Jon Bialecki

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A new article, and the AES Sharon Stephans Prize!

There are two bits of news. First of all, I want to humbly (*cough*) mention that my UC Press book, A Diagram For Fire, is one of two joint winners of the American Ethnological Society’s Sharon Stephens Prize. The prize committee was kind enough to give me an excerpt from their assessment of the book, where they stated

“This was a masterful analytical contribution to the anthropology of Christianity by bringing North American Christianity into dialogue with the vibrant field of global Christianity at a time in which understanding why so many evangelicals see Trump’s election as evidence of a miracle is a central question for many of us.  Your analysis of how the Vineyard churches are each local and distinct instantiations of a set of practices that can still be seen by participants as part and parcel of an overarching movement is an analytically productive set of insights that travels well beyond the confines of anthropology of Christianity. Yours was a beautifully written ethnography in which you managed to achieve what so many of us struggle to do — bring complex and unruly ideas into linear sentences with a compelling clarity.   We especially appreciated that on almost every page, you have an original take on either an ethnographic encounter or long-standing theoretical concern.”

In addition to those very generous words from the committee, this is an honor for several other reasons. One is that my fellow co-winner has written an amazing book, and so just to share the dais with her is a bit of a head-trip. But on top of that, a lot of the books that won this prize in earlier years were incredibly influential to me, were important touchstones in developing my arguments,  were written by trusted colleagues, or radically expanded what it was that I thought that ethnography was capable of doing.

The second bit of news is that I have an article out in Religion and Society: Advances in Research. This article builds on one that came out last year, where I discussed what I might call the ethno-anthropology of American Charismatic Evangelicals. In the more recent article, I expand on the idea of a Christian ēthnos to think through how a certain kind of ethical process, coupled with Nietzschean ressentiment, doubled eschatologies, and demographic crisis, can crystalize the otherwise ephemeral idea of Christian Nationalism. This is an issue that’s not going to go away, so I think that producing theoretical accounts of this phenomenon is more important than ever.

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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.

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Theology, Meta-Ontology, and Protocols … and their alternatives.

This is just some stray musings, but I have been thinking about this set of exchanges about the ‘Ontological Turn’ in Anthropology of the Century from 2012 and 2013; specifically I’ve been thinking about how it might be relevant to some recent discussions about the relationship between theology and the anthropology of Christianity, a topic which seems to be picking up a lot of steam lately. Or to be more exact, I’ve been thinking about how we can keep those Anthropology of the Century discussions from being relevant, because while I respect the people on both ‘sides’ in the debate regarding the ontological turn (well, with certain exceptions, of course), and I also believe that all involved were making good points in good faith, in the end the debate came off a bit like two different police departments fighting over their jurisdiction; it certainly felt to me at least like I was hearing the shrill sound of the policeman’s whistle near to the close of things.

That is not to say that this kind of debate isn’t productive, or that it isn’t a part of a greater anthropological tradition.  I am just wondering whether or not there might be a different way forward, and if so, what it might involve. The exchanges in Anthropology of the Century in the end centred on issues regarding ‘meta-ontology”; that is, whether using ontology as an analytic – or even as a heuristic – necessitates a larger encompassing set of ontological presumptions. I’m not so sure that this is a problem – or at least I think that there are ways that this can be done with a minimal level of intellectual violence. However, there seems to be something about the project of articulating a set of universals that no only limits the utility of the ontological turn, but which also hampers the freedom of those are working in other directions. A meta-ontology may vitiate the ontological turn, but then establishing a meta-ontology also delimits in advance what can be thought by those who have anxieties about the way that other ‘ontologies’ might interact, at the level of the theoretical or the concrete.

My suggestion is that instead of encompassing meta-ontologies, we might want to think in terms of negotiating protocols. This would be about establishing ways that different worlds could speak to one another, rather than about identifying common rules for different worlds. The point is that this leaves each world its own internal specificity and degrees of freedom, rather than making it subservient to some greater horizon of possibilities.

Now, this does not ‘make’ the ontological turn less problematic, and I don’t think that anyone reading this would necessarily have a road-to-Damascus moment if they were already sceptical of the ontological turn. But this suggest could have some value in that it might be a way of handling the tensions and attractions between an anthropology of Christianity and contemporary theology, suggesting some manner in which they might interact. Of course, this doesn’t mean that interactions between ontological frameworks won’t be agonistic; if the relationship between anthropology and theology was originally awkward, finding a way for them to interface won’t make it any less so. But at least this would be a framing that would facilitate the kind of relations that might allow these two forms, like the wasp and the orchid, to engage in some form of a-parallel evolution.

And I offer this suggestion because, to be honest, the third way forward (that is, neither shared rules of a meta-ontology or the negotiated protocols I suggest here) might be a bit too much for all parties involved. That was would be to suggest not only that theology and the anthropology of Christianity are at the same level, but that they also at the same level as what they supposedly reference and comment upon, which is actuallyexistingChristianty. These three things could be made adequate to each other – rather than being seeing as being in vying in hierarchical relations – by 1) seeing actually-existing-christianties as responses to the problem of Christianity, or maybe even of religion, and 2) seeing theology and the anthropology of Christianity not as evaluations or representations of actually-existing-christianities, but as actualisations of that problem as well (as I hint at in the last pages of this essay), even if they also have a transversal relationship with specific actually-existing-christianities.  Theology and the anthropology of Christianity are ways ‘doing Christianity’ or ‘doing religion’ as well, even if that is not all the are. But this might be a flattening that, even if it doesn’t establish a meta-ontology, goes too far in that it is corrosive of the difference between first and second order operations, between ‘doing’ and ‘reflecting upon.’ And while that may be the ultimate set of relations when all is said and done, I doubt it is much of a conversation starter for the coming attempt at a ‘rapprochement’ between theology and anthropology.

 

The fall and winter bumper crop

Three things by me have come out recently. The first is my Current Anthropology piece, After the Denominozoic: Evolution, Differentiation, Denominationalism; I’m particularly proud of the argument there. The second is an article in Ethnos called Diagramming the Will: Ethics and Prayer, Text, and Politicswhich is about subjectification, ontology (or rather, the effect of ontologies), and how the interaction between those two things can lead to new forms of micro-politics, and perhaps larger shifts in the political imagination.  Though material on Ethnos is occasionally open-access, this is not, but then there is always Academcia.edu. Finally, I have an expanded book review where I discuss two monographs that touch on Deleuze and Theology; in the end I take one of the authors, Daniel Colucciello Barber, and use part of his book’s argument to engage with a bit of the ontological turn, but more importantly to my mind Joel Robbin’s concept of an anthropology of the good. I think that I may have found a way to work through some of the objections that are commonly made to this project, though I guess this is for those who hold those objections to decide.

(Penultimate) version of article for special issue of CA

As part of an experiment to see what happens when you circulate a paper before the final published version, I’ve put up a copy of an article of mine, part of an upcoming special issue of CA; this is pretty much the final form – but there is still time for editorial changes. Let’s see if giving it air a bit earlier than usual, before things have entirely solidified, changes the writing, editing, or circulation process.

The paper was on denominationalism, something that I really hadn’t been thinking about beforehand – or to be more exact, something I really hand’t known I had been thinking about beforehand, though it ended up meshing nicely with a great deal of my concerns, and I’m grateful for the invitation.

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.

A real discussion of Virtual Christianity

In her blog God is in the Details: Reading notes on the anthropology of ChristianityIngie Hovland has has a very nice discussion of my Virtual Christianity piece from earlier this year. She has some reservations, which are all rather reasonable and parsimonious (this is not to say that I agree with her, of course!). On the whole though, its a nice treatment, and she takes the argument a bit further by contrasting it with other models for differentiated forms within singular “World Religion.”

I hope to say more soon, but probably not this evening: I have a lot of work top take care of, and on top of it all, it’s my first Guy Fawkes night in the UK, and the small kid in me wants to go out and see something explode.