Guest Post: Professor Emeritus William E. Paden

By William E. Paden

Thanks to Kevin Trainor for calling my attention to the fine departmental blog and inviting me to contribute. I enjoyed reading about what everyone is doing these days.

I retired from UVM and the Religion Department in 2009—after 44 years! When I started in 1965 Burlington was scarcely the vibrant town it is today; and as for the department, there were just three of us religion professors trying to more or less cover the whole field.

9781474252119I certainly miss the students at 481 Main St. and my colleagues, but academic writing goes on as though it were an extended sabbatical. Blog readers might be interested in my new book, which came out last month, New Patterns for Comparative Religion: Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective (Bloomsbury Academic), and I’ve linked here to the front matter and complete Introduction as that gives the best overview.

Essentially the book is an intellectual autobiography in three parts: reformulating some of the basic concepts (‘world’, ‘sacred’) and figures (Durkheim, Eliade ) in comparative religion; reconstructing the concept of comparison and the idea of universal human-level behaviors; and suggesting linkages between comparative religion and what I call ‘evolutionary perspective’. The 13 chapters had been published in various places over the last 20 years, but brought together here because they show the steps on my path toward the overarching theme of the book. I have added the Introduction and Epilogue.


**Editor’s note: Prof. Paden’s work on New Patterns for Comparative Religion earned the recognition of a University of Vermont Retired Scholars Award for the 2015-2016 academic year.

 

Notes from our Classrooms

Pedagogy is a major facet of any faculty job, and it is a source of conversation–and pride–at 481 Main Street. Religion faculty have been nominated for and won teaching awards, regularly attend pedagogical workshops, run innovative programming linking research and teaching as well as classrooms and internships. We often exchange notes on best practices, ideas that worked (and flopped!), and our students’ best work. We thought we’d kick off a series in which we shared these Notes from our Classrooms.

Last semester, Prof. Vicki Brennan taught student-favorite REL103: Sacred Sounds. While many enroll thinking it is a class about sacred music, Prof. Brennan dissuades them of that on day one–this is a course committed to thinking through theories of sound, how sound becomes labeled “religious,” and how those religious sounds enter and shape public and private spaces.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 9.07.21 AMProf. Brennan asked her Sacred Sound students to craft the Burlington Soundscape Project. This digital humanities project is an impressive collection of student work that physically and aurally mapped the sounds of Burlington. Students collected sounds (listen here) and then analyzed those sounds in the theoretical and practical terms of sound (e.g., “noise” and legal noise ordinances), the study of religion, and concepts of mapping.

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

In REL195: Islam & Modernity, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst had students research specific geographic areas (Iran, South Asia, and Turkey) alongside concepts of modernity. Instead of producing research papers, students were asked to distill their theoretically-driven and detail-heavy work into short blog posts, meant for public readership. Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst has used blogging before in other courses, and in light of overwhelmingly positive student responses to it, repeated the assignment in this brand-new course. Students wrote about trends in modernity and Islam with respect to gender, imperialism, power, secularism, and what it’s like to learn and unlearn, among other topics. See the full blog here.

 

 

 

As the Spring 2016 hits its stride, we’ll have more Notes from our Classrooms to share! 

“None” is the New Faith: Gender, Religion, and Season 3 of Orange is the New Black

From the Lionsgate website for Orange is the New Black. http://www.lionsgate.com/tv/orangeisthenewblack/

From the Lionsgate website for Orange is the New Black. http://www.lionsgate.com/tv/orangeisthenewblack/

I recently returned from a conference titled “Gender, Media, and Religion” in Boulder, Colorado hosted by the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture at the University of Colorado. Their biennial conferences each address a particular theme within the study of media and religion, and this year’s theme of gender seemed particularly relevant to the Neflix hit show, Orange is the New Black, a show I’m currently writing a chapter about for a textbook. It turned out that at least four other people thought so, too, so I found myself on a panel with three papers addressing that show, each from a different perspective (both of the other papers were co-presented by two scholars). In this blog post, I’ll give a summary of the ideas I presented, and then reflect on the conference as a whole, and the state of the study of religion, media, and gender that it reflects.

In my class introducing the comparative study of religion, I spend some time on the concept of “ontology” and how that fits in with the idea that religions are partly made up of ideas. We focus on the ontological nature of humans in different religious perspectives: do we have souls (Christianity, Islam) or not (Buddhism)? What makes us different from animals? And most relevantly: is a “male” human ontologically different from a “female” human? To me, the show, Orange is the New Black represents in popular culture a change in the answer to this last question. Until recently, most Americans would probably have assumed that yes, men and women are different, ontologically speaking. Sex was presumed to equal gender: if you were born with male genitalia and chromosomes, you were male and the same for female. Television shows notoriously reinforced this gender binary, in shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Honeymooners. As times changed, however, so did Americans’ concepts of gender. Growing up in the ‘70s with transmedia phenomena like Free to Be You and Me meant learning that things we thought were “boy things” or “girl things” didn’t have to be that – they had no ontological or natural connection to gender – and that being a “boy” or “girl” didn’t have to always mean the same thing to everyone.

Fast forward to 2015, and our popular culture now seems divided between those who take for granted that there is no “male” and “female” inherent in a person’s identity, only “human;” and those who see this assumption of a gender spectrum as a threateningly destabilizing force promoted by minority populations bent on undermining society. In internet-speak they are referred to as SJWs (“social justice warriors”). Television shows reflect this division: in the first camp, Orange is the New Black positively portrays a wide variety of gender expressions and sexuality; in the second, other television shows seem to “double down” on “traditional” gender roles. An example of this was convincingly put forward by Rachel Wagner in her paper at the conference. She argued that The Walking Dead draws on regressive New Testament concepts of gender (taken from the later pseudo-Pauline books) that have surfaced largely as a reaction to the perceived social chaos represented by growing empowerment of people of color, women, LGBT, and non-gender binary identified people. It promotes a vision of safety embodied by clearly defined gender roles, associating men with protection and brutality, and women with nurturing and care-taking. When these roles are compromised, the community cannot survive. (An interesting perspective, but this scholar would like to argue that there are more possible ways of reading that show, including as a critique of hypermasculinity.)

In other words, Orange is the New Black celebrates the idea that a person’s gender is not a determinative part of her identity – being a woman or a man is a state of mind, a series of choices and performances, and something that you can change about yourself if you need to.

Promo materials from Season 3.

Promo materials from Season 3.

Yes, you may say to yourself, but what does this have to do with religion? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about religion?

What interested me about this topic, applied to this show, is that the flexible and indeterminate way that gender is incorporated into the show’s narrative is paralleled by the flexible and indeterminate nature of religion on the show. Where television in the past has used religious identity to help create expectations about particular characters (and sometimes subvert those expectations, but usually not), Orange is the New Black allows religion to be a vehicle for telling stories about how people change, not just socially, morally, or in other “coming of age” ways typical of television narratives, but spiritually and in terms of their identity. Religion is a process, or a toolbox for finding ways to cope, or a way to explore new relationships with yourself and others. It is not a way of categorizing “the Jewish character” or “the Catholic character” as it has been traditionally used in television.

For those familiar with the show, especially the third season, the most obvious example of this is the story of Black Cindy. Curious as to how and why a new transfer to the prison is getting better food (broccoli!) in the prison cafeteria, she discovers that the new inmate is using an old trick: claim to be kosher. (Several people of my acquaintance have brought up the question, why kosher, not halal? To which I can only speculate: not enough precedent for humorous situations – no Muslim Woody Allen to riff on?) Soon, a sizable number of inmates from across the racially organized cliques are claiming adherence to Jewish laws of kashrut, and gloating about their broccoli. At first, prison management is hesitant to call the inmates on their fraud, but eventually they do bring in a rabbi to quiz them about their commitment to the Jewish faith. As expected, most of the inmates are as religiously illiterate as a random sampling of Americans can be. (See the Pew Research Center on Religion in Public Life’s 2010 Religious Knowledge Survey, for example.) Cindy, however, decides to push ahead with her identification as Jewish, and learn as much as she can, which she does first by checking out Jewish films from the library, like Yentl and Annie Hall, but then by finding actual Jewish inmates who can coach her on their knowledge of Judaism in practice and doctrine.

Finally, Black Cindy requests another meeting with the Rabbi. She formally asks, in the presence of two other Jews and the Rabbi, to become a Jew. He refuses, and she at first takes this as the standard ritualized refusal that converts are faced with in order to determine that they are committed to the path of Judaism, and not just dabbling. But the Rabbi is unconvinced. Black Cindy is, as her nickname indicates, African American, and as one of the Jewish inmates says, this makes it hard to understand why she would choose to go from being a “hated minority to being a double hated minority.” But she explains that the Christianity she grew up with never made sense to her, and left her feeling judged and alienated for wanting to ask questions. In her new knowledge about Judaism, she feels empowered to search for answers, to struggle with her mistakes and try to fix them, and to approach God as an action or a process. She says, “As far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions, and to keep learning, and keep arguing! It’s like a verb, it’s like, you DO God. And it’s a lot of work.” (You can watch her impassioned conversion on YouTube if you don’t have Netflix.)

But Black Cindy is not the only inmate whose story revolves around religion in the third season of Orange is the New Black. Another important plotline exposes the religious pasts of two inmates who in some ways represent polar opposites, spiritually speaking: Leanne and Norma. Norma is a mute woman probably in her sixties, whose flash-back shows that she joined a new religious movement in her teens, at the height of the “flower power” countercultural movement. Her “guru” is presented by the show as the epitome of the “cult leader:” spouting meaningless “new age” spiritual mumbo jumbo, and surrounding himself with nubile young things so that he can “marry” as many girls as he likes and exploit them sexually, financially, and emotionally. When Norma appears, innocent and wide-eyed, and suffering a debilitating stutter, he tells her that she never has to speak again, which she seems to find empathetic and liberating, but which the audience, I suspect, finds a little creepy. She sticks with him until the bitter end, the only follower left, presumably into the twenty-first century. Ultimately, as one can surmise because after all she is in prison, things do not end well. However, in prison she continues to maintain her silence, which gives her a kind of power and mystery, attracting a group of followers who find in her presence and touch a peace they can’t otherwise experience in the dehumanizing context of the prison.

The amazing thing about this plotline is that it leads to a situation where characters in this dramedy explicitly argue about what religion is, and what it is for, usually a topic only found alluring by students of religion such as myself and my peers. One day, Norma and her followers are meeting in the chapel and another, explicitly Christian, group comes in to claim the space. When the chaplain tells them to leave because they don’t count as a religion, Leanne stands up to explain that they do have “a belief system.” The chaplain has dismissively explained that yes, Christianity was new once, too, but “after hundreds of years of private worship, several great schisms, and thousands of people martyring themselves, it became a focused belief system. With a name.” Leanne responds that they, too, have a faith, but when she explains it, the chaplain reiterates that it is a meditation club, not a religion.

This scene is a lead-in to a series of flashbacks explaining how Leanne ended up in prison. (Previously, Leanne has been a minor, somewhat comic character, largely a foil for the more forceful personality of “Pennsatucky” another meth-head prisoner who provided an evangelical figure for the first two seasons’ plotlines.) Now, we find out that Leanne comes from an Old Order Amish community, and fell into using meth during her experimental time with “the English” and then repented and was accepted back into her family. Unfortunately she had left evidence of her drug dealing, and was persuaded by the police to set up her former drug using friends, which backfired and led to her incarceration as well. Although the depiction of the Amish may not be accurate, it serves to establish at least a symbolic context for Leanne’s relationship to religion. Her background in this religious community shapes her response to Norma, and explains her urge to use her leadership role in the group to define rules and doctrines for them to follow. At the same time, Leanne’s desire to find the sacred in the material world, like the image of Norma in a piece of toast,

or the healing sensation of the touch of Norma’s finger on her forehead, speaks perhaps to a longing for a more “mystical” (even Catholic) form of spirituality than is available in the word-centered doctrine and worship of the Amish. So, in one narrative arc, Orange is the New Black gives us 1970s counterculture, Amish Americans, and a New Religion in prison, all of which – as stereotypically as they may be presented — are shown as sincere responses of good people searching for meaning and belonging in spite of their marginal position in American society.

Just as different sexual orientations or gender identifications are sources of tension, comedy, and comfort in the context of the show, religion is also shown as something that can act in ways that are destructive and constructive, creating divisions and connections, and reflecting how Americans, in the words of sociologist Robert Wuthnow, have shifted their religious attention from “dwelling” to “seeking” – looking for new combinations and new homes in religious settings that we are transforming as we adopt them.

If you watch the third season of Orange is the New Black, you will also notice an almost constant stream of religious improvisation, from the first episode, where Pennsatucky creates a memorial to all her many aborted “babies,” to the funeral held by two characters for all the books that must be burned due to a bedbug infestation.

Pennsatucky and Boo from the episode: "Mother's Day"

Pennsatucky and Boo from the episode: “Mother’s Day”

The final, celebratory scene of the season also takes on a spiritual ethos, as the show’s writers and producers use all the tools of lighting, music, slow motion, camera angles, and close-ups to evoke a moment outside of time and space, where reconciliation, joy, rebirth, and even liberation may be possible to these inmates, if only for a few, stolen moments.

Finally, my very brief thoughts on the conference in Boulder. The papers I heard there, and the many informal conversations, were inspiring and thought provoking. It seemed clear in many instances that a fourth variable was implied or necessary in this matrix of religion, gender, and media, and that was race. As a scholar, however, it is a challenge to handle the intersectionality of these cultural categories, after being trained so long and intensively in just one or two. The field of religious studies has long understood itself to be interdisciplinary on the one hand and distinctively located on the other, struggling with the need to learn the methods and theories of other disciplines while maintaining a distinctive niche of our own. This conference was one of those spaces where “experts” from across the disciplines actually did come face to face and exchange ideas, inspiration, and perspectives, and I am convinced that the field is stronger for it.

Reblog: Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) in the September issue of Anthropology News

New newspaper column written by Professor Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) on a black church burning in Knoxville, TN for the online September issue of Anthropology News. 

Read it here: When a Black Church Burns (But not to the Ground) by Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 4.48.57 PM

Seen on campus: “Islam vs. Democracy”

Last Thursday, I received an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim flyer titled “Islam vs. Democracy” at my campus office address. I’d been mailed the same flyer during the Spring semester, as well. At that time, I responded by holding a class session in my REL096: Islam course in which we analyzed and critiqued the two-sided flyer, line by line, in the theoretical terms we’d explored all semester (Orientalism, imperialism, authenticity, categorical definitions) and compared to the definitions for Islam we’d read by scholars (like Ernst, Shepard, and Curtis, to name a select few).

It was a challenging class. Most students were horrified–one actually gasped out loud, another approached me after and apologized, having done nothing wrong, for the existence of such material. Many students expressed genuine feelings of disgust and exceptionalism: UVM is a friendly, liberal place, they said; this shouldn’t have happened here. Some asked questions about the role of open spaces and free speech on a public campus; others asked if free speech rules applied on a campus and to whom; and others still asked about the overlapping issues of free speech and campus safe spaces, accommodations, and UVM’s On Common Ground ideals. We solved none of these problems of a contemporary campus broadly or of our own.

But, in April, near the end of the term, so many of my students–even some who rarely spoke in class–offered real critique of the content of the flyer, citing theorists of religion, scholars of Islam, and critics of both. We read the flyer as a primary source to be interrogated, analyzed, and placed in its multiple contexts (what kind of literature was this? who or what was its audience? what do we do with unsigned writings? where was its information factually wrong? to what avail? & etc.).

That was my response this past spring. I scrapped a class about American Muslims in the earliest part of the 20th century so that we could instead talk about a two-sided flyer found on campus for an hour. We applied what we’d learned about Islam, the study of religion, and reading primary sources critically to a new primary source document–the flyer itself. We had an academic conversation first, but also addressed the affective responses it elicited, which ranged from thinking the flyer a joke unworthy of our time to tears, frustration, and anger.

This time the flyer surfaced, however, students hadn’t yet arrived. I sent out a call on Twitter and my personal Facebook account asking if anyone else had seen these flyers. Two colleagues responded that they had seen them in Williams Hall both recently and back in April. I’d found another set of flyers postered in Bailey-Howe Library, and a student sent a direct message on Twitter to say he’d seen them in the Davis Center, a center of student activity (and food) on campus.

Islam vs Democracy close upI won’t republish here the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim diatribes beyond this (purposefully incomplete) photo. There are lots of responses to Islamophobic content, in the broadest senses; and there are responses to those responses. There are books, journals, blogs. I am not a scholar of Islamophobia, and I am deeply aware of the various risks publishing about it can be. The broadest sense of all this isn’t the point, anyway. It is the peculiarity.

In this context, a broad post I might write about how anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric actually limits engagement on a campus by using fear is too general. It feels like a general response to a general phenomena on campuses writ large. But this wasn’t a general flyer, out there somewhere. This was a flyer on our campus, right here.

These flyers certainly speak about a vast, faceless, dangerous, and imagined Islam, but because they appear on campus, they are directed at us, the members of the UVM community–Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Moreover, because it has been mailed to me personally (but not to my departmental colleagues), I can assume I am a targeted audience for the message of the flyer, and I might further imagine this is specifically in my capacity as the professor of courses about Islam and Muslims in the Religion Department.

So, my response is this: a lament that students arrive in our classrooms today, August 31, and that my classes won’t begin until tomorrow.

Had these flyers gone up in a week, I’d have a clear sense of what my job is, what my obligations are, in terms of my campus. I’d ask students to talk about it. We’d read it, in the constructed space of a classroom which is purposefully set up for interrogation, investigation, and critique. We’d take its claims seriously, talk about where they came from, and what work they do now; we’d maybe theorize why UVM’s campus–why the library, the student-centered Davis Center, Williams Hall, and my mailbox–were imagined to be good spaces for an anonymous poster and author declare “the truth” about Islam in the form of double-sided, photocopied flyers. We’d talk about the possibilities, responsibilities, and challenges of free speech on campuses. We’d talk about reading about religion beyond classrooms, and the value of the skill sets needed to do so. We’d talk about microaggressions and safety for our classmates, colleagues, and staff who were the subject of the flyer’s message. We might even place this flyer in a conversation about Muslims and racialized religious identity–a conversation we normally get to toward the end of the semester.

My classes begin tomorrow. And my syllabus has already changed.

Some Wonder Why and Why Still: Reflections on the Charleston, SC Church Shooting

Todne Thomas Chipumuro

Cariari, Costa Rica

6/18/15

Yesterday, I arrived in Costa Rica to prepare for a writer’s retreat that I will attend for the next five days. As I checked my social media feed over my morning coffee, I was alarmed to discover that a white gunman shot and killed nine black Bible study attendees last night at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last night. The young white man (who is now being identified as 21-year old Dylan Storm Roof)[1] allegedly sat in on the service before nearly an hour before he voiced racist anti-black rhetoric and murdered the three men and six women present[2]. Shocked into reality, my unexamined idea that my writing retreat here could also double as a respite from the onslaught of news about anti-black violence in the United States and the anti-black citizenship discourses and Haitian deportations proposed by the Dominican Republic has quickly dissipated. Black lives here and there are being devalued by the state and its citizens. Blackness, though somehow being called into question by the scandal of racial shapeshifters, still remains an alibi for white supremacist dehumanization, expulsion, social and literal death.

 

The current tragedy being weathered by the membership of Emanuel AME Church and the broader Charleston community is significant for a number of reasons. As I alluded to above, it evokes a broader conversation about the virulent anti-black racism that is presently being enacted upon black bodies, visualized by technological innovations, and circulated for broader conversation and consumption. Such violence has been a steady testament to the racism that structures carceral govermentality including policing practices and has also initiated meditations on black humanity, the valuation of black lives, the in/visibility of violence against black women and black transgender people, and black theodicy—a theological contemplation about the reasons for black pain and suffering best expressed by a Charleston pastor during a prayer vigil last night, “The question is God: why? Somebody here tonight needs to know.[3]

 

Nonetheless, the shooting at Emanuel AME is tentatively being classified as a hate crime and is being represented by police representatives and local political figures as a heinous and grievous act, a moral tone not often attributed to the killings of African Americans by police on the part of the mainstream criminal justice establishment. Moreover, the shooting took place within the institution of the church often stably understood as the private sphere, not the public domain of the street, or the contested public/private spaces of the streets and pools of gated communities involved in Sanford, FL or McKinney, TX. The shooting of African Americans within the sanctified, private grounds of the church presumably signals a different kind of targeting, a hateful intentionality that is perhaps not associated with the other instances of anti-black violence we are witnessing in the news. Dylan Roof emerges as a “proper racist” that can be castigated by the broader body politic, a black-and-white case study of hatred that does not speak to the collective ambivalences, cognitive racial biases, and racial anxieties of post-racial racism.   Nonetheless, I would advise caution in divorcing the Charleston shooting from the broader context of anti-black violence that we are witnessing and experiencing; of decontextualizing this as an individual civilian crime; of making this an issue of the private sphere that is divorced from contemporary contemplations of the state. In the poignant conversation “Do Black Lives Matter?: Robin D.G. Kelley and Fred Moten in conversation,” Moten observes that the shooting of Mike Brown illustrates a broader impulse of white settler colonialism and the white supremacist heteropatriarchal state: the execution of black social life which is defined as an insurgent sociality.[4] It is that sociality, signified by black youth like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and the gathering of the slain members of Emanuel AME, that is othered, harassed, and surveilled by the state, state employees, and civilians who deputize themselves as protectors of white supremacist capitalism.

 

From a historical perspective, the shooting at Emanuel AME is also important because of the particular history of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination and of the historical role of black churches more broadly. Emanuel AME is shaped by a genealogy of African American Christian protest. The AME Church is the first black-organized religious denomination in the United States. Dating back to 1816, the AME denomination was organized by the former slave Richard Allen and his contemporaries who were disaffected with the racial marginalization they experienced in the predominately white St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA.[5] An extension of a critical African American institutional and religious complex that sought to create spaces of sanctuary (like the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia organized in 1793) in which people of African descent could worship, rebel, and nourish their full humanity, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was founded in 1816 as well during the early days of the AME denomination. A black southern church with its own rich history that has been heavily shaped by the white supremacist plantation complex and governance, Emanuel AME Church was burned during the events and controversy surrounding the Denmark Vesey slave revolt in 1822—a revolt that was shaped by a radical anti-racist emancipatory view of Christianity. The church was soon rebuilt. Services however were forced underground when all local black churches were outlawed in 1834. The membership of Emanuel AME has thus inherited a tradition of struggle and endurance.

 

More broadly, black churches like Emanuel AME with its own denominational history of fostering Afro-Christian critique and institutional self-determination and other southern black churches were shaped by the moral critique fostered by the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. It was during these times in which the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL (a key site for civil rights activism) was bombed by white supremacists in 1963 killing four African American girls. The Black Church, then, in a popular white supremacist consciousness emerged as a threat, a site of insurgency, and a strategic node for terrorism. The interplay between black churches and black protest in the times of slavery and the Civil Rights movement has generated a black civic religiosity, embodied in the senatorial career of the recently deceased Emanuel AME pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Therefore, a normative reading of Emanuel AME as distinct and safely ensconced in the private sphere, of the black church solely as a space of black worship and sanctuary divorced from the state, and of the perpetrator as a civilian acting individually divorced from the state must be re-contextualized within a broader context of racist governmenality and Afro-Christian struggle.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/18/dylann-storm-roof-charleston-church-shooting-suspect_n_7612232.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting.html

[3] http://www.wsj.com/articles/shooting-erupts-at-historic-black-church-in-charleston-south-carolina-1434601669

[4] https://vimeo.com/116111740

[5]http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDQQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fnationalhumanitiescenter.org%2Fpds%2Fmaai%2Fcommunity%2Ftext3%2Fallenmethodism.pdf&ei=j_aCVeVehMWCBL-ugKgG&usg=AFQjCNEJ9jdNR-QNA93mHTA9K3JOrD86Dw&sig2=fChkVmD1Yaf6jT6rQP00FA&bvm=bv.96041959,d.eXY

The Phonograph and the Research Process

This post will be the final one on my research on Yoruba gospel music. It has also been the most difficult to write. In part, this is because I want (need?) to be more speculative and abstract in my discussion of the recordings of Yoruba Christian songs made by the Reverend J.J. Ransome-Kuti in London in 1927. My previous posts have been based on the historical and musicological sources that I have been able to find concerning Kuti’s life and music. In Part 2 I looked at how Kuti’s biographers positioned him as a Christian pioneer who mediated between old and new in colonial Nigeria. In Part 3, I discussed how Kuti’s musical compositions resolved a problem of musical translation for early Yoruba Christians; namely, the tone-tune issue where the tonal aspects of Yoruba language clashed with the musical melodies of translated European hymns. Today I want to return to some of the questions I raised in my first post and to ruminate on the issues and further questions raised by my investigation into these recordings.

As you may recall, I am especially interested in the recordings themselves and the issues concerning technology and materiality that they raise for our understanding of Yoruba Christianity. These questions speak to wider concerns in anthropology, African studies, and the study of Religion: the place and contributions of colonized Africans in the making of our modern world, the role of sound technologies in transforming religious and cultural practices,and  the transformations of the senses—in ways of hearing and soundings—by recording technologies which enabled a new way of transmitting and circulating sounds.

phonographWhile I can’t address all of these issues directly here, I want to reflect a bit on the phonograph, a technology central to the story I have been telling so far. There are numerous scholarly writings about the place of the phonograph in the shaping of modern experience and conceptions of music in particular and sound more generally. A key theme in these writings has to do with how recordings enable sounds to be dislocated and disembodied from their original sources, resulting in what R. Murray Schafer has termed “schizo-phonia,” a term with which he meant to indicate the troubled nature of such a relationship between sound and source. A similar strain may be found in the critical writings of Theodor Adorno, who in 1934 wrote of the phonograph record as designating a “two-dimensional model of a reality that can be multiplied without limit, displaced both spatially and temporally, and traded on the open market.” Thus, for Adorno music becomes less about technology serving human needs and desires, but rather about the subjection of humans to things, and the reduction of music to an object that can be bought and sold, thus transforming human history and experience.

More recent writings on the phonograph have complicated these arguments, seeking to uncover the assumptions about the nature of sound, music, and hearing that underlie them. For example, Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past outlines the history of the possibility of sound-reproduction in order to show how many of our now taken-for-granted ideas about sound and human experience emerge in relation to sound-reproduction technology itself; so that, for example, the universal primacy of face-to-face human interaction which is assumed in arguments such as Schafer’s is actually a historical and specific set of ideas that emerge out of an engagement with sound technologies. Other writers have considered the ability of sound technologies to repeat and circulate sounds outside of their original contexts in the formation of racial categories and subjectivities. For example, the role played by the phonograph in colonialism, particular in the kinds of racial imagination and desires enabled by the technology have been discussed by writers such as Michael Taussig and William PietzAlexander Weheliye considers  the creative possibilities of sound-reproduction technologies as enabling of black cultural production and productive of a “sonic Afro-modernity” that entails new modes of and new possibilities for being.

Placing the technology of the phonograph recording at the center of the story I am telling here shifts priorities, questions, and possible conclusions. For example, why is it that Kuti’s biographers merely mention the fact of the recordings rather than emphasizing them as part of his mediation between old and new? Certain events, such as Kuti’s challenge to Yoruba traditional authority through the desacralizing of the umbrella, or his encouragement of the Christian ogboni as an Africanization of Christianity, receive detailed, chapter-long treatments in Delano’s biography. In contrast, the recordings are only briefly mentioned, in Chapter Nine of the book entitled “In Remembrance” which describes Kuti’s efforts at maintaining the church in the context of the loss of independence of the Egba nation to the colonial government. Delano writes of the recordings in a single sentence, which appears in a paragraph documenting Kuti’s travels outside of Nigeria. Here is the paragraph in its entirety:

In 1922, by the kind munificence of the late Mrs. J. B. Wood, one of the early European missionaries, he visited the Holy Land. By invitation of the CMS Authority he travelled through Europe, and attended the CMS Exhibition in London. He took this opportunity of making some gramophone recordings of his songs. This was his second visit to London; the first had been in 1905, when he preached in St. Paul’s Cathedral. On his return form his travels  he was made a Canon of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos. [emphasis added to original.]

That’s it?! Really? This is the only mention of the recordings in a 64-page text about Kuti’s life. Of course, this passing mention might be understood in relation to Delano’s purpose in writing the book, which is to cast Kuti as a pioneer of Christianity among the Yoruba, and as an influential figure in the transformation of Egba society from old to new. Delano thus dwells mainly on Kuti’s activities in Egbaland, suggesting, perhaps, that the recordings had very little influence on Yoruba Christian life in Nigeria beyond the fact of their being made.

Extending this line of argument to the tone-tune issue discussed by musicologists, Kuti’s recordings then are also a document of his resolution of this issue in his compositions. Furthermore, as Akin Euba notes, it is one that has little impact on Yoruba Christian practice; as Euba writes, “ironically…the sings which today appeal most popularly to the grassroots of the Christian community…are songs in which the intonation of the words is often distorted, as if they were European hymns translated into Yoruba and sung to European tunes.” So much for Kuti’s impact on future Yoruba Christian musical production, whether through the printed hymn book or the recordings.

Further support for the lack of importance or impact of the recordings in Nigeria is provided by the journalistic website Sahara Reporters, in an article about “The Singing Minister: The unsung story of Fela’s grandpa.”  Here Kuti is depicted in reference to his grandson, Fela Kuti, the contemporary Afro-beat superstar whose life and music has been the subjects of numerous books, films, and even a Broadway play. The article about the “unsung story” of J.J. Ransome-Kuti provides the (apocryphal?) tale of Kuti’s grandson, Dr. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, learning of the existence of the recordings from a librarian at the British Library. Olikoye is reported to have been “shocked to listen to his grandfather’s voice, not in Abeokuta, his ancestral home, but right in far away British Museum.” Certainly a displacement of object from source, a voice calling out across the generations. Could it be that Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti’s recordings really had so little impact in Nigeria that they were lost even to his family members?

From the blog Postcards: Then and Now (http://postcardsthenandnow.blogspot.com/2012/05/hayes-middlesex-station-c1914.html)

EMI Factory; Hayes, London; c.1914. From the blog Postcards: Then and Now

 

Coming at this issue from another direction, there is the possibility that the recordings were made for European audiences and that it was there where their impact lay.  Recall that Paul Vernon suggested that these records were “aimed at a European audience and regarded as novelties.” I dismissed this possibility in my first post, but now I want to reconsider it. Indeed, a number of novelty recordings of Africans and other colonial subjects were made for sale in European markets, though the majority of them were of folkloric songs or performances. Some recordings featured speakers of African languages demonstrating the diversity of human linguistic output. Other recordings were distinctly ethnological, intended to preserve aspects of local cultures that were seen as disappearing in the face of European colonialism.

Thinking about the recordings in this way opens up a number of new analytic questions: What does it mean to think of Kuti’s recordings as a novelty for European listeners? What did that even mean; in other words, in what way were they a novelty? Why might European listeners want to hear a Yoruba man sing his Christian songs in a language that they could not understand? How did these recordings impact British understandings of the colonial project and of the place of Africans in British conceptions of Christianity?

While I do not have the answers to these questions, they present fruitful avenues for further research into this topic. My intention in this series of posts has been to describe my current research and to provide insight into the research process. My posts make clear that the research process is often messy and incomplete, requiring one to move forwards and then back again as the researcher’s categories are refined and her questions reformulated. While I hope that you have enjoyed learning more about the recordings made by J.J. Ransome-Kuti, I also hope that you have learned a bit more about the nature of research in the humanities (and the humanistic social sciences). This is the reason why my series of posts on this topic ends with more questions than answers. As the sociologist Andrew Abbott writes:

In the humanities and social sciences we do not ask questions to to which final answers already exist, answers which can be found somewhere. We seek to adjust the questions we can ask and the answers we can find into harmonious writings that explore again and again the subtleties that constitute human existence. It is our pleasure to do this in a rigorous and disciplined way. That is what makes our research academic. But our research is not scientific, for the things we wish to discuss do not have fixed answers. We discover things, to be sure, but their discover merely opens further possibilities to complexify them.

Faculty featured in UVM Humanities Publication

Recently, the UVM Humanities Center produced an aptly titled publication, Humanities, which focused on humanities and the creative arts at UVM, and captured the depth, range, and relScreen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.00.09 AMevance of work by UVM faculty, students, and alumni. It featured a number of Religion Department faculty!

Prof. Thomas Borchert‘s recent research on Buddhist monks in Thailand–a regular element of this blog!–was highlighted in a piece titled “Crisis in the Temple” by Basil Waugh (pp. 50-51). Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst’s use of social media and digital technologies in the classroom was featured in a piece titled “Follow that Professor,” authored by Amanda Waits (pp. 74-75). And Thomas Weaver wrote an article titled “Humanities at Home,” (pp.  78-79) which foregrounds Prof. Richard Sugarman talking about the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP), one of the College’s Teacher-Advisor Programs for first-year students, of which he serves as Director.

Download the whole Humanities magazine here (in PDF format).

 

The Genius of Yoruba Music

This is Part Three of a series posts about Professor Brennan’s new research on Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti and the history of Yoruba gospel music. Here are links to the earlier posts: Part One and Part Two.

I want to build on my previous post about how Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti negotiated old and new ways of life for Yoruba communities in colonial Nigeria by talking about how Ransome-Kuti’s music was a part of that dynamic.  Despite the overwhelming attention to issues of language and translation by missionaries who attempted to present Christianity in terms that local Yoruba communities could understand, music was also seen as key to attracting converts as well as for their properly adopting Christian practices. Hymn singing was central to Christian evangelism, and harmoniums and hymnals were part of the cargo sent to West Africa along with Bibles and other religious tracts. Missionaries ideally sought to use the words and tunes of the hymns in order to arouse the emotions of a religiously awakened congregation.

Early musical practices in Yoruba mission churches involved translating English hymns directly into the Yoruba language and then fitting those lyrics to the appropriate melodies and harmonies hen they were performed. This practice resulted in what the musicologist Akin Euba has called “an unhappy cultural marriage.” The mismatch between Yoruba lyrics and English hymn tunes was due to the fact that the tonal nature of the Yoruba language was often distorted by the melodic contour of a given song. The Yoruba language relies on three tones—high, medium, and low—in order to distinguish semantic meaning. Translating English hymns into Yoruba, and then applying those Yoruba words to the already existing melody that was written without regard to the tonal requirements of the language potentially rendered the lyrics meaningless or at best altered their meaning unintentionally.

Akin Euba explains the tone-tune discrepancy in translating English songs directly into Yoruba. From Euba, A. 1989, "Yoruba Music in the Church"

Akin Euba explains the tone-tune discrepancy in translating English songs directly into Yoruba. From Euba, A. 1989, “Yoruba Music in the Church”

It was for this reason that early converts—and indeed the missionaries themselves, many of whom came from Yoruba communities and spoke Yoruba fluently—endeavored to compose original tunes to Yoruba hymns. One of the earliest records we have of such compositions may be found in the letters of James White, a Yoruba pastor assigned to the Church Missionary Society mission at Ota, outside of Lagos. White encouraged the production of local hymns and Christian songs, noting that Yoruba communities were skilled at using music and poetry to praise religious figures. His letters from 1857 included the following observation: “Our converts, when heathens, certainly had hymns and songs of praise in honor of their gods—might they not also, now that they are Christians compose songs and hymns in honor of the God of gods?” White’s letters also included a pamphlet entitled “Orin, Ati Iyin si Olorun” (“Hymns and Praises for God”) which contained printed lyrics and translations of hymns composed by church members.

While the efforts of White’s congregation represented an early move towards the development of a corpus of indigenous hymns among the Yoruba, shifts in the nature of evangelism and the understanding of the role of Christianity in the new social and political order of the colony at the turn of the twentieth century further encouraged such practices. In response to a shift in mission policy away from “native governance” of mission affairs, many Yoruba clergymen reacted to European assertions of African inferiority through a revaluing of Yoruba culture. Yoruba pastors and scholars developed an increased interest in Yoruba history, religion, and politics which resulted in the first books written in English by Yoruba authors concerning Yoruba history and culture. These included Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas (manuscript completed in 1897, published in 1921) and James Johnson’s Yoruba Heathenism (1899).

Proponents of this perspective articulated a form of cultural nationalism that claimed that conversion to Christianity did not necessarily require a wholesale adoption of European or English ways of life. Mojola Agbebi, a leader of this movement, argued in an influential speech given in 1902 that certain practices were not essential to being a Christian but instead interfered with what he saw as the African achievement of a Christian identity identity:

Prayer-books and hymn-books, harmonium dedications, pew constructions, surpliced choir, the white man’s style, the white man’s name, the white man’s dress, are so many non-essentials, so many props and crutches affecting the religious manhood of the Christian African.

In this speech Agbebi suggested that the style or form in which Christianity was practiced was not important.  Agbebi began a process in which Christianity became unlinked from “whiteness” and cultural aspects which were seen as being European not African. In this way Christian practice became open to the inclusion of African modes of expression.

Mojola Agbebi

Mojola Agbebi

In a sermon later that year Agbebi expanded further on the ways in which Christian musical practices could be “Africanized”:

It was recorded of the early disciples that after the Celebration of the Last Supper ‘they sang a hymn,’ yet it should be remembered that neither the harmonium, nor the organ, nor the piano was known to them. Our dundun and Batakoto, our Gese and Kerikeri, our Fajakis and Sambas would serve admirable purposes of joy and praise if properly directed and wisely brought into play. (…) In the carrying out of the function of singing, therefore, let us always remember that we are Africans, and that we ought to sing African songs, and that in African style and fashion.

In this sermon Agbebi articulated a particular conception of Christianity connected to a newly developed sense of historical time and global space as he attempted to account for the location of Africans—particularly Yorubas—within a wider Christian historical framework. His call to “sing African songs” in an “African style and fashion” suggests that singing itself was an important aspect of Christian practice, not the nature of the song itself, which should be suited to the linguistic and emotional preferences of the person singing the song. Agbebi’s comments here also spoke to the way in which musical practice could become compelling for Yoruba Christians through the integration of African musical practices for the purpose of joy and praise.

Ransome-Kuti’s corpus of sacred songs was part of this movement towards the Africanization of church music. In addition to composing new hymns that began with Yoruba lyrics and adapted melodies to suit them, he also took the bold step of adapting indigenous tunes to newly composed Christian words. A selection of his hymns, entitled Awon Orin Mimo Ni Ede Ati Ohun Wa (Sacred Songs in Our Language and Intonation), was published by the CMS bookshop in Lagos in 1925. In addition, 57 of his songs were published as an appendix to the standard Yoruba hymnbook (1923), and editors noted his contribution in the Preface by writing:

No tune, however, can possibly express the meaning of words in a “tonic” language such as Yoruba, so well as one written specifically for the words. Great thanks are therefore due to the Rev. J. J. Ransome Kuti for his contribution of original airs, which express the genius of Yoruba music, and will, for that reason, be greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, no such note of acknowledgement exists to account for the Ransome-Kuti’s recording of his songs in 1922, though we might make a reasonable assumption that they were also part of this movement for greater autonomy for Yoruba clergy and indigenization of Christianity in Yoruba communities. I hope through future research to substantiate this assumption.