Jon Bialecki

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Getting beyond arguing over ‘getting beyond the suffering slot’

A recent article in a small, boutique on-line journal named HAU (which, apparently, will publish just about anybody) has reminded me of a recent debate in anthropology: whether there is an inordinate focus on ‘suffering’ in anthropology, and particularly the sort of suffering that has its roots in neoliberalism. The most trenchant for of this argument is Joel Robbin’s arguing for the ‘anthropology of the good.’ Robbin’s gambit is that after the loss of culture as an organizing motif, suffering now serves as the warrant to validate anthropological projects, and what this forecloses is any investigation into how people make lives that run along the lines of what they think is of value in the world. Rather, we can only discuss what they endure.

Of course, there is another side to this as well: there is the competing idea that there is something Panglossian about focusing on the good in a time when neoliberalism is obviously so regnant, and there is so much abject misery in the world. This opposition is usually put forward as a debate, where we are supposed to pick sides. Debates are fun, of course, but as a substantive position this oppositional framing is a bit pathetic, as if ideas were countries locked in a border skirmish over some piece of a map, and not modes of creation.

Alternately we could meekly chirp that ‘both sides have a point,’ which may be the most levelheaded though lukewarm answer. Of the three options, though, that last is the one that strangely seems the most wanting, even if it is the most ‘catholic-with-a-small-c’ answer to the challenge (as if that’s a virtue). The reason that this ‘third way’ feels particularly unsatisfying is probably not because it is so irenic, though. It is because it is the one answer that doesn’t come to grips with the problem. But notice that there is shift – we have gone from ideas, as statements with determinate and mutually irreconcilable content, to a problem – an event or crisis that demands a response. And once we see this as a problem, and a shared one that can be taken up in different ways, then we can frame the various sides as differential resolutions – and hence can think of it in terms not of a binary, but perhaps in some kind of topological way, as different modes of unfolding the same terrain (as opposed to the topographical military metaphor of countries on a map at war.

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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.

Anthropology and Theology, Difference and the Monological

The other thing that I’ve done relatively recently which I’m particularly proud of is my review of Barber’s On Diaspora, written for AnthroCyBib, the website that I co-curate with James Bielo, Naomi Haynes, and Tom Boylston.

(A tangent: That website is also the origin of my ‘signature’ on this blog – on AnthroCyBib, all postings are also signed as  by “AnthroCyBib,” though, regardless of whether it was put up by Jams, Naomi, Tom, or myself. Long, uninteresting story behind that).

I like this piece not simply because the author of the book seemed to see at least some value in it, but also because, while Barber’s book is not theology (or at least not easily classified as theology), it throws light on important aspect of the relationship between theology and anthropology. Barber’s book points to a virtuality in Christianity that runs towards multiplicity and  immanence. Needless to say, this is not a universal theological vision. This is an important point because there seems to be a big push as of late to take up Joel Robbins challenge regarding the relationships between theology and anthropology. There are several pieces in the pipeline suggesting that anthropology would do well to take up theology as offering useful insights.

The problem with this is that theology tends to be monological, and while it would be going too far to say that anthropology is solely about human difference, that certainly is one of the poles that gives shape to the field. If we take up theology as having insights for different aspects of human behavior, then that pole collapses we end up trying to explain a variable with a universal, which is analytically misguided. (More about this if/when those pieces come out – beating up unpublished works seems at once bad cricket and too much inside baseball).

Now, this isn’t a problem with all theology – in my (limited) free time I’ve been working through Amos Yong’s In the Days of Caesar. What strikes me about the book so far is not just his use of anthropological material on Pentecostalism to craft theology – which is interesting enough – but also the fact that it is a theology that prizes variation and difference, not just in human formations but in divine action as well. While I am no proponent of privileging theological framings over social science ones, it strikes me that this is the kind of theological thought that could really be engaged with in a productive manner; and this is a thought I could probably not have formulated clearly without the Barber book.