Celeste Ray and Luke Eric Lassiter, editors. Signifying Serpents and Mardi Gras Runners: Representing Identity in Selected Souths. Athens: The University of Georgia Press 2003. 246 pages. ISBN: 0820324728. Reviewed by Alberto López Pulido, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
The book Signifying Serpents and Mardi Gras Runners represents an edited collection by Celeste Ray and Luke Eric Lassiter of seven case studies exploring the distinctive cultural traditions of marginalized communities in the South. Published as the proceedings from the annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society held in Nashville, Tennessee in March 200l, these interdisciplinary essays were selected by the editors because of their particular resonance for anthropologists considering the merger of descriptive and applied approaches. An overarching theme in all of these essays is their exploration into the intellectual tensions between insider versus outsider and preservation versus change as they focus on what occurs within communities where the competing interest among the keepers and stakeholders of a community's heritage must simultaneously define itself internally as well as reveals itself to outsiders. According to the editors, this is further compounded by the fact that the definition of stakeholders in the contemporary community has transformed to the point that groups such as tourists, the mass media, anthropologists and folklorists need to be included.
|". . . all these essays document communities that are actively negotiating identity within a social milieu where the collective is responding to the cultural pressures of needs and conflicts from either internal or external forces"|
With scholarly contributions that take us into a series of communities ranging from Pentecostal serpent handlers in Appalachia to the Powwows of the Haliwa-Saponi of North Carolina, all these essays document communities that are actively negotiating identity within a social milieu where the collective is responding to the cultural pressures of needs and conflicts from either internal or external forces as they actively seek the collective survival and reproduction of themselves. At the core of these negotiations are the recurring and contested themes of representation, identity, and practice identified by the editors as key categories for understanding the many Souths represented in this volume. The first essay by Keith G. Tidall and Christopher P. Toumey, and the second by Carolyn E. Ware directly address the anthropological polemics of continuity versus change with regards to the representation of identity and heritage for a community or cultural group.
The Tidall and Tourney essay explores the way in which Appalachian Pentecostal snake handler attempts to reconcile their own self-representations with outsiders' representations of snake handling congregations and practices especially as it is articulated by the media. The thesis put forward by Tidall and Tourney is that the interloping role of the media with an interest in presenting the "local color" of the region has deeply affected the religious practice of serpent handling in Appalachia so much so that snake handlers have integrated outsiders into their vision. Where snake handling may have originated as a religious symbol of resistance it has now become a secular symbol evoking a celebratory status by virtue of one's ability to handle dangerous snakes. The essay by Ware exploring the public display of Cajun Mardi Gras addresses a similar dilemma faced by Appalachian snake handlers. Her work takes us to rural Louisiana communities where members struggle with questions of representation, authenticity, and negotiation as they modify Cajun Mardi Gras customs for nontraditional venues. As Mardi Gras "runners" become more public they must consider not only how their performance will play to community members but also how it will be received by outside tourist communities and the media. The result is a continual reinvention and redefinition of Cajun Mardi Gras in terms of what is most meaningful for the participating communities as they struggle with the representation of tradition and authenticity.
The second key category addressed in this volume is the ongoing negotiated process of claiming, representing, and the enacting of identity. The contributing essays by Shana Walton, C.S. Evert and Richardson, and Luke Eric Lassiter address this issue directly. Walton examines the appropriation of the term "coonass" pointing out that "coonasses" actively choose race and class over ethnicity as a way to mark their distinctiveness from others of Cajun descent in Louisiana. According to Walton, "coonass" reflects a growing trend of self-ascription within this community in an attempt to reclaim the power necessary for self-definition. The contribution by Evert and Richardson highlights how the recent adoption of powwows by the Haliwa-Saponi of North Carolina has helped affirm their sociocultural and political identity as Native Americans. Initiated during the late sixties, the powwows of the Haliwa-Saponi have served to respect and preserve ancestry with an eye toward community preservation. It has helped to articulate and solidify their distinct tribal identity as Haliwa-Saponi in relation to the broader Native American communities of the region. Lassiter's essay examines tribal language hymn traditions among the Kiowa of southwestern Oklahoma and opens a window onto the multifaceted intersections between Christianity and the American Indian experience. The issues of identity revealed in this study by Lassiter underscores a nexus of relations and transactions that is less linear and teleological and in the final analysis brings forward a new understanding of Native American Christian identity.
The third and final category raised by the editors of this volume highlights that the dialectic between representation, the transmission of tradition, and identity is realized through practice. Practice from a contemporary anthropological perspective focuses on how culture and cultural knowledge is interpreted and publicly disseminated. The essays by Mary B. LaLone and Antoinette Jackson examine these issues explicitly. Both of their works explore cultural practices in relation to the construction of cultural heritage and suggest ways to uncover hidden power relations through the process. LaLone's essay looks at coal mining communities in Appalachia while Jackson describes enduring plantation communities in South Carolina. Both examine the tensions within these communities as they and their interpreters strive to produce a more acceptable and unified vision of their past. LaLone's contribution is especially poignant for this volume because she delineates three modes of interpretation faced by heritage education practitioners. She explores accuracy, identity, and market driven interpretations.
An overarching theme in Signifying Serpents and Mardi Gras Runners is the discussion regarding the existing tensions between those communities that surrender localized traditions to gain broader acceptance with outsiders versus those communities that deliberately seek to marginalize their identities in response to the commodification of their ethnic and class-based community expressions. This community of outsiders includes the folklorist, historian, and anthropologists, but according to the editors, must be considered as part of these insider communities as they call for a more aggressive merging of academic and applied perspectives engaged in a reciprocal relationship between the academy and the communities they study.
At first glance, the overall objective of this book appears to legitimize the work of outsiders (scholars) who seek to study and understand traditional communities. Whereas one may find this perspective a bit presumptuous and ill-informed, consider that the emerging field of cultural studies directly addresses the subjectivity and positionality of the scholar's perspective within the insider-outsider continuum. However, it is critical to underscore that for the majority of those engaged in cultural studies, the issues of subjectivity and positionality are problemitized in order to articulate a scholar's intellectual perspective of a community with which they share a historical legacy and/or cultural affinity. Yet, what is clear is that Signifying Serpents and Mardi Gras Runners represents an effective contribution in the blurring of the boundaries between insider versus outsider and preservation versus change in the study of community.
Consider that the questions and framing of the issues raised in this volume brings to the forefront the intellectually provocative question regarding the origins of community and culture. That is, where does community and culture begin? What makes culture/community authentic instead of something that has been commodified and marketed as authentic due to the forces of consumer-driven global capitalism and transnationalism? As Signifying Serpents and Mardi Gras Runners affirms, the experiences of regional marginality and isolation provide the continuity necessary for the formation of a unique cultural expression. It allows for the creation of a community of memory and the conscious creation and reproduction of myths. When those outside of these collective experiences enter this space seeking to examine and taxomonize these authentic experiences then the first signs of a reimagined or remapped authentic community is set in motion. This directs our attention to the age-long philosophical adage that implicates all scholarly endeavors: Can a community exist if a scholar has not discovered it? This perspective emerges directly out of traditional anthropology and represents a much larger epistemological question.
A key assumption that scholars need to examine carefully in terms of the authentic versus the commodity-created community raised by this work is the synchronic/diachronic distinction so deeply rooted in social science research and especially traditional anthropology. A major assumption of this anthropological model is to preserve and document community continuity and tradition before it goes through a process of change and is gone forever. In part, this explains why traditional anthropology has favored those obscure communities that remain on the margins. This assumption positions the anthropological scholar into a synchronistic mode as it seeks to provide us with the most complete and authentic picture possible of the subject/community. As a result, the insider/outsider dichotomy in terms of representation, identity, and practice is reinforced and becomes the major preoccupation in the analysis and interpretation. Such an observation not only challenges the work and focus of anthropology but the inherent logic of all scholarly endeavors in general. With all of this in mind, Signifying Serpents and Mardi Gras Runners represents an important contribution because it places before us some critical assumptions and questions that contemporary scholars of culture, identity, community, and regional studies need to consider in the production of their scholarship for the twenty-first century.
Alberto López Pulido, University of San Diego
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