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?

8 Replies to “Precis for Devaka Premawardhana and Joel Robbins – Jackson Wolford”

  1. Jackson, your précis goes above and beyond what one would expect to read, and I appreciate it. In fact, I am relieved for your list of terms which shed light on the concepts that I have questions about, namely the difference between rupture and continuity. I wish that all books would include a list of terms and their definitions. However, getting back to rupture and continuity, I deeply appreciate Premawardhana’s fusion of the concepts of rupture and continuity. I liken it to Paul Tillich’s method correlation which allows space for dual ways of being, on a spectrum, if you will. As I see it, descriptions of dichotomous ways of existing are rarely a true expression of reality. Premawardhana states that Faith in Flux “employs storytelling techniques the eschew the consolations of category thinking, privileging, instead the messiness of mundane events and interactions.” (p. 15) I wonder what is an ethical technique for garnering and conveying such wholesome stories without doing harm to the person or community? In Seeman’s work, he posits that in privileging the personal narratives of others, the danger is essentially not uncovering the blindspots. Although I tend to agree with this, I also feel that telling the stories of the village should lie within the people’s hands. Experience and narrative, as I am able to understand at this point, are two key components in the work of ethnography.

  2. Jackson, thanks for the list of terms. Its a great reference for the book. As I read I continually thought about the role of trauma and suffering in the formation of ones life and spirituality. It seems to me that suffering can spur on rupture if I am understanding the term correctly.

  3. Jackson, Thank you for your Precis. And Thank you for defining many of the terms , as it makes it easier to engage the authors’ arguments. You highlight important points both from the book and article and you raise important questions for further discussion. In reading Faith in Flux, I was mostly captured by his discussion of women and their “lack of religion”. In talking about women, he writes, “I contend that mobility, of the religious kind in particular, is a means toward an end — that of connection and coexistence… religion and religious identities have served not as objects of acquisition but as avenues for “being with” (117) Premawardhana shows that Western categories of religious identity and conversion do not necessarily apply to Makhuwa women or their language, and therefore cannot be categorized. This I believe connects to two questions that you pose. The treatment of conversion and the question on how this book connects “Western Philosophical work” to local experiences. I think Premawardhana, as you suggest, argues that conversion is not an appropriate category for women’s experiences. Additionally, I believe Premawardhana connects Westerns work to local experiences only to show that sometimes rigid Western categories do not apply to other parts of the world. Yet he categorizes it as mobility, and I wonder if the Makhuwa would agree with his (somewhat) feminist interpretation of the fact that “women have no religion” due to their abilities “to be with” and be mobile, which is “particularly feminine”, and not due to “patriarchal subjugation” (137).

  4. Jackson, thank you for a well thought out and articulated précis. I do have one question for you and the class and that is, “what role, if any, does studying the history of a religion play in an ethnography of a group? As you noted with Robbins chapter, he writes “Pentecostalism was born in modernity and could not exist without it” (Robbins, 172). Some in the global Pentecostal Movement would likely argue that the Pentecostal Movement began in the first century AD on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem and has continued on to today. Does history of any religious experience play any role in the ethnographer’s account or only that which is observed, recorded, and analyzed? If so, how do you see the historical tradition of Pentecostalism fitting into both Premmawardhana and Robbins’ understanding of continuity and rupture?

  5. First, thank you for your detailed and insightful precis and for the framework of questions you have provided for our discussion. In particular, I think your third question is an important one for considering ethnographic method. I would relate it to Lahronda’s question about the narration of experience and ethical research. That is, given that Premawardhana states that using the language of rupture or discontinuity is “to take [Pentecostal practitioners] at their word” (7), what justifies challenging the way that study participants narrate their own experience? And, assuming that the ethnographer must find a way to represent such tensions as they are observed in the field, how does one narrate and explain them in a way that still respects the testimony of one’s informants?

    Additionally, and related to your final question, I found it interesting (especially after our discussion last week) that at the end of his article, Robbins urges anthropologists to engage Pentecostal theology in order to “attend more carefully to the intellectual life of the Pentecostals we study and to look for the ways their thought coheres as a whole” (174). While Robbins isn’t suggesting that anthropologists adopt theological language, his exhortation suggests another avenue of conversation we might have in class, namely, to what degree ought the ethnographer engage the religious texts and theological writings of the religious group they are studying?

  6. Thank you Jackson for your precis. The idea of rupture and continuity is critical as Premawardhana mentions, “the Pentecostal claim of rupture – conveyed in the phrase “make a complete break with the past,”.” (14) This has been emphasized by Birgit Meyer in her article, “’Make a complete break with the past.’Memory and Post-colonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse,” which Premawardhana engages with. Despite the Pentecostals’ emphasis on rupture or discontinuity, they cross boundaries between Pentecostal tradition and local religious tradition. (49) My question is how should we perceive his work and method within the study of ethnography and ethnography of religious experience? Did he intended to open discussions about rupture and continuity? or does the author trying to argue that they are critical aspect of the study of Pentecostalism? (is it unique to Pentecostalism? I do not think so. To me, it can also be seen not only within Pentecostals but also many other religious communities.)

  7. Thank you for your precis, Jackson. I am looking forward to discussing your second question in class and I think that Premawardhana’s treatment of border crossings in the third chapter gives us a lot to think about in our ongoing discussions about (capital “S”?) Selves. As Premawardhana observes, “The Makhuwa self is a shape-shifting self whose ‘essence’ is mobility and mutability” (91). I am wary of mapping contextually-bound observations onto other situations, but maybe this assertion has something to say about the ways we think about “others”. We have a tendency to define people by their identities that often times we impose (racial, religious, etc) which, according to Premawardhana, are both real and not real. When we talk about Selves, we should keep in mind that people both are and are not bounded.

  8. I think it is telling that in your precis, which was well organized and compelling, that you don’t speak much about what we learn about Pentecostalism per say. I found Robbins article an interesting juxtaposition to Faith in Flux due to its explicit focus on “characteristics” of Pentecostalism, as fluid and contested as they may be. What struck me about Premawardhana’s book was his extremely local focus, which he employed to bring other studies of Pentecostalism into question. However, I was left with the sense that his analytic work of reconstituting the notion of boundaries in the Makhuwa lifeworld was the primary work of the book and in fact the lens through which all of his fieldwork was filtered. I look forward to discussing the different aspects of how he crafted compelling arguments for the way existential mobility is in fact the very nature of life for people in Northern Mozambique- whether it is evidenced in initiation rituals, mobility patterns or women’s “lack” of religion. However, I was struck by some of his close descriptions of discussions with his informants that there may have been other ways to read ‘what is at stake’ for the people in Maua. How does the anthropologist’s theoretical framework affect what s/he is looking for in the field?

    Premawardhana situates himself clearly in the larger arena of anthropologists of Pentecostalism, if not Christianity, and yet it appears to be an uneasy location for him. He explicitly hopes to cast light on Pentecostalism’s growth by demonstrating a case in which it has not grown rapidly and is at odds with other work in the field. I wonder what this has ended up teaching us about Pentecostalism and what it has instead educated us in the particular local nature of the community in which he is working? Although, this may in fact be an ideal example of an ethnographic move to complicate global notions through local realities. Ultimately, I am interested in the way this book alternates between “Western” theoretical claims and ethnographic analysis. Sometimes the relationship is explicit and sometimes I wanted the author to make a stronger connection between the theory and people’s experience.

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