Jon Bialecki

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Signs and Wonders

I just came back from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, where I participated in a public conversation with the artist Michael Stevenson about Signs and Wonders, his show at Midway Contemporary ArtSigns and Wonders was a fascinating reflection on the role of aviation, both as infrastructure and metaphor, in 20th and 21st century global Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. Through a juxtaposition of found objects and structures created specifically for this show, it meditates (in a very lateral and open-ended way) on topics such as missions in Ecuador and Papua New Guinea, the relation between the space-time of aviation and of contemporary Charismatic Christianity, tensions and resonances between dispensationalism and George Eldon Ladd’s “already/not yet,” and the role of aviation infrastructure in Third Wave moments such as the Vineyard Movement and the Toronto Blessing. If you’re in the area, and you’re interested in this mode of religiosity, the anthropology of Christianity, or the interaction between religion and technology, then this show is worth the time.

The conversation with Michael was a tremendous amount of fun, though I sadly don’t think it was recorded. Also, as a bonus, at the reception I got to meet the editors of Univocal Press, makers of excellent fetish objects/books (if you own the paper versions of anything that they put out, you understand what I mean).

When I have the time, I’ll add some pictures I took from the show to this post, though they don’t do any justice to the work.

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Ethnographic Futures for the Anthropological Present

For the first time in a while, I’ve begun a new field project: I’ve started studying religious transhumanism, with a particular focus on the Mormon Transhumanist Association (though I’ve also been paying close attention to other much more recent, though just as interesting, attempts to collectively imagine religious transhumanisms). On one hand, this has been a terrible amount of fun; everyone I have spoken to has been generous with their time, and religious transhumanism is a field that is definitely undergoing some intellectual ferment at the moment. It is also a bit contentious, as many secular tranhumanists – and perhaps most, though it is hard to say – tend to be critical of religion in general, and sometimes specifically of religious transhumanism. And finally, there is a tendency for this legitimate interest in the intersection between orthodox religion and new technological to be castigated by the secular media (as one thoughtful Christian Transhumanist has discovered).

On the other hand, it’s the sort of study which has several veils to it, or alternately gates that have to be traversed before one can even truly begin; in talking to colleagues, I’ve found that not only do I have to explain what Mormon Transhumanism is, I also have to explain secular transhumanism and the mainline LDS as well. Similar challenges arrises when I try to convey that this is not a ‘fringe’ phenomenon. For reasons having to do with some specific features of the Mormon Religious imagination, producing a Mormon-compatible articulation of transhumanism is easier than might be imagined, which is to take nothing away from the rigor being shown in that effort. This compatibility, the care with which it is thought through, and finally the steadfast drive to producing a working organizational infrastructure, has given the Mormon Transhumanist Association an influence out of proportion to its demographic size in a much more complicated and varied secular transhumanist community.

All this complexity is a part of the fun, naturally. However, with one very important exception, there are basically no other anthropologists working on transhumanism to be in dialogue with. This, in combination with all the layers/veils/gates just mentioned, has meant that there have been few ‘big picture’ moments with the project so far. But there have been one or two times where I like to think I have somehow managed to see a bit more forest than tree. This is because while working on this project, I’ve also continued to write ethnographic and theoretical material on my previous large-scale project on The Vineyard, a Southern California originated, but now global, Charismatic Evangelical denomination/movement. And this has made me have to pull back a bit, to think of what unlikely elements these two groups may share.

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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 . . .