It cannot be denied that Medieval Iberia represents an incredible example of cultural and intellectual diversity that was unique in Europe and may lack a comparable example elsewhere in the world for the same length of time (711 – 1492CE). However, some historians have overemphasized the harmonious atmosphere between groups on the peninsula by characterizing their coexistence as convivencia – a word that can carry overly positive connotations and might gloss over important political, religious, economic and ethnic competitions between various groups throughout this period. In her text, The Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal upholds the positive image (if not the word) of convivencia in Iberia by examining cultural prosperity in the era of Islamic polities and beyond. Elsewhere, Menocal makes it clear that her invocation of the spirit of the term is polemical in helping to establish a counter-narrative to the hegemonic discourse that excludes and Others al-Andalus from European intellectual history. Other historians such as Richard Fletcher prefer to complicate convivencia as having less to do with harmonious coexistence and more to do with simply “living together” – something that was far from a “straightforward business” and may have carried with it an ever-looming possibility of violence.[1] Still others such as Alex Novikoff take the middle road between pedestalizing convivencia and villainizing interreligio-ethnic contests in Iberia, drawing on examples of either tolerance or intolerance. Olivia Remie Constable sees no such value in the term, nor its opposite (Reconquista) which both serve to polarize and thereby simplify our understanding of Iberian history. In contrast, the value of the term is reified by Thomas Glick, who sees its rescue as an opportunity for learning about the process of acculturation and what it says about cultural and social interactions between people in Iberia and our contemporary period. Its reification in spirit (if not name) is also a method used by Janina Safran in her study of identity and differentiation between Christians and Muslims in 9th Century al-Andalus. In my mind, Safran stands with David Nirenberg who seems to belong to the camp of those who advocate the abandonment of a term such as convivencia (and its opposites) because it can obfuscate the multi-layered complexities between identity groups that give rise to both positive and negative realities within one society. To borrow Nirenberg’s language, what is at stake in tallying a society’s “assets and liabilities” is the “commodification” of its historical experiences which usually have less to do with the actual history and more to do with the historian’s current moment.[2]

What is at stake in the term convivencia is whether or not Iberia was unique and if there is something for the historian to learn from its uniqueness with regards to our modern situation. In this paper, I will briefly examine the definition of convivencia from the scholars listed above in greater depth, illuminating the term’s contestation, modification or abandonment among them. In surveying the variant ways in which scholars have made use of the term convivencia, it becomes clear that it has taken on a multiplicity of meaning and layers of complexity that run counter to the idea of it as an oversimplified, reified concept. Ultimately, however, I will side with Menocal (with a few modifications) to show that until the public hegemonic myth that excludes al-Andalus from European history is adequately complicated by examples of Iberian convivencia, abandonment of this term as a historical commodifier runs the risk of historians reneging on a discursive ethical imperative. I will conclude by showing why, in both academic and non-academic circles, commodification or crystallization, is inevitable and thus, why that imperative matters.

In The Ornament of the World, Menocal does not use the word convivencia to refer to Medieval Iberia, a point about her work echoed again in Novikoff’s historiography of the term.[3] In fact, Menocal is clear that her examination of “cultural tolerance and symbiosis” which Europe inherited from al-Andalus is not meant to “replace all the older clichés [of Medieval intolerance and darkness] with another equally simplistic new one” – i.e. a tale of convivencia.[4] However, in reading her text, it becomes very clear that Menocal is not only interested in upholding al-Andalus as the center of multiple medieval golden ages and muffling differences, but that she is also willing to do so by distorting or dismissing the influence of other civilizations such as the Almoravids and the Almohads. Novikoff chalks this paradoxical approach up to the fact that Menocal has not defined what cultural tolerance is, nor is she interested in how it differs from either social or political forms of tolerance. Rather, what is at stake for Menocal is the mythologizing of al-Andalus’ incredible literary, social and artistic achievements by finding their origin in the attitudes of the Ummayads and their demise in the religious fanaticism of both Christians and Muslims.[5] I use the term mythologizing here because, in relation to other works by Menocal, it becomes clear she is employing a conscious program of rewriting history against other, more dominant histories. In “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography,” Menocal follows in similar footsteps as the likes of Hayden White and other Critical Memory theorists who concur that “our writing of history is as much a myth-making activity as that of more primitive [sic] societies.”[6] She explores Western discourse’s preoccupation with their own intellectual heredity, shattering notions of the East-West dichotomy by pointing out how their particular myth comes with a dominant and selective forgetting of al-Andalus’ instigation and propagation of the so-called “West’s” intellectual Renaissance.[7] Her call for the inclusion of Andalusian influence in Western literary historiography is characterized as involving a major paradigm shift of unimaginable proportions because it requires the reimagining of Western civilization as being “indebted to and dependent on a culture… regarded as inferior…and as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.”[8] Since this paradigm shift is Menocal’s project, it makes sense that Ornament be read as the development of a counter-myth to hegemony, explaining why her work focuses more on positive outcomes of tolerant, co-existing cultures, rather than seeking to complicate images of that coexistence. This purposeful and selective retelling is in direct resistance to typical European narratives that not only black out everything between antiquity and the Renaissance, but also might view an Arab-centred historical reconstruction with the same disdain felt towards Darwinian evolution theories – that Europeans were “descended from apes.”[9]

Without invoking such pejorative imagery, multiple historians have complicated this view of coexistence, either declaring it inadequate, expanding its meaning to include positive and negative cultural interactions, or abandoning it completely in favour of some other historical lens. Constable claims, in the introduction to her Medieval Iberia Reader, that “the diversities of Iberian history cannot be fully explained by either harmonious convivencia or hostile Reconquista[10]– presumably using each term in its most typical form. Not only did elements of both exist, but each term also represents a mythologizing that, in its overuse, simplifies Iberian history. Her collection of primary source documents that follow are intended to show differences but also points of contact between varying groups.[11] The reader is meant to pass from source to source, drawing their own conclusions organically or in contrast to other historians’ secondary interpretations, and ultimately, what is meant to come through is that no such terms can capture all the different kinds of people, groups, affiliations and so forth that are found in these sources. While this may be true, the uniqueness of the situation in which these documents arose should not be neglected. Without some kind of coexistence, it is hard to imagine the need for texts like “The Pact of ‘Umar,” “The Treaty of Tudmir,” Abraham ibn Daud’s “Book of Tradition,” Samuel Ibn Naghrela’s “Battle of Alfuente” and many more. While there are many counter examples, these simply represent more extreme negotiations of coexistence at different times and in different contexts. A relativist might argue that no historical experience rises above another and, as such, Iberia is not a shining example above Europe and Islamic polities; however, in various documents throughout the text, not only is sharing and coexistence the principle put forth, it is the means by which those documents could even have arisen.

Novikoff’s somewhat tepid contribution to this discussion is simply to say that the academic community can find in Medieval Iberia instances of both tolerance and intolerance, making it a place and time of study that is fruitful for lessons drawn from the past.[12] The presumption is that historians are not just writing history for the sake of recording it, but rather to lend a better understanding to our present moment – something difficult to argue against. Richard Fletcher takes a rather different approach to our contemporary learning than both Menocal and Constable because of a different overall purpose, tackling the issue of convivencia head-on in his chapter of the same name. While he acknowledges the unique cultural and intellectual achievements of Iberian coexistence, using many of the sources we find in Constable’s reader, he is quick to point out that multi-religio-ethnic groups living together is, by no means, an anomaly and can be found elsewhere.[13] What is unique about Iberia is how long-lasting that coexistence was compared to other European examples.[14] And yet, Fletcher falls short of accounting for why it was so long-lasting, other than to say that outright slaughter of one another was not an option due to the economic value of keeping people alive. The implication is that convivencia was undertaken begrudgingly, out of necessity and not attitude, and that – citing the unfortunate tale of Ramon Llull and his slave as evidence – at any moment this fragile balance could be disrupted and made violent.[15] It is harder to know who Fletcher is talking to here, but his work can be taken two ways. Firstly, Fletcher’s characterization of convivencia could be taken as an example of the hard work that went into coexistence for these groups, including cultural and intellectual exchanges, rather than something to be taken for granted. In terms of the current moment, it would signify that such experiments require continuous effort to retain some semblance of cohesion, if not harmony. More skeptically, from the perspective of the hegemonic discourse to which Menocal spoke, such a compromise of the term might be a vindication of Euro-centric discourses, particularly those that amplify the Reconquista narratives of taking back the peninsula from untrustworthy Muslims and Jews who could turn on Christians at any time.

Glick straddles the middle ground between Menocal’s selective cohesive imagery and Fletcher’s more cynical look, while tackling the definitions and the use of the term convivencia directly. Rather than discard the term like Constable, he notes that convivencia has been used as a synonym for coexistence but also “carries connotations of mutual interpenetration and creative influence, even as it also embraces the phenomena of mutual friction, rivalry and suspicion.”[16] He is also careful to point out that even definitions of the term that carry these connotations assume a lot about different religio-ethnic groups, including the fact that people saw themselves as bound by those identities or bound to play the roles ascribed to them. This highlights the permeability of multiple social strata by different individuals, depending on which role was being played at any given time, including interactions structured along the lines of social class, as well.[17] The latter point, coupled with the fact that both Andalusian and Christian-dominated polities may have isolated minorities religiously or ethnically but not economically, added a different dimension of social tension.[18] What convivencia does for Glick is highlight the flexibility of identity depending on the circumstances, challenging the self-affirming image “of a sealed, pristine, pure and uncontaminated culture” that groups use in their discourse, with the realities of a mixed, everyday lived experience.

In “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations,” Nirenberg echoes Glick in examining what Iberia can teach us about the present moment, especially in light of multivalent, multidirectional understandings of identity. Nirenberg also offers a deeper level of understanding to modern conflicts between Muslims and Jews through the lens of coexistence in Iberia. Eyeing the myth of convivencia, without naming it so, Nirenberg explains how Jewish historians of the late 19th century had perpetuated writing about the age of Islamic tolerance, particularly juxtaposed against persecution from (re)conquering Christians and then modern Europeans. However, with the creation of the State of Israel, Muslim-Jewish relations have become much more central in collective consciousness than either of those two groups as they relate to Christians. As such, historians revisiting Medieval Iberia as a case study have sought to uphold the moniker of convivencia in reifying the Jewish Golden Age narrative, or have sought origins of Anti-Semitism among Arabs by examining darker periods of competition, polemics and persecution in Iberia. Nirenberg cuts through both narrative extremes by pointing out that Iberia was, in fact, unique, especially as it regards Jews, because they carried a historical memory of the “relative merits of life under Islam and under Christendom…[and represent] a precious example of a society in which Jews and Muslims were able to engage each other in open competition and conflict as they work out the terms of their own existence.”[19] Thus, Nirenberg does not, after all, outrightly dismiss the possibility of convivencia but seeks to find the factors that coalesced to make a picture of that coexistence less than rosy. Among his conclusions is the fact that Muslim-Jewish dialogue was always mediated by or through Christians, Christianity, Christendom and Christian representations of both groups. Historians relating to the modern period would do well to heed Nirenberg’s warning of forgetting the intruding “third voice” that permeate(s/d) Muslim-Jewish relations, and arguably, mutate(s/d) them.[20]

In “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth Century al-Andalus,” Janina Safran is also careful not to speak explicitly of convivencia, but instead, also shows how a nuanced view of coexistence, such as that espoused in Glick, results in a better understanding of the negotiations of identity for both Muslims and Christians as they dealt with the realities of that coexistence –including acculturation, interfaith marriage and conversion. The picture painted is less about impending violence (though is shown to have happened in Safran’s work, particularly as it relates to the martyrs of Cordoba) and more about the work that goes into living together and issues that arise as a result. Concerns about the corruption of the religion dominated discussions among Muslims, who found legal methods of protecting the religious orthodoxy while accommodating an influx of converts and, to a lesser extent, marriages to dhimmis. Safran’s work stands as a brilliant middle ground between Menocal and Fletcher – giving voice to the cultural-legal achievements of Medieval Islamic polities while showing that cohesion may have required hard work, but violence was not necessarily a given. For Nirenberg, violent competition was also not a determined consequence and it only arose in relation to the presence of a disenfranchised third party, the deposed Christians. For Safran, this might well have been true, but violence was not a given for less cynical reasons than Fletcher: people did not avoid slaughtering each other because it would have made poor economic sense to do so; they kept each other around because, after generations of sharing and intermixing, Muslims, Christians and Jews were not only sharing communities, languages, culture and economic status, but family units too. The work that went into convivencia, however complicated it was and, at times, contradictory to the implied meaning of the term, was undertaken as an attitude of relationality, an experiment (to use Fletcher’s term) which, for a long time, succeeded. Focusing on learning from those successes as they pertain to our modern situation is as admirable an endeavour as a historian can hope to undertake, though I recognize that this is not the raison d’etre of every historian.

The question that then follows is this: if it is possible to have all of these variations (positive and negative) coexist, so to speak, under the banner of convivencia, then why abandon it as Constable has recommended? What is gained in such secondary analyses which do abandon it, like that of Safran and Nirenberg? It might be said that within highly elite historical discourse, the abandonment of the term convivencia with its rosy implications may allow for the brilliant nuanced arguments we see in Safran and Nirenberg, and which are allowed to arise organically from Constable’s assemblage of primary sources. There is no prescribed conclusion from which to start and, as such, an examination of coexistence in Iberia can include everything rosy and not-so-rosy. As an intradisciplinary conversation, this is perfectly acceptable. However, history is not only the task of academics, nor is its relevance only found in scholarly circles and so we must also ask what is lost in the abandonment of convivencia. Arguably, the work done in the agreements, disagreements and amendments by academics contributes to an overall, collective narrative that then trickles down or is forcefully brought to the level of civil policy, education curriculums (including introductory programs at public universities) and other public avenues. The histories told there will invariably do violence to the meticulous work of the historian by virtue of their crystallization (or as Nirenberg terms it, “commodification”).[21] In other words, these crystallizations will serve political purposes for those who employ them and this will almost always lead to manipulation and oppression, as univocal histories cannot help but do, however intentional. Thus, the role of the historian is not only intradisciplinary but can also be extradisciplinary. A translation of academic discourse must take place to compete in the public educational arena where political discourse and power resulting from certain uses of history dominate. As such, I return to Menocal and her project of using convivencia to tell the main narrative of Medieval Iberia, focusing on cultural and intellectual flourishing, as a counter-point to hegemonic narratives that continue to trace the Renaissance in a straight line from Antiquity to the modern era with no Iberian pit-stops in between. However imperfect her conclusions may appear within Iberian academic discourse and however much farther she had to push them (particularly in terms of including the Almohads as part of the intellectual inheritance of Europe), her preliminary stance offers a delightful muddying of illusions of “pure” cultural achievements of transcendental value[22] that arise from within any discipline’s particular ideological rootedness.[23] Convivencia opens a door to Iberian studies and the development of an understanding of intellectual heredity that hegemonic narratives do not even recognize exists. Its relevance to challenging and breaking down the current myths by which powerful political forces dichotomize the East and West and engage in ever violent activity is too salient to ignore, and for historians who recognize history as the weapon that it is, (for either hegemony or resistance) it ought not to be ignored.


Constable, Olivia Remie, ed. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, (2012)

Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. (1992)

Glick, Thomas, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, Mann, Glick, and Dodds, eds. George Braziller Publishing: New York (1992)

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. (2002)

Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p249-87.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Use and Abuse of History. Cosimo Printing: New York. 2005.

Nirenberg, David. “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations?” CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Summer, 2002)

Novikoff, Alex. “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Spain: An Historiographic Enigma,” Medieval Encounters. 11.1-2 (2005).

[1] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. (1992) p 135.

[2] Nirenberg, David. “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations?” CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Summer, 2002) p 19.

[3] Novikoff, Alex. “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Spain: An Historiographic Enigma,” Medieval Enocunters. 11.1-2 (2005) p 7-8.

[4] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. (2002) p 13.

[5] Novikoff, p 9.

[6] Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p 249.

[7] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 250.

[8] Ibid, p 257.

[9] Ibid, p 251.

[10] Constable, Olivia Remie. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, (2012)p xxix.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Novikoff, p 36.

[13] Fletcher, p 134-5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p 155-6.

[16] Glick, Thomas, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, Mann, Glick, and Dodds, eds. George Braziller Publishing: New York (1992) p 1.

[17] Ibid, p 4.

[18] Ibid

[19] Nirenberg, p 20.

[20] Ibid, p 22.

[21] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Use and Abuse of History. Cosimo Printing: New York. 2005.

[22] Menocal, “The Myth” p 267.

[23] Ibid. p 266.

In “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography”, Denise Filios uses the figure of Julian and his various representations to examine the role of the historian in the use of primary source materials. Weaving together both Arabic and Hispano-Latin sources according to chronology, Filios drains Julian of any essential, a priori qualities and shows him to be a culturally-saturated figure around which political-historical contingencies orbit. In doing this, Filios reminds students and scholars alike that some of the tasks of the modern historian are in uncovering the meaning inscribed in cultural representations, the weight of their social currency, and how they fit into the larger worldviews (or memory-scapes) in which they are found. As such, the article can serve the learning needs of a wide readership, subtextually introducing them to some of the methodologies found in memory studies and narrative theory, regardless of interest in the historical particularities of her subject.

From the beginning of the article, Filios is clear that her purpose in analyzing the source material is not in determining their “historical reliability” which “misconstrue[s] the nature of the truths that the chronicles attempt to construct.”[1] While it is important for the historian to determine if a source is a complete fabrication (and even that is valuable to explore in terms of how and why that might occur), Filios is clear and adamant that the best “truths” to be found in these sources are in determining how they were used to represent and develop “a meaningful reality”.[2] In “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning,” James Wertsch highlights this difference in scholarship as divided between determining “accuracy criterion” of texts versus how they provide us with a “usable past”.[3] Previous scholars such as Nora and Halbwachs (the fathers of continental memory studies) pitted collective memory against history. However, what Wertsch further outlines and Filios negotiates very well is that the tasks of differentiating accurate representation from the creation of a usable past need not be mutually exclusive endeavours for the historian any longer. In focusing on what social memory expert, Ehud Ben Zvi calls “Future Memories” or how these texts sought to persuade their readers about the future, Filios is careful and quite right to not label them as elite propaganda of their time. Studies on collective memory, particularly where narrative theory is concerned, view a narrative “memory” (or in this case a cultural representation or text) as neither a simple copy of reality, nor entirely active (re)constructions.[4] Filios balances both in her analysis of Julian by asking poignant historical questions. Rather than trying to determine if Julian was real per se, she is instead focused on what he meant to his authours and his audiences.

In textually-mediated collective memory studies in particular, narrative theory can be useful because it presumes that narrative plays a central role in human consciousness and that it is a cultural tool developed in historical and institutional settings that will invariably be reflected through the text.[5] Moving effortlessly through the chronicles of Yulyan in Ibn ‘Abd alHakam and ‘Abd alMalk ibn Habib, and Iulianus’ presence (or absence) in Hispano-Latin sources like Duclidius or Historia Silence, Filios shows how Julian comes to stand as a metaphor for the Strait of Gibraltar – either making it passable and losing relevance quickly after Conquest or as a reflection of Christian views of Muslims through time. In the latter formulation, the Strait often comes to represent a border through his figure. As such, through these juxtapositions, it quickly becomes clear that Julian has no essential characteristics and, in fact, cannot even be said to have existed! Since the latter is not Filios’ research question, that is of little consequence. The point is that even seemingly important narrative details about him vary widely, depending on their author and their historical situation which tell us more about them than Julian himself.

This relatively short article is valuable to readers who are unsure of how to deal with primary source materials, particularly narratives. While not being explicit about her connection with narrative theory or critical memory studies (other than a reference to Hayden White), Filios has provided such readers with an excellent, well-researched example of what is possible through memory studies, regardless of their individual research areas.

[1] Filios, Denise, “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography,” Medieval Encounters, Vol 15, 2009, p 377.

[2] Ibid

[3] Wertsch, James. “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning” in Voices of Collective Remembering. Cambridge University Press. 2002, p 31.

[4] Ibid. p.32

[5] Ibid. p.56-7

images-for-gt-greek-mythology-backgrounds-powerpoint-greek-mythology-wallpaper-gods-alphabet-salad-recipe-yogurt-goddesses-islands-names-dressingIn the chapter entitled “Myth” in Guide to the Study of Religion, Russell McCutcheon outlines how there have been many definitions surrounding the term myth but that these can more or less be classified under the following two categories: widely shared (but false) beliefs, and fictional stories told to explain common (but mysterious) everyday occurrences. (190) These classifications of myth carry modernist judgments with them, assuming that there is a “reality-as-it-is” which myths are misrepresenting and, as a result of being simply incorrect, are relatively innocuous. However, as McCutcheon aptly points out, myth is much more suspicious than is first perceived and in fact, is in the business of manufacturing realities. It is not simply a fairy tale of old, but rather, a deliberate tool of dominant powers – “a master signifier that authorizes and reproduces a specific worldview.” (192) However, I want push this idea a little further by postulating that mythmaking is actually an innately human act; that there is no realities behind these realities; that mythmaking is not a method by which we interact with the world, but the method. That this results in the production of insular knowledge by which power is gained is provocative for its implications about human nature, whether or not power is the intended consequence of this process. By breaking down the process of mythmaking or storytelling, I will show that people cannot help but mythmake, and that the byproduct of this activity is power, authority and dominance through the dictating of a worldview. What future hypotheses about it must then address are the possible reasons for this power-fueling mechanism. Rather than sounding conspiratorial, I wish to end on an optimistic note by pursuing an avenue that McCutcheon left untouched – the work of Michel Foucault, who argued that economies of significance can lead to the development of the disciplines, on which mythmaking heavily relies, thereby consolidating power and making the mythology invisible and interior to the individual who then self-polices. However pessimistic this sounds, there is, within Foucauldian discourse, the possibility of shifting worldviews derived of competing mythologies. I will explore this possibility by meditating on the Foucauldian concept of freedom.

If we accept McCutcheon’s premise that myth is something ordinary, as a technique or strategy that is a process rather than a static noun, what is gained in our understanding about how and why people make myths? Firstly, myths are neither special nor sacred. Secondly, they are an ordinary rhetorical device freely used to legitimize one’s self image. (200) In a different way, McCutcheon has arrived at the same point as anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Harvey Whitehouse who use cognitive science to see myth or religiosity as ordinary activities of the human imagination and memory, respectively. Myths are a subset of storytelling which is a further subset of both imagination and memory. Neither of these, I would like to point out, are functions unique to mythmaking or religion but rather, in the words of Thomas Lawson in his essay called “Cognition,” “whatever it takes to explain how minds work generally will be sufficient to explain how religious minds work.” (Guide79)

Crafting stories, as it were, is something deeply human. I am not one to make universalizing statements lightly, but it is unlikely that we are able to imagine a way in which we do not automatically tell ourselves stories every minute of the day. Part of this hinges on a very broad definition of what a story is and is also grounded in how the mind functions. In writing the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant was one of the most prominent philosophers to point this out. Our faculties of sensibility are mired in space and time, and as such, we perceive things to happen in terms of cause-and-effect or sequentially. It might not be the way the world (or reality-as-it-is) actually works, but we can never have knowledge of this “true” reality. Thus, every reality is a reality-for-me, inherently subjective, finessed by a mind that necessarily operates in linear-temporal-spatial terms. We can have the perception of similarity or ascribe similarity to others, but the knowledge of true sameness is as unknowable as the elusive noumena. A lot of this likely has something to do with the overload of sensory stimuli which our brain is designed to filter down to the most essential points of reference and construct a story about from the first moment of perception. Even before we have formulated thoughts in terms of language, we are already developing a narrative about what is happening around us in order to comprehend it, in all of its diverse magnitude. These stories might vary according to our interpretation of it, but they remain stories all the same. (Guthrie 237) Things come to the fore, other things stay behind. Some memories are imprinted, others are not. Thus, storytelling and, by extension, mythmaking are things we just do. In this way, myth is no longer defined by the contents of its narrative, nor as a genre. As McCutcheon points out, myths are better understood “as a technique or strategy” (199), an “active process” to achieve some end, whether or not that end is fully foreseeable or conscious.[1]

What are myths in the business of doing? What ends are achieved by mythmaking? According to McCutcheon, with whom I am in agreement, myths are in the business of “making particular and contingent worldviews appear ubiquitous and absolute.” (205) Authority, dominance and power are obtained by dictating and maintaining a particular worldview through mythology because mythology implies the creation of knowledge, even if this process of creation is nearly invisible. Where McCutcheon does not go far enough is in theorizing about why striving for power through knowledge happens at all: is there some social, political or ultimately biological reason for this? Is power an evolutionary necessity for humankind? McCutcheon would have benefited greatly by taking his argument to its endpoint, something that could have been facilitated by engaging with the work of Foucault. I appreciate that this is a short essay on myth in general in a rather large volume; however, the implications of knowledge and world creation through mythologizing as a precursor to power are issues widely explored by Foucauldian followers and the conclusions they reach have major implications for how we understand and engage with religion as a concept, if we can at all.

If we accept that power (free from negative or positive connotations but denoting relationality) is derived from mythmaking and, by extension, world-building, there are two questions that are crucial for exploration: how does myth achieve this? And if the generation of power through myth is a necessary activity of humankind, where does freedom lay? If we follow a Foucauldian line of thinking, it would seem obvious that myth achieves power through the diffusion of disciplines throughout a particular society. In “Modes of Religiosity,” Harvey Whitehouse offers a similar process as that described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish but in cognitive science terms. In examining the doctrinal mode of religiosity, methods outlined of frequent repetition, the consolidation of authority in key figures, the tempering of that authority through the consensus of the mass – all reek of panopticonic disciplinary systems at work. In religious rituals specifically (how bodies move through particular places at particular times in carefully contrived ways) are designed to “reduce the chances that [followers] will reflect on the meaning of what they are doing.”(Whitehouse 300) When reflection does spontaneously occur, it is controlled by the doctrinal/disciplinary system that allows innovation only “ to originate from authoritative sources and is accepted/observed by all loyal followers”(301) – arguably those ascribing to, invested in, or indoctrinated by the particular worldview generated by a particular mythology which perpetuates itself as universal.

If, as established, mythmaking is the most natural human activity because of how perception works, then worldviews are continuously being generated by subjective agents. Grouping or collectivity can occur (at least the perception of it where the idea of similar interests prevail) and often does, but ultimately multiple worldviews are simultaneously being generated and contesting one another, each trying to assert its generative power above the others for fear of extinction or, in the jargon of Whitehouse, forgetting and the forfeit of authority. Where convergences occur and are accepted by a group, a collective worldview takes hold. If we follow the line of thinking of Michel de Certeau and understand belief to be transactional or reliant on the beliefs of others to guarantee our beliefs, then worldviews are nothing more than human myths accepted by the group because the group accepts it.(What We Do When We Believe) It would seem that the more people that buy into a belief, the more likely it is to become a collective worldview. However, historically speaking, the most successful campaigns for world-building need only to create the illusion of a community of belief before the believers ascribe to a certain system, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the illusion. The terms used by Foucault are knowledge (which we can interchange with belief as it carries less ontological or empirical connotations) and power.

Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations. (Discipline and Punish, 27)

The most overt campaigns are recognizable as propaganda; the most effective are subsumed societally like the disciplines described by Foucault.

The question remains: How do we resist? What does freedom look like in a system of intersecting myths, beliefs, and worldviews? In Discipline and Punish, Foucault addresses the issue of cumulative power usurping freedom because of a feed-forward method, that “by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process.” While some might call this repression (as the opposite of freedom), Foucault was careful to point out that the real danger of the system is not in being oppressed by the social order but being carefully fabricated in it. To resist this, it is crucial to remember what constitutes freedom for Foucault:

Freedom is an art, not a state, of not being governed quite so much. It is a practice that is never assured by the institutions and laws that intended to serve it… One will know that freedom is alive not when the interests emerging in society are allowed to express themselves, be represented and pursued, not even when dissent and heresy are allowed to manifest themselves, but when contestation, unruliness, intractability are not yet abolished. (Prozorov, 33)

In this way, freedom is not a state to be achieved through resistance; resistance is constitutive of freedom itself. If we return to Whitehouse’s Modes of Religiosity, the role of the imagistic mode is crucial to understanding this “biopower”. Whitehouse argues that high arousal is the antithesis to “autopilot” and induces spontaneous reflection – something carefully controlled by the doctrinal mode. Some might argue that the sustenance of high arousal at levels of high frequency is not possible through the natural brain mechanism of habituation. As Whitehouse ignores the possibility of this construction, naturally, I find it the most provocative. The high frequency, high arousal modes could be the perpetual, purposeful resistance of the imposed will of the doctrinal mode – habituation of which can be avoided by the sufficient use of change. It implies self-awareness and in this self-awareness, the deconstruction of the transactional beliefs by virtue of “lifting the curtain” , so to speak, on the transaction. What is revealed beneath the curtain are more curtains. Reality behind the curtain will never be found. It is in the perpetual lifting that freedom is found. Psychologically speaking, based on Whitehouse’s descriptions of the high arousal modes, it would seem that this level of arousal, experienced at high levels of frequency might look something like psychosis – fitting very well with Foucault’s meditations on the place of madness and divergent sexuality in the societal form.

As this reading analysis has gone far beyond the requirements, I will regrettably end there. As it stands, memory and narrative are the basic facets of human cognition and how we interact with and interpret the world around us. This results in the formation of beliefs and myths that rely on a transactional relationship with others to be self-perpetuating and world-building. Freedom is possible in the Foucauldian sense. What remains to be explored is the process of resistance or change through the senses and the body (Asad) and whether or not resistance is necessary. I am of the (perhaps premature) mindset that fabrication of the individual is not necessarily equal to causing harm, for where harm can be chosen, so too can benefit be chosen.

Referenced and Cited Sources

Bloch, Maurice. “Why Religion is Nothing Special but is Central,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2008), 2055-2061.

de Certeau, Michel. “What We Do When we Believe.” On Signs. Ed. Marshall Blonsky. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. Pp. 129-202.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books: New York. 1977.

Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. “Projection” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. James Ellington, trans. Hackett Publishing, 2001.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Particia Kitcher, ed. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers,1998.

Lawson, Thomas. “Cognition” Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

McCutcheon, Russell. “Myth” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Prozorov, Sergei. Foucault, Freedom and Sovereignty. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 2007.

Whitehouse, Harvey. “Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Sociopolitical Dynamics of Religion,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 14 (2002), 293-315.

[1] Much multidisciplinary, academic literature has described memory (the stuff which myths and narratives are made of) as called upon to provide a usable past (Zamora), as inherently contested because of the subjectivity of perception(Confino, Calhoun), as a habit related to societal hierarchies and the maintenance of power (Connerton), and as an instrument (Lowenthal). The relationship between individual, collective memory and narrative construction are so closely intertwined as to be virtually indecipherable. Scholars who argue for understanding narrative as a basic tool of human consciousness include Bruner, White, Scholes and Kellogg, Schafer, and Ricouer. Alasdiar MacIntyre is another source which argues for the omnipresence and importance of narrative in human activity. James Wertsch has famously written: “we are storytelling animals.” (Voices of Collective Remembering, 2002)