The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison

The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison

The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison

The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison

Synopsis


The Rites of Identity argues that Kenneth Burke was the most deciding influence on Ralph Ellison's writings, that Burke and Ellison are firmly situated within the American tradition of religious naturalism, and that this tradition--properly understood as religious--offers a highly useful means for considering contemporary identity and mitigating religious conflict.

Beth Eddy adds Burke and Ellison to a tradition of religious naturalism that traces back to Ralph Waldo Emerson but received its most nuanced expression in the work of George Santayana. Through close readings of the essays and fiction of Burke and Ellison, Eddy shows the extent to which their cultural criticisms are intertwined. Both offer a naturalized understanding of piety, explore the psychological and social dynamics of scapegoating, and propose comic religious resources. And both explicitly connect these religious categories to identity, be it religious, racial, national, ethnic, or gendered. Eddy--arguing that the most socially damaging uses of religious language and ritual are connected to the best uses that such language has to offer--finds in Burke and Ellison ways to manage this precarious situation and to mitigate religious violence through wise use of performative symbolic action.

By placing Burke and Ellison in a tradition of pragmatic thought, The Rites of Identity uncovers an antiessentialist approach to identity that serves the moral needs of a world that is constantly negotiating, performing, and ritualizing changes of identity.

Excerpt

The skin is a line of demarcation, a periphery, the fence, the
form, the shape, the first clue to identity in a society (for in
stance, color in a racist society), and, in purely physical terms,
the formal precondition for being human. … It is a thin veil
of matter separating the outside from the inside.

—Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse

Closed societies are now the flimsiest of illusions, for all the
outsiders are demanding in.

—Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory

Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart
from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to
proclaim their unity. If men were wholly and truly of one sub
stance, absolute communication would be of man's very essence.
It would not be an ideal, as it now is, partly embodied in mate
rial conditions and partly frustrated by these same conditions.

—Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives

Too often, discussions that deal with personal identity issues, whether about race, gender, religion, or nation, descend quickly into an “us” and “them” opposition that ceases to do productive work and poisons the hopes of any participant for a satisfying resolution of conflict. Probably all of us have experienced the relief that comes from being able to get away temporarily from the conflicts we have with differing others. Playing poker with the boys on Saturday night can alleviate the ongoing domestic conflicts of married life. An Afrocentric school can educate young African Americans in a space free from the constant encroachments on self-esteem made in white supremacist environments. Churches, synagogues, and voluntary associations make space for us to have conversations and participate in activities premised upon views that we do not all share. Gentlemen's clubs provide some with a comfortable retreat. Women sometimes find all-female classrooms to be places where conversations can finally get off the ground floor without being derailed at the . . .

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