Tom Boylston on his book, The Stranger at the Feast

The Stranger at the Feast by Tom Boylston

Interview by Jon Bialecki

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520296497/the-stranger-at-the-feast

Jon Bialecki: The Stranger at the Feast stands out for numerous reasons. First, it reads like one of those classical ethnographies that have no seams, being all of one piece. But at the same time, it’s also far from monological; without engaging in any representational trickery, you allow your research assistants and friends in the field to have their own voice, and the book even gives them space to engage in their own counter-ethnography of the West.

 But perhaps because of my background as an academic, or perhaps because this open-access monograph came out as a part of the University of California Press’s Anthropology of Christianity series, what stood out was how this book read like a fun-house inverted reflection of the anthropology of Christianity literature. Now, there has been a raft of books arguing for Eastern Orthodoxy as an autonomous and valuable ethnographic object in its own right. But rather than just militate for the importance of including Eastern Orthodoxy, Stranger takes analytic tropes from the more Protestant- and Pentecostal-oriented anthropology of Christianity, such as mediation and presence, and makes them strange.

 So, starting there, I was hoping we could begin the conversation by contrasting the path Stranger lays out by breaking with the kind of bog-standard discussions of mediation we’ve seen in so many other ethnographies of Christian groups. How does mediation work in Stranger, and in what ways does the discussion of mediation both follow and depart from how this problem has been treated by in other ethnographies of Christian groups?

Tom Boylston: One of the basic arguments of the book is that Orthodox practice in Zege has transformed in all sorts of ways but the key constant has been that there must be mediation – both in the sense of intermediaries who intercede between humanity and God, and in the sense of material media of sacred presence. And that insistence on mediation is formulated in opposition to Protestantism and to secular government practices – Zege hasn’t seen a lot of Protestant conversion yet but it’s been happening in other parts of what’s thought of as canonical Orthodox territory. So, I think lay and clerical Orthodox Christians are engaged in their own sophisticated critique of Protestantism and secularism, both of which are understood as projects of immediacy. For example, both Protestants and the state have been critical of the Orthodox practice that you don’t work the fields on Saints’ days. This undermines the saintly mediation of the relationship between people and land; in advocating a direct, unmediated relationship between people and land, it tries to break down a complex relational religious ecology. So Orthodox Christians often describe Protestantism and secularism as equally anti-religious forces.

This starts to give you a hint of what it means to insist on mediation as a basic religious principle. You must have intercession, so salvation is always relational. There’s a huge emphasis on performing religious acts on other’s behalf, which can mean praying to a saint for someone (so mediating to a mediator), or carrying jerrycans full of holy water for your sick neighbour. And mediation means that religious practice is ecological – it is built into your relationship with the land, and the calendar, and your own body – because you have saints’ days, and fasting days, and working days, and corresponding spaces mapped out between church, forest, and fields. Maybe this helps to understand why the book feels quite continuous – it’s describing a system that extends far beyond explicitly religious events into every part of life.

How this relates to the anthropology of Christianity (which is my own background) – I honestly think Orthodox Christians and anthropologists of Christianity alike are perceiving contemporary world orders as projects of immediacy – and lots of anthropologists and media scholars have pointed out the irony that the desire for immediate experience is produced by increasingly complex technological mediation. And anthropologists like Birgit Meyer, Matthew Engelke, Webb Keane, Patrick Eisenlohr, and others, have picked apart this quest for immediacy and shown the complex and conflicted relationships with the material world that come out of the intertwined projects of missionary religion, globalization, and colonialism.

This work has been foundational for me, but I would suggest that the Orthodox critique of immediacy is different in important ways from the scholarly critique. For most anthropologists of religion and media, certainly working on Protestant traditions, the starting point is: obviously God and spirits are not actually present to the senses – given this, how do people go about creating or learning to perceive divine presence? This logic participates (albeit critically) in the project of immediacy. Because it starts from an empty-box cosmology, where material stuff is just there and the question is how we animate it and make it seem alive. The desire for unmediated contact with reality is born out of a severance between consciousness and the world (and William Mazzarella has shown how this is just as true of a certain type of academic affect theory as for Protestantism). I don’t think that’s where Orthodox Christians in Zege are starting from.

So what if, rather than asking how we animate the world with the tools of semiotics, we were to ask how we deal with a world that is obviously already filled with divine presence? Here mediation becomes not a way of realizing an absent God, but of keeping divinity at bay to some extent – to keep humanity at a respectful distance from God, although God is omnipresent.

Ultimately, I think mediation does both things simultaneously – it realizes connection with the other but also keeps them at bay. And this is why mediation is so closely connected with prohibition and discipline in Zege. You have to work through these spatio-temporal structures of distance and proximity, which tie the people, land, and church together, but in a hierarchical way that’s full of distinctions and intermediaries.

And the final point is that this is a historical thing. It’s not a perennial ritual structure but one that’s been defined in response to other things, that’s been subject to attempts at capture and seizure, that people have had to work out what matters and have emphasized different aspects of the mediation structure at different times (whether it’s fasting, sacrifice, priests, institutional authority, control of land) but the core point has been that there must be mediation, and that to oppose mediation, as Protestants are thought to do, is to attack religion in general.

Jon Bialecki: It’s interesting that you close by stressing the historically situated and dialectical nature of the Zege interest in religious mediation. In some moments in the 20th century and earlier, hierarchy and mediation were deeply integrated with issues of land-tenure, caste, mortuary feasting, and pre-secularist governmentality. At times, Strangers reads as a very British anthropological book that has an eye trained on how social organization gives birth to a cultural imaginary. But reading Strangers in such a way would do violence to both the ethnography and the argument of the book, as you show that in the absence of these social-organizational forms, the mediation-focused, hyper-hierarchical religious imagination does not fade away or slide into egalitarian forms. Instead, unmoored from these earlier modes of governance and ritual practices, this particular Zege religious imagination actually goes into overdrive. Could you say a little about how this hierarchical, mediatic imagination can exist apart from its original social conditions, and something about the new forms that it takes – and, hence, also about the new work that it does?

 

Tom Boylston: Well, I don’t think religious practice in Zege has been unmoored from anything, because fasting as a practice has been such a strong mooring. And the deep resilience of fasting is one of the most important points of the book. Fasting is a Protean practice – it can be a form of submission to authority or, as Caroline Walker Bynum showed, a way of circumventing it. You can perform it whether you are devout or completely unobservant in every other part of your life. You don’t have to make any particular proclamation in order to fast, but you can use it for very personal acts of atonement and faith. It’s dictated by this fairly rigid calendar (which has also been resilient), and yet fasting is still full of possibility and creativity. There’s also very widespread loyalty to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in its broadest sense, and regardless of the individuals who happen to occupy any particular position.

But yes, over the 20th century there has been massive upheaval, especially in the socialist and post-socialist reforms. During the DERG period there was very significant land reform and the church lost most of its landholdings, but the practice of Christianity remained intact or even grew at the grassroots level. Then in the current period there has been a continuing process of political secularization and public religious revival at the same time. But I think one of the things that changed in Zege was that the elite class that had developed around the monasteries – not the clergy themselves, but landholder-church officials – was disempowered, and so was a lot of the semi-formal ritual activity that sustained them. This includes funeral feasts, which were massive occasions for distributing food and reinforcing hierarchy, but have now been recast as wasteful and immoral. I think that an emphasis on religious mediation – and on religious hierarchy – is a way of maintaining a sphere of life that is not determined by secular governmentality. But to be recognized as legitimate it has to proceed through authorized structures – the Church and its doctrinal practices. Fasting and liturgical practice aren’t anti-government in particular, but they do mark out a certain limit to secular authority.

Jon Bialecki: I think that this brings us to the issues that sit at the (literal) center of the book: slavery, caste, and a class of deadly (sometimes) nonhuman entities called buda. What stood out to me in the book was the complex and ambivalent nature that these three deeply imbricated phenomena had to hierarchy and mediation. They could be seen as expressions of hierarchy’s logic, as means of support for the now vitiated prior social institutions that supported and benefited from hierarchy, and corrosive agents that dissolved hierarchy and hierarchy pre-twentieth-century social infrastructure. Especially slavery and buda seemed to at once be particularly well suited to think through hierarchy in both positive and negative modes. Could you say something about the shared histories of these categories, and their relation to the hierarchical and mediatic Zege imagination and sociality?

Tom Boylston: I don’t think I would describe the relationship between slavers and slaves as hierarchical, because hierarchy implies commensurability, and slavery completely denies it. I think the same is true of many of the stigmatized artisan groups living in Zege and elsewhere, and the stigma still exists even though slavery ended in the 1930s. This is probably true of most hierarchies – there is ranked inclusion, but then there is always a point of exclusion, of those against whom the hierarchy defines itself. These exclusions are totally contradictory to Christian universalism, but they continue to coexist at different levels.

The best way to understand it might be through feeding, which is both inclusive and hierarchical. It creates a bond between us, but through the figure of parent and child, host and guest, or Christ as bread of heaven and humanity. It is hierarchy as care as well as power. And there is attenuated food sharing across religious boundaries – Christians and Muslims will share food but not meat or alcohol. But stigmatized identities are those you refuse all commensality with. I try to show in the book how this refusal is accompanied by a projection of violent greed toward the stigmatized person: that they have no land, they desire what you have and will try to take it from you instead of following the proper channels of feeding and receiving.

By tracing different levels of mediation – through food, marriage, and the Eucharist, for example, we can see how hierarchy is not monolithic, but plays out in multiple, overlapping ways through material and relational practices.

Jon Bialecki: The observation you just made, viewing hierarchy more as a process or imminent mode of ordering, rather than as a structure, seems to really come to the fore in the final section of the book. The introduction of electricity to Zege, which occurred only a few years before you began your fieldwork there, opened up what, to your interlocutors, was new media technologies, including the internet and social media. And concomitant with that was a very particular imaginative orientation to the broader world. This process was also accelerated by the expansion of tourism as a local industry, and also by widely circulated news of anti-Christian violence in Libya and South Africa. But even these new possibilities and orientations didn’t mark a break with hierarchy and a conscious elaboration of mediation, causing something more along the lines of mutations and expansions rather than any weakening of the hierarchical imperative. How do new media, and a changing orientation to the extra-Ethiopian world, change senses of belonging, attachment, and position, while still being animated by a particularly Ethiopian-Orthodox logic?

Tom Boylston: Facebook, for example, was very important for maintaining contact with loved ones who had traveled to the Dubai or Saudi to work. A lot of these connections were maintained through religious idioms – posting images of saints or churches or prayers, as kind of figures of connection – as beings and practices that protect and bind us regardless of physical space.

One point that has been hammered home by the literature on religion and media is that religious communication, like any other communication, is dependent on material media and infrastructures. And a question that occurred to me was whether, from this perspective, communication with God or saints was any different to mediated communication among humans. If you approach it from the perspective of presence, this question is hard to answer, because prayer, like using Facebook or Skype, is a way of making absent others present. And I wonder if the Protestant-influenced, presence-focused literature on mediation thinks of religious communication maybe too much like a telephone to God.

But if we think about examples like the one above and ask what it means to post a picture of a saint on Facebook, and whether this resembles the veneration of an icon, we see that the saint is not acting as a human other, as a co-partner in conversation, but precisely as an intermediary whose love and protection we both seek out. So rather than think of saints and their images as producing presence, I prefer to think of them as augmenting the communicative network. Just as observing a saintly day of rest loops the saint into stewardship of the land, so posting a saint’s image loops the saint into our social relationship as kin who are separated from one another but are expressing concern and co-belonging over large distances. And so when we share other images, for example of our countrymen being murdered far from home, these are also framed within the aegis of saints and prayers.

This certainly might raise interesting theological questions – about whether digital images should be venerated, or about whether they can be sanctified. But in practical terms I don’t think those questions are very prominent. It’s always struck me that, for regular Orthodox Christians, one of the most obvious uses for a cellphone – or a bus, or any technology that extends space and time – is to carry images of saints. Saints have a spatial and temporal expansiveness that superficially resembles that of media technology, but is quite different.

Jon Bialecki: The interests in emergent technologies and concomitant conceptual invention just discussed also seem to be informing what I understand to be your next project. Could you say a little about what you are working on now, and also about how this new project might be connected to the theoretical concerns that informed Strangers at the Feast?

Tom Boylston: First I want to thank you for the time and thought you have put into this. It means a lot.

I don’t completely know what the next project is going to look like, but for various life reasons I’m going to be looking at video games. Which seems like a departure from Orthodox Christianity, but it picks up on two themes that have been very important to me. One is what it’s like to inhabit a world immersed in lively images, and the other is the kinds of body disciplines that go along with such a world and link bodies and images together. So I’m interested in emerging discourses of game addiction, and trying to understand what it means to abstain in an always-on society. I’m also interested in how game makers and players describe and work through different kinds of trauma through the distinctive kind of image-practice that video games offer.

If it’s all right with you, I’d like to just finish with a reflection on fasting that might be inchoate in the book but has shaped my thinking – about anthropology and about life – ever since. In the North Atlantic capitalist world, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of fasting. There are endless studies about how fasting must be harmful for pregnant women (Orthodox Christian women are quite capable of figuring out how much food they need, and if they have too little it’s generally not because they’re choosing to fast). A lot of people are tempted to read fasting through what they know about Ethiopia, which is its history of famines, and I think this is deeply the wrong way to go about it. In the UK, where I live, people understand dieting and going to the gym but tend to be freaked out by the idea of regular, communal (and often quite mild) self-denial. In the UK, even our ascetic practices are forms of consumption, and the idea of deliberate non-consumption is seen as something verging on illness. And I would put this down to political-economic reasons, on the slow closing down of shared spaces that aren’t dependent on purchasing something. I don’t want to romanticize it but I do want to emphasize that culture is not just a set of interpretable symbols that can be made meaningful. It is a set of effective techniques for achieving something in the world, and often this achievement – this real, technical knowledge – is operative at the level of collective subjectivity. I suggest that fasting is a technique of collective attention that resists commodification or any other kind of reduction in really important ways. And, as Ephraim Isaac has pointed out, it is a mistake to think of fasting as world-hating or world denying. This would be to fall into the fallacy of immediacy – you refuse food, therefore you must hate your body. But think of this in terms of attention, and you can see that fasting only makes you more aware of your body and its needs and desires. Fasting can be a way of drawing attention to spiritual others, but only through the body itself.