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