White Utopias

The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals

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Amanda J. Lucia
Ahmanson Foundation Endowment Fund in Humanities
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     2020.
     320 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520376953.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals analyzes the experiences and impacts of transformational festivals as sites of modern white “utopias,” or spaces of freedom. As fieldwork, Amanda J. Lucia attended and participated in twenty-three festivals from 2011 to 2019: Burning Man (“Burners,” or participants, however, do not consider Burning Man to be a festival), Lightning in a Bottle, Wanderlust, and Shakti and Bhakti fests. Each attracts particular subgroups of utopian-seeking individuals. The festivals provide a “commons” for shared commitment to personal and social transformation by interrupting everyday life with spiritual-identified activities like yoga, meditation, and music. Lucia notes that the questions driving this study, which provide an essential frame for scholars and activists alike to examine social movements and personal betterment, are: “Transformation from what? Transformational for whom?” Lucia appropriately wonders why the overwhelming percentage of transformational festival participants are white. The answer most certainly lies in the tension between capitalism, white Protestant norms, modernity, and white supremacy, but Lucia complicates each of these components and centers what participants believe they extract from festival experiences.

Through five chapters and brief “interludes,” White Utopias argues that while festivals can provide opportunities for participants’ growth and transformation, “religious exoticism” allows white participants to separate themselves from critiques of privilege and upholding white supremacy. Religious exoticism imagines racialized others as premodern, unchanged, and untainted subjects who supply tools for personal betterment. At the same time, the separation of privilege often deters non-white participants from these festivals. In particular, Indigenous and Indic religious traditions are, in various ways and in varying degrees, appropriated through the lens of “timeless wisdom.” Festivals pose problematic messaging in the way they promote religious exoticism and can simultaneously catalyze self-critique of one’s relationship to white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. Further, Lucia argues that the comfort white people feel in adopting and even authoring practices rooted in Indic and Indigenous traditions is directly related to “alternative” spirituality communities’ overwhelming whiteness. In short, whiteness promotes entitlement. Lucia’s analysis of cultural appropriation highlights the tension between white people causing harm by exploiting and claiming culture for their own and the fact that the concept of cultural appropriation reifies power dynamics by solidifying white supremacy as the dominant “culture.” The tension leads us to a question too often ignored for scholars of American religion and history: how do we decenter whiteness as the default cultural lens in the study of nonwhite, non-Christian communities?

Lucia’s first chapter provides a foundation for the idea of transformational festivals by connecting scholarship that enters the study in several historical, sociological, and religious studies conversations. An essential piece of the knowledge festival participants seek is “old” and thus timeless—it is outside of modernity and yet subordinated in capitalist, colonial structures. White participants create an entitlement to this wisdom by lauding its potential for personal and social transformation. Though Lucia discusses this less, the importance of attributing entitlement to ideas certainly translates to entitlement of physical space and land. Though these festivals claim to offer spaces of freedom from the modern world, they create boundaries on Indigenous lands, maintaining a colonialist ignorance of the equitable relationship between land, people, and space.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on perceived issues of authenticity in contemporary yoga and festival participants’ personal experiences as motivation for personal and collective change, respectively. As white women make up the majority of yoga teachers in the United States, Lucia names two ways they claim authority as teachers—some through traditional lineage approaches by studying with a well-known, respected teacher, and others through a focus on yoga’s ancient and spiritual roots. In both approaches, India is most certainly imagined through a white Protestant lens, in which Hinduism is a monolithic and consistent tradition that upholds yoga as central. These two modes of claiming authenticity lead to the next chapter’s focus on asceticism as the goal of participants’ experiences during festivals. As Lucia notes, asceticism may seem like a personal endeavor, but is inherently a social act. Many festival participants see themselves as authentic ascetics capable and worthy of personal transformation because these acts protest the status quo of capitalism’s socioeconomic order.

What is apparent in both chapters and the book as a whole is how undiagnosed class is a marker of power, ability, and worthiness to catalyze change in the contemporary United States and the world, despite participants’ push against social hierarchies of class, race, gender, and others as present in the festival utopias. As Lucia writes, “[participants'] emphasis on firsthand experience emerges from late-capitalist and particularly neoliberal understandings of the self—a self that is sovereign and autonomous, one that makes good choices in a marketplace of goods and then is defined by those choices” (105). Thus, though participants themselves may believe they escape the confines of capitalism, festival structures cannot provide a space outside colonialist, capitalist modes of understanding.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on wonder and awe as expected emotions at festivals—a defining feature of the “sublime”—and the subsequent experiences of freedom that participants claim to find at festivals. The sublime derives from an experience that connects the participants to “multiple conceived realities larger than themselves” (150). For many participants, nature plays a critical role in notions of the sublime, as nature feels larger than the self. Yet, they uphold colonial notions of land as at odds with humanity and thus land is something to be conquered. In the final chapter, Lucia reframes the foundational questions: “Freedom from what? Freedom for whom?” This framing reiterates her claim that white supremacy as scaffolded in capitalism and colonialism creates a system in which even the most privileged are not fully free.

In each chapter, Lucia skillfully weaves a discussion of appropriate scholarship and definitions with vignettes of interviews and descriptions of each festival. The chapters are well written and easily digestible without sacrificing complicated analysis. Lucia provides a fair treatment of the festivals and their participants. By holding white participants accountable for their potential to make real social change, she empowers them and the festival planners to apply their experiences to current social movements. Lucia’s book ignites further questions for scholars in religious studies to explore, for example: When is something deemed “sacred,” and for whom? What is the relationship between modernity and individuals distinguishing between timeless wisdom and subordination of nonwhite, non-Christian culture? In particular, the question that garners welcome discomfort is, “Was Indian spirituality created only for Indians? (150)” Regardless of the answer, we should apply this outside religious studies to better understand how white festival goers might learn to take direction from nonwhite, non-Christian leaders rather than appropriate culture. How can festival participants use the experience to make them uncomfortable, rather than find solace in white-dominated spaces?

About the Reviewer(s): 

jem Jebbia is a PhD candidate in religious studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amanda J. Lucia is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace.

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