Recherche – Detailansicht








Vincent L. Wimbush


Signifying on the Fetish
Outlines for a New Critical Orientation


This essay makes the case for a new critical orientation that has implications within but also far beyond the discourses of religious and theological studies. Its methodological orientation is not the Enlightenment-originated historical criticism and its now increasingly razzle-dazzle methodological offshoots, but critical history,1a set of intellectual-political practices having to do with the ultimate politics of language, the fathoming and engagement of »me-­tadiscursive« practices and regimes,2 the representations, forms of expressivity (including artifacts), modes of performativity, the structures of social-cultural-psychological dynamics and power relations most often referred to with the freighted English shorthand »scriptures«.3 And in this essay about the future of a critical discourse pertaining to a cultural phenomenon too long under-, if not contra-, theorized4 and obsessively oriented to the study of an unacknowledged »invented past« through focus on taken for grant­ed sources (the »text«), I arrogate to myself the right and privi­-lege to think – about thinking, about discourse and power, about regimes of knowledge, about language and power claims – drawing on that complex, fluid and haunting modern-world formation now called the Black Atlantic5 as portal.

I begin with some provocative statement-claims that help make the case for a different starting point and orientation to critical inquiry:

»… through conquest, trade, and colonialism, [the West] made contact with every part of the globe … religion and cultures and peoples throughout the world were created anew through academic disciplinary orientations – they were signified …«

»… names [were] given to realities and peoples …; this naming is at the same time an objectification through categories and concepts of those realities which appear as novel and ‘other’ to the cultures of conquest. There is of course the element of power in this process of naming and objectification … the power is obscured and the political, economic, and military situation that forms the context of the confrontation is masked by the intellectual desire for knowledge of the other. The actual situation of cultural contact is never brought to the fore within the context of intellectual formulations …« (Charles H. Long). 6

In the transition »from First Contact time … to Reverse Contact now-time … the Western study of the Third and Fourth World Other gives way to the unsettling confrontation of the West with itself as portrayed in the eyes and handiwork of its Others. Such an encounter disorients the earlier occidental sympathies which kept the magical economy of mimesis and alterity in some sort of imperial balance« (Michael Taussig).7

»Rather than worry about its epistemology we ought to ack­now­ledge the role of fetish as pragmatic application … Modernity … is a perspective that distinguished fact from fetish and truth from error … [Following the theory and challenge of Bruno Latour, we should instead orient ourselves to] in favor of a perspective from amodernity … [that] tracks the subject’s capacity to make do (fait faire) with the fetish, a process that dispenses with questions concerning belief and instead concentrates on those oriented around practice.« (Srinivas Aravamudan).8

»… I was very much affrighted at some things I saw … any object I saw filled me with new surprise. … I … asked … the use of it, and who made it … « (Olaudah Equiano; emphasis mine).9

The writers quoted above, in different ways, to be sure, have opened wide windows onto some of the issues and problems that are compelling for our consideration of the critical historical intellectual project that I name and advance here as signifying on the fetish or, in terms less provocative and more consonant with academic tagging, but not any less to the point, critical comparative scriptures.10 Among such issues should surely be the making and ongoing uses of scriptures as fetish, the representations, artifacts/ materiels, projections, and effects of a type of uncritical transference, the interrogation of the interrogations.

In order to model and advance such a project I am concerned in this essay with focus on a complex group among the worlds of the Others »discovered« by early modern Europeans, in this case, the peoples who now constitute the Black Atlantic. Beyond what may be my personal interests, I argue this focus to be important because such peoples’ experiences can help us to see things we would not otherwise see – about the history and shape of the world we share, the implications and ramifications of some of our basic world-maintaining ideologies and practices, including the very notion and experience of the »modern«. Focus on such a people’s exper­i­ences may help us see how »scriptures« – far beyond the domain of the lexical and indexical and the historical-theological – mean or are made to work in society and culture. Sensitive but deep excavations of social textures and critical histories are needed that will map and model a different critical orientation to all western Euro-american discursive practices, but most especially, for my purposes in this essay, that practice that is firmly imbricated in, if not in fact foundational to, western theological discourse – (modern academic) biblical studies.


I have chosen the late eighteenth-century Black Atlantic figure Olaudah Equiano and his self-described »interesting narrative« as the historical-discursive site for the needed excavation and mapping. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789) has since its publication been read and interpreted for many different purposes and publics – in literary and cultural criticism; in eighteenth cen­-t­ury English social-cultural history; in the history of abolitionism on both sides of the Atlantic; and in African diaspora and slavery studies.11 There have been some essays that have attempted to ex­plain (away) Equiano’s British-inflected protestant religiosity, but there are no extensive efforts to interpret him and his story in terms of the history of religions, much less in terms of the problematics of scriptures. The narrative is particularly important for interest in the dynamics of fetishization and vernacularization because of the manner in which Equiano figures himself as focal point of contemporary moral and political-economic crises brought on by violent conquest, disruption, and enslavement. In his story he figures himself as qualified insider (»almost an Englishman«) having been outsider (»stranger«/slave) looking in, the one to whom initially the English books did not »speak« yet one who is complexly in possession of – and becomes self-possessed in complex relationship to – the supreme (English) Book. Through his initial involuntary but later shrewd, strategic, voluntary travels by ship and his associations with other non-white »strangers« (»Indians«) and white ex-centrics (religious dissenters and politicians), Equiano was able through struggles, luck, trickery, and hard work to make the books eventually »speak« to him and through his own writing »speak« back to the constraining structure of what I would call English-in­flected scripturalization. His story can be understood both as an »epic« of a sort – a script-ur[e]-alizing – of life in the Black Atlantic diaspora, a »founding text« of a more poignantly expansive and ra­ci­ally and culturally pluralistic modern Britain. Although Equiano was in many respects somewhat unusual in some of his experiences, his »making do« with the Bible (understood by him as nationalist-cultural fetish) was and remains fairly typical of black folks’ »making do« with the North Atlantic worlds they had been made to undergo, whether slave or »free« (the latter status always and everywhere in the eighteenth century throughout the Atlantic worlds understood to be highly unstable). Metonymic of the black-inflected vernacularization of the dominant European languages, includ ing their scripts and scriptures, Equiano’s story provides the outline for a layered interpretation of black Atlantic experiences, orientations, representations, gestures, and mimetic practices.

The entire story behind Equiano’s entire story cannot be told here. I have chosen to focus here on what is arguably the story that captures much of the poignancy of his crafting of his life – that having to do with what is often referred to as the »talking book« (better understood if not termed the non-talking book) story. Here is the little story within the larger life story: »I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning; for that purpose I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it; and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.« (Narrative, 68)

The story of the »talking book« was made quite significant as motif and trope for some of the earliest North Atlantic anglophone black writers. (In addition to Equiano, the trope appears in the life stories of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw [1770], John Marrant [1785], Quobna Ottobah Cugoano [1787], and John Jea [1815].) It was made to serve some mostly shared and overlapping functions having to do with observation about black life in the eighteenth and early nineteen centuries of the North Atlantic worlds. In Equiano’s telling of it, far from being a forgettable minor incident in the remembrance and recording of the »facts« about his life, the trope of the talking book is significant as part of Equiano’s construction of an »interesting« life: it is part of his attempt to write what may be called a »fiction« of »self-creation«. 12 This little story is made into a trope signifying (the young narrativized) Equiano’s status and situation as »stranger«, one who is ignorant of and outside the ways and orientations of the dominant white world.13

The ironically named »talking book« scene occurs within the larger narrative context in which the young Equiano is seen to be fascinated by and confused about the names, functions and imports of different strange objects – among them a »watch« or clock hanging above the chimney; a portrait; snow; and a book. The clock the naive Equiano thinks of as a sort of machine that records all he does and reports all he does to (white) authorities. The eyes on the face of the hanging portrait he assumes to watch his every move. Seeing snow for the first time he assumes it to be salt ( Narrative, 63–68).

And the book? It was the last of the list of strange objects and phenomena associated with the world of the whites the uses of which the young boy of the narrative had to ponder. He thought the book to be a special object – one with which he thought he, like others (whites, his master and his youthful companion representative of that world), could communicate. He observed that a person could speak to, be spoken to, and be acknowledged by, the thing that is called by the whites »the book«. The clock and the portrait seemed to represent the severest of gazes. They afforded little or no opportunity for engagement or interaction, serious or playful. They did not acknowledge his humanity. They were only recorders of his presence as interloper, stranger, as though he were dangerous and threatening. But of course these were to him quite threatening, fear-inducing, anxiety-raising. With such objects what could one do? How were they to be used, engaged? It seemed that one could only be seen and recorded by – or try not to be seen and recorded by – such objects. This surely was a clue about what being a stranger – and as a slave the most abject of strangers – in that situation really meant and how it was experienced: it had to do most fundamentally, in paradoxical psycho-social terms, with being at once over-seen, overdetermined and not being seen, not being heard at all. It had to do with being much too much within (as in being the topic of) and so far beyond (as in not being at relevant to) the circle of discourse. In the world into which Equiano was thrown as slave and stranger the book and being able to »hear« it »speak« mattered. It mattered in terms of assumptions about at­tributes of the human and about the nature of »the great chain of being«. 14

So what was called the book seemed for the writerly Equiano to mean much, to require much, and to promise much. Not only did the book require attention and engagement on the part of the one holding it, it also held the promise of providing valuable information and perspective – about »how all things had a beginning« (Narrative, 68). This promise of the book reveals rather poignantly the mature story-telling Equiano’s baseline interest: such interest lies not in literacy for its own sake or in base utilitarian terms; the skill that was literacy that was associated with it seemed to represent something of the gateway to freedoms and citizenship and identity. In this little story is found the rhetorical and narratological ground zero for the larger story’s registration of the mature Equiano’s book-reading, book-writing, book-selling practices, in­cluding his ardent curiosity about and interest in the depths, the mysteries, the secrets, the social and political power that books signify. The young Equiano senses dimly what the writerly Equiano has come to re­cognize with powerful implications for story-telling and powerful personal and social-political ramifications – the iconic, fetishizing status of the book and the social psychology, social practices and politics pertaining to such in the dominant culture.

Given the societies and cultures Equiano was forced to nego­-tiate, and given the attention to it in his life story, the book that was clearly of most interest to Equiano – notwithstanding the fact that at points books in general are in mind – was the Bible. That this book did not »speak« to him, did not acknowledge him, but »remained silent« is clearly very disturbing to Equiano, rendering him silent, seemingly distraught, vulnerable, powerless, paralyzed. Yet his state of being disturbed was reflected not so much in what he records within the immediate narrative context of the little story.

It should be noted that Equiano actually glosses far less than the other early black writers who drew upon the story – unlike Gronniosaw’s use of the talking book, in order to reflect his ardent frustrated desire to be accepted into white dominant culture; or Marrant’s use of it, in order to provide evidence of his inside and superior status relative to the Indian; or Cugoano’s use, in order to castigate modern world slavery, racism and colonialism based upon twisted exegetical treatments; or yet Jea’s use, in order to indicate the spiritual power involved in the reading of the book that is the Bible, and how relative to such he assumed freedom. 15 In the im­mediate narrative context Equiano had his character respond poig­nantly, puzzlingly, and economically, perhaps, somewhat hauntingly, only that he was »very much concerned«.

This reaction, however, is something of an understatement and is reflective of a rather particular narratological strategy. Even if Equiano as narrator does not say much about the situation in the immediate narrative context, the »silence« of the book within the narrative speaks volumes – and rather loudly. The silence of the book in the hands of the young Equiano should not be taken lightly: it is not comic relief, but it does strike me as a powerful example of »signifying with a vengeance«: it is meant to point out a serious problem and challenge: it is an indication of the basic difference and conflict between the world that shaped Equiano and the domi­nant world of the peoples of the book – basic because the young Equiano within the narrative seems to represent for the mature narrative-writing Equiano the epitome of that part of Africa that he claims is his homeland. 16 So the silence of the book that Equiano experiences seems to symbolize the chasm between the two worlds brought into contact and that is determinative of Equiano’s subaltern status. There are in the narrative other in­stances in which the differences between the worlds are made startlingly clear. With the silent book episode the reader of Equiano’s narrative is made to understand that who and what the young Equiano represents at that point in narrative time is not consonant with the world that is symbolized by the book.

The silence is met with silence. The latter must cover up for the young and the mature Equiano a mix of strong emotions – awe, fear, suspicion, bemusement, humiliation, hesitation, reservation, resistance. Only such a mix of responses can explain what the ma­ture Equiano was doing with the story he writes: he writes/talks back – against his youthful self’s humiliating experience of the silence of the book. But of course for the careful reader the writing of the narrative on the part of the mature Equiano belies the para­-lysis and silence of the young Equiano. Through the ( non-)talking book episode a fundamental instance of cultural »contact« or clash between worlds is set up: more than any other object-symbol the book – and the relationship to it – is made to represent status and identity in the dominant white world into which Equiano has been thrust. Like (mis-)identifying and (mis-)understanding the import of snow or a clock or a portrait, being engaged by and knowing how to engage a book signifies powerfully. Here the book is the fetish – the door, the window, the key to the other dominant world. Not being able to »talk« to the book and not being addressed by it is the sign of being a »stranger«.

Since the onset of the modern world, with its attendant cultural contacts and discoveries (otherwise known as invasions and conquests), relationships to the book have figured prominently in self-definitions and the contours and dynamics of power.17 Although the discourses about such matters have taken place largely on terms set by white dominants, Equiano, as one among the peoples newly »discovered« and made a »stranger« and slave, provides some rare and valuable perspectives on the issue. Although he was likely en­couraged by religious dissenters to write his life story, there should be little doubt that he was under considerable psychological pressure if not also political restraints at the time of the writing of his narrative. Yet Equiano does manage to articulate sentiments about the book that were without doubt reflective of the sensibil­-ities and orientations of the worlds of the peoples of the Black Atlantic. On the surface these sentiments appear simply to represent in relationship to the book and to literacy the negative or absence. But must we assume that the »very much concerned« mature Equiano thinks only about his deficit in relationship to the book, his inferiority in relationship to the culture of the book? I think something different is registered here.

Neither the young nor the maturing Equiano is characterized as a pathetic figure. To be sure, through the course of his life Equiano goes through many negative and heartbreaking experiences and los­ses. He acknowledges these experiences and seems often to sigh in discouragement, loneliness, and near resignation; but he does not allow such experiences to be his unraveling or undoing. He is nothing if not remarkably resilient and strong and even somewhat wily. Especially in the first two chapters of his narrative Equiano engages in comparative description and analysis: he pointedly compares his tribal traditions and mores to those of Europeans, the English in particular. 18 As the mature Equiano en­gages in such culture critical analysis, there is not a whiff of a sense of inferiority on his part. In fact, he seems quite comfortable comparing aspects of his tribal traditions – as he is able to remember them or as the older Equiano prefers to remember them – to the dominant cultures with which he makes contact. It is ironic that in several re­spects Equiano’s tribal home traditions are boldly argued to have as much if not more affinity with ancient biblical traditions than the traditions of the dominant whites ( Narrative, chapter 1).

Although clearly not happy about being snubbed by the book, Equiano is not thrown back upon himself in shock and dejection. He does not appear to react as though the situation really had anything to do with his true self, where he comes from, or that he was black. His silence in the face of the (book’s) silence is not pathetic, it is profound: it is one of those rare moments in which Equiano the writer has little to say. In saying so little, much is nonetheless signified.

So another way of reading Equiano’s seemingly muted immediate response to the book’s (seemingly ongoing, repeated) failure to acknowledge him is to note how he looks at his development into a reading and writing agent. In this story of his development into a famous writer he not only »talks back« to the book, he makes the book »talk« to him. Because he makes the subtle but powerful connection between his writing and the silence of the books of his youth he does not feel the need to hold forth through his narrativized youthful self at any length about the meaning of the incident. Through the story about the (non-)talking book the mature story-telling Equiano was signifying on the worlds of the book. Everything in Equiano’s story turns around the (non-)talking book, even as or precisely because the writer does not make anything of the single reported incident. How could the youthful Equiano who is rejected by the book be associated with the mature Equiano who is the well-known well-received writer? The incident was intended to be full of irony, meant to force the reader to see that the silence of the book was not only not the end of the matter but that it represents the beginning of Equiano’s negotiation with and challenge to the dominant white world.

The (non-)talking book incident is a pre-figuring – it hints that the major divide between the world that Equiano constructs as his original formative world and the constructed dominant white world into which he has been thrust is literacy, represented by the book; it is assumed that no one can successfully participate in and negotiate the dominant white world without the ability to handle books, viz read and write. That there were illiterate whites was always evident.19 Yet the definite marker that seemed most dramatically to set apart blacks (and other non-whites) from whites (as a complex group, a rung on the chain of being) and to justify the continued subjugation of the former in relationship to the latter was literacy – at least literacy in relationship to the scripts and related practices of European cultures.

As though for the sake of ironic narratological development and argument, Equiano accepts up to a point European-styled literacy as the major difference between the two different worlds – black and white. This qualified acceptance is also acknowledgement that the two worlds represent two different sets of sensibilities, different epistemologies, different orientations. There is significance in having the youthful Equiano be the one who experiences the repeated silence and snub on the part of the book: in terms of the narrative timelines, he is the one who is closer to (the memory of) African tribal customs, sensibilities and practices. The mature story-telling Equiano seems to want to make the interaction between his youthful self and English books a matter of actual pointed conflict. This conflict is important to the story-telling Equiano not so much in order to inveigh against the evils of the dominant white world and certainly not so that he might somehow establish his and his kindreds’ incapacity and inferiority. It was important in order to make his story »interesting«, viz poignant, ironic, in this immediate narrative context, to be sure, but also throughout the story, through the emphases on the silence of the book. This re­peated emphasis in turn became the basis for conveying Equiano’s remarkable development and progress. The silence and snub on the part of the book was made to represent for Equiano the point of radical difference and conflict between who he was in relationship to his African homeland and who he was becoming in relation-ship to the world he eventually successfully negotiated. It was in Equiano’s narratological-political interests to include the story about the non-talking book because Equiano’s version and placement of the story make the point of the little story and the big story less about (white world) evil deeds, hypocrisy and moral corruption, on the one hand, and (black world) weaknesses, shortcomings and deficits, on the other, than about the sheer stark difference between the two worlds that the book reveals and what heroics it took for him to overcome that difference. Finding himself unable to negotiate English letters, how could Equiano be seen as any one other than »stranger«, as someone standing on foreign cultural-ideological grounds? How could the youthful Equiano, made to be so ignorant about the major issues involved, respond except with concern? The challenge for Equiano the writer was to make clear to readers the terms on which negotiation with the white world could be realized.

The issue of literacy here masks what is usually the issue behind the issue – power. But precisely because power is almost always at issue it is important to be more specific about how power here is at issue. In Equiano’s story, power is at issue in the use of literacy as marker that erects and maintains cultural boundaries, that iden­-tifies and keeps in place insiders and outsiders. This is what the young Equiano was confronted with – he was established in the little story as an outsider, stranger, not first strictly on account of his origins, his »race«, but on account of his lack of social power, his facility with the book. The racialization of his status as stranger was not named as explanatory factor. Equiano’s racial-ethnic identity was in the story sometimes seen as part of a belated rationalization or grudging explanation for his being the stranger. Refusing to name anti-black racism as the decisive factor for the ex­clusion allowed Equiano the opportunity to develop his story as the »interesting« story acceptable to his white readers, a story about his struggle to acquire the skills of literacy and become »almost an Englishman« (Narrative, 77).

The social psychology of Equiano’s »use« of literacy, an understanding of the work he made it do for him, can shed light on the larger phenomenon of reading in society and culture, obviously mainly including the reading of the Bible. Equiano’s construal of the talking book story did not concern itself with revelation of the prejudices of individual whites. With some notable exceptions, whites in Equiano’s life story are characterized as being fair-minded. Some are sometimes evil, sometimes ignorant, and so forth, but ultimately their personal feelings about him or treatments of him were not at issue. What was at issue for Equiano was the unmasking and accounting of the chief differences in orientation to the world between the world he partly »invented« and called his own and the world of the whites as he construed and experienced it. He had also to address the stated assumptions about the superiority of the orientation associated with world of the whites. It is the orientation of the dominant white world and its registrations of a certain kind of power in association with literacy that Equiano’s construal of the talking book story signifies on.

Equiano’s life story points to the basis for his successful negotia­tion of the North Atlantic worlds – his recognition that such worlds were built around the fetishization of the book (including the Book) and correlative assumptions; that humanity is recognized and certified through the engagement of (western) letters in the book; that black peoples, insofar as they are made to be slaves, could not/should not engage such letters; and that because of their incapacities in terms of engagement of letters they could not be considered part of the »civilized« world.

The most important point Equiano seemed to want to make in his story-telling, especially the talking book story as its core, is that he went on to live and thrive, that is to say, to learn to read, to ex­-perience talking to the book and making the book talk back to him. These experiences were the seeds of a great story, of his story – a story that »spoke« to different publics: to those royals and political and social and other elites who had power to still the trafficking in slaves and to unchain those who remained enslaved in Britain; and to those circles across the English-speaking North Atlantic worlds, of sympathizers and potential sympathizers, convicted abolitionists, whether religiously or otherwise inspired. These contemporary publics were in explicit terms throughout the story importuned, challenged, inspired, entertained, and accommodated.

But I can also detect another public, perhaps, the most important public, that ironically Equiano did not, because he could not, identify. He could only identify sometimes in veiled or indirect terms or in terms that were flat the public he actually represented and mirrored – enslaved and freed black peoples of the North Atlantic worlds. It may even have been the case that he was not with every word and expression addressing this »public«. He certainly knew that this far-flung and humiliated »public« could hardly be addressed directly in writing. And he was doubtless aware that the folk who constituted such a conceptualized »public« qua public could hardly be expected to »speak« back to him or to read him. Yet the most basic and poignant even if somewhat veiled point of the story – about the very difficult but successful construction of a back life – I am convinced is not so much for the entertainment and enlightenment and appeasement of potential white sympathizers but for other »strangers« who are also black. It was intended to represent a black self-writing for a collective black self, or perhaps, reflective of a »school« of black readers (of the text/ure/s of the world as experienced by black peoples). It was intended to challenge, to inspire, to advance an anti-slavery cause, yes, but on different terms and to different degrees from those associated with the interests and sentiments of most white abolitionists. It was a story that may reflect awareness of these readers and their interests, but it is also a story that reflects Equiano awareness of how the dominant world was constituted or had been woven and the terms on which it continued to justify itself. More precisely, his story reflected his understanding that the underpinnings of the dominant world was its orientation to – its use of – the Book. This orientation, Equiano discovered, presumed that only its own book(s) – as carriers of true and ultimate knowledge – mattered, that all things important pivoted around them, including individual freedom, survival, and the capacity to thrive and succeed in the society.

Equiano thought this a critical discovery. Coming to such re­c­ognition was not for Equiano capitulation or assent or defeat. It was understood by him to be a realistic view born of his experiences at sea and in the many societies seafaring afforded him opportu­nities to experience. These experiences led him to the view that black existence, in spite of some minor differences in arrangements and styles, was everywhere in the North Atlantic worlds a matter of strug­gle, opposition, humiliation, challenge, »oppugnancy«.20 Black survival and negotiation of the white world re­quired critical analysis and strategic responses. Negotiation was thought possible only insofar as the western structure and arrange­ment of dominance is seen realistically and honestly for what it is.

Equiano’s life-story is a dramatic window onto the North Atlantic worlds’ humiliation as well as the survival and enlargement of the black self. But with the talking book story more (in complex connection with all of the above) is signified: scriptures are signified – as the object that was the collection of books called »the Bible«/»the scriptures«; and signified on (critiqued in the most basic terms), insofar as Equiano comes to understand that the structural arrangements that were »the world« (of the British, in particular, Europeans more generally) were built around »the Bible« as »scriptures«, as subscripts, hidden meanings for the ar­rangements. So he proceeds to construct his life story in signifying/mimetic relationship to such structuring: The North Atlantic black struggle for survival and freedom and acquisition of power is understood by Equiano to turn around awareness of and response to the dominant culture’s fetishizing of the book.

This awareness inspired Equiano to structure his story as a scriptural/biblical story that mimics and thereby signifies on the very use of scriptures in North Atlantic societies, Britain in par­-ticu­lar. His signifying practice is at the same time an example or model of the vernacularization of the dominants’ uses of the book (drawing from England’s already nationalist vernacularization in relationship to the Latin and Greek scriptures). Equiano’s story does not represent a fully explicit theory about such a phenomen­on. It is really only a naming of the problem and the dropping of some hints regarding the needed strategic response on part of the black self, represented as the outsider looking in. Equiano’s story can be used as a window onto the phenomenon and dynamics of the western fetishization of the book as well as the laying of tracks for vernacularizations of North Atlantic blacks in response.


There are major implications of Equiano’s work for a different criti­-cal orientation to the critical study of the Bible. There is the need to place focus not in an ancient moment through ancient texts, but on the palpable more directly accessible social textures of peoples, their consciousness of and responses to the structures of the world in complex relationship to all »texts«, ancient or otherwise.

The peoples’ responses in the form of practices of signifying (on) the fetish (as scriptures) provide the road maps for a more compelling and meaningful construal of critical work. What is here modeled and proposed is a challenge regarding the need, rationale, impulse for change in the study of scriptures and – in fact, insofar as it still for the most still turns around the study of texts – the study of religion, in general. It is a challenge regarding the orientation of such study, including its starting point and underlying presuppositions.

Of course, the major point here is that the »ancient world« so often invoked in theological and religious studies is a culture-specific invention and protectorate. The »antiquity« and the ancient »texts« in play reflect the prejudices and interests of dominance. These prejudices and interests have to do with the dynamics that come out of the first contacts between the West and the rest, the world of the Other. Among the many dynamics and consequences of the first contact is the construction of the modern fields of comparative studies of peoples and religions. And one need not dig too deeply before one can find the construction of the modern field of biblical studies and its originary and ongoing participation in the western European-American ideological maintenance of exploita tive arguments, power dynamics and arrangements, including the modern era invention and classification/hierarchialization of »races« and »religions«. The legacy of modern biblical studies’ participation in, major support for, and sometimes otherwise deadly silence in the debates about the »chain of being« that provided ideo­logical support for modern trafficking in black humiliation is well established.21

So beginning critical interpretation with the framework or structure of power arrangements that come out of first contact between the West and the Other is imperative in order to gain clarity about the structures and frameworks, the inventions, and artificiality of society and culture that fundamentally condition and determine us but have for the sake of maintaining the status quo remained veiled to us. What is needed in order to un-veil what one of Zora Neale Hurston’s folk characters referred to as things with a »hidden meaning« 22 is a »reflexive awareness« – a recognition of and appreciation for the mimetics and ludic practices that facilitate the engagement societies and cultures insofar as they are made up, especially in connection with the uses of center-symbols.23

Clearly, one of the most important of those center-symbols we typically refer to as scriptures. Signifying on scriptures should aim to facilitate research, teaching, conversations and community programming about the »work we [human beings] make scriptures do for us«. Its scope should be global and trans-cultural; its methods and approaches comparative and multi-disciplinary; and its orientation activist and political as it seeks to help throw light on and address some significant psycho-social-cultural-political interests and challenges, especially as they pertain to the experiences of the historically and persistent ex-centric and poor.

In this intellectual project »scriptures« is an elastic, tensive concept, a fraught abbreviation that points not to a particular object or text but to a complex social-cultural phenomenon and set of dy­nam­ics – that of finding »hidden meanings« and establishing (and dis-establishing) centers and maintaining (and dis-rupting) centering politics and effects. The signifying (on) scriptures project as a project in critical comparative scriptures is focused on compelling public-health interests and issues. Fathoming the signifying practices of historically marginalized peoples as a way of facilitating the recognition, rejection, and/or reclamation of voice and agency of meaning-making practices is a most compelling public-healt hissue.

That some if not most of the significations of peoples may pertain to or be associated with »scriptures,« as such has come to be (conventionally) understood, is to be expected for two reasons: the term is really a place-holder for the practices and gestures and ideas and associations and affiliations that have to do with the ultimate politics of language as it facilitates ultimate orientation in the world. This quest can be at times so complex and textured that it is communicated obliquely, indirectly, in other words. So the research of the type being advanced here must be involved in un-veiling the indirectness and hiddenness of signifying practices. 24

At any rate, signifying practices must not be ultimately collapsed into or equated with texts (understood in the narrowest and belated sense of the term). These practices may encompass and involve engagements of texts; but they are really reflections of the textures (understood in one of the broadest meanings of the term) of culture. Engaging such practices represents a turn from the interests and preoccupations and politics of historical criticism (including, in biblical studies, any of its ever dizzying and razzle-dazzle discursive offshoots) into critical history. This sort of his­-tory, which aims to get at a people’s practices and worldview, should put focus on what Pierre Nora termed a people’s lieux de memoire (»sites of memory«). The latter represent »a … kind of rea­waken­ing… a history that … rests upon what it mobilizes: an impalpable, barely expressible, self-imposed bond; what remains of our ineradicable, carnal attachment to … faded symbols … «.25 The sites are engaged by peoples for the sake of living creatively and meaningfully and with the hope of continuously re-covering and re-membering what is thought to have been lost, dimmed, veiled, masked in terms of knowledge or experience.

In an essay entitled »The Site of Memory« Toni Morrison sums up what may be considered the argument/agenda for biblical studies insofar as such studies is understood to revolve around unearthing the complex texture of lives that are woven around memories. Begin, she argues, with images that facilitate the flow of memory. With focus on peoples of the African diaspora in North America, whose memories have been – to put it mildly – greatly damaged, this means beginning with images of ancestors or something in association with them:

»The ancestors are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life. Which is why the images that float around them – the remains, so to speak, at the archaeological site – surface first …«

»… the act of imagination is bound up with memory … they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acre­-age. Occasionally the river floods these places. ›Flooding‹ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers [= readers/interpreters] are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to out original place. It is emotional memory – what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ›flooding‹ … like water, I remember where I was before I was ›straightened out‹.« 26

What might it mean for us to begin to think of scriptures as a type of site – not merely a text or collection of such, but a complex phenomenon – in relationship to which peoples attempt to access or recover their most fundamental and poignant memories? What might it mean for biblical studies and theological and religious studies and critical more generally to think of the agenda in terms not of capturing and mastering but engaging such a site or rather the people engaging there?

Insofar as the research focus is placed on people and the dynamics of their formation the agenda is complex and not about small things, such as letters and texts and the territories that claim them. Instead, it would be about the painful efforts to become a people, to realize ultimate goals that are sighed for, to gain power not for humiliating and controlling others but for stabilizing and energizing a self. The work would be about understanding how we ma-nipu­late our own and others’ imaginations, why and how we pro­ject beyond ourselves »realities« we make up and then proceed to forget that we are the ones who make up realities and make them seem »straight«. But we may also learn to excavate such we may learn to enable ourselves to »live subjunctively« 27 in relationship to our own and others’ »made up« »realities«.


Der Aufsatz setzt in methodischer Hinsicht der in der Aufklärung wurzelnden historisch-kritischen Bibelwissenschaft eine critical history entgegen. Dieser Ansatz untersucht kritisch die »Politik der Sprache«, das Zusammenspiel und die Dynamik von so­ziokul-tu­rellen und sozialpsychologischen Machtverhältnissen, die den Umgang mit der »Schrift« in der gesellschaftlichen und politischen Praxis steuern. Perspektive der kritischen Analysen ist die des Black Atlantic. Als Ausgangspunkt dient ein Text aus dem 18. Jh., in dem ein afrikanischer Sklave von seiner Begegnung mit der Bibel als »schweigendem Buch« erzählt. Das Buch erschien ihm als Fetisch. Bibelwissenschaft im Sinne der critical history ist nicht die Beschäftigung mit antiken Texten. Sie sollte als Herausforderung verstanden werden, die sozialen Strukturen, die politischen Machtverhältnisse und die komplexen Beziehungen zwischen Völkern und Kulturen der Welt mit der »Schrift« als komplexem sozialem Phänomen zu konfrontieren.


1) The term is Pierre Nora’s, from his »Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire«, in: History and Memory in African-American Culture. Ed. Gene­-vieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally (New York: Oxford University Press 1994), 300.
2) See Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs, Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality (New York: Cambridge University Press 2003), 18.32.320–321. They draw on Foucault.
3) The English term »scriptures« (from the Latin, scriptura; cf Greek, τὰ βιβλία, ἡ γραφή) is used most often to refer to particular elaborations and construals and uses of scripts – as in the generic »sacred text«, or the particular instance of the Bible or the Qur’an. With the spread and heightened value of literacy as power, »scriptures« came to be associated with the practice of exegesis, the per­-sistent pursuit – by elite devotees and humanist-philologists alike – of the »original« and »orthodox« content-meaning as part of the agenda of the normally unrecognized and unproblematized dominant political-discursive formations.
4) See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress 1993), for a history of the few efforts – on both sides of the Atlantic – at theorizing scriptures, as well as his own elaborate and influential but far from conclusive or definitive arguments.
5) See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1993), for theoretics of the concept, in chapter 1.
6) Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress 1986), 3–5.
7) Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge 1993), xv.
8) Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804 (Durham NC: Duke University Press 1999), 274 .
9) Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (1789). Ed. with an Introduction by Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books 1995), 62.67. Hereafter referred to as Narrative.
10) For discussion regarding signifying traditions as basis of theorizing with­in Black Atlantic discourses see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press 1988), and the literature he engages.

Regarding »critical« studies as here applied to scriptures I see affinities with developments in critical race, legal, historical, literary, gender studies. See for example, for legal studies. For examples see: Lois Tyson, Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write about Literature (2nd ed.; New York: Routledge 2011); and Mark Kelman, A Guide to Critical Legal Studies (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1987).
11) This issue is elaborated in my book, White Men’s Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press 2012).
12) The term comes from Sterling L. Bland, Voices of the Fugitives: Runaway Slave Stories and Their Fictions of Self-Creation (Westport CT: Greenwood Press 2000).
13) See Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (New York: Penguin 2006), chapter 11, regarding concept of stranger in Equiano’s story. For a wide-ranging historical psycho-cultural-critical discussion, see Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press 1991).
14) Gates, Signifying Monkey, 130.167.
15) Gates, Signifying Monkey, 132–169.
16) This notwithstanding questions now being raised – most notably by Carretta, Equiano, the African, xi.xvi.319–20.350–53 – regarding Equiano’s birth­-place. That Equiano may not have been born in Africa does not affect the argument I make in this essay.
17) See for historical and theoretical arguments, Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York: Methuen 1982); Brian Street (ed.), Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993); and Grey Gundaker, Signs of Diaspora, Diaspora of Signs: Literacies, Creolization, and Vernacular Practice in African America (New York: Oxford University Press 1998).
18) And throughout the narrative »Indians«, especially, and other »others« are brought into the comparison framework for the sake of establishing status and identity with Englishmen.
19) See Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (eds.), Trans. Lydia G. Coch­-rane, A History of Reading in the West (Amherst MA: University of Massachusetts Press 1999 [1995, 1997]), chapters 8–10.
20) Long, Significations, 177–178.197.
21) See David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia 1996), for illuminating discussion.
22) Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (New York: Harper Perennial 1990 [1935]), 125.
23) Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, 254–255.
24) James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Tran­-scripts (New Haven: Yale University Press 1990), especially chapters 6 and 7.
25) Pierre Nora, »Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire«, in: History & Memory in African-American Culture, ed. Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 300.
26) Toni Morrison, »The Site of Memory«, in: Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin 1995), 119–120.
27) Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, 255.