Precis for Elenore Bowen and Don Seeman

“It is an error to assume that to know is to understand, and that to understand is to like.” (Bowen 291).


The main text we read for today’s class, Return to Laughter by anthropologist Laura Bohannan, operating under the pseudonym Elenore Smith Bowen, challenges us in three distinct ways. The first is at the level of genre, the second is at the level of method, and the third is at the level of discipline.



The immediate questions that arise from reading a novel alongside ethnographic texts are about facticity and how the strategies of authentication change across genre. A novel does not claim authenticity by pretending to facticity. If Crime and Punishment conveys something of the angst and terror present when living an intellectual life of pure rebellion against order, or if Harry Potter conveys something of the dynamics of courage, fear, friendship, and frailty that drive aspects of adolescence, they manage this without being in any way factually true. The events they recount did not occur.

We have spoken a good bit over the course of our semester together about the deep embodiment of experience, the perhaps irreducible system of place, person, and world that are involved in a particular person’s experiences. It would be possible, thinking perhaps through Birgit Meyer, to suggest that experiences themselves can’t be generalized, that they only exist in mediated forms that do not descend from a prior idealized form. Meyer herself might not suggest this, but the logic of mediation—when it fails to answer whether mediation mediates an original, what that original might be, and whether the mediation reduces the original—lends itself to this kind of thinking. We are only able to understand mediated forms of experience, fear that emerges from complex and specific cultural forms. There is probably no ur-experience of something like love, or fear, or suffering. And even if there is, we have no way to access it, trapped as we are within systems of cultural forms and the irreducibility of particular, mediated experiences. This is a postmodern maneuver that many anthropologists navigated into—fragmentation, partiality, and our unaccountable ability to understand. In this context, even Michael Jackson’s beautiful but ultimately mild claims that we can understand others primarily in those rare moments when our cultural context breaks apart might seem to many anthropologists to be too radical or philosophical.

What does it mean, then, that we can understand something of a kind of fear or love from a novel that recounts events that never occurred? There is no particular, mediated experience of fear or love or heroism that is being communicated—the experience of the characters doesn’t factually exist. But we feel it. Is it merely an illusion, such that we are tricked into feeling a particular and mediated sense of joy, loss, etc. by the author’s ability to use language to fake us out and make us believe that things actually happened that did not? A kind of trick we play on ourselves? If so, how is it possible that the self can deceive the self? How can it know and not know what is true at once?

I am more inclined to the perspective Bowen (I’ll use the pseudonym for the precis) outlines in Return to Laughter. Stories are able to convey certain dimensions of experience because we can look at them and, as Kako’s blind brother responds to the pantomime of a blind man searching for honey, laugh and say, “‘That is the way it is…Indeed it is so. What can one do?’” (Bowen 294). But that “is the way it is” not because the events factually occurred, but rather because a generalized experience is evoked. While I don’t have complete answers, I think I have tipped my hand enough in class for it to be clear that I think this gestures at the possibility that there is, in fact, something of ur-experiences. Or at least, there is some mechanism by which we can relate to general qualities of experiences even amidst particularized circumstances, allowing the particular process of understanding to derive from the general. I understand that you are afraid because I know what it is to fear.

The novel as genre gives a fascinating look into the relationships between facticity, evocation, and understanding. What emerges next is to ask how, exactly, ethnography ought to position itself within these relationships.



            Particularly in the early part of the book, the method of Bowen’s project is clear and familiar in its messiness and foreignness. The anthropologist implants herself in a community, and then tries to discover the categories by which the community regulates itself. She slowly begins to decode the forms of cultural communication. The word far can refer not only to physical distance but also time and social distance (Bowen 52). We’re introduced to a classical set of ethnographic descriptors like little wife, age mate, witchcraft, etc. But things change slightly when Bowen realizes that being a mother is not determined purely by kinship, but also by ways of being in relation to another (Bowen 126-7). This revelation marks a turn whereby Bowen begins to consider these conceptual categories not as simple pieces in a jigsaw puzzle of her own scientific inquiry, but as compasses that are used to navigate social realities.

When scandal emerges around the infidelity of a woman named Ticha, this experiential dimension comes to the fore. After a discussion of how infidelity is experienced differently but emerging from a familiar set of concerns—“the old passionate resentment of anything that threatens any possession” (Bowen 137)—Bowen recognizes the error of her method to that point. She had been anticipating that “people would differ only in externals of dress and custom, that their basic reactions to the same basic situation would be the same” (Bowen 144). She admits that she had been thinking of all of the characters of her encounter as not so far removed from common European archetypes. And in recognizing their real differences, she finds “the points beyond which I could not go” (Bowen 145).

By focusing only on differences of custom situated in structural concern, she had missed the ways in which those structures were navigational devices that oriented them to experience the world in a different way than she did. But this difference did not prevent any understanding. Here, in fact, her ability to understand emerges directly from her recognition of the limits of their mutual understanding.

This issue arises most pointedly in cases of moral dilemma. When smallpox threatens her village and a local man, Saar, is infected and returns to seek shelter and food, she claims strongly that she believes she had a moral obligation to aid him, one that those she was with did not share (Bowen 272-3). Because of the values of the locals, she retreated from her felt moral obligation in what she described as cowardice. This is one of the key insights into method that emerge from the book—the boundaries of understanding, which can help to create understanding itself, are often found at points of moral dilemma.



This point about moral dilemma and understanding is one of the subjects of Don Seeman’s article on ritual, “useless suffering” and the Warsaw Ghetto. In much the way that I suggest moral dilemmas can highlight limits on the simple business of our interpersonal understandings, Seeman proposes that radical suffering outlines the limits of meaning-making as an anthropological project (Seeman 467). As Bowen’s account turns to the dark business of smallpox, paranoia, and violence in the later pages of the novel, this claim is demonstrated. This was not the death of a single person, “Not the death of Amara. That was grief, and sanity” (Bowen 279). The terror of smallpox represented terror that defied categorization or structuring. Bowen goes one step further, suggesting, “We have no vocabulary left for terror” (Bowen 280). This is a bigger statement than it sounds. A vocabulary is a set of correspondent meanings, a semantic field in which things mean something in relation to one another. We are left with the conclusion, from Seeman and Bowen, that we have no vocabulary for terror because terror—of the kind experienced in Bowen’s smallpox outbreak—defies semantic relationships. Terror and suffering are phenomenological experiences that disrupt the horizontal field of discretely intelligible, categorical concepts.

And yet, we know something of terror and suffering. If

1) all understanding is really situated in the decoding of cultural meanings or the translation of mediated experiential forms, and

2) suffering and terror both defy the ability to create meaning and nicely order experience,

then the only way to understand the suffering of the Warsaw Ghetto should be to have been there. And to some degree, that is certainly true—it is probably impossible to fully understand its facticity without presence. But there are reasons why the accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto haunt us—they evoke something that we understand. We know, if not just how Rabbi Shapira suffered, at least what it means to suffer. And these experiences that can be evoked, experiences that defy meaning-making, seem to operate as the means by which we may recognize the presence of the kind of ur-experience that allows understanding in the first place.

So finally a few disciplinary concerns arise from this exploration:

  1. If understanding occurs in part by means of encounter with phemomena that break systems of meaning, and can be evoked in ways that do not require facticity, what is the point of ethnography? Why don’t we all just write poetry (other than the fact that we lack the skill)? What is added by facticity?
  2. In answering the above, when do we reach a point where the real subject of our ethnographic work is ourselves? If the text can be fictitious, experience is (in this formulation) necessarily factual—it actually occurred. Bowen is clear that the main theme of her novel is “the sea change in oneself that comes from immersion in another and savage culture.” Do we need facticity merely so that we can form ourselves as more complete moral subjects? It is worth remembering that by the end of Bowen’s story, the only character who grows or learns is herself.

Politics of Piety

Adam Peeler

Politics of Piety Precis

I apologize for the tardiness of my precis. I mixed up the weeks and just realized my error.

Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival of the Feminist Subject, came about from Mahmood’s experiences in Pakistan under the regime of Zia ul-Haq. Mahmood notes that ul-Haq used Islam to, “Buttress his brutal hold on power…” (Mahmood p. xxi). Mahmood further states that because of Islamic patriarchy, “Feminist politics came to require a resolute and uncompromising secular stance” (Mahmood p. xxi). She also notes that the Iranian Revolution extinguished the hope that secular politics would offer change to the region. The text focuses on the Islamist movement in Egypt. Mahmood chose a place distant from here homeland to attempt to work through some of the puzzles presented in politics in Pakistan.

The work centers on ethnographic work in Cairo, Egypt from 1995 to 1997 in which Mahmood argues that there is a need for a much wider structure of women’s agency in the political realm. She argues within the first chapter that the relationship between feminism and religion is a difficult one; that each side finds issue with the other. Mahmood argues that women’s involvement in religious spaces as feminists can provide new leadership roles for women in the community. Within the first chapter, Mahmood reappropriates poststructuralist feminist theory arguing that “The processes and conditions that secure a subject’s subordination are also the means by which she becomes a self-conscious identity and agent (Mahmood p. 17). Though certain religious laws were adopted as a means of control Islamic feminists are adopting the practices as new means of empowerment.

The second chapter locates the women’s mosque movement within the framework of textual authority in the Islamic legal tradition. She argues that this tradition, when met with modernity, is altered to allow a space for women’s authority. This alters the understanding of the text and allows women a space within the mosque to become spiritual leaders alongside men. Mahmood believes this to be a result of modern education in Egypt (Mahmood p. 65). This is seen through Egypt’s acceptance of women in the field of religious study.

The third chapter explores this new understanding of text and empowerment. Mahmood examines the different daiyats and the educational and economic backgrounds of the followers of each system. She paints a vivid picture of how each mosque forms a different culture and form of piety. Chapter four takes a look at the ethics and practices of the women involved in the movement. She notes how previous movements sought to transform the state or preserve culture through their movements. She argues that the women’s mosque movement focuses on moral regeneration, particularly of the individual through attention to Islamic virtues. The final chapter examines women’s moral agency in relation to gender inequality. She notes that the women involved in the piety movement combat social injustice, but do some within the framework of obligation to God (Mahmood p. 175).

Mahmood’s work seeks to not discredit women’s agency when it is performed outside the normal political methods. She builds an ethnography of women’s experiences changing politics from inside the mosque within a religious framework (Mahmood p. 152). As noted earlier, feminism and religion tend to have a tenuous relationship, but Mahmood’s work seems to point towards the benefits the two can share. When one asks what is at stake for in this study it seems to be quite a lot, or at least more than many of our other readings. For the women involved in the women’s mosque movement, their own moral agency is at stake because of the oppression of a patriarchal and extremely religious government. As I read the work I was frustrated with the systems that the American government helped establish that created these environments. I thought of the links one could possibly place between the women’s mosque movement and the Civil Rights Movement, the involvement of religion in both spheres. My question with Mahmood’s work is how is it playing out today? Her ethnography took place in 1995-1997, since then we have seen countless wars, the Arab Spring, drought, and famine in the Middle East. Has the women’s mosque movement continued to make the changes that Mahmood hoped they would make? I also wonder if an improved education system will continue to assist this movement or at least move the average person to a more secular state of mind. What’s at stake in this work? I would say quite a lot.


Precis: Mahmood, Politics of Piety, and Mittermaier, “Dreams from Elsewhere” – Chelsea Mak

This week’s readings each address and explore the analytical tools necessarily to adequately account for the formation of religious subjectivity and “modes of agency” (Mahmood 2005, 17). Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival of the Feminist Subject, complimented by her 2001 essay, “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of ‘Ṣalāt,’” emerges out of the author’s fieldwork among the women of the mosque movement in Cairo, Egypt. Her dual interests—the analysis of the concepts of the self, moral agency, and politics that under gird the movement and the scrutiny of normative assumptions regarding the self and agency in secular liberal politics and feminist theory—provide Mahmood with a rich starting place from which to develop a nuanced analytical framework for approaching the study of agency within particular ‘discursive traditions.’ Mahmood’s subsequent analysis of the women’s mosque movement, based on her careful attention to the socio-historically located internal logic of the movement itself, emphasizes the cultivation of religious subjects through embodied, habituated activity. In response, Amira Mittermaier’s essay, “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities Beyond the Trope of Self-cultivation,” also emerging from ethnographic work in Egypt (this time among a Sufi community) expands Mahmood’s study by arguing that, while valuable, the paradigm of self-cultivation in the study of Islam is insufficient in so far as it fails to adequately account for an “ethics of passion,” wherein the religious subject is understood as also being acted upon by the multiple Others—including the Divine, those who are visible (family, religious, and social networks), and the invisible (for example, angels or the dead)—who constitute the subject’s relational community (Mittermaier, 260). Both authors contribute to our unfolding classroom conversation in significant ways, particularly on topics such as the ethnography of religion beyond the mosque (synagogue, church, temple, etc.); the significance of ritual beyond symbolic meaning-making; accounting for the Divine agent in ethnographic study; and politics and the ethnographic project.

Mahmood introduces her work with an insightful and transparent assessment of her own motivations and aspirations in taking up the topic of feminist subjectivity as it relates to and is/is not manifest in the Islamic Revival. She writes of her dissatisfaction with the ability of “progressive leftist” politics to account for and comprehend the “aspirations of so many around the Muslim world” and her questioning of the “. . . conviction, however well-intentioned, that other forms of human flourishing and life worlds are necessarily inferior to the solutions we have devised under the banner of ‘secular-left’ politics” (Mahmood 2005, xxiii). As a result, Mahmood explicitly denies her own political and theoretical commitments as an appropriate analytical framework for her project—indeed, much of her work may be read as a deconstruction of her own theoretical commitments—and, instead, seeks out tools that allow her to more adequately account for the life-worlds of the women she studied over a two year period in Cairo.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the opening chapter of Politics and Piety situates Mahmood’s work within an ongoing conversation among feminist theorists addressing the question of how “issues of historical and cultural specificity inform both the analytics and politics of the feminist project” (Mahmood 2005, 1). This question is of particular import in Mahmood’s own work, given the ways in which the women’s mosque movement challenges liberal feminist concepts of agency as grounded in “the political and moral autonomy of the subject” (Mahmood 2005, 7); as premised on a universal desire for freedom, especially freedom from male domination (Mahmood 2005, 10); and as functional within a binary of resistance and subordination. Paradoxically, at least within the liberal feminist framework, the women’s mosque movement both develops as a result of female actors operating in a field and mode previously dominated by men and upholds traditional, patriarchal norms for the formation of women as religious subjects. Given this apparent contradiction, Mahmood argues, instead, for a socially and historically embedded understanding of agency. She writes, “. . . the meaning and sense of agency cannot be fixed in advance, but must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility, and effectivity” (Mahmood 2005, 14–15). Consequently, Mahmood’s study of self and agency in the women’s mosque movement attends closely to social norms as the “necessary ground through which the subject is realized and comes to enact her agency” (Mahmood 2005, 19), especially as these norms both constitute and are constituted by the subject. Turning to Aristotle, as mediated through Foucault, Mahmood further develops the type of theoretical frame necessary to account for the pedagogies of self-cultivation she witnessed in the women’s mosque movement. In particular, Mahmood argues that an understanding of the formation of the ethical subject through embodied, behavioural practices best fits the emphasis in the women’s mosque movement on the cultivation of pious selves—an emphasis that places particular importance on “. . . outward markers of religiosity—ritual practices, styles of comporting oneself, dress, and so on” (Mahmood 2005, 31).

Having detailed her analytical frame, Mahmood then turns to its demonstration by, first, situating the women’s mosque movement historically (chs. 2) and, second, through the ethnography proper (chs. 3–5), which focuses on the use of Islamic pedagogical materials, ritual practices, and paradoxes of subjectivity among the women who attend lessons at the mosques. While space prohibits a detailed exploration of each of these chapters, a brief example may offer an illustration of how Mahmood’s analytics provide explanatory power for the practices and goals of the mosque movement: the cultivation of religious desire through the ritual practice of Ṣalāt.

Mahmood argues that, because the women of the mosque movement understood piety as a state of “’being close to God:’ a manner of being and acting that suffused all of one’s acts, both religious and worldly in character” (Mahmood 2005, 122; see also, Mahmood 2001, 830), the observance of Ṣalāt operated as more than a ritual obligation, but as a site of self-formation. Hence, “ritual (i.e., conventional, formal action) is understood as the space par excellence of making their desires act spontaneously in accord with pious Islamic conventions” (Mahmood 2001, 833)—a process illustrated by Mona’s admonition to a young, Muslim woman concerning the interrelated nature of mundane daily behaviour, or “pragmatic action” (Mahmood 2001, 833), and the ritualized practice of Ṣalāt (Mahmood 2005, 124–126). What is significant is the way that the women conceive of the formation of religious subjects as an intentional activity (i.e., an act requiring and demonstrating agency), the goal of which might be realized through the habituation of bodily practices (such as ritual prayer) and mundane, pragmatic action (such as choosing not to engage a quarrel with one’s sibling). A similar such practice, as noted by Mahmood, is the wearing of the veil, viewed as both an act of submission and as a means of cultivating the feminine and valued quality of shyness (2005, 158). Veiling, then, demonstrates “. . . the role the body plays in the making of the self, one in which the outward behavior of the body constitutes both the potentiality and the means through which interiority is realized” (Mahmood 2005, 159). Such activity, rooted as it is in the teaching of the Quran, the ḥadīth, and Islamic pedagogical materials, demonstrates that attending “carefully to the specific logic of the discourse of piety” reveals a “logic that inheres not in the intentionality of the actors [contra liberal feminist theory], but in the relationships that are articulated between worlds, concepts, and practices that constitute a particular discursive tradition” (Mahmood 2005, 17).

Mittermaier’s essay complements Mahmood’s focus on self-cultivation by nuancing the analysis of agency and the religious subject, arguing that habituation as a model “offers us little for engaging with a different axis of religiosity, one that valorizes being acted upon, one most vividly expressed in stories of dreams, visions, apparitions, spirit possession, prophecy, revelation, the miraculous, and, more broadly, stories that involve elements of surprise and awe” (Mittermaier, 250). Mittermaier explores the notion of being ‘acted upon’ as an important aspect of religious subjectivity through her ethnographic work among a Sufi community in Egypt that focuses on encounter with the Prophet and the divine vis-à-vis dreams. A serious consideration of the role of dreams in the life-worlds of community members highlights the importance of taking into account the ways in which “the otherworldly” is understood to act upon and constitute the religious subject, an aspect of religious experience that may be lost if the researchers focus centres primarily upon pedagogies of self-cultivation (Mittermaier, 249). Indeed, Mittermaier highlights an aspect of Mahmood’s analysis that is conspicuously missing, that is, careful attention to the role assigned to the Divine in the formation of human subjects. This is especially intriguing, given that Mahmood notes early in her work that the women’s mosque movement is located within “a discursive tradition that regards subordination to a transcendent will . . . as its coveted goal” (2005, 2–3). However, as Mittermaier notes, Mahmood’s focus on habituation limits her analysis to “. . . one direction—that extending from the [subject]—but it has little to say about the other direction, the being acted upon” (253). Mittermaier’s work, as a result, helpfully expands Mahmood’s project of attending to the internal logic of a discursive tradition for explorations of self and agency by highlighting the necessity of including those Others, such as the Divine or the dead (i.e., those who are considered agents by those studied), in the relational network that forms the nexus in which religious subjects are formed and come to act.

The ethnographic work of both Mahmood and Mittermaier provides a fruitful ground for expanding and continuing several conversations that have been engaged in our classroom experiences thus far. First, Mahmood’s analysis of ritual as a place of self-formation recalls one of our early readings, Seeman’s article, “Otherwise than Meaning,” which explored the place of ritual in suffering. Seeman’s article, and Mahmood’s work, both suggest that the study of ritual must be expanded beyond analyses of symbolic meaning-making. How does Mahmood’s analysis add to the study of ritual as an aspect of religious experience and in what ways is her accounting adequate/inadequate? Second, in light of class discussions over the past few weeks, it becomes obvious in reading Mahmood that all of her examples and stories emerge from within the walls of the mosque. How might Mahmood’s conclusions have differed had she balanced her time within the mosque with a broader account of her subjects’ life-worlds both within their place of worship and in their daily lives? (Notably, even Mahmood’s examples regarding participants’ marriages are told to her in conversations at the mosque). Third, Mahmood and Mittermaier each account for the Divine agent in different ways, what are the benefits of each model? How might Mittermaier’s model, in which the divine Other is accepted as real in so much as this Other is real for the participants, compare with Luhrmann’s study on prayer—especially, given their common study of what may be explained as psychological phenomenon? And, finally, given that Mahmood’s project has dual goals (that of ethnographic accounting of self and agency in the women’s mosque movement, coupled with a sustained argument with and against the concepts and assumptions of liberal-secular politics and feminist theory, one that challenges political interventionist policy), we might also explore the relationship between politics and the ethnographic project.

Luhrmann and Seeman _ Aditya Chaturvedi

T. M Luhrmann sets out to explore and explain how God becomes and ‘remains’ real for evangelical Vineyard Christians in contemporary U.S.  She argues that this happens through a complex learning process called the ‘theory of attentional learning’ and it functions through “learning to do something than to think something”(p.xxi). This learning transforms the way these people use there minds and perceive reality. This spirituality, says Luhrmann, “is all about the relationship” (p.274) and hence, the ultimate goal of Vineyard churches is to develop an intimate relationship  with the God. 

 The first chapter of the book provides as brief historical context for the shift in the American imagination of the God from a distant and impersonal God to a “buddy”- a friendly and loving. However, it is not easy to inculcate faith in God as it requires a committed Christian, Luhrmann argues to learn to  “ override three basic features of human psychology: that minds are private, the persons are visible, and that love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior” (p.xxii).  In the second chapter this process is spelled out clearly and she suggests that the learning in this setting actually involves unlearning. The process leads congregants to develop interpretive tools of knowing the presence of God and recognizing when the thoughts in their minds are not theirs but God’s. Once the God has been found, the person develops ways of interaction with him as an imaginary companion, and then learns to develop a relationship with him. This involves ‘pretending’ as if God was real and responding to congregants as their “buddy”. She compares this to a play which becomes real through practice (p.99). Once this has been accomplished, the last process involves experiencing the unconditional love of  God and this is done through six practices like crying in presence of the God . She argues that the evangelical Christianity that developed in 1960s is psychotherapeutic (pp.296-297) and the six “emotional practices” share a lot in common with psychotherapy (p.101). She points out that one of the many roles that God plays for the practitioners is that of a therapist (p.120). She then moves on to discuss prayer as a “faith practice” with potential of bringing about mental transformation. This is premised on her argument that there is a psychological skill to prayer with real potential psychological changes. Through what she calls the “participatory theory of mind” those participating, “heighten and deepen internal sensation: seeing, hearing and touching above all” (p.161). Luhrmann concludes through her study that “people stay with God not because theology makes sense but the practice delivers emotionally” (268). 

Luhrmann’s stated objective behind writing this book is to bridge a growing gap between believers and skeptics. In the last chapter of the book (Bridging the Gap) she suggests that Americans are increasingly disconnected from important social relationships and as a result feel lonelier and isolated and in such situations they develop a relationship with God to overcome the loneliness and isolation and to feel happy (p.324). She provides a good combination of evolutionary psychology and ethnography in the book. At the very beginning she makes her project clear to the readers by stating the limitations of its scope and outcomes. She calls herself an ‘outsider’ and engages with the community as a participant-observer.

Don Seeman’s essay “To Pray with the Tables and the Chairs” deals with prayer and materiality.  His analysis of Chabad contemplative practices show that these practices are transformative facilitate practitioners to see the material world as divine. Prayer for both him and Luhrmann is the in-between where this transformation occurs. Seeman argues against universalizing and generalizing the binary of material and spiritual and for being context-specific in studying traditions that offer a different conception. Luhrmann psychological analysis, since is evolutionary, makes no room for sudden and unconditioned experiences which might be real to the practitioners ( or may be not); it certainly overpowers the voices of the practitioners themselves. So my questions are : a) if this approach succeeds in “bridging the gap”, because while the psychological approach might convince skeptics, it may fail to convince the practitioners’ such a representation of their own practices? b) How do we make sense of the ‘in-betweens ’ like prayer in our writings? How useful is ‘as if’ in representing a world that is seemingly different from ours?      


Luhrmann, When God Talks Back/Seeman-Kristin Kimberlain

T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back is an insightful anthropological investigation into contemporary American evangelical Christianity. In her book, Luhrmann attempts to answer questions about the nature of congregants’ relationships with an invisible God who, for them, is made real through the cultivation of prayer practices. In other words, Luhrmann seeks to explain to nonbelievers how conservative evangelicals are able to experience God as real, which is admittedly a monumental task to take on. Throughout the book, she highlights various practices which she identifies as central to the task of cultivating a relationship with God: a central theme in her work is that this type of relationship is highly desired and is enhanced by the practitioner’s willingness to work at being able to sense a God which is simultaneously an element of their imagination and an element of the “real” world. Through her study at the Vineyard church, Luhrmann recognizes that the first task as a worshipper is to “be able to recognize when God is present and when he responds.” (39) This, according to Luhrmann, is a difficult task known as discernment which is actualized through prayer. After the ability to recognize God’s voice is developed, the next important step according to Luhrmann is to be able to “pretend” that God is a being who can be interacted with like one interacts with another person. She argues, “The crucial part of play in a Christian context is that the play claim that God is an imaginary companion is also a real claim about the nature of the world, a claim about the objective reality of the Holy Spirit and God’s supernatural presence.” (100) Once someone has learned to hear and interact with God, they should learn that they are ultimately deserving of God’s unconditional love. This notion is difficult to grasp according to Luhrmann, and is developed through a series of spiritual disciplines or “emotional practices”. Newer Christians model their prayer lives after those which Luhrmann recognizes as “experts”, or people who are particularly adept at hearing God’s voice. Ultimately, Luhrmann argues that prayer is a mechanism which “trains people to ignore the distracting world and to focus on their inner experience” and that “these practices alter spiritual experiences.”(189) Luhrmann argues in her seventh chapter that prayer actually has the ability to act as a technology which alters the ways in which people perceive what is real. The believer is able to maintain their relationship with a God who is, for them, real despite the evidence because their God is one who adapts to skepticism.

In order to make these claims, Luhrmann employs methods of both anthropology and psychology. Her study is undertaken at the Vineyard church in Chicago, where she becomes a participant observer. In her opening chapter, Luhrmann recounts the history of evangelicalism in America in order to contextualize the tradition and congregation she is studying. She attends weekly worship services, house groups, and interviews congregants in order to collect her data. From her ethnographic study she draws conclusions about the nature and structure of prayer practices. In order to answer questions about whether prayer has “consequences”, Luhrmann turns to psychology. She conducts an experiment measuring “absorption”, or the capacity that evangelicals have to experience God. She trained people in spiritual disciplines and found that the more adept participants became at the disciplines, the higher their absorption rates became. Luhrmann concludes from this experiment that there is much to be learned from spiritual experience about the ways in which people encounter and make their worlds real. At the end of the book, Luhrmann turns back to ethnography and history as method.

Don Seeman’s work “To Pray with the Tables and the Chairs”, like Luhrmann’s book, deals with prayer and materiality. Through his study of Chabad contemplative practices, Seeman argues that these practices allow insight into the divine nature of reality. By focusing on the material, tables and chairs, the truth is revealed that zimzum(divine absence) is illusory and that there is more present there than simply the material.

In reading Luhrmann’s work, I found that many questions came up for me that remained unanswered. I agreed with Jenkins’s review in that I thought Luhrmann’s ethnography could have dug deeper into the particularities of peoples’ lifeworlds. After reading the other ethnographies in this course I have come to wonder what is at stake in the lives of interlocutors. Through Luhrmann’s work, I came to understand what happens when people pray, but not necessarily why they need to pray or what happens if they don’t. I did, however, enjoy her historical approaches and wish that she had elaborated further at some points. My main critique of Luhrmann’s work may has to do with the fact that she seemed to incorporate psychological inquiry at the expense of anthropological inquiry that could have led, for me at least, to more interesting insights. She surely accomplished her “thick description” of evangelical prayer, and the conclusions that she drew from her psychological study were compelling. What I do not believe she accomplished, however, was much valuable “thick descriptions” of evangelicals themselves at all. If part of her task was to make evangelicals more understandable to “nonbelievers”, then her task should have been to humanize her interlocutors instead of treating their practices as something to be explained away by psychology.


Questions for discussion:

  1. Do you think that Luhrmann’s cross-disciplinary approach was effective? Why or why not?
  2. Were Luhrmann’s insights about the nature of materiality useful for you?
  3. How could we put this work in to conversation with Seeman’s work?


Sensational Movies, Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana-Birgit Meyer

Last July I travelled to Ghana with a group of colleagues whereby we explored Accra, Kumasi, and Cape Coast. In preparation for the trip, the group had lively and informative discussions on different social aspects of Ghanaian culture, ethnicity, race, language, and religion. I knew that Ghana would be a fascinating trip, however, I did not expect to experience such robust influence of pentecostalism. Upon arrival my eyes and ears were assailed by a plethora billboards that advertised religious events, and every other business and street vendor was identified by a religious name. Local television stations aired mostly religious programming, and the rhetoric towards witchcraft was visceral to say the least. At the time, I did not consider the eclectic dynamics of politics, economics, sensation, and imagination. However, Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies, Video, Vision and Christianity in Ghana considers the intersections of these along with religion which are “keys to gathering and forming people” through the media of state films and video movies. (p. 24) She seeks to study the effect that audio-visualization has in one’s interpretation of the spirit world and the material world and how one determines the nature of African gods, ancestors, and other beings that are considered to be contrary to Pentecostal beliefs.

Movies as a way of educating and giving moral direction is a familiar phenomenon. I recall in the late 80s a popular movie within evangelical circles being shown in every church I knew of. I do not recall the name of the movie, but it was similar to the Left Behind series. This movie was also the topic of discussion for quite some time among Christians and used as a tool to bring others to salvation through Christ. “A phenomenology of film experience offers fruitful incentives to deepen our understanding,” is an apropos statement even outside of West Africa. (p. 142) The ability to participate with a film through all of the senses gratifies the need to ascertain something far more sentient than mere entertainment. Meyer hints at the communal aspect of phenomenological experience in film watching as animation through the mediated experiences of the actors. This interchange is successful when the viewer is able to identify with the storyline and exclaim, “this happened in my house.” (p. 145) In order to create this synergy, Meyer describes the filmmakers’ commitment to studying audiences – their lives and their reactions to particular scenes. Even to the degree of creating spaces for more educated audiences who tend to be quieter. “Moving Pictures and Lived Experience” implicitly employs the notions of space and place in the phenomenology of film watching.

Meyer’s historical summation of culture, tradition, and heritage offers a helpful discourse that situates the development of African and African American cultures within a framework that helps to could connect dismembered people. Meyer also highlights nuances within the concept of sankofa – “go back and fetch it” – that have proven to be at times controversial. It is this concept that problematizes the co-existence of Pentecostalism and African Religious Tradition. This seems to be the impetus to establishing a new genre of film which convey indigenous religion in a more affirmative, though still tempered by Christian-Pentecostal language.

In Sensational Movies Meyer cites an interesting parallel between movie production and the evolving existence consumers in a neoliberal society – the struggles of film production and “wondering how to lead a successful life” in a quickly reforming and re-shaping context. Additionally, I interpret Meyer’s deep involvement with film producers to be a slippery slope in that while her attempt to convince audiences at film festivals to judge “Ghallywood” films on their own basis “collides” with the audience’s belief that these films combat the respect of indigenous traditional cultures. The impact of Meyer’s work illumines the troubling issue of what I call romanticization of African culture and discourses that exclude scholarly African thought which seems to prevail in the Lost in Nollywood event. (p. 317) The ambivalence towards scholarship in the disinclination to draw distinctions between genres in what I presume to be a predominantly “western” audience is deeply problematic within a discipline that purports to be humanizing. How can ethnographers do justice to the people studied and also effectively challenge audiences to broaden their range of view of people in a way that respects the culture?

Meyer argues that “while “tradition” and “cultural” heritage tend to be matters of ultimate value in current debates in Ghana, as scholars we need to resists echoing such views and, instead, rethink tradition and cultural heritage as dynamically shaped through imaginaries.” (p. 46) In Don Seeman’s response Sensational Movies, he seems to support Meyer by asking the question “how does film, even when we acknowledge its fictional quality, help to mediate the moral imaginaries we inhabit?” (Seeman, p.10) According to Seeman, to consider the work of ethnographic exploration in this way is “more humane” and “more adequate.” (Seeman, p. 10) As I continue to grapple with what it means to be an ethnographer and how to determine the ultimate concern, paramount to any question put forward for exploration is the humanity of persons, the entire person. Until Sensational Movies, I did not have an awareness of imagination as a salient consideration for study. For me, Seeman’s story about Moshe highlights quite palpably how important it is to carefully regard the subject’s whole being and their beliefs. My question is how does history bear out the argument for imaginaries?


Chava Green: Unit 8- Vernacular Religion and Theological Discourse

This week’s readings offer us a number of methodological, analytic and ethnographic openings within the discourses of public health, women’s reproduction and theological anthropology.  Each article brings another facet to bear upon the thematic questions of agency, intentionality and contingency in women’s reproductive lives. As a number of authors have noted, women’s experience in childbirth is a privileged location to address such concerns since it is an experience that is often imbued with a range of cross-cutting meanings in their social and spiritual lifeworlds.

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks article, “When the Future Decides Uncertainty and Intentional Action in Contemporary Cameroon,” introduces these topics through the lens of women’s reproductive action and intention in the uncertain world of Cameroon at the end of the 1990s.  She approached her fieldwork within the typical language of family-planning literature common in public health discourse about intentionality, namely that women engage in family planning in order to enact their intentions regarding their family size and timing. She was met with a very different reality in the field when women responded to her questions about desired family size with a blanket uncertainty about the future and what it holds.  She uses theoristics in the phenomenological and philosophical schools, namely Schutz and Searle, to build a complex notion of what constitutes intention. Her conclusion, which is that there is a meaningful relationship between intentional projects and behaviors, is called into question when it is brought into ethnographic situations in which uncertainty and particularly economic and social instability are pervasive. She also raises the inconsistency between experiential uncertainty and the uncertainty measured in models in social statistics which quantify uncertainty in charts and scales.  In a skillful analysis, Johnson-Hanks shows the disciplinary limits of fields that speak in numbers and abstractions compared to the lived-experiences of women in Cameroon; however, I was left wondering if her response that uncertainty and “judicious opportunism” are the primary ways to tell a more “true” story.

In conversation with “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health” and Don Seeman’s,“Divinity Inhabits the Social,” it seemed that some discussion or recognition of the way that divine players are part of the uncertainty in women’s reproductive discourse in Cameroon might be useful.  Although we were not privy to her full ethnographic data, in a few of the accounts or interviews Johnson-Hanks relates point to God or local religious beliefs as actors in people’s lives. For example, when she replied to questions about how many children she would like to have with the number two, “any bystanders would laugh uproariously and tell me that it was God who gave children” (pg 369).  In the article “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy,” a team of researchers from various backgrounds investigated the experience of unintended pregnancies among women in a homeless shelter in the American Southwest and found that such recourse to divine agency and the category of “blessing” was, in fact, an important analytic frame. Seeman posits in his article that to engage theology in anthropological work could involve using it as a prism through which to generate more accurate insights into the complexities of human affairs.  This appears to be the way that “Blessings Unintended Pregnancy” sought to bring to light the experiences of women in Naomi’s House, the homeless shelter.

What is raised here most prominently for me in the above discussion is the usefulness and validity of different methodological tools.  The crux seems to be what the scholar of a certain discipline or field seeks to accomplish through their work. A social statisian may be less concerned with how women experience uncertainty than with how a quantifiable graft of uncertainty can be used to track economic growth or decline over time.  A public health official might need to divide pregnancies into intended/unintended in order to distribute resources for contraceptives to locations with higher need. The question, then, is what does an ethnography, which serves to complicate and blur such binary or rigid analysis, hope to accomplish?  I think in both cases it serves a valuable tool. There must be an awareness of what categories people use to frame their lives in order to accurately ask questions and provide them resources. As the women in the homeless shelter showed, access to medical help or contraceptives does not necessarily mean they will use or trust them.  In Cameroon, Johnson-Hanks found that her questions may have failed because “numbers simply do not matter very much… whereas the social goal of honorable motherhood—being a woman who bears all her children within monogamous marriage” does.

Theological discourse and the attending vernacular language attached to it may be a critical way to read ethnographic data.  Don Seeman makes this point powerfully in his article when he writes that, “revered ancestors, village goddesses, and possessing spirits are all encountered as actors, moral agents, and participants—sometimes overwhelmingly important participants—in the social order that anthropologists study” (pg 336).  This is evidenced in the experience of the homeless women in Naomi’s House who experience pregnancy often as an act of divine agency that they do not want to or are not able to resist. Don also raises important distinctions between the use of strong doctrinal theology compared to the more vernacular language used by people in the field.  They can both be mobilized in ethnographic analysis but not to the exclusion of one of the other or to define to narrowly the factors in people’s lives. This balance is something I hope to explore more in class and I wonder how much this is also a divide between discursive readings and phenomenological readings of events.

For my own work, I found Seeman’s discussion of non-Christian uses of theology compelling.  He defines theology there more broadly as “a family of different kinds of expert discourse about religion” (pg 353).  This sort of engagement is at the heart of his article “‘Where is Sarah Your Wife?’ Cultural Poetics of Gender and Nationhood in the Hebrew Bible” where the use of open and closed imagery is explored across biblical and anthropological locations.  Read in conjunction with the other articles this week, its discussion of motherhood as blessing in a biblical context was perhaps the theological backdrop that could be employed to better understand cultural realities surrounding reproduction. I am interested in looking at the ‘cultural poetics’ of birth in Hasidic texts, which relate it to a larger redemptive project, as they may play out in the lives of Hasidic women for whom childbirth and rearing are overwhelmingly large parts of life.  I am curious to see how much they use the language of Hasidus, which may be a “Jewish Theology,” and how much they employ their own vernacular language.

Some closing questions I am left with from our readings are about how to attribute agency to different actors and how to read divine agency in ethnographic settings.  As Don wrote, using a theological lens is just one of many analytic tools available to an anthropologist upon their secondary step of work then their own analysis comes into play.  How does this push up against methodological atheism that we have discussed? Can we employ a theology that we are actively engaged with personally without entering into the danger of using the wrong analytic tool?  Or perhaps our privileged position will help us see what other cannot.  

Precis for Devaka Premawardhana and Joel Robbins – Jackson Wolford

Theoretical Terms

First, I thought it might be useful if I listed some of the theoretical terms from this book that I thought were particularly interesting or helpful, along with some page #s (although they appear throughout the book mostly):

Theories of continuity (6-8): According to Robbins (and Premawardhana seems to agree), anthropology has often assumed cultural continuity in a way that denies the possibility of radically discontinuous events like conversion. This produces a form of stasis, where it is unclear how change can ever occur.

Theories of rupture (6-8): Opposed to this, Robbins and others have suggested models of rupture, radical discontinuity, and change. Premawardhana suggests these theories can become complicit in promoting stasis by identifying rupture too closely with modernity. This would seem to suggest that rupture is only ever a transformation that is on its way to settling into a new, perhaps more modern, state.

Existential mobility (161-3): This is Premawardhana’s alternative model for a kind of continuous rupture in which the Makhuwa, and perhaps all of us, are in some ways able to neogtiate between various historical and contemporary experiences and affiliations. The experience is neither a total break from continuity, nor an unchanging stasis, but a navigation of multiple and multiplying pasts and presents.

Polyontology (100-1): An alternative to terms like syncretism or hybridity coming from Janet McIntosh. It is a belief that we maintain fluid access to distinct realms of experience. Premawardhana crafts this into a notion of polyontological mobility. There is an acceptance of distinct spheres of religion. But no sense of personal taboo, located in a static identity, is viewed as coming from transgressing those boundaries.


Context: Circularity and Circumstance

In his chapter on global Pentecostalism, Joel Robbins discusses three primary “threads” of anthropological approaches to the subject—cultural process, everyday life, and the relation of Pentecostalism to modernity (Robbins 173). In Faith in Flux, Devaka Premawardhana explores the first two of these categories by challenging approaches to the last, particularly a common claim, expressed here by Robbins, that, “Pentecostalism was born in modernity and could not exist without it” (Robbins 172). Instead, Premawardhana echoes Pentecostal theologian Nimi Wariboko that, “The pentecostal principle predates pentecostalism and is likely to outlive it” (Premawardhana 163, quoting Wariboko 2012:4). To Premawardhana, Robbins’ claim borders on or perhaps falls right into the trap of modernization narratives, narratives that tie the growth of global (and particularly African) Pentecostalism to a rupture of modernity (Premawardhana 13). Time, or at least our experience in it, must not be imagined with a linear trajectory. Instead, we are mobile, returning constantly in “circular and situational” ways to elements of the past, dependent on the context in which we find ourselves (Premawardhana 14).

Premawardhana elaborates this mobility as characteristic of a way of life among those with whom he worked. It is present not only in time, but in space, religious affiliation, and identity. The opening chapter encapsulates many of these dynamics in the tragic story of death of Fatima and Jemusse’s 10 year old daughter, Luisinha. Spatially, Jemusse and Fatima leave the village as a way of dealing with situational problems of sorcery (Premawardhana 39). Likewise, in their response to their daughter’s death the couple cross boundaries between Pentecostal practice and local spiritual practices considered off limits by their Pentecostal preacher (Premawardhana 49). Finally, this story serves as an example of Premawardhana’s general argument for a consideration of the constant formation of disposition rather than the static language of semi-mutable identity. The tragic moment, in Premawardhana’s conception, “stretches individuals in ways not always predictable by or reducible to their ascribed identities” (Premawrdhana 17). What is evidenced at this moment of stress is not a static identity, whereby Jemusse and Fatima could be thought of as behaving as discretely “village” agents, or “Pentecostal” agents, where “villager” or “Pentecostal” constitute a feature of a static identity. Instead, they are navigating their experience with a quality of mobility—the ability to return to various features of their lives to negotiate the particular circumstance.

For the purposes of our course and the consideration of the ethnography of religious experience, it is important to take Premawardhana at his word: This is not, for us, just or even primarily a book about the pitfalls of approaches to the study of Pentecostalism, but rather, “This is a book about change” (Premawardhana 4). While this is true, I will add that I think it is also a book about a particular model of relation.


Change: Rupture and Continuity

What is the role of change in religious experience, and how does Premawardhana explore it? Essentially, Premawardhana is looking to negotiate between the models of rupture—defined by Robbins as “radical discontinuity with what has come before” (Robbins 159)—and continuity, which creates a sort of cultural stasis where “certain people, usually labeled ‘traditional,’ are prone only to reproducing their past” (Premawardhana 7). While Premawardhana wishes to develop, not discard, the work of Robbins and others theorists of rupture, he believes that they rely too much on “modern catalysts” as prompting rupture (Premawardhana 7). Premawardhana asserts instead that the very possibility of rupture is not a new modern development, but a “mundane extension of an already convertible way of being” among the people he lived with (Premawardhana 8). This leads Premawardhana to an attention to the complex relationship between rupture and continuity, the paradoxical fact that capacity for rupture is continuously present.

Whatever may be said about this paradox, it is certainly not static. A model of pure continuity is almost definitionally in stasis. But Robbins’ notion of modern rupture is also static in its own way by conceiving of both modernity and conversion as trajectories that end in a final deposit. Premawardhana highlights Robbins’ important work on rupture and conversion, but questions the fact that Robbins’ notion of conversion seems both: 1) too much informed by easily-identified Christians with ready theological stories to tell (the same problem as Turner finding the one villager with a story of the meaning of ritual that we have discussed in class), and 2) permanent (Premawardhana 106). I think Robbins evidences this static tendency in his article for today as well, in a telling line. He dedicates a final section to looking at “what kind of culture” Pentecostal ideologies and practices “produce” (Robbins 168). Even if the process of production is continuous, “culture” here is a static product, one that can be defined by terms like “modern.”

Premawardhana situates existential mobility as his way of maintaining both rupture and continuity. This mobility is not a description appended to an object called “culture.” Instead, existential mobility is a way of being that takes change and transformation not as challenges, but as “a precondition for wellbeing” (Premawardhana 161). It is a dispositional suitability to change, one Premawardhana identifies with the “Pentecostal principle” (162). But Premawardhana is also aware that he is making a point not wholly limited to the Mahkuwa with whom he lived. He draws on both Western philosophical and local experiential knowledge to try and create an account of this existential mobility, but its implications are already in conversation with basic existential questions about human existence. He writes that there is nothing radically new, uniquely modern, or uniquely Pentecostal about the notion of rupture present in “radical renewal” (Premawardhana pp. 162-3). The implication we are left with is that this existential mobility, navigating and returning and oscillating between facets of our being, is a feature of all human existence, and always has been. It is, again, the paradoxically continuous presence of change.


Relation: Doctrine of the Unity of…?

While Premawardhana locates his book as being about change, I think it is also about a particular model of relation. This is most clear as the book concludes, where he writes, “Thus some of the most widely assumed antinomies dissolve and fall away—roots versus routes, structure versus agency, continuity versus discontinuity” (Premawardhana 162). The move is to disrupt easy categories and dichotomies, which we can see as an inheritance from Michael Jackson’s through our reading from last week. But it is more nuanced than this. With the question of change, Premawardhana doesn’t allow continuity and rupture to exist as poles that we navigate between in a kind of dialectical model. Instead, continuity and rupture both collapse into mobility, which is both at once, a continuous rupture. This move is replicated in conversation on structure and agency through Bordieu and habitus. Premawardhana doesn’t argue for a middle way between poles of structure and agency, but rather that agency and structure exist always together. This move is applied to enough topics throughout the work that, as much as it is making a theoretical point about change, it seems to also be making one about relation.

Because it is typically so present, it is notable when it is absent. When it comes to the question of experience and identity, Premawardhana uses the frame of polyontology. This model of polyontology maintains “fluidity” between “distinct compartmentalized essences” (Premawardhana 100).  He crafts this into the slightly different notion of polyontological mobility, which emphasizes that certain distinctions are taken as real, but allowed to be transgressed. This frame allows him to speak about distinct “cultural or religious formations” as being tools in a “repertoire” that “may be foregrounded at one time and backgrounded at another” (162) in what he calls a “serial” (100) manner, without a sense of contradiction. While he narrates experiences in the field that substantiate that something close to this is going on, this model of polyontological mobility seems at odds with his framing of the relation between things or concepts that is in play more generally. If the general relational move is to collapse distinction, such that experience is not congealed in identity but rather is experiencing continuous rupture, then how can there be multiple, distinct, ontological categories of “cultural or religious formations” to fit as objects into our “repertoire”? Even if they are taken as socially real, their inscription in experience through habitus is, by Premawardhana’s own account, a messy non-distinct business where agency, experience and social structure are not separate from one another such that the purity of these religious dimensions can be maintained. The static, object-language that Premawardhana consistently avoids in describing features of experience seems to emerge when he begins to speak about our mechanism of drawing upon disparate experiences.



This last point leads into some of the questions I have for these readings that I hope might be helpful for discussion:

  • Does Premawardhana’s framing of continuity and rupture complicate or deny our ability to speak about particular, discrete religious experiences?
  • What implications might Premawardhana’s approach to change and relation have for our discussion of the Self/Other divide in ethnography?
  • To what degree should we treat religious experiences, such as conversion, as distinct and complete events within the lives of those we work with? Premawardhana is guided to contest the permanence of conversion because it’s not an accurate frame for the experiences he observes. But if we were to work with communities that both speak and (at least superficially) act as if conversion is “permanent,” to what degree ought we to seek out potential discontinuities?
  • Building off of conversations from last class, how does Faith in Flux combine Western philosophical work and local experiences? How does this compare to Michael Jackson’s efforts at the same? Are there places where it is more or less effective?
  • Are Premawardhana’s critiques of Robbins fair, based on the article we read for today? What from Robbins should we be careful to hold onto?

Greg Coates, The Palm at the End of the Mind

The penumbra is where light fades into darkness—the most elementary metaphor we possess for the threshold that separates the familiar realms in which we live and those impinging realms that we subject to endless speculation, but that ultimately elude our grasp. (Jackson, 238)

Ever since the beginning of the semester, the concurrent question that has been addressed is, “What is at stake?” My answer based upon the past six weeks is the reality or sacredness of people’s religious experiences.” After all, William James concluded at his Gifford Lectures that the specialists, or what I would call the truth-holders are the people who are observed (James, 438). If one holds James premise as true, there are a few questions that confront the ethnographer. The first question is who defines “the real?” A second question is, “what methodologies best observe and record the realities of the sacred?” The third and final question focuses on the limitations and biases of the ethnographer her/himself and the very methodological and analytical tools she/he uses to gather what can be observed and more importantly that which cannot. I argue that the tension embedded in the third question is necessary for safeguarding the real and sacred of the people who are observed as well as the humility and integrity of the researcher. With these questions in mind, I know to look at Michael Jackson’s The Palm at the End of the Mind, Robert H. Sharf’s The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion, and Don Seeman’s Otherwise than Meaning: On the Generosity of Ritual.
The Palm at the End of the Mind is anthropologist Michael Jackson’s attempt to understand the connectedness between people’s relationships, religions, and how those interactions create the real. He writes “I only have a sense of being grounded in something I can only call ‘the real’ that connects my life to the life of the earth itself, its generations succeeding one another over time, its multiple geographies and cultures” (Jackson, 1). Jackson continues by associating ‘the real’ with one’s well-being. He writes, “Basic to all these reflections is the view that one’s well-being depends on one’s relationships or connected ness to an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherness’ that lies beyond the horizons of one’s own immediate lifeworld” (Jackson,7). This is remarkable since the author stated with great integrity about his own bias. In his approach to this ethnography, the author writes, “as an anthropologist, I was intrigued with whether something one might call ‘religious experience’ could be identified in all cultures and all people (including skeptics like myself), and what meaning could be ascribed the term ‘religion’” (xi).
The focus of his research is what Jackson refers to as ‘border situations’ that brings an ethnographer up against the limitations of language and knowledge (something greater than empirical observation) and yet opens up new ways on understanding one’s self and her/his relationships with others including the divine (xii) that can be empirically observed in the human experience. The image that the author uses is penumbral which is existentially described as “an area in which something exists to a lesser or uncertain degree” and “an outlying or peripheral region.” (xii). In addition, the author locates the penumbral in the “shifting spaces between statements, descriptions, and persons, and in the course of events.” (xiv). His methodology was primarily through interviewing people and reading stories of his own family.
What strikes me as unique about Jackson’s research on the universal experience of connectedness and suffering is that he is trying to understand his own personal issues like the death of his maternal grandfather (48), his first wife’s death (61), the summary of his mother’s journal (93), and finally his own journal (158). As he works on his own experiences, he summarizes the ethnographer’s dilemma in quantifying the penumbral regions as mystery. He writes, “What we call a mystery is the result of a refusal to translate phenomena, either external or intrapsychic, into shared meanings . . . Yet, for all this, there always remains something that cannot be explained away—something residual, irreducible, and fugitive” (167-68).
Yet, as I read Sharf’s article, I could not help but draw a connection of Jackson’s penumbral regions as Sharf’s mystical experience and his argument against the biases of anthropologists. He writes, “If we can bracket our own presuppositions, temper our ingrained sense of cultural superiority, and resist the temptation to evaluate the truth claims of foreign traditions, we find that their experience of the world possesses its own rationality, its own coherence, its own truth. (Sharf, 268). Unfortunately “The perennialist’s position on the mystical experience is “wholly shaped by a mystic’s cultural environment, personal history, doctrinal commitments, religious training, expectations, aspirations, and so on” (Sharf, 271). This is the same warning and Seeman makes to the cultural anthropologists. Seeman writes, “As a hermeneutic enterprise, cultural anthropology tends to assume that ordered and coherent meaning is the primary desideratum of social life. (Seemans, 55)
Yet in his argument against the perennialist position, Sharf introduces a theory called Quaila. He writes, “Qualia (the singular form is quale), penumbral is a term proposed by philosophers to designate those subjective or phenomenal properties of experience that resist a purely materialistic explanation . . . In short, qualia refer to the way things seem . . . qualia are construed as essentially private, ineffable, and irreducible properties of experience” (Sharf, 283).
The same private, ineffable, and irreducible properties of experience can also be seen in Seeman’s article titled Otherwise than Meaning: On the Generosity of Ritual. Once again we encounter Jackson’s penumbral region and Sharf’s “other’s experience” as Seeman describes Rabbi Shapria’s overwhelming experience of suffering—his qualia—during the Holocaust. Seeman writes, “Suffering ‘beyond measure’ simply devastates the subject with no hope for bearableness . . . this becomes paradoxically the ground for a different kind of relationship to agency in suffering, based not on the quest for meaning—or even the meaningfulness of ritual—but on the ethical gesture that Levinas calls ‘the medical’” (Seeman, 66). Seeman continues, “In the shadow of that collapse, only ritual gestures—the act sacred study rather than its content, the act of self-sacrifice rather than its potential for success, or the act of ritual observance without hope of efficacy—remain in place (Seeman, 67).

Precis: Seeman, One People, One Blood and “Coffee and the Moral Order”

Precis: Seeman, One People, One Blood and “Coffee and the Moral Order”

Chelsea Mak

Both One People, One Blood: Ethiopian-Israelis and the Return to Judaism (Seeman, 2009) and “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals Against Culture” (Seeman, 2015) enter our classroom conversation self-consciously. Seeman locates his own work within what he calls the “broad ‘phenomenological’ or ‘experience-near’ school of anthropological writing” (2009, 3), drawing on works such as Unni Wikan’s Managing Turbulent Hearts, and contributing both methodological and analytical insights to our discussion of the ethnography of religious experience. Specifically, Seeman’s self-aware exploration of the position of the ethnographer in relation to the subject enlarges our understanding of several key questions, namely, what is at stake for those whose lives, religions, and cultures are studied; what is the nature of a “experience-near” (Kleinman and Kleinman, 277; Seeman 2009, 3) anthropological method, including how it might both expand and limit what can be said with academic certainty; and how the particularity of individual experience is both shaped by and shapes religious and cultural forms or, how might the anthropologist develop an “analytic frame better attuned to the shifting registers of freedom and constraint in the experience of everyday life” (Seeman 2015, 743).

Seeman’s two works both contribute to studies of Ethiopian Jews, while also departing from previous foci and method because of an emphasis on richly and thoroughly describing what is at stake for this community (Seeman 2009, 6). One People, One Blood tells the story of the “Feres Mura,” a sub-community within the larger group of Ethiopian Jews, who have sought and, with various levels of success, achieved a return to Judaism and integration into Israeli society. The book length ethnography has several significant goals: first, to demonstrate that “interpretations of religious agency lie at the heart of [the “Feres Mura” dilemma]” (Seeman 2009, 2); second, to shift the course of the conversation about Beta Israel and Ethiopian Jews “in a more analytic direction” in order to “drive theoretical reflection about religious  and moral experience in context” (Seeman 2009, ); and, third, to contribute and perhaps influence the public dialogue surrounding the “Feres Mura” dilemma (Seeman 2009, 7). Thus, the book focuses on the experience of the “Feres Mura” in relation to state immigration policy, public health, and Israel’s religious establishment, and concludes that the “return to Judaism was intended as a ritual-bureaucratic system for the transformation of apostates to penitents, nominal Christians into Jews” (Seeman 2009, 205). As such, it was successful, despite the disappointment expressed by some of its administrators and observers, who desired a greater demonstration of “single-minded religious devotion” (Seeman 2009, 205). Seeman’s article, “Coffee and the Moral Order,” published six years later, returns to one of the driving theses of One People, One Blood, namely, the question of religious and moral agency. Thus, in the article, Seeman begins to develop an analytical framework for attending to agency in a subject’s experience of everyday life (Seeman 2015, 743) by exploring the role of buna drinking in the lives of Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals. He argues that buna serves as “no less than a material medium for disputes about the limits of moral agency, the experience of kin relations that have been broken or restructured, and the eruption of dangerous potencies in the social world” (Seeman 2015, 734). Seeman’s studies are deeply informed by his attention to the question of “what is at stake” for his subjects and thus serve as a fruitful ground for discussions of ethnographic method and analysis.

Kleinman and Kleinman describe the importance of considering what is at stake for the subjects of ethnographic study as a matter of producing anthropological work that is either dehumanizing or humanizing (276-77). They thus argue that “. . . a contextual focus on experience-near categories for ethnography should begin with the defining characteristic of overbearing practical relevance in the processes and forms of experience. . . [which is to say] something is at stake for all of us in the daily round of happenings and transactions” (Kleinman and Kleinman, 277). That this theoretical framework is a driving factor for Seeman’s work with the “Feres Mura” community is strikingly evident, not only in Seeman’s introductory comments, but also in the telling of the story itself—that is, that the story begins with a death and ends with a refurbished grave. Seeman highlights that what is at stake for this community is more than the ability to relocate and settle in a new country, and more than religious conversion, but includes grief and suffering, kinship and belonging, and politics and health. Indeed, such a question, and the gravity it lends to the ethnographic task, led Seeman to give more space to the question of “cultural politics” than is typical in anthropological works and to reflect on the shifting role of the ethnographer as the stakes for the subjects are revealed: “Knowing what is at stake for informants must include the political contexts of their lives, as well as the Heisenberg-like effects of participant observation, which turns the observer into a part of the social scene” (Seeman 2009, 7). In tangible ways, a focus on what is at stake in people’s daily lives shaped the nature of Seeman’s work, influencing what content was most important to include and also the goals of his project, that is, the hope that such a work might also shape public dialogue.

Such questions and concerns are a mark of the “experience-near” approach to ethnographic writing and are essential for understanding Seeman’s project (2009, 3). This approach diverges from the assumptions of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who sought a thick description of culture. In contrast, the first obligation of Seeman’s approach is to “the thick and detailed description, not of culture but of what is at stake for people in local settings [see above]—stakes that are patterned in important ways but never wholly defined by cultural considerations” (Seeman 2009, 3). Seeman argues that this approach works to safeguard the anthropological task through “a rigorous theoretical and methodological approach to lived experience” that prevents “significant misunderstandings of the distinctive life-worlds in which human habitation and meaning occur” (2009, 3). That such “significant misunderstandings” are possible was illustrated clearly and profoundly in Wikan’s work on the Balinese (Managing Turbulent Hearts, xv-xxvi). One area where this framework is particularly evident in One People, One Blood is Seeman’s focus on shifting the conversation about the true identity of the “Feres Mura” away from the topic of origins and onto the “here-and-now, where Ethiopian Jews, “Feres Mura,” and Beta Israel Pentecostals . . . all struggle to define themselves—and also struggle just to get by” (Seeman 2009, 61). Similarly, “Coffee and the Moral Order” is structured around thick descriptions of the subjective experience of participation in buna drinking that reveals how one such aspect of culture is not sufficiently explained without attention to the nuances with which subjects and groups experience or disavow its observance. In this case, buna drinking or abstinence is revealed as more than “a mechanism for ensuring peace within families and ensuring solidarity among women” (Seeman 2015, 735), but also as a site wherein individuals and the groups to which they belong may actively engage in cultural negotiation (Seeman 2015, 740). As such, buna drinking/abstinence opens an avenue for the exploration of religious and moral agency.

Already in Seeman’s earlier work, One People, One Blood, the question of religious and moral agency (and, especially, how the religious and moral agency of another might be determined and evaluated) emerged as a significant theme for analysis. With regard to the “Feres Mura,” this was because, at the very heart of the dilemma, lay questions of authentic kinship and religious conversion for which no “truly objective and unqualified criteria” could be offered (Seeman 2009, 62). Thus, for the “Feres Mura,” the motivation for a return to Judaism has frequently been reduced in public political and religious dialogue to a matter of the truly penitent heart or the utilitarian desire to escape poverty in Ethiopia (Seeman 2009, 92–3). However, a careful analysis, according to Seeman, must include and consider the complexities which attend such a profound and life-altering decision—one which must be tied to “a more situated account of their lives in historical and ethnographic context” (2009, 83) and which reveals the way those who immigrated to Israel were required to navigate “broader and overlapping—yet not identical—fields of social expectation” (Seeman 2009, 108). Such a lived reality as that experienced by the “Feres Mura” draws the complexity of individual decision making and its relation to religion and culture into sharp relief and brings us to the question of freedom—a fundamental issue at the heart of Seeman’s article on buna drinking.

The focused nature of Seeman’s article allows for a close analysis of the Ethiopian practice of buna drinking as a cultural observance either embraced or rejected by Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals in Israel. Indeed, the negotiation of cultural, religious, and familial identity are evident in the varied responses to buna drinking and its rejection (a decision that may be made because of one’s past experience of the practice as hurtful, the shifting generational values necessitated by employment, or observance of religious commitments requiring denouncing the spiritual aspects of buna drinking). Seeman here argues that the Pentecostal notion of freedom highlights a “more basic tension between the human desire for autonomy as well as stable systems of relatedness” (Seeman 2015, 744) that, while never entirely divorced of its particularity in time, place, and history, may also provide a means to reflect upon the complexities of agency and constraint in socio-cultural and religious contexts. Seeman emphasizes that he does not intend to “deny the power of culture in human affairs but, rather, to insist on its conditionality,” which is to assert that cultures cannot be satisfactorily described as mere semiotic systems, but also as the “differing textures of constraint, freedom, and compulsion that characterize their lived horizons” (Seeman 2015, 745). Such an assertion, then, demonstrates the necessity of an “experience-near” approach to the study of agency, freedom, and constraint.

Given the ethnographic emphasis on illuminating the human condition (Kleinman and Kleinman, 278, 280) and Seeman’s own claim that “the stories we tell ourselves about belonging and kinship are at the very heart of the story [One People, One Blood] aims to tell” (Seeman 2009 12–3), it is prudent to ask to what degree Seeman’s analytical framework succeeds in an adequate account of the “Feres Mura” community, but also to what degree his framework may have explanatory power for ethnographic research in other areas. In other words, how might Seeman’s insights regarding complexity and experience-near descriptions of subject choices assist the ethnographer in other contexts? What are the pitfalls and advantages of an “experience-near” approach to anthropology? Or, specifically, to agency? Seeman himself notes that “the contingency of interpretation . . . has important analytical and ethical implications for the world we study” and that it necessitates caution regarding statements of academic certainty (Seeman 2009, 8 and 208). This implies that a greater awareness on the contingency of the researcher is also necessary for ethnographic work. Indeed, Seeman also highlights several of the challenges and complexities that come with ethnographic research and participant observation—some of which emerged as questions in last week’s forum discussion on Wikan, and Kleinman and Kleinman. For example, Seeman’s work with Ethiopian Pentecostals in Israel was cut short by tensions that emerged because of divergent religious commitments that resulted in a “rupture that no ethnographic methodology could bridge” (2009, 134). Seeman’s experience thus highlights some of the unique research challenges presented by participant observation, namely, how the particularities of the researcher’s person (gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.) and experience (among others, the ability to make friends or the length of the study) impact the results of one’s work. How can such challenges be mitigated to ensure the best possible contribution to the field of ethnography?