Jon Bialecki

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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 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…


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.


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…..

Signs and Wonders

I just came back from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, where I participated in a public conversation with the artist Michael Stevenson about Signs and Wonders, his show at Midway Contemporary ArtSigns and Wonders was a fascinating reflection on the role of aviation, both as infrastructure and metaphor, in 20th and 21st century global Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. Through a juxtaposition of found objects and structures created specifically for this show, it meditates (in a very lateral and open-ended way) on topics such as missions in Ecuador and Papua New Guinea, the relation between the space-time of aviation and of contemporary Charismatic Christianity, tensions and resonances between dispensationalism and George Eldon Ladd’s “already/not yet,” and the role of aviation infrastructure in Third Wave moments such as the Vineyard Movement and the Toronto Blessing. If you’re in the area, and you’re interested in this mode of religiosity, the anthropology of Christianity, or the interaction between religion and technology, then this show is worth the time.

The conversation with Michael was a tremendous amount of fun, though I sadly don’t think it was recorded. Also, as a bonus, at the reception I got to meet the editors of Univocal Press, makers of excellent fetish objects/books (if you own the paper versions of anything that they put out, you understand what I mean).

When I have the time, I’ll add some pictures I took from the show to this post, though they don’t do any justice to the work.


Religious Speculation and the Belief/Discipline complex

It would take too long to thoroughly rehearse it here (though I have addressed it elsewhere), but the anthropology of religion is dominated by two threads. The first is accounts of religion that are predicated on belief as a category; the locus classicus here being Clifford Geertz’s account of religion as a conceptual exercise in dealing with suffering through the lamination of a vision of how the world should be on top of the experience of how the world actually is.

This account was once the prevailing understanding of religion, but it has been challenged on two fronts. The first front is that this is an overly protestant understanding of religion, based upon a certain kind of sincerity and interiority that is particular to reformed and post-reformation Christianity. The point here is that earlier Christian dispensations were predicated more on various forms of disciplines, either in the sense of Maussian techniques du corps or submission to authoritative institutions and figures. The idea here with these formulations of prior Christian practices is not that one first believes, but that belief is a fruit of discipline, and not something that precedes it.

This observation, put forward most forcefully by Talal Asad, has often been used as part of a campaign to de-essentialize religion, and militate against the idea of it being a unified field (this move, by the way, is an idea that I appreciate, but I think is predicated on a certain nominalism and some other ontological blinders that I’ve discussed in other places). But the chief ethnographic fruit of it has been a wealth of discussions centering on practice and other forms of religious formation, and I think that this has been a tonic to the field. But this foregrounding of religion as a disciplinary exercise overlooks something – why is it that anyone would submit themselves to such exercises? Certainly in many cases, there is some social coercion, but even in the most coercive of cases there is an element of volition that must, at least, be rhetorically produced, and in many cases voluntarism has a particularly important role in how people find their way in. And this suggests that while discipline can be the engine of belief, the act of submission to discipline indicates a certain kind of belief in the effectiveness and putative goals of the disciplining process. This suggests that belief and discipline are not alternative framings, or different stages in a process, but form a single complex. In different religious forms, the ‘ratio’ of the saliency or force of either belief or discipline may be different, and it may be that in different religious forms the ratio between discipline and belief may shift one way or another over the career arc of either the individual practitioner, or the historic unfolding of the religious form. But in the end, they form a whole, and we mistake a causal priority of one or the other for what are merely different intensities within structures that are topologically homogeneous.

And this makes sense if you assume that belief and discipline are in some ways more similar than different. Each involves a certain ‘image of thought,’ a fixed picture of what proper religiosity is. This may be expressed either as a telos of development, an expression of a closed set of privileged religious virtues, or the existence of a set of authoritative creeds and statements; but either way, this is about a fixity. That is, true believers or fully developed adepts of a religious form would be converging on a certain conceptual or embodied ideal. We may ask, of courses, what this fixity means – for better or for worse. The ‘better’ option may seem to be obvious, but the dangers less so, especially when one thinks about the integration of religion with other processes. Religious systems are not closed, and they are either producing figures for other social assemblages or alternately resisting outside countervailing forces. The risk here is that this larger ecology could change. This would leave modes of religiosity vulnerable because, due to these shift of circumstances, the effects of the ideals that informs the production of subjects could also shift. And because of these changes, it is more than possible that the subjects, the religion, or the larger ecology would no longer thrive.

What would be the response? Humans, of course, are inventive, and the kinds of shifts and transformations in the larger ecology may mean that certain preexisting elements in the religious would come to the fore, and a different larger ecology would eventually result. But that is to place a lot of trust in aleatory, blind, and indifferent forces. Religious forms are also capable of internalizing tactics and practices created outside of it, as well, and this, at least, would suggest more control, but at the same time the extraneous tactics and practices may come with entailments that are may be hard for some religious forms to internalize without creating more systematic internal discord; this could hinder the effectivity of these external forms … or possibly poison the borrowing form of religion at the very moment that it is experiencing crisis.

One might suspect that different religious forms would have over time developed their own resources for transformation in these quicksilver moments, and particularly for this time when “all that is solid melts into air.” It’s my suggestion that one common resource during these tumultuous moments is religious speculation. Speculation is the antithesis of the aleatory creativity for religion, then perhaps we should be giving it more importance. One of the first benefits of attending to speculation, ironically, is that it gives us a better understanding of the belief/discipline complex. We have discussed how speculation means a going beyond, and also how belief and discipline are actually a whole, to be taken as a combined totality. But when we think these two things together, we realize that discipline/belief is not just about the formation of subject, as the level of individuals, or at a larger level about the replication of religious forms. Rather, belief/practice at once prepares people for engaging in the work of religious speculation, while at the same time vetting and constraining speculation that threatens to remake the religious form in ways that would interfere either with the utility of religion (whatever that is) for individuals, or with the religion’s capacity to institutionally reproduce itself. Of course, these moments of crisis is exactly when one might expect a religious form to double down on the fixed image of belief…


Ethnographic Futures for the Anthropological Present

For the first time in a while, I’ve begun a new field project: I’ve started studying religious transhumanism, with a particular focus on the Mormon Transhumanist Association (though I’ve also been paying close attention to other much more recent, though just as interesting, attempts to collectively imagine religious transhumanisms). On one hand, this has been a terrible amount of fun; everyone I have spoken to has been generous with their time, and religious transhumanism is a field that is definitely undergoing some intellectual ferment at the moment. It is also a bit contentious, as many secular tranhumanists – and perhaps most, though it is hard to say – tend to be critical of religion in general, and sometimes specifically of religious transhumanism. And finally, there is a tendency for this legitimate interest in the intersection between orthodox religion and new technological to be castigated by the secular media (as one thoughtful Christian Transhumanist has discovered).

On the other hand, it’s the sort of study which has several veils to it, or alternately gates that have to be traversed before one can even truly begin; in talking to colleagues, I’ve found that not only do I have to explain what Mormon Transhumanism is, I also have to explain secular transhumanism and the mainline LDS as well. Similar challenges arrises when I try to convey that this is not a ‘fringe’ phenomenon. For reasons having to do with some specific features of the Mormon Religious imagination, producing a Mormon-compatible articulation of transhumanism is easier than might be imagined, which is to take nothing away from the rigor being shown in that effort. This compatibility, the care with which it is thought through, and finally the steadfast drive to producing a working organizational infrastructure, has given the Mormon Transhumanist Association an influence out of proportion to its demographic size in a much more complicated and varied secular transhumanist community.

All this complexity is a part of the fun, naturally. However, with one very important exception, there are basically no other anthropologists working on transhumanism to be in dialogue with. This, in combination with all the layers/veils/gates just mentioned, has meant that there have been few ‘big picture’ moments with the project so far. But there have been one or two times where I like to think I have somehow managed to see a bit more forest than tree. This is because while working on this project, I’ve also continued to write ethnographic and theoretical material on my previous large-scale project on The Vineyard, a Southern California originated, but now global, Charismatic Evangelical denomination/movement. And this has made me have to pull back a bit, to think of what unlikely elements these two groups may share.


New JRAI Review Article on ‘Is Critique Secular’

This is just a quick post mentioning that I have a new review article out in the JRAI (which you can reach directly or indirectly) on the newest edition of the Asad, Mahmood, and Butler edited volume Is Critique Secular?. It touches on the obvious issues of secularism, modernity, religion, and the anthropology of both the West and of Islam, but it also touches on issues relating to the anthropology of ethics that I’ve discussed before.

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