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Politics of Scripture, Traditions

Spirits Of Blood And Breath – Contrasting Religious Perspectivism With Actual People’s Perspectives (Roger Green)

Barbara Alice Man opens her recent book, Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath, noting the ongoing difficulties indigenous people face among white scholars.

Indigenous scholars often face the charges of “essentialism” or “bias” when attempting to present their own intellectual and historical accounts.  Such charges are as limiting as the claims some first-year university students make when being confronted with different perspectives for the first time: “reverse-racism.”  As if we all lived in the neutralized center of liberal democratic sovereignty, having access to a windless kind of transcendent justice.

In the explosion of attention to the history and genealogies of Western thought that we call political theology there has undoubtedly been a neglect of historically marginalized voices, especially among attempts to read the contemporary significance of scripture to politics without the rigor of the historical transformations of politically accepted scriptural interpretation.  What this amounts to is an ongoing fragmentation of de-cultured and de-historicized perspectives that Olivier Roy has recently called “holy ignorance.”

One of the ongoing problems in discussing indigenous “religion,” especially in the Americas, has been the superimposition of Christian frames, including the notion of “religion” itself upon practices.  Mann points this out specifically with the concept of “Creator,” as used by Cherokee people, whose removal has been most famously celebrated in the United States as the “Trail of Tears.”  Mann writes:

Still, all the Cherokees I have talked with (or read) who use the term “Creator” are doing so as a shorthand for the ancient concept that is commonly rendered as “medicine.”  Now, “medicine” is essentially untranslatable into European tongues, although in 1908, the Seneca anthropologist, Arthur Parker, took a creditable crack at it, with “mystic potence.” (29)

 Despite multiple warnings by ethnologists not to confuse “the Creator” with the Christian God, scholars superimposed Christian notions of messianic impulses, especially onto movements such as Ghost Dance (30).  Mann traces this tension through the work of later indigenous scholars such as Vine Deloria Jr., and more recently, George E. “Tink” Tinker, citing Tinker’s claim in Missionary Conquest that “by and large, Indian people have not found liberation in the gospel of Jesus Christ, but, rather, continued bondage to a culture that is both alien and alienating, even genocidal against American Indian peoples” (in Mann 37).

Tinker in recent years has distanced himself from earlier work, such as his contributions to A Native American Theology, which took a softer tone toward colonizer religion and its relevance with respect to Native Americans (84).  By the conclusion of American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (2008), Tinker points directly at Christian evangelism:

My argument is that it is time for amer-european Christians to declare a moratorium on twentieth-century style evangelism.  To put it bluntly: just say no to preaching Jesus.  Instead, amer-european Christians should focus on living the claim that their gospel makes on themselves.  That is, Christians who take the gospel seriously should become Jesus to the world.  Stop worrying about purity of doctrine – especially other peoples’ purity of doctrine – or newness of theology and just concentrate on living the purity of the gospel in relationship with other people. (124)

Tinker goes on to suggest to Christians: “Be Jesus quietly and stop pontificating, because it is the latter that consistently causes the problems of human hegemony.”  Barbara Mann builds on this by articulating the non-anthropocentric, “twinned cosmos of Indigenous America.”

Mann’s deadpan style of writing is refreshing as she constantly corrects New Age appropriation and concepts like “Healing”:

“Healing” puts a knowledgeable actor busily to work on a passive recipient, in a hierarchy of doer and doee.  The sweat lodge, by contrast, requires an equality of action among all participants.  The humans work just as hard and contribute just as much to the sweat as the rocks, fire, water, and herbs. (79)

 The anthropocentricism of experience-seeking Westerners, enculturated within liberal frames of the “self” a self-work disrupt the work of balancing the twinned cosmos because, ultimately, it’s about the salvation of individual, anthropocentric “souls.”

Even if we admit useful scholarly work on New Age religion such as Wouter Hanegraaf’s New Age Religion and Western Culture and Christopher Partridge’s claims that “Occulture is Ordinary,” we must also continue to attend to an altogether different dilemma faced by indigenous peoples in the face of emergent neo-shamanism and neo-colonial forms of spiritual practices that do not readily see their entrenchment in Euro-Christian frames.  Again, these movements would fall under Olivier Roy’s concept of holy ignorance.

The bulk of Mann’s book is spent painstakingly emphasizing the balancing that must take place what she calls the “twinned cosmos” of blood and breath.  Nothing is without its double, and this has nothing to do with identity claims that fuel claims that indigenous people “essentialize” when they vie for their own space in scholarly discussions.  Part of this doubling, for example, requires gendered distinctions that appear out-of-step with current academic discourse in the United States, making people unaware of indigenous perspectives skeptical of claims that may sound “unprogressive.”

The result is that sometimes Mann must correct the ways other marginalized groups have appropriated Native American concepts; for example, feminists who demand mixed gendered sweats and the term “two-spirit” as employed by some of the GLBTQIA movements.  Not holding back, Mann writes about the ways the GLBTQ community in the 1980s appropriated the term “two-spirit” to mark an exclusive identity:

Using “two-spirit” to mean GLBTQ folk, only, expropriates Indigenous culture as surely does auctioning off Kachinas, putting the two spirits to a non-traditional use that is every bit as damaging to spiritual health as mixed sweats. […] Worse, once this false two-spirit terminology is appropriated, it leaves Indians with no way to talk about a revered tradition. Misappropriation does not challenge but continues colonial domination, for oppression has a funny way of allowing groups newly on the brink of mainstream acceptance to legitimize themselves by demonstrating how completely they stand apart from those still-despised minorities, over there. (97)

Mann argues as a corrective that everyone has two-spirits (blood and breath), and that homosexual and spectrum-based gender-expressions have a different kind of uniqueness: “Their uniqueness comes, instead, from constituting a different gender, a third and even fourth gender.  This situation certainly signals the possession of big medicine, but it is boundary-crossing medicine, unrelated to the commonplace possession of two-spirits” (98).  Understanding the twinned cosmos means avoiding conflation of Native American cosmologies and the Judeo-Christian Creator God.

Mann’s broader point about cosmology transcends discussions of identity as it is invoked in the divide-and-conquer forms of neoliberalism.  People who take Indigenous claims to be merely essentializing thus risk superimposing the very frames that scholars like Mann are and have been rejecting for a long-time to the deaf ears of those firmly encultured in both liberal secularist and religious forms of Euro-Christian frames.

Mann’s recent work is especially useful in tension with the very compelling work that anthropologists in South America have made with respect to Amerindian Perspectivism.  As perhaps most articulated by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in The Relative Native and Cannibal Metaphysics, Viveiros de Castro attempts to present the “anti-Narcissistic” and anti-anthropocentric view employed by Indigenous American cosmologies that invert claims of multiculturalism by espousing a view of multinaturalism:

Multinaturalism does not suppose a Thing-in-Itself partially apprehended through categories of understanding proper to each species.  We should not think that Indians imagine that there exists a something=X, something that humans, for example, would see as blood and jaguars as beer.  What exists in multinature are not so much self-identical entities differently perceived but immediately relational multiplicities of the type blood / beer.  There exists, if you will, only the limit between blood and beer, the border by which these two “affinal” substances communicate and diverge. (73)

Viveiros de Castro’s Amerindian Perspectivism certainly comes closer than earlier anthropologists to what Mann describes as twinned cosmos, especially in the extension of “souls” to non-human beings.  In this view, which is not Animism in its classic sense, “personhood” is extended to other animals and plants, who are included in the Amerindian concept of “human”:

Neither animism, which would affirm a substantial or analogic resemblance between animals and humans, nor totemism – which would affirm a formal or homological resemblance between intrahuman and interanimal differences – perspectivism affirms an intensive difference that places human/nonhuman difference within each existent. (68)

Viveiros de Castro builds on a point made by Levi-Strauss that at the point of first-contact, Europeans’ knee-jerk reaction to indigenous peoples was to see them as less-human and more animal, while Indigenous peoples tended to view Europeans with more-than-human, “godlike” status.  Each of these were misinterpretations, but the Indigenous view was tremendously more generous and granted the newcomers full personhood.  Much of Cannibal Metaphysics is an updating of Levi-Strauss’s work in La Pensée sauvage and Mythologiques read through the works of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus projects.

Viveiros de Castro firmly aligns his work with a political turn made by anthropologists in the 1960s that later informed poststructuralism and May 1968.  That tradition embraced, through its own European fantasy, a non-pejorative version of so-called “savage thought” as a hopeful site of resistance.  He thus makes an important qualifier at the end of Cannibal Metaphysics, noting the distinction between his theoretical work and Indigenous people:

The image of savage thought that I am endeavoring to define is aimed neither at indigenous knowledge and its more or less true representation of reality – the “traditional knowledges” so lusted after in the global market of representations – nor at its mental categories, the “representationality” of which the cognitive sciences endlessly go on about [. . .]  The “objects” whose existence is being affirmed here are indigenous concepts, the worlds these constitute (and that thus express them), and the virtual ground from which they emerge. (188-189)

While such language is likely to be classified under Barbara Mann’s term, “yakademic,” it is important to note that Viveiros de Castro is indeed working within an academic continuum in which the discussion builds from late twentieth-century thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari.

Inevitably, that makes his project more about an ongoing European philosophical discussion and the way it informs the discipline of anthropology than it is about actual indigenous peoples.  Viveiros de Castro is not pretending to be Indigenous, and we ought not mistake his descriptions of perspectivism with actual peoples’ perspectives.

That said, when combined with Barbara Alice Mann’s work on the twinned cosmos, Viveiros de Castro’s insistence on treating Amerindian Perspectivism as a serious conceptual alternative to Hegelian disruptions of time transposes to a new key.  Rough as the dialogue will be, the political-theological insights of such discussions remain crucial, especially if we are to come to terms with what Tinker reminds Euro-Christians as the task at hand in American Indian Liberation:

…being Jesus means the church must sacrifice any arrogant ambition of being Herod or Pilate or even archbishop.  The church (any denomination) is so susceptible to the temptation offered Jesus by the tempter.  The power and privilege inherently invested in Whiteness (for the amer-european Christian) always seem to incarnate themselves in a sense of being God’s authoritative judging and ruling Christ to the world rather than a caring and loving Jesus who resists power.  Hence, our theologies always tend toward the individually prescriptive rather than the systemically responsive. (125)

Dealing with distinctly Amerindian concepts, as Viveiros de Castro argues, and recognizing the twinned cosmos, as Barbara Alice Mann describes it, can offer the discourse of political theology (among others) a different angle of inquiry than the usual secular / postsecular or enchantment / re-enchantment discussions, as well as to the contradictory impulses found in politicized agonism over multicultural values.

Useful further study would read perspectivism and the twinned cosmos in contradistinction with what Luis León calls “religious poetics in La Llorona’s Children, as I described in on earlier post on this blog.  It can also accentuate the ongoing dangers of deculturation and “holy ignorance.”         

Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

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