On the Spot with Richard Newton

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

A screenshot of Richard Newton1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

This is a fun question for me as a scholar and an advisor. Usually I tell people that I study “the anthropology of scriptures.” And as I tell students of religion preparing for job interviews, the response to the original question isn’t designed to satisfy so much as it is to peak the asker’s curiosity. I like to turn a point of information into a point of interest by pairing something presumably familiar (e.g. scriptures) with something presumably strange (e.g. anthropology). And in so doing, I hope to have provided an answer that is interesting enough that I’m granted the chance to elaborate.

If I’m successful at this, then I get to say how I’m interested in how and why some of the cultural texts people read also appear to read them back. We know people and social interests are at work in creating these media, yet we are also aware of instances where people relate to texts in and of themselves. What’s up with that? Quite a lot actually….

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

One way is that people frequently root their identify claims in texts. I use the term “scriptures” to speak to this phenomenon, noting that there is often a fine line between making difference and making a difference in a social world. I’m interested in how people manufacture, identify, and deploy texts to help them with difference-making. I describe this as an anthropology because it’s not about the transcendent, it is about people using texts for transcending their own limitations — not to mention others-as-limitations.

3. Can you give us an example of this from your previous work?

I think the first place I make this case is in an essay for the Journal of Biblical Literature called “The African American Bible: Bound in a Christian Nation.” There I show some of the ways Black life in the United States has been subject to biblical interpretation. Rather than seeing this as a testament to the power of texts, I argue it as an example of the politics of identifying with texts.

4. Where are you hoping to go next with your scholarship?

I’m really interested in making clear that the phenomenon of scriptures is better understood analytically as a product of what Jean-Francois Bayart calls “culturalism” rather than “religion.” Religion is helpful so far as it is a category that we’ve observed to prolifically further “the illusion of cultural identity.” But as members of Culture on the Edge has shown, it is not the only site where this work is on display, and we would be wise to not assume it to be so.

While Bayart highlights the prevalence of texts in culturalism — especially in religion (e.g. holy writ and sacred texts) — he devotes less time to articulating how this works. My forthcoming book, Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures, advances a vocabulary and grammar built around the concept of “rooting” in an effort to redescribe these operational acts of identification as they pertain to cultural texts. I blend cultural history, Close Reading, discourse analysis, and social theory to show what a captivating African American origin story can teach us about scriptures and identity.

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