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.


Theology, Meta-Ontology, and Protocols … and their alternatives.

This is just some stray musings, but I have been thinking about this set of exchanges about the ‘Ontological Turn’ in Anthropology of the Century from 2012 and 2013; specifically I’ve been thinking about how it might be relevant to some recent discussions about the relationship between theology and the anthropology of Christianity, a topic which seems to be picking up a lot of steam lately. Or to be more exact, I’ve been thinking about how we can keep those Anthropology of the Century discussions from being relevant, because while I respect the people on both ‘sides’ in the debate regarding the ontological turn (well, with certain exceptions, of course), and I also believe that all involved were making good points in good faith, in the end the debate came off a bit like two different police departments fighting over their jurisdiction; it certainly felt to me at least like I was hearing the shrill sound of the policeman’s whistle near to the close of things.

That is not to say that this kind of debate isn’t productive, or that it isn’t a part of a greater anthropological tradition.  I am just wondering whether or not there might be a different way forward, and if so, what it might involve. The exchanges in Anthropology of the Century in the end centred on issues regarding ‘meta-ontology”; that is, whether using ontology as an analytic – or even as a heuristic – necessitates a larger encompassing set of ontological presumptions. I’m not so sure that this is a problem – or at least I think that there are ways that this can be done with a minimal level of intellectual violence. However, there seems to be something about the project of articulating a set of universals that no only limits the utility of the ontological turn, but which also hampers the freedom of those are working in other directions. A meta-ontology may vitiate the ontological turn, but then establishing a meta-ontology also delimits in advance what can be thought by those who have anxieties about the way that other ‘ontologies’ might interact, at the level of the theoretical or the concrete.

My suggestion is that instead of encompassing meta-ontologies, we might want to think in terms of negotiating protocols. This would be about establishing ways that different worlds could speak to one another, rather than about identifying common rules for different worlds. The point is that this leaves each world its own internal specificity and degrees of freedom, rather than making it subservient to some greater horizon of possibilities.

Now, this does not ‘make’ the ontological turn less problematic, and I don’t think that anyone reading this would necessarily have a road-to-Damascus moment if they were already sceptical of the ontological turn. But this suggest could have some value in that it might be a way of handling the tensions and attractions between an anthropology of Christianity and contemporary theology, suggesting some manner in which they might interact. Of course, this doesn’t mean that interactions between ontological frameworks won’t be agonistic; if the relationship between anthropology and theology was originally awkward, finding a way for them to interface won’t make it any less so. But at least this would be a framing that would facilitate the kind of relations that might allow these two forms, like the wasp and the orchid, to engage in some form of a-parallel evolution.

And I offer this suggestion because, to be honest, the third way forward (that is, neither shared rules of a meta-ontology or the negotiated protocols I suggest here) might be a bit too much for all parties involved. That was would be to suggest not only that theology and the anthropology of Christianity are at the same level, but that they also at the same level as what they supposedly reference and comment upon, which is actuallyexistingChristianty. These three things could be made adequate to each other – rather than being seeing as being in vying in hierarchical relations – by 1) seeing actually-existing-christianties as responses to the problem of Christianity, or maybe even of religion, and 2) seeing theology and the anthropology of Christianity not as evaluations or representations of actually-existing-christianities, but as actualisations of that problem as well (as I hint at in the last pages of this essay), even if they also have a transversal relationship with specific actually-existing-christianities.  Theology and the anthropology of Christianity are ways ‘doing Christianity’ or ‘doing religion’ as well, even if that is not all the are. But this might be a flattening that, even if it doesn’t establish a meta-ontology, goes too far in that it is corrosive of the difference between first and second order operations, between ‘doing’ and ‘reflecting upon.’ And while that may be the ultimate set of relations when all is said and done, I doubt it is much of a conversation starter for the coming attempt at a ‘rapprochement’ between theology and anthropology.


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.