The Management of Meaning

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Vincent L. Wimbush
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scripturalectics: The Management of Meaning comprises the second entry in Vincent Wimbush’s planned multi-volume project centering on reimagining the study of scriptures and cultures as a “critical project in historical social formation, using African diaspora experiences and expressivities and politics to think with” (x). While interventions into dominant conceptions of “scriptures” and African diasporic frameworks might inform and frame this project, the audience for this work is broad and should include students of religion and culture who are interested in the power and politics of meaning-making across time and space.

In his “Introduction: Scripturalectics as Turns in the Human Quest for Meaning,” Wimbush offers an overview of the concept of scripturalectics, which is a matrix for his conception of scripturalization as a phenomenon that reflects whiteness as an ideological orientation and the “baseline” by which other discourses are judged. For Wimbush, these concepts are, and have long been, at the core of an intellectual journey that has endeavored to ask more expansive and complex questions about the term “scriptures,” which carries enormous baggage within and without the communities in which professional biblical scholars and other religionists dwell. “Scriptures” might commonly refer to a canonical set of holy books that belongs to a discrete and identifiable religio-theological institution, along with attendant knowledge claims, consciousness, and authority structures. However, overlooked is how such a reference hides how power, knowledge, and authority are produced in and through “scriptures” as a primary organizing principle, carrier of mythological prowess, and instrument of justifying uneven power relations. In other words, Wimbush contends that conducting critical analysis of “scriptures” reveals something of the fear, anxiety, and trauma that provoke human meaning-making practices, including the practices of domination and pacification that produce “scriptures” as ciphers for racial formation in the first place.

As the follow-up volume to White Men’s Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery (2012), Wimbush here explains how he explores the dynamics of scripturalectics through interacting with Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart as a site where such dynamics can be noticed and deliberated. This interaction is woven throughout the following three chapters, each of which critically engages a particular “reading formation” or “types of systems of language use, knowledge claims, stages in the structures of consciousness or meaning and orientations to the world, including the fear and anxieties that mark these orientations” (20). In chapter 1, “Aru Oyim De De De Dei!: Masking Meaning,” Wimbush centers his attention on the narrative rhetoric of the Umuofia community in Things Fall Apart. Here the focus is on how “masking,” or a set of performances tied to communal self-identification, can be seen as a basic human orientation to the world. Wimbush proposes that rather than see local cultures as flatly “primitive,” scripturalectics draws our gaze to how masking among subaltern peoples such as the Igbo in Umuofia points to an embodied fluidity that stands in contrast to colonial discourses.

Colonial discourses and practices, and their intimate connection to writing scriptures, is the focus of chapter 2, “‘Pacification of the Primitive Tribes’: Meaning as White Savagery.” This section of Wimbush’s overall argument concerns how regimes of knowledge and truth are produced when European colonizers narrate their contact with those who eventually become their “primitives.” To this end, the signal moment in Things Fall Apart when colonial contact becomes a scripturalizing force lies in the District Commissioner’s writing of a book narrative concerning the British imperialists’ efforts to “pacify” the “primitive tribes” of Umuofia. In great contrast to the flexible narrative of life in Umuofia, the authoritative account offered in the District Commissioner’s writing signifies the shift to “civilization” and the epistemic changes that come along with it. In short, it represents the regime of scripturalization.

If chapter 1 is about the dynamics of meaning-making in local cultures, and chapter 2 is about the tragedy of those forms of meaning-making being (literally) overwritten by imperial representatives, then chapter 3, “‘We Have Fallen Apart’: The Rupture of Meaning” could be characterized as an exploration of the regime of scripturalization through the lens of those who are made “strange” on account of its continued deployment and (re)inscription. Here Wimbush thinks with the ways in which Achebe’s Umuofians respond to the colonial world in which they find themselves—where they are no longer “at home,” if, indeed, “home” for them has not been written away by the likes of the District Commissioner. These responses to “the management of meaning as modern-world colonialist violence or savagery” (150) might be best noted as signs and sites of rupture with dominant consciousness. In the space opened by such rupture, Wimbush observes, the “stranger” can be open to making meaning on different, more self-actualized and self-authorized, terms.

In a summary conclusion, “The End of Scriptures, The Beginning of Scripturalectics,” Wimbush clarifies that his project is ultimately about exposing and challenging widespread and cherished assumptions about scriptures, including that they are isolable, that they belong to “religion” as a special category, that they are only to be engaged by certain devoted people and/or church/academic explaining experts, and that engagement practices are to offer no political import or consequences. Expanding the notion of “scriptures” requires readers to look beyond established semantic domains, disciplinary formations, ecclesial and dogmatic pressures, and popular discourses. Such expansion also requires moving beyond an exclusive obsession with “texts” toward a thoroughgoing concern with power dynamics, social relations, and modes of knowing. Ultimately, the question is how readers might understand the work humans make scriptures do and the work humans use scriptures to do with and to each other.

Scripturalectics offers a rigorous proposal that refocuses attention from texts to power relations, from disciplinary exegesis and apologetics to interdisciplinary interrogations of worldview formation, and from affirming the stability of textual meanings and practices to noticing ruptures in knowledge construction and reification. It is a challenge to biblical scholarship, to be sure, and a challenge even to those who would claim “innovation” in the field. That said, all scholars of religion and readers of “scriptures” might do well to re-examine categories, assumptions, and power relations that inform our discourses and practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Davina C. Lopez is Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vincent L. Wimbush is the former president of the Society of Biblical Literature, the founding director of The Institute for Signifying Scriptures. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently MisReading America: Scriptures and DifferenceWhite Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery, and Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon.


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