Have you ever looked into your family’s genealogy? If so, what did you hope to find? Considering the popularity of shows like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Your Roots and TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, you may not find it surprising to hear that genealogical research reportedly ranks only behind gardening among popular hobbies in the United States. But why? I find an answer to this question in a question, which I offer as a refrain: Who do you want me to be?
A couple years ago, while watching television and rocking a restless infant to sleep, an advertisement for the website ancestry.com extended an invitation: “Discover Your Story.” It was the Fourth of July, and something about that day’s spirit of national identity and the proximity of my offspring made the advertisement’s persuasion especially effective. It made me want to seek my story, so that I could someday bequeath that story, even though I am suspicious of stories.
As a historian, I tell stories all the time, but I also know that every story carries a claim about what you should know and why you should know it. These claims suffuse and shape us. “The truth about stories,” the Native American novelist and scholar Thomas King explains, “is that that’s all we are.” Yet even if awareness of this fact should inspire our critical suspicion of stories, the fact itself makes us need stories. And so it was that ancestry.com’s advertisement made me wonder whether its database possessed something important about who I am. I have always held my grandparents’ stories about their lives in northern Mexico close to my sense of self, but the advertisement promised to make me whole in a way that only its product could. All that separated me from an account of my kinship was an act of purchase, and the grace of a free trial made it easy to say yes.
But what would data about my ancestral past actually tell me? Since locating the advertisement online and watching it again, I have wondered why an answer seemed so ineffably obvious the first time I saw it. Depicting a middle-aged white woman’s experience using the site, the advertisement follows one of her genealogical “hints” (an animated leaf) as it appears in her online profile and alights from her computer screen. The leaf flies out a nearby window, and the camera follows the leaf as it travels back in time along the path of the woman’s ancestral story. Suddenly, the leaf soars toward Abraham Lincoln as he delivers the Gettysburg Address, but then it takes a surprise turn and lands on a photographer in Lincoln’s audience. Flashing back to the present, we return to the woman, comfortable on her couch. She seems happy to have discovered an ancestor, and viewers are left to imagine their own potential states of satisfaction. Beyond the promise of therapeutic consumerism, however, what claim does the advertisement make about the effect of the woman’s discovery upon her life? What story would that discovery allow her to tell herself about herself? Would her story be about the history of abolition, the history of photography, or something else? Only now do I realize that her story would depend upon who she thinks she should be.
Although genealogical data can seem to speak for itself, genealogies draw their meaning from other stories. Complementary stories have allowed genealogical endeavors to endorse lines of monarchical succession, evidence supposed racial purity or impurity, determine who should inherit countless fortunes, justify rituals intended to unite families in the afterlife, and more. During the nineteenth century, as colonial officials in Asia continually discovered and disseminated what they understood to be religious texts, European scholars used those texts to affirm the story of European modernity. Insisting that languages manifested the spiritual, mental, and intellectual qualities of the peoples who spoke them, comparative philologists not only identified what they saw as correspondences between “families” of languages and “races” of people but also arranged those languages and peoples in hierarchical lines of succession, development, and decay. Amending early philologists’ tradition of attributing cultural difference to a group’s essential racial “spirit,” the pioneering comparativist Max Müller would later insist that all peoples and their religions emerged from common origins. Calling for a new “Science of Religion” to trace that development, Müller essentially invited scholars to “discover their story.” Yet those stories ultimately depended upon another story, which Müller described as the world’s “unconscious progress towards Christianity.”
We often struggle to perceive the stories that help make our extraordinary and everyday activities meaningful. One reason for this is that the most persistent and powerful stories come to seem like principles of common sense. Throughout the nineteenth century, Müller’s story of Christianity’s supremacy served as one such story, along with the narrative of modernity’s steady disenchantment. These and other stories became commonsensical not just because people repeated them for centuries but also because they made sense of the worlds that mattered to the Euro-Americans who repeated them.
Yet even if a story is repeated so much that you come to believe it, that does not necessarily mean it was meant for you. Although commercial advertisements not only solicit belief in their products but also sell their story to whomever happens to be reading or watching, for example, advertisers and the companies that they represent typically target consumer constituencies far narrower than the public that actually lends attention to those advertisements. Consider the case of evangelical Christian media companies, whose business strategies preoccupy my current research project. Although evangelical companies often describe their market expansively as “the Church,” their commercial attention usually focuses more narrowly on white, middle-class constituencies within that ecclesiastical expanse. Not everyone is the kind of person that a company wants you to be.
When I acquiesced to ancestry.com’s advertisement, I did so not just because I wanted to “discover my story” but especially because I accepted the advertisement’s story, which told me that I should become the kind of person who has the kind of story that the advertisement depicted. If the woman in the advertisement had discovered a relationship with Abraham Lincoln’s photographer, what potentially transformative fact might I find? Am I actually related to the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, as my grandmother always claimed? What other facts make up my story? It seemed so easy to become the kind of person who had a tidy, inspirationally interesting story that it seemed unreasonable or even irresponsible to resist the offer to buy it. Did I not owe that affordable knowledge to my children?
Not long after signing up for ancestry.com, it became clear that I did not belong to the consumer demographic that Ancestry.com LLC, its shareholders, its archive engineers, or its advertising team held foremost in mind. Although I had agreed to pay extra for data from beyond the United States, I could not find anyone born before my parents. The names I fed into the database were too common, their birthplaces were too imprecise, and the dates of their births, deaths, and migrations had slipped from too many relatives’ memories. By contrast, even though my partner knew seemingly little about her own Euro-American family, I was able to trace her genealogy back to the seventeenth century, in less than an hour. Her genealogy proved so easy to trace, in part, because the website let me know about dozens of other people who had traced segments of her ancestry that they shared. The advertisement’s story was meant for them, far more than me.
But the truth is that I already knew my story, even though I felt obliged to find a better one. At the heart of my story are the same scraps of facts that I sought to buy my way beyond. Those facts became scraps as my ancestors left Mexico for the United States, rupturing the tight kin networks that proximity nurtures. Those facts remained scraps as expanses of time and space steadily put my family and me farther from the places and people we could recover. And the fact of those scraps became the bedrock of my family and its future.
Who do you want me to be? Since unsubscribing from ancestry.com, I have not worried much about the company’s answer to this question. But I have recognized myself asking and answering the question again and again. Implicitly, at least, the question orients virtually any social interaction. Has someone ever made you feel compelled to switch the code of your speech, or to introduce yourself a certain way? Have you ever perused someone’s bookshelf and silently criticized either their taste or your own? In significant and superficial ways, the question and its answers constitute our social relationships and sociality. But we do not always perceive ourselves telling other people who they should be, just as we do not always hear the voices that tell us to make certain stories our own.
Why do we so often struggle to recognize the theological ideas, legal paradigms, racist structures, corporate privileges, ethical obligations, institutional ideologies, and consumer practices that organize us, nurture our desires, and shape our subjectivities? Although the study of religion has always sought to bring many of these ideas, obligations, and practices into view, the limits of our perception constantly lead us to accept and repeat the stories we have come to find familiar. But for ten years, The Immanent Frame and its contributors not only have revised the stories that scholars of religion tell about society and selfhood but also have helped scholars reimagine the stories that are available to tell. They have had this effect by pressing you and me to look and listen again, in places we might not have considered, for the voices that tell us how and why to discover our stories.