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.


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.

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?


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.


Parallel Lives Converge

Another reminder that the academy is in some very serious ways not at all that different from some of the social and cultural practices that they would take as their objects.

Are we beyond liberal and conservative, deontological and consequentialist?

This week by accident I came across one of those examples of a certain kind of academic psychology that attempts to boil off the differences between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ to some sole global explanatory cognitive trait, such as their differing models for what counts as a just father (such as a “liberal” “nurturing parent” versus a “conservative” “strict father” which reads like a caricature of the paternal leg of the Lacanian Œdipal triangle). In this particular journal article, the difference between conservatives (which was set up as an effective conflation of the religious and political sense of this term) and liberals was a moral one, and not a difference in substantive content of the moral, but rather a difference at a formal level. Drawing from answers given by Americans (and in one case, by Indians and Americans) this essay claimed that Conservatives supposedly operate under a deontological logic, in which the question of whether or not there is harm is unimportant, or rather, that the harm is in the violation of the rule itself. By contrast, this report tells us that liberals operate under a consequentialist concept of the ethical, where the harm that is avoided by following the rule is the focus; hence, when the violation results in no harm, in one way the violation is not truly a violation at all.

Even granting for the sake of the argument that there might be some truth to this formulation, what is striking about this claim is that these are both particular, and to some degree historically situated, stances towards the question of moral code. Now, as Foucault has suggested, the moral code is just once aspect of what is considered proper behavior, and just as important as the moral code is one’s stance towards it. So far, this seems to be in accord with what was suggested in the psychology journal article under consideration here.  But Foucault also posited numerous different ways of making oneself a subject in relation to the law, and this is something that has been born out by some very careful thought in cultural anthropology. Other ways are possible. Further, when there are multiple modes of subjectification in a single social millieu, there is no reason to presuppose that there will only be two positions, forming a nice oppositional binary; one can take as an example Egypt, where not only is there is both a liberal Islam which views the religion as a source of propositional ethical truths, and a dakah oriented Islam that sees proper religion as the taking on a set of ritual practices that, through repetition, exercise and mold the adherent’s character, but there is also a Sufi-influenced form of Islam which view ethical subjectification as an opening to the possibility of encounter with a radical alterity.

What is of note here is that the Egyptian triadic system is one that is not easily reducible to a liberal/conservative opposition borrowed directly from the United States, but the Sufi-influenced wing is in some ways unassimilable to this distinction. We can imagine that such a group, when being interrogated by survey questions designed to measure on a singular axis how conservative to liberal one is, might give answers that would look like noise – some conservative answers, some liberal answers, making what actually is a separate political formation look like stragglers suspended between the two poles.

Returning to America, we could ask whether there is such an occlusion being performed by this survey, and if so, what we might look for as a sign. If one assumes that it is the ethical that leads, and that it is politics which trails, we would look for modes of subjectification that are neither consequentialism or deontological. It seems to me that there are modes of religiosity in America today that are centered on forms of  subjectification that looks like a blend of Dakwah and Sufi Islam, about a training of the self that ends up in an opening to an alterity which is siuationaly privileged as a source of the ethical. Such an ethical form, neither deontological or consequentialist, would not be visible to a questionnaire designed only to identify those two positions, and might in turn lead to a politics that aspire to radically break with the current milieu – though it would be a politics that would also escape a questionnaire crafted to only chart a liberal-to-conservative political continuum.