Criticism: Post-colonial Mormon voices

I decided to track down the lecture by Richard Bushman that Nate Oman referenced in his June 1 post on Mormon Orientalism over at Times & Seasons because I wanted to see what Bushman had to say specifically about literature since the lecture was given at an AML annual meeting. The answer: not a whole lot. Which is to say — plenty for my over-reaching, prone-to-speculation mind.

The focus of Nate’s post was “the extent to which ‘critical distance’ is simply a manifestation of intellectual colonialization” (Nate Oman. “Mormon Orientalism.” Times & Seasons: June 1, 2004.). Thus the resulting comments tended to be about the problems of critical distance, reactions to/against Edward Said (Bushman borrows from his work on Orientalism to help formulate his theory of the colonization of Mormonism), and Michael Quinn. Good stuff.

Now whether or not you buy Bushman’s argument about the colonization of Mormonism — which he claims was effectuated by Mormon insiders, specifically “merchants” who were interested in opening up Mormonism to the outside, along with the work of outside writers — there’s no doubt that, no matter how you want to term it, Mormonism went through a process of integration into American culture and society and that integration included adoption of the discourses and mores of the broader society — business, academic, cultural and political.

ASIDE: Bushman notes: “Even today, outsider writers rely on enlightened insider informants to help them get a line on Mormonism” (20). Heh.

But Bushman isn’t concerned with the colonization, which he thinks was inevitable, as much as with where that leaves Mormons today. In fact, he admits that there are flaws in “colonization theory” and moderates Said’s position on clearing room for authentic indigenous voices (22). “[W]here are the authentic Mormon voices?” he asks (22).

Although he uses the question as an opportunity to make a case for paying closer attention to ‘home’ sources (General Conference talks, private journals, the old Relief Society Magazine, etc.), the answer, of course, is:

“We will never identify an authentic Mormon voice — if by authentic we mean a voice without taint of imperial culture. I think it is safe to say that none exists “¦ The language of broader American culture has percolated into every form of Mormon speech” (22). Bushman notes, for instance, that FARMS “the academic institution most dedicated to defense of the faith, rests its case on Enlightenment rationality” (22).

For Bushman, the solution (and one he personally employs), then, is for Mormons to “attain a degree of post-colonial sophistication” (23).

He ends the lecture with:

“Consciousness of colonization may grant us a little freedom from its influence. If we cannot destroy the authority of imperial culture, we can name it and examine it. We need not be naïve about the mechanics of power. Said said that he hoped ‘to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, [show] the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others’ (Said, 25). Similarly, I hope we will not be cowed by the structures of cultural domination, and will voice our Mormonism more freely, more imaginatively, and more faithfully” (23).

I have my doubts (as do others) as to what degree such consciousness is useful and how well authority can be named and examined — especially when it comes to academic discourses. But I do find Bushman’s words inspiring in terms of artistic creation.

I don’t know that Mormon writers can create something wholly unique and new — I’m not asking for a Mormon Shakespeare, Kafka or Joyce. I do think, however, that Mormon literature tends to either demonize or simply ignore the forces of American culture (home literature) or march in step with them, slotting Mormon narratives into the prevailing types and modes and allowable narratives of American literary fiction. What I don’t really see are Mormon narratives that take American culture head on, grapple with them from a faithful (or even backsliding but believing) Mormon perspective.

A big part of the problem, I think, is that Mormon authors have bought into the conventional wisdom of Mormonism as an imperial, dominant force of its own (not that this isn’t the case — but American culture’s focus on this aspect of Mormonism verges on the obsessive and ignores many of the other forces of American culture), and so are busy either portraying how the LDS Church and Mormon culture (and specifically the culture of the Intermountain West) enriches, complicates or ruins the lives of its members. This inward focus ignores, for the most part, what Bushman calls the “imperial forces” of American culture. What I’d like to see is more works that examine how Mormons buy into, subvert, criticize, accommodate, are tainted by, are enriched by and re-write/inscribe the broader culture.

We are a hybrid (post-colonial?) people, trying to live in the world but not be of it. As much as some of us might wish that that means we walk around in a bubble, unaffected by the cultural forces around us, that’s clearly not the case. A full withdrawal is not an option — it didn’t work the first time. The saints fled west. American cultural forces still caught up with them. I agree with Bushman. We can gain but little freedom from these forces. In the end that doesn’t matter — Christ’s culture will reign. But if we can raise our hybridized, post-colonial voices at this point in our history and at the very least subvert a little, mess with, use and transform pieces of American culture, then let’s do it.

SOURCES: 1. Richard Lyman Bushman. “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” Pages 14-23. Annual of the Association of Mormon Letters: 2000. Ed. Lavinia Fielding Anderson. The Association for Mormon Letters: Salt Lake City. 2. Edward Said. Orientalism. Random House. New York: 1994.

5 thoughts on “Criticism: Post-colonial Mormon voices”

  1. Good point. What did you think of Card’s Folk of the Fringe in this regard? Admittedly the issues of gentile / Mormon relations weren’t huge, but they were there.

  2. As you note, the interactions between Mormons and gentiles in Card’s Folk of the Fringe is rather limited. And because it is a work of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction, the interactions are in a rather extreme form and setting.

    For instance, it’s interesting that the gentiles resent the fact that the Mormons are the ones who survive the biological devestation in a cohesive, strong way — able to rebuild their society and economy and provide for the needs of their community. On one level, Card seems to be saying — you all critique our homogeneity and hierarchal structure, but guess who is going to be in the best position when (or if) American society all goes to hell.

    Of course, since Card is a sophisticated writer, that survival comes at a price for the Mormons — their Mormonism becomes crucial to them, a serious source of strength, but they also seem to lose much of their faith — or rather the Christ-oriented, righteous-living faith that Mormons think of today — the faith becomes more ‘primitive’ (and is also challenged by the fact that while there were end-times events, there was no Second Coming). In fact, someone really should take a close look at how Card resurrects (and in doing so rewrites) the Brigham Young-era in Folk of the Fringe.

    As far as it being an authentic Mormon voice — yes, in fact, it’s my favorite of Card’s work in this regard. As much as I like the Alvin Maker series, it’s a little too iconic and fantasy for me. Not for me as a a reader, but in terms of how the ‘Mormon-ness’ of it comes out.

  3. agreed. folk of the fringe is fab. yet…I also like the Maker series…because it gives me a personal vision of Joseph Smith…kinda. one that i can read & process through the nastiness of Quinn.

    -lyle

  4. Thanks for the quotes from the elusive Bushman talk–I was hoping to find a link to an online version, but I’ll settle for your quotes. Yes, it’s nice to be aware of “intellectual colonization,” but it is hard to go beyond simple awareness–it’s not like there is some more objective, untainted, alternative mode of inquiry at hand. “Orientalism” seems to be invoked as an excuse to ignore external scholarship and criticism regardless of the merits, not as a point of departure for a more balanced or searching self-inquiry.

  5. Dave:

    Unfortunately the Association for Mormon Letters doesn’t offer much online content. I would love it if they put more of the papers presented at their annual meeting online. I had to order the Bushman lecture through document delivery.

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