Jon Bialecki

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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.

Particles and Waves

I recently gave a talk in the UCSD Linguistic Anthropology Laboratory series; despite the limitations forced on me by circumstance (I had only an hour to give my talk, and it had to be scheduled right between two classes I was teaching) I really enjoyed myself.

The topic was taking work I had already done on dual models for ethical speech in the Vineyard, and ask whether the methodological and analytic tools developed by linguistic anthropology could be use to provide a more rigorous manner of understanding the role that affect might play in the pivoting between an Evangelical and a Pentecostal modes of speech (affect and field methods being a problem as of late in sociocultural anthropology).

Since this was a linguistic anthropology talk, it was naturally centered around video evidence – a moment that occurred near to close the of the 1985 “Signs and Wonders” conference, when a bevy of pastors come to the stage to tearfully repent after someone gets a prophetic word that many of the paid clergy present are ‘harlots.’

The comments I received during the workshop segment were particularly sharp, and this was a community that knows how to give very fine readings of “in situ” video material. But upon reflection, one thing in particular stuck me about the conversation that ensued. There was a tendency on the part of my linguistic anthropology colleagues to read the phenomenon through Goffmanian ‘footings,’ and as a series of interactions between actors contesting control of the speech event. My concern, with affect as forms of intensity that might be doing recondrite but still chartable work in shifting speakers from Evangelical modes of speech to Pentecostal ones was, to a considerable degree, seen as not being necessary for a rigorous analysis of the speech event.

There might be several reasons for this disconnect. One could simply be that absent first hand experience, it is hard to grasp the role that affect plays in the  uncanny dins that sometimes accompany large events where (at least in my interlocutors’ eyes) the Holy Spirit is at work. Not even the best of speakers can convey how at once thrilling and unsettling that collective soundscape, pieced together from groans of agony and tears of joy, can be.

But I also think that our discussion might have been slightly skewed by different framings as to what we were attending to. It seems to me that many of my linguistic anthropology colleagues were understanding this as a series of exchanges between discrete actors; while I was understanding this an event, in which boundaries of the person were at least temporality held in abeyance, overwritten for a spell by transmissions from person to person. It may be argued that I am simply presuming my conclusion – that affect does act as a contagion that is analytically distinguishable from, though not completely uninvolved in, the performance of speech.

Of course, to some degree, the promise of affect theory is that one doesn’t have to choose, that one is speaking two [metaphorical] languages at once, as Mazzarella has suggested.  We would think, then, of communication as being, like the photon, at once discursive particles and affective wave, discrete sets of code exchanged between identifiable and bounded actors, and as intensifies that work as historically caused and conditioned intensities. The key to making this claim more than an empty agreement that both frames are right, though, would be to catch those particular moments when a granular sense of human interactions, and a sense of the difference made by refractions, would leave identifiable effects . . .