April 5, 2015

Freedom and Fetish in the colonial encounter


 Webb Keane in the book Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the mission encounter (2007) provides an account of interrogation of Christianity in the course of the mission encounter with the Sumba tribe in Indonesia.  The book is mainly an argument about Calvinist principles of religion as a language of utterance and cultivation of interiority. He provides the Sumba cosmology as a necessary backdrop of 'other' faith against which the Christian orientation's inner principles become legible. He provides a key story of Umba Neka, the sumba leader's conversion through a dream, his utterance and framing of the cosmological break and the consequent conversion of the community through his sovereign command over them. What Keane's provided enough of is an account of the figure of the Dutch missionary. It is the missionary's job to internalise the conditions of conversion, and ameliorate the break in belief and condition of the converted 'other' faith. Keane's primary motive in the book is the detailing of the 'setting's so to speak of Calvinist faith. He argues it is a speech act which makes conversion possible. Not only is the listening of the word of God enough, the internalisation of faith must be uttered in language, for the faith to initiate. This assumes a certain condition of the subject that traverses interior and exterior contours. The boundary-traversing and the marking of contours is an essential condition of this thinking and speaking subject. This, Keane asserts, is an important prodding of Calvinist faith towards a modern existence. The performance of rituals and adherence to a frame of life is not enough to ascertain faith. Faith must be contained in a protected, interior vessel guarded by an individuated human subject. We can imagine that such a subject would then become adequately ready to perform the individuatedness of modern institutions of market and state. Keane crucially points out the primacy of language in the mediation of secularised forms of faith, especially in the Calvinist case.

Keane's text is an important interrogation of the notion of agency and interiority in the making of the modern subject. Reading Keane I felt the lack of internal narrative of what it is like to go through conversion by the Sumba. We hear Neka's story, but we don’t really meet Nega the person. Another book that details the arrival of Christianity is the Michael Taussig's Devil and the Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980), where the sensation of capital and its attendant surplus logic is sensed, or made sense of, through the encountered domain  plantation economy and harnessing of peasant communities for plantation labor in Bolivia and Colombia. I prefer Taussig's approach to arguing about modernity as it focuses on the question - what does it feel like to be facing the onslaught of the modern? The cosmologies at play are different in profound ways. But Taussig shows us an account of how difference is read on the other side of the modernity divide. The logics of surplus were interpreted by these peasant communities as 'devil'. The encounter between orders is not always a clash he shows. I am further reminded of Marshall Sahlins' Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1992) where the encounter between two sovereigns - Captain Cook the colonialist and the Emperor of Hawaiian Lono clan is internalised by the Lono as absorption of the Captain and his entourage into their cosmology. No battle against modernity was even conceived. The 'other' sovereign was convinced about his own primacy to gladly begin the rituals to initiate Cook into his faith and polity. Modernity's violent image was strangely muted in this encounter, when seen from the Lono perspective. We find in Ann Stoler's Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and the Colonial Common Sense (2008) the figure of a colonial official who is torn between affinities towards the native, and allegiances with the Duth colonial order, or in the Comaroffs' On Revelation and Revolution (1992), the missionary figure who is in ambivalent position as regards colonialism. Keane does not tell us about the quality of the supposed terrain of interiority of persons who are involved in the mission encounter, especially the missionary.


My purpose is to reiterate the unacknowledged debt to the anthropological method and its adherents in showing modernity's diverse perception in and through encounters with other sovereign orders. To carry out this mandate, as Sahlins has clearly shown,  means accepting that the containment and absorption of modernity is not always a battle among peoples who are confronted with it for the first time. The condition of embattlement may be a burden of modernity's insiders themselves.