Jon Bialecki

Home » Uncategorized » Using every part of the buffalo (intellectual history/more navel-gazing edition)

Using every part of the buffalo (intellectual history/more navel-gazing edition)

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First, a brief introduction. For reasons that have nothing to do with this “blog,” I recently had to write what basically was an intellectual biography. (Please note, and then do not meditate upon, the assumption that something that something that is sometimes only updated once a year can be called a “blog.”) While I can’t imagine that it would be of interest to too many people, if I squinted my eyes hard enough and lied to myself with just enough conviction, I could imagine that the essay might be interesting to one or two people – and if you are one of those people, my condolences on the various life events that have brought you to such as state. If nothing else, this sketch might have the virtue of a ten-thousand-foot-altitude view of how an intellectual project comes together over time, and maybe even let people see how a sack-full of disparate articles, essays, and book-chapters can be pieced together.

Now, I guess, on to the main event…

My work has primarily been in the anthropology of religion; specifically, for most of my career has been concerned with Pentecostals and Charismatic Christianity as a subject, and variation in social forms, religious language, religious embodiment, selfhood, and ethics as problematics. More recent work has focused on religious transhumanism, which has entailed research on Mormonism, on the Internet and religion, and also on science and technology studies. During all of my research, I have also written extensively about global Christianity, and consider anthropologists of Christianity to be my chief conversation partners. It is my hope, though, to extend my conversational community with my still in-planning third project, which will address the classical anthropological category of ‘magic’ even as it builds on my previous work on ethics and religion.

An original, grounding concern with the anthropology of Christianity has been with me since the earliest moments of my dissertation project. After some pre-dissertation exploratory fieldwork in Southeast Asia (which culminated in a Master’s thesis about forms of spirit possession in Malaysia and Indonesia), I chose to shift my interest to Pentecostalism. There were three reasons for this choice. The first had to do with the rapidly growth of this form of religion worldwide; as many senior anthropologists were being forced to acknowledge, much of what was classified as ‘traditional religion’ in places such as Africa, New Guinea, and Latin America was being uprooted, and in some cases even extinguished, by mass conversion to Pentecostalism. The second reason for my change in topic was that taking up more experiential and ‘spirit-filled’ Christianity as an ethnographic problem offered the possibility of studying ecstatic phenomena not entirely dissimilar to that found in the forms of possession that interested me in Southeast Asia. There was one important methodological difference between the two, however: with Pentecostalism the phenomena occurred much more reliably, and was carried out in relatively public places since the Pentecostal variants of these practices did not usually carry the same social stigma as witchcraft or magic. The third reason for the change in project was a growing anxiety about the increasingly important role that white, conservative evangelicals were playing in American electoral politics; this was a concern that only deepened in the wake of September 11th, 2001. At the time, I felt that a more thorough-going and anthropological understanding of this religious phenomenon could help make clear both the roots of this heightened electoral involvement, and provide a better picture of the particular forms that their political activity was taking.

Despite a lack of prior personal experience with this form of religion, fieldwork advanced rather quickly. After canvassing many of the then extant Southern California originated evangelical and Pentecostal movements, I decided to focus on the Vineyard. The Vineyard was a fast growing network of churches that conjoined evangelical theology to Pentecostal supernatural practices; it was also known for rejecting the trappings of what they considered to be ‘formal’ religion. I chose to focus on the Vineyard in part because the Vineyard’s form of ecstatic Pentecostal-derived practices was very much influenced by similar practices of Pentecostals from the global south (something that I would document in a 2015 article in Pneuma). My opting for the Vineyard was also informed by the fact that at that time there had been little sociological and no anthropological attention given to this movement/denomination (unbeknownst to me at the time, Tanya Luhrmann, a much senior psychological anthropologist, was simultaneously launching a study of a Vineyard church in Chicago; luckily, our choice of theoretical frames and ethnographic problems are different enough that our work compliments, rather than competes). After having made my decision, I spent almost a year attending as many different Vineyard churches as I could in Southern California, supplementing my visits with interviews when church leadership was willing. While I continued to visit new Vineyard fellowships whenever I had an opportunity to, after that initial year I shifted my attention and began a long-term study of a single particular Vineyard Church. This aspect focused strongly on the ‘participant’ side of participant observation, which meant attending trainings, bible studies, and prayer groups. It also meant my attempting to carry out the Pentecostal ‘gifts’ such as speaking in tongues, receiving prophecy, and healing, which was a difficult choice both as a methodological approach but also an in situ social practice. This choice also raised ethical problems, which I remedied by only attempting to engage in these practices in situations where those around me were aware both of my status as an anthropologist, and were also aware of my lack of religious conviction.

After fieldwork, I wrote up my dissertation while teaching as a visiting assistant professor of Anthropology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The dissertation was written as a series of articles that was independently published in journals such as the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, American Ethnologist, and Anthropological Quarterly. These initial articles focused on issues such as exchange, temporal rupture, and speech ethics; this was because these topics were live subject matters to my main interlocutors in the global anthropologists of Christianity. To further this discussion, at the same time I was the lead author in what I understand to be the first review article on the anthropology of Christianity, which has become a well-cited touchstone in the field.

My dissertation focused on what I referred to as centrifugal and centripetal effects of the various Pentecostal style Charismatic practices, though in each chapter of the dissertation the discussion of these effects was carved up into different theoretical domains and languages due to founder effects in the various sub-disciplines I was engaging with. After being awarded my Ph.D. I began reading critical theory more widely in an attempt to find a synthetic analysis of the sort of disparate economic, linguistic, and temporal-imaginary topics that constituted my dissertation. I found Gilles Deleuze’s language of affects, intensities, and becomings to be quite helpful in discussing Pentecostal religious phenomena, and his work became a frequent touchstone in my post-dissertation work. Turning to Deleuze gave me a way to discuss both “miracles,’ that is ecstatic Pentecostal-style practices, but also more quotidian social phenomena that was framed as supernatural. It allowed me to describe miracles as emergent, self-structuring, sustained events that broke sharply with how believers understood probability, but also was markedly different from the behaviors and values that they attributed to ‘the world.’ Though I did not anticipate this occurring when I first began my project, I also found myself writing on the wider history of anthropological and theological engagement with Gilles Deleuze, something that resulted in a review essay, an extended article in the open access, on-line Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, and also in some still in press edited volume chapters.

My adoption of Deleuze also facilitated not just my discussion of the particular ethnographic phenomena encountered during fieldwork, but also allowed me to engage more theoretically with wider issues in Global Christianity. The quickly building ethnographic record addressing various Protestantisms, post-Protestantisms, and quasi-Protestantisms suggested that there were mangy similarities in how these modes of religion were carried out on the ground, but there was also a great deal of difference from case to case, and it was becoming quickly clear that no single ‘definition’ of Christianity would be adequate to all these ethnographic exemplars. The usual response to this sort of problem is to see this as further evidence that religion as little more than a contingent, contested, and varied cultural category, or alternately to throw up one’s hands and use a polythetic definition for the religious form under discussion, or to otherwise refer to some kind of Wittgenstein ‘family resemblance.’ While I have sympathy for both polythetic and historical-genealogical theoretical accounts, I felt that Deleuze’s account of the ‘virtual’ offered a different way forward. Starting in a paper in the journal Anthropological Theory, but also in subsequent review essays and in my monograph, I argued that we can see various worldwide instantiations of Christianity as expressions of a wider field of potentiality created by what I called “Christian Problems.” The reason that monothetic definitions fail, but also what it is that polythetic definitions miss, is that while the responses to these problems can be incredibly varied, all these reactions still share and are structured by the underlying problems that are ‘papered over’ by each particular response. In a review essay in American Ethnologist, a forum discusion in Suomen Antropologi, an in press book chapter, and also in the conclusion of my first monograph, I have extended this to create an account of religion as potential. At the same time I have attempted to take the critiques of the category of religion (made by the likes of Talal Asad and J. Z. Smith) and use them not as a foreclosure of any global theoretical account of religion, but rather as the basis of an account that would presuppose variation and difference. In these works, I hesitantly suggest that we can think of religion and magic as just supplemental pure potentiality that, because it has no inherent telos or goal, can be expressed by any material instantiations, and used for any goal.

All this predatory work culminated in my UC Press published, 2017 AES Sharon Stephans Prize winning ethnography A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement. This work was not a rehash of my dissertation, or a collection of later articles, but rather a new book that (with the exception of a few ethnographic scenes) was made of material had not been published before in any other forum. That is not to say that there was not any continuity with my earlier work; in writing Diagram, I relied on my work on variation in religion, as well as essays, articles, book chapters and talks on subjects such as religious personhoodaffect theory, the anthropological of ethics, the relation between anthropology and theology, and on recent attempts in my discipline to ground an ethnographic methodology in anthropological theories of ontology. The book takes up the question of variation in Pentecostals-style Charismatic phenomena within the Vineyard, using it as case study to think through wider ranges of variation in religion writ large. The ethnography presents a detailed account of phenomena such as spontaneously hearing the voice of God, of receiving and communicating prophecy, of speaking in tongues, of healing, and of deliverance; it also contains what was then to date my most extended discussion of Pentecostal, Charismatic, and evangelical politics (I have since written more on evangelical politics, especially in regard to race and identity, in articles in Religion and Society: Advances in Research and North American Dialogue). This book analyzes these phenomena as expressions of a ‘diagram,’ meaning a structured relation between forces that can be expressed in different mediums. I posit a “Pentecostal/Charismatic” diagram as a partial resolution of the problem of divine presence (as discussed in the early work of anthropologist Matthew Engelke). The diagram is a way of speaking simultaneously of minute graduations of difference and also of a sort of ‘simulacra’ of identity. This is possible because the diagram can be realized using different verbal, written, acoustic, haptic, and mental material, with these different aspects expressed in different degrees of intensity, and occurring in different milieus. In the last chapter of my book, I attempt to show ethnographically that the Pentecostal/Charismatic diagram is just one structural variation of other Christian diagrams, and that altogether these Christian diagrams are susceptible to being understood as a response to the before-mentioned problem of presence.

Since that time, I have had many other engagements, including a long-running discussion with Adam Reed on the anthropology of character. For close to a half decade now, I have also been working on a second project on religious transhumanism, with a specific focus on the Mormon Transhumanist Association (also known as the MTA). Transhumanism as an ideological stance is the hopeful anticipation that in-progress and near future scientific and technical advances in fields ranging from nanotechnology to artificial intelligence will so change our species-capacity that we mwill not longer be human in the same way as were for most of our history, and we perhaps will not be human any longer at all. Despite the eschatological edge that much of transhumanism has, anthropological literature on the subject of secular transhumanism argues convincingly that it is a mistake to consider this movement to be a ‘religion.’ Many of these secular transhumanists concur, sometimes stressing their strong antipathy to organized religion and ‘superstition.’ Because of this, the presence of religiously oriented transhumanist groups is interesting, in as much as it opens up questions about the relation between science, religion, and technology. To address these questions, I have been engaged in long-term participant-observation with the MTA. This has included several visits to the Utah Valley, attending several MTA conferences, repeated formal and informal interviews with numerous MTA members, and extensive ‘on-line’ ethnography (the MTA has a robust internet presence). I also have conducted participant observation with more traditional Mormons, and have done extensive archival work on secular transhumanism. My work on the MTA generally has two levels. The first is sociological – what is it about the social circumstances of MTA members, who often tend to be Mormons in good standing with the Church, that encourages them to have a serious engagement with transhumanism? Answering this question has meant engaging with the state of Mormon progressive politics, with crises in leadership and credibility in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as with the economics and forms of sociality found in the Utah tech community and in Silicon Valley. It also has led me to theorize the role of religious speculation, which can be understood as a distinct religious mode that can be juxtaposed to both practice and belief. The second level of the project involves charting the structural transformations that allows for Mormonism, Mormon transhumanism, and secular transhumanism to form a series. Addressing material at this second level also means having to consider that these three objects do not composed a fixed and bounded set or a closed system, and that there are other social forms and ideologies that can also be thought of as structural transformations of these groups as well. So far, most of the material addressing this second project has taken the form of talks, on-line postings in the anthropological forum Platypus (run by CASTAC, the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing), and some in press book chapters or under review article submissions. Most of the writing on this project, though, has been in service of an-process monograph tentatively titled A Machine for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, and Speculative Religion; at present it is about 80,000 to 100,000 words long, and I expect to have it finished within the next year, and published within two years.

I have also begun work on my third project. While it is still in the tender stage of development, and elements of it may shift, at present it is a study of the life and writings of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century occultist Aleister Crowley; the plan is to engage in a current conversation about the ‘anthropology of ethics,’ and ask what it looks like when the theoretical tools built for that project are used on a figure who purposefully and programmatically cultivated an ‘anti-ethics’ as both an intellectual project, but as a way of operating in day-top-day life. This work also would allow me to broaden my discussion of religion and science by adding the third term of ‘magic’ to the mix. Given the voluminous amount of literature on Aleister Crowley, and the fact that much of the academic writing on him can be characterized as being, at best, of mixed quality, it may take several years before a monograph is produced, though I have already engaged in discussions with colleagues about possible Crowley-related projects for potential edited volumes and special issues of journals.

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