Jon Bialecki

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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.


Epiphenomenal Anthropology – Grim Thoughts During Finals Week about Anthropology, Speculative Realism, Materiality and Affect Theory

I am probably late to this party, and I certainly don’t want to be seen as piling on, offering yet another iteration of a critique that hasn’t been particularly well received. This is especially the case because I’m someone who has tried to play around at the margins of these concepts myself. But a conversation with an archeologist colleague has left me in a somewhat deflated mood about things such as Object Oriented Ontologies and Speculative Realism. He suggested that the general interest in this whole line of thought, including a wider-scale interest in materiality in the anthropology of religion, might be seen as epiphenomenal of a broader University-level interest in the STEM disciplines.  There are certainly some tells – one can remember Danilyn Rutherford’s observation that affect theory (which has both a family resemblance and a genealogical tie to a lot of this thought) has an attraction for anthropologists  “who have dreamt of forging alliances with former enemies – of science peace, not science war.”

Also, this not to substantively critique this thought, nor is this a claim that those presenting this thought are opportunists. One can imagine an almost Darwinian scenario in which these sets of questions, always somewhat latent, are not produced in bad faith, but rather were always capable of being brought into being. However it is only now that they happen hit on the controlling problematic of the time, and hence can enjoy a greater reception and a prosperity beyond the idiosyncratic and unread.

There is of course no reason for this to be disheartening – anthropology (and the social sciences and humanities more broadly) have long been comfortable with the social and material forces immanent in the production of certain kinds of knowledge. The sense of loss rather is locatable in the question of what other virtualities of thought are lying latent, and the sense of passivity that comes along with it, the idea of not quite being the product of an event, but rather captives of it as well.

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 . . .