What is a Mormon? From an anthropologist’s view

Part One of a New Series!

Free Lessons in How to view Mormons like an Anthropologist

Before embarking on a comparison of Tolkien Studies with Mormon Studies, and the “logic” of amateurs and professional practices, I think it might be helpful to outline where I’m coming from.  Hence:

LESSON ONE: The Articles of Faith, in quasi-legalese, of Any Ethnography of Mormonism

1.  “Mormon” is a word with no single, non-discursively dependent referent.  That is, unlike the word-thing relationship between, say, table or chair, Mormons as a referent of “Mormon” do not exist without the word.  This is another of saying “Mormon” is a cultural “construct,” though in a more careful, and analytically fruitful way.  Now we can follow how the term “performatively” creates what it refers to, and the speakers of it likewise as potentially being also what is picked out in the utterance…

2.  To use the word “Mormon” to refer to a person is to put them into a class of things by virtue of some criteria said to be unique to that class.  Where did the class come from?  See Article I.  So, by virtue of usage, and one’s encounters with usage (say, in family circles, in the media, or at a church; let’s call them “communities of usage”), one decides that a certain quality is seemingly unique to whatever one hears referred to as “Mormon”.  That quality is inevitably bound up with speaking (in whatever modality: writing, gesture, etc.), but also the performative effects of speaking are registered to some other seemingly non-discursive creator, such as, spirituality, mentality, faith, region, class, gender….this is a misunderstanding that anthropologists read as a sign of a “native” perspective which then warrants explanation by way of data elicited from the “native” (but not exclusively from them, as they cannot “see” all the complex processes by which they came to be a “native”, as it were).

3.  There is no definition of “Mormon” which is not itself derivative (and creative) of the existence of that class; which class is itself derivative from the existence of the word.  That is to say, every definition of “Mormon” is itself creative of the class of things it would define, and the definition itself derives from the thing it creates by way of usage.  All the “parts are in motion,” though appearing stable from any “native” perspective.  Hence, when looking narrowly in space or time, one can be confounded into believing that “Mormon” actually refers to some language independent thing or person; but this belief is untrue, though compelling and seemingly beyond doubt.  The result (and proof of the essentially sociological-discursive source of the existence of the referent of “Mormon”) are practices designed to “purify” the “authentic” class.  Correlation is one example, but there are many.  Another result (and proof) is the existence of schisms aimed at uniting a more criteria-singular class (“we are gay Mormons”).

4.   The existence of modifiers of the word “Mormon”, such as liberal, gay, true blue, true believing, reformed, uninformed, faithful, worthy, jack, doubting, correlated, uncorrelated, utah, and so on, are proofs that the word “Mormon” works its “magic” by virtue of bringing together relational terms, in a sort of three-card monte.  That is to say, more discrete sociological sub-classes of “Mormon” attempt to give definition to the term, and rationality to the class, and attempt this by drawing on sociological and cultural categories which are independent of the class of things ‘sensed’ to be drawn in by the term “Mormon”.  Thus the demonstrable fictiveness of the term “Mormon” is occluded by posing “essentially” different subclasses which can claim adhereents who can then offer their usage, and their “communties of usage”, of the term against the stereotype of another subclass.  Ethnicities and nationalities are formed by the same “logic”, though these ground their fictive existence in “the body” or “territory” or some other seemingly tangible thing.  “Mormon” is utterly discourse-dependent, and so tends to generate and rely on the generation of subclasses in order to hide the basic truth of its existence.  So it happens that as a result of the discourse-dependent nature of the term, and of classes of persons said to be referred to by this term, sociological categories emerge within distinct “communities of usage”; such groups have as a primary interest the continuance of misunderstanding of the discourse-dependent nature of their being.  Having an alternate, opposed, subclass of “Mormons” is of primary importance in furthering that misunderstanding.

5.  The ways and means of forming new “subclasses” or of “purifying” the class of things referred to by “Mormon” depend on the technologies of communication, and on the relative capital required to acquire, maintain, and control these technologies.  Communities of usage can be enlarged in this way, though at the risk of exposing the essentially discourse-dependent nature of their being.  Hence, many “cheap” ways of performing “Mormonness” emerge, ways which are easily ranked according to their status and validity, as defined (implicitly, of course) by those in charge of the community of usage.  Other “communities” emerge which claim to exist “outside” Mormon circles, and this is, too, a matter dependent on the processes described above.  No blog, for example, has a way to derive a definition of “Mormonness” that is not itself derived from pre-existing values attributed to “fashions” of speaking.  Over time Mormon blogs, like any other discourse-dependent community, develop ways to regulate the boundaries within which Mormonness is performed.  As a result, technologically “new” communities of usage typically extend the cultural dynamics previously at work, rather than alter them.

6.  Capital, econonic or cultural, plays a describable, analyzable role in every community of usage.

7.  As a result of Articles I-VI, the term “Mormon Studies” is a “native” classification of a particular way of “speaking” or of producing texts; the subject being “Mormons” or, more abstractly (and thus releasing the user of even the slightest methodological accountability) “Mormonism”; and the subject being treated within existing, “Mormon”-independent genres common to what might be called “academia”.  What is easily acquired from academia are those things that are now said to give Mormon Studies its being; this is a matter of capital, largely, and its increasingly unequal distribution.  In reality, however, the structural and discourse-independent processes which make scientific inquiry possible are not easily acquired.  Given, moreover, that the terms discussed in these genre-imitations, and their seemingly “natural kind” classes there treated, in fact result from the native’s conflation of “orders” of usage, classification, and definition, it is then true that “Mormon Studies” as a word used to describe the production of texts is a word derived from the same processes which construct and maintain “communities of usage”.  The Study of Mormons/Mormonism are thus not independent from the same forces described above.  Such communities, to repeat, have as their primary function the surveillance and sanction of the use of the term which gives them “being”, and for this reason how one “speaks” (and so “performs” Mormonness), in the most general sense, is of principle concern.

These Articles are a stable beginning for actually understanding how “Mormons” and “Mormonism” can be understood from a position that is not itself derived from the communities that use the same terms.   That is to say, any position which privileges one native community’s use of “Mormon” over another is a position bound up with the power, capital, and other “forces” (let’s say, for now) that generated the misunderstanding among speakers, a misunderstanding that the term’s referent is not dependent on language, but is somehow a “naturally” existing thing.  Translation: to define “Mormon Studies” without defining “Mormon” from criteria independent of the processes which make the term a sociologically living thing is merely to use the capital, power, and force of, say, academic genres to do what “fundamentalist”, “liberal”, “true believing”, “X-Y-Z” Mormons have been doing for many decades.  As a result, Mormon Studies is merely a translation of Mormonism into another sphere, and by that translation, a non-circular understanding of “Mormon” itself becomes an impossibility.