Jon Bialecki

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Public Books! Ontology! Blog navel-gazing!

Just wanted to mention that Public Books just released my review of Holbraad and Pedersen’s The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition; it was a hard review to write, as Public Books (rightly) prizes writing that is at once accessible to people outside of the discipline, but also ask for real contributions to the discussion on the topic. I have a lot of respect for ontological discussion in anthropology, even if I’m not exactly a fellow traveler, but at the same time I understand what is grounding a lot of the critical arguments, and well as private grumbling, that was directed against the turn when things were at their hight. I hope I found the right balance.

I also have some other stuff out – like a book chapter in this fine volume – but I want to talk about it later, since another essay in this volume has a critique of me, based off of something I wrote in this very blog! Which is some kind of coming around full circle, or perhaps merely a circular death spiral, but either way involves a greater discussion than what I can spare now.

Anthropos Tomorrow

There is not a lot of “value added” in this post, but I wanted to let people know about a project that I’m working on with Ian Lowrie, an anthropology/STI graduate student at Rice. We are co-editing a series for Platypus, the blog for the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology & Computing (or CASTAC), a committee of the American Anthropological Association. The series is called Anthropos Tomorrow: Transhumanism and Anthropology, and it’s more or less about what the title would suggest. In addition to our introductory essay, it has a wonderful piece by Grant Jun Otsuki on “human like” technology in Japan – human like meaning not resembling human (though some of it does, to an almost uncanny degree) but also meaning equipment such as LCD goggles or joysticks that are “human like” because they feel human.

It also includes an essay of mine on the Mormon Transhumanist Society, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog, and which gets plenty of press on its own; this piece is on how, for this group of religious transhumanists, speculation regarding human futures are also accounts of possible human pasts. It also addresses the Simulation Hypothesis, and how (when viewed through a certain metaphysics) this secular hypothesis can become something else entirely.

We’re expecting more posts in this series later on – we seem to be doing about one or two a month – so you should keep an eye on the CASTAC blog; but then again, I think that the CASTAC blog is always worth some attention.

“A pseudo-scientific Jewish assault on White European racial consciousness and identity…

As of the time I post this, if you search Google for “Boasian Anthropology,” at the top of the page you get this:

 

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For those who know about the history of Boasian anthropology, the irony – and the insult – that is contained in both the website, and in Google’s decision to feature that as their “snippet,” is almost beyond bearing. While the utility of Boasian thought today might be questioned by a few, Boas had a historic role in combatting “respectable” racism in the United States that is undeniable.

Now, I don’t think that Google is a hub of white supremacy. But I’m sure that the people at the corporation that had “don’t be evil” as a motto will try to hide behind an algorithm, hoping that this launders their moral responsibility. It doesn’t. An algorithm is just another agent or factor (in the old sense of the term), and what this algorithm does they have to own. And best way to take ownership is to remove this as a snippet view, and sit down and discover what went wrong.

I’m hoping that by the time you see this, the snippet offered by the search term will have been corrected. But then, I remember that Google long ago left their motto by the wayside…

 

UPDATE: The search now yields something quite different – a wikipedia page for Franz Boas. The Verge put out a piece on this, which included the following statement from Google:

Google does not endorse or select responses manually. This content comes from the third-party sites that we do not control. The feature is an automatic and algorithmic match to the search query. We welcome feedback, as we’re always working to improve our algorithms. Users and content owners can give feedback on incorrect information through the “Feedback” button at the bottom right of the WebAnswer.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is a case of Google taking moral responsibility, or sloughing it off. I’ve certainly made my mind up on the issue. All I have to say on the topic right now is, to quote a friend of mine, algorithms are social, too.

Donald Trump, the Pacific Standard, and me

This is just a quick note that the Pacific Standard has published an article that draws heavily on my work, and particularly on my soon to be released book. As always, there is a considerable gap between academic writing and journalism (temporality, audience, funding structure, etc.), so I wouldn’t want to say that the author’s argument is my argument, or rather, if this was an academic piece that I wrote, it would come wrapped in a protective blanket of qualifiers and counter examples. But I can say that he is fair to the book’s arguments, and I also believe that for many conservative Evangelicals, the unlikeliness of Donald Trump as the “Christian Candidate” makes his surprising election seem all the more like a work of God.

New Book (and New Book Excerpt): A Diagram For Fire

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As I think I may have mentioned earlier, I have a book coming out this spring as part of the University of California Press’s Anthropology of Christianity book series. The book is called A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement, and it is primarily about the Association of Vineyard Churches, a Charismatic Evangelical church-planting movement effectively founded by John Wimber. The Vineyard is a movement that has been given some significant anthropological and sociological attention before and is also starting to receive attention as a place for serious theological reflection. But without taking away anything from these other works, I still think that I have something new to contribute.

The book takes up as linked questions miracles and variation. Miracles are a problem because this is a movement that is centered on the miraculous – in fact, John Wimber taught a very controversial “applied” class on miracles at Fuller Seminary, which is arguably the premier Evangelical Seminary in the United States. Variation is a problem because individual Vineyard churches and individual Vineyard believers differ so much, and not just from each other, but they also self-differ over the course of time. They differ in politics, they differ in the level of commitment they have to the miraculous, they differ in how they self-govern, and they differ in class composition and in their levels of formality and ecstasy. I argue that the Vineyard is held together not despite all these differences, but because of them, through the miracle. The miracle can do this because it is an open and transformative way of re-organizing the world, the church, and the individual will.  I also argue that the miracle is used at times as a way of both organizing and acting in what is normally understood as economic and political spheres. I do all this through a detailed discussion and ethnographic account of various Pentecostal-style miracles that are common in the Vineyard and in Charismatic Christianity: prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, and battling demons are just some of the miraculous instantiations I address.  This work makes much use of the French theorists Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the diagram, but it also takes up issues from linguistic anthropology, the anthropology of ethics and morality, and even from some of the discussions of ontology that have been occurring in anthropology as of late. And I close the book by expanding on and concretizing an argument about the category or religion that I have discussed before in this blog and in print.

While the book has a few pages of ethnographic passages that have appeared in other works, the vast majority is ethnography that I’ve never shared before, and the analytic passages are all new as well. It’s available for pre-order, but if you can’t wait (or if you are on the fence!) I have excerpts from the book’s forward and the introduction free to download here as a PDF.

Politics, Difference, and Evangelical Ethno-Anthropology

There has been a talk, both before and after this recent 2016 American Presidential election, about race and evangelicalism. It’s no secret that according to exit polls, Trump won fourth-fifths of the white evangelical vote. This fact has to be balanced by the fact that there are plenty of evangelical leaders and laypeople who were critical of Trump. So, it is hard to say that support for a figure like Trump is baked into American evangelicalism, but it is also hard to say that it is not present at all, and that support is entirely a contingent factor and not somehow facilitated by some set of evangelical sensibilities, concepts, and practice.

The phenomenon of evangelical support for Trump is important for the obvious reason of political coalition support and maintenance, and I think that it is also important for evangelical self-reflection as well. But, as I’m a social scientist and not a politician or an evangelical, I believe that it is the importance of this phenomenon for social theory that I can best address. There are two questions on this front that stand out in relief.

The first is what is it that caused the lion’s share of evangelicals to fall behind Trump; as of now, there is plenty of informed and uninformed speculation on this point being produced at the present moment. This first question is an important one, but I think it is the second question that is more subtle, and is a prerequisite for thinking this first question through with any degree of success. The other question is how is it possible for two sets of evangelicals (those that voted for Trump and those that did not) to both articulate their views in the same evangelical paradigm. This bifurcation of opinions, both expressed through the same paradigm, is not something new: leading up to and during the civil war, for instance, both Northern and Southern evangelicals found religious warrants for their vying positions. But the fact that this simultaneous bifurcation of opinion but unity in logic has happened before does not tell us how it happened, with how meaning here what are the features of evangelical thought and practice that facilitate such different expressions?

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The Genealogy of ‘Ethical Life’

“The Genealogy of Ethical Life,” my essay-length book review of Webb Keane’s Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, has recently come out in Marginalia.

I don’t have much more to add to the review; my editor at Marginalia was kind enough to give me sufficient space to lay out my argument in full.  (Seriously if you ever have an opportunity to write for them, take it; it was one of the best editorial experiences I’ve had in my life).

The only thing I can do is to underscore three points already present in the review.  The first is that Keane’s book is an important contribution to the field, and when taken alongside Laidlaw’s and Faubion’s recent monographs, it suggests that the “ethical turn” in anthropology has reached an astonishingly high level of maturity in a relatively short time. The second point is that Keane’s book is without a doubt mainline anthropological through and through. There have been some interpretations of the book that misread it as psychological or cognitive anthropology. There is much more to the book than that. Large sections are concerned with Garfinkel and Goffman level microanalysis of interactions, and the last sections take up issues that rise to the level of transnational movements and political economy. It is true that Keane does some novel things with child development, psychology, and cognitive science, finding a clever and ethnographically focused way to take out the determinist sting from these ‘scientific’ accounts. Since this is such an unusual move and needs to be carefully walked through by reviewers, it can create an impression that these psychological, cognitive, and developmental issues are at the heart of the book. They are not; this book is about how ethics anthropologically subsumes different disciplinary accounts pitched at all different scales.

The third point is that to my eyes at least, this book looks like the end of a developmental line. What I mean by this is that while there will certainly be good ethnographic and theoretical work done in the future along these lines laid out by the current anthropology of ethics, the discussion of ethics and morality started by Laidlaw, Faubion and Mahmood over a decade ago may have gone as far as it can. This discussion, even when it tries to go against type, is shot through with a foundational presumption that is deeply humanist. Now, there is nothing wrong with humanism, especially in a discipline that claims to study the human. And for political, intellectual, and aesthetic reasons, there are certain populations which are better ethnographically served by a humanist framework. Finally, all this humanism is the product of previous historical turns that themselves either collapsed under the weight of their difficulties, or that were exhausted – this is not just humanism, but it is also post-counter-humanism, a reaction to a reaction against humanism in anthropology.

But when all you have is a single eye, though, you have terrible parallax vision. What is needed is a second anthropology of ethics that can run parallel to the current conversation. What is needed is not necessarily a cynical anthropology of ethics, but perhaps a pessimistic and inhuman one, with inhuman meaning here not a multi-species approach, but an approach starting off from a position of profound alienation.

 

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