Jon Bialecki

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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.