Like Webb Keane, I have come to see some metapragmatic elements in evangelical culture as bringing about some important and related consequences: projects of translation that make religiosity into a portable content; modular conceptions of subjectivity and conversion; rhetorics of agentialized belief, and so on. Like him, I see many of these as processes that mark evangelicalism as a system of modernity, having perhaps even more in common with structures of the public sphere or scientific inquiry than with some rival modes of religiosity.
Reading through the book has therefore been a bracing reminder of this debt. There are many areas in which I can hope to do little more than re-stage some of his arguments with different materials.
The book performs several important interventions in the emergent discussion of globalization, Christianity, and secularism. Not all of these are polemically marked. For example, I take it as highly significant that although Webb’s analysis centers on the way a certain kind of subject is inculcated in colonial forms, he does not speak, as so many others do, of “the liberal subject.” In fact, although he argues for broad convergences of different evangelical imperatives—the purification of agency in distance from its objects being a kind of spinal emphasis running throughout the book—there is a broad allowance for the many ways this happens in different formal contexts, and a broad recognition that no singular subject needs to be (or could be) sutured around those imperatives, let alone identified with a putatively singular and presumptively secular liberalism. This is salutary.
So is the way he understands his material to cut across the religious/secular divide. He does not assume that the globalizing process of reconstructing religiosity emanates from a source internal to secular governmentality, as a heteronomous constraint. If anything, he seems to see the modular subject of modernity as produced by essentially Protestant means—a claim that, were he working on Europe or Latin America, would need a different kind of development in a way that is imaginable, though it is not the burden of his argument.
And finally, he makes a crucial intervention in focusing on the metapragmatics of forms of religiosity. What is taken to be the content of religion—belief, conversion, prayer—is heavily dependent on its ability to gloss and regiment the indexical dimensions of its discursive forms: creeds, preaching, praying. Commitments of personhood themselves are interpreted by Keane as part of a “semiotic ideology.”
Saba Mahmood also has extended this line of analysis to show that the semiotic ideology at the heart of modern Christianity is one of the central ways that modern secular governance tries to cultivate some forms of religiosity and not others.
In my own research, a few additional dimensions of the evangelical semiotic ideology have become central to the way I understand the process. Let me touch on these briefly. I do not think these represent disagreements with Keane’s approach; rather, they seem to me to be extensions of it, and indeed there are passages in the book that express related observations.
The first is that evangelical discourse has a peculiar relation to space. Practices of discourse—speaking, praying, theorizing, preaching, reading, singing, and so on—work in different ways to organize the space through which discourse moves. So, at one extreme, the London Puritan Edward Dering once defined the Church itself as “a company called together by the voice of a preacher”; all ecclesiology could be reduced to the situation of address established by preaching, which meant that sermon audition was a ritual practice with a significance far from accounted for by the content of sermons.
Evangelicalism is not possible, in either the colony or the metropole, without the socially expansive address of conversionist preaching—my relation to you being partly a matter of how this speech between us might effect your conversion. (The relation between that expansive project and colonial geographies is something I wish Webb would address further.) Conversionist projects—preaching, witnessing, tract distribution, broadcasting, etc.—require and produce a complex set of forms, including both an understanding of the social field of the unconverted, through which conversionist discourse moves (expansively, as across smooth space), and a conception of the addressee as capable of effecting belief of a particularly saving kind. (Hence the irony that evangelical forms that emerged within Calvinist culture led to the upending of Calvinist theology.) God himself came to be reconceived, according to the structural demands of this form of preaching, as a rhetorical god addressing himself to potential converts with impressive incentives for a newly agentialized belief in his existence.
This is illustrated in Webb’s treatment of the discourse of the house. It can be reproduced anywhere, anytime, by anyone, and thus seems to have lost its link to a specific ordering of space and a specific category of speaker. But this is to some degree illusory. Producing the emptiness of the space through which it moves is a major burden of the form.
Or take the form of the creed, on which Keane dilates with such brilliant effect. He is right, I think, to emphasize that giving the creed a textual form makes it “highly portable across contexts,” and that “the circulation of modular forms such as creeds works against the localizing forces on which anthropologists of global religions have tended to focus.” I think he is also quite right to emphasize some unrecognized paradoxes in the rhetoric of belief that a creed articulates. But even while creedal circulation works against some localizing forces, it also creates a new spatialization of its own.
It is not quite true that creeds are unique to modern evangelical movements. Recitations of creeds have been part of national church projects such as Catholicism, at least for much of its history, or the Church of England before Toleration. They functioned as tests of orthodoxy. They supposedly saturated the space of possible belonging. Liturgical recitation of the creed in such a context (and the Apostles’ Creed, which Keane quotes, remains in the Anglican liturgy) foregrounds the reflexive I who believes—only, paradoxically, in order to make audible in public acoustic space and visible in common witnessing the absolutely non-individual (and non-optional) dimensions of affirmation. Credo-ing, if I may so call the practice, produces affirmation as common effort and as anchor.
Even here, a whole set of separations is put in place. We believe these doctrines; others believe something else (presumably elsewhere, or voicelessly excluded, or compulsively named as unthinkable), or it would make no sense to affirm.
Keane rightly observes that reform movements made the creed more private and exacted a different kind of agential commitment in its utterance. (They also made them the object of broad print circulation and comparison.) The semiotics of the credo is subtly but powerfully transformed in the denominationalist imaginary that is the presupposition and entailment of evangelicalism. We who believe are now among the others who believe otherwise; those who do not believe are the necessary environment of our solicitation; my credo-ing allies me (voluntarily, witnessably) with strangers who in a modularly predictable way believe the same, cognitively identical, content. It also marks me off from others who happen to be proximate to me without making the same affirmation.
Thus the space in which the creed is uttered is a space of aggregation; potentially innumerable others might repeat the act because one does so in a default environment supposedly not defined by the creed itself. The effects of spatialization and common witnessing have become only implicit, in order to foreground the enunciating agent. But they are still there.
Second, ethical agency. One of the most powerful parts of Keane’s analysis is his emphasis on the way evangelical discourse requires a recursion in which the subject takes an agential stance on his own beliefs. There is a basic structure here, which is shared between evangelical religion (or religion in general when fashioned in the evangelical semiotic ideology) and the secular practices of critical agency. Subjectivity is purified in its distance from text objects. In secular contexts the resulting subject often disappears into discursive forms that do not appear to be addressing or emanating from individuals at all—science being the most obvious example. But they presuppose for this very reason an effortful labor of ongoing self-relation.
Here we come to my question. It isn’t clear to me that purification—the attempt to make clear separations between agents and objects—fully describes the process. “This purification process, undertaken in the name of religious reform and of modernity, became a paradigm well beyond Western or Christian societies.” For one thing, the forms of evangelical modernity create their own hybrids, as Keane acknowledges two paragraphs later. These include not just Pentecostalist modes of experience, faith healing, magical prayer, and so on, but also those modes of mystery that are produced by the same mass-cultural forms: supernatural fiction, astrology, UFOs, Jesus in tortillas. Granted, many of these make the religious reformers highly uneasy. And it is crucial that the modern order put into place largely by evangelical means does not recognize these as legitimate forms of religiosity. But whatever is modern about the purification impulse is also accompanied by equally modern hybrids. And thus I wonder whether purification, powerful though it might be, gives us the core logic of the modern.
After all, in evangelical conversion an agential stance toward one’s beliefs very often produces not a purification of agent/object relations, but new hybrid spiritual agencies, beginning with the global transformation of personality (emotions, appetites, instincts) that is supposed to be the experience and evidence of conversion itself.
Thus the pattern that seems to me most compelling in the materials is not the purification of agency but the creation of modular, extractable, translatable forms—both of texts and persons—whether those consist in purified agency or not. I can read Keane’s book primarily as a study of the productive dimension of disembedding and its colonial effects.