Jon Bialecki

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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.

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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.

 

Ontology without grounds: ontology, ethics, and the anthropology of religion

As a little bit of fall cleaning, I just posted a talk-length essay on the ontological turn and its critiques over at Academia.edu. This talk was the result of a ‘two birds, one stone’ series of invitations last spring. The first was a request from UCSD’s Center for the Humanities Research Group on Politics, Ethics, Ontology: An Inquiry into the Ontologies of Nature. I was told I could talk on whatever I liked, but there was a request that if possible, it might be nice for me to fold in an explanation of what in hell’s name was all that ontology-racket being made in anthropology. The second was a very kind invitation by the BYU anthropology department to give a talk on ontology and ethics. I was already coming to Provo be a part of 2016 Mormon Transhumanism annual conference (as part of my larger field project on Mormon transhumanism), so it was remarkably good timing (though I would have accepted the invitation more or less anytime, to be honest). Here, they were asking me to talk about ontology and the ethical turn. I had a wonderful time at both places, and the hospitality at each was exquisite. I also had the very head-spinning time (in the positive sense of the word) staying at the “Brigham” room of the BYU guest house, but that’s another story…

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Getting beyond arguing over ‘getting beyond the suffering slot’

A recent article in a small, boutique on-line journal named HAU (which, apparently, will publish just about anybody) has reminded me of a recent debate in anthropology: whether there is an inordinate focus on ‘suffering’ in anthropology, and particularly the sort of suffering that has its roots in neoliberalism. The most trenchant for of this argument is Joel Robbin’s arguing for the ‘anthropology of the good.’ Robbin’s gambit is that after the loss of culture as an organizing motif, suffering now serves as the warrant to validate anthropological projects, and what this forecloses is any investigation into how people make lives that run along the lines of what they think is of value in the world. Rather, we can only discuss what they endure.

Of course, there is another side to this as well: there is the competing idea that there is something Panglossian about focusing on the good in a time when neoliberalism is obviously so regnant, and there is so much abject misery in the world. This opposition is usually put forward as a debate, where we are supposed to pick sides. Debates are fun, of course, but as a substantive position this oppositional framing is a bit pathetic, as if ideas were countries locked in a border skirmish over some piece of a map, and not modes of creation.

Alternately we could meekly chirp that ‘both sides have a point,’ which may be the most levelheaded though lukewarm answer. Of the three options, though, that last is the one that strangely seems the most wanting, even if it is the most ‘catholic-with-a-small-c’ answer to the challenge (as if that’s a virtue). The reason that this ‘third way’ feels particularly unsatisfying is probably not because it is so irenic, though. It is because it is the one answer that doesn’t come to grips with the problem. But notice that there is shift – we have gone from ideas, as statements with determinate and mutually irreconcilable content, to a problem – an event or crisis that demands a response. And once we see this as a problem, and a shared one that can be taken up in different ways, then we can frame the various sides as differential resolutions – and hence can think of it in terms not of a binary, but perhaps in some kind of topological way, as different modes of unfolding the same terrain (as opposed to the topographical military metaphor of countries on a map at war.

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Summer crop of religious realism

I’ve been sparse on posting – mostly because of heavy writing commitments, and work on my book, A Diagram for Fire, which should be coming out with University of California Press early in the next year. And the American election has been praying on my attention as well, as both Charismatic Evangelicals and Mormons (the two groups I study) have reacted to the election in different and surprising ways.

I’ll have more – much more – to say later about both the book, and about the political imagination of Mormons and Charismatic Evangelicals. But I want to mention two essays of mine that came out this summer, both of which touched on the same issue: religious realism.

By realism, I mean here not realism as opposed to idealism, or realism in the sense of realpolitik. Rather, I mean the claim that various things ‘exist’ in the world as distinct phenomena or classes. Realism is usually a position opposed to nominalism, which states that these collectivities are merely conventions of language, and that there is nothing necessarily ‘shared’ by, say, all the creatures that we label as  ‘cats’ or ‘bureaucracy’ or whatever.

Nominalism is the default position in much of anthropology of religion these days. That this is the case is the result of critiques of the concept of religion by Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Tomoko Masuzawa, who rightly argue that previous anthropological definitions of religion were too influenced by Euro-American, and particularly Protestant, understandings of what religion was. This crypto-Protestant influence caused anthropologists to constrict the variety of religious forms that could be recognized, and made some phenomena, like Islam, be seen as ‘bad’ religions because they were inextricably interwoven with phenomena that are classified in the West as ‘politics’ or ‘law.’

But it seems though that we can acknowledge variation in religion without dissolving religion entirely as a category. Both of these essays lay out the argument in more detail, but the TL;DR version is that religions all involve some kind of problem of communicating or engaging with invisible or difficult to discern agents or forces. This communicative problem is resolved in numerous ways, from possession and sacrifice (where an immediacy in communication is seen as more likely), to privileging texts and moral orders (where it appears that communication might be chiefly or only unidirectional). Resolutions would also include transforming oneself into such a supra-human entity or force as well. It might even include positions that elaborate or double down on any claim that communication is impossible, due to distance, ontological or otherwise, or even due to the non-existence of actors of this sort (so an active atheism would be a religion, though not a passive atheism, or a failure to simply address the issue).

This approach has the flavor of Tylor’s definition of religion, I’ll admit, but only the flavor. This is because this communicative problem has no single solution.  Further, the set of possible resolutions of this problem is complexified by the fact that problems never come alone. The problem of communicating with these entities or forces arises as part of an approach to some other problem or problems (will the crops fail this year? Is life meaningless?). And any solution will give rise to knock-on problems (how do I know that the shaman was possessed by the entity she claims, and wasn’t possessed by some other entity, or perhaps was faking it? how do I know how to interpret this text? how to I come to terms with the fact that I shall never talk to God?). And there is nothing that restricts what problems might cause people to turn to this insistent religious problem, or that mandates how the ‘logically subsequent’ problems caused by the communicative problem will be resolved.  It is this set of concrete assemblages, all with different materialities and different social and psychological entailments, which we might imagine to be religion. And this is why I am not a nominalist when it comes to religion. All the manifold forms of religion as concrete actualizations are too varied, and too imbricated with other arrangements and concerns to have any universal definition. But the underlying problem, though, is common to them all, even if it at times gives rise to ‘unmarked’ or porously bordered forms of religion. If we grant problems an ontological status, then despite this undefinable surplus of forms, something underneath insists.

There is one last thing to note. This open arrangement of interlinked problems and pluriform solutions leaves a lot of freedom to religious forms. In fact, as I argue in detail in my upcoming book, there is good reason to think that religion is the most plastic human phenomenon. This makes religion the ultimate kludge: a practice, institution, structure, ethics or aesthetics that can be inserted anywhere, catalyzing and decelerating all sorts of other human belongings…..

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