For an indication of why I’m interested in the “more” that object-oriented philosophers grapple with, the “remainder” beyond what can be accounted for of an object or phenomenon through relational accounts, I thought it would be appropriate to share a few paragraphs from my 2001 book Claiming Sacred Ground.
On the most material level, then, there is something—a place, object, or landscape feature—at the center of the spatialized sacred landscape, which attracts and accumulates discourses of sacrality in the form of lore, tales, pilgrimages, and ritual practices. But it would be a mistake to identify that something too early in our interpretive effort, if only because all our understandings of the place are always already enmeshed within interpretive traditions.
Consider Mount Shasta in northern California: a mountain that had been sacred to several Native tribes long before Europeans arrived, and that in the past two centuries has become a magnet for a multitude of mystical and metaphysical groups. To say that the essence which lies behind this particular phenomenon, underlying all its cultural interpretations, is a mountain is, in effect, saying very little. It is, on the one hand, a particular mountain, whose appearance dominates the horizon of a large part of northern California, whose broad, snow-covered peak takes on particular qualities at particular times of day and year (e.g., a hovering “ghost” overlooking a green summer landscape, a “benevolent presence,” etc.). But on the other hand, even the supposedly neutral term mountain already privileges a reading of it as a physical thing-in-itself, something which speakers of English (and European languages) recognize as sharing in the qualities of mountainness—not a social or spiritual being whom one might fear or revere, nor a pillar of the world whose presence is axial to the well-being of all things, but simply a large mass of rock, formed through the blind action of geological forces for no reason in particular. The language we use to describe the world, in other words, projects an epistemic grasp over that world, encompassing it into a particular formation of power/knowledge; and in the epistemic world-picture embodied within this ostensibly neutral physicalist language of mountains and other objects, sacredness would seem to be ruled out, except as a quirk of cultural perception.
To understand the sacredness and the mystical allure of such a site, then, it is important that we attempt to bracket out the unspoken metaphysical presuppositions encoded in our language, with its assumptions of neutrality and objectivity in describing a world of human subjects and nonhuman objects or things-out-there. These sites are, at one and the same time, spatially organized physical landscapes, culturally meaningful places and regions (e.g., “homelands,” “wastelands,” etc.), sites for the working out of various cultural, economic, political and ecological processes and struggles, and heterotopic openings onto a dimension of genuine otherness, but whose openness is threatened in every attempt to specify and identify what “it” might be.
In what follows, my strategy will be to probe into the interactive geology and ecology of images, representations, myths, and practices that has congealed around each site, to deconstructively tug at these threads so as to unveil their contexts, their contestation and appropriation by different interpretive communities, their histories or genealogies, and the contested geographies, human and nonhuman, within which they are enmeshed. But this analytic and interpretive probing will be tempered by a recognition that there is always an elusive, trickster-like otherness to these places, a never-encompassable remainder, the traces of which contribute to the distinct character, spirit or sense of place that mixes and meshes with their culturally specific interpretive histories. I will take these interpretive histories and contests, then, as clues, openings onto a possible (and always only possible) otherness which makes its presence felt but eludes the grasp of systematic and objective knowledge. That is not to suggest that this extra-discursive reality is prediscursive, nor indeed that we can ever come to know it apart from our own discursive, linguistic and interpretive labors. It is simply to recognize that there is always an ever elusive more which those categories cannot capture.
Ultimately, then, I will try to leave these openings open, not to close them off by way of a reification to some pre-given essence, or of a reduction to ideology, social relations, or some other explanatory principle. My hope, in the end, is that such a method can produce insights into the interconnected political, cultural and ecological investments that have woven themselves into the texture of two contemporary sacred sites—nodes in the productive circuits of an alternative, New Age or Gaian ecospiritual geography.