Jon Bialecki

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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.