Jon Bialecki

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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Orienting The East

This is just a brief note to mention something – or to be honest, to crow about something, because I think it is extraordinarily cool, and I had a very small, passing role in its coming into being (when the website is named after its author, you can expect a thin sheen of narcissism over everything, even when the author’s role is at best marginal).

Over at AnthroCyBib, my co-curator Tom Boylston has published our first truly in depth review essay. This in itself would be worth note, but what I’m particularly happy about its topic: anthropological accounts of Orthodox Christianities. This is a field that (at least in some accounts) has been relatively neglected by a comparative anthropology of Christianity, and so this is not only a step in undoing this error, but it is a very full-throated account of the current state of the field, and brings attention to some very sharp anthropologists. This is especially nice since (in addition to Roman Catholicism) some of the best work in the Anthropology of Christianity is currently being done on Orthodox and Eastern religious forms these days.

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On Kevin Lewis O’Neill and the question of whether Cultural Anthropology is “Left Behind.”

There’s a nice interview up with Kevin Lewis O’Neill, based on his recent piece in Cultural Anthropology, “Left Behind: Security, Salvation, and the Subject of Prevention.” I’m particularly enamored with the supplemental videos, and so this interview is probably doing what it is intended to do, specifically increase the likelihood of my putting it on a relevant syllabus.

But if I do, I may do what was intended for me to do, but I may not do if for the reason that was intended. In short, I suspect that there is a kind of subtle ‘teaching moment’ contained in the interview. While I have not sat down and done a comparative reading of the entire Cultural Anthropology interview series, there appears to be something off almost immediately in the interviewer’s footing. It reads here as if the interviewer really wanted to know. Specifically, he really wanted to know if O’Neill was a Christian. It could be argued that O’Neill opened the door by mentioning that he had gone on a church-related visit to Central America in his youth, but it seems as if even before this aside, there was a probing, a desire to see O’Neill’s article as a critique (and hence a form of ethical judgment), one that would position the author in relation to his subject. Can you or can you not make a confession of faith?

Of course, this sense of there being an initial desire to know, to have O’Neill make a confession one way or the other, could simply be an illusion, an aftereffect of the way the conversation turned a little bit later down the line.  But it does seem a bit odd that all the work in complicating and opening up the subject positions of anthropological informants evaporates when the question is whether or not an anthropologist is or is not a Christian. One could  argue that his might be a linger after-effect of the status of Christianity and Christians in anthropology a decade or so ago. But the interviewer, from what little can be seen about him on line, doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would be filled with animus, and the questions don’t seem to show any bias along those lines. He comes across, rather, as a rather bright graduate student, simply asking what appears to be relevant questions.

Rather than suspecting some kind of bias, the more interesting possibility is that this is another case of Anthropology “believing” in Christianity, of the discipline taking a certain kind of binary, in or out, faithful or fallen logic particular to a very influential but peculiar stream of Euro-American Protestant thought, and unconsciously accepting its truth in a manner that seems almost transferential, the in psychoanalytic sense of the term. There may be an inversion of values (perhaps Christian is the ‘wrong” answer here), but the structure may be present all the same. This, of course, is the same logic of judgment that animates “Left Behind” –  not the O’Neill essay, but the best selling millennial fantasy that is itself referenced in the interview, and to which the O’Neill title is an allusion. This suggests that despite my skepticism about there being some kind of Christian specter haunting anthropology, my disbelief that past origins and current practices should be conflated, that history is the logic of nothing but trace and taint, there may be something to claims about “the Christianity of Anthropology” after all.

UPDATE: On review, it appears that I mistook the photography credit for the byline, meaning that the proper pronoun should have been ‘she,’ and that the author wasn’t exactly who I thought they were. Given that the object was the interview itself, though, I still stand behind my claims, speculative though they may be.

Enough ontological turns to go all the way around the block?

Here is a piece from Anthropology of the Century on what a friend of mine calls the “Laidlaw vs. Pedersen” debate (which put that way, to be honest, sounds a bit more like a civil trial than an intellectual exchange, but no matter).

In the midsts of grading, but hopefully I’ll have some thoughts up on this matter soon.

On kneeling

A friend of mine posted on Facebook Camille Paglia’s review of three academic ethnographies of the American BDSM scene.There is, needless to say, many things that could be said, though still passing over in silence does seem to be the more prudent act. But still, one passage particularly struck me. Separating sheep from goats, academics with scruples versus the depraved, Paglia throws out this comment:  “Unlike Weiss and Newmahr, she [Lindemann] maintains her professional objectivity and attunement to ordinary social standards by preserving her outsider’s stance and declining to become a participant in the world she is studying.”

I acknowledge that it’s a fools statement to say that ethnography is nothing but participant observation, or even that participant observation is at some level central or a prerequisite. However, it seems to me that failure to participate is still problematic (assuming Paglia’s description is right – she seems to be the quintessence of the “untrustworthy narrator”). A moral refusal to participate, articulated as such (as opposed, say, to an inability) seems to break the secret compact of empathy that, Geertz aside, is vital to ethnographic projects.

But this has yet another turn. A few years ago, I co-organized a panel on the problem of anthropological participation as a part of fieldwork in Christian rites and practices . It turns out that many, many ethnographers refuse to engage in quotidian Christian activities, such as prayer or church services, while conducting fieldwork. In some instances this refusal is the result of a complicated necessity to counterpoise themselves against missionaries, with whom they are often confused by their informants. Fair enough. But in many other instances, this refusal is presented as an ethical act; that engaging in practices and speech acts that run counter to their ontological commitments would be a breach of integrity that overrides field-expectations of commensurability and openness. This despite the quite credible argument that Christianity is impossible to understand without exposure to the subjectifying work accomplished by it as an ethical discipline.

I may be making too much of the common use of the word discipline here, but this suggests that if we juxtapose the practiced field research ethics found in the ethnography of BDSM and of Christianity, something shocking comes up. Most anthropologists of Christianity refuse to pray, and it is the ummarked option, while one ethnographer of BDSM does not, and in this case it is the marked option. While I really wouldn’t want this to suggest that their is some objective hierarchy of values between Pentecostalism on the one hand, and BDSM on the other, and my views on the ontological commitments regarding Christianity is a matter of record, it is very striking that when viewed as a very rough approximation, apparently more academics find it comfortable to kneel before a mistress than to kneel in prayer.

Particles and Waves

I recently gave a talk in the UCSD Linguistic Anthropology Laboratory series; despite the limitations forced on me by circumstance (I had only an hour to give my talk, and it had to be scheduled right between two classes I was teaching) I really enjoyed myself.

The topic was taking work I had already done on dual models for ethical speech in the Vineyard, and ask whether the methodological and analytic tools developed by linguistic anthropology could be use to provide a more rigorous manner of understanding the role that affect might play in the pivoting between an Evangelical and a Pentecostal modes of speech (affect and field methods being a problem as of late in sociocultural anthropology).

Since this was a linguistic anthropology talk, it was naturally centered around video evidence – a moment that occurred near to close the of the 1985 “Signs and Wonders” conference, when a bevy of pastors come to the stage to tearfully repent after someone gets a prophetic word that many of the paid clergy present are ‘harlots.’

The comments I received during the workshop segment were particularly sharp, and this was a community that knows how to give very fine readings of “in situ” video material. But upon reflection, one thing in particular stuck me about the conversation that ensued. There was a tendency on the part of my linguistic anthropology colleagues to read the phenomenon through Goffmanian ‘footings,’ and as a series of interactions between actors contesting control of the speech event. My concern, with affect as forms of intensity that might be doing recondrite but still chartable work in shifting speakers from Evangelical modes of speech to Pentecostal ones was, to a considerable degree, seen as not being necessary for a rigorous analysis of the speech event.

There might be several reasons for this disconnect. One could simply be that absent first hand experience, it is hard to grasp the role that affect plays in the  uncanny dins that sometimes accompany large events where (at least in my interlocutors’ eyes) the Holy Spirit is at work. Not even the best of speakers can convey how at once thrilling and unsettling that collective soundscape, pieced together from groans of agony and tears of joy, can be.

But I also think that our discussion might have been slightly skewed by different framings as to what we were attending to. It seems to me that many of my linguistic anthropology colleagues were understanding this as a series of exchanges between discrete actors; while I was understanding this an event, in which boundaries of the person were at least temporality held in abeyance, overwritten for a spell by transmissions from person to person. It may be argued that I am simply presuming my conclusion – that affect does act as a contagion that is analytically distinguishable from, though not completely uninvolved in, the performance of speech.

Of course, to some degree, the promise of affect theory is that one doesn’t have to choose, that one is speaking two [metaphorical] languages at once, as Mazzarella has suggested.  We would think, then, of communication as being, like the photon, at once discursive particles and affective wave, discrete sets of code exchanged between identifiable and bounded actors, and as intensifies that work as historically caused and conditioned intensities. The key to making this claim more than an empty agreement that both frames are right, though, would be to catch those particular moments when a granular sense of human interactions, and a sense of the difference made by refractions, would leave identifiable effects . . .

Anthropology and Theology, Difference and the Monological

The other thing that I’ve done relatively recently which I’m particularly proud of is my review of Barber’s On Diaspora, written for AnthroCyBib, the website that I co-curate with James Bielo, Naomi Haynes, and Tom Boylston.

(A tangent: That website is also the origin of my ‘signature’ on this blog – on AnthroCyBib, all postings are also signed as  by “AnthroCyBib,” though, regardless of whether it was put up by Jams, Naomi, Tom, or myself. Long, uninteresting story behind that).

I like this piece not simply because the author of the book seemed to see at least some value in it, but also because, while Barber’s book is not theology (or at least not easily classified as theology), it throws light on important aspect of the relationship between theology and anthropology. Barber’s book points to a virtuality in Christianity that runs towards multiplicity and  immanence. Needless to say, this is not a universal theological vision. This is an important point because there seems to be a big push as of late to take up Joel Robbins challenge regarding the relationships between theology and anthropology. There are several pieces in the pipeline suggesting that anthropology would do well to take up theology as offering useful insights.

The problem with this is that theology tends to be monological, and while it would be going too far to say that anthropology is solely about human difference, that certainly is one of the poles that gives shape to the field. If we take up theology as having insights for different aspects of human behavior, then that pole collapses we end up trying to explain a variable with a universal, which is analytically misguided. (More about this if/when those pieces come out – beating up unpublished works seems at once bad cricket and too much inside baseball).

Now, this isn’t a problem with all theology – in my (limited) free time I’ve been working through Amos Yong’s In the Days of Caesar. What strikes me about the book so far is not just his use of anthropological material on Pentecostalism to craft theology – which is interesting enough – but also the fact that it is a theology that prizes variation and difference, not just in human formations but in divine action as well. While I am no proponent of privileging theological framings over social science ones, it strikes me that this is the kind of theological thought that could really be engaged with in a productive manner; and this is a thought I could probably not have formulated clearly without the Barber book.

“New” Publications on Latour, semi-narcissm edition

This post title needs some light explaining – the “New” is in parenthesis, because the title should actually be “untimely,” but that is too precious by half. The publication I’m referring to is an in-press article for the Journal for the Society of the Anthropology of Consciousness, which has recently been turned over to a rather promising editorial team. While my article for it –  “Does God Exist in Methodological Atheism? On Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back and Bruno Latour” – won’t be out until 2014, the manuscript is temporarily up on academia.edu in the mean time.

This is also only semi-narcisssm because I feel obliged to also point out that Speculative Grace, a book I relied on a lot when writing the piece, is also just now available. Adam Miller was kind enough to share the manuscript with me before it had been published, and it is the most concise and clear eyed treatment of Latour on religion that I have ever come across.