‘Chosen People’ by Jacob Dorman argues for new understanding of cultural formation

Chosen People JS Dorman

A post by Peter Jordens.

Religion Dispatches recently interviewed University of Kansas history professor Jacob S. Dorman about his book Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford University Press, 2013). The book is of relevance to Caribbean cultural studies because (1) the author uses the term ‘African-American’ in the broad hemispheric sense, (2) the term ‘Black Israelite religions’ includes certain Afro-Caribbean religions such as Rastafarianism, (3) the book discusses at length the pioneering influence of two West Indians, Arnold Josiah Ford and Wentworth Arthur Matthew, on the Black Israelite movement in the USA, and (4) the author challenges well-known Caribbean anthropological concepts about cultural and religious transmission, shifting from ‘roots’ to ‘rhizomes’ and from ‘syncretism’ to ‘polyculturalism.’

Below is a short excerpt from the interview. The full interview is at http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/7329/how_new_religions_are_made. Additional information about the book can be downloaded by clicking here.

RD: You have a pretty strong critique of Melville Herskovits and his pathbreaking work. How do you think he would respond to your emphasis on ‘polyculturalism’ as opposed to ‘syncretism’ as a description of the way diverse cultures meet?

JSD: Well, the problem with the premise is that even if we could send a copy of the book back in time to 1940, when Melville Herskovits was writing The Myth of the Negro Past, he would not have read the last seventy years of anthropology, so the idea of polyculturalism wouldn’t make any sense to him. On the other hand, I would like to think he would agree with polyculturalism, and with developments in the humanities more broadly, if we could bring Melville Herskovits to the present, and along the way give him time to read Fernando Ortiz and Arthur Huff Fauset, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, Sidney Mintz, Richard and Sally Price, Deleuze and Guattari, Stephan Palmié, John L. Jackson, Andrew Apter, and J. Lorand Matory, as well as many religious studies scholars who have questioned and refined ‘syncretism,’ such as Bruce Lincoln, Charles Stewart, Rosalind Shaw, and A.J. Droge.

The differences in the humanities now and then are at the heart of my critique of syncretism: Herskovits formed his theory of syncretism and the ‘acculturative continuum’ in the 1920s and 30s. An awful lot has changed since then. We have moved away from culture as a set of ‘rigid, predictable patterns,’ as Herskovits put it.

What I argue in the book is that not only did Herskovits develop his theory of syncretism in an earlier era, but he developed his concept of culture from his work studying racial types in his little-mentioned 1920s physical anthropology. Knowing this helps explain some of syncretism’s weaknesses: its cultural holism, its depiction of cultural formation as the result of hostile, binary, systemic confrontations with little human agency, and its depiction of culture as metaphorically genetic.

In contrast, the cultures created in the Americas are imaginative, endlessly porous, and riotously ‘impure.’ To me, thinking of cultural formation as polycultural bricolage simply does a better job than syncretism in reflecting the anthropology, religious studies, and humanities of the present, rather than those of the past.

2 thoughts on “‘Chosen People’ by Jacob Dorman argues for new understanding of cultural formation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s