BE ALWAYS CONVERTING, BE ALWAYS CONVERTED: AN AMERICAN POETICS by Rob Wilson, Reviewed by Elvi Whittaker
 

BE ALWAYS CONVERTING, BE ALWAYS CONVERTED: AN AMERICAN POETICS
By Rob Wilson
(Harvard, 2009) 325 pp.
Reviewed by Elvi Whittaker on 2010-04-01.

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This is a book about becoming. With the kind of courage that can only be nurtured by extensive scholarship, Rob Wilson challenges one of the most profound intellectual questions in human behavior. He takes on the exploration of life-altering change. In particular he focuses on religious conversion and amplifies such facets of change as deconversion, counter- conversion and rebirth, in short the converging, diverging and cross-cutting processes of becoming.

Wilson's construction of the issues activates two types of narratives to carry the argument forward. The first of these focuses on the processes of conversion, using textual evidence that chronicles the experiences of his four major characters. The latter are well chosen, especially as sufficient documentary evidence has been accumulated to enliven the effort and make it worthwhile. The leading performer is Henry Õpûkaha'ia, the nineteenth century Hawai'ian, who apprenticed to become a kahuna, a Hawai'ian priest, then changed course, migrated to New England and was converted to Congregationalist Christianity. The second is Epeli Hau'ofa, the social anthropologist who was born in Papua of Tongan missionary parents and educated in Australia, Canada, and at various Pacific sites, and who--by the time he died in Fiji-- became a major activist figure in the multicultural identity politics of Oceania. The third is Florence (Anthony) Ai, the Japanese/African-American/Cheyenne/Irish poet chosen for her "language of possibility, metamorphosis, transregional migration, cultural unsettling, and geopolitical becoming" (3). The final protagonist is Bob Dylan, the American poet, songwriter and singer known for his "born-again refigurations"(166). These four constitute Wilson's main characters, and their narratives, as told in their own writings or those of others writing about them, constitute the core of the author's argument.

The second group of narratives is analytic and theoretical. They either provide a backdrop or serve as master narratives onto which readers can map their own experiences. The four main characters are thus linked by these narratives, which are sometimes explicitly explored, but just as often are silent partners and tacit interpretive tools. Already familiar to most readers, these master narratives are powerful sense-makers. Like all narratives props, they direct the selection of issues and of interpretive formats and bob back and forth throughout the text. Firstly, an integral part of Õpûkaha'ias story is the history and culture of the Hawai'ian Islands and of the Pacific, at least in the ways by which these matters have been rendered into academic text. Secondly, the story of Hawai'i, like the stories of the historic and geographic settings in the lives of three of the four protagonists, relies heavily on an underlying discourse found throughout much of the work, one long familiar to the humanities and social sciences. This is the discourse of colonialism, post-colonialism or "post-orientalism"(70). This theme in particular bolsters the meanings allotted to the stories of Õpûkaha'ia, Hau'ofa, and Ai. Thirdly, as conversion is the major focus, it is not surprising that a partial ethnography of Christianity emerges throughout the volume. Finally, there are enough allusions to the self - the everyday self, self-empowering, self-making, self-metamorphosis, reimaginings of the self, self-formation among others - to have this constitute the major analytic. It is also enough to intrigue social scientists and psychologists and direct their interest to acquiring further understandings about the life-altering experience of selves. Clearly, throughout the text the philosophical underpinnings and theoretical connections that Wilson employs remind us that his work belongs to well-established interdisciplinary concerns.

Added to these two sets of narratives, the stories of the four historic figures on the one hand and the explanatory devices on the other, is an assembled cast of thousands. Indeed one of the unexpected delights for the reader is the ever-present possibility of meeting on the next page one or another of one's favorites or, failing that, one of the enduring modernist icons of the nineteenth and twentieth century. On the journey one can meet in cameo appearances Catholic and biblical figures like John Paul II, St. Francis, St. Paul and Jesus himself; writers as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Allan Poe, James Michener, Melville, Susan Sontag, William Blake and Baudelaire; social activists like Frederick Douglass, Haunani Kay Trask and Ralph Nader; poets ranging from Dante to Gerard Manly Hopkins and Allen Ginsberg; musicians, singers and song-writers such as Burt Bacharach, Leonard Cohen, Ma Rainey, Bing Crosby and Bob Marley; comedians like Mort Sahl. Norman O. Brown, the psychoanalytic philosopher beloved on university campuses in the 1960s, makes an appearance. De rigueur, of course, given the year of the volume being published, is the inevitable mention of George W. Bush. These references are merely a small portion of those cited. The more-to-be-expected appearances are those of Kierkegaard, Terry Eagleton, Gilles Deluze, James Clifford, Kenneth Burke and Walter Benjamin. Such excellent casting of major and minor characters can hardly be faulted, nor can one ignore the flush of pleasurable recognition they bring. Collectively they support the author's assertions on numerous issues with clarifications and especially with evidence. In doing so their contributions serve to remind us of how our culture is overwhelmingly inundated by ideas of conversion. Yet except when these characters step forth on command with appropriate testimonials and useful evidence, they take a backstage to three writers whose texts seem to inspire the author most frequently: William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jack Kerouac. Indeed given that the subject is conversion, who could be more pertinent to the discussion than these three? The author even admits to carrying a worn copy of Varieties of Religious Experience in his pocket during his student days. Yet, despite his debts to specific writers, refreshingly, Wilson is not a victim of master theories.

Surely the work of a scholar of literature reviewed by an anthropologist must suggest some discord, some rush to judgment, some demands for reinterpretation. At the very least a few partisan flags could be expected to be unfurled. This may well have been true decades ago, when knowledge was property considered legitimately owned by its creators. Archeologists took exception to those who professed comparative literature and yet chose to write authoritatively about early settlement patterns. To anthropologists, literary scholars' analyses of cultures, especially non-western ones, seemed naïve and untutored. That was, however, when concepts called 'reality' and 'truth' reigned as the ultimate standard bearers in the analytic undertakings of social scientists. Revealing the fullest possible dimensions of 'reality' and 'truth' constituted the basic demands placed on social science disciplines. In recent years, interdisciplinary knowledge has arrived upon the scene with bravado and with the expectation that it will be respected, accommodated, and incorporated by existing disciplines. Yet trendy collaboration alone is not the explanation for the new alliances. A more illuminating answer lies in the growing awareness that 'reality' and 'truth' themselves are social constructions, that they no longer reign unchallenged as philosophical and methodological imperatives. Instead we have espoused alternate theoretical commitments. Regardless of discipline, we all write a kind of 'fiction,' and despite affiliation, we all produce 'texts'.

This contradicts the claim traditionally made by social scientists--the claim that they, somehow, capture the 'real thing' by studying 'real people'. This has permitted them to feel somehow closer to life, limb, and ultimate knowledge, and no doubt many social scientists still live by this all-embracing doctrine. But others realize that we social scientists differ from literary scholars only in that our texts come from the mouths of 'subjects' or 'actors' rather than from pre-scribed texts. Perhaps, after all, there is but little difference between these two kinds of texts. Culture is incontrovertibly textualized, after all, however these actual texts might be accomplished. And one thing is surely indisputable. The texts are always written in our own image. This process is a given regardless of disciplinary heritage. Perhaps, therefore, the proper etiquette at this point in the history of knowledge is to pose one specific question. Facing an accomplishment like Wilson's literary one, what could a social scientist add to it? What can we find in all the social sciences, or in specific fields such as anthropology, sociology and social psychology, that might enhance the explanatory offerings of Wilson's work?

Part of the answer lies in terminology. The social sciences have a repertoire of terms for examining life-altering change besides that of 'conversion,' which typically denotes a religious experience. Lives can be changed, however, by much more than religion. Other things can transform immigrants, students, prisoners, tourists, and even the dying. To deal with these changes, which have much in common, social scientists employ 'socialization', 'acculturation', 'assimilation', 'enculturation', 'development' and others with more specific meanings about the processes of becoming such as 'identity formation', 'liminality, post-liminality and communitas' as in the work of Victor Turner, 'rites of passage' as in the classic writings of Arnold Van Gennep, or as 'peak experiences' as contributed by Abraham Maslow. They address many of the same shifts that Wilson chronicles - disorientation, ambiguity, discovery, suppression of the past, slippages, interpretations, appropriations, denativization, everyday lostness, turning points, reversing, rotating and transversing (99). Parenthetically, by citing Susan Harding, Wilson also refers to the ideas of classic change that distinguish the work of Turner and van Gennep when he writes of the experience of alienation from previous voices, being cast into limbo, and hearing a new voice (8).

These very processes of change are painstakingly considered by the social scientist in her quest to learn from her "subjects." What each stage feels like, what thoughts cross the mind of those undergoing change, what alternatives are viable, what regrets are harbored, what hopes illuminate the near future and the far, what responses from others occur and have influences, what dissatisfactions led to the life-altering decisions and what landscapes are envisioned for the future self? Such writings about the self have been enriched by the work of symbolic interactionists such as George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer, Erving Goffman and others. From the work of these scholars an enlightening ethnography of the self emerges. Talk is a major element in the analysis and here there is a convergence with Wilson, who asserts that persons are "reborn via a process of semiotic transformation"(97). For the social scientist, the social psychologist, and the symbolic interactionist sui generis, an understanding of life-altering change can be immediately activated in the present. There seems to be some virtue in such a pursuit. Wilson has called for "ethnographies of their own situation"(78), "writing selfhood"(83), and social sciences chiefly seek to define the self, the cultural self, and to gain access to these selves by various methods. The immediacy and availability of the self has analytic and theoretical value for the discipline. Thus, while Rob Wilson and I trod somewhat the same turf in Berkeley and Honolulu, he carried William James in his pocket, and I lugged around the three volumes of the social phenomenology of Alfred Schutz.

Wilson's work is especially rewarding to an anthropologist. It reveals the depth and pervasiveness of culture with a sensitivity to time and texts not usually evident in the research pursuits of social scientists. The latter scholars too often took the history of culture for granted and perhaps did not give it the consideration that was its due. While anthropologists might be disconcerted to find that the data presented here come mainly from the dead rather than the living, it is clear that the ‘conversion' process itself goes far beyond the boundaries of religion and is a global, ever present phenomenon. Its longevity shows the pervasiveness of particular cultural ideas, at least western cultural ideas, the fictions we imagine and create together and, most importantly, their aftermath of human imperatives. Wilson would call this a "supreme fiction"(101). Access to this deeper and wider view in time is infinitely satisfying.



Elvi Whittaker is a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. She has written on the self, on Hawaii, on life altering change in students entering professions, migrants in their new locales and tourists encountering new experiences. At present she is working on a book on the infinitely mobile self.


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