Jon Bialecki

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Simon Coleman on the difference between, within Pentecostal networks

When it rains, it pours – on top of the paper by Girish Daswani  that I came across yesterday, there is a new paper by Simon Coleman that is really worth attending to. It is an intervention in discussions of Pentecostal Networks, an idea that Simon Coleman himself originally helped construct. While Coleman never sinks to such depths, discussions of Pentecostal networks have a tendency to descend into tropic discussions of rhizomes; what is worse is that the invocation of rhizomes usually masks the analytic presumption that each iteration or node in the network is more or less interchangeable; it is just the ‘ground,’ the places that these nodes are embedded in, which vary.

What is really nice about Coleman’s article is that it focuses on difference – not merely in how it juxtaposes the networks of two separate Pentecostal movements (Sweden’s Word of Life and the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God), but it shows that inside of each network, the value of the nodes is predicated on degrees of spatial and organizational difference, and that the greater the difference between two nodes in a network, the higher the value of the shared connection is for each. This is a salutary reminder in any discussion of networks, but it is especially useful in the anthropology of Christianity, which (again, in less skillful hands) often seems to be  torn between a presumption of complete Christian identity across any iteration, or an absolute nominalism that would foreclose either a comparative analytic turn, or an acknowledgment of the imbricated nature of different Christianities.


Daswani on the ethical, the temporal, and the material

Apologies for the long hiatus – this summer I’m in the midsts of a move from my old institutional home at University of California, San Diego, to my new one in the department of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

The occasion for popping up during all this chaos is to note the publication of a rather sharp essay by Girish Daswani. It brings together three important refrains in the anthropology of Christianity – temporality and rupture, ethical practices of self-formation, and the inter-Christian debates about the place and value of the material substrate of semiotic systems. What’s more, while people have observes resonances between these three threads before, this is the first essay in quite a while that has really tried to think all three without prioritizing any one in particular, and at the same time acknowledge the differential and differentiating nature of the underlying phenomenon itself.

On Kevin Lewis O’Neill and the question of whether Cultural Anthropology is “Left Behind.”

There’s a nice interview up with Kevin Lewis O’Neill, based on his recent piece in Cultural Anthropology, “Left Behind: Security, Salvation, and the Subject of Prevention.” I’m particularly enamored with the supplemental videos, and so this interview is probably doing what it is intended to do, specifically increase the likelihood of my putting it on a relevant syllabus.

But if I do, I may do what was intended for me to do, but I may not do if for the reason that was intended. In short, I suspect that there is a kind of subtle ‘teaching moment’ contained in the interview. While I have not sat down and done a comparative reading of the entire Cultural Anthropology interview series, there appears to be something off almost immediately in the interviewer’s footing. It reads here as if the interviewer really wanted to know. Specifically, he really wanted to know if O’Neill was a Christian. It could be argued that O’Neill opened the door by mentioning that he had gone on a church-related visit to Central America in his youth, but it seems as if even before this aside, there was a probing, a desire to see O’Neill’s article as a critique (and hence a form of ethical judgment), one that would position the author in relation to his subject. Can you or can you not make a confession of faith?

Of course, this sense of there being an initial desire to know, to have O’Neill make a confession one way or the other, could simply be an illusion, an aftereffect of the way the conversation turned a little bit later down the line.  But it does seem a bit odd that all the work in complicating and opening up the subject positions of anthropological informants evaporates when the question is whether or not an anthropologist is or is not a Christian. One could  argue that his might be a linger after-effect of the status of Christianity and Christians in anthropology a decade or so ago. But the interviewer, from what little can be seen about him on line, doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would be filled with animus, and the questions don’t seem to show any bias along those lines. He comes across, rather, as a rather bright graduate student, simply asking what appears to be relevant questions.

Rather than suspecting some kind of bias, the more interesting possibility is that this is another case of Anthropology “believing” in Christianity, of the discipline taking a certain kind of binary, in or out, faithful or fallen logic particular to a very influential but peculiar stream of Euro-American Protestant thought, and unconsciously accepting its truth in a manner that seems almost transferential, the in psychoanalytic sense of the term. There may be an inversion of values (perhaps Christian is the ‘wrong” answer here), but the structure may be present all the same. This, of course, is the same logic of judgment that animates “Left Behind” –  not the O’Neill essay, but the best selling millennial fantasy that is itself referenced in the interview, and to which the O’Neill title is an allusion. This suggests that despite my skepticism about there being some kind of Christian specter haunting anthropology, my disbelief that past origins and current practices should be conflated, that history is the logic of nothing but trace and taint, there may be something to claims about “the Christianity of Anthropology” after all.

UPDATE: On review, it appears that I mistook the photography credit for the byline, meaning that the proper pronoun should have been ‘she,’ and that the author wasn’t exactly who I thought they were. Given that the object was the interview itself, though, I still stand behind my claims, speculative though they may be.

On kneeling

A friend of mine posted on Facebook Camille Paglia’s review of three academic ethnographies of the American BDSM scene.There is, needless to say, many things that could be said, though still passing over in silence does seem to be the more prudent act. But still, one passage particularly struck me. Separating sheep from goats, academics with scruples versus the depraved, Paglia throws out this comment:  “Unlike Weiss and Newmahr, she [Lindemann] maintains her professional objectivity and attunement to ordinary social standards by preserving her outsider’s stance and declining to become a participant in the world she is studying.”

I acknowledge that it’s a fools statement to say that ethnography is nothing but participant observation, or even that participant observation is at some level central or a prerequisite. However, it seems to me that failure to participate is still problematic (assuming Paglia’s description is right – she seems to be the quintessence of the “untrustworthy narrator”). A moral refusal to participate, articulated as such (as opposed, say, to an inability) seems to break the secret compact of empathy that, Geertz aside, is vital to ethnographic projects.

But this has yet another turn. A few years ago, I co-organized a panel on the problem of anthropological participation as a part of fieldwork in Christian rites and practices . It turns out that many, many ethnographers refuse to engage in quotidian Christian activities, such as prayer or church services, while conducting fieldwork. In some instances this refusal is the result of a complicated necessity to counterpoise themselves against missionaries, with whom they are often confused by their informants. Fair enough. But in many other instances, this refusal is presented as an ethical act; that engaging in practices and speech acts that run counter to their ontological commitments would be a breach of integrity that overrides field-expectations of commensurability and openness. This despite the quite credible argument that Christianity is impossible to understand without exposure to the subjectifying work accomplished by it as an ethical discipline.

I may be making too much of the common use of the word discipline here, but this suggests that if we juxtapose the practiced field research ethics found in the ethnography of BDSM and of Christianity, something shocking comes up. Most anthropologists of Christianity refuse to pray, and it is the ummarked option, while one ethnographer of BDSM does not, and in this case it is the marked option. While I really wouldn’t want this to suggest that their is some objective hierarchy of values between Pentecostalism on the one hand, and BDSM on the other, and my views on the ontological commitments regarding Christianity is a matter of record, it is very striking that when viewed as a very rough approximation, apparently more academics find it comfortable to kneel before a mistress than to kneel in prayer.