Monday, July 31, 2006

Sacred music

(***I am sorry about the block quote below...I don't know why it ended up like this and am not savvy enough to fix the formatting.)
While I was away I was reading, among other things, M. Jacqui Alexander’s recent book, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. One of the more compelling points she makes in this rather breathtakingly ambitious collection is about a kind of disavowal of spirituality in the academy. She writes,

…primarily because experience has been understood in purely secular terms, and
because the secular has been divested of the Sacred and the spiritual divested
of the political, this way of knowing is not generally believed to have any
capacity to instruct feminism in the United States in any meaningful way, in
spite of the work of feminist theologians and ethicists. It is a paradox that a
feminism that has insisted politics of a historicized self has rendered the self
so secularized, that is has paid very little attention to the ways in which
spiritual labor and spiritual knowing is primarily a project of self-knowing and
transformation that constantly invokes community simply because it requires it.
In spite of the work of Gloria Anzaldua, Cornel West, bell hooks, and the more
recent work of Lata Mani, Leela Fernandes, and others, there is a tacit
understanding that no self-respecting postmodernist would want to align herself
(at least in public) with a category such as the spiritual, which appears to
fixed, so unchanging, so redolent of tradition. Many, I suspect, have been
forced into a spiritual closet…

Now, this is interesting. I am inclined to agree with Alexander, though I am in no closet because I don’t identify as spiritual, really. But I think there’s a great deal to what she says. And I think it’s larger than the academy, though has very particular, possibly sinister resonance there. (I note, for instance, that the scholars that she lists are people of colour who work explicitly on the politics of race and culture, none of whom has been willing to repudiate identity politics…I wonder about the racial politics of this disavowal of the sacred…though that’s a whole other post…)

I think of my own history…I grew up with a secular suspicion of religion…It seemed to come from nowhere…I don’t think it was ever spoken in my household, but it was realized in me quite early. My father was the only non-religious member of his family – all his siblings are hard-core evangelical Anglicans, missionaries and ministers and such. I have a very keen memory of feeling as if they were weird, and, in fact, Other. I remember rolling my eyes self-righteously and almost condescendingly when my grandmother castigated me, when I was about eight, for saying “oh god”: she was obviously a representative of The Man.

The interesting thing – and this gets back to Alexander’s point – is that sense of the religious as weirdoes was really tied up with a burgeoning political consciousness that I seemed to breathe in like air from very early on. What I found odd about my relatives, even at eight, was that their religion meant they were conservative – whatever that meant to as young a girl as I: something to do, as Alexander suggests, with “tradition”.

It took me a long time to divest myself of this prejudice about Christianity, which translated for me into the suspicion of all manifestations of the sacred that Alexander talks about. It persisted even as I was around political movements from my mid-teens on, exposed there to United Church activists, Catholic workers, Quakers, and so on. It’s only been in the last five years or so that I’ve worked this out for myself, having made a few good friends who are Christians – and also seen, now that we are adults, how mind-blowingly wonderful some of my Christian cousins are.

I finally, too, recognized something in myself that I would liken or approximate to spirit – it is what comes from connecting with others. My participation in a close-knit, quite progressive community for over a decade through The Activity, for one thing, taught me a lot about spirit as the ethical commitments that are realized in me precisely through that community.

But Alexander is right – a lot of the ways I have articulated that to myself (and they haven’t quite been in her terms, the Sacred) are anathema to the academy as it is today. Certainly, I censor a bit, though I don't really feel it as terribly restrictive. But if a lot of what I have learned about spirituality is about community, then it certainly has relevance to what I and many of us do when we teach and research. So, that’s too bad.


I spent this past weekend out of town, on the tail end of my cottage holiday with GF, at a (mostly) music festival. It’s an interesting one, because it doesn’t fit the folk festival mold completely. For one thing, it has an explicitly political sensibility. And there is plenty of folky stuff, to be sure, plenty of acoustic, roots and countrified music. But at least half of the festival, these days, is devoted to “indie rock”. So there’s this interesting mix of people there…There are older hippie types wearing their tie-dye and their Birks . There are a few of their younger counterparts, all dreadlocks and hand drums. And then there are the legions of unapologetically urban coolios in their new-New Wave styles…and plenty of in-betweens (like myself) who end up combining elements of both in style and sensibility. (I really believe that style reflects sensibility and identifications, hence my brief indexing here of the fashions of the weekend…) This latter group, I think, has a lot of affinities with the postmodern scholars of whom Alexander is speaking.

I discovered some new music and had a couple of really transcendent experiences as a listener, both to musicians I had known before and those I hadn’t. And I got to thinking about music, long recognized as having great affinities with spirituality. Some of these concerts and workshops were about collective manifestations of spirit, there is no doubt in my mind about that.

I thought: For the decidedly postmodern urban hipster set, who know this indie rock scene intimately, passionately, this is sacred. (Surely this is also, more obviously, the case for the folk community.) They react to it in some of the very same ways that Alexander describes in her essay on the promise of theorizing with the sacred. And they are unabashed about it, about taking giddy pleasure in it.

And what is amazing about this is how well everyone gets along. There is no grouching on the part of the folky types about the encroachment of pomo music, nor vice versa. In fact, there are plenty of really great comings together of people of all stripes in transcendent experience…This speaks well to the political potential of sacred experience, which is what Alexander is so concerned with. After all, what goes on at this festival is really akin to a kind of coalition-building across sensibilities.

So as much as I see the validity of Alexander’s claims, I wonder if it might help to see the sacred in broader terms, terms that let in people such as these who are experiencing it through music. People who may not name it as such, but who still live it intensely in the meat of their everyday lives…

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