The Anthropology of Scriptures
Richard Newton [+]
Identifying Roots begins by pressing the need for more critical ways of studying scriptures and identity. It establishes these discourses as mutually informed by introducing select non-fiction vignettes in which Americans—black and white— articulate their position in the nation through Alex Haley’s Roots. I explain how approaching either concept as static phenomena occludes our ability to understand the signifying activities at play. This calls for what I introduce as an anthropology of scriptures, in which the object of study is (1) how human beings form and are formed by cultural texts and (2) the processes that efface their construction and advance their users’ agendas. I contend that in examining Alex Haley’s Roots, we observe scriptures’ entanglement with identity, or as Jean-Francois Bayart remarks, “operational acts of identification.”Too frequently, scholars adopt insider justifications for the study of a cultural text. Arbitrary claims about originality, popularity, quality, and precision betray the privileging of a community’s evaluative measures, as do assertions of derivation, insignificance, inferiority, and inaccuracy. Cultural criticism must instead analyze how and why people identify with texts. It investigates what is at stake in classifying the phenomena and winning contests over meaning. While Deleuze and Guattari are correct in representing humans routing through a rhizome of signifying practices, the anthropology of scriptures foregrounds why people nevertheless grasp for roots. Identifying Roots reads Alex Haley’s work as a case study in order to develop a language to articulate these power dynamics. I connect my efforts to three particular conversations—the Institute for Signifying Scriptures, the Society for Comparative Research in Iconic and Performative Texts, and Culture on the Edge. After summarizing the chapters of the book, I invite the reader to identify scriptures as roots, the living narratives by which humans know and are known. Ultimately their significance exceeds any one individual, including their author-ities. And since they help us survive the human condition, we will do almost anything to protect them. The chapters that follow document the lengths humans go to do so.