Jon Bialecki

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Luhrmann “When God Talks Back” Review

My review of Tanya Luhrmann’s book, When God Talks Back, just came out in the latest issue of Magic, Religion, and Witchcraft

At the 2013 American Anthropological Association

If you’re coming to the AAA this year, and you want to catch a paper by me, come to the Matt Tomlinson and Julian Millie organized panel, “The Monological Imagination,” which is being held on Wednesday, from 2 to 4 in the afternoon.  I’ll be giving a paper that is officially called “Divine Monologue and Sensual Heterogeneity: Prophecy, Authority, and Subjectivity in American Charismatic Christianity.” As per long-running tradition, my paper has almost entirely gotten away from this title, and who knows what I’ll actually call it when I give it.

Right after that, I’m the chair for Andreas Bandak’s “The Social Life of Prayer,” panel, running Wednesday from four to six. Like the “Monologue” panel, its for a great line-up, and well worth going to. I’ll just be playing traffic-cop there, though.

My comments on the “God is in the Details” post

I mentioned a few days ago that in her blog God is in the Details: Reading notes on the anthropology of ChristianityIngie Hovland had a very nice discussion of my Virtual Christianity piece. I also mentioned that I’d post  some comments in a little bit. Well, now it’s a little bit. I’ve also posted these on her website, but I wanted to up then up here as well – this version has the hyperlinks that I couldn’t put on the version on her page. Everything from here on out is identical to that other post:


First of all, I want to thank you for the attention, both explanatory and critical, that you gave to my essay; I think that this is something that does not occur nearly enough either in anthropology writ large, or even in the somewhat more cosy (but increasingly more anonymous) anthropology of Christianity. This site is doing something positive, and I base this not on any narcissistic attachment to my own work, but on the equal degree of care that you gave Brian Howell’s Repugnant Other essay (which is a really good essay).


Along with the exposition of my argument, you note a few concerns. I’m going to take them up in a laundry list manner, not in the necessary order of importance, but in the sequence in which you bring them up. The length and density of the response here is all out of proportion as well, but I thought that since this is the only way I know how to respond, it was better to do what I could, however malshapen, than do nothing at all.


The first is the issue of whether this theory either implies or engenders moral relativism. The first observation is that for some this would not necessarily be a negative thing – though I recognise that this is not a point that is widely shared. My response would be that if there is an insistence on an holding onto a ethical or moral stance that is in harmony with a virtual framing, there are ways of pulling this off. But it would be an ethic of immanent fidelity, and not any sort of universal or categorical one in the sense of legislating any code or any totalisation in advance. So, no legalism here, it seems.


The next implicit question is whether there can be a Christian ethic of this sort that works with this framing? I think there can be. Daniel Colucciello Barber, in his book On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity, has laid out an argument that there is both a Christian politics and Christian ethic of immanent fidelity to the Jubilee announcement made in Luke 4:16-21; for Barber this is a performative declaration, and adherence to it as an ethos is a responsible means through which to create a Christianity that engages in a creative yet faithful manner to whatever situation it is occurring in. I’ve written about what Barber’s book means for the anthropology of Christianity as a political project, but I think that here is some heft to this other ethical dimension of his argument as well. This isn’t the only imaginable immanent Christian ethic of course – Deleuze had a great deal of respect for Kierkegaard, who he saw as a Christian thinker who was not under the lure of transcendence, and thus avoided replicating the pyramid model of Christianity you identify in your essay. And I certainly think that, leaving behind “philosophical” Christianities for “Actually Existing” Christianities, there are plenty of cases of individuals and communities that have what looks like an imminent ethic. Of course, I don’t have a dog in this fight (as I say in another paper of mine, I consider myself an atheist, though what i mean by that is slightly different than how the term is commonly used today). But this is a serious question.


The next issue is whether my description of anthropology as currently in the throws of nominalism is true. I think you’re right that you don’t have to assume a starting point of disciplinary nominalism in order to see value in my argument, but I really do believe that nominalism is the guiding presumption of our time. Think for instance of the “bundle” model you contrast with my account – isn’t that competing framing nominalist to the core? What is a world religion than is merely a gathering of disparate things, that have shared traits due to contingent processes yet no commonality, if not nominalism? In an odd way, the problem is not whether or not anthropology is nominalist, but rather where is it nominalist; for instance there are some anthropologically-prized concepts that could afford to be pluralised, most particularly neoliberalism, but that’s a different discussion.


You note that I don’t provide a model for what this looks like – you’re right. All I can say is “Watch This Space.” I’m hoping that some material that is either in production or under review will serve as exemplars, but I also want to observe that you can see something like this process, unmarked, in a lot of existing ethnography by other people. In addition to the Keane and Engelke that you reference in your post, there are also other ethnographers who are thinking through a plurality or a becoming of Christian forms. Omri Elisha’s work, for instance, about a painful and tentative mutation in evangelical social engagement is a great example, even if he forgoes theorisation for a respectable anthropological empiricism (as opposed to a transcendental empiricism that I like to see myself engaging in – but that’s another discussion altogether). And I would say the same about James Bielo’s work – particularly the book length pieces. To go outside of the United States, you can see something similar in Liana Chua’s recent ethnography (though in her case it comes out in a somewhat less that charitable reading, and in some ways an incorrect one as well, of the Anthropology of Christianity literature, but that’s a different issue).


I also want to take up the way you frame the problem/solution binary. At one level – particularly the level of description and praxis, you’re absolutely right when you present “both domains as encompassing problems and solutions.”  And it is true, virtualities arise from actualisations in the same way that actualisation arise from virtualities. I think, though, that it is important to keep in mind the mathematical analogy, in which “solutions” come after “problems” only in the embodied time of arithmetic labor; at another level, though, the solution and the problem both mirror each other, and exist simultaneously, in mathematics. This may seem to be a perverse insistence on a certain relation between problem and solution, and arguably it isn’t one that even Deleuze himself always endorsed, but considering the unconscious, automatic nature of so much of the play between the virtual and the actual, to disaggregate them too much is an error. Also, I think in a weird way it undermines your desire to create an equivalence between the two modes, as it papers over the way that actualities are in continuous movement as well as are virtualities, the way that a ball flying in an arc in the air (the actual) has a continuously moving tangent as an expression (the virtual), one that traces in advance the path of the ball. Of course, with human beings, the variables rise to levels of far greater complexity, involving scenarios that are at the least ‘non-linear’ – hence the openness of the virtual, which is just a way of discussing the underdetermined nature of life that is arguably the core of a certain kind of human freedom.


This also brings us to the discussion of the virtual’s autonomy from the real, a claim about which you have some understandable suspicions. I would say that it’s important too acknowledge that yes, it is impossible to deny that “Christian actions might exist without being imagined, remembered, read, archived, inferred, invented, thought, acted, embodied, etc., by human beings.” But it is also true that all these activities, and the humans who engage in them, are also expressions of asubjective forces, and that the mental activities you reference are the result of continuing affective intensities, and the degrees of plasticity in what those affective intensities encounter. You could produce a full and complete narrative by attending to a causal, humanist account of your Christian actors, how they imagine, remember, read, archive infer, invent, and this is something that is a requirement of good ethnography (though perhaps not the only requirement). But you could also produce a full account predicated on these asubjective forces as well – hence, the autonomy of these two frames.


Finally, you rightfully say that you question whether “it is desirable to attempt to get all anthropologists of Christianity to work towards the same goal, based on the same theory.” I wouldn’t want that either. That doesn’t mean that I’m disowning my comments, but rather that I think that a lot of ethnography of Christian populations, or Christian concerns, isn’t an anthropology of Christianity. That isn’t an insult. I’m not saying that this non-anthropology-of-christianity-anthropology-of-christianity isn’t good anthropology or ethnography, or that it shouldn’t be discussed in spaces dedicated to the anthropology of Christianity. Note gonna kick anything off of Anthrocybib (if I can sneak in a plug). But these pieces aren’t reflections on what Christianity is, at least from a social science perspective – they are discussions of other problematics, the arc of which just happens to transverse a Christian field. When Christianity itself in the abstract is discussed, and when it is discussed anthropologically, as opposed to ethnographically, an approach that doesn’t at least take seriously the concerns I put forward in my essay, if not the actual theoretical ‘solutions,’ will end up doing violence to the wealth of expressions of Christianity that has been document by anthropologist. To get back to the Pyramid folk-model you mention in your post, we should recall that pyramids are tombs, and that we have to avoid both the temptation to vivisect Christianity into individual constituent slivers, or place it in an analytic sarcophagus and bury it alive.


And on that upbeat imagine, I’m going to close. This has been a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to reading your book, and also to seeing what new discussions you create through this blog.

A real discussion of Virtual Christianity

In her blog God is in the Details: Reading notes on the anthropology of ChristianityIngie Hovland has has a very nice discussion of my Virtual Christianity piece from earlier this year. She has some reservations, which are all rather reasonable and parsimonious (this is not to say that I agree with her, of course!). On the whole though, its a nice treatment, and she takes the argument a bit further by contrasting it with other models for differentiated forms within singular “World Religion.”

I hope to say more soon, but probably not this evening: I have a lot of work top take care of, and on top of it all, it’s my first Guy Fawkes night in the UK, and the small kid in me wants to go out and see something explode.

Talk this coming thursday for EUNAS

This Thursday, October the 24th (or, I guess, now that I’m on this side of the Atlantic, 24 October) I’ll be giving a presentation at 7:30 (19:30?) in the evening to EUNAS, the Edinburgh University North American Society; the talk will be held at lecture theatre 175, in the Old College.

The (working) title for the presentation is “America – will it ever end? Methodological problems in ‘cutting the network’ with the Nation-State.”  The abstract is below:

The United States of America is of interest as an analytic object in part due to its global reach, in terms of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power; but those same characteristics makes it difficult to know when, where, and how to circumscribe “America” as an analytic object, or to present any frame that is adequate to all the different and differential phenomena that comprise America’s internal heterogony. This talk examines the challenges, and also the opportunities, that arise when attempting to think both ethnographically and anthropologically about complex and influential late modern nation-states such as the United States of America.

I’ve given this talk informally before – but I’m excited at the challenge of giving it in this setting, and in front of this audience.

Simon Coleman on the difference between, within Pentecostal networks

When it rains, it pours – on top of the paper by Girish Daswani  that I came across yesterday, there is a new paper by Simon Coleman that is really worth attending to. It is an intervention in discussions of Pentecostal Networks, an idea that Simon Coleman himself originally helped construct. While Coleman never sinks to such depths, discussions of Pentecostal networks have a tendency to descend into tropic discussions of rhizomes; what is worse is that the invocation of rhizomes usually masks the analytic presumption that each iteration or node in the network is more or less interchangeable; it is just the ‘ground,’ the places that these nodes are embedded in, which vary.

What is really nice about Coleman’s article is that it focuses on difference – not merely in how it juxtaposes the networks of two separate Pentecostal movements (Sweden’s Word of Life and the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God), but it shows that inside of each network, the value of the nodes is predicated on degrees of spatial and organizational difference, and that the greater the difference between two nodes in a network, the higher the value of the shared connection is for each. This is a salutary reminder in any discussion of networks, but it is especially useful in the anthropology of Christianity, which (again, in less skillful hands) often seems to be  torn between a presumption of complete Christian identity across any iteration, or an absolute nominalism that would foreclose either a comparative analytic turn, or an acknowledgment of the imbricated nature of different Christianities.

Daswani on the ethical, the temporal, and the material

Apologies for the long hiatus – this summer I’m in the midsts of a move from my old institutional home at University of California, San Diego, to my new one in the department of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

The occasion for popping up during all this chaos is to note the publication of a rather sharp essay by Girish Daswani. It brings together three important refrains in the anthropology of Christianity – temporality and rupture, ethical practices of self-formation, and the inter-Christian debates about the place and value of the material substrate of semiotic systems. What’s more, while people have observes resonances between these three threads before, this is the first essay in quite a while that has really tried to think all three without prioritizing any one in particular, and at the same time acknowledge the differential and differentiating nature of the underlying phenomenon itself.

French Anthropology and Ethnography under threat?

While a great deal of this situation that seems unclear to me,  Dejan Dimitrijevic from the University of Nice has been circulating a petition (the English version of which is below) which suggests that ‘ethnology-anthropology’ is in danger of being stricken from this list of possible diplomas in France. For those interested in find out more, there are other resources available on this issue.

A ministerial proposal for a nomenclature of headings of license diplomas removes the mention “ethnology-anthropology”. The aim of this page of exchange and discussion is not only to defend this field of production of ideas and knowledge, but also to take advantage of this harmful project to promote public awareness of the program of this discipline to a much wider audience than the usual academic teaching space’s one. In the first place, the scheduled
elimination of ethnology-anthropology would be an intellectual and scientific impoverishment: one only has to look through the great debates of the 20th century to measure the importance of our discipline in the construction of the modern values. The greatest ethnological and anthropological works were all linked to the great societal debates of their time, and they are still relevant.

In the first half of the 20th century, the issues of exchange and gift as questioned by Marcel Mauss (The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies) did not only intend to produce academic knowledge but also stimulate the social reforms of modernity for a more fair and equitable redistribution of the produced wealth. After the tragedy of the Second World War, the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss was the driving force for the foundation of a new humanism, after the disaster of the exclusively biological design of the Man who legitimated the racialist attempts for hierarchization of human
groups, leading to the extermination of some of them. The cultural conception of the Man allowed a new momentum, universalist and egalitarian, from which comes the formulation which remains the identity and politics of our discipline “unity of man, diversity of cultures,” that Claude Lévi-Strauss developed in a text entitled “Race and history” to the broad public of the UNESCO.

The period of the decolonisation saw the emergence of the figure and the work of Georges Balandier, many still view as one of the founders of modern anthropology, so strong was his call against any anachronistic or exotic drift for the comprehension of non Western societies, African in the first place. Whether in an era marked by the decolonization, or today, while new antagonisms of domination and resistances grow, the need for thinking all the existing human societies as contemporary from/to each other is an unsurpassable anthropological truth.

In a period of reorganization of the world and redefinition of a thought on human potential, in new modernity, characterized by unprecedented globalization (in the sense it is coextensive to all the territories of the planet), ethnology-anthropology remains an essential resource to produce knowledge on the Man, we absolutely need . The desire to eliminate this jewel of modern knowledge can be explained only by the political distrust towards any
space where can be developed a free thought and a universal conception of equality of individuals and human groups.

Ethnology-Anthropology offers students a wide range of formations and specialties, but it also promotes the development of adult and informed citizens. Moreover, maintaining the words “ethnology-anthropology” in the nomenclature of the headings of license diplomas is not enough. An awareness of ethnological and anthropological knowledge should begin in primary school and its teaching should gradually grow in college and high school. It is urgent to engage via this page a constructive action against the scheduled elimination of our discipline:

1°) By demonstrating by a massive petition our firm refusal of the suppression of the mention Ethnology-Anthropology from the nomenclature of license diplomas;

2°) By informing the Ministry about the reality in Ethnology-Anthropology teaching and
the diversity of local situations.

Nice, Juin 23th 2013
Dejan Dimitrijevic, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis

The text is supported by :
Jean-François Gossiaux, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale
Bernard Formoso, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
Jacky Bouju, Université Aix-Marseille
Olivier Leservoisier, Université Lumière Lyon 2
Jean-Yves Boursier, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis
Octave Debary, Université Paris Descartes
Abderrahmane Moussaoui, Université Lumière Lyon 2
Philippe Chaudat, Université Paris Descartes

“Christianity and atheism are two sides of the same coin”

This is a nice reflection piece/vignette-ethnography, written by anthropologist Matthew Engelke for the Guardian, on Christianity, the New Atheism, Politics, and public ritual in the UK.

The article itself is worthy of attention, but just as striking is the way that the comments section has metastasized in less than a day. What is striking is how, despite the formal and substantive differences regarding religion in the US and the UK, the comments in comparable pieces in the US media read similarly (albeit it at a much lesser order of magnitude in the US case).

Putting aside whatever other points that might be gleaned from the Guardian comments section, and whatever judgements might be made about it, the tone and vigor of the comments suggests something that looks like an immure response to the idea of a role of the religious in politics in the UK. The open question, of course, is whether this is a reaction to an actual pathogen, an act of self-vaccination to ward off an American plague, or an auto-immune response, such as an allergy – or, perhaps, the body turning on its own self?

Parallel Lives Converge

Another reminder that the academy is in some very serious ways not at all that different from some of the social and cultural practices that they would take as their objects.