Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion

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9780800618926: Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion
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Significations is a criticism of several major approaches (phenomenological, historical, theological) to the study of religion in the United States, in which the author attempts (1) a reevaluation of some of the basic issues forming the study of religion in America, (2) an outline of a hermeneutics of conquest and colonialism generated during the formation of the social and symbolic order called the "New World," and (3) a critique of the categories of civil religion, innocence, and theology from the perspective of the black experience and the experience of colonized peoples.

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It is a privilege to be associated with the reissue of Significations.

Charles H. Long speaks to the general meaning of religion in history and culture, and specifically about African religion in the Atlantic world, from a unique perspective. He participated in establishing the first curriculum for the study of religion in the College of the University of Chicago. He was a member of, and served subsequently as Chair of, the History of Religions Field and the Committee on African Studies, respectively, at the University of Chicago. Through his teaching at, among others, the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina, Duke University and Syracuse University, and a rich and distinguished list of publications, he has influenced three generations of Historians of Religion and African-American Studies.

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From the colloquial and slang expressions of my youth I learned something about the forms of linguistic expression. Signifying is worse than lying because it obscures and obfuscates a discourse without taking responsibility for so doing. This verbal misdirection parallels the real argument but gains its power of meaning from the structure of the discourse itself without the signification being subjected to the rules of the discourse. As a matter of fact, the signifier may speak in agreement with a point of view, while the tone of voice creates doubt in the very act and words of agreement. Or the signifier may simply add comments that move the conversation in another direction. Or the signifier will simply say a word or make a comment that has nothing to do with the context of the discourse, but immediately the conversation must be formulated at another level because of that word or phrase. Signifying is a very clever language game, and one has to be adept in the verbal arts either to signify or to keep from being signified upon. It is precisely the arbitrariness of signification that makes it so frustrating. As Saussure put it, "The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary." The signifiers of my community knew this and thus through tone of voice, and the injection of new words and phrases, attempted to form new and different relationships within a discourse that was already taking place.

But on another level, my community was a community that knew that one of the important meanings about it was the fact that it was a community signified by another community. This signification constituted a subordinate relationship of power expressed through custom and legal structures. While aware of this fact, the community undercut this legitimated signification with a signification upon this legitimated signifying. On the one hand, the fact that signification represented an arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified meant that the relationship could be changed, while on the other hand, the very fact that the relationship was arbitrary was the source of its terror.

But all is not signification. There is a long tradition in the interpretation of symbol that defines the symbol as an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which is symbolized. Even Saussure affirms this interpretation of symbol. "One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is a rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified." (Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Reidlinger, trans. Wade Baskin [New York: Philosophical Library, 1959]).

As a historian of religions I affirm this general meaning of the symbol and especially the religious symbol. However, religious symbols, precisely because of their intrinsic power, radiate and deploy meanings; the spread of these meanings creates an arena and field of power relationships which, though having their origin in symbols and symbolic clusters, are best defined in terms of significations and signs. On a methodological level this tendency is expressed in the range of disciplines such as the sociology, psychology, and anthropology of religion. My essay "Prolegomenon to a Religious Hermeneutic" is an indication of this tendency.

The power of signification is equally present when one places various methodological theories within the various cultural milieux in which they arose. This enables one to see the different forces and valences that come into play when the tools of method are being fashioned and to see that it is quite possible that methodological theories could have been otherwise, but also it enables one to understand why they were not. I am not suggesting that all methodology should be reduced to a problem of the sociology of knowledge. I am, rather, stating that a total hermeneutical discussion cannot overlook the role of signification in the creation of theoretical formulations.

The essays published here were written over a period of some two decades. They were originally written for other occasions, and almost all have been published in journals and other books. There is of course a kind of unity that stems from a single author working self-consciously within the resources and restraints of a particular academic discipline. As I read them over again for publication as a single text I noted other sorts of unities and threads of common meaning.

All of the essays have a methodological tone and intent. To be more precise, all of the essays are hermeneutical attempts to make sense of the phenomenon of religion on the most general level and of the problematic meaning of religion in the United States in particular. The reality, status, meaning, and proper methods for the study of religion are issues that are grist for the mill for one who has chosen to be a historian of religion. This disciplinary orientation begins with the problematical nature of religion in the post-Enlightenment world of the West. While continuities between religion in the modern world and the meaning of this phenomenon in premodern cultures are attested to in theories and methods for the study of religion, the problematical status of religion itself as an authentic and even necessary mode of human experience and expression is an acute issue of the modern period.

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