I found a new book. It’s available online under a Creative Commons license, and finding it was like Christmas in July — with Easter, St. Paddy’s and the annual Jordbruksdagarna (ag days) festival at Bishop Hill, Illinois, all rolled into one.
Forgive me if this sounds a little wonky, but I’ve been burning up the keyboard all month trying to work out an updated conceptual framework for my research into Swedish immigrant churches of the 1850s in the upper Midwest. When I began the project several years ago, I thought of it as a nice little study of how one set of European immigrants adapted their faith to the nascent religious pluralism of 19th-century America. But 21st-century reality keeps intervening, culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection and its aftermath, and I’ve been scrambling ever since.
To oversimplify things a little, I believe history has to shed light on the present — if it doesn’t, it’s just antiquarian infotainment. But since Jan. 6, 2021, with scholars warning of a drift toward some new form of civil war, the increasing influence of white Christian nationalism and a trend on the US Supreme Court toward privileging (if not quite yet establishing) a culturally conservative brand of “Judeo-Christian” religion, the realities of the present are at best a moving target. To what, exactly, am I relating my history of 19th-century Swedish churches in Chicago and the upper Mississippi valley?
I’m pretty clear on the story I want to tell: How the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjörn and other Swedish pastors set up immigrant Lutheran parishes, with what we would now call ecumenical support from the Congregationalists and Presbyterians of the American Home Missionary Society; adapted their church polity and some of their practice to Protestant American norms tracing back to the Puritans of 17th-century New England; and set up their own Swedish-American Lutheran synod. The process is known to cultural anthropologists as cultural creolization, which has been eloquently not-quite-defined by postcolonial novelist Salman Rushdie as a process that “rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.”
All of which is precisely what a former US president whose name I try not to mention, his white Christian nationalist supporters and the “America First” movement he revived very loudly do not rejoice in!
Once upon a time in what now seems like a far-distant land, I thought the racialized history of postcolonial creole peoples and societies had little or no bearing on US history, which largely chronicled the comings and goings of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in a settler society at the time I was researching. Now, especially as far-right, racialized ideas like the great replacement theory are more and more in the news, I’m reassessing that. Maybe we have more in common with places like Martinique or Jamaica than I had thought.
So yesterday when I was reading up on postcolonial French poet-philosopher Edouard Glissant’s take on the broad sweep of American history inherent in Faulkner’s novels (another long-standing interest of mine), it was like finding a gift-wrapped package under the Christmas tree. There it was, beckoning me under the tree (to mix metaphors) when I surfed into a book chapter by Oscar Hemer, Maja Povrzanović Frykman and Per-Markku Ristilammi of Malmö University in Sweden titled “Conviviality Vis-à-Vis Cosmopolitanism and Creolisation: Probing the Concepts.” Hoo boy! Fun times. (No, really.)
Turned out it’s the introductory chapter of a collection of essays they edited in 2020 under the title Conviviality at the Crossroads: The Poetics and Politics of Everyday Encounters. Under a Creative Commons license, downloadable open-access copies are available at:
Copies in dead-tree format can also be purchased from the publisher, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, for about $30 US dollars. According to an introductory blurb on the book’s webpage, Conviviality at the Crossroads:
- Revives Ivan Illich’s 1973 lens of conviviality, placing it in concert with Paul Gilroy’s 2004 definition of cosmopolitanism and Cohen and Toninato’s 2010 concept of creolization”; and
- Provides a useful alternative to binary theoretical and practical thinking both within and beyond academia, with relevance for policy implementations.
“Conviviality,” in this context, refers to more than the mood created by two martinis at an otherwise dreary cocktail party. It has been used in the past to describe a multicultural, religiously diverse culture in medieval Spain and, more recently by Black cultural studies professor Paul Gilroy of University College London for a “convivial culture” he finds in multicultural urban neighborhoods in the UK (see Andy Beckett, review of Gilroy’s After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? in The Guardian, Dec. 11, 2004). While Ivan llich is a fascinating character, he frankly hasn’t been that influential in recent years. A more elaborate blurb on the Springer website explains the academic sense of conviviality:
Conviviality has lately become a catchword not only in academia but also among political activists. This open access book discusses conviviality in relation to the adjoining concepts cosmopolitanism and creolisation. The urgency of today’s global predicament is not only an argument for the revival of all three concepts, but also a reason to bring them into dialogue. Ivan Illich envisioned a post-industrial convivial society of ‘autonomous individuals and primary groups’ (Illich 1973), which resembles present-day manifestations of ‘convivialism’. Paul Gilroy refashioned conviviality as a substitute for cosmopolitanism, denoting an ability to be ‘at ease’ in contexts of diversity (Gilroy 2004). Rather than replacing one concept with the other, the fourteen contributors to this book seek to explore the interconnections – commonalities and differences – between them, suggesting that creolisation is a necessary complement to the already-intertwined concepts of conviviality and cosmopolitanism. Although this volume takes northern Europe as its focus, the contributors take care to put each situation in historical and global contexts in the interests of moving beyond the binary thinking that prevails in terms of methodologies, analytical concepts, and political implementations.
There’s a lot here to unpack, and I haven’t even begun. But this book updates my understanding of creolization.
More importantly it takes into account some of the more disquieting trends in recent years worldwide, from the European refugee crisis of 2015 to the rise of racist ideologies like replacement theory and the success of xenophobic and/or sectarian populist leaders in Russia, Hungary, India, Brazil — and he-who-must-not-be-named and his acolytes in the United States. It may suggest a counter-narrative to some of the tribalism.
I’m not sure how much I like “conviviality” as an analytical concept, but the thinking behind it would seem to address a real need, and it seems like a logical extension of Glissant’s concepts of relation and the Haute-Monde. (Glissant’s terms are defined, to the extent such a thing is possible, on Deepika Bahri’s Postcolonial Studies @ Emory website.) I think this idea of conviviality is worth understanding better in its own right (since I only encountered the term for the first time last night), and — who knows? — it may help me better convey how the Swedes found a niche for themselves in WASP-dominated 19th-century America.
But what about Glissant and Faulkner?
After all, that’s what I was looking up when I found the Conviviality book …
I’m only just beginning to wrap my head around Glissant, and I don’t have this sorted out yet. But I think his later, more philosophical writing about the “Toute Monde” (his term for what he hopes will be an emerging global culture blending features of more localized, often ethnic or racial cultures) has implications for American history and culture as a whole. Michael Wiedorn, professor of French at Georgia Tech, has written extensively about him, including a book titled Think Like an Archipelago: Paradox in the Work of Édouard Glissant. I came across this observation in Wiedorn’s chapter in another book, a survey of postcolonial themes in the literature of the American South:
Faulkner and his people (that is, Southern whites) struggle against the current that is the creolization of the world; they are ‘offended’ by ‘Le mélange, le métissage, plus l’imprévu des résultantes’ [Mixing, hybridization, plus the unpredicted nature of resultants] (ibid.: 117). As Glissant makes this point, he maintains the semantic slippage in his sense of the word ‘creolization’: the term denotes at once the creolization that Faulkner and his contemporaries would have considered to be ‘racial mixing’ as well as the more abstract and metaphysical creolization that would signify ever-increasing interconnection, combination and unpredictability.
Wiedorn’s essay is in Liverpool Scholarship Online at https://academic.oup.com/liverpool-scholarship-online/book/19691/chapter/178489254. Is the same ambivalence present in American culture as a whole? I think it might be, as racial attitudes formerly associated with the South have found a nationwide home in the Republican Party and, to some degree, evangelical churches. That alone, in my view, makes it important. In the same piece, Glissant’s literary criticism seems to point in the direction of a larger meaning. Says Wiedorn:
While [Faulkner’s] literary practice is peculiar to the US Gulf South-Caribbean region, this shared, paradoxical poetics, which Glissant suggests is aligned with the very force of life itself (Glissant, 1996: 139–40), has the potential to extend outward into other spaces and places. Glissant thus implies, as with his repeated assertion that ‘le monde entier s’archipélise et se créolise’ [the entire world is becoming archipelago-ized and creolized] (Glissant, 2005a: 25), that the Caribbean, and by extension the shared US Gulf South-Caribbean cultural zone, can point the way towards new and more desirable forms of thought and, subsequently, life. [Links in the original.]
How this relates to the Swedes on the North Side of Chicago in the 1850s, I can’t say yet. But I think recent events — as the 21st century intrudes on my historical analogies and threatens to upend them — suggest there may be parallels I hadn’t considered before.
Something else I didn’t know: Through a complicated series of mergers and acquisitions, Springer Nature Switzerland AG is the parent company of Palgrave Macmillan, which combines the former St. Martin’s (in the US) and Macmillan (UK) publishing houses and handles academic titles worldwide.
Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) Citation: Oscar Hemer, Maja Povrzanović Frykman and Per-Markku Ristilammi, eds., Conviviality at the Crossroads: The Poetics and Politics of Everyday Encounters (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), ___. [Author First Name/Initial Surname and Author First Name/Initial Surname, Book Title: Subtitle of the Book (Place of Publication: Publisher, Year), page #.]
A couple of other Cites:
Andy Beckett, review of After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? by Paul Gilroy, Guardian, Dec. 11, 2004 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/dec/11/highereducation.news1.
Charly Verstraet, “Authors and Artists: Glissant, Edouard,” 2014, Postcolonial Studies @ Emory, ed. Deepika Bahri https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/postcolonialstudies/2015/11/04/edouard-glissant/.
Michael Wiedorn, “Go Slow Now: Saying the Unsayable in Édouard Glissant’s Reading of Faulkner,” in Martin Munro and Celia Britton, eds., American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South (Liverpool, 2012; online edition, Liverpool Scholarship Online, https://doi.org/10.5949/UPO9781846317200.011 [I found it at https://academic.oup.com/liverpool-scholarship-online/book/19691/chapter/178489254].
Published July 30, 2022]