Christian Moderns:

An absence of belief?

posted by Danilyn Rutherford

keaneFirst, a disclosure: this book and I go way back. When it comes to Webb Keane’s scholarship, I’m what the marketing experts would call an early adopter. I first met Professor Keane—or, rather, stepped on him—in 1989; he was subletting my room at Cornell, and my husband and I rolled into the driveway at 4 a.m., a day before we were supposed to arrive, and stumbled into what we thought was an empty room. I met Professor Keane again under more auspicious circumstances in 1994, when he was beginning the essays that ended up in this book. His work instantly gripped me—for its elegance, for its clarity, for its judicious deployment of ethnography, for its hard-nosed insistence on sticking to the point. Professor Keane shows us that we live in a world that is both social and material, immersed in history and open to the future—a world of objects and others, a world of signs. So while it is not my purpose here to praise Professor Keane, but to pester him, it is in a spirit of gratitude. Like many in anthropology, I am indebted to him for the way he has brought clarity to issues at the heart of our collective work.

The topic I want to pester Professor Keane about is belief. Christian Moderns uses the missionary encounter on the Indonesian island of Sumba to illuminate the contradictions inherent in the modernist project of “purification,” which separates out the materiality of words and objects from their symbolic meaning, and the social entanglements of human subjects from their transcendent souls. The book argues that both the roots and the contemporary manifestation of this battle against “hybrids” lies in a specifically Protestant tradition of religious reform. Conversations and confrontations between Dutch Calvinists and Sumbanese “pagans” and, more recently, Sumbanese Christians and followers of ancestral spirits throw into stark relief contrasting semiotic ideologies: “background assumptions about human subjects, words, and things.”  Caught up in a situation that forced them to explain themselves to—and distinguish themselves from—people that they considered radically other, the Dutch and Sumbanese men and women that populate the book speak eloquently of the varying assumptions that can guide people’s use, understanding, and valorization of the capacities of objects and words.

Where does belief fit in this picture? On the one hand, the book is all about belief: talk of belief is a key target of Professor Keane’s analysis. “From material presence to object of belief” is the title of one of the book’s subsections: the vector of “dematerialization” shifts the focus from practices to propositions, albeit propositions whose foregrounding requires practices such as the verbal performance of the creed. But belief is missing from the book’s toolkit of analytic terms. Professor Keane builds his argument using vocabulary drawn from contemporary linguistic anthropology.  His treatment of belief is akin to his treatment of fetishism: he keeps his distance. Take Professor Keane’s response to Susan Harding’s assertion: “Social scientists and professed unbelievers in general do not let themselves get close enough to ‘belief’ to understand it.” Keane writes:

We may take her point yet still recognize that as a blanket statement, this assertion depends on a specific idea of understanding, as well as a particular assumption about the place of belief in religion. The privilege it accords to subjective experience is something we should not accept uncritically. As Talal Asad and others have argued, the special role given to inner belief in many contemporary views of religion has specific historical sources and political entailments. It is perhaps worth noting, then, that Harding’s own remark comes in the context of her brilliant demonstration of the role that texts and ways of speaking that originate from other people play in constituting the inner experience of belief. The point is not to dismiss experience, but to recognize how it is situated and by what forms of mediation, and, when it is privileged, to ask why and to investigate the implications.

This is all very reasonable and well in accordance with mainstream views in today’s anthropology. Professor Keane seems to be respecting the no-fly zone that Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, and others have declared around questions of belief: like religion, the notion is the product of a dominant tradition in the West. Yet at the same time, as Professor Keane suggests when he adds the adjective “inner” to the noun “belief,” the book’s approach to belief is not so cut and dried. Belief pops up bereft of the scare quotes throughout Christian Moderns, often as a synonym for semiotic ideology, the analytic concept that is the linchpin of the book.

Here’s an example from Chapter 6, which at the same time provides a warrant for what I am trying to do by raising this question:

This is part of the puzzle for the well-intentioned interlocutor: If the agency of others is predicated in part on their own beliefs and on the notions of agency immanent in their practices, how are we, if, for example, we are secular scholars, to reconcile their attribution of agency to divine subjects with our desire that they recognize that agency lies within their own hands?

The “we” here is somewhat deceptive, for Professor Keane’s comments are more critical than reflexive. They conclude a chapter that offers a useful corrective to some anthropologists’ penchant for celebrating the agency of the oppressed. But what if we read this sentence straight and included Professor Keane within this “we?” What if we went further and pointed out that his own “agency” is also “predicated in part on [his] own beliefs and on the notions of agency immanent in [his] practices?” Professor Keane is skirting close to the no-fly zone here, and I would like to follow him in asking: is the agency of the anthropological analyst predicated in part on a belief in belief? Can we do anything without believing in belief—and its cousin, experience? Could asking these questions, while foregoing easy references to an inner/outer divide, enable us to deploy these terms in more expansive ways?

To give you a sense of where these questions might lead, let’s turn to one of Professor Keane’s most important sources of inspiration: Charles Sanders Peirce, whose account of the underdetermined materiality of the sign provides a foundation for many of the smart things Professor Keane has to say. Peirce did not, it seems to me, draw a sheer divide between “inner” and “outer”—thought is conduct, he wrote, undertaken in the company of others, even when we seem to be thinking alone.  Peirce defined the sign as an object that stands for another object to a mind, insisting that such objects both convey meaning and exist as material things that are subject to the workings of causality. Peirce did not shy away from speaking of belief: in fact, he insisted upon it, in criticizing those who spoke of metaphysical “truth” and “falsity.” For Peirce, “truth” would be “that to which belief would tend if it were to tend infinitely towards absolute fixity.”  Born of experience, or rather “experiment,” a collective operation involving the ongoing interpretation of signs, belief, for Peirce, is “not a momentary mode of consciousness; it is a habit of mind essentially enduring for some time, and mostly (at least) unconscious; and like other habits, it is (until it meets with some surprise that begins its dissolution) perfectly self-satisfied.”  For Peirce, it is not only what Professor Keane calls “semiotic form” that exists in the world; remember, for Peirce, thought is conduct. For a sign to operate as such, the relationship between two objects must be interpreted—by a mind—yet this interpretation does not exist in some “transcendent” or inaccessible “inner” sphere. This interpretation is itself a sign that elicits interpretation of its relationship to an object. When a closed window calls to mind a stuffy room, this interpretation impinges on the world when the thought causes someone to open the window and let in some air. For Peirce, belief is a habit, a habitual practice of the mind, that intervenes in history. Belief intervenes in the same way that Professor Keane describes semiotic ideologies as intervening in the Sumbanese history that he recounts.

Needless to say, the word belief, like all signs, is underdetermined, and its meaning depends on how it is used. “Believing in” may not be the same thing as “believing that.” Peirce’s discussion may not help us address the problem that Fenella Cannell finds in Christian Moderns, which, she observes, gives relatively short shrift to what the Dutch and Sumbanese thought and felt about God. Still, my guess would be that we could understand even more fully the appeal of practices like the recitation of creeds if we attended to the workings of belief as practice on a range of more or less explicit levels. This attention to belief as practice would force us to ask embarrassing questions, like, where, if not in experience, do semiotic ideologies live?

Moving beyond Christian Moderns, thinking about belief in this more generous, adventurous fashion might encourage those of us who share Professor Keane’s analytic sensibilities to consider the genealogy of our own semiotic ideology. Such a consideration would be in the spirit of Christian Moderns. As Professor Keane is no doubt aware, addressing the discourse of fetishism can trap a scholar in an infinite loop; in criticizing the critics one risks ascending to an Archimedean perspective of one’s own. When reading Christian Moderns for the first time, I kept thinking of Rachel Fulton’s magisterial book, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200. Fulton shows how early medieval debates on the Eucharist reflected a desire not just for transcendence, but also for co-presence across historical time. In explicating the nature and origins of Christ’s presence in bread and wine, the era’s thinkers confronted conundrums inherent in a faith viewed as founded on the unrepeatable event of Christ’s death and resurrection. Problems of historicity—including the historicity of signs—were at the forefront of these thinkers’ minds, which themselves bore the marks of their times. The Saxon conversion and the failure of Christ to return at the millennium drove these thinkers towards new understandings of sign use. Eerily enough, they arrived at understandings that highlighted some of the features that Peirce and his followers have brought to the fore. It is kind of a joke when Peirce speaks of “Faith, Hope, and Charity” as the virtues required for the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Then again, maybe it is not. I’m not sure what to make of these echoes; but it does seem worth pondering what it means when our tools can be used to reveal the historicity of our tools.

Thinking about belief in a more generous, adventurous fashion might also open up new opportunities for understanding non-religious practices. One example could be the practice of speech therapy, something that I’ve become acquainted with through my daughter, Millie. Millie is nine. She doesn’t talk. Neither does she sign, nor, for the most part, imitate the gestures of others. She connects with people, and she has a great sense of humor, yet she processes what she sees and hears in an utterly atypical way. She appears to be stalled on the threshold of sign use—at least sign use of a typical sort. Millie’s therapy has consisted of more or less successful attempts to push her over this threshold. Millie’s therapists surround her with talk and find messages in every sound or move she makes. There are all sorts of “assistive technology” systems available for kids like Millie. There are devices that allow you to record a message that a child can “say” by pushing a button. There are binders of taxonomically sorted utterances used for “partner assisted scanning,” a twenty-questions-like process in which therapists and caregivers pick out a behavior—a foot kick, a finger wave—that will “count” as a yes or a no. These methods, I’ve been told, are all premised on what is called the “doctrine of the least dangerous assumption.”  The least dangerous assumption is, in Millie’s case, that she will someday speak, by one means or another. The intentional speaking subject imprisoned in this freckled little girl will someday find release.

Anyone who has read Christian Moderns will recognize the semiotic ideology at work here. Millie’s therapy is premised on the assumption that “meaning” can somehow transcend “form.” But Millie’s therapy also foregrounds dimensions of sign use that receive short shrift in this ideology: the fact that others give us our words, the fact that reference is just a small part of sign use, the fact that we can only know what we “meant” after the fact. Millie’s work with her therapists vividly reveals the multifarious practices of belief entailed in our interactions with one another. It is not an accident that therapists speak of doctrine. If any pedagogy is faith-based, it is surely theirs.

But enough pestering. If I have stepped on Professor Keane again in this commentary, it wasn’t on purpose. I was merely trying to chart some of the unexpected places to which his wonderful book, Christian Moderns, might lead.

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