The Collected Writings of Charles H. Long
- ISBN: 9781350032637
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: February 2018
My first interaction with Charles H. Long took place in a classroom as part of a multi-year program titled “God-Talk and Black Thinkers.” I was in the second year of course work, and I was eager to hear Long and his longtime colleague and friend, Jeremiah Wright, pontificate on the intricacies of the study of religion. While the class itself was ultimately directed towards aspiring members of the proverbial church, I was still struck by the passion of Long’s words when it came to our assigned readings—including the likes of Ashish Nandy and W.E.B. Dubois—and our larger class projects. I decided to write on Long’s impact on the study of North American Religions as understood through his own work, and the work of his disciples within the discipline, including the likes of Catherine Albanese and others. I was incredibly pleased when this work was accepted and published by the Journal of the American Academy of Religion later that year under the title, “Charles H. Long and the Reorientation of American Religious History.” Since then, Long’s work continues to be largely underutilized, underappreciated, and under examined within the disciplines of History, Religion, Political Theory, and Philosophy … until now.
The collection under review is as much a labor of love as it is a product of the analytical. Long himself serves as the compiler, editor, and composer of The Collected Works of Charles H. Long: Ellipsis… The works contained within span more than half-a-century’s reflection on the study of religion, broadly considered, in addition to the topics of the History of Religions in general, and the Chicago school in particular. Long organizes his collection based on four interrelated headings: America and the Study of Religion, Theory and Method in the Study of Religion, African American Religion in the United States, and finally, Kindling, Sparks, and Embers. For those familiar with Long’s work, specifically Significations (The Davies Group, 1999), some will recognize previously published chapters including such works as, “Mircea Eliade and the Imagination of Matter” and “Assessment and New Departures for a Study of Black Religion in the United States of America.” Many of the unpublished gems within Ellipsis…, however, include relatively unknown interviews with Long and his former students. In fact, one of his students provides the book with a very helpful forward that outlines the trajectory of Long’s work, and some of its major contributions to the study of religion. Following in the footsteps of philosopher of religion Alfred North Whitehead, Long questions intellectual simplicity in favor of a bricolage model that improvises as much as it systematizes the knowledge it seeks. For scholar of religion Jennifer Reid, the goal of the scholar in the Long-School is to “fully understand the logic of conventional social constructions to be able to see where the ellipses are in their shadows” (vii). If there is any through line to this collection, it is that Long examines the conceptual apparatuses of modernity as much for their thought producingpowers as their powers to conceal the thoughts of “the other” through such production.
Those less familiar with Long’s work will find The Collected Works of Charles Long to be an invaluable resource for undergraduate and graduate classes within American Religious History, Religious Studies, or African American Religious History. In perusing this collection, or “binding” as Long describes, readers will also learn about how Long mentored many of his graduate students over the years by emphasizing the importance of embodied “memory” over “knowledge” in the human experience. As such, Long’s last heading speaks to the remembered image’s ability to spark something in the creative mind for later contemplation or intellectual pursuit. Perhaps most importantly, such writings illustrate one of Long’s most important contributions to the study of religion and philosophy: analytical ambiguity. This ambiguity has less to do with the clarity of a sentence—or lack thereof—and more to do with its ability to draw our collective attention to the gaps and shadows concealed within the Enlightenment project, generally considered. “The very people and cultures we sought to study,” Reid describes, “we also concomitantly sought to destroy” (ix)
While the word “ambiguity” is a helpful one in this regard, I’ve argued elsewhere that it would be more accurate to say that Long’s varied analyses resemble the dialectical sensibilities of philosophers such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Michel Foucault. Similar to Foucault, whose words are scattered across The Collected Works, Long’s work is grounded in a deep pursuit of knowledge production, and its subsequent conceptual structures. In this way, Long’s work is “dangerous” in that it challenges the very grounds upon which a given piece of knowledge is composed, and then disseminated, in real-time. Long credits the research and writings of the sociologist DuBois for his awareness of a doubled perspective, and how it can alter what “knowledge” is, who it is about, and whom it is for. In fact, for those looking to understand the work of DuBois alongside Foucault, Whitehead, and others in the study of African American religious life, Long’s collection is indispensable reading.
In the introduction to the collection, Long contends that the story of America’s birth is not necessarily a factually accurate one. While this observation may not come as a surprise, what fascinates Long analytically is the gap between the pervasiveness of a given origin narrative, and its lack of factual adjudication—especially when it comes to “America.” “The nation state of the United States, which occupies much of North America, possesses no ab origine basis for its coming-into-being” according to Long. “Perry Miller makes it clear that he did not choose to begin his study of American religion from the first settlement of Europeans in North America. He chose to begin his story in a time and place that enabled him to tell the story that he wanted to tell” [my emphasis] (4). Long first explored this manner of storytelling in Significations as a product of an uniquely American episteme that produces as much knowledge of “the other” as it does itself … or does it? For Long, this type of episteme, or knowledge system, helps explain why “the Modern” depends as much on “the rational” as it does “the barbarous.” Its power lies in its ability to generate enlightenment within particular intellectual parameters and binaries while remaining largely unexamined itself—binaries such as civilized/savage, religion/superstition, and modern/primitive. Despite the fact that this line of argumentation began over thirty ago, Ellipsis… reminds us to pay heed by paying closer scholastic attention to the grounds of an idea as much as the idea itself. There is no better place to begin this collaborative work than in our own Ellipsis, and those of Long.
L. Benjamin Rolsky is a Research Fellow in Religion Studies at Lehigh University, Adjunct Professor at Monmouth University, and Adjunct Lecturer at Rutgers University.L. Benji RolskyDate Of Review:March 31, 2019