The Future as Cultural Fact: Book Review

Appadurai, Arjun.  2013.  The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition.  London, New York: Verso.

By Naomi Haynes (University of Edinburgh)

As part of the ongoing expansion of AnthroCyBib, we aim to engage work that is not self-consciously focused on the anthropology of Christianity.  It goes without saying that such work often has something to say to the sub-discipline, and in particular may challenge its paradigms in ways that might not be possible for those of us who swim in the center of its intellectual currents.  It is along these lines that I offer the following analysis of Arjun Appadurai’s recent collection of essays, The Future as Cultural Fact.  In it Appadurai expands on some of the key arguments he has made over the past twenty-five years, beginning with The Social Life of Things, and including Modernity at Large and Fear of Small Numbers.  While he rarely addresses religion, much less Christianity (although the latter does receive some nods throughout the text), this collection engages territory that connects to the anthropology of Christianity at a number of points, which I outline below.  First, though, a few quibbles.

Nearly all of the essays in The Future as Cultural Fact have been published before, so anyone who has been following Appadurai’s work won’t find much they haven’t seen already.  While a number of the ideas presented in these essays are compelling, the format of the book is frustrating.  The collected articles are at times very redundant, and while they do build to a couple of interrelated arguments, the connections Appadurai makes between them are not as well developed as they might be.  Some even feel quite forced.  Technical criticisms aside, however, there are several things that anthropologists of Christianity can take from this book.

To begin with, people studying Christianity will find these essays helpful for some of the same reasons they might have always looked to Appadurai, in particular analyses of globalization and grassroots social movements.  Of interest here is the essay entitled, “How Histories Make Geographies: Circulation and Context in a Global Perspective,” in which Appadurai amends some of the expansiveness of his earlier writing to account not only for the increased flows of people or information associated with globalization, but also for the sticking points, disjunctures, and gaps that are equally part of this process.  In all of this there are resonances with Pentecostal Christianity, in particular.  Take, for example, the discussion of  “cosmopolitanism from below.”  By this Appadurai is referring to the expansion of horizons that always characterizes cosmopolitanism, but that, in this case, is born out of exclusion rather than opportunity.  Cosmopolitanism from below begins with the local but extends and expands it, “not in order to dissolve or deny the intimacies of the local, but in order to combat its indignities and exclusions” (198).  Appadurai illustrates this concept with examples from housing activism in Mumbai, but a similar case could be made about Pentecostalism, which mobilizes globally salient forms of worship and prayer to address the local indeterminacies of the neoliberal era, which are themselves the product of global processes (Robbins 2009, Haynes 2013).

Throughout these collected essays, Appadurai draws on the canon of critical theory, but also, and perhaps surprisingly, on Max Weber.  Appadurai spends a good deal of time with The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – referring, in a way that I confess I found wonderful, to chapter four of this work as “virtually a thriller,” marked by a “breathtaking urgency” (236).  Even those who have never had such a positive response to Weber should find this portion of Appadurai’s book helpful, as it offers a nuanced reading of a classic essay that has too often served as an easy analytical framework within which to understand the relationship between Christianity and capitalism.

Appadurai’s treatment of Weber is focused less on the question of elective affinity and more on what he calls “the ghost in the machine.”  By this he is referring to the spirit of capitalism, or what he calls its “ethos.”  Here Appadurai emphasizes the easily overlooked point that Weber’s Calvinists were not working to earn their salvation – an idea anathema to early Protestant thought – but were rather trying through their work to convince themselves and those around them, and perhaps even God, that they were among the elect.  In other words, their ascetic pursuit of profit was attached to a hope that their actions might be performative.  To use Appadurai’s terms, Calvinists were making a gamble (that their actions would be effective) on a gamble (that they were among those God had chosen for salvation), or “a gamble on the felicity of a performative” (237).

By building on this work, Appadurai is able to access what he feels is the current ethos of capitalism, which, like the ethos that inspired early Calvinists, is fundamentally a question of “grace.”  If, as Appadurai argues, contemporary capitalism is primarily concerned with navigating (manageable) risk and (unmanageable) uncertainty, those who succeed in this world do so because they are able to negotiate the latter with special grace.  In making this point, Appadurai offers what I found to be a much more successful analysis of the spirit of contemporary capitalism than, for example, approaches highlighting the formal and ideological similarity of late capitalism and the prosperity gospel (e.g. Comaroff and Comaroff 2000)

Appadurai begins his discussion of Weber by addressing the latter’s association with modernization theory.  While Appadurai is careful to point out its shortcomings, he nevertheless argues that modernization theory, or at least theoretical paradigms like it, are important because they are normative.  That is, modernization theory carries with it ideas about how the world ought to be – for instance, ideas about justice (228).  This means that big social theories have the power to inculcate what Appadurai calls “the capacity to aspire,” which is just what it sounds like: the ability to imaginatively engage the future and act accordingly.  It is here, in his writing about the future, that Appadurai’s work touches on the anthropology of Christianity with particular force.  It does so at two points, the first ethnographic, the second normative and methodological.

One of the central threads running through many of these essays is the idea that people make, and are always making, the local, the social, and the everyday.  That is, everyday life is not a given, but is the result of ongoing ambition and design.  This is particularly relevant, Appadurai argues, in the light of the various economic, environmental, and political crises that affect us all, the poor in particular.  In the light of these circumstances, it’s important to get to the heart of how people are able to “snatch predictability from the jaws of exception” (83).  By itself this point isn’t new for Appadurai, but revisiting it is indeed helpful to the project at hand, because the work of creating the everyday is also the work of imagination and hope – in other words, of creating the future.  In Appadurai’s treatment this is a political project, for hope, as he puts it, “is the political counterpart to the work of the imagination” (293).

If Appadurai is right, then the anthropology of Christianity has quite a lot to bring to the conversation he is trying to start.  This is because much of Christian practice is about imagination (e.g. Luhrmann 2012) and hope (e.g. Marshall 2009), and is therefore politically meaningful.  As Ruth Marshall puts it, while Christianity – in this case Pentecostalism – may be “perverted” by various anti-revolutionary ideas, the promise of justice, “a general and universal hope for what is unseen, a justice to come whose horizon is unlimited and entails the resurrection of the dead and the new creation” (Marshall 2009: 244) remains central to Christianity.  Moreover, Christianity is a religion of salvation and therefore a religion of the future, whether articulated in the this-world promise of the prosperity gospel or the trumpet blast of the dispensationalist rapture.  To be sure, we must take care to bear in mind the ways that Christianity may also close off certain kinds of imaginative (Guyer 2007) or active (Bialecki 2009 ) possibilities.  Nevertheless, anthropologists of Christianity may be especially well positioned, because of their ethnographic focus, to participate in the sort of anthropology of the future that Appadurai is advocating.  Incidentally, this is likely also because some of the most important advances in the development of the sub-discipline have been along the very lines that Appadurai traces, but does not engage with.  To wit, one of the hallmark issues of the anthropology of Christianity is that of continuity versus rupture (Meyer 1998, Robbins 2007, Engelke 2010, Haynes 2012), which dovetails nicely with Appadurai’s observation that anthropology has often been a backward-looking discipline.

Finally, the normative and methodological point.  In The Future as Cultural Fact, Appadurai writes without attempting any sort of objectivity of voice.  On the contrary, these essays are shot through with claims about what is good for anthropology, what is good for India, and what is good for humanity.  Appadurai knows that this is what he is doing, and indeed, he thinks that commitment to such a “partisan position” from which the discipline “can offer a more inclusive platform for improving the planetary quality of life” (299) is necessary for all anthropologists.  Without it, our work is just so much analysis.  What this means, he concludes, is that the future of anthropology requires an anthropology of the future, the latter, again, being a key site of political engagement (300).

The methodological implication of this position is that anthropologists will attend carefully to the politics of hope, to the ways that humans imagine and work toward a future that is different from the present.  We have already seen that Christianity has much to offer in this regard by way of ethnographic material.  But perhaps there is one additional way that Christianity might contribute to this project.  Here I am not suggesting that Christian notions of the good life must be those that are taken up normatively by the discipline, though there are those who would advocate such a position (Meneses et al., in press), and I think there is a place for this type of work.  Rather, what I want to draw attention to here is the way that Christian theology – by which I mean formal, academic or professional Christian thought – has something to teach anthropology.

In a short article about the “awkward relationship” between anthropology and theology, Joel Robbins (2006) argues that the latter “mocks” the former.  By this he is referring to the fact that theologians, unlike anthropologists, write as though they expected their audience to take their arguments seriously, and perhaps to change their way of living as a result.  That is, theologians are not afraid to make claims about otherness as a way of making normative claims about the possibilities of human life.  There was a time, Robbins argues, when anthropologists were similarly bold, when ethnographic engagement was about encountering different ways of being human and of organizing social life that were not just interesting, but that presented ethnographers and their readers with new political possibilities (see Hart 2007 for an analysis of Mauss along these lines).  What Appadurai demonstrates is that this tradition is not dead.  His arguments are born out of long-term engagement with activists at the front lines of social and political change, who actively cultivate their imaginative capacity to transform the terms on which they live in the world.  As anthropologists of Christianity, we are also engaged with people who – regardless of our own religious commitments – share with us a sense that the world we inhabit is not the world as it should or could be.  Of course, we may not agree with the sorts of changes our informants wish to make in the world; and we may recognize the unique challenges Christian faith can pose to these endeavors (e.g. Elisha 2011).  All the same, one hopes that this close connection with people eager to see change in the world will embolden anthropologists who study Christianity to make big claims about the world as it is and as it might be.  In this regard, Arjun Appadurai is an example to us all.

Works Cited:

Bialecki, J. 2009. Disjuncture, Continental philosophy’s new “political Paul,” and the question of progressive Christianity in a Southern California Third Wave church. American Ethnologist 36:110-23.

Comaroff, J., and J. L. Comaroff. 2000. Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Public Culture 12:291-343.

Elisha, O. 2011. Moral ambition: mobilization and social outreach in evangelical megachurches. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engelke, M. 2010. Past Pentecostalism: Notes on Rupture, Realignment, and Everyday Life in Pentecostal and African Independent Churches. Africa 80:177-99.

Guyer, J. I. 2007. Prophecy and the near future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time. American Ethnologist 34:409-421.

Hart, K. 2007. Marcel Mauss: In Pursuit of the Whole. A Review Essay. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49:473-485.

Haynes, N. 2012. Pentecostalism and the morality of money: Prosperity, inequality, and religious sociality on the Zambian Copperbelt. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18:123-139.

—. 2013. On the Potential and Problems of Pentecostal Exchange. American Anthropologist 115:85-95.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God talks back: understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Marshall, R. 2009. Political spiritualities : the Pentecostal revolution in Nigeria. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press.

Meneses, E., L. Backues, D. Bronkema, E. Flett, and B. L. Hartley. in press. Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theolgians in Dialogue. Current Anthropology.

Meyer, B. 1998. ““Make a Complete Break with the Past”: Memory and Postcolonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostal Discourse,” in Memory and the postcolony: African anthropology and the critique of power. Edited by R. P. Werbner, pp. 182-208. London: Zed Books.

Robbins, J. 2006. Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship? Anthropological Quarterly 79:285-294.

—. 2007. Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture: Belief, Time, and the Anthropology of Christianity. Current Anthropology 48:5-38.

—. 2009. Pentecostal Networks and the Spirit of Globalization: On the Social Productivity of Ritual Forms. Social analysis. 53:55-66.

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