Yoram Bilu on his book, With Us More Than Ever

Cover of With Us More Than Ever by Yoram Bilu


Interview by Yael Assor

Yael Assor: The book first came out in Hebrew and was then translated to English. I was wondering why did you decide to publish this book first in Hebrew, and why publish it in English at all? Are there any prominent differences between the Hebrew and English versions?

Yoram Bilu: All my books first came out in Hebrew.   Since I find it easier to write lengthy texts in my mother tongue, it would have been awkward not to look first for a local publisher.   But there is also ideology behind it.  Studying phenomena pertinent to Israeli society, I always felt obliged to give priority to local readership (papers are a different story).  This holds for this book as well, as It sheds light, among other things, on the peculiarly Israeli face of Chabad and on significant processes within Israeli society (for example, Mizrachim joining Ashkenazi-based Hasidic groups). At the same time, The messianic surge in Chabad is a golden opportunity to study fundamental issues of religious belief and experience, and this justifies publication in English (e.g. the role of culture in shaping basic cognitive processes through which the Rebbe becomes manifest).  The English version is a bit tighter. 

Yael Assor: On page 259, you write, “Believers experience the Rebbe directly and do not perceive the media that bears his image as standing between the Rebbe and themselves. The ethnographic writing of the anthropologist is a similar kind of mediator; he or she can also vanish from the reader’s consciousness.” Indeed, throughout most of the book, story after story, we read of the Rebbe’s miraculous presence, and to some extent become witnesses of his continuous presence. At the same time, your presence as the ethnographer who mediates these stories to us gets backgrounded. Can you elaborate on your choice to take up this style? Would it be correct to say that by engaging this style, your Chabbad interlocutors were right about your own contribution in disseminating the belief in the Rebbe?

Yoram Bilu: My uncritical  perspective in showering the readers with miraculous stories was not unintended. I wanted them to be immersed in the enchanted world of the Meshichistim, in the messianic ecology they constitute, which I find all-encompassing and at times overwhelming.   By doing so I myself embodied the dialectics of the mediation process.  I agree that some parts of the book can be read as if written from a credulous perspective, though others account for the miracles using social science explanatory models.  Aligning my reply with your next question, I have to qualify the “very experience-near book” designation.  While I sought to depict the inner worlds of the radical messianists, I relied on texts (probably edited thus adding more layers of mediation) more than on interviews and observations.  By doing so, I left unexplored the darker side of experiential worlds of the Meshichistim, where allegedly conflict, frustration, and doubts  also reside.  Focusing on these aspects would have called for a very different book.

Yael Assor: Relatedly, in the Introduction, the two last chapters and the Conclusion, you still take a more distant point of view, discussing your researcher position, contextualizing this study in contemporary theoretical debates and parallel phenomena. Why did you decide to still incorporate this tone in this otherwise very experience-near book?

Yoram Bilu: See above.  Also, my tone has to do with my attempt to calibrate the not-so-compatible fields of psychology and anthropology, which are my combined disciplinary background.  Note, for example, that I use theoretical models from cognitive psychology, such as dissonance reduction or signal detection, as departure points in explaining how the absent Rebbe becomes present.  My critique of these theories in the book is not designed to supplant them but rather to supplement and enrich them by staying attuned to contextual noises which these theories usually discount.  Lastly, I consider myself a modernist at heart, still viewing anthropology as a scientific project (admittedly by stretching the definition of science) and thus necessarily as a comparative one.

Yael Assor: A concept the book centrally engages is “virtual Rebbe.” You argue that “virtual” is not the opposite of “unreal,” but a different form of realness.  Can you expand on how you think this concept contributes to current discussions about “religious imagination,” a term broadly utilized to discuss non-physical dimensions of the cultural life (including subjective and intersubjective experience) of religious movements?

Yoram Bilu: Clinging to virtual worlds is in fact  at the heart of each and every religion.  The sustenance of the virtual Rebbe in messianic Chabad is in this sense just an illustration, albeit uncommon and extreme, of the horizons opened before 21st century believers in cultivating the religious imagination.  The rapid development of virtual realities through new technologies may bolster this imagination – as my book shows.  Does it mean that a contemporary believer enjoys an epistemological edge over a first century believer?   I am not so sure.  One could claim that human imagination – free floating, not bound by technology – could expand rather than curtail the religious horizons shaped by the new technologies.

Yael Assor: Throughout the book you offer a very nuanced analysis of how the Rebbe’s presence is maintained with the help of technological means and in correspondence with contemporary world events and global trends. All this made me wonder about the role of  American neoliberal ideology in informing this dynamic. I was thus curious about your take on this: do you see such connection between American neoliberalism and the Meshichists’ manner of making the Rebbe present? 

Yoram Bilu: Yes, I do see such a connection.  After all, Chabad was reshaped in the 1940s and 1950s in America, with its epicenter in NYC.  Its technological adeptness is but one expression of adopting aspects of the American ethos and style.  In a globalized world Chabad could be viewed as a very successful transnational firm. Note that Harold Blum called Chabad an American Religion.  There are some parallels, I think (with all due differences) between Chabad’s expansion and the growing popularity of Evangelical Chrisianity in various parts of the world – and these similarities are not unrelated to a capitalist, neoliberal theology.

Sheena Kalayil discusses her book, Second-Generation South Asian Britons

Interview by Kim Fernandes


Kim Fernandes: In your book, you argue that your participants (who are parents of dual heritage children and are themselves bilingual British South Asians) have a “relationship” with the Heritage Language. You intentionally use relationship as a metaphor to acknowledge the dynamic and often shifting ways in which one’s identity and the use of language are connected. For anyone who may not yet have read your book, would you be able to say a little bit more about what inspired this framing?

Sheena Kalayil: My starting point within this research was to try and find out whether people maintained their Heritage Language(s). As I began to listen to my participants talk about how they view their Heritage Languages, I began to reflect on my own experiences with Malayalam, my Heritage Language, and to realize that it was indeed a relationship. While I was talking to my participants, I also saw my own understanding of narrative inquiry shift. All of the participants – well, except for one – were older than me, by at least a little bit. They were all in what I would describe as ambitious or prestigious jobs. Their jobs all required a particular set of professional skills, and they were not going to let me write the story of their lives. They wanted to tell their life stories in their own way. So, our interviews were very much jointly constructed between us. The participants were driving the narrative of their lives, deciding what they wanted to talk about in the interview setting, and the way they were talking helped me construct this idea of having a relationship with their identity and language.

Multilingualism is very complex, and it should not be investigated through one approach. In my book, I wanted to show that monolingual interviews with participants can provide just as rich, just as useful, if not more useful, insights into the study of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In particular, I wanted to address the discourse around multiculturalism in the UK, which I think differs from US discourse in some ways. A lot of people assume that because the UK is multicultural, it will be a multilingual country. And while the multiculturalism is celebrated, it is also often considered a problem – you’re celebrated on the one hand and problematized on the other. If you’re an ethnic minority, even if you’re married to a white monolingual person, society expects your family to be multilingual, and there’s a sense of disappointment in situations where this isn’t the case.

Kim Fernandes: What inspired your choice of narrative inquiry as a method for the book? How did you work to build a narrative environment that allowed participants, as you point out, to move away from strictly linear understandings of space and time, and to instead generatively reconsider the ways in which language learning intersected with their understandings of time and space?

Sheena Kalayil: You know, in another life, I would have loved to be an anthropologist, and have done an ethnographic study. But with this study, it wasn’t the right time in my life to do that, and I wouldn’t have been the right person to be doing it. For me, a researcher has to really believe they are the only person who can be doing the study that they are doing. Being a writer, too, storytelling is important to me – and so the idea of just letting people tell their stories was very appealing to me. I began by reading about narrative research, but I came up against very canonical approaches. When I thought about them, I also thought, well, if somebody asked me those questions (say, for instance, about the one critical incident that had really got me thinking about my use of Heritage Language), I would not be able to pull out just one incident, because our lives are made up of so many incidents. I was also thinking about the ways in which we don’t really understand what’s happening when we are young, and often, you only get a sense of what happened as you grow older. So, too, there’s a retrospective building of a story. The other thing I took on board was that my participants are busy people and not everybody is comfortable with talking about themselves – so I didn’t want to start a research project which would die a quick death because people either found it too onerous to participate or I just wasn’t setting the right tone.

I quickly realized that a researcher should not just bank on the commonalities they might share with participants and assume that they are able to ask any kind of question or talk about anything. I’m not comfortable talking about a lot of my own life or family dynamics, so I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable answering certain questions. I was also aware that there were many things that I didn’t have in common with my participants. At one point, then, I decided to think of a narrative inquiry on my own terms. That is, asking people to tell their lives using interviews as my research tool and adopting a theoretical framework which respected how they chose to drive their narrative. I believe this approach allowed me to do the participants and their narratives justice. And through the messiness that arises from semi-structured interviews, I never felt like I was imposing my own research strategy or structure on the data. Instead, after transcribing the interviews and using Bakhtin’s theories of chronotopes, I was able to pick the aspects of the interview that the participants themselves were trying to highlight to me.

Kim Fernandes: At the beginning of the book, you describe an episode from the BBC radio program, Mind Your Language, where there is a particular disconnect between the topics that researchers are typically interested in when studying multilingualism and the rich everyday linguistic experiences of a range of Heritage Language speakers whose interests are typically not represented in research. You also talk about how writing this book was a way for you to center the voices of people like you that is, highly educated second-generation South Asian Britons from a range of professional backgrounds whose experiences with multiculturalism and multilingualism are often not the focus of research. Could you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of audiences you’d imagined when preparing this book?

Sheena Kalayil: I am a minority in the UK, and I’ve married outside of my linguistic, ethnic and religious community, and I have what are termed dual heritage children. So, all of these things are very close to me and my participants. But at the same time, I am very much an outsider. I wasn’t born in the UK, and I didn’t go to school here, I didn’t have that kind of formative upbringing that many of my participants did. Research that I was reading focused on particular types of South Asian communities – living in close linguistic and religious communities, working-class – because they are rich sources for research into multilingualism and cultural identity. But by focusing on those rich sources, there were a lot of people in the UK who were flying under the radar of most researchers – as I noticed from my own milieu, from my friends and this comes back to your question about who my audience is. My first audience was really myself. As a researcher of color in this country, I felt like I had a responsibility to add to the corpus through my ethnographic perspective as an insider-outsider. I felt like this allowed me to develop a different perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism from the well-trodden research routes within existing conversations. So, the second audience for the monograph was also the academic community. However, I also firmly believe that the way I write and present the data is accessible in ways that might be of broader interest to those interested in a wide range of related issues, even if not directly as students of linguistics.

Kim Fernandes: Right now, with COVID-19, a lot of interviews are increasingly being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I noticed, though, that even prior to this moment, you’d chosen to do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews for you book. What influenced the choice of interview location, and in turn, how did that shape the nature of the narratives shared with you?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really interesting question. I was worried that if I insisted on in-person interviews, I would narrow the scope of my participants for a number of reasons. I had to fit interviews into my daily life and couldn’t afford to pay a substantial amount of money for travel. I didn’t want to limit my research to the area I live in, Manchester, but I wanted a breadth of the South Asian experience, linguistically and geographically in the UK. So, while it would feel absolutely normal now to set up the Zoom interview, I realized when doing my research that the two kinds of interviews were different, but it wasn’t that one was better than the other. Meeting people online, in a way, allowed me to be a more considerate interviewer: I could fit in the Skype interviews around their daily routines. I felt like online interviews allowed me to touch on things that were sensitive to people of South Asian heritage, such as love marriages, arguments with parents over raising children, and so on, while also being respectful of my participant’s space.

I do think, as well, that what the online interviews did was focus the interview very closely on the participant and their language experiences, in ways that may not have been possible with in-person interviews, and this might be a consideration for research in the future. I hope this also means that we can move away from thinking about in-person ethnographic work as the only way in which to collect putatively authentic data.

Kim Fernandes: I noticed in the book that caste only come up a couple of times, with one participant. Elsewhere, you mention status and race, and their relationship to language, but there is almost no discussion of caste as a fairly significant oppressive, hierarchical system across South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities. Can you say more about how caste did – or didn’t – come up in your own conversations, analysis and writing, particularly with regard to how it influenced participants’ relationship with language?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been asked that before. Caste hasn’t played a major role in my life, and it wasn’t at the top of my agenda. However, when I was gathering participants for this study, I could tell from their last names about their caste – and one participant, as you mentioned, brought up her own caste. It wasn’t a question that I asked, since I wasn’t planning on asking my participants about their caste or religion. But being South Asian, of course, meant that religion did come up at some point with the participants. Given the contested nature of caste in the homeland, I felt that in the UK, caste may not have been as prominent a feature, even though there were numerous hints relating to caste and religion throughout. In future research, this is definitely something I’d like to look into.

Brad Wigger on his book, Invisible Companions

Interview with Laura Murry


Laura Murry: Please explain the main focus and argument of your book, Invisible Companions: Encounters with Imaginary Friends, Gods, Ancestors, and Angels.

Brad Wigger: The main focus of the book is the phenomenon of children’s invisible companions and how they reflect a deeply social cognition in children. Sometimes these figures are playful, as with imaginary friends who color or dance or go to the playground with a child. Some are more serious—they study or read or keep a child safe walking home. Some are relatives who died but show up to help a child feel better when sad. Still others cross clearly into religious territory. One child said his invisible friend is the Holy Spirit, another named God, another, an angel. In these cases, the children were explicit that the friends were “real, not imaginary.”

I often use the language of, invisible friends or IFs, in the book, to include all these various forms. But I still use “imaginary” when the children themselves are clear about their “pretend friends” or “imagination friends.” Still, whether IFs are playful and imaginary or serious or come from religious sensibilities, the relationships themselves are real and often powerful for, and meaningful to, the children.

The book documents these relationships and tries to illustrate the qualities of them. In contrast to many stereotypes about children’s thinking, they reveal a highly sophisticated childhood mind full of flexibility (facilitating learning), wildness (facilitating creativity), and even logic (facilitating engagement with the world). Most of all these relationships point to a child’s ability to share a social world. What begins with eye tracking in a baby develops into pointing and language, and the ability to share intentions and purposes with others.

In this way the book is part of a newer stream in child development studies over the last 25 years, represented by figures such as Alison Gopnik, Marjorie Taylor, and Paul Harris.  Their work has begun dismantling a developmental paradigm initiated in Freud’s understanding of children but boosted and institutionalized in Piaget. That view saw children’s minds as fundamentally driven by the ID, which is irrational, egocentric, and unable to differentiate fantasy from reality until middle childhood. The task of parents and teachers is to help children become reality-focused, social, and logical. In such a paradigm the imagination is a problem to be overcome. But in the newer wave of research, the imagination is actually a vehicle for problem-solving, for understanding and cooperating with others, and for learning about the (non-fantasy) world.    

Laura Murry: You primarily used long-form interviews and theory of mind tests to generate data for your book. Please explain your methods, highlighting what questions this approach best helped you answer. One specific query I had was whether the theory of mind tests helped you show that IFs were “in-betweens,” and thus in turn, helped to suggest “a connection between a child’s relationship with an imaginary friend and a human’s relationship to religious invisible beings” (6).

Brad Wigger: Yes, interviews and ToM tests were my primary forms of research. These reflect two directions: 1) descriptive, and 2) cognitive scientific. Descriptively, I wanted to hear children’s (and parents’) stories about IFs. What are they like? Do children know imaginary friends are different from “real/visible” friends? What do children do with them? How long do they hang around? What do parents think about them? No one interview answered all the questions, but collectively, a picture began to emerge.

The interviews were generally short (we interviewed children as young as two) and open. But we always tried to establish whether a child actually had an IF. Sometimes the children walked in with a picture they’d drawn and started talking about their friends immediately. For others, we eased into the subject: “Some children have friends nobody else can see, do you have any friends like that?”

Once we confirmed the child had an IF, we conducted ToM tasks with them. I was playing off the work of Justin Barret who found that even young children could differentiate between a human or animal mind and God’s mind. Children don’t seem to just project a human mind onto God, but they can accommodate the special features of God’s mind—that God might know things people don’t. I’m a theologian by training so had been particularly interested in these findings. I wanted to replicate the study but with a twist: How would children treat the minds of IFs? In short I found that IFs were statistically more likely to know things, according to the children, than a dog or human, but less likely to know than God. IFs were “in-between.” The only other finding similar to this was a study by Nicola Knight in the Yucatan who found that children treated the arux, elf-like forest spirits, in a similar way (in-between God and animals).

When I presented these findings from the US at an international conference focused upon the cognitive science of religion, participants immediately made connections to all kinds of religious “in-betweens”: angels, spirits, jinn, ancestors, or even Santa Claus. The findings led to the opportunity to interview kids in multiple countries (Kenya, Nepal, Dominican Republic, and Malawi) from various religious backgrounds. Though I generally describe these in the book, I have published these findings in peer-reviewed empirical journals.

But I wanted a book, as a book, to tell a story (or multiple stories) about children and IFs. Not only did I hope stories would make the work more engaging, I believed a narrative approach actually reflects and respects the subject matter: more often than not IFs were characters in the stories children told me, full of plots and settings.

Not sure this answers your specific query or not—but generally religions around the world understand the cosmos as populated with all kinds of invisible figures and encourage relationships with them. Several are “in-between” a high God and humans. The ToM findings potentially demonstrate how easily even children can differentiate kinds of minds. While the IFs demonstrate how easily (at least some) children can cultivate relationships with the invisible. I can try again if this wasn’t quite helpful.

Laura Murry: I loved the question, which you returned a few times throughout the book, what if they’re real? In this context, “they” are invisible friends. To your mind, what’s at stake in this question? Can we answer it? For example, my research is in animal studies and Mayanthi Fernando recently pointed out that animal studies scholars are generally better at thinking with more-than-human animals rather than spirits, jinns, ghosts, and so on. She seems to suggest that it’s a legacy and limitation of modernist/secular regimes of thought. Is this true here? Or are the implications different?

Brad Wigger: That’s great to connect the issues you point to in the Fernando essay [which I didn’t know] and her analysis of the limits of secular frame (or immanent frame) via the work of Charles Taylor. He does a brilliant job of detailing the development and limitations of the modernist, secular, disenchanted, “subtraction story”: take away the irrationalities and superstition of religion, animism, and anything “more,” and we will finally become grown up and enlightened. It’s essentially the same argument Freud made, both about young children and humanity in general—children and early humans are dominated by fantasy and irrationality blinding them to reality. Taylor shows the ways in which this story has become so much the assumption in modern thought—the unquestioned water we swim in—that it’s becomes a closed circle, a syllogism: of course the gods aren’t real because there isn’t anything else.  

The connection to my research is that because Freud’s analysis of childhood was deeply flawed, as mentioned, this opens the door to the possibility that his analysis (as representative of the immanent frame) of religion is flawed as well. Because children are less formed in this frame, and more “porous” (Taylor) to a sense of more, perhaps they are more open to the “presences” that Auden says “we are lived by” and “pretend to understand.”

Though I work and teach in a religious context, I too feel the cross-pressures of secular thought and a sense of transcendence, a tension that can only be lived with if we take both science and religion seriously, as I do. But both good religion and good science work hard to stay open and resist a closed system.   

I first wrote out my “what if they’re real” question in Nepal in the hills of the Himalayas surrounded by Hindu temples and Buddhas and shrines to gods and goddesses in every direction—anything but a secular frame. The context helped raise the question and perhaps the possibility that my own sense of reality is too small. The fact that we have no way to definitively answer the question suggests that living in this tension is our best hope of staying open.

Laura Murry: On this note, I was also most interested in cases where imaginary friends took on more-than-human forms either by being animals or by being many things, by being “protean” or “shape shifters” as you put it, as in the case of Jeff/Jeffette. What is the significance of this finding? Does it change our understandings of the human mind, childhood development, and social imagination? 

Brad Wigger: Yes, I think the shape-shifting friends were some of the most fascinating. My first experience with an IF was through my daughter and her imaginary friend, Crystal. As far as I knew Crystal was more or less the same throughout the time she was around. So when I heard about friends who took on different genders or species, I was surprised. For example, a three-year-old girl’s IF was Lucy. And Lucy was sometimes a “mom” but could also be a rabbit, lion, tiger, mouse, or a zebra. But whatever form, it was always Lucy.

This led me into thinking about the paradoxical relationship between continuity and difference, essence and change.  The human mind has to hold together both. Essences give us stability, the sense of an enduring identity for example, either of other people, things, or even ourselves (but also leads to essentialism, stereotypes, reductionisms of many kinds). 

But these shape-shifters also led me to the role of proteanism in studies of animal behavior—the role of unpredictability in the survival of a species. Rabbits run erratically, as do most species who are prey. Fish and ducks will scatter, lizards fake convulsions, etc. Unpredictability and strange behavior make these more difficult to catch. In humans, proteanism shows up in sports, or arts, our dreams at night yielding surprising moves, novel creations, or scientific breakthroughs. I speculate in the book that the wild side of the imagination and especially childhood imaginative play enhance mental flexibility, or cognitive plasticity, crucial to learning and dealing with an everchanging world of physical and social environments. Children are better able to face the unexpected, improvise, problem solve, and learn. Again, this is a reversal of the emphasis upon becoming “reality focused” in earlier developmental paradigms. 

Laura Murry: You theorize imagination as a “phenomenon [that] points to something fundamental about human knowing, its originality in the creaturely world, our original knowing” (179). That is, you highlight the role of imagination in the human evolutionary process. At the same time, you ask questions about the relationship of imaginary friends and religious beings. Yet you reject the idea that religious beings are–to put crudely–imaginary friends writ large. Please explain your thinking on this subject. 

Brad Wigger: I think there are two parts to your question. First, I do a quick summary of the role of the imagination in the unique aspects of human knowing. I wrote a whole other book called, “Original Knowing,” charting this out in more detail. I follow the case made by primatologist, Michael Tomasello, who has persuasively argued that joint attention and joint goals in humans—the deeply social nature of human knowing—are fundamental to the difference between, say, fishing for termites in a mound and building a rocket ship, writing a novel, or creating a financial system. The capacity to coordinate my goals or purposes with yours, and vice versa, I’m suggesting, is an act of the imagination, a social imagination.

Second, concerning the relationship between imaginary friends and religious beings, certainly many cognitive scientists feel that IFs of any sort are “nothing but” a by-product of our hyper-social minds that are so ready to attribute mind everywhere that we attribute minds to trees and mountains (as in animism) or to the invisible source of the cosmos (a creator god) and figures in-between (angels and ancestors). This is an updated version of Freud’s critique of religion as fueled by psychological processes.

And they could be right. This is part of the tension of living in the modern, immanent frame with a sense that there could be “more,” some suspicion that the world as we know it is not the whole picture. That “more” is neither provable nor disprovable. I’m just not willing to reduce the gods to a psychological process any more than I would reduce the sky out my window to nothing but a human projection. In the book I explore the dilemma through the question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

In the end, I think what imaginary friends and religious beings have in common is the cognitive capacity for meaningful relationships with invisible beings (if not invisible worlds). In the book I playfully turn the question around: Perhaps we are God’s imaginary friends, born of a desire for relationship, and that’s what makes us real.

Isabel Laack on her book, Aztec Religion and Art of Writing

Cover Aztec Religion and Art of Writing


Patawee Promsen: Throughout the book, you choose to use the term Nahua instead of Aztec, as it is the term they call themselves and it includes the larger ethnic groups in the area. I wonder, however, why you chose to use the term Aztec instead of Nahua for the book title? Are there any implications in doing so?

Isabel Laack: Words do not carry any inherent, objective meaning; we use words to communicate our ideas about reality and thus construct this reality. In academic thinking, we strive for clarity in our communication and analyze the meanings commonly associated with terms in their social and political contexts, contexts in which some people have more power to shape reality as others.

The term “Aztec” was coined by Europeans in the 19th century to name the mainly Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups that formed the “Aztec empire” in the century before the Spanish conquest. Throughout my book, I preferred the Indigenous term “Nahua” because of two reasons: first, to emphasize the cultural traits shared by the people using this language, and second, to raise awareness for the political asymmetries reflected in our European interpretations of the Indigenous cultures of Mexico—including our powers to name them.

Having said that, it is the term “Aztec” that is most commonly used in American popular discourse; and it is also used in academic discourse to distinguish the pre-colonial “Aztecs” from the colonial and contemporary “Nahuas”. When you choose a title for a book, you need to name your subject and approach as clearly and concisely as possible. At the same time, you need to include the terms most probably used by your potential readers, to catch their attention and to be found when they search for literature in internet search engines or academic databases. Consequently, I decided to include the catchy if problematic “Aztec” in the main title but also the more speaking “Nahua” in the subtitle.

Patawee Promsen:. Can you share more about how you have come to be interested in this research topic, especially Nahua pictorial writing? 

Isabel Laack: My fascination for Indigenous American cultures was first stirred in high school in the context of the 500th anniversary of the European conquest of America in 1992, when my history teacher taught us to critically reflect on European colonialism. Later, I was privileged to learn more about Indigenous Americans in my university studies of religion and anthropology. These studies were inspired by the wish to better understand their ways of living as well as the injustice initiated by my European ancestors through conquest, colonization, and suppression.

My academic interest in the specifics of Nahua pictorial writing and its correlation with (religious) cosmovision was raised primarily through the books written by art historian Elizabeth H. Boone.  I was deeply touched by the beauty of Aztec and Mixtec painting, intrigued with this form of visual communication, and inspired by Boone’s impetus to overcome Eurocentric biases in our attempts to understand how this form of communication works.

Patawee Promsen: While some scholars tend to treat oral tradition as a primary source of understanding Nahua culture, your book suggests that pictorial writing is equally important, and its role is not limited to just a device for serving orality. In what ways that considering both oral and written literature as being inextricably interwoven will add to a more understanding of the indigenous historiographical genres?

Isabel Laack: The main thrust of my argument is to overcome the interpretative limitations produced by using European systems of communication as the (only) reference point for analyzing Indigenous oral and written genres.

If we look at the few surviving manuscripts written in traditional Aztec and Mixtec writing, we might be tempted to see them as very limited forms of communication—comparing them implicitly or explicitly to the long texts written in the history of Europe in alphabetical writing. Assuming that the Nahuas nonetheless had extensive cultural and historical knowledge, the only possible inference is: There must have been a strong oral tradition complementing the written records. And indeed, colonial sources evidently speak of a rich and elaborate oral tradition including all kinds of media and performative acts.

Nevertheless, trying to understand pictorial writing in its own right—not compared to alphabetical writing—opens our minds to realize that there might be layers of meaning communicated in this system that work beyond verbally expressed thinking. Then, we also realize that the Nahua combination of oral and written traditions is much more complex than previously assumed. Engaging in this way with Indigenous forms of communication teaches us very much about the many human possibilities of making sense of our lives in this world.

Patawee Promsen: Your book offers a fascinating idea of a “material turn” in the study of religion. In the conclusion part, you suggest that Nahua pictography challenges the idea that “thoughts are best expressed linguistically” (p.356). I wonder if you could explain more of why not only phonographic/alphabetical but also pictorial writing can reflect critical thinking?

Isabel Laack: Let me answer this question in two parts, discussing first the material turn and second my interpretation of pictorial writing.

1) Because of its origin and history, the Western academic study of religion is strongly shaped by Christian, Protestant ideas and has, thus far, mainly focused on analyzing the belief systems and theologies, that is, cognitively and verbally expressed interpretations of the world. In the last decades, some scholars of religion have turned their attention away from exclusively examining elite discourses to consider what most ordinary people do with their religion in their daily lives. Thus, scholars have come to realize that religion is lived with all the human senses and the body, not only cognitively but also emotionally, performatively, and in interaction with material and sensory media, such as artifacts and objects, music and sounds, images and colors, smells and food. Scholars promoting the material turn and the aesthetic turn in the study of religion attempt to better understand these ways of religiously making sense of the world, ways going beyond using words.

2) You mention a part of my key argument about Nahua pictorial writing, which challenges the idea that thoughts are best expressed linguistically. In this argument, I refer to the theory of embodied metaphors by cognitive linguist George P. Lakoff and philosopher Mark L. Johnson. In a nutshell, they argue that even our most critical and abstract thinking—such as philosophical thinking—is fundamentally shaped by the ways we perceive our environment through our bodies. A simple example for this is the conception of time as a linear movement in space. According to Lakoff and Johnson, we cannot think abstractly and critically without using embodied metaphors like this. In my book, I applied this argument to pictorial writing by showing its potential to visualize embodied metaphors in images and signs and thus to enable “readers” to understand them and to give them tools to critically reflect on the ideas expressed in the painting.

Patawee Promsen: One of the most important arguments from your book is that semiotic theories are developed differently in different cultures so that it will be a misinterpretation if we use Western knowledge to get the Non-Western’s sense of reality. Can you say more about how deconstructing Western idea of semiotics would be helpful to understand the Nahua’s linguistic theory and their sense of reality?

Isabel Laack: When we engage with people from a culture different to our own, maybe even from an earlier time in history, we might realize that they have a different perspective on the world, a different cosmovision, a different sense of reality. I intentionally use the term “sense of reality” to emphasize the sensorily, bodily aspects of our perception and (performative) interpretations of reality. Furthermore, humans in the many cultures of the world have developed different sign systems for communication, for example language, facial expression and body movements, ritualized acts, images, and scripts. Some of these sign systems, such as phonographic scripts, are secondary sign systems representing a primary sign system such as language.

A “semiotic theory” is an implicit or explicitly voiced theory about the relationship between the signs of a specific sign system and reality. As such, these theories mirror the more general sense of reality of the culture in question. We can use semiotic theories from our own culture to interpret a sign system from a different culture, but this does not tell us much about their sense of reality or their own ideas about the relationship between the signs and reality.

The problem with many Western engagements with people from other cultures is an attitude to essentially assume that Western ontology, interpretation of the world, or sense of reality is objectively true, whereas those of other cultures—if they happen to be different—are not. Sometimes, we need to deconstruct objectifying ideologies (such as Western logocentrism) in order to open our minds for the truth that might be lying in other senses of reality.

Patawee Promsen: You mentioned in your book that religion is not “solely the creation of the scholar’s study” (p.11). In your opinion, how does this study help challenge the Western science knowledge of religion? And how would it help overcome the ethnocentric and intellectualist biases?

Isabel Laack: First, I would like to explain why I quoted J.Z. Smith in my introduction. In the study of religion as in other humanities, cultural studies, and philosophies, there has been an ongoing debate about the ontological status of academic concepts. With his statement “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study,” J.Z. Smith argued against objectifying philosophies assuming that the concept of religion as used by academic scholars of religion mirrors categories objectively present in extra-linguistic reality.

My epistemological standpoint regarding the ontological status of academic concepts is more moderate and influenced by the embodied critical realism of Lakoff and Johnson. I believe that a reality exists outside the human imagination, with which we interact bodily and socially. This reality includes both the physical, material reality of our natural environment as well as the social reality formed by what we and other human beings do. Thus, human beings factually do things, things that we in our culture and historical time have decided to denote as religion. The category religion itself, however, does not objectively exist in extra-linguistic reality. We could also use a different concept to name some things people do or debate endlessly what religion is and what it is not, argue about the contents and boundaries of this category. Accordingly, there have been many different suggestions for defining religion. In the end, it is a matter of communicating our ideas about reality.

In my study of the Nahuas, I attempted to show that some common associations with the Western concept of religion do impede our possibilities of understanding how the Nahuas perceived and interpreted reality. I do not claim that all Nahuas perceived reality the same way, but I think they shared some foundational beliefs. Neither do I claim that I come in any way close to how any Nahua 500 years ago might have felt and thought. However, I do claim that if we read the surviving sources of Nahua communication attentively and reflect on the history of European projections, some interpretations of a more general Nahua sense of reality make more sense than others.

Many things the Nahuas did and communicated about their thoughts are very different from European culture. Academic theories about religion, as they are strongly shaped by European ways of seeing the world, might not be adequate tools to understand these things. Consequently, studying Nahua ways of seeing the world and acting in it challenges aspects of these academic theories believed to be cross-culturally applicable and universally true.

Cited References

Boone, Elizabeth H., and Walter D. Mignolo, eds. 1994. Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Boone, Elizabeth H. 2000. Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztec and Mixtec. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Boone, Elizabeth H. 2007. Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. Joe R. and Teresa Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press: page xi.


Jon Bialecki on his book, A Diagram for Fire

A Diagram for Fire by Jon Bialecki


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



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


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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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