Jon Bialecki on his book, A Diagram for Fire

A Diagram for Fire by Jon Bialecki

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520294219/a-diagram-for-fire

Interview by Anna Eisenstein

Anna Eisenstein:   Your book identifies the miracle as the defining feature of American Charismatic Evangelicalism as manifested in Vineyard churches, and you unpack the miracle in terms a Gilles Deleuze’s “diagram”. Can you tell us what drew you to the diagram as a compelling framework for interpreting your ethnographic material, and what you hope it will bring to the study of Christianity and religion more broadly?

Jon Bialecki: My eventual turn to the diagram was fed out of a sort of “Two Crows denies it” frustration I experienced in the field. When I first began ethnographic work with the Vineyard, every time I would try to make a generalization about the practices and subjectivities that characterize this Southern California originated but now global Church movement, I would be corrected by someone who would point to an exception. If I said there was a tendency to progressive politics, some other reactionary Vineyard congregation would be named, or some other member of the Church or the prayer group I was spending time with would be brought up. If I characterized worship as ecstatic, someone would claim that it was meditative, or point out worship heavy Churches that weren’t heavily Charismatic. And so on, through every attempt to crystalize what I was seeing. But this was also an anthropological problem – or at least a problem of comparative ethnographies. At the same time, whenever I mentioned one of these hypothesized Vineyard distinctives to anthropologists who studied different Charismatic and Pentecostal groups, I would be told that there was some practice in their field-site that was similar to, or sometimes identical to, what I was finding in the Vineyard. In short, each Vineyard was unique, and yet all of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity was the same, which are not quite impossible positions to hold simultaneously, but certainly aren’t comfortable ones.

In my early published work, I tried to handle this by finding some opposition in whatever aspect of Charismatic religiosity I was writing about, and claiming that we could describe various Vineyard Churches, as well as the practices and experiences of different Vineyard believers, as some admixture between these two contrasting forces: I would write about centrifugal versus centripetal language, or sacrifice versus stewardship as different types of economic action and exchange. But this model, while a good enough working heuristic, seemed procrustean. What was worse, there could be no form of novelty, at least according to the accounts I was producing. Everything was just a little more leaning to one end or the other of a stable opposition; and even if the distance between these poles could jump discontinuously in real time, as I claimed, it was still a bit of a claustrophobic model.

But by chance I was reading about embryogenesis and about how some biologists conceive the of the relations between individuals, species, and family in certain taxonomic models. And what struck me was that, say, you could say there were identical yet abstract relations between various anatomical features in both how embryogenesis unfolds, and in how individuals and species relate to their taxonomic families, yet at the same time every particular expression could be qualitatively different in that these abstract relations could be realized to different extents, and through different material. This is how you can have all sorts of unique cats, for instance, and yet recognize all these particular individual animals as an expression of Felidae. And yet, there is also no cat or species of cat that is ‘prototypical’ of Felidae; there is no telos or ideal form, just all sorts of different expressions. The only way that a certain animal or species could serve as an exemplar is merely in the statistical sense, and not as some image of perfection. This material also led me into topology, which could e defined as the branch of mathematics which (in part) concerns itself with spatial relations, while purposefully ignoring the effect of size, or of continuous change of shape. What is nice is that you can have two homeomorphic shapes that still present themselves as radically different; the classical example for this is the way that the coffee cup and the donut (or torus) are both deformations of one another. This turn to topology was a surprise to me, because I was never really drawn to mathematics, especially with it came to anthropology. In the eighties and nineties, I was taught that the use of mathematics was just scientism, and that was bad. But topology was a kind of mathematics that escaped any quantification, so it didn’t seem vulnerable to the usual sorts of critiques of anthropological use of statistical and numerical reasoning.

Gilles Deleuze used the idea of the diagram to discuss phenomenon very similar to embryogenesis, taxonomic similarity within taxonomic models, and topology; the chief difference was that Deleuze was concerned with this sort of simultaneous fixture of relations and plasticity as it was found in social life. Perhaps the clearest example of it is Deleuze’s reading of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where the same set of relations that constituted the prison could be found in different spaces and instances (classrooms, factories, military units, hospitals). This diagrammatic kind of reasoning suggested quite an analytic benefit if I could identify some set of relations that could still be realized in numerous, and perhaps endless, different way. That would allow me to think through the events that characterize not just the Vineyard as a movement, but also particular Vineyard churches, and even individual Vineyard believers as at once having a commonality in shared potential, and yet still be easily distinguishable in their concrete particularities. All I would have to do is identify the qualitative differences, such as speed, strength, scale, and emotional tenor, and also find the differences that resulted from the different kinds of material that was being organized in each diagrammatic expression – different vocabularies, different forms of embodiment, different modes of subjectivity, different encompassing political milieus.

Another benefit was that comparisons between cases becomes possible – we can now talk about different Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianities without homogenizing them, or falling into a kind of nominalism where the only thing that all our cases ultimately share is that for contingent historical disciplinary or intellectual reasons we decided to put them in the same basket. We can ask in what situations do certain aspects of Pentecostalism appear, disappear, or change, which means that we can jump over the abyss of seeing any form of Pentecostalism as either ‘local’ or ‘global’ – each expression is both, in as much as it is a partial realization of a swath of potential in a ‘local’ site, through the organization of local linguistic material, social material, emotional palates, on so on. And where we couldn’t identify a shared set of relations, then we could compare different diagrams, and ask if we can see one diagram as a mutation or modification of the other; what happened when diagrams changed because some abstract organizing element (such as the presence of an immanent expression of divine will, to take the Charismatic/Pentecostal case) fell away or transformed?

I hope this wasn’t too much, but it was a long and bumpy road from the sort of linguistic and psychological anthropology I was trained in to the place where I am today. The same can be said not just about the change in analytic tools, but also in what questions could and should be asked.

Anna Eisenstein:    One of the things I found surprising about your book was the relationship between miracles and the will within The Vineyard. I was wondering if you could say a bit about how the Vineyard conceptualizes the will, and how it relates to the way that miracles work in the Vineyard?

Jon Bialecki: In the Vineyard, there are three different kinds of will; human will, divine will, and demonic will. God’s will is implicit in that he is understood as having particular desideratum: he ‘wants’ things for his believers, he asks them to make sacrifices, he has plans for their lives. For Vineyard believers, God’s will is not always clearly legible, it is important to note. Vineyard believers are often unsure of what it is that God wants them to do in any particular situation, or to do in their lives in general; when it comes to careers, marital partners, or even day-to-day ethical conundrums, people find themselves uncertain. Sometimes prayer and biblical study can elucidate these issues. But just as often, after a great deal of contemplation, prayer, and study, people still find themselves unsure of what the proper way forward is. This problem of divine desire also comes hand-in-hand with a language of divine power; in prayer, preaching, and song, God’s strength is a recurrent feature. This is not just strength in the sense of power, but also in the sense of strength of emotion – God feels more, cares more, loves more than any other entity. But since He is somewhat capricious (or as they say in the Vineyard, “messy”), he does so in different ways, with different tonalities. Putting this altogether, what we have is not just the divine as some sort of architect, but as someone who passionately wills for certain ends. The strength of God’s will stands in sharp contrast to Human will, which is weak. It’s weak in the sense of not being particularly powerful when facing opposition, but its also weak in that human will lacks a certain unity. Drawing on an overtly Evangelical anthropology, the Vineyard imagines people as having multiple, conflicting desires. What is worse is that these various desires often run against individual’s own sense of what is right in this world, and of what they should be longing for.

Miracles are a way of uniting the human will, or at least of rejecting unacceptable aspects of the human will for a season or so. Miracles are signs that reveal and rearrange. The miraculous sign not only informs an individual what it is that God wills (that there be healed, that the believer do x instead of y, or whatever else) but the miraculous sign gives the individual an opportunity to effectuate that divine will by aligning their own will with God’s desires through submitting to or accepting the miracle. A person accepts healing, receives prophetic knowledge, takes up speaking in tongues, but only if they open themselves up it when the miracle occurs. It is no mistake that these miraculous abilities and events are referred to by Pentecostal and Charismatic believers as the charismatic “gifts.”

We should note that the relation of wills in the miracle scales in interesting, and complicated ways. It’s also important to keep in mind that the willful/unwilling forces that stand at variance with the divine will are understood in different ways at different times. These two aspects of the will can work together to sometimes surprising ends. When it comes to scale, the conflicting wills can sometimes be within a larger unit, such as a church, a denomination, or even a nation. This means that we can be speaking of numerous individuals with a group who have mixed wills, and thus are recursively or in a fractal-like manner mirroring the larger constituent organization. But there is also no reason why the difference in will within an organization has to be distributed this way; there can also be a subset of individuals within the group who are in harmony with the divine will, and a different subset that are running counter to it. This means that when praying about the will of collective units, it is possible for this to be articulated in particularly Manichaeans ways.  Rather than God giving us collectively as sign that we all must rework are disordered wills together, we can be given a sign that within a grouping of some sort the disorder in wills take the form of our will mirroring God’s, while our internal opponent’s wills do not.

This tendency is exacerbated by the different kind of ontological frameworks that are sometimes used to frame the will. The Vineyard, as a deeply American movement, psychologizes most things pretty quickly; this gives sermons and publications an almost ‘therapeutic’ air at times. This means that difficulties of the will can be discussed in the language found in popular psychology and counseling. But as part of a Pentecostal/Charismatic mode of religiosity, believers in the Vineyard also have access to a more throughly supernatural ontology where objects like disease or characterological tendencies can be spoken of as if they were demonic; and at times the will can literally be identified as demonic, say, when someone prays to cast out “the spirit of depression” in an attempt to eradicate the dark and self-defeating willful elements in some person. For the most part, Vineyard believers are pretty adept about shuttling between psychological and demonological frameworks, and the presence of these two frameworks, and the choice of which of them to make use of at a particular time, doesn’t have any great effects. But the capacity to segregate the unwilling or willful into a specific subset of people, and then laminate their behavior with the demonic, is an obvious and continuous danger – and as the record or religious and political demonization in American religion shows, it is a danger that other cognate forms of Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity have fallen into more than once over the past three decades.

Anna Eisenstein:    In the book’s conclusion, you reformulate E.B. Tylor’s longstanding definition of religion (“the belief in Spiritual Beings”) to propose instead that religion is the more than human — and further, you suggest that religion is fundamentally about the human capacity to change. Could you say something about the way that you conceive of change in relation to more-than-human encounters?

Jon Bialecki: Reformulations of Tylor, of course, is nothing new, and my reformulation in many ways mirrors some of these other approaches. My particular approach is undoubtably influence by Mel Spiro’s classic article “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.” In that essay, Spiro uses the term “superhuman beings” in the place of “spiritual beings,” because an ontology where the idea of the spiritual makes sense can’t just be assumed. Since Spiro, developments in the anthropology of religion have helped bring out hidden aspects of this definition. The first development was (ironically enough) critiques of various extant academic definitions of religion. Talal Asad is the one who made the case in our discipline when he produced a reading of Clifford Geertz’s essay on religion to convincingly argue that standard anthropological definitions of religion are colored by modernist Protestant sensibilities. This Protestant lean suffered from political as well as analytic defects: the definitions produced weren’t adequate for earlier historical religious configurations, such as medieval Catholicism, and they also suggested that contemporary religious forms that leaned in the disciplinary and thus were not ‘privatized’ (such as many forms of Islam) were somehow defective or diseased.

Many have read Asad as a nominalist (something that he specifically denies) and have taken from his argument that we can’t speak about religion as anything other than a local, western category. You see that at conferences sometimes, when people just use Asad to dismiss in the Q&A. I think that the better lesson to take from Asad is something different. We should read Asad as saying that any particular description of religion draw from historically delineated concrete expressions of religion, and not expansive underlying potentialities, is an error. In short, if we posit religious not as something that has definite elements, but as a question that can be taken up in different ways, with different degrees of importance, in other words as a field of potential, then we can acknowledge that while the definition of religion per se  is limited, the potentialities associated with religiosity is not.

Along similar lines, I would argue that Asad also teaches us that religion in general has no particular ‘use’ inherent in its (lack of) form; neither ethical subjectification, nor the creation of political orders, nor the cultivation of cognitive practices and structures, nor ‘instrumental’ uses for healing or good harvests or whatever, are the ‘purpose’ of religion. Religion can be used for anything. Further, in many specific cases, it will be the ends that religion it is used for, rather than the particular specific expressions of religiosity at hand, which will be of interest to the people who employ religion. For instance, you don’t propitiate the Gods or spirits for a harvest because you’re interested in the supernatural, but because you won’t the crops to thrive.  And this also means that we can have religion as an inchoate or unnamed presence; when the use is so important that it obscures the specific contours of wider potentiality of religion that is being invoked, then religion as a phenomenon (or magic, which is honestly indistinguishable from religion) may not have its own specific lexical item.

The other innovation in the anthropology of religion is work done on the materiality of religion. This work has often focused on the relation between signification and a necessary material substrate, with attention paid to how various forms of religious semiotics either act to deny or double down on this materiality. But what has not been caught by most readings of this literature is that there seems to be no particularly mode of materiality that is specific to religion. Religion can operate with the minimal materiality necessary for human life (bodies, thought, and speech), or it can demand tremendous material outlay in the way of diverse offices, regular rituals, structures and the like. A single prayer or a chain of Cathedrals; it just depends on what is chosen. (All this is why Spiro’s definition has to be reformulated – if we are dealing with potential and variation, we have to have something more expansive than ‘superhuman beings,’ and we need something that can also include not just practice, but the materiality – with materiality meant in the sense of different specific materials that can have different effects, rather than having materiality as some fungible physical supplement to signification).

So this is where I finally get to answering your question. This leaves religion as basically having no form, being beholden to no particular mode of materiality, and having no one proper location in any particular instance of sociality. As such, depending on how its expressed, it can serve to decelerate social and individual change by tying change to various temporally and economically costly practices, or it can serve as a catalyst for change by inserting a randomizing or disruptive element into any social practice, for any conceivable end. I imagine most forms of religiosity do both at the same time, shifting the social terrain in different ways; this was certainly true of the Vineyard, which at once opened up believers to surprise, but at the same time constrained surprise through a series of ethical and epistemological practice that limited what could be thought of as actually being ‘divine.’

Anna Eisenstein:  Throughout the book, you provide examples of how your research participants hoped and prayed that you might come to share their faith. How have your informants responded to your work, and perhaps specifically, your explanation of the miracle, the Holy Spirit, and demons as fundamentally social phenomena?

Jon Bialecki: You’re right; I think that many Vineyard believers hoped that I would be moved enough to join them in their religious commitments; by the same light, there was also a fear among some that this was an endeavor designed to make either what it was that the people I worked with believed look bad – or alternately to disparage the believers themselves. However, there was never really any strongly felt awkward social pressure from my informants for me to join. I suspect that one reason is that, like Vineyard believers in general, many of the people I was spending time with were pretty highly educated. A lot of them were familiar with the dissertation as a genre, and knew how graduate research worked. Once, they even used this knowledge as a weapon against me. During a discussion in a Bible Study group I was focusing on, I asked whether they had any preference for what their individual pseudonyms would be in my dissertation, and each person wanted to pick the actual names of other people in the group, knowing exactly how it would vitiate the work that pseudonyms are suppose to do! On top of this wider but somewhat defuse familiarity with some of the mechanics of academia, I also benefited from a group of Vineyard intellectuals. Here, I’m speaking of the Society for Vineyard Scholars, which is an annually meeting organization for theological scholars, some of whom are professional theologians or pastors, and others whose interest in theology is an avocation. The SVS has been a good sounding board for some of my questions about Vineyard theology, and it’s helped me meet some great conversation partners. But its also allowed me to articulate some of my thoughts through mobilizing and analyzing some of the theological concerns that are important for the Vineyard

But I think the relatively warm reception – or at least the lack of an angry or dismissive response – is also due to something else. I think that on the whole those informants who have troubled themselves to read the book have been happy with the depiction. To them, it doesn’t come across as a dismissal of the miraculous as a social phenomenon, but a meditation on the social dynamics and learned epistemological constraints that shapes both the miraculous as they experience, and the Vineyard movement as a whole. In other worlds, my book is about how the Vineyard varies, and all the different ways that God acts in the world through the Vineyard. And I think that while that isn’t the only reading of my book, it is a fair one. This isn’t particular to me alone – there are a lot of Pentecostal and Charismatic people who love Tanya Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back, seeing in not as a psychological reductionist account, but rather a discussion of how God uses our psychology and capacity to train ourselves.

I really want to thank you for these questions, Anna. Given the narrow and limited audience for academic books, it’s always a kindness when someone just acknowledges that a book exists; but to be given questions this sharp and to the book’s point is a joy!

Angie Heo on her new book, The Political Lives of Saints

 

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520297982/the-political-lives-of-saints

Interview by Alice Yeh

 Alice Yeh: Talk of persecution and extinction often accompanies media coverage of Christians in the Middle East.  What intervention does your book contribute to this conversation and what assumptions are you arguing against?

Angie Heo: Without doubt, Christians in the Middle East confront horrific incidents of violence – bombings, torchings, abductions, murders – that hit the headlines on a numbingly regular basis.  These tragedies understandably lead to anxieties and fears that Christians and Christianity are on the decline in the Arab Muslim world.  The irony is that social imaginaries of persecution and extinction are also the very stuff of Christianity in current contexts.  Persecution politics rely on aesthetic tropes of martyrdom and suffering.  Rhetorics of extinction compel the collective memory of founding origins.  During my fieldwork among Egypt’s Copts, I became convinced that marginalization and violence did not so much extinguish minority traditions as they activated and reactivated them toward various political ends.

My book shows how Coptic Orthodoxy serves as a central medium for governing Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt.  I found that saints – the Virgin, martyrs, miracle-workers, mystics – invite a form-sensitive analysis of communication between Christians and Muslims.  Saints and their imagined representations touch on classic anthropological themes such as personhood and materiality, and they also build on recent debates around religion and/as media. Perhaps most of all, I saw that tracing the semiotic intricacies of divine communication afforded more empirical purchase on the linkages between religious and political mediations.  I believe this is especially important when working on saints and shrines – a topic that often appeals to romanticized pasts and other-worlds that circumvent structures of modernity.  I hope my book does justice to the ways that cultural expressions of holiness flourish and transform in relation to complex politics of authoritarianism, inequality, revolution, and bloodshed.

 Alice Yeh: I want to ask a question about the structure of the book, and its organization into three parts (relics, apparitions, icons). One effect is that, as a narrative, the book describes the increasingly sophisticated semiotic technologies by which saints are made accessible to others. Why did you organize the book this way? Do these techniques build one upon the other or do they develop in tension?

 Angie Heo: Thanks for this most thoughtful observation. I am happy to hear it because crafting my book’s organization was a source of weird obsession and pleasure; your recognition that there is a narrative structure in it is so gratifying.  When I was planning my book’s flow, I decided to focus on the religious terms of belonging to the Christian community and to the Christian-Muslim nation.  My ethnography begins with holy origins (in other words, “life-in-death”): the Coptic Church’s origins in martyrdom, through St. Mark of Alexandria and during New Year’s Eve of the 2011 uprisings.  I chose to open with the relics and how they mediate loci of divine passion, sacrifice and resurrection, ultimately, the ritual exchange of violence for justice.  My ethnography closes with holy departure (that is, “life-after-death”): the canonization of saints, through holy fools and mystics, and the creation of eternal memory.  Here, the icon is my medium of choice, and I trace how icons mediate holy personhood and the temporal dynamics of disappearance.

On the point of the book’s cumulative arc, yes, I do understand that the semiotic technologies that I describe build on each other — relics, apparitions, icons.  I am not sure that I would say that they are increasingly sophisticated, but I definitely see them as interconnected modes of reproduction and circulation.  Essentially, I wanted to move away from the idea that relics, apparitions and icons are particular types of “things” or image-objects, toward considering them more as distinctive styles of material imagination that are subject to historical transformation. These three genres of imagination involve different sensory ratios (combining the visual, tactile, auditory) with different effects on making the space and time of saints.  For all their differences, relics, apparitions and icons are also inter-related media of representing and disseminating presence that work in intimate tandem and blend into one another.  I think where you can best see this blending effect is in the transitions between my book’s three parts: between chapters 2 and 3, it is Saint Mark’s relics that operate with the Virgin’s apparitions in a political economy of territorial returns; between chapters 4 and 5, it is a dream-apparition of a Virgin that translates into a miracle icon’s power to reconfigure the public.

Your proposal that relics, apparitions, and icons develop in tension to one another is quite stimulating.  While I have devoted my energy to thinking about the continuities between these semiotic technologies, I have done much less work on considering the tensions between them. If I could write a second version of this book, with all the same fieldwork materials but another entire analysis, I would take this question up.  It would be a really interesting exercise to see how the relic-form poses a challenge to the icon-form, for example.  The arbitrary quality of what analytic direction an author chooses to pursue and not pursue is what makes scholarship feel so infinite and full of possibilities!

Alice Yeh: Can you elaborate on the paradox of “mystical publicity”? Are there non-Christian or non-religious contexts in which it manifests?

It just so happens that I am teaching a bunch of texts this quarter that trace the mystical and ascetic strands of moral personhood in other traditions.  There are Sufi mystics hiding away in Hyderabad and Delhi, “Gandhian publicity” with its ascetic management of bodily energy, and of course, the Jewish Kabbalah which appeals to an occult cosmology of knowledge and power. Reading Eastern Orthodox theological writings on the holy icon, I was completely floored by how much ink, century after century, has been spilled on the divine status of images and the fatal risks of idolatry.  When I did my fieldwork, I was also taken by the way that monks and nuns looked away from cameras when we were taking group photos, which got me reading up on holy fools and the desert anchorites – on social imaginaries of withdrawal, self-effacement, and death.  If you check out my footnotes, you may notice that I also try to link up the Orthodox tradition to ancient Greek ethics of cynicism via Sloterdijk.  My last body chapter’s epigraph is also a quote from Goffman’s “On Facework”, a classic piece whose first footnote is a fascinating orientalist reference to Chinese concepts of face and saving face.  Not incidentally, it is also an essay that motivated MacIntyre’s charge that foundational nihilism lay behind Goffman’s sociological method.

In the broadest sense, I suppose I am making a claim here about the nature of the religious / non-religious distinction within the work of concepts.  One could argue that mystical thought and practice has been a crucial resource for deconstruction and poststructuralism; I am thinking of Derrida’s disavowal of metaphysics and de Certeau’s ontological commitment to traces here.  Continental philosophy and American sociology also inherited, at least in part, a canon of core terms that have defined the status of the human, and the divine/ human limit, in religious traditions.  Secular humanism may be presumed in mass industries of celebrity and in the consumption of imagined persons.  However, the moral perils of mass popularity, such as “losing one’s self” or “turning corrupt”, also deeply resonate with the millennia-old mystical impulse to retreat and just disappear from the crowds.

Alice Yeh: One especially interesting observation is that institutionalized Christian-Muslim sectarianism is more the consequence of a shared rather than oppositional religious imaginary.  For example, you write about how Muslim eyewitnesses are crucial to authenticating a Marian apparition. How are these eyewitnesses located in the construct of “the simple people”? How do “the simple people”shape cross-confessional practices of witnessing?

Angie Heo: One of my book’s main arguments is that sectarian division is intrinsic to imaginings of Christian-Muslim nationhood.  My claim here is really directed to long-championed formulas of “nation above religion” that are based on an ideological opposition between national unity and sectarian difference.  To break past the opposition, I begin with questions of communication, or “commonness”, to expose the formal continuities between national and sectarian imaginaries. This is where I see semiotic approaches and resources in linguistic anthropology to be very helpful. In each of my chapters, I explore the question of communicative form, or what is presumed to be shared and not shared between Christians and Muslims.  When I analyzed relics and apparitions, I focused on the communicative terms of a sacred territory, whether it is imagined as a divinely blessed Holy Egypt (national) or as a church in competition with a mosque (sectarian).  When I analyzed apparitions and icons, I examined the communicative terms of a moral public, and the ways in which a collective subject comprised of both Christians and Muslims (national) create structures of communal identity and secrecy (sectarian).

Anybody who has spent significant time with Copts will have likely heard the adjective “simple” (basīṭ, basīṭa) or the phrase “the simple people” (al-busaṭāʾ).  In Egypt, “simple” can be a subtle geographic reference to Upper Egypt, and in the Arab world at large, “simple” can also connote  the urban working classes (here, I must credit Abdellah Hammoudi for pointing this out to me).  During my fieldwork in both rural villages and industrial neighborhoods, I discovered that the term “the simple people” also expressed some kind of moral credibility among Copts: “Those villagers are too simple, they wouldn’t even know how to torch a church!” (chapter 6); “The Muslims who reported seeing the Virgin are simple people, unlike those who denied her who are motivated by their self-interest.” (chapter 3).

Judgments like these are curiously ambivalent.  They revealed how the quality of simpleness signified both the power to transcend sectarian identity and the guilelessness to ward off allegations of violence.  I became utterly fascinated by invocations of “the simple people”, especially since saints are also frequently praised for being simple.  If simplicity is a virtue, then I had to study the image of “the simple people” – the trustworthy public and its credible opinion – as a key protagonist in the story of making saints.

 Alice Yeh: What specific challenges or conveniences did the turn to identifying relics, apparitions, and icons as genres of mediation pose for your fieldwork?  What advice would you offer to students with related interests?

Angie Heo: I have a zillion answers running through my head, and I think it’s because I am imagining many different audiences reading this.  To students interested in materiality studies, I am committing to one brief piece of advice, for what it’s worth.  Resist taking the object for granted.  This seems like an elementary point, but I am always surprised by how often some “thing” is presumed to be a relic merely because it is a body-part of a holy figure or because it is a fragment of a lost past.  I approach relics, apparitions, and icons as genres of mediation, and not as already-given types of objects, because I see my most interesting work emerging from a curiosity in how persons and things are recognized as such in the first instance.  Like it did with numerous thinkers from Marx to Munn, this somewhat dissatisfied curiosity drove my constant doubt in my inclinations to naturalize images into “things.” And I am grateful for what the curiosity and doubt together allowed me to question and see anew.

Courtney Handman on her book, Critical Christianity

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520283763/critical-christianity

Interview by Dan Jorgensen

Dan Jorgensen: Critical Christianity is a book filled with ideas – it feels as though there is an argument on nearly every page. If you had to summarize the overall argument for, say, an audience of grad students, what would you say?

Courtney Handman: Overall the book looks at two main issues: how a global phenomenon like Christianity changes the kinds of social groups that people form, and how translation works within that process, using the case of Guhu-Samane experiences of Christianization to demonstrate this. So I argue that Protestant Christianities (especially in the kinds of convert cultures that are common in Papua New Guinea and across the global south) are often practiced as projects of critique, and often critiques of what get called “traditional cultures.” These kinds of critical discourses do not just produce the ideological individualism that is usually associated with Protestantism, but they also produce a very intense focus on the social groups in which Christians live, in particular an intense focus on denominations and denominational schism. Guhu-Samane Christians are extremely engaged in the arguments that have produced a number of local denominational schisms, as much as (or even more than) they are engaged in thinking about the ways that their lives have changed since they stopped being “traditional.”

Translation is an essential part of my argument not only because missionary translations are crucial sites for reifying “traditional culture,” but also because I argue for the importance of looking at translation as a form of circulation and not just as a form of comparison. An incredible amount of work looks at translations by comparing texts, languages, or cultures (and I do some of this as well). Yet what was especially important in Guhu-Samane contexts was not just this comparison, but also the fact that New Testament had circulated through a really specific network of people, institutions, and divine entities. Translation was important, then, because they produced these events of circulation and these events of circulation are often the crucial sites for Guhu-Samane Christians to form new denominations.

Dan Jorgensen: Your book looks closely at the history of the Lutheran Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics and their projects – to a much greater degree, in fact, than is usual in Papua New Guinea (PNG) work. Was this part of your strategy from the inception, or did your approach emerge over the course of your work in PNG?

Courtney Handman: Unsurprisingly, the answer is both yes and no. I went to graduate school wanting to work on Christianity in PNG, which was a relatively novel topic at the time. I also knew that I wanted to look at missionaries as actors who shape the way Christianity circulates locally, but didn’t have much of a sense of which missionaries. On my first trip to PNG I spent time at a Christian Bible College and it just so happened that members of SIL (what used to be called the Summer Institute of Linguistics) were teaching a class on Bible translation to the PNG students. I spent much of the time that I was sitting in on that class thinking about what a dissertation project on Bible translation might look like (and also spent much of that summer feeling very claustrophobic on the fenced-in Bible College campus). Perhaps because of this roundabout start, I was interested in translation from the get go as a process that manages to get texts in circulation. I was not especially interested in looking at the impossibilities of translation – that is something that a number of other anthropologists have already done very well – but instead at the changes that translations help produce regardless of their seeming impossibility. By the time my second short trip to PNG rolled around I was pretty well set on looking at some aspect of SIL’s work in PNG, with the hopes of working in a PNG community that was either in the process of getting a translation or had had one already produced. The Guhu-Samane community was unique for both having had an American Bible translator produce the New Testament and for having local people currently in charge of an Old Testament translation project. (The focus on the Lutherans was much more accidental, and only came about because I worked in a community that had been missionized by them, although they have become the central focus of my current research and I’m enjoying learning more about them.)

Dan Jorgensen: An even more striking feature of your work is the use you make of theological debates in Protestant Christianity. It seems clear that these are not merely sources of information or “data,” and instead play an important role in shaping some of the terms of your argument. Can you say something about how you embarked on this route, and whether it offered you any surprises along the way?

Courtney Handman: One of the most surprising and frustrating things about working on denominationalism is how little has been written about it, and how unremarkable much of what has been written is. Usually, if people talk about denominationalism they do so as proxies for other kinds of social groups. Denominations get reduced to being other names for villages or political factions, and denominational competition is usually just seen as politics by another name. In Guhu-Samane communities, there is some of that: denominations are sometimes regionally specific, and competitions among denominations can look like contests among important men. But there seemed to be more animating the denominational conflicts, and I spent a while casting around for authors who didn’t completely reduce denominations (or other religious groups) to political, economic, or geographical explanations. Richard Niebuhr wrote an important text about denominationalism that gets discussed in a wide range of disciplines. Although he is an American theologian, you can trace a scholarly genealogy from Max Weber to Ernst Troelsch to Niebuhr, so he is still within a recognizable social science orbit.

But to speak more broadly to your question, there are a number of anthropologists working on religion who are engaging to one extent or another with texts written about or within religious traditions. This has a lot to do with the realization that secularism didn’t quite take hold as Weber and others had predicted, yet much of the theoretical apparatus of the social sciences assumes that religion is explainable in – and reducible to – sociological or political or economic terms. So while people across the global south have been taking up global religions, the explanations for this often don’t have much to do with the religions as such. Theological texts can be useful texts to think with and think against, even if one doesn’t use concepts in the texts in ways their authors intended, because they do assume that what people are interested in or thinking about has something to do with ideas and practices in Christianity or Islam, for example.

Dan Jorgensen: An important point that could easily get lost in substantive discussions is your perspective on events, and “event-based sociality.” Where do you think we can (or should) go with this? Can you say a little more about the prospects (and difficulties) this orientation offers for anthropologists in general?

Courtney Handman: One of the most compelling models of social groups for anthropological thinking has been nationalism, where the nationalist group is formed as an imagined unity that reaches back into the past. But social groups aren’t all organized like that, and a focus on events is just one way to make that difference clear. I see the focus on events as coming out of Melanesianist anthropology, where people like Marilyn Strathern or Roy Wagner realized a long time ago that the social groups that make up everyday life in places like Papua New Guinea are themselves outcomes of specific events of opposition or engagement. And just like other anthropologists have taken Melanesianist models of “dividual” personhood and applied them well outside Melanesia, I take this point about event-based sociality to address Protestant denominationalism and questions of linguistic circulation. If groups are organized around events, then what makes them important is their capacity to create hierarchies and differences rather than their capacity to be enduring, stable, identity-producing categories. Denominational oppositions within Protestantism seem to work the same way. Schisms can be analyzed as events of critique, where what is important for Protestants is that the denominational split is the evidence of transformation (or reformation, to use a Protestant term). What my Guhu-Samane interlocutors kept emphasizing in the histories of their experiences of Christianization is that it is the events of critique that are especially important to these histories, even if these critical events produce short-lived denominations.

I make the same point in terms of translation by emphasizing translation as linked events of circulation rather than (or in addition to) analyzing translation as the comparison between two stable languages and cultures. This is largely an extension of the kind of analyses that linguistic anthropologists do under the headings of “entextualization” and “recontextualization,” where the focus is on how people understand the process of de-linking a segment of talk or text from its context and bringing it into a new one. In that sense, the focus on events is well underway within linguistic anthropology!

 

 

Dev Nath Pathak on his new edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia

CaMP Anthropology blog recognizes that information about books from some regions circulate more widely than books from other regions.   To do our part in rectifying this inequality, we asked Dev Nath Pathak to discuss the analytical interventions his new edited volume offers to our field.

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https://www.routledge.com/Culture-and-Politics-in-South-Asia-Performative-Communication/Pathak-Perera/p/book/9781138201132

by Dev Nath Pathak

Max Weber was right when he perceived the powerful role of intuitive notions in scientific pursuits. A quest for culture and politics, their interface, and hermeneutic significance, in the chequered cartography called South Asia indeed solicits unbridled intuition. Following this, it could be said that our edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative Communication, published by Routledge (India) is a consequence of conceptual flirting and empirical lusting. It contains several bouts of intuition provoked by the soliloquies of individual scholars as well as conversations among them. And what does it seek to know– what is South Asia, if seen through the prism that collapses the binaries of power and performance, politics and culture, structures and meanings? Indeed the binaries do not exist, and never existed, insofar as it was about what we become though our diverse performances. We become citizens as we participate in the electoral performances, we become ethnos as we participate in festivities in rites of passage, we turn objective as we perform our own empirically sound researches and we are deemed deviant as we enact the Dadaist idea of anything goes. Even though we recognise that the format in which we play our roles entails binaries of good and bad, black and white, oppressor and oppressed, and even bourgeoisie and proletariat- we are performing with the complexity of Bourdieu’s habitus. Our being and doing are too finely intertwined to be viewed in separation. Often one thought that in a controlled performance in a proscenium theatre, the power relation is indubitably clear. Was it so? The relation of the scripted and the scripting always sprang surprises on us. It is just like the relation between structure and agency in theoretical discussions in social sciences, which cannot be mistaken for a linear, zero-sum power game. It is complex and fluid, despite the institutional determinacy and structural clarity most visible. This is very much what Emile Durkheim shows, that the normal and pathological stride together. Continue reading

Islam Omitted from Beyond Bollywood: Correcting Indian History as Represented in a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition

By Susan Seizer “In the Western imagination, India conjures up everything from saris and spices to turbans and temples—and the pulsating energy of Bollywood movies. But in America, India’s contributions stretch far beyond these stereotypes. […] Today, one out of … Continue reading

Is Another World Possible? The Work of Sculptor Henri Sagna

"Un Autre Monde Est Possible" by Henri Sagna

by Beth Buggenhagen With oil prices down to their lowest point since the 1990s consumers everywhere seem to be benefiting from lower gas prices. Except in Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer and largest economy. As consumers jostle for scarce gasoline … Continue reading