Review: Reinhardt on “Key Topics”

Part IV: Review Forum, The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions

Christianity in a world of normative entanglements: reflexivity, conversion, and materiality

Keane, Webb. 2014. Rotting Bodies: The Clash of Stances toward Materiality and Its Ethical Affordances. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s312-S321.

Vilaça, Aparecida. 2014. Culture and Self: The Different “Gifts” Amerindians Receive from Catholics and Evangelicals. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s322-S332.

Marshall, Ruth. 2014. Christianity, Anthropology, Politics. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s344-S356.

By Bruno Reinhardt (Utrecht University)

The three articles here under review are part of the subsection entitled “Key topics” of the recently released special issue of Current Anthropology – “The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions” – edited by Joel Robbins and Naomi Haynes. More than extensive overviews of some of the central themes animating the Anthropology of Christianity since its inception – reflexivity, conversion, and materiality – these articles allow three leading scholars in this field to clarify and produce new input into their long-term research projects. Albeit challenging, the very possibility of producing a joint review of such rich and singular works by unearthing not only disagreements, but also potential complementarities, testifies to the success and vitality of the Anthropology of Christianity as a comparative field of inquiry whose questions have resonated across highly diverse theoretical canons, scholarly trajectories, and field sites.

Ruth Marshall’s contribution is the ideal place to start, as it addresses the most basic, and yet most enduring and encompassing problem of any anthropology: “the questions that motivate anthropologists to select an object of research, and the methodological and analytical principles that guide the exploration of it” (344). Given its wide scope, I will use Marshall’s argument as a reference in order to facilitate a dialogue with Vilaça and Keane, which means that, despite its unusual length (for which I apologize), this review is far from exhaustive.

As we know from her Political Spiritualities (Marshall 2009), a book that summarizes years of research, Marshall’s concern with reflexivity is not merely epistemological, but part of a broader analytical move interested primarily in recasting the problem of relations between Christianity and politics. Whereas most conventional studies on religion and the state, civil society, political culture or the public sphere start by taking Christianity and politics as two functionally distinct “spheres” or “domains” of social reality that relate in different ways, Marshall prefers to assume that “Christianity is not merely a religion, and can’t be studied without an acute awareness of what its ‘tradition’ entails politically” (345).

Although the terms are relatively new for most anthropologists of Christianity, the problem tackled by Marshall is not. It figures in Joel Robbins’ (2003) foundational article “What is a Christian?”, which raises a series of meta-theoretical questions about the relations between anthropology and Christianity, some of them carrying important political entailments. It has sparked a series of responses revisited by Marshall, who also goes back to some of the sources inspiring Robbins’ original exercise, especially Talal Asad. Let me lay down my personal perspective on this matter, which I believe resonates partially with Marshall’s.

When I first read Robbins’ essay, I welcomed his modeling of the, at that time, embryonic anthropology of Christianity on the anthropology of Islam as extremely productive, although I considered his characterization of Asad’s overall intervention as an “object-dissolving critique” (193) limiting, since it hindered further dialogue with his approach to traditions and secularism. Different from a nominalism, as Robbins seems to imply, Asad’s project is closer to an anthropological pragmatism, aware of the embedded historicity and reflexivity of traditions as well as the pressures imposed by secular modern power upon them[1].

We may risk saying that, if there is a focal point unifying Asad’s anthropology of secularism, of Islam, and indeed of anthropology itself, it is an attention to the normativity of definitional practices, thus a heightened sensibility to the intrinsic links between representation and intervention, whereas Robbins’ proposition of an anthropology of Christianity of itself for itself has had a culturalist inclination, recognized by Marshall and others (Garriott and O’Neil 2008). This gap has kept the anthropology of Christianity relatively alien from the core problems that fascinate Asad’s engagement with religion and secularity: legitimate power-knowledges, their modes of veridiction, and their practical relations with subject formation and notions of the good life in a world of normative entanglements[2]. I believe it is exactly this gap between Christianity as either a dynamic, cosmopolitan, normative project or as a cultural/trans-cultural presence that Marshall’s article is interested in critically bridging.

First, she reminds us of her approach to Pentecostalism in postcolonial Nigeria as “a form of strategic program” (345) and “a prescriptive regime” (352), which must be taken “at its word, attempting to understand non-reductively how it constituted itself as a force” (345). In line with Asad’s notion of tradition, Marshall argues that Pentecostalism is fundamentally reflexive when it comes to key topics of anthropological inquiry – such as personhood, temporality, nature, materiality, freedom, difference, culture, etc. – so, as external analysts, we should start from these same resources. This seems like a very simple move, but it carries far-reaching consequences. Because by defining these Biblical templates as part of a “prescriptive regime”, Marshall stresses how they are teleologically bound to ways of acting, feeling, and being, which must be approached in their dynamic performativity instead of taken for granted as a cultural or even theological given. This leads us to her second main point.

Marshall argues that questions of procedure, of “how”, have precedence over questions of “what” and “who”, although she recognizes that they all remain related in practice as part of a single field of problematization[3]: “One of the ways in which Pentecostalism defines itself is precisely through staging the problem of the proper concept publicly, debating, even polemicizing about the question “who is Born-Again” (346). Marshall is not reclaiming an ostensive definition, which would amount to saying that Pentecostalism is whatever Pentecostals empirically do, especially because an important part of what they do is to debate and to define Christianity reflexively by resorting to sacred texts, experiences, and institutions in historical contexts that submit this labor to specific pressures. The purpose of such a process of boundary-making is not simply to gain “clarity”, as in an empiricist epistemology, but to adjust their lives and expectations to these authoritative templates. Pentecostals care for what they are debating and defining for reasons that differ greatly from those motivating anthropological debates and definitions, especially because they know that the “object” at stake defines generatively who they are, who they want to be, and how they might move toward these desirable goods, which includes matters as urgent as spiritual life or death[4].

Again, a teleological process can never be fully grasped analytically through an ostensive definition, and that is probably why definitions in this field tend to become political. The intrinsic links between reflexivity and politics is the third and most important point established by Marshall: “When anthropologists consider the field of Christian practice and ask, ‘who is a Christian?’ there needs to be an acute awareness of the ways in which this question is increasingly politicized. For many today, the question ‘who is a Christian’ implies taking sides in an apocalyptic civilizational struggle of world-historical significance” (351). Obviously inspired by her Pentecostal interlocutors’ messianic and interventionist “end-times” eschatology, in which “power” operates as an everyday trope and a principle of reality, Marshall’s answer to the problem “what difference Christianity makes?” (Cannell 2006) stresses the determinacy of the theopolitical over other forms of difference-making, especially cultural ones: “My open question is whether, in struggling against old modes of dominating, essentializing and sublating difference, a grounding assumption of political equality isn’t better than a grounding assumption of cultural alterity” (349).

As shown before by Harding (1991) and Mahmood (2005), one of the virtues of “taking seriously” the political projects and notions of the good life embraced by intuitively “repugnant” others is that they often invite us to submit to critical scrutiny anthropology’s own normative assumptions, often saturated ideologically by secular, multiculturalist, and liberal notions of difference, agency, freedom, politics, etc. This is not a matter of condemning their “strategic programs” as inevitably “intolerant” or accepting them at face value, which would amount to trivializing their political force. Drawing on Wendy Brown, Badiou, and Rancière, Marshall defines this ethical stance as a “polemical pluralism” (353), attentive to the ever contingent and vulnerable nature of alterity, especially in a highly interconnected and potentially violent world of normative entanglements: “All the anthropologist can do then is attend to the ways in which their ethics [Pentecostals] might bifurcate as they are put into play, and struggle against this” (349). A debate with William Connolly would have also been suitable here.

Marshall’s more propositional contribution to the anthropology of Christianity is a defense of a comparative study of Christian political theology, which she defines as “a general conceptualization of the ways in which power can and should be distributed, exercised and legitimated, but one which can take a variety of specific forms in practice” (352). One of the virtues of this concept is that it is simultaneously emic, having a theological framework; oriented toward practices, communities, and institutions, thus open to ethnographic input; and intrinsically reflexive, one example being: “Pentecostal political theology is to Pentecostal conceptions of authority, legitimation, community and freedom as liberal political philosophy is to Liberalism” (352). Such a reflexive stance is specially relevant when it comes to Christianity, due to its genealogical links with the modern secular and its “official” notions of religion, a topic that has been key to the anthropology of Islam, but which Marshall deems underexplored by anthropologists of Christianity[5]: “Whether secularism is understood as a break with Christianity, or as its extension, its ongoing historical privilege as definitive of the modern continues to determine the terms in which other religious forms or traditions position themselves with respect to modernity and democracy” (351).

Taken as a totality, Marshall’s approach to political theology implies that it is possible to produce an anthropology of Christianity attentive to its specificity as a tradition, or a set of loosely connected traditions, by tracing movements of resonance, capture, and overflow vis-à-vis secular forces such as the state, the nation, and the market. For instance:

The dominant conception of sovereignty in the Western tradition is a vertical and absolute one modeled on God the Father, as a power “greater than which none can be thought”, such as we find in Hobbes […] or elaborated by Carl Schmitt as a power beyond the law: “sovereign is he who declares the state of exception” […] The Pentecostal model operates an inflection on this, according to the model of the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost, where the absolute transcendent power of the Father takes the form of a horizontal, spectral and immanent dissemination of the Spirit through language and diaspora – a tongue of fire on every head (352).

We realize that, instead of breaking the Christian tradition down into incommensurable denominational types, all of them alien to the secular theopolitical, Marshall prefers to retain Christianity’s unity while acknowledging its plastic, modular, and eventually protean nature, a productive move also found in Bialecki (2012) through Deleuze’s notion of virtuality. However, probably because of the programmatic nature of her article, Marshall’s argument unfolds at a large-scale register. In this regard, and despite her own justified suspicion about anthropologists’ capacity to capture the full extension of the Christian tradition as an empirical matter, I would like to submit some of her arguments to ethnographic expansion and scrutiny by comparing and contrasting them to Vilaça’s and Keane’s interventions on conversion and materiality, respectively.

Whereas Marshall’s work engages with the anthropology of Christianity through a concern with political theory, finding in Pentecostalism an opportunity to rethink the political beyond its secular imperatives and “from the South”, Aparecida Vilaça’s work is thoroughly anthropological in terms of canon, being connected to one of the most productive and influential paradigms in our discipline: Amerindian ethnography and debates on personhood, nature/culture, and change in terms of perspectivism. As we know, this scholarly tradition has been a source of inspiration for a more general “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology, a trend which Marshall accuses of lacking reflexivity, thus politics, despite its own claims about “cosmopolitics”: “what is most pernicious about the ontologization of culture is that the construction of lines of inclusion and exclusion in a given group, or people, or culture, or collectivity by the anthropologist is an apolitical process” (347). I believe Vilaça’s article is at least partially exempt from such criticism for a number of reasons.

First, she operates intentionally at an ethnographic and historical scale and with converted Amerindians, thus being concerned not only with how a specific ontology anticipates change immanently through an inbuilt grammar of difference, but also with how ontologies can be reshaped across time. If not clearly solved, this question is purposively held as a tension along most of the article.

Second, although not in the same register as Marshall’s, Vilaça’s argument still addresses issues of reflexivity and politics at its own ethnographic scale by comparing the missionary agency of Catholics and Evangelicals among a same group composed by fragmented territorial units: the Wa’ri. Nurtured during thirty years of research, Vilaça’s framework avoids the “continuity thinking” strategy of reducing Christianity merely to a new form of old cultural content without taking discontinuity (thus the autonomy of Christianity as a form of life) as a fait accompli. Indeed, her article is underpinned by a productive awareness about how conversion is ultimately an ongoing labor, which I also find in Daswani (2013). In her case, this includes a general plea for contextualization and inner differentiation of “discontinuity”: “the emphasis on continuity or change varies radically depending on the objects on which we focus. Hence, for example, a people’s patterns of social organization may remain the same after Christianization, while the moral system and ritual life may change radically” (322).

Whenever approached as labor, conversion is obviously affected by time, acknowledged by Vilaça as a key factor influencing both sides of the missionary encounter in the Amazon. For instance, the Catholic norms on what and who is a Christian and how to engage with native practices have been defined quite differently since they arrived in the region in the 1950s. At first, Catholic missionaries set a sharp and demonizing opposition to “heathen” customs, advanced through a highly disciplinary, albeit not so spiritual, agricultural colony. This focus on “civilizing” Amerindians later gave room to an inculturation theology that supposes a universal “faith” open to variable expression through local “cultures”. Although evangelicals have remained attached to a less “culture”-sensitive missiology, they have engaged much more intensely in translating the Biblical message to local languages, thus making room to alternative forms of “equivocation”. From the Wa’ri’s point of view, Vilaça stresses the importance of discerning first and second generation of converts, depicting conversion not as an event, but as a complex historical process made of moments of complete misfire as well as success amidst inner differentiation.

Marshall’s position emphasizes discontinuity, probably because it has been shaped amidst scholarly debates on globalization and Pentecostalism in urban Africa. In this case, to assert the resilience of Christianity means to counter arguments about the overdetermined “Africaness” of Pentecostalism in Africa. Conversely, Vilaça’ case study shows how the Christian tradition, being itself inherently evangelistic, can only unfold amidst alternative modes of existence. Having this in mind, why not take equally seriously the elasticity of traditions that are not Christian or Islamic, especially if empirically grounded? After all, the notion that Christianity’s boundaries are subjected to a number of internal and external contingencies is not exactly in disagreement with Marshall’s model. We may add that it is only in contact with alternative norms that what Marshall calls the “force” of the Christian project can be measured as it “scales down”.

Vilaça does recognize the resilience of Wa’ri ontology, but she does so by defining it as a mode of perspectival differentiation. In these terms, continuities are not necessarily “survivals” or indexes of “resistance” to the Christian other, but a peculiar way of embracing it. The plasticity of Amerindians’ “somatic multinaturalism” (325), itself averse to cultural relativism, is exemplified through a number o phenomena, such as the Wa’ri’s early mimetism of the missionaries, understood as a “means to access the perspective and powers of the enemies” (325), and the surprising fact that Christian conversion had even been foreseen by a traditional narrative.

Vilaça recognizes that Christianity also produces important shifts in the Wa’ri immanent pattern of differentiation. The first converts framed Christian conversion as a collective process of adoption that weakened the transformative effects of affinity and introduced a new pattern of care and nurturance, which included the suspension of food restrictions and a more stable objectification of the animal world through the book of Genesis. This was not a linear path, though: “Clearly things did not turn out quite as they wished. Not only because the affines comprised a necessary evil, as we know, and every so often would revert to acting in an avaricious and angry way, but also because the animals insisted on acting like humans, now subjectivized by the devil, who entered their bodies like the Biblical serpent” (327). After a period of deconversion, Vilaça traces how the Wa’ri went through a sharper process of reconversion that ultimately sedimented the differences between Catholic and evangelical groups.

Somehow corroborating Marshall’s argument about the power and globality of born-again historicity, Vilaça shows how the exposure to the 9/11 attacks in the US through a communal TV produced eschatological fears among the Wa’ri who had been influenced by Protestant missionaries, leading to a wave of recommitment. This new “break” was followed by a more intense engagement with Christian “technologies of the self”, like confession and literacy, more individualized commercial exchanges with the missionaries, and new rites of commensality that reinforced a generalized consanguinity. As a result, the evangelical Wa’ri when through a process similar to what my Pentecostals interlocutors in Ghana called “spiritual maturation”, which, in this case, meant that that “the ‘strength’ of God led to the devil losing the capacity to subjectivize animals”. Power and labor on oneself are therefore key factors intensifying discontinuity immanently. Vilaça identifies the effects of this more efficacious Christian subjectification among the evangelical Wa’ri as an interiorization of evil, leading to a more individualistic and orthodox “religion of the heart”, although she presents a number of examples of how this transformative process is in course and has never been fully stabilized, in line with Meyer (1999).

On the Catholic side, the Wa’ri were submitted to a new pedagogy of inculturation, centered on the legitimate and assisted reconstruction of the past as “culture”. Vilaça shows how this shift in missiology introduced the Catholic Wa’ri to a new dynamic of guilt, no longer attributed to their heathen customs, but addressed exactly at those willing to abandon their past. Such a “sacralization of culture” (329) has been followed not only by a critique of the evangelicals’ focus on faith alone, but also by a political relocation of the figure of the devil toward the sate, as part of missionary-supported struggles for indigenous rights. Expanding the reach of such processes, she shows how even some evangelical Wa’ri who have pursued higher education in urban centers are now introducing the same will for cultural restoration among their peers, this time not through ritual innovations, but mostly through a new engagement with traditional narratives as “myths”.

According to Vilaça, despite their apparent opposition, inculturation-oriented notions of “culture” and “community” and the evangelicals’ explicit focus on inner faith are equally individualistic, although she believes none of them simply erases the Wa’ri’s pre-conversion drive to relationality, dividuality, and differentiation. This leads her to conclude by drawing on Roy Wagner and discerning a number of ways whereby the “inventive” drive of Amerindian ontology cohabitates with the “conventionalizing” drive of the Westernized notion of “culture” they also embraced.

In contrast with Marshall’s defense of a shift from “cultural alterity” to “political equality”, Vilaça prefers to pluralize the very notion of culture, instead of rejecting it once and for all as a homogenous multiculturalist category[6]. Moreover, by showing how Christianity is not simply against “culture”, but also an agent advancing the culturalization of other traditions, Vilaça allows us to approach this term as an “interactive kind” (Hacking 1999) deployed by anthropologists as well as by Christian missionaries and converts. Is “culture” part of the power-strategies used by Christianity to objectify and reorganize the sensible of its converts? If so, as it has been proven by a number of works on missions and colonialism, it is better to preserve it at least as an ethnographic datum than to simply do away with it[7].

A number of additional issues could be raised with respect to Vilaça’s argument. For instance, by defining “continuity” in the Amerindian case as the persistence of a way of changing, that is, as discontinuity-Amerindian-style, she definitely problematizes the conventional grammar of difference underpinning arguments about the “break with the past”. Nevertheless, her argument also begs the question of how to qualify as “Christian” a break with the past when “the past” is itself an ongoing series of breaks. Is a “dialectical” (329) approach to continuity and discontinuity ultimately a more complex argument for continuity?

Another issue concerns recognition and, again, reflexivity. Who is to define these breaks as ultimately Amerindian or Christian? Vilaça’s article is keen to recognize a number of perspectives: missionaries disagree about what Christianity is, and different Wa’ri groups engage with these notions in their own way. However, especially in the final sections of her article, we do not see how matters of orthodoxy are raised in practice. In this sense, her approach to the boundaries between Christian and Amerindian traditions might not be reflexive enough from Marshall’s perspective, probably because it relies heavily on authors who collapse homogenously Christianity and modernity, like Dumont and Wagner. We may draw on Dumont and establish that both Catholic and Protestant converts are being “individualized” by missionaries, but this is obviously not enough for the Protestant Wa’ri, who still fear for their Catholic peers’ souls. This is an example of how emic similitudes can also be unsettled by Christian difference, and how Christianity exceeds its supposed synonymy with modernity.

Debates on recognition often lead to authority issues. An example: If inculturation theology allows the reemergence of practices like shamanism within a Christian setting (330), how is this defined as orthodox? Are there disputes over its procedures, say the right and wrong ways of doing Christian shamanism? This is probably relevant among a community that, although not running on the same speed of connectivity as urban Nigerians, are still obviously part of wider religious, economic, mediatic, and state networks, where they probably find alternative frames of recognition about what is “modern”, “Christian”, and “indigenous”. This question provides a good linkage with the final article I’ll be examining, which introduces a rich approach to Christian materiality that recognizes both the malleability of devotional practices and their complex relations with processes authentication.

At a first glance, we might say that Webb Keane’s long-term explorations on material religion through the notion of semiotic ideologies fall on the culturalist trend criticized by Marshall. A book like Christian Moderns (Keane 2007) is primary concerned with issues of “mediation” within “representational economies”, and not so much with their normative and reflexive implementation through authoritative practices and institutions. Keane’s approach to areas of normative incongruence in terms of “purification”, in which Western semiotics is used to unveil the paradoxes of Protestant materiality, only reinforces this non-reflexive tendency. I believe Keane’s most recent contribution definitely enriches this earlier model, and notions like “purification” give room to a fine-grained set of concepts, testifying to the dynamism of one of the most influential theory-builders in the anthropology of Christianity.

Keane in fact provides important tools for conceptualizing some of the “how” questions evoked by Marshall[8]. In this sense, if her main contribution is to reframe debates on Christian transcendence/immanence primarily as a matter of how power and authority are conceived and distributed, Keane’s article is extremely helpful is exploring how these “can take a variety of specific forms in practice” (Marshall – 352), and even within a single denomination. His main concern this time is not necessarily the unstable borders between Christianity and indigenous spirituality through the ghost of “fetishism”, but the “kinds of deep ontological and semiotic divides that we are likely to find in any community supposedly identified with a ‘single’ religion” (312).

Keane highlights how issues of proper/improper Christian materiality unfold among three broader “components”: ecclesiastical institutions, popular practices, and scriptural texts. Semiotic ideologies still reclaim their relevance because “institutions, popular practices, and scriptures are semiotically mediated in different ways” (313). Keane recognizes that Christianity’s boundary-work happens amidst many other forces – economical, political, demographic, etc. – but he argues that the three aspects above “follow different logics, are shaped by different causalities and follow different temporalities” (312-313), each of them offering to Christian agents specific affordances “on which new institutions, practices, and ideas may draw” (313). Albeit unstable, we may assume that those are the main avenues for Christian world making according to Keane, thus the sources of its relative autonomy.

Keane investigates such dynamic entanglements ethnographically through the findings of anthropologists and historians working on Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He takes as a model a fascinating event: the exhumation of a saint’s body promoted by the socialist regime with the aim of disproving the miraculous powers of relics, supposedly evidenced by the church through its incorruptibility. By “showing” publicly how the saint’s body decays as any other, these secular missionaries wanted to counter the church’s deceitful dominance over pious masses through unscientific beliefs. But such a liberating drive of secular power hides not one, but a cascade of misrecognitions.

The orthodox clergy responds to their accusers by affirming at a theological register that the real proof of a relic’s sacred status was not incorruption, but “that it had effected miracles” (312). Moreover, even when miraculously preserved, their primary value was pedagogical, more than intercessory: “to inculcate doctrine or invigorate faith” (314). The same argument is later applied to the socialist reduction of Orthodox icons to arbitrary and passive man-made pictorial representations. According to Orthodox theology, the “presence” carried by icons lays not in their material traces, but in the invisible “archetype” that dwells in them, to which prayers must be addressed. The clergy continues the accusation cycle inaugurated by their secular critics by othering the Orthodox peasant as someone whose egoistical desire for miracles prevents proper discernment about the true authoritative value of relics and icons.

Keane argues that, although still quite distinct from one another, the explicit semiotic ideologies of “the commissariat” and “the bishop” are indeed closer to a representational model, since both dissociate the objects at stake from their final agency or meaning, although the latter still assumes that the embodied and effective presence of God in the artifact is “essential to its persuasiveness” (314) and to the arousal of faith, thus intercession. Both also share a more oculocentric perspective on religious materiality, whereas “the peasant” often relates to relics and icons at a more tactile level, thus stressing the importance of the object itself, besides what dwells in it. Dues to its faceless and non-explicit articulation, the semiotic ideology of “the peasant” requires the anthropologist’s assistance to come out adequately. Entering this “native” scene of recognition, Keane problematizes the figure of the “the egoistical peasant” by arguing that the popular believer’s attachment to “the agency of objects” is based on quite a different assumption: that “the world is ethically saturated” (312).

The commissariat, the bishop, and the peasant are not simply three incommensurable ethical stances vis-à-vis religious materiality. They are “responses to one another” (315). Gibson’s notion of “affordances”, which Keane defines as “the properties of something in light of what those properties offer to someone who perceives them” (315), are extremely helpful here, since it allows the anthropologist to avoid an hermeneutical approach and acknowledge the resilience of an object’s sensuous qualities as it travels across different perspectives, sensibilities, situations and uses. A simple example would be: a chair affords sitting, but it may also afford blocking a door, those different uses being a matter of enablement, more than interpretation. As we have learned from Keane’s previous works, objects are most likely to be “bundles of qualities”, and by approaching their interactions with humans in terms of affordances, we are able to recognize how these sensible potentialities are never simply dissipated by the particular emphases introduced by semiotic ideologies.

The notion that objects remain underspecified vis-à-vis their ideological framings, thus introducing human agents to unexpected places, has been an old anthropological adage at least since Marcel Mauss. In Keane’s case, this aspect coincides in interesting ways with what he considers the main marker of “religious” practices amidst other everyday frames of recognition: the fact “that they seem strange even to the practitioner him- or herself” (315). This is best exemplified by an admonition that follows one of the icons he examines: “If you venerate the icons like God, you are three times condemned” (316). Materiality is therefore simultaneously an invitation and a threat to “proper” Christian faith. Their silent message is “this is god/this is not god”, “this is a path to salvation/this is a path to heresy and damnation”.

I find the examination of similar double-binds between materiality and ineffability, immanence and transcendence, in other Christian traditions through the notion of affordances quite promising. For instance, during my fieldwork, I was exposed many times to scenes in which Pentecostal prophets in Ghana used the anointing oil during intercessory liturgies while almost immediately warning their desirous followers that “the anointing” [that is, divine presence] is not the oil. I noticed that normativity was most of the times defined as a way of both attaching and detaching one’s faith from a given material setting, and understood this strange discursive habit as part of a general privilege conferred by Pentecostals to “flow” vis-à-vis “artifacts” as two alternative modes of divine objectification. Using Keane’s model, we may say that the anointing oil’s ambiguous materiality provides a twofold affordance for prophets and believers: on the one hand, it affords contact and transference through its stickiness; on the other, it affords a paradoxical objectification of transcendence as flow through its non-appropriateness. As a result, the anointing oil can be “from God”, but it can also easily decay into “bad objecthood” (Mitchell 2005).

Whereas anthropologist Tim Ingold (2011) has stressed the ecological aspects of affordance theory, Keane is mostly interested in exploring its possible contributions to debates on materiality and ethics, which is also the case with Latour (2002, see also Akrich and Latour 1992)[9]. Keane calls “ethical affordances” the “features of the world, as people experience it, that can be construed in ethical terms”; which, in his case, means being construed as an object of agency, thus judgment and accountability. Keane approaches ethical reflexivity as an inbuilt attribute of semiotic ideologies, what he calls their “second order reflexivity” (318). Quoting Peirce, he reminds us that: “A sign does not function as a sign unless it be understood as a sign” (ibid). As a result, any semiotic process can be submitted to critical suspension and addressed by a number of “meta” questions, a process he understands as coeval to “freedom”: “This reflexivity and the freedom it affords are two preconditions for ethics: the abilities to take up the perspectives of other persons, and to be responsible for an action” (ibid).

Along with “affordances”, the notion of “second order reflexivity” is probably the second main theoretical contribution of Keane’s article. Indeed, as I understood them, both concepts perform a similar job. They allow him to acknowledge the importance of materiality and the senses to ethical life while still countering the phenomenological allure to stabilize signs as part of hermetic embodied regimes. This is an important contribution for the anthropology of religion at a post-“belief” moment. And yet, Keane’s ethical approach to reflexivity as a capacity stemming from universal semiotic and phenomenological instabilities can also be questioned from Marshal’s more political perspective. Can the commissariat, the bishop, and the peasant entertain each other’s perspectives? If so, are they exercising necessarily the same cognitive or linguistic capacities? Here it would be important to remind that reflexivity from the standpoint of a tradition might not necessarily be the same as reflexivity from the standpoint of “reason”. What about the social productivity of these exercises? Isn’t reflexivity unequally distributed and valued in practice, which amounts to asking: isn’t it always already a matter of authority and the kinds of subjects uttering it, thus not only the fruit of “semiotic” operations? Does the ability “to take up the perspectives of other persons, and to be responsible for an action” remain so universal and indeed desirable if contrasted to Weber’s classic distinction between “ethics of conviction” and “ethic of responsibility”?

According to Keane’s approach to the subject, the main area of “ethical import” over materiality is intentionality, or the capacity to articulate deed and doer in terms of responsibility. As we have seen, the commissariat’s ethical stance recognizes in relics and icons the agency of the church, a man-made institution interested in governing over mindless populations. He probably envisions an alternative ethics, whose values are supposedly beyond particular material attachments (let us not even think about the theopolitics of Lenin’s body – Yurchak 2015). The church, in its turn, reframes these objects as pedagogical paths to God’s presence and opportunities to exercise the power of personal faith, thus reframing its own authority and agency as that of a “teacher”, one that can only “show” the proper way to God. In this case, “the peasant fails to take the icon or relic as a sign of its prototype, or if taking it as such, overemphasizes its consubstantiality with that prototype at the expense of its subordination to it” (319). Keane recognizes that this official stance can only persist if endowed with some flexibility: “For the bishop, the primary ethical mandate is that which binds the peasant to the church, the community, and God. To lay too great an emphasis on the relic in its materiality is a matter of degree, a display of excessive zeal, but perhaps not of complete ontological error” (319).

Avoiding the hegemonic conflation of popular spirituality with “magic” and this-worldly gains, Keane finally turns to “the peasant” and argues that she is not an egoistical miracle-seeker. Indeed, if compared to the commissariat and the bishop, the peasant is the one who “most insists on the ethical saturation of his or her world” (319). In order to understand how Orthodox “peasants” suffuse their material world with “intentional signs” to the point of eventually treating icons like persons, it is important to notice that “his or her world” is not the general “world” portrayed by Christian theology. One example: According to popular narratives, icons (understood here as singular material artifacts, not a general type) “seek” a specific territory and population, a narrative genre also found in my native Brazil concerning Catholic saint patrons. As a result, the stories legitimizing the cult of saints in certain villages often “emphasize the icon’s relation to a specific set of characters, time, and location, and virtually ignore its iconographic properties” (Herzfeld, in 319). The relevant issue here is therefore not a theological debate on iconicity, transcendence, and immanence, but why this icon and not any other became connected to a certain setting. This setting should not be interpreted as bound to a Durkheimian relation of substitution vis-à-vis the sacred agent, one of the reasons I liked the term “saturation”. We might even extend Keane’s engagement with Gibson’s phenomenology and argue that peasants are carving a more concrete and personal “niche” within a tradition by making their faith dwell ecologically around a certain icon and all it condenses, which includes local and individual histories as well as divine presence. The tradition’s official upholders may recognize or ignore this niche as their own, but its “force” and vitality remains relatively autonomous.

If compared to Marshall’s focus on theopolitics, Keane’s article sounds more like a theo-realpolitik. The orthodox peasant presents us to a version of the miracle relatively far from glorious claims about sovereignty, and closer to an everyday logic of reciprocity and care, which I believe can also be found in many other denominations, including Pentecostals.   Although Keane still prefers “religion” to “tradition”, we may say that both are defined in his article as an aggregate of components that not always cohere: texts, institutions, and popular practices. It would be interesting to see what Marshall’s notion of a teleological Christian “project” would do with this.

Some issues can also be raised: We may say that, by stressing the resonances between the “explicit” semiotic ideologies of the commissariat and the bishop in opposition to the “implicit” semiotic ideology of the peasant, Keane risks being accused of Romanticizing the “spontaneity” of popular religion, as problematized a long time ago by historians like Peter Brown (1983) and Gábor Klaniczay (1990). In some moments of the article “practices” become almost synonym to “popular practices”, whereas “institutions” and “texts” appear mostly as sites of theological speculation. Moreover, we have seen that “the bishop” administers quite malleably the boundaries of the tradition he represents and, albeit “official”, the church’s institutional and authoritative presence is probably the most critical factor underpinning the persistence of the Orthodox tradition in time. The peasant, from her own “unofficial” stance, probably recognizes and cherishes that. By stressing her particularities, we should not simply alienate the peasant’s more provincial spiritual space from this cosmopolitan scale. Finally, we may ask how Keane’s tripartite model of text, institution, and popular practices would apply to Christian traditions heavily centered on the “priesthood of all believers”, like Pentecostalism and evangelicalism in general. Their capillary ecclesiologies and decentralized theopolitics (but let us not forget the “man of God”, at times quite similar to a living saint) tend to problematize the very division between “official” and “popular” governing Keane’s argument. Is Keane’s working model enough to account for the dynamic and, in many ways, anti-“orthodoxy” politics of personal experience and charisma? If not, it at least provides new and important coordinates, as well as new relevant questions to continue advancing our common inquiry.



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[1] Asad seems to be aware of this persisting tendency to reduce his work to a “deconstruction” of Christianity in particular and religion in general, as observed in disclaimers like this, also found in different sections of Genealogies of Religion: “The reason there cannot be a universal conception of religion is not because religious phenomena are infinitely varied – although there is in fact great variety in the way people live in the world with their religious beliefs. Nor is the case that there is no such thing, really, as religion. It is that defining is a historical act and when the definition is deployed, it does different things at different times and in different circumstances, and responds to different questions, needs, and pressures. The concept “religion” is not merely a word: it belongs to vocabularies that bring persons and things, desires and practices together in particular traditions in distinctive ways. This applies also to religion’s twin, “secularity,” which brings different sensibilities into play in different historical contexts” (Asad 2011: 38-39).

[2] From this angle, Asad’s critique of religion-as-belief implies primarily an analytical shift from mind, mediation, communication, symbolic and ritual systems to the problem of authority and willful submission within discursive traditions and their institutional frames. The fact that the reproduction of discursive traditions like Islam are fundamentally teleological, that is, unfolding as ongoing authoritative projects of ethico-religious skill-acquisition whose “fulfillment” can never be simply assumed or taken for granted by practitioners (Mahmood 2005), implies that change, contingency, error, and critique can be considered immanent to it. This does not mean that traditions are not shaken and reshaped “from the outside”, and the many areas of resonance between so-called “liberal Christianity” and secular expectations about “proper” religion in the West are only one example.

[3] According to Foucault: “Problematization doesn’t mean the representation of a pre-existent object, nor the creation through discourse of an object that doesn’t exist. It’s the set of discursive or nondiscursive practices that makes something enter into the play of the true and false, and constitutes it as an object for thought (whether under the form of moral reflection, scientific knowledge, political analysis, etc.) (in Kritzman 1988: 255).

[4] Here we might follow MacIntyre (1984) and argue that, say, secular liberalism is also a prescriptive regime, but it exercises its authority by constantly veiling normativity through the divide between “facts” and “values”, reducing ethics from a way of being to an act of judgment. According to Mahmood: “The modern nation-state, for example, with its juridical, executive, and administrative functions, enfolds a variety of conceptions of the self, agency, privacy, publicity, religion, and ethics that have become globalized. The history of this transformation belongs less to the Christianization of non-Western societies and more to their secularization under modern rule” (2010: 295).

[5] But see Klassen (2011) in the case of liberal Christians, herself critical vis-à-vis most of Marshall’s references.

[6] It is important to recall that Asad sees no intrinsic problem with the concept of “culture”, but only when it become a means to reduce “authoritative discourses” to “authentic discourses”. In an early essay he argues: “Instead of taking the production of ‘essential meanings’ (in the form of authoritative discourse) in given historical societies as the problem to be explained, anthropology takes the existence of essential meanings (in the form of ‘authentic discourse’) as the basic concept for defining and explaining historical societies (1979: 623). This has often been followed by a shift away from this concept’s “agricultural” association to “cultivation” and toward a more stable “symbolic system”.

[7] On diverse Pentecostals attitudes toward cultural heritage in contemporary Ghana, see DeWitte and Meyer (2012).

[8] This is not to say that Keane’s perspective has necessarily become more congruent with Marshall’s. His evaluative notion of ethics, for instance, defined as “people’s ability to evaluate acts as good or evil, people as virtuous or vicious, lives as worthy or worthless, and to their awareness of being themselves evaluated in turn” (316), is still very far from Marshall’s interest in the emergence of these evaluative forms at the level of subject formation and their reliance on religious power.

[9] According to Akrich and Latour (1992): “Prescription; proscription; affordances, allowances: What a device allows or forbids from the actors – humans and nonhuman – that it anticipates; it is the morality of a setting both negative (what it prescribes) and positive (what it permits)” (259).

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