Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (2007)

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (U California, 2007)

Christian Moderns spins a beautiful, complex argument. Calvinist missionaries, Sumbanese Bible diviners, modernity’s fetishisms, subjectivities, words, things, and more weave together into an astounding work. Those interested in religion and modernity, the materiality of religions, the anthropology of Christianity, or cultural change must read this book. Below, I have struggled to summarize some of the book’s major arguments. You can find much better reviews on The Immanent Frame.

Based on his fieldwork on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba, Keane’s book explores the encounter between Calvinists (Dutch missionaries and their converts) and practitioners of Sumbanese ancestral religion (marapu). Keane’s study of this encounter circles around words, things, and human subjectivity. These Christians are not flashy or extravagant—they’re not even millennialists. This “ordinariness” of their everyday worlds makes them all the more interesting to Keane. For the Calvinists, the inertness of words demonstrates a speaker’s agency. The right words spoken sincerely reveal one’s beliefs about God. In traditional marapu practice, by contrast, words come in fixed forms from the ancestors. If you show “agency” while reciting these words, their efficacy became suspect. The Sumbanese and the Dutch missionaries lived in completely different kinds of representational worlds. But then there was a convert named Umbu Neka, who thought that the old words still had powers that needed to be redeployed in service of his newfound faith. His hybrid approach to words, things, and human subjectivity inspired Keane to examine how Protestant modernity affected the everyday lives of the Sumbanese. I found chapter six particularly interesting, as it examines how prayer operates in the mission encounter.

Among many other things, Keane argues that the mission encounter in Sumba reveals competing versions of “agency.” Bucking a trend in both history and anthropology to celebrate the agency of subjects blithely, Keane instead interrogates how “agency” comes to mean what it does in particular contexts. Without careful attention to our subjects’ understandings about what a subject is, what an object is, what a word is, what a thing is, what words and things can/can’t do, how to act meaningfully in the world,—in short, what he calls their “semiotic ideology”—we don’t have any idea what their “agency” might be. More than just calling for a deeper account of “the native point of view,” Keane cautions against imputing particular notions of agency to our subjects without attention to the discursive and material conditions in which their subjectivity emerges. Like ours, their self-understandings about agency appear as historically specific sets of concrete practices and “semiotic forms” (4). In brief, this means that there is nothing transcendent or abstract about agency—it takes shape as a historically conditioned set of practices, which are embedded in particular discourses, meaningful word-sounds, speech genres, habits of gesture, material cultures, etc. Even agency cannot escape the consequences of materiality. We must understand how our subjects distinguish words, things, and agents (not just what they say about how they do so) before we start celebrating their agency.

Becoming modern, becoming religious. Keane takes great interest in the modernist project of “purification.” Drawn from Latour, this refers to the desire to make hard category distinctions between things like subject and object, living and non-living, human and non-human. Purification never fully succeeds, and hybrids proliferate. Keane argues that Protestantism stands at the heart of the modernist project of purification, particularly with respect to language. Calvin turned the sacraments into signs of grace. Being nothing in themselves, the inert “elements” allowed agency to reside only with individual believers and with God: their “meaning” wholly immaterial, the material presence of bread and wine stood merely as a sign of the agentive action taken by God to save and the communicant’s sincere belief in it. Like reciting the creeds, taking communion as a Calvinist established the immateriality of meaning and the inertness of meaning’s material forms of expression. The norm of sincerity held this semiotic ideology together: only sincere believers could take communion or recite the creeds, and there were great moral consequences for treating the elements as anything more than signs of grace or thinking that the words of the creeds themselves held power. “Religion” described this province of private belief; “science” would come to describe the inert, material world. Thus, Keane sees this Protestant purification project as having a curious affinity with Saussure’s linguistics, in which the sign is a purely arbitrary vehicle for the immaterial meanings intended by an agentive subject. Modernity and Protestantism fed off each other in the Euro-American context, leading to similar projects of purification. Both attempted to preserve particular notions of agency.

Summary by A.T. Coates