An Interview with Vincent Wimbush
Vincent L. Wimbush is Professor of Religion and Director of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures at Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of The Bible and African Americans: A Brief History and the editor of African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures and Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon. His scholarship has expanded to what he describes as a "transdisciplinary study of scriptures, " combining "the anthropology, sociology and psychology" associated with the reception history of sacred text. In an interview below with Adele Reinhartz (University of Ottawa), Professor Wimbush discusses the evolving scope of his work, specifically his exploration of the ways in which the culture of the Black Atlantic has interpreted scripture.
Adele Reinhartz: Vincent, you are in the midst of an extraordinarily varied career that includes not only academic publications, but also the creation and nurturing of institutions, as well as film production. Yet all of these are integrated around a core set of questions and social issues. Did you have the intention or goal of developing in these different directions when you first began your graduate studies and academic career, or did the path emerge gradually as you went along?
Vincent Wimbush: The simple and honest first-impulse response to such a question leads me to say no, of course not: certain developments occurred, opportunities came my way, students provided challenges. . .But on second consideration, as I look back on developments I do see something of a pattern, a somewhat consistent direction taken, a discernible orientation embraced. With each step taken I seem to have embraced and struggled to model and support and advance scholarship that represents a questioning of the basic assumptions and orientation of biblical scholarship (notwithstanding degrees of differences in it), and an effort to find myself in it. That self I understood to be a complex, historic, representational self. Not simply me, but the world that nurtured me, defined me, shaped me. Having migrated from studying philosophy because it seemed too ahistorical, too comfortable beginning and proceeding without taking my world into consideration I for some reason—doubtless having to do with the free protestant culture into which I was born— thought the study of religion and the study of the Bible in particular would provide a discursive portal, a way for me to "crawl back" into my world. I always knew this meant something deeper and more complicated than finding biblical characters who could be argued to be "black." Early on I figured out that such an enterprise was problematic—in the same way that the dominant North Atlantic worlds' whitening of all ancient biblical-mythic and subsequent modern history was problematic, with toxic and devastating effects. No, I think that early on I sensed that I must strive to dig more deeply—into the ritual practices/performances, discourses, and politics in relationship to the Bible, what they meant, what they effected, what they reflected.
It now seems clear to me that at every critical step in my career I have sought in sometimes awkward, bumbling ways, to be sure, to engage in this work of what historian of religion Charles Long calls a "crawling back" into beginnings (not "origins") of myself. This called for excavation beyond—before, after, above, under—the text. Needless to say, it was not easy to pursue such interests; there were in biblical studies for me no mentors, no real guides through such thickets. I simply stumbled along on my own, for the most part. I found fellow travelers and influences and challenges where I could, mostly far outside the field of biblical studies. The latter had become—and yet for the most part remains—resistant in terms of questions and challenges, orientation of the sort with which I have long struggled.
Reinhartz : The Institute for Signifying Scriptures, which you direct, was founded almost ten years ago. Did it grow out of the earlier work undertaken by yourself and perhaps others, and if so, can you describe how the idea for the Institute came into being?
Wimbush: The ISS represents an expansion of mission and agenda of the research project "African Americans and the Bible" that I directed in New York City in the 1990s. A trans-disciplinary collaborative project—including social and cultural historians, social scientists, philosophers, literary critics, art historians, and so forth—it modeled research on the Bible that in my view switched focus from an invented and fraught "antiquity" to the construals and social psychologies of the modern world. The project turned focus away from the meaning of the fraught "text" to the meaning of seeking meaning in relationship to texts already determined to be center-formation documents for dominant cultures. The emphasis switched from lexical meaning to uses of texts, with all that pertained to such. My collaborators and I used African Americans to think with—regarding how the Bible means as a modern cultural phenomenon; we also used the Bible to think with—regarding how African America was constituted as a modern world formation.
The success of the African Americans and the Bible project, with the publication of African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures (Continuum, 2000, 2001) as one bit of evidence, led me, as I transitioned west, to consider making the project a more fully comparative one. A research institute would have as its (ideal conceptual) focus "scriptures" as cross-cultural phenomenon, and the ways in which they were used in historical and ongoing (de-)formations of peoples. Thus, with the support of the Ford Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation the Institute for Signifying Scriptures was established in Claremont in 2004.
Reinhartz: The work of the ISS, as well as your own recent writing, signification, scriptures and scripturalization. How do you understand these terms? Do you use these terms in ways that differ from, or even challenge, the more conventional uses of these terms? What if any is the place of the Jewish and Christian canon in your understanding of scripture?
Wimbush: I use the term "signify/ing" to refer to its most basic meaning having to do with the sign, meaning, representation. Along with "scriptures," I simply challenge deeper (re)consideration of some of the most basic categories around which we continue to live our lives. I want ISS to be a safe and creative space for raising of basic questions—how do we know? What systems or regimes, practices we have put in place to determine and authorize knowing and knowledge and power? Who is authorized to disseminate knowledge? What symbols represent knowledge and power? "Scriptures" is then an (acceptable even if not unproblematic) English term that stands in as vector of knowledge and power. Its basic meaning as "writing" tells much, as Claude Lévi-Strauss helped us to understand, about writing and power issues, but can include more than the written or the text. I use "signifying" as both modifier and verbal form. So I suppose I am influenced by a motley group—from the expressivities of black Atlantic folk culture, Saussure, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Charles Long.
Jewish and Christian scriptures are clearly a part of my critical comparative scriptures project. For this project exegetical practices—no matter how avant garde—are not the focus, certainly not the bottom line interest. Such interest is the focus in my view of the tribal theologian or the otherwise named somewhat invested insider. I aim to help develop a different kind of scholar of scriptures as scholar of critical formation, of scriptural formations. I would like to see the development of critical scholars focused on the study of the scriptural formations of communities, their politics and practices, and effects in the world. Not the text but texture, not the text but people and their inventions, mimetics, gestures, rituals, soundings should be our concern. No one can be expected to take on all such formations in the world. But it should be expected that we learn to place our special communities of interest into larger critical comparative analytical frameworks having to do with scriptures and scripturalizing.
Reinhartz: What has been the impact of the ISS within Los Angeles and more broadly? How does it fit into your own life's work?
Wimbush: I am not sure I know how to address this question. ISS has certainly reached out to academic colleagues and programs in the LA basin, and beyond. Many colleagues and community activists have participated in the center program of ISS, the Brown Bag Discussion sessions. And students are encouraged to see their work as scripture scholars on the terms that reflect the ISS orientation, to see the peoples of the Los Angeles area (as opposed to ancient texts) as their "field" of work. It is in fact a fascinating—sometimes inspiring, sometimes sad and frustrating—world in which to be a scholar of religion on the order I argue for here. But I would not make the claim that we have had much impact or exerted much influence. That is testimony that would need to come from others—and at any rate, at some later point in time. It may be the case that the impact of the kind of work I am trying to do—involving the transdisciplinary study of scriptures, the anthropology, sociology and psychology of scriptures—will not be felt for some time, beyond my time. Much more work needs to be done to realize the sort of wide influence and impact that scholarship should aim to have.
Reinhartz: You are the executive producer of a film entitled Finding God in the City of Angels. Can you describe how that project came about and what your experience was in producing it?
Wimbush: I am very proud of this film project. It was conceived as one of the research projects of the ISS (and as part of the new and rather unique academic program in Critical Comparative Scriptures at Claremont Graduate University that was inspired by ISS agenda). It was seen as a project in the ethnography of scriptures—with the Greater Los Angeles area as the field. The filmmakers did a superb job in modeling precisely the sort of basic and creative and cutting edge research that I wanted the film to reflect. They researched the history and survival of some of the indigenous peoples in the area—Tongva and Chumash—and interviewed them. And they researched contemporary demographics of recent arrivals and interviewed a rich range of individuals and groups—Hindus, Muslims, evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hare Krishna, Jews, humanists, and so forth. The point was to see and hear how peoples were shaped and (re-)shaped themselves and where and in what ways something like "scriptures" functioned and helped explain the social dynamics and processes of formation. The final product is fascinating and compelling. Wide analytical windows are opened onto social formations and how and why scriptures are used. My hope is that the film will be used in the classroom, in research, and as part of open and honest community discussion groups.
Reinhartz: At the 2011 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Francisco, I heard your fascinating talk about the use of the King James Bible in the Black Atlantic. Can you say a bit about this project, as well as about the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano?
Wimbush: The presentation was in part entitled "The Black Atlantic Reads King James." It was written (in part) to contribute to discussions that were part of the nearly worlds-wide year-long celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible. But this was for me eerily coincidental with my work at the time on a history of the (mostly Anglophone) Black Atlantic's uses of the Bible (primarily the King James Version). I am in the throes of the book project, Through a Glass, Darkness: The Black Atlantic Reads King James, for which the SBL presentation that year was something of a summary introduction. This project is elaborate and layered; it is one of those extended career if not life-long projects. With it I hope to advance thinking not only about the complex formation of the Black Atlantic, but also about modern western world social formation in general. Further, I hope to challenge thinking about what I term the phenomenon of scripturalization as a regime of knowledge and discourse and how scripturalizing practices nonetheless represent dynamic instances of re-formation and de-formation. The phenomenon of scripturalization was the focus of my most recently published book White Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery (Oxford, 2012). In it I examined the "autobiographical" narrative of eighteenth century figure Olaudah Equiano as ex-centric critical defamiliarizing reading of British (and European) scriptural practices.
These projects I read as the excavation (as opposed to exegetical) work that is also the experience of "crawling back" I referenced above and that I understand to be the focus of radically free humanistic inquiry.