Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Savage Mind” (1966)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1966).

“Savage mind” does not refer to “primitive” mind or the mind of “savages.” Instead, it describes the mind itself in its “savage” or natural state of classifying, distinguishing, ordering the world. Binary oppositions form the basis of its systems of classification. “The savage mind totalizes” (245), it “builds mental structures which facilitate an understanding of the world in as much as they resemble it” (263).

Culture consists of symbolic systems. Levi-Strauss treats culture like Saussure’s linguistics treats language: culture possesses deep structures behind surface phenomena. Discrete elements/units can be combined, recombined, and re-ordered in many different ways—but they are always ordered, and always ordered according to consistent patterns, and those patterns ultimately rest on binary oppositions—general/particular, up/down, God/human, etc.

Magic and science: “Magical thinking is not to be regarded as a beginning, a rudiment, a sketch, a part of a whole which has not yet materialized. It forms a well-articulated system, and is in this respect independent of that other system which constitutes science, except for the purely formal analogy which brings them together and makes the former a sort of metaphorical expression of the latter. It is therefore better, instead of contrasting magic and science, to compare them as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge… Both science and magic however require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied” (13).

Bricolage, Bricoleur – “[The Bricoleur's] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions” (17). The figure of the bricoleur describes the activity of the savage mind–it stands in contrast to the engineer, which describes the scientific mind (theorizing, generating new methods and tools, etc. “The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of maneuver” (19). Mytheme – fundamental unit of myth. Can be deployed in many different contexts/structures (like a morpheme or phoneme).

History and anthropology shouldn’t be antagonistic. This will only happen if we stop privileging history. We ought to recognize history as “a method with no distinct object corresponding to it” (262). No such thing as human nature. No given facts. History, a highly selective enterprise, orders the past. There is no “history” per se, only “history-for” someone, some culture.

… “The characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness; its object is to grasp the world as both a synchronic and a diachronic totality and the knowledge which it draws therefrom is like that afforded of a room by mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect each other (as well as objects in the intervening space) although without being strictly parallel” (263).

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Selections from “Provincializing Europe”

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Idea of Historicizing Europe,” “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History,” and “Reason and the Critique of Historicism” from Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000).

Consider it a sign of the times that a historian of American Christianity is reading Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty notes the abiding asymmetry in the practices of academic history: renowned historians of Europe (or America… in fact, especially America) can work in near-total ignorance of non-Western histories, but non-Western historians cannot return the gesture “without taking the risk of appearing ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘outdated’” (28). This is especially the case in places where local histories might include ancestors, spirits, or magical beings; European “secular” history becomes the gold standard of true history. Academic “history” seems always to find a way of becoming the history of Europe—or, at least, of “the West.” The project of “provincializing Europe” aims to expose the processes by which this asymmetry survives, reminding Euro-America that its history isn’t the only history that matters, revealing how this vision of “history” props up the colonialist project of “political modernity.” He writes, “provincializing Europe [is] a question of how we create conjoined and disjunctive genealogies for European categories of political modernity as we contemplate the necessarily fragmentary histories of human belonging that never constitute a one or a whole” (255). In short, Chakrabarty endeavors to show both the “inadequacy” and “indispensability” of social scientific thinking (6). Marx and Heidegger represent two competing poles of this thinking that he tries to bring into balance: on the one hand, we ought to acknowledge that certain universal/analytical categories (e.g. capitalism) help us confront social injustices—Marx. On the other hand, the hermeneutic tradition encourages sympathetic, personally engaged approaches to thought—Heidegger.

Chakrabarty’s beef doesn’t concern history per se, if by history we mean thinking about the past in the present. “Historicism,” however, withers under his intense scrutiny. By “historicism,” Chakrabarty describes a way of thinking that “tells us that in order to understand the nature of anything in this world we must see it as an historically developing entity, that is, first, as an individual and unique whole… and, second, as something that develops over time” (23). Historicism wants to objectify what it studies, finding a single, unified past in each of the archive’s relics, relics over which the subject has sovereignty.  This discourages the scholar from acknowledging her or his position of engagement with the past in the present: the subject of political modernity wants to make an object of history so as to become free from history. But the present, Chakrabarty argues, entwines with the past, is “irreducibly not-one” (249). The scientist carries a lucky rabbit’s foot. He coins the phrase “timeknot” to describe “the plurality that inheres in the ‘now,’ the lack of totality, the constant fragmentariness, that constitutes one’s present” (243).

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge, 1966)

Douglas’s classic anthropological study offers an extended meditation on the concepts of dirt and contagion. As a structuralist, Douglas insists that social categories pervade all levels of experience—from the arrangement of homes to understandings of the body. Lest society descend into chaos, these categories require constant policing and maintenance. Ambiguous and anomalous things must be incorporated into some category or another—or banished from society altogether. Certain things must remain taboo or off-limits to define and solidify the boundaries of a community. Pollution spreads without intent or moral wrongdoing: mere contact with the forbidden is enough, since the real issue is transgression of the social order. Unlike earlier anthropologists, Douglas insists that all societies remain similarly vigilant against disorder. This applies not just to the “primitive” societies imagined by earlier anthropologists, but modern Euro-American societies as well. For Douglas, symbolic actions of taming disorder—rituals of purification, strategies for managing danger—provide a strong base for the comparative study of religion, since they reveal the deep structures of societies. She rejects Tylor’s definition of religion, “belief in spiritual beings,” demanding instead that scholars of religion compare “peoples’ views about man’s destiny and place in the universe” (35). Rejecting hard-and-fast distinctions between the sacred and the secular, Douglas studies the social construction of religion via bodily practice, symbolic action, and ritual. In short, she uses cultural analysis as a way of approaching how religions work, rather than identifying religion as any particular thing in the world.

Douglas’s chapter “Secular Defilement” could prove very useful in a religion 101 class—particularly if the class dealt with a topic like zombies, vampires, ghosts, spirituality, etc. In this chapter, Douglas examines our own society’s notions of dirt and cleanliness. While we like to believe that we clean for medically sound reasons, Douglas shows that this simply isn’t true. Everyone in our society stores their kitchen cleaning supplies in the same place: under the sink. If you met someone who kept the Mr. Clean next to the mugs, you would probably run away scared. But why? It’s dirty. The clean bottle of cleaning fluid and the clean mugs together become dirty. For Douglas, the explanation for such behavior reveals the systems of classification operative in our society: “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (44). Later, she explains that “dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained,” it is “matter out of place” (50). In other words, “dirtiness” applies to things that just don’t fit into our cultural system’s normal categories.

But there’s the rub—for Douglas, everything has to fit into the system somehow, even if only as “dirt.” This makes her book a good conversation partner for later works on materiality. In particular, I think it would make an interesting intro to Todd Ochoa’s Society of the Dead, where the question is precisely how thinking matter, especially unbounded matter, can upset our usual categories of analysis. “Dirt” may just have a mind of its own. It may not want to remain the castoff of a neat cultural system. It likes to mess us up.

Review by A.T.

James Frazer, “The Golden Bough,” (1890)

James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, (1890)

Frazer’s weighty tome(s) opens by invoking JMW Turner’s painting “The Golden Bough” (above). Its idyllic sylvan setting, he notes, was the stage of recurring carnage. In Diana’s sacred grove above the town of Nemi, a runaway slave could appear at any moment to challenge and kill the reigning priest-king, whose tenure lasted only as long as he defended the wood. Harnessing the sun’s power of dying and rising, the sacrifice of the king provided necessary renewal for the forest kingdom. For Frazer, this story tells of humanity’s primeval religion. In short, he argues that the earliest religion consisted of fertility cults involving the worship, and ritual killing, of a dying/rising sunlike priest-king. Jesus, anyone? To demonstrate this claim, Frazer sets forth page after excruciating page of evidence from mythology, puzzling out the hidden meaning of everything from blood drops to mistletoe. I’m crusty and lonely this Valentine’s Day, so perhaps I’m not giving him a fair deal. He proves quite a talented wordsmith on occasion, and some people seem to love his work…

For my purposes, Frazer’s theories of magic proved the most useful part of the book. Much like E.B. Tylor, Frazer considers magic as a kind of primitive science and believes that modern science eliminates the need for religion (see 624, 53). For Frazer, magic operates according to rational laws—though it doesn’t work as well as science, the scholar can still “discern the spurious science behind the bastard art” (20a). Frazer uses the phrase “sympathetic magic” to describe this proto-scientific activity. Sympathetic magic assumes that by acting on one thing, people can produce effects on other things according to rational laws. The two great rational laws of magic are the “Law of Similarity” and the “Law of Contact/Contagion.” Thus, Frazer breaks sympathetic magic into two main types: homoeopathic (imitative) and contagious (contact) magic. Homoeopathic magic operates according to the principle that “like produces like,” that effects resemble their causes (19b). IMAGES play an important role in this type of magic—stabbing the image of an enemy’s arm with a pin causes the arm to become inefficacious in battle, touching the taboo eyes of a pig will make your eyes fall out, etc. Contagious magic presumes that things once in contact with each other remain connected despite distance of place or time—what happens to one symmetrically affects the other. Burning the hair of the enemy causes harm to the person, what happens to the placenta after birth affects the child’s future, injure the footprints and you injure the feet that made them.

May my outline of Frazer’s magic help you all find love this Valentine’s Day…

Omri Elisha, “Moral Ambition,” (2011)

Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, (2011)

In his ethnography of two megachurches in Knoxville, Elisha argues that socially engaged evangelicals navigate between many competing demands. In a tradition often associated with individualism, this minority seeks to call others “out of their comfort zone” and thereby change the world for Christ. While cultivating personal religious virtues, they make moral demands on other Christians and society at large. As social reformers, the evangelical institutions from which they emerge both inspire and inhibit them, support them and view them suspiciously. They are inheritors of the complex legacies of revivalism, overseas missions, Christian temperance, and fundamentalism. Elisha’s conservative evangelical reformers are intensely self-critical members of the middle class who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, but who generally don’t see capitalism as a problem in itself—and who see the poor as fundamentally lacking. Elisha uses the term “moral ambitions” to unpack this “particular style of religious subjectivity, one that manifests in moments of concerted action and mobilization and yet reflects a range of personal desires, theological and cultural norms, historical circumstances, and social opportunities” (18). Elisha talks to ambitious people: reformers with a new vision for the church, activists who want to bring about meaningful change. But these folks display moral ambition: their ambitions are fundamentally social, being focused on others and produced by particular institutions.

Elisha’s book offers several important reminders to scholars of evangelicalism. First, he reminds us that conservative evangelicals care about more than just language and texts—much of their religious activity consists of doing, not saying or reading. Because the concept of the Word is so important for evangelical theology, we scholars tend to look to language/semiotics as the key to understanding evangelicalism. Elisha engages words surprisingly rarely. Second, Elisha offers a refreshing emphasis on evangelical sociality. Anthropologists probably deal better in general with relationships than historians do, but Elisha proves especially adept at drawing out the institutional and interpersonal side of evangelicalism. In Elisha’s telling, evangelicalism emerges through social structures like class, institutional structures of financial support, small groups of friends, and shared discourses. Personal salvation, silent prayer, and private reading play their parts, but they’re bit players in Elisha’s ethnography. Third, Elisha’s book reminds us that serious books can also be funny. As a Jewish anthropologist from New York, Elisha could never really shake his outsider status among the evangelicals of Knoxville. But that didn’t stop them from putting him to good use. I actually laughed out loud reading the epilogue, when Elisha finds himself thrust into the role of chaperone for a youth mission trip: “After nearly a year of participant observation… I was used to performing unfamiliar roles. But I honestly never imagined I would one day be the driver of a big church van, shuttling pubescent soldiers of Christ through the streets of DC on their mission to do God’s work” (213-214). Though Elisha’s subtle turns of phrase exaggerate the humor of an awkward situation, his disquiet also reveals how his subjects’ moral ambitions work. The mission trip pulled the kids out of their “comfort zones”; in a completely different way, Elisha got pulled out of his. Being thrust into the role of a socially engaged evangelical leader, Elisha could get down to the business of seeing the world change.

E.B. Tylor, “Primitive Culture,” (1871)

E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture 2 vols. (1871)

Vol. 1 –

Vol. 2 –

Recently, a regular reader accused me of rashly “slitting the throats of the old guys” in my posts on Max Müller and William James. Though mutual accusations of bias made for good beer banter, there was a real point buried somewhere in the comment. Facile critique was never my intent, so I’ll try to be nicer to E.B. Tylor for my misguided young reader’s sake…

I’ve got a soft spot for iconoclasts, and Tylor seems to be one. Tylor locates the study of religion within the broader study of culture. This is important. Unlike James or even Müller, he does not cede religion an intrinsic place in human life—for him, it is simply a feature of many cultures. Again breaking with his contemporaries, particularly Matthew Arnold’s “best which has been thought and said,” Tylor defines culture in broad terms: it is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1, p1). Individuals have to learn their culture as members of a society. Cultures are complex, incorporating everything from practical knowledge and art objects to values and codes of law. These diverse parts adhere as bounded entities.

But this is the 1870s, and evolution is in the air. Though he assumes that all people possess similar rational faculties, Tylor understands cultures hierarchically—some are simply more evolved and rational than others. But questions then arise: how did cultures become so unequal? How do we explain the persistence of irrationality in highly advanced, scientific cultures? Again, breaking with a popular theory, Tylor presents two volumes worth of evidence to demonstrate that cultures always progress (1, p14). In other words, they move from low to high, primitive to advanced—they never regress from an advanced state to a lower one. This means that primitive cultures have simply not been educated to the same degree as advanced societies. Primitive people are just as rational as other people; primitive cultures are not as rational as other cultures because they lack the necessary education. Myths, for example, provide evidence for this progression. Tales of the gods and heroes offer useful explanations for otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena (257-258). Some cultures learn the scientific truth and abandon the old myths, others do not.

Enter religion. Tylor’s evolutionary understanding of culture becomes the base for his famous theory of animism. As I’m sure we all know, he offers a “minimum definition” of religion as “belief in spiritual beings” (1, p383). His evolutionary thinking holds the definition together. Before humanity acquired belief in spiritual beings, we had no religion because religion is not an innate human quality. After we acquired that minimal religion, some religions evolved into extremely complex systems of belief in modern cultures. Others did not. For Tylor, “animism” holds the “essence” of spiritualist metaphysics, in contrast to materialist metaphysics. It provides “the groundwork of the philosophy of religion” (1, p385). In its most primitive form, animism attributes a spiritual essence to animals, plants, people, natural forces. Later, it develops into pantheons of gods, monotheism, eternal spirits, and the like. Sometimes, a cultural feature learned in an earlier evolutionary phase will persist. Though they be completely irrational in the more advanced phase of cultural development, they subsist “by mere force of ancestral tradition” (2, p403). These he calls “survivals.” Though he never quite says it, Tylor seems to think that most of religion in modern culture constitutes a survival: “there seems no human thought so primitive as to have lost its bearing on our own thought, nor so ancient as to have broken its connection with our own life” (2, p409). The appropriate methods for the study of religion are, therefore, history and ethnography.

Daniel Miller, “Materiality: An Introduction.”

Daniel Miller, “Materiality: An Introduction.” In Materiality (Duke Press, 2005)

With an impressive list of contributors, Miller’s edited volume both surveys the field of material culture studies and advances key arguments about materiality. Regarding the former, all I will say is that the essays in this book would make excellent—if challenging—material for a seminar on materiality. Now, as to the latter…

Miller claims that the study of materiality belongs at the center of anthropological inquiry. Materiality can reveal as much about how people love, think, and conduct science as it can about the “artifacts” of, say, classical archaeology. Materiality, particularly the everyday materiality we often ignore, constitutes our worlds, our modes of subjectivity. But, lest we reify materiality itself, Miller insists on a “pluralism” of materialities—there is no one “materiality” to which we scholars must appeal (such as Marx’s objects of production), but only particular materialities whose dynamics we must uncover through careful, empathetic ethnography. Just like materiality, immateriality does not drop from the sky, but emerges through particular practices. More importantly for Miller’s argument, immateriality always finds itself expressed materially, whether in finance or in Protestantism. Materiality is no footnote to anthropology, even studies concerned with the abstract, the spiritual. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, Miller also demands that we acknowledge pluralism in the relationship between materiality and immateriality. He does so to overthrow “the tyranny of the subject,” which is “the assumption that objects represent people” (29). Why, he asks, must we assume that every object has a person behind it—as its creator, manufacturer, user, etc.? The clothes have no emperor. The clothing and emperor together form an “integral phenomenon” in which the clothes make the person: writes Miller “the subject is the product of the same act of objectification that creates the clothing” (32). Humans ought not have pride of place in our analysis, for we need our objects as much as they need us—we cannot be human without them.

Summary by A.T. Coates

Todd Ochoa, “Society of the Dead” (2010)

Todd Ramón Ochoa, Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (UC Press, 2010).

Armchair anthropology this ain’t. Ochoa’s book proves worth the price of admission just for its riveting first-person stories. In Society of the Dead, Ochoa narrates being ritually cut and told he swore allegiance to the devil in an initiation ceremony, holding an overnight vigil with a plastic bag containing human remains, and being reduced to a “vomiting mess” in the presence of a particularly powerful spectral entity. Ochoa not only knows how to tell a good story—one reviewer describes his work as itself a kind of sorcery, conjuring an ontology completely foreign to the western metaphysical tradition. For his part, Ochoa calls it a thoroughly empirical experiment.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Havana from the 1990s-2000s, Ochoa dives into the “immanent materiality” of Palo, a Kongo-inspired creole tradition related to Ocha/Santo (Santería). Ochoa states that Palo “is best understood as a fluid mode of engaging the dead in matter to transform fate in a flash” (8). Palo practitioners engage the dead through drumming, candles, cauldrons, singing, and animal sacrifice. But they also feel called by the dead, get pulled out of bed at night by it, feel chilled and troubled in the gut by it. What Ochoa calls the “ambient dead,” Kalunga, is a sea: constantly in flux, the dead saturates, surrounds, generates, and dissipates. It flows through matter and assumes surprising, even contradictory, aspects. The dead is not a spirit that manifests, but material that rises and falls and folds: “Kalunga is a plane of immanence from which subjects and objects emerge and into which they are lost” (34). As a craft, Palo works with the dead to help or harm the living: it involves the creation and care of prendas (also called ngangas or enquisos). Prendas are cauldrons/urns stuffed full of dirt, sticks, feathers, and nfumbe—entities constituted of human remains. The most powerful, and the most unpredictable, prendas are the prendas judías, which contain “Jewish” or “unbaptized” nfumbe. These prendas can end a human life—but they only respond to practitioners’ pleas on Good Friday, when Jesus is busy dying on the cross. And they are volatile, unpredictable things known to turn on their keepers. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Palo doesn’t want to steal Cuban children to stuff them into these cauldrons. It wants to change fate by working with the dead immanent in matter; occasionally, doing so brings the living to their limits.

Reading Ochoa’s beautifully crafted stories, it’s easy to forget that this book presents a sustained philosophical meditation on an entire metaphysical tradition. In the conclusion, Ochoa names the villain of his story: the dualistic tradition that runs from Plato through Hegel’s dialectics to Marx and Adorno. In this tradition, matter usually appears as the abject, the base, the object, the negation of truth, spirit, subject. If this metaphysical tradition concerns the living, Ochoa’s book engages theorists of the dead: Bataille, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Deleuze. Society of the Dead explodes the subject-object dialectic—it just doesn’t work with Palo. Holding up matter without shape or form, abandoning rigid conceptual schemes and clever interpretive devices, Ochoa experiments with theory’s possibilities. He looks to matter, to the dead, to change theory’s fate.

Review by A.T. Coates

Matthew Engelke, “A Problem of Presence,” (2007)

Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. (U California, 2007).

Engelke examines immateriality in the Masowe weChishanu Church of Zimbabwe. Known as the “Friday apostolics,” members of this church proudly identify themselves as “Christians who don’t read the Bible.” In fact, they claim to have moved beyond the Bible to a “live and direct” faith, one that does not require the mediation of mere things like books to experience God’s presence. Conversing with the work of Webb Keane, Engelke unpacks “live and direct” as a semiotic ideology, a set of underlying assumptions about signification, representation, etc. An apostolic prophet, Madzibaba Godfrey Nzira, once phrased this “live and direct” semiotic ideology in terms unthinkable to other Protestants: “What is the Bible to me?… After keeping it for some time it falls apart, the pages come out. And then you can take it and use it as toilet paper until it’s finished. We don’t talk Bible-talk here. We have a true Bible here” (2). The thingyness, the materiality of a paper Bible makes it suspect. By contrast, the immaterial “true Bible” does not need words on the page to make its message clear, and in fact does better without them. This creates a problem for apostolics: a problem of presence. Certain objects, utterances, rituals, etc. do bring about live and direct encounters with the Holy Spirit, the true Bible, the angels—the prophet speaks, the church sings, congregants wear white robes. There is no such thing as pure immateriality, even in this tradition that prizes it. Some things are just more material than others.

Engelke’s prose sparkles. Chapter 7, “The Substance of Healing,” offered a very memorable case in point—it would work very well in a seminar on materiality. As an anthropologist, you’re bound to get sick while in the field. During one of his illnesses, church members insisted on giving Engelke “holy honey,” the most potent spiritual medicine made by apostolic elders. According to Friday principles, the therapeutic power of the honey comes only from the Holy Spirit—not from anything about the honey itself. But when Engelke drove a friend to work after church, the man, facing a long day at the office, hinted that a spoonful of the honey might really help him and sheepishly asked for one. In Engelke’s own phrasing, honey is a “sticky subject” of conversation and a “sticky object” for apostolics, since it is “the practical channel through which the apostolics articulate an exception to the rule that a Friday faith should be immaterial. . . .it represents the realization that even ‘strong’ Christians cannot divorce themselves from the material” (243). Materiality is not an either/or proposition, but rather “a matter of degree and kind” (ibid). Materiality is a sticky business indeed.

Review by A.T. Coates

Latour, selections from “Reassembling the Social.”

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. (Oxford, 2005).

Officially, my reading list calls for “selections from” Reassembling the Social. That turned into me reading almost all of it very, very slowly (hence the delay in posting). Reassembling the Social offers some of the most accessible Latour, but nonetheless provocative, I’ve ever encountered. The theory is profound, but slippery. The book is less about what actor-network theory is and more about what it does—but, even more, it’s about what actor-network theory doesn’t do. It offers exciting new possibilities for how we might conduct our work as historians of religion. But trying to explain it succinctly feels like THIS

Latour first carefully disassembles the concept of “the social.” Note that I didn’t say he “deconstructs” it. For too long, Latour insists, theorists have approached the social as “a kind of material or a domain,” one usually invoked to provide an explanation for some other state of affairs (1). Religion, for example, is said to operate according to its own logic most of the time, but “social context” or “social forces” pop into scholarly accounts to explain some of the erratic behavior of practitioners. To take an example from a book I just read, this understanding of the social says evangelicalism in America looks different than evangelicalism in Canada because of the social context—or even better, the socio-cultural context—in which it “manifested.” “The social” thus stalks behind, or floats above, practitioners and their practices, ready to offer a “social explanation” at any moment. For Latour, this conception of “the social” as a domain, a realm, a kind of thing, blinds us to the associations that actors actually have with each other. Those associations change constantly, as groups are formed, dismantled, and reformed (29). Instead of positing a particular thing or domain as “the social,” Latour asks what kinds of peculiar assemblages might reveal themselves if we carefully trace the associations between actors, if we allow actors to show us what “the social” describes at a particular moment. The term “social,” Latour insists, describes “the name of a movement, a displacement, a transformation, a translation, an enrollment… an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social… except during the brief moment when they are shuffled together” (64-65). For actor-network theory, tracing those movements, displacements, transformations, and enrollments, becomes paramount.

ANT brings mediation and materiality to the foreground. In Latour’s actor-networks, actors look very different from what we usually see. Actors need not be human, nor “animate” in the sense we’re accustomed to. Gasp. Latour considers an “actor” to be “not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (46). Actors are those made to act. He uses the example of a pilgrim who claims, “I came to this monastery because the Virgin called me.” The Virgin makes the pilgrim an actor (the actor who travels), but the pilgrim also makes the Virgin an actor (the actor who calls others to action). We should take the pilgrim’s word for what’s happening when she says the Virgin called her: “Recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining, these are the Laws and the Prophets” (55).

This goes further than the kind of uncritical pandering to actors’ claims that we’re accustomed to in religious studies. Rather, as hinted above, Latour wants to understand how social worlds get constructed. So, for example, a Protestant says she believes the bread and wine in communion are mere “symbols” of commemoration, but then fears supernatural retribution for taking communion in an unfit spiritual state. An ANT would try to trace the complex connections between actors natural and supernatural, subjects and objects, persons and spirits, bread and sinners, that such a statement invokes. It’s a painstaking process, but one that pays big dividends for students of materiality because it pays attention to the kinds of agency afforded to things. Latour argues that, rather than insisting on a neat divide between agentive subjects and inert objects, we ought to explore how the relationships between subjects and objects, agents and mediators, get construed. He suggests a metaphysical openness on the question of cause and effect, an attention to how “things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on” (72, emphasis added). I’m not explaining it well, but tracing an actor-network in religious studies would never permit us to say, for example, that a certain object or image “manifests” religious beliefs. Instead, ANT would demand that we pay careful attention to ways people interact with things, the ways things interact with people, the ways supernatural and natural beings can use things, the ways causality gets described, the ways things can reveal or proclaim or mask or subvert or remind. Latour offers a negative method, in which we don’t take anything for granted about social worlds but instead wait to see what emerges…

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter”

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter” in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, ed. Meyer and Houtman(2012).

In their concise introduction to Things, Meyer and Houtman offer a very useful overview of the state of the field in material religion. If you are curious about what people mean by the supposed “material turn” in religious studies or if you just are looking to introduce the topic to an undergrad class, this essay lights the path well.

The essay begins with a justification for the project of studying religion by studying things. Like most of those committed to materializing the study of religion, Meyer and Houtman insist that the terms “religion” and “things” need not be conceived in antagonistic terms. Though some scholars want to eschew the term “religion” altogether, Meyer and Houtman think it can still serve useful functions if properly qualified. The historically contingent term “religion” is part of our public and scholarly discourse, like it or not, and it may yet have something to teach us. For the study of religious material culture, this especially means not privileging immaterial “beliefs” in our scholarly work. By turning our attention to things, we might learn new things about how “religion” operates in public discourse, in the academy, and in people’s lives. Like “religion,” things seem to be all around us, like it or not. But far from just inserting “things” into established scholarly paradigms (e.g. throwing a few pictures into a church history book), Meyer and Houtman insist on interrogating, situating, and historicizing “things”: “rematerialization [of the study of religion] is not simply a question of bringing ‘things’ back in, but requires a critical, reflexive endeavor that rescripts the meaning of materiality itself on the basis of detailed historical and ethnographic research” (8). In other words, we ought not take for granted what “things” are, what they can/can’t do, what people can/can’t do with them, for them, to them, etc. The study of religion proves an especially rich ground for investigating things because it contains so many examples of “bad objecthood”: totem, idol, and fetish to name just a few. Such “bad objects” reveal people’s assumptions about materiality and immateriality, about the “proper” spheres and relationships between “the spiritual” and “the material.”

Review by A.T. Coates

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish”

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish.” Res: Anthropolgy and Aesthetics. No. 13 (Spring 1987): 23-45.

Rather than accepting and deploying the anthropological concept of “the fetish,” Pietz historicizes it. Far more than just a descriptor of “religious” practices, “fetishism” operated as an accusation that separated rational Europeans from irrational Africans, rational traders from deluded tribesmen, people from things, moderns from non-moderns. As Pietz demonstrates carefully, it was only peripherally related to pre-existing medieval religious concepts. Fetishism, in other words, did not come out of theological evaluation of a foreign religion—fetishism was never located within the traditional theological frameworks of witchcraft or idolatry. Rather, it was coined to describe undue allegiance to venial things, petty trifles, undeserving objects. Predicated on particular assumptions about materiality, fetishism served to reinforce a specific arrangement of power and the purity of the autonomous subject. Despite a little post-structuralist mustiness, the essay still offers much food for thought on religion and materiality, modern subjectivity, and “secular” exchange. In particular, the essay reminds us not to assume that exchange is–and has always been–secular and rational. Exchange offers a rich (and largely unexplored) field for analysis in religious studies.

According to Pietz, the word “fetish” derives from the Portuguese pidgin word “fetisso.” It emerged in the late 16th century on the West African coast. This is no curiosity: the term acquired its meaning in the context of colonial trade, bridging two cultures that were practically incomprehensible to each other. The European (primarily Portuguese and Dutch) traders used the term “fetish” to describe objects worn or ingested by the Africans, which were thought to be “quasi-personal powers” that could be coerced into exerting force on the material world (40). The Europeans found two major problems with the fetish—but both concerned economics. First, as far as the traders were concerned, all objects possessed exchange value. However, this exchange value easily became “distorted” in the fetish object. Africans would overvalue “trifles” as fetishes. Although often highly profitable, trading such items became much more complicated than “rational” exchange would require because the object of desire held personal, social, and/or religious value in addition to its exchange value. In short, what the Europeans regarded as the “secular” rationality of the market broke down in the face of the fetish. Second, in order to engage in trade with locals, Europeans frequently found themselves required to swear oaths on a fetish object. Instead of entering contracts between autonomous, rational individuals, Europeans had to enter social relations via “quasi-religious ceremonies” (45). It was precisely such “perverse superstitions” in matters of trade that conditioned the general theory of fetishism that developed later.

Pietz identifies four major aspects of the idea of the fetish. First, the fetish always denoted objects, things, “mere” matter—the fetish maintained “untranscended materiality” (23). The fetish concerned what things were and weren’t, what they could or couldn’t do, what their proper worth might be. Second, the fetish is not a natural concept, but arose out of a very particular historical encounter between two cultures in the context of colonialism. The term retains the weight of this historical encounter in every subsequent usage. Third, the “meaning and value” of the concept of the fetish depends on a particular social order (23). The concept of the fetish is an accusation that only makes sense under particular arrangements of power, arrangements which the term itself helps to establish and support. Fourth, the fetish served as an antithesis to the autonomous subject. Worn on the body of an individual, the fetish exerted its power from the outside. The accusation of fetishism sought to establish the proper bounds and responsibilities of the embodied subject.

Review by A.T. Coates

Marcel Mauss, The Gift

Marcel Mauss, The Gift. (1925)

Do ut des. I have to admit, Mauss’s classic study of the gift managed to surprise me, even on a re-read. Mauss upends assumptions about the gift as a category of exchange. Typically, we assume that we give gifts freely as individuals. More than that, we assume that the structure of our practice of gift giving—from one individual to another—typifies all systems of exchange. Not so, says Mauss. According to him, gifts are given, received, and reciprocated obligatorily. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and gift giving is both “constrained and self-interested” (3). More still, Mauss calls the gift a “total social phenomenon.” By this, he means that “all kinds of institutions are given expression at one and the same time [in gifts]—religious, juridical, and moral… economic ones” (3). Even a society’s aesthetics, such as dance or music, can find expression in gifts (see 79). Gifts bind individuals to societies. According to Mauss’s (troubling) understanding of social evolution, the “total social phenomenon” of gifts marks a midway point between “total services” (which bind societies to societies, clans to clans) and the purely individual contracts of a market economy (46).

Reading The Gift on the heels of Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns unintentionally drew my attention to the prevalence of religion—something vaguely like Keane’s kind of materialized religion—in this text. I’ll stop being coy: to my great surprise, the presence of things seems to trouble Mauss. Discussing Maori gifts, he notes that “the legal tie, a tie occurring through things, is one between souls, because the thing itself possesses a soul, is of the soul” (12). Religious notions of the soul connect people. The thing has its own soul, just like individuals, which binds the giver spiritually to the recipient. At this stage, he does not discuss the implications of things having souls, such as their agency or status in the community, but takes the souls for granted in order to illustrate his larger point about the “total” structure of gift exchange. Religion and exchange hang together.

When Mauss discusses the potlatch, things develop a mind of their own. In a potlatch, he observes, a “power” is thought to be present that forces the reciprocal circulation of gifts. Favorably comparing this to Roman religion, he seems surprised that North American native peoples should have “raised themselves to a level where they have personified an abstraction” (43). Despite this snide dismissal, Mauss again confronts things with presence on the very next page. There, we learn that emblazoned copper objects hold special value for the Haida and Kwakiutl—or rather that such copper objects live and move among the people. These objects have a “power of attraction” over other copper objects, and each possesses “its own name, its own individuality, its own value—in the full sense of the word—magical, economic, permanent, and perpetual” (45). Far from inert, these copper objects are thought to survive even the violent destruction to which they are sometimes subjected. “Possessing” such an object really entails something more like being in the company of a supernatural being and having it as a useful member of one’s family. Again, Mauss dismisses this understanding of things as a “survival” of a bygone phase of social evolution. But he has to explain these copper agents somehow, for their presence implies that his own society’s hard distinction between people and things is notnecessarily the natural order of the universe. Latour this isn’t, but Mauss does open the possibility that more than just the inert “property” of individuals can be exchanged in the world.

Review by A.T. Coates

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

Geertz, Asad, and American Religious History

Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System” and “Thick Description.”

Talal Asad, “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz” aka. “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category.”

BONUS: Ronald G. Walters, “Signs of the Times: Clifford Geertz and Historians,” Social Research 47.3 (Aug 1980).

Review by A.T. Coates

Though rarely acknowledged, Clifford Geertz has exerted enormous influence on the field of American religious history for at least the last 25 years. Geertz encourages scholars to attend carefully to the cultural “webs of significance” from which meaning emerges. He demands that we look closely at the winks of culture, its feigned winks, and its parodies of feigned winks, to ferret out the intentions of religious actors as they make meaning in those “webs.” He finds religion producing “moods and motivations” and offering unique varieties of experience. He theorizes how religion connects the dots of individual and social life, providing a coherent worldview. Most importantly as far as religious historians have been concerned, he sees religion as a universal cultural phenomenon, one irreducible to its social or psychological functions. His famous definition states that “a religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (90). Religion occurs in the realm of symbol and meaning, generates special kinds of experiences, and presents a compelling worldview.

For at least one generation of American religious historians, Geertz offered a way out of the secularization and social control theses. His theory put religion on equal footing with other “meaning-making” cultural activities like science and aesthetics, suggesting that religion still held an important place in the modern era. Geertz permitted historians to take their subjects’ ideas and intentions “seriously,” since religion dealt in the “really real,” not in false consciousness. His method of close reading encouraged detachment but not skepticism, nicely aligning with the liberally Christian interests of major university seminaries. Under Geertz’s theory, a seemingly endless array of traditions and actors took their place in the constellation of American religion, each earning its own thick description. Celebrating creative agency became the name of the game. To historians influenced by Geertz, religious actors of all genders, social classes, racial groups, and (less often) sexual orientations proved themselves free, creative agents as they expressed intention and made meaning in particular symbol systems. Because they demonstrated agency, they were above criticism.

Historians of American religion seem to have loved Geertz’s work for all the reasons Asad criticizes it. Asad takes little interest in what “religion” is in any abstract or universal sense. Drawing on examples from medieval and early modern Christian history, he attends carefully to how power creates and shapes the category called “religion.” For Asad, “there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes” (Construction 29). Asad considers Geertz’s definition of religion’s essence an oddly double-edged sword wrought by a particular modern, western, Christian history. On the one hand, Geertz’s project confines religion in ways unthinkable before the modern era’s division of politics, law, science, and religion. On the other hand, it defends religion by giving it an unassailable place in modern life, locating it squarely within the free minds of individuals. Rather than endlessly documenting the sphere of the religious, Asad demands that scholars attend to the material and social conditions—the “authorizing discourses”—that make certain conceptions/articulations of religion possible. Nearly three decades after he published his reflections on Geertz, we seem to have barely begun heeding his call: “Instead of approaching religion with questions about the social meaning of doctrines and practices… let us begin by asking what are the historical conditions… necessary for the existence of particular religious practices and discourses” (Conceptions 252).