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 Academia.edu. 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…

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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.

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.

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.