Thursday, August 25, 2016

Flaying the Second Skin: Mormon Underwear and Intersectionality

Dai Newman draws attention to movies in which gay Mormon men engage in their first sexual encounter. In each case, the films include a brief moment of exposing sacred Mormon undergarments on the cusp of erotic contact. Newman considers how the garment is a visible, physical marker of conflicting identities and raises questions about the ability of intersectionality theory to explain the overlap of religion and sexuality.

MLA citation format:
  Newman, Dai
"Flaying the Second Skin: Mormon Underwear and Intersectionality"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 24 August 2016. Web. [date of access]  

The September before her husband lost the presidential election, Ann Romney set off a minor controversy in Mormon circles for her choice of outfit for an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. At issue was not the strangeness of the leather ensemble, but its hemline. Some Mormon viewers immediately jumped to the conclusion that Ann Romney, the most visible Mormon woman in America, was not living up to her religious obligations. The skirt, they claimed, could not possibly cover the underwear that she had covenanted to wear day and night as a temple-endowed Mormon. This was far from the first time the election cycle drew attention to the Romneys’ underthings, with Bill Maher’s vitriolic jabs at “magic underwear” and other late night jokes reminding Mormons of continued suspicion. Outsiders’ sense of Mormon weirdness and secrecy find a powerful emblem in Mormon underwear. While treated mostly as a punchline, a few filmmakers have included moments with Mormons exposing and removing their undergarments not for comedic impact but as a powerful emotional threshold. These moments reverberate beyond Mormonism and raise questions about intersectionality. Central to this theory is the idea that subjects are formed through overlapping axes of difference (gender, race, age, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc.) in a process that gives rise to complex, multiple identities. The first step towards justice for intersectional theorists is to recognize and reconcile identities in order to make meaningful differences visible. What happens, however, when a subject does not seek to reconcile competing identities? 

The undergarments, officially called garments of the holy priesthood, are worn by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after they have taken part in the initiation ritual of washing and anointing. The garments, said to represent the coats of skins God made for Adam and Eve, consists of two pieces and cover from just above the knee to over the shoulders. They are made sacred by the four embroidered marks and can only be purchased directly through the Church. Initiates are instructed to wear them day and night but not to reveal them to anyone who does not understand their significance. In return, wearers are promised safety and protection. Research among garment-wearing Mormons suggests they take seriously the injunction to keep them covered and garments serve as a powerful identity marker [i]. They are a reminder of group affiliation but also one that is to be kept hidden, signaling to the wearer her own commitments rather than broadcasting them. The injunction to not reveal the garments makes Mormons particularly sensitive to their portrayal in film, though the LDS Church has released a video that describes and shows the garments. 

Image 1: Joe Pitt flays himself in Angels in America.
The removal of the undergarments always occurs in relation to a struggle over sexuality. In Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003), the closeted, still-married gay Mormon Joe Pitt shows his commitment to his Jewish lover Louis by promising to give up anything to keep him, including his skin. As he strips down to his temple garments, he prepares to take off what he calls his “second skin.” Louis does not understand asking, “how can you stop wearing it if it’s your skin?” Joe does not stall and triumphantly declares “I’m flayed!” In his struggle to be a fully committed gay man, the garments are a hindrance to be cast off. Similarly, Latter Days (C. Jay Cox, 2003) and The Falls (Jon Garcia, 2012) follow missionaries discovering their same-sex desires and exposing their garments to lovers. While garment exposure also occurs with inappropriate heterosexuality in Missionary (Anthony DiBlasi, 2013) and the TV series Quantico [ii], removal of garments is always connected with homosexuality, a sign of the impossibility of being gay and Mormon. 

These exposures might appear simply for the erotic thrill of exposing this hidden practice of Mormonism. Indeed, the pornographic website focuses on impossibly sculpted Mormon missionaries engaged in sexual contact in (and out of) their garments. You can also buy your own garments for “sexy role play” through Mormon Secret. I argue, however, that garment removal in non-pornographic films is more than erotic frisson of the forbidden. The garments are visible for only a brief moment, suggesting they are not a striptease to be dwelt upon but a flash to mark a state change. The exposure of the garments in Latter Days, The Falls and Angels in America show the sense that being gay and being Mormon are an unbridgeable chasm. They suggest that a body can either be closed off and protected by religion or open and accessible to same sex contact. These two routes are mutually exclusive. 

It might seem like a path out of this problem is intersectional or matrix thinking. Indeed, just as woman has been presumed white or black has been presumed male, we have here a case where Mormon is presumed heterosexual and gay is presumed non-Mormon. Intersectionality would pressure us to reconsider these presumptions. Matrix thinking that rejects either/or should open up for the both Mormon and gay. The garment, however, remains a problematic barrier between single-axis identities and the more lifelike and complicated existence of both/and. Instead of blurring and combining, the garment separates. 

Thinking intersectionally, Maria Lugones argues for two kinds of separation and employs metaphors from cooking for both. One is the separation of a pollutant, like the clean separation of yolk from egg white. The other, the marker of impurity, is like when mayonnaise separates: an emulsion that “breaks” and moves from coherent whole to obvious parts. In the case of the gay Mormon the garment is a potent symbol of both these kinds of separation. On the one hand, it is a barrier to keep the body pure and isolated from contact. As Lugones argues, the logic of purity insists on a subject who can stand outside by hiding the ways that subject is constituted. Even though all subjects are formed through “need, emotion, and body,” purity attempts to obscure these three taints from the dominant subject [iii]. Since no such pure subject actually exists, it is imagined by hiding these elements. The garment, as a hidden marker of difference that becomes naturalized for Mormon wearers, is a means of purity separation through occlusion and hiding. The Mormon enters a religious closet every time he puts on the clothes that cover this marker of his identity. The garment stands between the world and the wearer, constraining body, controlling emotion, and structuring needs yet doing so without being seen by others. 

Image 2: RJ and Chris risk breaking surface tension in The Falls.
On the other hand, the exposure of the garment, right on the cusp of sexual contact shows how the garment serves as a bodily image of an emulsion breaking. The wearer is literally tossing aside his Mormon-ness, the surface tension that has held together his unspoken desires and his religious identity. The “curdled” identity [iv] is, like oil and water, suspended but constantly in danger of separating. While both these identities are in the head as an intellectual proposition, they can coincide. Once these identities are mapped onto the body and enacted in space, the garment is a zone of contestation: keep it on and remain Mormon, take it off and become gay. The mayonnaise separates. Gaymormonnaise spins apart to gay or Mormon, never both. Impurity through mingling and fracturing ensues. Mormon identity and gay identity both rely on action and the body. While we might be prone to assume that mental constructs are cleaner and neater, in this case, simplicity is found in the physicality of wearing or removing the garment while the complexity of both/and can only reside in the mind. 

Image 3: Aaron about to remove his garments.
The momentary pause in Latter Days and the ways in which the Mormon missionary appears on the border of light and shadow as he disrobes drive home how much this action crosses a threshold: his body becomes a gay one through erotic contact and ceases to be a Mormon one through exposure. Mormonism has to be shed in order to actualize sexual identity. This film employs its own metaphor of mixing: a laundry load of whites and colors. Christian (the gay seducer) is surprised when he sees Aaron (the Mormon missionary) doing laundry with everything mixed together. He argues for purity, a clean distinction of colors from whites. Later when he confesses his love, he pleads with Aaron that maybe whites and colors do mix as a way to argue that life is not so clean cut. 

Image 4: “Colors and whites don’t mix, Aaron.”
This metaphor works by arguing that Mormonism is white and therefore bland (matching the color of the garments) and austere while active gay sexuality is colorful and therefore lively and exciting (like Christian’s colorful, skimpy and frequently visible underwear). The problem with this logic is that whites and colors can mix, but only at the cost of tinging the whites. This is not an emulsion that holds inseparable parts together in something greater than the parts but an assimilation. It is the garments, the whites, the Mormonism that must give way as a barrier. Living authentically, as gay liberation urges all sexual minorities to do, means at some level a rejection of anything but the brightly colored. 
One thing these scenes with garments show is what forms of power and recognition are at stake. Mormon doctrine requires marriage in a temple for the highest level of salvation and eternal progression [v]. Temple marriages are only opposite-sex and any deviation from that path, including the celibacy gay members are enjoined to practice, is viewed as a failure. As someone straddling two groups, the both/and of gay Mormon entails a loss of power when viewed from either axis. Among Mormons, admission of and pursuit of same-sex intimacy is declaring oneself an apostate, a loss of power and privilege with eternal consequences. On the other hand, to admit affiliation with a stridently anti-gay church can often undercut one’s status among other queers. The gay men in these films acutely feel this: as their gay lovers urge them to shrug off Mormonism and their Mormon peers hurl insults at them once their sexuality is discovered. RJ in The Falls asserts his perspective has “changed” since they started having sex. His companion in response defensively calls RJ a faggot. Here Chris wears both pieces of his garments while RJ wears only half, a marker that Chris, the one expelling his own homosexuality, is less removed from the Mormon standard than RJ is. 

Gay Mormons are an example of what Lugones calls “thick members”[vi]. Transparent members are those whose needs, interests and instincts seem to line up with the presumed normal vision of the group. Thick members are the messy ends that need to be erased or ignored. The gay Mormon is thick from two angles: he is a thick Mormon because his sexual needs, interests, and instincts run contrary to culture and doctrine but he is also a thick gay man through his continued belief in a homophobic religion. His is a curdled identity trapped between these two. Following Lugones, his is a mestizo consciousness that pressures our understanding of difference. This consciousness is a combination of unmixable identities that creates a new substance, forming new identities with surprising new possibilities. They do not simply add together and exist in a separable state, but whip up into something entirely new. Sometimes these mestizo identities are emulsions and other times they are curdled, but either way, they resist either/or assimilation to one side of the blend. While this route contains possibility, I want to raise a question of it that suggests a way in which religion is different from other markers of identity. 

As Vivian May argues in her recent book, intersectionality has become both too present and too empty [vii]. By ignoring the radical, ethical, and political demands of matrix thinking, writers throw in the term intersectional to perform a kind of ornamental diversity. The generally simplistic, poor understanding of intersectionality leads to multiple critiques that May expertly dismantles. I do not wish to repeat the errors of others who have misread the approach to argue that the method presupposes identities as self evident, coherent and separable. Being gay and being Mormon, despite the song from the popular Book of Mormon musical, cannot be thought of as tiny boxes to be crushed or light switches to be turned on and off. Nor do I want to say the problem is that intersectionality fragments ad infinitum and therefore should be shunned as divisive (a replay of single-axis thinking masquerading as intersectional). Rather, I raise the question of how matrix thinking works when the subject with overlapping identities does not actively desire to inhabit both.

In my specific example, I am daring to ask, “What if the Mormon position on sexuality is believed to be right? What can a Mormon who finds himself feeling attraction to the same sex do?” Matrix thinking is very good at highlighting the problem of oppression when lived identities clash with presumptions and power structures. But, inherent and seemingly underexplored in this thinking is the view that the person desires to have these identities recognized, accepted and addressed and anything else is simply giving in to oppression. In the case of a believing gay Mormon, though, he might choose the garments. In each of the films the men made this choice at one point: Joe Pitt is married, Aaron calls his homosexuality “my deepest, darkest secret”, and RJ has brought with him to his mission only his garments and his scriptures (a literalization of the metaphor of baggage). In the films, an outside force (a Jewish lover, a flamboyant gay neighbor, a mission companion) activates a desire that overpowers these previous choices and each ends with the garments off and the men no longer defining themselves as Mormons. These are not men that seek to have both halves recognized. Their stories are viewed mostly as post-liberation indictments of homophobic institutions and fall into a kind of single-axis thinking that places sexuality as the primary and most important recognition one can have. 

Image 5: RJ destroys his garments in The Falls: Another Testament of Love.

Is there no other way? The only other option seen is Chris, the self-hating gay companion in The Falls, who we are not meant to sympathize with when he claims he is “stronger” now and that his intimacies were a mistake, a phase, and a seduction against his will. He opts for Mormonism at the expense of being gay. In either direction, one of these identities is sacrificed. The film prompts us to view Chris as cold and cowardly while RJ is emotional yet brave. The sequel drives this home when RJ finally removes his garments (though carefully ensures appropriate ritual destruction of them) and ends the film “finally free”. But is Chris’s Mormon identity really a less compelling answer to the unbridgeable problem? 

Intersectional theorists would almost certainly offer the answer here that we need to bracket my logic as too in line with the status quo, or we should strive for disidentification, or that we should practice active disloyalty. In other words, the claim that being both Mormon and gay is in conflict needs to be changed and results from heterosexist, patriarchal oppression. What these positions show, however, is a presumption that sexuality and its expression trumps religious belief. They might imply that sexuality is not a choice but religion is. They buy into a dominant logic of liberation that can leave little room for questioning. In other words, they bracket a dominant logic for another dominant logic that requires the shift from the Church’s end. Yet, believing Mormons relying on continuing revelation to living prophets and individual members, claim that such a change is not possible. Why does sexuality trump religion? While I do not think we have to accept conservative religious views of sexuality, intersectional theorists could take more seriously religious claims without jumping immediately to viewing these as pure oppression. If a person has an oppressed identity but also sincerely does not desire to have it recognized, is the only option the route of tossing aside oppression and losing along with it powerful communal ties? 

I do not actually think that Mormonism cannot change nor do I claim that single-axis thinking is accurate and one has to choose: garment or gayness, sainthood or sex. But, following Lugones, I agree that our identities are curdled into emulsions that may require more stirring for some than others to maintain. The current landscape requires much more stirring from gay religious believers. What cost are we asking believers with non-normative sexualities to bear? To constantly guard against breaking and remain curdled requires great effort. But to urge the loss of religious commitments or sexual expression are not welcoming alternatives. Intersectionality does hold promise for eventually decreasing the amount of labor required just to stay coherent by forcing us to understand and interact with each other as more complex subjects. But until the revelation comes and the religious boundaries shifts, the costs are immense and perhaps we are only adding to the burden by arguing that the right answer is always and forever either flaying oneself, casting off garments and oppression, or bending religious belief, scumbling lines to make room for both. 


i. McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University, 1998): 198-220. 

ii. It is telling that the characters in Quantico and Missionary are shown getting dressed. In covering up their garments, they trace a long line in the history of portraying Mormon devotion as an alibi for sexual deviance. 

iii. Lugones, Maria. “Purity, Impurity and Separation,” Signs 19 (1994): 467. 

iv. Ibid., 470. 

v. Doctrine and Covenants 132: 4, 17-21. Marriage is one of Mormonism’s “saving ordinances” that all people must perform (or have performed for them vicariously) to achieve total salvation, the others include baptism, confirmation, ordination to the priesthood (for men), and temple endowments. 

vi. Lugones, 474. 

vii. May, Vivian. Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries. (New York: Routledge, 2015) 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Pilgrimage and the City: Studying English Cathedrals

Simon Coleman, Tiina Sepp and Marion Bowman describe their ongoing collaboration on the "Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals" project. By exploring the links between space and different kinds of subjectivities, they propose 'cathedral consciousness' as a means to understanding the diverse functions of modern English cathedrals.

MLA citation format:
  Coleman, Simon, Tiina Sepp and Marion Bowman
"Pilgrimage and the City: Studying English Cathedrals"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 27 July 2016. Web. [date of access]  

What are cathedrals for? This is a question that we have been thinking about for a couple of years, as we collaborate on a project called “Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, Past and Present.” [i] Our research explores English cathedrals as sites of pilgrimage but also as culturally, architecturally and socially significant locations within urban contexts. Three of the cathedrals we’re focusing on are both Anglican and ancient: Canterbury, Durham, and York. One is Roman Catholic and much more recent: Westminster Cathedral—a Victorian building whose construction in London between 1895 and 1903 boosted the public profile of Roman Catholicism in a country where it was still viewed with some suspicion by Protestant evangelicals. [ii] 

Fig. 1 Courtyard leading to entrance of Westminster Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
One answer to our question comes from a distinguished sociologist of secularization, Steve Bruce, who published a book in 1996 called Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. The first chapter of the book includes a kind of sociological eulogy for what Bruce calls “the great Christian cathedrals of the Middle Ages,” [iii] which have now given way to a very different kind of faith. By definition, the cult does not dominate space as a cathedral does. It flourishes by catering to the diffuse sovereign consumerism of an individualizing society. 

But what are we to make of Bruce’s argument in relation to our project on cathedrals? Has our question already been answered? Let us juxtapose his view with the writing of another sociologist of contemporary religion, Grace Davie. In a recent piece, entitled “Thinking Spatially about Religion,” she notes that “in the 1970s these iconic buildings were frequently referred to as dinosaurs, large and useless.” [iv] What is striking, however, is that current evidence tells us that the constituencies for cathedrals are now growing rapidly, consisting of both regular and less regular worshippers, as well as “more transient communities of pilgrims and tourists.” Davie suggests that cathedrals appeal to the senses as much as to the intellect: they are “places that pay attention to aesthetics of worship, to music, to art, to liturgy, to worship”. In addition, she notes, they are “places where the individual can find space to reflect” in contexts of relative anonymity, thus avoiding the sometimes overly warm embrace of a parish church; and, finally, “these are places where…the nation… articulates its past.” 

Davie’s claims for the continued salience of cathedrals are backed up by the statistician Peter Brierley’s 2005 English Church Census, which revealed a 21% rise in attendance at Anglican cathedral services between 2000 and 2004. [v] Furthermore, a 2012 report, significantly called ‘Spiritual Capital’, dangles a tempting sociological morsel in front of those who would see cathedrals as centres of Anglican revival, suggesting that “their impact on and significance for English life extends far beyond their role as tourist destinations.” [vi] Indeed, a frankly astonishing 27 per cent of the adult population of England visited an Anglican cathedral at least once in the year before the Report came out. [vii] This number adds up to around 11 million adults, covers the entire demographic spectrum, and includes Christians, non-Christians, and non-believers. What is more, many visitors say that their interest is not just about tourism and heritage, but also about getting in touch with the spiritual, however that is defined. [viii] 

It is under such circumstances that pilgrimage represents a fascinatingly problematic and yet fertile practice in relation to cathedrals. The religious buildings that we are studying are not remote shrines, where much of the pilgrim’s focus might simply be on the arduous and exceptional journey to get there; they are located in urban centres. Nor is pilgrimage necessarily the main rationale of each institution. Indeed, as a practice, it touches on many points of uncertainty for cathedrals and established Christianity in the UK: For instance are cathedrals as opposed to more isolated shrines the best places for pilgrimage? Where does worship end and heritage begin—not just metaphorically but materially—in spaces that house worship, tourism, art, musical performances, and university graduations? How public should a cathedral space be in the context of anonymous, urban spheres of interaction? And is gaining access to a cathedral a commercial or a spiritual transaction? 

Fig. 2 Researchers’ table in the south transept of York Minster in July 2015. (Photo: Tiina Sepp)
One of things we find interesting about juxtapositions of such varied practices is that they are describing a deeply flexible kind of religious sociability and framing, one that—adapting the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz—inhabits the ambiguous social space between Nebenmenschen (contemporaries) and Mitmenschen (consociates), where Nebenmenschen are people “only known as types, that is, distantly, formally, and solely by their roles, whereas Mitmenschen are those known as specific and idiosyncratic individuals.” [ix] Or, as we see in much tourism literature, the presence of unknown others may be vital to one’s experience of place, in positive as well as negative terms; and cathedrals can accommodate both the romantic gaze of the isolated aesthete as well as the collective gaze of the day-tripper. 

Fig. 3 Entrance charges to Canterbury Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
The kinds of social, semiotic and spatial flexibility that we have been describing touch on, but do not really fit, two of the previously dominant theoretical models of pilgrimage that have been important in anthropology. The ambiguous space between contemporaries and consociates at cathedrals is scarcely covered by the Turnerian notion of communitas: [x] in the latter, identity is stripped away and levelled, as the temporarily formed fellowship of pilgrims pursues broadly common or at least commensurate goals. This notion, useful as it is, does not address the baroque multiplicity of goals and performance frames, let alone agendas, that emerge in cathedral spaces. Similarly, Eade and Sallnow’s notion of contesting the sacred can take us only so far, as it only points to one, predominantly agonistic, dimension of the forms of ritual and cultural articulation that may occur in pilgrimage, wherever the shrine is located, but most certainly in urban conurbations. [xi] We would add here that Ian Reader’s recent book on pilgrimage in the context of the market is extremely helpful in the way that it highlights the role of planning in pilgrimage, but again the central analytical metaphor is not quite flexible enough: it runs the risk of replacing sacrality with a notion of market relations as the ultimate “bottom line” of the organization of pilgrimages. [xii] The cathedrals we look at are not only in some ways deeply incoherent, they are also contexts where no single person knows what is going on in and around the numerous spatial and temporal frames of activity (though head vergers probably come the closest). There is no single bottom line, no single dimension of sociality or ritual. Indeed, as we are increasingly discovering, the rules and assumptions made by one cathedral may be very different from those evident in another. In this respect, at least, English cathedrals recall the medieval world rather than the streamlined rationality of the modern one, even as their staff are attempting to grasp what it means to be religious ‘professionals’ in a world where pilgrimage and tourism management often blend so seamlessly. 

Modalities of Pilgrimage 

So what kinds of pilgrimage-like activity take place in cathedrals? Rather than present an overview or a survey, we are simply going to explore some of the themes we have uncovered by introducing you briefly to two informants, both of whom were interviewed at Canterbury by Tiina in 2014. 

Michael the Methodist: Adjacencies and Translations 

Michael is a middle aged family man whose Methodist home congregation was located around 30 kilometers away from the cathedral. He is well acquainted with Canterbury Cathedral as he goes there four or five times a year. Here’s what he said when Tiina asked him what he thought of the cathedral—what kind of space he thought it was: 

It’s a combination. I think it’s certainly a working church. I have… friends in the diocese office here… and I know the work they do…For me it’s a spiritual place to come. ’Cause this is not my home church….I enjoy the spiritual presence that is here. I’m intrigued by pilgrimages, something in the back of my mind, that maybe in the future we may do more…. I suppose it’s also good as a religious tourist place because it brings people in…who wouldn’t come normally …I don’t see that as an important part for me….I think all faith we have and spirit has to transfer into work. 

Michael sees the cathedral as having many functions that co-exist, some of which he prioritizes over others, and one of the things we would emphasize here is how pilgrimage emerges in dialogue with other activities and spaces with which it is adjacent. Are Michael’s regular visits to the cathedral away from a congregation with a different theological emphasis classifiable as pilgrimages? There’s no simple answer to that question, but we know that the notion of pilgrimage is important to Michael’s conception of himself from what he says here and elsewhere. What’s also striking is Michael’s use of the notion of work as a kind of praxis that unites much of what goes on in the cathedral, but which seems to separates off tourism from more worshipful labours. 

Fig. 4 Tourists in Canterbury Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
When Tiina asks Michael if he’s drawn to any particular part of the cathedral, he is ready with a response: 
I think there’s this… the little prayer chapel… the Martyrdom chapel. Because as you walk by, it’s quite dark in a sense but alight inside… so it’s quiet and because there’s a sign saying it’s reserved for prayer, people tend to respect that and they don’t come in talking. So for me… I can go there and I can be silent in it. And that’s a place that drew me. 

This expresses a trope that we have often come across so far: the cathedral being capacious enough to house not only large numbers of people, but also spaces of temporary retreat and silence, involving awareness of, but distance from, others, who may be contemporaries or consociates in Schütz’s terms. 

Clearly we see a kind of ‘cathedral consciousness’ emerging in this interview, related to Michael’s separation from everyday life and his home congregation and his journey to a large-scale, multi-dimensional liturgical space. This sense is reinforced as Michael’s interview then ventures away from Canterbury itself, and presents an array of linked cathedral experiences that covers his biography as well as his experience of Britain as place of both indigenous and personal history and powerful landscape. We can only hint at the complexity of what I think he is saying here, as he weaves together walking in the wilderness, Holy Island in the North East of the country, St David’s cathedral in Wales, and finally York Minster—the latter located near to Michael’s birthplace and, as he puts it, “the one that really centres me”. But it is St David’s that contributes to a radical change in his life:

Yes, I was on holiday and something was happening in my life to change and serve and God gave me a message from Matthew 25, about the lambs and the goats … to serve him and I’d been to the cathedral and sat on the cliff top and looking at the most spectacular view you can imagine on a quiet day…and God giving that message. “Think of what I’ve given you, Michael, haven’t you been blessed? I want everyone to have the blessings, and I want you now to be a messenger of these blessings…” And I left my job in London. I sold the house…I don’t look at the architecture that much now or the stained glass windows… I sense that those hundreds of thousands of prayers... and it calms me down and it centres me…. 

Is this describing a pilgrimage? Yes and no—it takes place in and adjacent to the cathedral, on a holiday that turns into a holy-day. Is this a Protestant testimony? Again, yes and no: it is given in an interview but it contains the classic themes of conversion, of biblical text combined with God’s direct voice. And what is the cathedral doing here? It seems to be a medium for a shift in both subjectivity and work; and if so, it is an effective medium because its materiality is not all-encompassing: Michael goes to the cathedral but then sits on the cliff; and, most strikingly, there is the image of stained glass windows being converted, translated, into words, into thousands of prayers. 

Yvonne the Cleric: A Journey Through the Building 

Michael found his inspiration through his negotiated relationship with cathedrals, finding spaces to be on his own as well as engaging in journeys whose power may have come from the fact that it is difficult, and possibly futile, to decide whether they “were” or “were not” pilgrimages. After looking at his responses we then found a very different interview in our Canterbury files. Yvonne is a cleric, a religious professional, a person working with pilgrimage groups who come to Canterbury. In the first part of her interview she talks of the gradual emergence of a set of strategies to organize pilgrims, and then she talks fascinatingly about the experience of leading pilgrims through the cathedral space. Again, we can only hint at some of what she says, but here are some of her reflections on leading a candlelit pilgrimage: 

I try as we go round, I say: if you’ve clearly made Christian profession of faith, you might like to think about this. If you haven’t, you might like to think about something which is I guess [is] less Christian language but may actually end up being the same thing, really. So we start at the back and then we literally journey…. And so…before I took a group round on my own I spent some time thinking: How does the building speak of a Christian journey of faith? How can I use the building in different places to make myself a route? 

As with Michael we see here a link between space and subjectivity, but also the strategies of somebody who, unlike him, cannot dismiss the tourist as not engaging in the proper spiritual labour of praying within the cathedral. The route that Yvonne then describes is not only one that seems meaningful to her—as she remarks elsewhere she allows spirituality to prevail a little over historical detail—but also one that uses each part of the fabric of the building to make a different point: the Nave prompts talk of the almightiness of God, the arches are presented as marking one space from another and so give a sense of being in sacred space, and so on. The shrine of Becket is part of this route but only one part of a wider journey—and one that in the cathedral tour does not stop with him as historical figure but reflects instead on the hope of resurrection. This is an ambulatory ritual designed for people of faith but also those of no faith, but in any case it seems a well-considered attempt to shift from the vagaries of the journey to a precisely directed movement through architectural, historical and theological space at the same time. 

Fig. 5 The north-west transept (also known as the Martyrdom) of Canterbury Cathedral. On the left, the Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom. On the right, exit to the Undercroft. In the centre, the Altar of the Sword-Point, commemorating St Thomas Becket’s death. (Photo: Tiina Sepp)

One kind of space that these narratives suggest is indeed the classic one of the liminal, as we see how cathedrals provide opportunities for removal from the mundane world: as Michael periodically moves from his home congregation, or as Yvonne takes believer and non-believer alike on candlelit journeys through a cathedral space that has been emptied of other people. But there is also evidence of what one of us, Simon, has elsewhere called laterality: the creative construction of liturgical or at least symbolically charged behavior parallel to but at one remove from official tours and official spaces, [xiii] such as Michael’s use of the Martyrdom chapel, both rooted in the cathedral space and crucially reaching beyond it. Michael draws himself to the side of the actions of others, creating his own frame of ritual practice that again is adjacent to, possibly even echoes, those of others, but is still separated from them. 

Our brief comments and examples have been emphasizing the continued religious salience of cathedrals as places of pilgrimage, but have also been blurring theological and theoretical edges and worrying at sharp boundaries: presenting the city cathedral as urban and liturgical space at one and the same time and the pilgrimage as both strategy and improvisation, both following and straying from well-worn paths. We want to finish with a final blurring of the boundaries, and it relates to our project itself. Where are we as researchers located in the capacious liturgical, bureaucratic, and socially flexible spaces provided by cathedrals? We are of course both observers of cathedral strategy and inevitably part of it. In reporting what we observe to such sophisticated caretakers of sacred buildings, we become research objects and subjects ourselves, providing further means through which cathedrals can identify new spaces of action in the twenty-first century. 


i. For details of the project, go to Researchers on the AHRC-funded project are Dee Dyas (PI), Tiina Sepp (Researcher), John Jenkins (Researcher) (all York University), Marion Bowman (Co-PI, Open-University), and Simon Coleman (Co-PI, University of Toronto). Note that all interviewees’ names are pseudonyms.

ii. Canterbury Cathedral was the leading pilgrimage centre in medieval England and large areas of the building were shaped by and still show the influence of the cult of St Thomas Becket. Durham Cathedral contains the shrines and remains of St Cuthbert and Bede, and Cuthbert holds a unique place as a symbol of the region. York Minster contains the tombs of two archbishop martyr ‘saints’, William FitzHerbert, nephew of King Stephen, who was murdered in 1154; and Richard Scrope, executed for treason in 1405. Westminster Cathedral has the shrine and relics of the seventeenth century English martyr, St John Southworth. 

iii. Steve Bruce, Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 

iv. For this and other quotes in this paragraph, see Grace Davie, “Thinking Spatially about Religion,” Culture and Religion 13, no. 4(2012): 486. 

vii. Ibid.: 15. 

viii. Mathew Guest, Elizabeth Olson and John Wolffe, “Christianity: Loss of Monopoly,” in Religion and Change in Modern Britain, eds. Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto (London, Routledge, 2012), 57-78. 

ix. Michael Carrithers, “Anthropology as a Moral Science of Possibilities,” Current Anthropology 46, no. 3 (2005): 433-456. 

x. Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York, Columbia University Press, 1978). 

xi. John Eade and Michael Sallnow eds, Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage (London: Routledge, 1991). 

xii. Ian Reader, Pilgrimage in the Marketplace (London, Routledge, 2014). 

xiii. Simon Coleman, “Ritual Remains: Studying Contemporary Pilgrimage,” in Michael Lambek and Janice Boddy eds, A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (Oxford, Blackwell, 2014), 294-308; also Simon Coleman, “Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity,” Current Anthropology 55, suppl. 10 (2014): 281-291.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On Blood and Words: How Certain Objects Become Subjects Among the Mande (West Africa)

Agnès Kedzierska Manzon explores how Mande ritual specialists in West Africa, who own and manipulate power-objects called basiw, turn these objects into "gods forever in the process of construction" thanks to blood sacrifices and speech. While doing so, they construct at once these object's agency and their own identities as accomplished, powerful and respected individuals.

MLA citation format:
  Manzon, Agnès Kedzierska
"On Blood and Words: How Certain Objects Become Subjects Among the Mande (West Africa)"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 29 June 2016. Web. [date of access] 

Among the Mande (Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire) the usage of a wide range of material artifacts manipulated on a regular basis to influence human life and destiny is well established. Such artifacts include, on the one hand, Arabic talismans or amulets (the Mande have been Islamized since the fourteenth century CE), and on the other hand, non-Islamic, primarily plant-based amalgams that are designated in Mande languages as boliw or basiw (singular: boli or basi). They may be of various sizes and shapes: round, oval, horns filled with substances, assemblages of separate elements such as shells, wooden statues, cola nuts, etc. (cf. Bazin 2008, Brett-Smith 1983, Colleyn 2001, 2009, 2010). Portable and pocket-size or stationary and as big as a table, they are entirely coated with many layers of coagulated blood. 

As with similar artifacts used elsewhere in Africa—for example Congolese “nail fetishes” (nkisi nkondi), Baule “spouse figurines” (blolo bian/bla), or Evhe and Fon vodun, to name only a few—they are addressed through sacrifices and with words, asked for protection and for help in difficulties. Their “users” or “masters” (tigiw) seem to conceive of them as a very special category of not entirely sentient yet autonomous entities, endowed with agency. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (Kedzierska-Manzon 2013), they treat these objects as subjects with which one may enter into a genuine partnership. They engage with them in an ambiguous relationship that has an impact on their sexuality and affective life and that is locally conceptualized as an alliance between human and non-human lovers (Kedzierska-Manzon 2015). 

This relationship is instituted and perpetuated through the ritual practice consisting in sacrifices of cola nuts to begin and then poultry as well as, more rarely, cattle or sheep. The sacrifices – locally designated by the term sɔnni: literally, watering – are accompanied, preceded, and followed by speech. Both the words uttered in the direction of basiw, and the sacrificial blood poured onto them, are essential in the process of their construction, defining their identity and their potential for acting. 

Image 1: Continuous construction of the basiw through blood sacrifices. Photo by author. 

The blood constitutes more precisely the basiw’s "flesh", making their appearance amorphous and their surface uneven. This surface which stinks and attracts flies indexes their proper relationships with humans as well as their power. Without being “watered” regularly, they lose this power or worse, may turn what remains of it against their human partners. Why is it so? Drawing on the work of Martin Holbraad (2007, 2011), I would argue that their material aspects matter deeply for an understanding of the way humans think and feel about them. Holbraad shows, more precisely, in his study of Cuban divination rituals that if the Cuban divinities are said to appear as marks on the divination sand – as the displacement of powder in short – then, these divinities must locally be conceived in terms of motions or paths, highly ephemeral and virtual to some extent. They are not seen as stable entities inhabiting some far-away or transcendent locations but rather as potentialities realizing themselves only temporarily. Let’s now return to the basiw. The flow and the coagulation of blood are usually associated among the Mande, as elsewhere, with organic processes such as childbirth but also gestation (cf. Dieterlen and Dettwyler 1988). The fetus’ development in the uterus implies and relies on such a flow, as does the basiw. These artifacts may be seen as “loci of growth" (Ingold 2012) where as mounds or termite nests they are inherently unfinished and open-ended. This is why they must be watered. If one waters them, then, they may grow, as do the plants. The sacrifices are ways of cultivating them. 

The materiality of basiw informs us on the way they and their relation to humans are locally comprehended, in constant transformation. They are things rather than objects, if one were to apply to them the classic Heideggerian dichotomy, and to use the expression coined by David Graeber (2005), “gods in the process of construction”, never fully achieved, always in becoming. Through their continuous production, their partners seek new arrangements, establish new alliances, and perpetuate (social) life. By owning and watering them, their owners inscribe themselves into a larger, supra-regional network of relationships including humans and non-humans, thanks to which they may gain wealth and prestige, have access to secret knowledge and become powerful. Thus, the basiw seem to function as the “loci of growth” in a double sense: they grow physically and, while doing so, they make their masters grow economically and socially, helping them to become respected and fully accomplished personae. 

This mutual process of subjectivation of things and humans involved in the relationship relies, as I have demonstrated in detail in Kedzierska-Manzon 2016, on blood sacrifices, but also, as I will argue now, on the speech uttered within the ritual context. Such a speech situates each basi within the larger network, in respect to other similar artifacts and in relation to their “users” or “masters”, as well as these masters’ masters, apprentices and clients. Through speech, these artifacts are ascribed certain qualities and represented as potent, which in fact empowers them. At the same time, they are assigned to the position of interlocutors for humans, capable of listening, seeing and reacting. In order to provoke them to act on behalf of their allies, the words addressed to them are supposed to please them or even to enchant them while sometimes challenging them. The “enchantment” under question is thought to be achieved mainly thanks to their speech formal characteristics which include particular lexical choices driven by the phonetics as much as by the semantics, syntax parallelism, frequent use of neologisms as well as of the onomatopoeias, a certain a-grammaticality, all of which result in a partial unintelligibility. All of these characteristics, common to the various types of religious languages employed elsewhere (cf. Keane 1997), are supposed to contribute to the emotional destabilization of the addressee which in turn, provokes this addressee to act. Indeed, the basiw, in response to the speech uttered to them, are expected first to provide the elements of an answer to the question asked through the position of the colas nuts and the sacrificial victim on the ground. Then, they are expected to react by accomplishing what they were asked for. 
Image 2: Speaking to the basiw, engaging in dialogue. Photo by author.

In order to make sure that they will engage in action and in dialogue with humans, an adoption of a special way of speaking seems necessary. Together with blood sacrifice, speech participates in the emergence of the ritual landscape – visual, sound, olfactory, etc. – within which these artifacts assume the role of agents. Their perpetual creation from words and blood, linking past to the present, bush to the village, visible to the invisible, and last but not least, humans to their fellow humans, shape the Mande world in which people as well animals, plants, powerful things and some invisible entities dwell. 

Image 3: With Diakaridia, the hunter, Mande Montains, Mali. Photo courtesy of the author.


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Brett-Smith, S. 1983, "The Poisonous Child", Res: anthropology and aesthetics, 6, pp. 47–64. 

Colleyn, J.P. 2001, Bamana : the Art of Existence in Mali, (co-ed. Arnoldi, M.J.), New York, Museum for African Art; Zurich, Museum Rietberg ; Gent, Snoek-Ducaju & Zoon.
_____2009, "Images, signes, fétiches : à propos de l’art bamana (Mali)", Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, 195, pp. 733-745. 

_____2010, "Il Feticcio, O Un Oggetto Paradossale / The Fetish, a Paradoxal Object", in : Bargna, Ivan ; Parodi da Passano (ed.), L’Africa delle Meravigle. Arti Africane nelle collezioni italane / The Wonders of Africa. African arts in Italian Collections, Milano, Silvana Editoriale, pp. 133-145. 

Dettwyler, K. 1988, "More than Nutrition: Breastfeeding in Urban Mali", Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 2-2, pp. 172-183. 

Dieterlen, G. 1988 [1951], Essais sur la religion bambara, Bruxelles, Ed. De l’Université de Bruxelles. 

Graeber, D., 2005, "Fetishism as Social Creativity: or, Fetishes as Gods in the process of Construction", Anthropological Theory, 5: 407–438 

Holbraad, M., 2007, "The Powder of Power: Multiplicity and Motion in the Divinatory Cosmology of Cuban Ifa (or Mana again)", in: Thinking Through Things: Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically, London, Routledge, pp. 189-225.
_____2011, “Can the Thing Speak?” Open Anthropology Cooperative Press, Working Papers Series # 7, ISSN 2045-5763. Accessed from on April 2016.

Ingold, T., 2012, “The Shape of the Land”, in: Arnason, A;, Elllison, N., Vergunst, J, & Whitehouse, A., ed., Landscape beyond Land, New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, pp. 197-205. 

Keane, W., 1997, "Religious Language", Annual Review of Anthropology, 26: 47-71. 

Kedzierska-Manzon, A., 2016, "Le sacrifice comme mode de construction: du sang versé sur les fétiches (mandingues)", Archives des Sciences Sociales des Religions, special issue "La forces des objets- matières à expériences", 174, forthcoming.
_____2015,"Corps et objet forts: le ‘fétichisme’ comme ascèse", Corps–revue interdisciplinaire, 12, éd. CNRS, pp. 211-219. 

_____2013, "Humans and Things: Mande 'Fetishes' as Subjects", Anthropological Quarterly, 86 (1), pp. 1115-1152.