In religious studies, as in neighboring fields, many scholars have been calling for greater attention to “materiality” for some time now. The “new materiality” should not be confused with old-school “materialism.” The focus is not on the role of “material interests” or “economic factors” in social life. Instead, it is on “material artifacts” and “affordances” in all their concreteness and multiplicity. Geneviève Zubrzycki’s Beheading the Saint is one of the first studies to really show what following these calls would look like in practice. The “saint” of the title is Saint John or, rather Saint-Jean, for the subject of Zubrzycki’s study is her native Quebec. And the beheading of Quebec’s patron saint took place not in the Court of King Herod on an unknown date some two millennia ago, but rather on June 24, 1969 on the streets of Montreal. Le Saint-Jean, as the holiday is known, is best understood as a ritual enactment of an ethno-national vision of Quebecois identity. It had been celebrated intermittently in French Canada since the early seventeenth century. And by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it was being regularly celebrated on June 24, with increasingly elaborate parades followed by evening bonfires and collective revelry. During the early struggle for Canadian independence, some voices had championed a republican vision. But other, more powerful actors emphasized Quebec’s French roots and Catholic faith. In this way, they effectively set themselves off from the Anglophone and Protestant majority. And so Saint-Jean became the patron saint of “French Canada,” with the sacrificial lamb its national icon. By the early 1960s, the Saint-Jean parade was becoming a site of fierce contestation. Inspired by the various anticolonial struggles of the post-WWII decades, a vocal movement of left-wing nationalists began protesting the French-Catholic vision of Quebecois identity that was enacted in le Saint-Jean. They took umbrage at the symbolism of the lamb and the selection of a young boy to represent Saint-Jean in the parade. They saw the choice of a sacrificial animal and a small child to represent Quebec as a humiliating confirmation of their “nation’s” status as—in Pierre Vallières’ phrase—the “white niggers of North America” (nègres blancs d’Amerique). They proposed to replace the meek lamb with a manly ram. Meanwhile, in one of a long series of symbolic punches and counter-punches, the parade organizers responded with masculinizing modulations of their own. For the 1969 parade, they chose to represent Saint-Jean not in the form of a living boy, but by an adult statue, a statue made not of bronze, but of papier-mâché—fatefully as it turns out, for when a group of young demonstrators toppled Saint-Jean’s float, they also severed the saint’s head in the process. Whether they meant to do so is unclear. And as Zubrzycki emphasizes, it is also irrelevant. To partisans of the old ethno-national vision, the meaning of this event was unambiguous: the symbolic head of French Canada was being served up on a silver platter, its Catholic heritage stripped away by ruthless secular nationalists. The (perhaps unintended) beheading of the saint was the symbolic culmination of a “quiet revolution” that had been sweeping through Quebec for the better part of a decade. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Quebec’s ethnic identity had been tightly intertwined with its religious identity, with each strand reinforcing the other, and resentment of Anglophone dominance maintaining the tension. Much as in Poland and Ireland, the Catholic Church became the institutional carrier of national identity, to such an extent that being Catholic and being Quebecois were virtually the same thing. Church attendance remained high, and so did birth rates. But then the threads started to unravel, gradually during the 1950s and then more rapidly during the 1960s, and with them Quebec’s famed piety and fertility. Within a decade, Quebec was by some measures the most secularized province in Canada. For some Quebecois, the beheading was surely liberating. But for others it probably felt more like free fall—a plunge into the dark abyss of secularism. In the end, Zubrzycki shows, it was neither and also both. At first, secular nationalists seemed to have won the symbolic victory. There was no parade in the year 1970 or for several years thereafter. The committee in charge of the parade dissolved itself. But the merrymaking continued each June 24. Then, in 1976, the secular nationalist Parti Quebecois came to power and declared June 24 the fête nationale (national day). Official accounts traced the historical origins of the holiday to a pagan festival celebrating the summer solstice, and a bright sun received star billing in the parade. But the symbolic victory remained partial, the holiday itself a strange hybrid of religious and secular elements. It was—and is—still widely referred to as le Saint-Jean. And the old religious iconography resurfaced from time to time, perhaps most famously (or infamously) in the 1990 parade, which opened with a three-story-tall sheep float pulled by two dozen young St. Johns of varying ethnicities. Was it a celebration of multiculturalism? Or a “Trojan sheep” used by foreign invaders? However onlookers interpreted the controversial float, this much was clear: religion and nation were still entangled with one another in Quebec. To what degree this was so would become clearer during the “reasonable accommodation” debate that flared up during the early 2000s. As Quebec became increasingly secular, some Quebecois became more and more perturbed by the continued presence of Catholic symbols in many of the nation’s public spaces. The large crucifix that hung above the speaker’s chair in National Assembly sparked particular ire. Meanwhile, as Quebec became increasingly diverse, some Quebecois became more and more upset by the growing visibility of non-Catholic symbols in the province’s everyday life, and even more by the various accommodations that were being granted to minorities. Predictably perhaps, it was Muslim symbols that often generated the most discomfort amongst the “old-stock Quebecois” (les Quebecois de souche). In theory, there were two internally consistent solutions to the problem of accommodation: banish all religious symbols from public spaces, or let a thousand flowers bloom. Neither of these responses was politically viable. Historically, Quebecois identity was entangled with the Catholic faith. Sociologically, however, practicing Catholics were now a cultural minority. Indeed, Quebecois Catholics were by now less observant than their Anglophone co-religionists. In 2007, a blue-ribbon panel co-chaired by two prominent Quebecois intellectuals—sociologist Gerard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor—was established to conduct hearings and report back. In 2008, the Bouchard-Taylor commission recommended a policy of “open secularism” (laïcité ouverte) that would seek to balance religious freedom and civic inclusion in a balanced and context-sensitive fashion. Neither side was happy with the report. Tradition-minded Quebecois thought the policy went too far, for example in its recommendation that the aforementioned crucifix be removed from the National Assembly. Secular-minded Quebecois didn’t think it went far enough, since it allowed some political officials to wear religious symbols at work. But neither side was able to enforce its vision, and not for lack of trying. Eventually a modus vivendi of sorts was achieved in which religious symbols like the parliamentary crucifix were recoded as artifacts of Quebec’s cultural patrimony. Many church buildings in Quebec now have this designation, presumably so that they can be repaired with public funds. Indeed, the most visible religious organization in the city of Montreal today is not the Church of Rome but the church of cultural patrimony. As Zubrzycki emphasizes, Quebec’s quiet revolution confounds the conventional secularization narrative in various ways. Following the pioneering work on political religions done by Italian scholars during the interwar period of the last century, it has been conventional to claim that secular nationalism filled the cultural vacuum left by the exit from religion. In this way, so the argument goes, secularization set the stage for nationalism. But at least in Quebec, the reverse was more nearly the case: it was a conflict over national identity that catalyzed the quiet revolution. Though perhaps not only in Quebec; in Ireland and also in Poland, a similar if not identical dynamic can be observed. There too, national and religious identity became tightly intertwined and were held in tension through confrontation with an ethno-cultural other: Anglo-Protestants in one case and Russian communists in the other. In both cases, it was not an internecine battle over national identity so much as the exit of the other—the end of the “troubles” and of communism—that initially precipitated the exit from religion, though in these cases too, the relation of religious and national identity remains a vexed subject. Nor are such dynamics confined to Catholic countries. In the United States as well, an ongoing battle over the place of religion in national identity is one of the driving forces behind the rapid growth of the religiously unaffiliated. The close alliance between conservative religion and politics is alienating political liberals from organized religion of any sort. Zubrzycki’s contributions are methodological as well as historiographical. Her focus on a collective ritual (a parade) and cultural codes (e.g., religious/secular) is well-trodden ground in religious studies. But her analysis is further enriched through systematic attention to material affordances. Material artifacts—parade floats, say—are concrete bundles of properties and tendencies. And certain of these properties and tendencies—the fragility of papier-mâché for instance—may become culturally salient in ways that were not intended by their designers. The Saint-Jean statue was not built for “beheading” after all. While scholars of religion are well attuned to the semiotic logics of cultural conflict, they are less cognizant of their material logics. Zubrzycki provides a model for how to incorporate the intuitions of the new materialists into cultural analysis. Beheading the Saints not only cashes out materialist insights. It generates theoretical insights of its own. Of particular note is Zubrzycki’s emphasis on the aesthetic logic of political contestation. Most social scientists assume that political struggles follow a logic of material interests. Culture is, at most, an ideological veneer that covers over power dynamics. Even those sociologists and anthropologists inclined to give culture its due tend to understand it through a linguistic rather than an aesthetic lens. In this way, they overlook the element of playfulness and creativity that enters into symbolic struggles and perhaps also the role of aesthetics in deciding their outcomes. It has now been more than three decades since cultural analysts took the “linguistic turn.” The turn towards language was, amongst other things, a reaction against materialism. Like many reactions, it was also an overreaction. In rejecting the instrumentalist view of culture inherited from orthodox Marxism, the partisans of the linguistic turn embraced a linguistic model of culture inherited from textual hermeneutics. In doing so, they took materiality out of culture. Beheading the Saints shows us what is to be gained from going back around the corner again to retrieve material culture. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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