However, it is part of the power of religious practice to have rendered utopia thinkable in momentary approximations in concrete history --offering glimpses that are usually hidden, often tragic, always partial and fallible, but nonetheless, integral to the possibility of sustaining human hope. This essay will seek to crystallize a set of experimental rubrics for postmodern religious practice arising out of one such moment of hope, in a context where race and religion were jointly solicited to mark out a boundary of violent social conflict.


Theoretical Perspective

he theoretical problematic within which I want to situate my inquiry is that of the mutual reinforcements of race and religion in articulating forms of identification that are secured by violence towards others, and the counter-possibility that they might interact in such a way that "otherness" becomes a vital part of human identity. More concretely, the problematic could be articulated as the necessity to rethink religious soteriology in the context, not just of multiculturalism, but of a postcolonial diaspora. I prefer the postcolonial frame of reference to the multicultural one because it foregrounds the histories of violence and asymmetries of power that have not merely inflected, but constituted, the contact between cultures.2 My broader project is then an attempt to reformulate "soteriology" (the way any given religion formulates its ideas about how one is saved) in a radically heterogeneous postcolonial culture that is becoming global in extent. 3 Is it possible to pursue religious convictions about salvation in a manner that does not merely settle for a private sectarian practice nor simply legitimize the dominant political status quo?

Here, however, I want to focus on a smaller question of the relationship between religious symbols of the absolute and profound (or even "absolute," in a metaphorical sense) forms of human commitment that nonetheless do not absolutize identity. The inquiry itself grows out of the historical activity of slaves in the nineteenth century in prising open the historical conflation of racial and religious identity in this country. In the process, those slave innovations refigured the religious absolute in forms of collective practice that de-absolutized racial identity without denying either its pathos or its efficacy. The relevance of such for late twentieth century concerns about "one-dimensionality" remains to be recognized and thematized.

But in pursuing this line of investigation, it is imperative to differentiate emphatically the explicit concern with identity that has arisen in the latter half of the twentieth century in various black power, feminist, gay and lesbian, anti-colonial, and native movements and the implicit presupposition of normative identity traits in Western industrialized countries. "Identity politics" so called, and the "identity spiritualities" that I am coining as their religious correlate, are phenomena arising out of complex contexts of marginalization whose strategic effect is one of underscoring the de facto identity politics and spiritualities operating in the metropolitan centers of global capitalism. Thus, for instance, I would argue that Oklahoma City in April of 1995 served a very different kind of notice than, say, Los Angeles in April of 1992. While the issues of race and identity figure largely and complexly in each, the former "speaks" apocalyptically at the place of a dominant white institution, while the latter erupts popularly in the more "colorful" spaces of the periphery.

One of the more ominous signals Oklahoma City sends is that a resurgent white supremacy, in some places claiming itself figuratively and literally as the "Christian Identity," has many surrogates in between its own specific position on the political far right and its more complex permutations closer in to the political mainstream. The government becomes the target of choice in this resurgence largely as the proxy for and promoter of a compromised "America." State bureaucracy is recast in the categories of apocalyptic demonology to appear as the clandestine "beast of Babylon" that alone seems adequate to explain the depths of white working class dread and disaffection. It emerges as the "enemy closer to home" for selling a once pristine society down the river of multicultural pluralism, international cooperation, transnational corporatism, and moral relativism.

And while I would want to challenge any structure of identification that seeks to absolutize itself religiously, any wedding between political apocalypticism and racial exceptionalism, in this essay I am primarily focused on those versions that particularly trace their roots to the dominant ideologies of race and religion. I suppose a shorthand summary of my concern here could be crystallized in asking, "What would constitute the religious `conditions for the possibility of' a pastoral intervention in relationship to a Timothy MacVeigh?" Not what would be said in particular, but rather, what kind of religious vision would make what needed to be said even thinkable?

Looking to nineteenth century slave innovations for insight on such might not seem a very obvious move. It would seem rather that solicitation of a neo-orthodox theological voice like Karth Barth, or more recent voices of political theology like Jurgen Moltmann or Johannes Metz or of feminist theology like Rosemary Ruether or Rebecca Chopp would suffice. Barth rung down the curtain on liberal optimism with his thunderous post-World War I critique (in Romans) of European notions of progress and humanistic goodness. Molthmann (The Crucified God, Theology of Hope) and Metz (Theology of the World) gave theological expression to German Christian horror over the holocaust understood as the consequence of a peculiarly modern romanticization of the state as political idol. Ruether (Sexism and God-Talk) de-centered Christian monotheistic claims to a monopoly on salvation by revealing their rootage in Western patriachal violence. Yet it is precisely in the nineteenth century that the ideology of white supremacy and its religious apology by way of Christianity are most profoundly and durably articulated in a social institution. And it is in slave struggles to survive and combat such a religiously sanctioned racial violence that a different relationship between racial identity and religious symbol are practically elaborated.

Slaves transformed a one-dimensional white religious vision into a critical practice that simultaneously refused their own commodification as mere objects in the labor process and opened the religious object (Jesus as central symbol) to multiple meanings. Toni Morrison (among many others), as I shall detail later, has said black people in the nineteenth century already had to deal with the kind of postmodern dilemmas that only in the late twentieth century would become the problematic of most of the rest of us. Among other features of that dilemma is the peculiarly modern Western problem of a racialization of what was formerly a soteriological quest --or said the other way around, the religious absolutizing of racialized identity.

In what follows, I will briefly sketch a thesis about the relationship between soteriology and racial identity in modernity, offer a brief characterization of the scientific racism that emerges in the nineteenth century, highlight a deconstructive effect that shows up in slave conversion practices, underscore the meaning of that effect in a phenomenological treatment by historian of religions Charles Long (supplemented by the perspective of cultural critic Paul Gilroy), and suggest a number of questions that emerge from that phenomenology for contemporary religious practice. Given the limitations of space, I will not be able to develop the argument in more than rudimentary form. At stake, however, I would argue, is a confrontation of hegemonic, patriarchal forms of the modern Western self with some of its own conditions of possibility: the constitutive place of the split between supremacy and slavery in the quasi- religious modern Western search for identity. While the treatment offered here is largely paradigmatic and phenomenological, the full argument would necessarily be critical and historical.


Racialization and Salvation in History in General

istorically, in this country, the discourse of race has always been all tangled up with the vision of religion. Perry Miller's description of the Puritan "errand into the wilderness" traces how biblical categories interrupted European seeing.4 In a mere Augenblick of desire, the land appeared empty and "promised." Indigenous bodies were entirely eclipsed in eschatological eyes. "Redness" came to mark a meaning of absence.

On the other hand, Theophilus Smith's analysis of "conjuring culture"5 has tracked the degree to which black improvisation on the Christian religion it found imposed upon itself resulted in a counter-deployment of the space and time of "Anglo-America"6 The Promised Land of whites proved positively Babylonian for blacks, the springtime of Republican experiment, a hard winter of "African" exile and captivity. Yet, often enough, black conjour refashioned those constraints into an opacity licensing fugitive forms of vitality. Against white-plantation-master and Protestant-mission designs, the Christian religion was made to host and harbor a "black" space and time.

Indeed, so much did race and religion work their meanings in relationship to each other in the European mind, that a case could be made (and has been so made by Hayden White7) that the early meaning of race was decided by the question of grace. The sudden materialization of black and brown and red and yellow bodies before the "white-is-the-color-of-goodness" gaze of European explorers occasioned major categorical travail in the grand narratives of late medieval Christendom. Whether the "wild wanton man" or "noble savage woman" possessed a saveable soul decided much of the meaning of the unmapped body.8 Certainly, it was not a clear or uncontested meaning, even within European discourse. The boundary of human difference where the difference that is sacred also shows up was itself plural and shifting in the Age of Exploration. The "noble sublime" one moment was the "dread demonic" the next in all the uncertainties of a voyeuristic desire. But in either case, the discourse of salvation weighed in heavily and frequently adjudicated the significance of racialization.


Racialization and Salvation in Modernity in Particular

nd while that historical conflation itself must be described in the past tense, it is arguable that its effects remain present today. It is patent that the anxiety-ridden9 drive for salvific security characteristic of the late Middle Ages does not just dissipate in the 17th century dissolution of European identity in the "wars of religion." Indeed, as the known size of the universe expanded to infinity, and society lost its vision of a common destiny, that anxiety found itself concentrated ever-more intensely within the individual subject. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to develop a full-blown thesis about the career of what I would call "soteriological anxiety" in modernity, it is possible at least to intimate an ethos.

It is arguable that that late medieval drive for "certainty of an absolute" of salvation enjoyed more than just an entropic "half-life" in what followed. It is inverted immediately in Descartes into a drive for "absolute certainty" in the subject. Its further traces can be found perhaps most suggestively in the near absolutism with which subsequent European struggles over "difference" (between peoples, nations, religions, classes, etc.) have usually been conducted Both revolution and romanticism would seem to have recapitulated its need for an "absolute of identity" upon which to stake everything.10 Colonialism's "drive to civilize" at least refracted, if not reflected, its obsession with likeness,11 while capitalism's "drive to globalize" formalized the Calvinist soteriology of success.12 The birth of the novel genre in the 18th century exhibited its quest-structure, refigured now for an individual subject, searching for meaning in a social world now too fragmented to provide the coherence sought for.13 Indeed, Enlightenment rationality itself, insofar as it presupposed universal articulation, claimed objective vision and set about the task of a totalized classification, could be said to have drawn into its own subject of thought many of the compulsions to inquisivity, certainty and catholicity of the earlier religious synthesis.

Said more formally, in the centuries-long transition from pre-modernity to modernity, the historical forms of a European quest for salvation have clearly lost their mythos and their kosmos (their "cosmology"), while their logos (their "logic" or drive towards an absolute of identity and difference) and their pathos (their "structures of feeling" or "memory of suffering") nonetheless remain vibrant and virulent. I am suggesting that the effects of this simultaneous loss and continuation remain patent and potent in various modern processes of racialization and racialized conflict.

Thus I would argue that, in spite of their secular forms, modern attempts at self-differentiation remain vexed by a soteriological desperation they can neither easily express nor finally believe. They remain "absolutely" inarticulate, but not unmoved. Not unpredictably, they show themselves vulnerable to a tendency to fetishize various "this-worldly" forms of imagined wholeness that appear, in modernity, as the political surrogates of a formerly religious redemption. "Ethnic identities," I would argue, emerge in this context as one of the more (in)credible reconfigurations of the larger "eschatological" self lost in the modern disenchantment of the world.14 They at least allow for a kind of historical transcendence of the truncated spatiality and abbreviated time of modern experiences of subjective existence. Where such identities are invoked, "purity" becomes their essential criteria and "race" their most substantial form.15 Within the pathos of this modern predicament of subjectivity, then, the discourses of racialization could be said to give definitive articulation to a latent dream of absolute identification. In their various forms of practice, they constitute themselves as a politics of salvation.


White Supremacy and Black Surreptition

ithout doubt, white supremacy emerges historically in modernity as the quintessential expression of what I am calling a soteriologically driven quest for absolute identity. Its particular configuration in North America remains arguably --in an unresolvable argument with South Africa-- the most virulent form of such a racialized pretension. As Cornel West and other race theorists have pointed out, it stands as unique on the horizon of history in its complexly modern constitution.16 It emerges as an amalgam of 1.) a political-economy institution of enslavement (itself not unique to European practice), 2.) a phenotypical contrast of stark and seemingly unerasable differentiation, 3.) a European self-consciousness crystallizing its identity in a scientific form of rationality claiming universal valence and seeking to prove itself by metaphysically categorizing the entire objective world, including human beings and human features, in a totalized taxonomy, 4.) a Calvinist notion of predestination that sought eternal confirmations in surface significations (like success in business or skin-color in race), and an Anglo cultural predilection that reacted to the color black with visceral horror and mental revulsion. Altogether, the emergence of the scientific racism of the 19th century found its primal axis of contrast in an Anglo-Congo confrontation that continued to exercise soteriological power precisely in its Enlightenment positivity. White supremacy was its heaven; black enslavement its hell. It was the particular genius of white supremacy's anti-thesis (i.e., slaves), however, simultaneously to reinvigorate the symbol of that salvation with a new orientation and to revise the positivity of that identity into a plurality (of possible identifications).

The Clifton H. Johnson edited, God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-slaves has numerous accounts that read similarly to the two excerpts herein quoted:

I was fifty-two years old when the Lord freed my soul. About three years before I was killed dead and made alive again. I was feeding some hogs and was in the pigpen when a little white man appeared before me as plain as day and said, "Follow me." How it happened I don't know, but I do know this: I crossed Fountain Creek in the spirit, and I walked on top of the water. Something on the inside of me began to cry, "Mercy!" The little man said to me, "You have but little faith. Follow me in spirit, and I will strengthen your faith. Believe in me with your heart, and I will show you many wondrous things." We journeyed east and saw the heavens and God. Jesus Christ himself brought me to Fountain Creek Church and said, "This is your home." During the vision the voice said to me, "Here you must die." I truly died and saw my body. I had a temporal and a spiritual body. My spiritual body had six wings on it, and when I was barked at by the hellhounds of the devil I arose and flew away. Ever since the Lord freed my soul I have been a new man.17

And, in the middle of a longer account of a conversion experience in which the subject fell to the ground unconscious and "died," a voice identifies itself as God and tells the woman to

"Behold the travail of your soul." I looked and lo and behold there were two Marys! There is a being in a being, a [person] in a [person]. Little Mary was standing looking down on old Mary, on this temple, my body, and it lay on the very brink of hell...Then I began to cry, and as I wept I looked, and there by my side stood a little man, very small and with waxen hair. His eyes were like fire, his feet as burnished brass...and I began to tremble with fear, but the little man spoke and said, "Be not afraid, but follow me, for lo, I am a swift messenger and will ever be thy guide." ...I do not remember how long I was in this state, for immediately I regained consciousness, I began to shout and cry. I rushed to the house all drenched in perspiration and...shouted the rest of the day...Up to the present time I am guided by the voice from within.18

Of primary interest, here, for my purposes, is the dynamic by which slave discourse appropriated a symbol central to the discourse of white supremacy. It did so in a manner that articulated with black aspirations for freedom and resisted white anthropologies of enslavement without establishing an absolute and monopolistic identification with the symbol itself.19 In framing my particular set of questions, I would argue that for the slaves, "christology" (theological discourse on the person of Christ) functioned as a hegemonic discourse that they were yet able to re-formulate as counter-hegemonic.20 Here, the figure (or "category") of "Jesus" ends up harboring two very different "Christs": one that licenses slavery for the masters; the other that resists that institution and promises liberation to the slaves. Involved in slave appropriations is then a basic "tropic" move.21 The same signifier is critically shifted to point to an opposite signified. The historical signifier "Jesus," the person, points to a very different messianism or "christic-ness"-and thus ultimately, to a different "christo-logy" or "logic" of Christ, a different Logos. In a sense, we could say theologically the slave-Jesus saved blacks from the master-Jesus. I would further argue, however, that in most slave discourse, Jesus was not explicitly recast as "black." Rather, a shift was accomplished that uncoupled the linkage of racial identity and spiritual efficacy presumed in most European missionary activity. The signifying chain of early forms of European mission theology set up a racialized sequence of "substitutionary equivalence" conflating the identity of Jesus with European cultural values. They linked Jesus with whiteness through a whole series of signifiers.22 Such a chain would have run something like: Jesus = human perfection = light = epistemologically transparent = intelligible to Western culture = white. On the other hand, in contestation of that chain of equivalence as idolatrous, recent forms of Black Theology have articulated a counterchain that reverses the identification and explicitly recasts Jesus as black.23 Here, the chain runs something like: Jesus = human liberation = incarnate in the dark situation of oppression = epistemological trickster = opaque to dominant culture = black. But the slave discourses that originally developed such a black counter-chain usually left that emblematic last moment of the sequence unarticulated. And while it is clear that most forms of Black Theology are talking about a blackness that is not simply identical with skin color, but rather is culturally constructed and politically practiced, it is the slave sequence that remains most instructive for our purposes here.

In appropriating for their own practices a "white Jesus" whose phenotypical features were not usually explicitly altered, black slaves drove a wedge between phenotype and culture, on the one hand, and between race and salvation, on the other. In the process, both racial identity and symbol of salvation were effectively deconstructed. Slaves did not simply embrace the white Jesus uncritically, but surreptitiously translated his meaning into different practical effects than those intended by pro-slavery preachers. The critical "tropic shift" such a discourse accomplished was, in fact, located not primarily in christology, but in soteriology. In the mix, slave christology indeed helped give shape to forms of black Christian identity, but it was an identity not fixed in either racial categories or christological positivities. And the christology thus articulated realized emancipatory effects not only beyond, but within, the confines of the "peculiar institution." Those effects show up especially clearly in the narratives of conversion experiences that trace a "crossing-over" in consciousness involving a passage from life to death to life --irrespective of whether those slaves were able to realize that passage publicly in a flight north across the Mason-Dixon line, or constrained to live it surreptitiously, in the "invisible institution." under their masters' noses.24 In either case, they became somebody "other" than who they were as slaves.

The question that is foregrounded in such a rhetorical shift is the question of the relationship of experience to symbol. How did slave experience open up a racist trope of the master to yield various forms of oppositional meaning within the same symbolic domain? Whence the authority of the surplus of experience that "criticized" the hegemonic power of christology and galvanized an alternative hope and a resistive practice (although I recognize that in reality we are talking about a whole range of responses to domination --capitulation as well as resistance, cooperation as well as fight or flight)? What was it in slave experience --and in collective ritualizations of that experience-- that gave rise to the practical and political difference in historical effects?


Charles Long: From White Demon to Black Daemon

ere I turn to Charles Long and Paul Gilroy for instruction. Again it is not possible to develop a full sketch of the claims each makes. Rather, I will gloss their projects to outline what I think may be emerging as a postmodern demand for religious practice in a world of violent soteriologies of identity.

Long is particularly noteworthy here for attempting to think somewhere between category and experience.25 He claims, in the process of analyzing W. E. B. DuBois' account of a vigorous rural church service he stumbled on outside of Atlanta, that black ritual practice conserved something of the terrors of slave experience. DuBois says,

It was out in the country, far from my foster home, on a dark Sunday night. The road wandered from our rambling log-house up the stormy bed of a creek, past wheat and corn until we could hear dimly across the fields a rhythmic cadence of song --soft, thrilling. powerful, that swelled and died sorrowfully in our ears. I was a country school-teacher then, fresh from the East, and had never seen a Southern Negro revival ... And so most striking to me as I approached the village and the little plain church perched aloft, was the air of intense excitement that possessed that mass of black folk. A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seize us, --a pythian madness, a demonic possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word. The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered at the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence.26

In DuBois' rendering, that service initiated him into a new level of black identity. It gave communal and creative expression to a "pithian madness" and a "dread" that, though common to human experience in general, is not commonly expressed in their social memory or public practice.27 In Long's reading, what DuBois later formalizes most famously as "double consciousness" is first experienced by him here as a form of demonic dread or even "possession" --a "scene of human passion," in DuBois' own words, that while "grotesque and funny" when merely described, remains "awful" in experience.28 For DuBois, this "frenzy of a Negro revival in the untouched backwoods of the South" reflects an intensity of experience and expression as "old as Delphi and Endor" that is yet peculiarly evocative of the "feelings of slaves."29

Long does not gainsay this claim, but builds upon it to specify the uniqueness of black North American experience as unique only when compared to white colonizers, but common to those who have undergone colonization and westernization elsewhere. Indeed DuBois' double-consciousness formula becomes epigrammatic for Long, having application as well to such disparate "religions of the oppressed" as the American Indian Ghost Dance of the 1890s, the cargo cult movement in the South Pacific known as the Vailala Madness, or the Rastafarians in the Caribbean.30 It tersely formalizes the experience of having been violently subsumed into the myth of Western scientific rationality at the expense of one's own myth of origins, and recreated for a second time in the categories and theoretical disciplines of the West.31

For Long, this experience is itself quintessentially religious. His own training as a historian of religions allows him to comprehend the violence of such an experience in terms of myth. For him, it constitutes a depth of disruption matched only by the radicality of rupture coded into myths of origin all over the world. In these latter, a primordial intimacy with the cosmos and its divine powers is remembered precisely in accounts of a sudden, inexplicable, severing of that intimacy. Given the radicality and irresistibility of the experience of colonization for the colonized, Long insists it could not but be experienced and expressed as a "mythic" event. It cut to the quick not just of individual identity, but of cosmic situation and divine connection. Surviving its violence required an act of cultural recreation on the order of mythic reconstitution.32

Thus in Long's reading, colonization itself took on the character of a cosmogonic event for the colonized. Whether in cargo cult groupings to reintegrate ancestral memory with the newly imposed colonial economy, or black church ecstasies transfiguring the demonic terrors of the white plantation into black daemonic strength, myth and ritual were the privileged media of reconstitution.33 Here the oppressive otherness of the colonizer was overcome only in daring to create a communal expression of another kind of "Otherness" --no less oppressive for its being divine-- but a divine oppression not carried out in violent annihilation, but in a distention and transformation of consciousness itself.34 Where no other "space of being" could be won, the oppressed took refuge in a reformulated self-awareness. They recreated themselves in the existential depths of their struggle against colonialism, where the "lithic hardness" of reality was recapitulated in ritual forms of divine encounter.35 Colonial harshness was refigured in spiritual suppleness, brute force in psychic subtlety. For Long, the experience is adequately theorized in Western terms only in virtue of something like Rudolph Otto's mysterium tremendum --in Long's own reformulation, a negativity of divinity that simultaneously limns36 freedom for the oppressed by relativizing the oppression of the oppressor.37 And it is just here, that Long's articulation becomes suggestive for the concern about absolute symbols and partial identities.

The experience of the tremendum for which human dread is the index and correlate is, for Long, an experience prior to schematization in a category. It is distinctive primarily as an experience of radical contingency. Long underscores the radicality of the experience for the colonized by comparing DuBois' account to (seemingly) similar experiences of dread recorded by both Henry, Sr. and William James. What marks out the former over against the latter (and generally distinguishes black American "knowledge" of holiness from its white counterpart) is the signal depth at which the fact of contingency has embedded itself in black self-consciousness.38 In the memory of slavery continued in post-emancipation repression (in Jim Crowism and the ever-present threat of the lynch mob), DuBois had been face to face with a human terror that refused all prediction. In black communal practices, he encountered the antidote to that human terror in the form of an embodied "divine" terror that refused all naming, that broke open every category in the depths of a groan or the shudder of a shout. He knows not just that God is more than any symbol can capture, but indeed has experienced that "more" in his own body, gathered in community with other, similarly "possessed," bodies. He has come to know the tremendum as a physical performance of collective black self-consciousness.

In a word, DuBois is constituted by something he can in no way identify with. Not only has he been forced to grapple with an otherness imposed by his white oppressors as a form of "blackness" --so that he is led to speak of himself as "both a Negro and an American." But the very communal media within whose resonances he has found a language and a power by which to survive that imposed doubleness have themselves only further inscribed him in otherness. His solace, the communal antidote created in withstanding the violence of the colonial category, is an Absolute that defies every category, that will only be known, if it is to be known at all, as a communal intensity that refuses simple identification. It emerges rather in the vitality effect of a memory of white terror transfigured in communal ritual. It appears "as" the tremolant experience of darkness, the shudder and shout of a community exorcizing its pains of oppression.


Paul Gilroy: From Plantation Terror to "Slave Sublime"

hus Long. Gilroy --separately it would seem (neither Long nor Gilroy ever refers to the other's works in their own) and half a world away-- describes much the same effect in his theory of the slave sublime. He outlines various modes of black ritual revisitation of the terrors of enslavement that give rise to complex forms of black diasporic identity. In so doing, he is careful to steer a course between what he calls essentialist views of culture found in various black nationalisms or other ethnic absolutisms and a dissembling postmodern anti-essentialism that seeks to install itself as the voice of cultural arbitration under the guise of celebrating fragmentation. Gilroy is rather concerned to theorize an identity he sees operating differentially, but continuously, under the high tech surfaces of black expressive cultures around the Atlantic. It is one that is underwritten, in his mind, by the constant recapitulation of an affective "memory" galvanized in religious traditions developed during slavery. In effect --in a claim somewhat comparable to Long's-- Gilroy argues that black religious ritual has translated the terms of slavery into a history of sublimity. For Gilroy, that history is carried forward in "prediscursive structures" of communally produced "affect." These affective structures are practically reproduced in quite disparate "African" diaspora communities as a recognizable form of trans-Atlantic spirituality yielding black collective identity.

But Gilroy adds to the discussion here both in extending the analysis into black popular culture in the twentieth century and in suggesting its connection to modernity in toto. In Gilroy's opinion, the structures crystallized during slavery show up with greatest force today, and with nearly irrepressible innovation, in black musics. These various musics --from the spirituals and the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, reggae and rap-- all commonly redeploy time and space away from the work-a-day capitalist world in ad hoc communities of consumption and interpretation. While not exclusively black in phenotype, these counter-communities are nonetheless certainly black in self-naming and stylistic genealogy.

What is particularly distinctive about these communities, for Gilroy, is their conservation of the memory of slavery not only in narrative content, but even more tellingly, in expressive form. The depth-structure they recapitulate is one that, among other things, regularly deforms and relativizes language in claiming that there are levels of existential truth that cannot be expressed in (merely) verbal recitation (the "truth" recognizable, for instance, in the screams of a James Brown, or the shrieks of an Aretha Franklin, the moans of blues, or the improvisational slides of jazz, the dubs of reggae or the samples of rap that decompose the music into its constituent parts). In these ever-varied microstructures, the history of black passion divulges its intensity.

For Gilroy, however, this capacity to relativize verbal truth claims in the drive to express other kinds of veracity is not simply a distinctive aspect of black diasporic creativity. It is not merely an adventitious and interesting innovation of a unique cultural group under the pressures of a particularly oppressive history. Rather, it also stands as an incipient and effective critique of the entire "Western" project. For him, these affective structures remain both constitutive of, and revelatory for, modernity at large. They are continuously reproduced in relationship to a historical depth-structure that has determining effects for the identity and integrity of all modern peoples. Religious in origin, they continue their productive life in increasingly secularized forms that yet dissent from the dominant meanings of secularity. They represent a "return of the repressed" of modern secularity that refuses precisely any hard and fast separation between religion and rationality, aesthetics and politics, ethics and economics.39

In his discussion of Richard Wright, for instance, Gilroy restates this perspective in a manner that intersects with our own concerns for the connections between an incipient racism and a renascent soteriology. He offers that, indeed for Wright "the decisive break in western consciousness which modernity identifies was defined by the collapse of a religious understanding of the world."40 But he further offers that Wright's book, The Outsider, "elaborates a view of blackness and the relational ideologies of race and racism which support it not as fixed and stable historical identities to be celebrated, overcome, or even deconstructed, but as metaphysical conditions of the modern world's existence that arise with, and perhaps out of, the overcoming of religious morality".41 It represents "Wright's first attempt to account for the correspondences and connections which joined the everyday lifeworld of African-Americans to the visceral anxieties precipitated in modern European philosophy and letters by the collapse of religious sensibility in general and the experience of twentieth-century life in particular."42

The chain of association is suggestive. We are offered a reading of Wright that understands race and racism as integral to modernity as part of its peculiar metaphysical conditions of possibility. At the same time, that specific metaphysic is comprehended as dependent upon the very religiousness its repudiates, carrying it forward "viscerally" as a form of "philosophical anxiety." On the other side of the divide, however, --in the "unconscious" of modern rationality represented by modern slavery and its terrors-- Gilroy argues that the slaves find the images of Jubilee and apocalypse specifically requisite for their survival. They deal with the quite physical anxieties of their situation in part by means of the very religious symbols their masters are in the process of discarding. They fashion an alternative sense of identity and dignity for themselves by means of overtly religious ritual.

We could perhaps then adapt Gilroy's findings to our purposes here by saying that the fears and figurations of a supposedly premodern religiosity show up with double effect on the inside of modernity. Against a double dismissal, they both irrupt and erupt. On the one hand, those fears recur symptomatically as a form of markedly European anxiety and terror. On the other, they find quite overt retrieval in the counter-forms of various black (religious) "transfigurations," directed precisely against the irrational projections and "rationalized" practices of that (European) terror. These latter may have indeed begun in specifically religious form, but continue in late-modernity in various popular culture reincarnations. But whatever their apparent differences in cultural expression, these "white" fears and "black" re-figurations point to an irreducible interdependence.


DuBois' Double-Consciousness and the Modern Myth of Identity

he modern connection between salvation and racialization, I would argue, must be grasped analytically in point and counter-point. The complex duplicity of Euro-racism confronts its "other" in the duplex complexity of the various racialized identities it has helped create but can never control. As the burden of Gilroy's work is to trace the on-going reconstruction and recapitulation of these hybrid forms of identity that were originally developed out of religious resources in cultural forums no longer necessarily claiming religious affiliation, I will not further invoke his work here. In many ways, his work is already a profound reflection on some of the issues I am trying to focus on in this paper, offering an archaeology of black diasporic cultures and identities that very suggestively fills in the blanks between slave experience and contemporary struggles with racism(s) that anticipates the point I am making here.

The point I would take away from his analysis is made simply in his subtitle. The reality of the "black Atlantic" is a reality of "modernity and double-consciousness" (the title of Gilroy's book is The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness). Here, DuBois' formula stands as emblematic. It supplies a hint about racial identity in general in our modern world. As discursive categories, racial signifiers are patently bi-polar. While a term like "black" or "white" appears to stand on it own in delineating a particular content, that content is actually determined as much by what it negatively excludes as by what it positively designates. Not only are such categories sites of continual historical struggle between and within the communities they refer to and refer from. But they are also "essentially" double in whatever meanings they do mark in any given usage. At a structural level, DuBois' double consciousness says something not only about the peculiarities of turn-of-the-century black experience. It points to something peculiar to racialization in general. Even the white identity secured by the violence of white supremacy is duplex.43 It depends upon its other for meaning. It operates a paradox of exclusion which needs the very thing it excludes.

Thus white supremacy can only exist by way of the blackness it banishes. But in the fact of its domination, it embraces a fiction of identification. It seems to be self-sufficient in its self-reference even while it continually elaborates a structure of appropriation. Such is the meaning of the dialectical dead-end Hegel's master finds himself in (sic) in his famous master-slave phenomenology.44 Lost in a fiction of independence, the master has no motive or means of escape from the dependence that is the real condition of dominance.

Over against such a white monocular vision of racial identity, DuBois' stereoscopic vision sees more clearly. His lament of ever having to "look at oneself through the eyes of another" (for survival's sake, if for no other reason) is also a form of license.45 It marks the experience of blackness as a practice of supplementarity. Racialization in modernity reveals --in a radicality perhaps only matched by processes of gender ascription-- the ontological constitution of modernity at large. It comes into being as the historically specific form of splitting of subject and object whose social conditions of possibility were most rigorously theorized by Marx in the nineteenth century and have been most suggestively elaborated in feminist and postcolonial analysis in the twentieth.46 Modernity is as predicated upon slavery as it is on patriarchy; the patriarchal modern European self first articulated by Descartes is profoundly constituted in its difference from its non-European others. Modern forms of identity are racial at their core and irreducibly "double."

Such is the significance of attempts both Long and Gilroy make to read the specificity of either cargo cult or black diaspora experience, respectively, back into the mainstream of Western modes of self- understanding. DuBois' formula is epigrammatic not just of marginality, but of modernity itself.

But having said such, it is necessary also to underscore the religious element inherent in the more explicit experiences of rupture undergone by those who, in Long's words. "suffer the West." Long is provocative here not only in suggesting that colonial contact is necessarily a form of religious experience for the colonized in virtue of the depth of crisis it precipitates (a depth of rupture requiring mythico-religious repair and "reconstitution'). But he is equally "good to think with" in asserting that for colonizers, the experience of contact is not religious since it only confirms rather than confounds their own myths of origin and cosmic placement. In their case, a displacement rather than an interior duplication and intensification takes place. "Religion" (in a presumedly "superstitious" form) is what the "others" have, whereas enlightened "self-knowledge" is the province and particularity of European self-identity. The result is a drive to secure objective confirmations of subjective truth that, in its more "anxious" forms, takes on the character of a crusade for supremacy. It begins to function as a surreptitious and violent form of soterio-logic. At core, I want to suggest that one of the crucial differences between the identity politics tacitly incarnate in hegemonic formations and those explicitly deployed in counter-hegemonic practices has to do with the degree to which they struggle with and against the absolute figured as a form of death. In slave conversion narratives, fear and terror are met and overcome in experiences that do not merely speak of death metaphorically, but register its proximity and contingency psychically and physically. Gilroy highlights a distinctive "rapport with death" he finds extant in black musics, a vernacular preoccupation with articulating and overcoming existential ultimacies that exceed merely "rational" discourse, that he traces back to slavery.47 It is perhaps then fair to extrapolate from DuBois' double-consciousness a prescient recognition: what is at once an abominable effect of oppression has been and is being transformed into a remarkable capacity for re-creation. The painful split that does and must motivate constant struggle against oppression in modern networks of power is thereby also made the source of insight into what those movements must struggle towards. Double-consciousness is a cipher for sustainable religious identity in postmodernity. It points not towards the resolute doubleness of absolute oppositions that issues in violent reaction, but towards a simultaneous pliability and profundity. There is no substitute for profound work in the opaque depths of our manifold histories of terror and trauma. Such work --carried out in communities of affinity and affirmation-- must aim at re-imaging human wholeness as a form of hybridity, human richness as a quality of pliability, and human identity as an on-going process of negotiation. Faithful commitment and following of the "Other without" would here have as it hallmark an ever-increasing capacity to embrace the "other within" and articulate with the "other alongside." Soteriology would have as its new subject a social metabolism of self and other that is neither simply an identifiable individual, nor a historical community, but rather a practical process of reciprocity that is being worked out in the present. Salvation would be found precisely between religions, in the mix of identities, on the margins where one community meets another.

Such statements of wishful subjunctives are perhaps not very hopeful in their utopic dreaming. But they do invoke an historic achievement seldom recognized as such. Gilroy closes his work by soliciting Toni Morrison to suggest that "the concentrated intensity of the slave experience is something that marked out blacks as the first truly modern people, handling in the nineteenth century dilemmas and difficulties which would only become the substance of everyday life in Europe a century later."48 Morrison herself asserts that black women in particular, and black people in general, "had to deal with postmodern problems in the nineteenth century" in order to develop all the "strategies for survival that make the truly modern person" capable of responding to the "predatory western phenomena" she sums up as "racism."49


Religious Vision in the Face of Racist Deformations of Religious Vision

hatever else may be said about this too brief foray into nineteenth century complexities for the sake of twentieth century dilemmas, it must be said up front that slave practices constitute nothing like a model for emulation or experience for appropriation. I am rather interested in them for something more like witness and recognition. Religious practice constitutes one of the resources for identity construction that is simultaneously devilish and delphic. In the lamination of racial identity and religious idolatry found in historical white supremacy, we meet a depth of psychological intransigence and social violence that marks the spot as millenary. It is capable of proximate forms of apocalypse. In the de-absolutization of racial identity by a religiously reconstructed Absolute in various forms of slave spirituality, we meet a utopic possibility. Post-modernity could yet yield a livable future. That the practices of slaves readily dismissed in academic circles as "pre-modern" should disclose, in tragic yet triumphant glimpse, a hopeful form for post-modern survival is part of the ironic justice of history. Certainly not alone, certainly not uniquely, certainly not without compromise and confusion, but with nonetheless discernible power, slave intimations of the Absolute offer a human outline. It is possible to elaborate practices of religious hope, even in --or perhaps more accurately, precisely because of-- situations of socio-political desperation that "make a way out of no way."

What we encounter today as forms of black racialized identity that on the whole refuse captivity to a merely simple "identitarianism," stand as signs of a reciprocal demand for white people to remake their own identities in similarly complex and pliable forms. I am not wanting to romanticize blackness here. Nor am I discounting evident black temptations to meld racial identity with apocalyptic destiny. All I am laboring to open up is a close perusal of a moment of historical prefigurement whose effects continue into the present. I would agree with Long and Gilroy and Morrison that there is a cultural resource present in black diasporic expressive practices that anticipates a dilemma that now encompasses a globe. How to honor symbols of the absolute in ways that continue to evoke human depths without occasioning an identitarian appropriation? How to use such symbols to combat fear and counter oppression without locking the promised deliverance into a local monopoly? How to live our various religious traditions in a world grown hightechnically small and postmodernly complex in ways that allow differences both human and divine to have constitutive effect without promoting a violent partisan reflex? Timothy MacVeigh is potentially the face of anyone of us who seeks religious explanation and personal recompense for a rejection suffered at the hands of a vast faceless system. Together we face a future in which terror must find "absolution," transfiguration and exorcism in our various communities of belief or it will continue, with ever more amplified effect, to be exercised by the godlike "Absolutes" of our varied choosing. "Identity" and "divinity" only have a destiny today on a human horizon of humble differences and accepted limitations. Realizing the plasticity and heterogeneity of such a horizon is the responsibility of all of us.





1 The word is bracketed here to signal its ambivalent reference: it simultaneously refers to a set of community rituals and behaviors that give access to identities not shaped by the commodity form and to an aspiration towards ultimate reality.

2 For theorizations of "the post-colonial,' cf. especially Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak," in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture and "The Politics of Translation" in Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates; also Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture.

3 Soteriology is a technical term in theological studies for the study of the logic and discourse of salvation. The word itself is a compound of the Greek words for "savior" (soter) and "discourse" (logos).

4 Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness.

5 Theophilus Smith, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America.

6 Here, in relationship to the term, "Anglo American" and in the next sentence in relationship to the term "Africa," I employ quotation marks to emphasize the invented character of collectivities in question and their fictive coherence. Cf. Jose Rabasa, Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism; V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge.

7 Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism.

8 For instance, Roger Bastide brings out the way Puritan predestinarian ideologies read black skin as a presumptive sign of a soul rebellious against God in "Color, Racism and Christianity," White Racism: Its History, Pathology and Practice.

9 Cf. Ozment The Reformation in the Medieval Perspective.

10 Hegel carries the fracture begun with Kant, between self as subject and self as object, to full term in the final reconciliation of identity and difference as an identity between "identity" and "identity-and-difference" dialectically achieved in Absolute Spirit. Marx, in turn, stands Hegel on his head, identifies the universal class as the proletariat, within whose coming into full possession of the forces of production in communism will be accomplished the resolution of historical contradictions in the classless society.

11 The idea that "like can only be saved by like" has a long history in Christian theology, beginning with the patristic era. Mudimbe in Inventing Africa related the Foucaultian model of epistemic shifts to the colonizing process. From an examination of sixteenth century European paintings of Africans, he derives the "signs of an epistemological order which, silently but imperatively, indicate the processes of integrating and differentiating figures within the normative sameness" (Mudimbe, 9). The "virtues of resemblance," he says, "erase physical and cultural variations, while maintaining and positing surface differences as meaningful of human complexity" (Mudimbe, 9). On the other hand, by the late 17th century, a new epistemic order is in evidence in which "theories of the diversification of beings, as well as classificatory tables, explain the origins of constructing taxonomies and their objectives" (Mudimbe, 9). Here, "resemblance has been pushed out of Rubens', Rembrandt's and Rimbaud's perceptions of blacks," and what appears in its place is an "analysis of alterity," a "theory of understanding and looking at signs in terms of `the arrangement of identities and differences into ordered tables'" (Mudimbe, 9).

12 Cf. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

13 It is worth quoting Irish discourse theorist Richard Kearney at length here, as his characterization appears so apposite. In contextualizing Joyce's work in his book, Transitions, he comments "[f]rom its emergence in the 18th century, the novel genre exhibited a specific structure of quest. This quest-structure was related to several dominant paradigms of modern European culture, in particular Cartesian idealism, bourgeois individualism and Reformational subjectivism. The quest-structure generally took the form of an individual subject's search for value in an alienated world. Its conventional theme was that of a journey from meaninglessness to meaning, from the insufficiency of the surrounding social environment to some new vision of things. The quest-structure thus presupposed the experience of a rupture between the internal imagination of the hero and the external reality which he is trying to explore or transcend. The novel of the quest was characterized by a psychological preoccupation with the hero's solitary ego as it struggled with an alien world.

This quest-structure of the novel has been comprehensively analysed by such diverse critics as Lucien Goldmann, Rene Girard and George Lukacs. The bourgeois genre of the novel differs from the old genre of the epic, as Lukacs explains in Theory of the Novel, in that it narrates a quest without the guaranteed resolution of a providential deity. The hero of the novel must invest meaning ex nihilo, drawing exclusively from the resources of his own subjective desire, for meaning has fled from the modern world and can no longer be expected as a miraculous gift of the gods. Hence the recurring theme of the great `classical realist' novels: the attempt by an isolated human consciousness to provide a narrative coherence for its fragmented existence in a society devoid of value" (Kearney, 35).

14 Eschatology is another technical theological term referring formally to the discourse (and study) of "last things," of the telos of the cosmos, the destiny of humanity and the ultimate denoument of history.

15 Cf. for instance, Gilroy's discussion of homogeneous and essentializing concepts of "culture" in The Black Atlantic.

16 Cf. West's Prophecy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity.

17 Clifton H. Johnson's God Struck Me Dead, 149.

18 Johnson, 100.

19 Cf. Riggins Earl's Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self and Community in the Slave Mind.

20 For a discussion of hegemony, cf. Antonion Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, 12. I am also indebted to LeClau and Mouffe's work on hegemony in their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, for the idea of one discourse intersecting and "deforming" another, "prevent[ing] it from becoming fully sutured" (LeClau and Mouffe, 111).

21 Cf. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism for a discussion of black tropic creativity in general and his article "What's Love Got To Do With It: Critical Theory, Integrity and Black Idiom," in New Literary History, 356.

22 Cf. Gilroy, in particular, for an account of the ways "empty" racial signifiers are loaded with historically specific "contents" in the course of political struggle between racialized communities in Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, 38-39, 149.

23 The archetypal texts here are Albert Cleage's The Black Messiah and James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, followed by his God of the Oppressed.

24 Cf. Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion and Earl's Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs. Cf. also James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, for an argument that the oppressed remain critically conscious of their situation even when seemingly cooperating in maintaining a public transcript of its legitimation. "Hidden transcripts," developed away from public space, become the source of various forms of covert resistance and sabotage, and not infrequently, give rise to overt attempts at rebellion.

25 Cf. Charles Long, Significations: Signs Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, 8.

26 W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 140-41 (emphasis Long).

27 Long, 165; DuBois, 140.

28 DuBois, 141.

29 DuBois, 141.

30 Long, 110.

31 Long, 166.

32 Long, 170.

33 Long, 125, 165.

34 Long, 167.

35 Long, 139, 197.

36 Cf. Victor Turner's notion of "liminality" as characteristic of the initiatory movement from one stage of life to another across a ritualized threshold that serves to deconstruct one identity for the sake of the emergence of a new identification (Turner, 94-130).

37 Long, 163, 165.

38 Long, 165.

39 Gilroy, 1993, 39, 56.

40 Gilroy, 160.

41 Gilroy, 160.

42 Gilroy, 160; emphasis JP.

43 For an interesting complement to the understanding of DuBois' double consciousness as having application to more than just "black" experience, cf. Mikhail Bahktin's The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays and Rabelais and His World. Bahktin rethinks the speaking subject in general as necessarily and always dialogically constituted, inhabited by and inhabiting a "heteroglossic" flow of speech that pre-exists any given person and so always establishes that person in a "grotesque body" that is not sealed off from the world it moves in (Bakhtin, 1981, 272, 275-300; 1984, 26). The subject is thus always the speaker of a "second word" (in response) to the first word spoken to it from without.

44 Cf. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, 109-119.

45 DuBois, 17.

46 Cf. Bhabha's theorizing --albeit in specific relationship to modernity-- a "split site of enunciation" (Bhabha, 176). The split that is the subject of so much post-modern and post-colonial theorizing in the last decade can trace its theoretical origins to Kant and Hegel. Kant perhaps more than any other thinker of his time, gave philosophical expression to the breach between subjective freedom and objective knowledge that has bedeviled post-rationalist thought since the early 19th century (Spivak, 1988, 310, ft. 22). And, even though his philosophy of spirit resolved that breach in a profoundly problematic manner, Hegel perhaps more than any other post-Kantian philosopher captured the significance of that split for human subjectivity in his dialectic expression of identity as the "union of union and nonunion" in which "identity is different" as being "different from difference" (Taylor, 1980).

47 Gilroy, 1993, 203.

48 Gilroy, 1993, 221.

49 Interview with Tony Morrison, published as "Living Memory: Meeting Toni Morrison" in Paul Gilroy, Small Acts, 175-182.



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