Gods in Things — A CSSH Conversation with Webb Keane and Stephan Palmié

CSSH has a longstanding tradition of juxtaposing essays for comparative effect. Our readers enjoy this ritual, but we often wonder what our authors think of it. Under the Rubric gives CSSH authors a chance to respond directly to each other’s work, drawing additional insight and inspiration from their arguments.


Webb Keane
Divine Text, National Language, and Their Publics: Arguing an Indonesian Qur’an

Stephan Palmié
When Is a Thing? Transduction and Immediacy in Afro-Cuban Ritual; or, ANT in Matanzas, Cuba, Summer of 1948

As the editors tell us in their foreword to CSSH 60/4, “Divinities need mundane materials in order to appear and be perceived by human devotees. Those materials of appearance, in turn, give contour and definition to sacred powers. How these transductions occur is hotly debated within religious traditions themselves. Webb Keane’s and Stephan Palmié’s essays each consider the material risks and affordances faced by gods. Keane’s essay … interprets the controversies that followed efforts to render the Qur’an in a poetic, literary, and vernacular form. Palmié’s article … revisits William Bascom’s 1948 fieldwork in Cuba to explore how gods (orichas, in this case) come to dwell in specific stones, and the tension between notions of stones as representations versus stones as the god’s body.”

That’s putting it succinctly. To get the full effect, you will have to read the essays. To get the CSSH effect (which is even better), you will have to read them together. The two cases – one involving the Word of God as conveyed in writing and printed text, the other involving gods embodied in stones – explore points at which divinity enters the world. These entryways are sites of manifold dangers and blessings. Reality itself is tested in them. Palmié and Keane use these settings to ask important questions about persons, things, and how larger human communities are made by im/material forces that act both as traditional and transformative powers.

There are many ways to compare these two essays. They will catch the attention of anyone interested in ontology, semiotics, the sacred, and the role of each in history-making. What stood out for us, given the prominence of gods and things in these essays, is the central role Keane and Palmié give to single human actors. Each piece has, in the old storytelling sense, a “main character,” a kind of disturber/motivator who makes the analysis possible. It’s as if all the talk of divinity and materiality can proceed only through careful engagement with a key human accomplice.

For Palmié, this character is William Bascom, an anthropologist who encountered gods in/as stones when he tried, in the late 1940s, to sort what was Afro from what was Cuban in Afro-Cuban religious practice. For Keane, the character is H.B. Jassin, a litterateur who, in the early 1990s, produced an Indonesian version of the Quran that emphasized its poetic qualities, provoking strong criticisms from Muslims who found his efforts sacrilegious.

CSSH: These two men are fascinating in their own right, but you didn’t write about them for that reason alone. Jassin and Bascom do a lot of heavy lifting for you, analytically. They help you get at larger issues and frames in ways you couldn’t have done otherwise. In both cases, error and mistakes are prominent, as is a sensitive zone of contact between the human and the divine, where your “main characters” are at work. Now that you’ve read each other’s essays, what do you make of this resemblance, or any others that caught your eye?

Palmié: Different as they are in subject matter, and perhaps also in analytical intent, it strikes me that what our essays have in common is a moment of irony. It arises, in however divergent ways, from the vexing indeterminacy of matter at the interface of different “semiotic ideologies” (as Webb has so usefully analyzed them) when it comes to ascertaining, let alone authorizing, how the divine manifests in the sublunary world. No hierophany without materiality, to be sure: whether it is in the form of agentive stones and possessed bodies, in my case, or in the form of the universal logos of the Abrahamic deity manifesting itself in sacred texts that cannot but be cast in human languages (at least since the Fall, or perhaps since the unfortunate incidents at a construction site of the Tower of Babel).

If Luther’s demolition of Latin as the privileged sacrolect of Catholic Christianity was bad enough, then at least the translational history from Hebrew to Greek to Latin had already addressed the issue of how the Gospel might be spread to a linguistically fallen world, thereby opening up a host of subsidiary questions that Webb explored in his first two books (Keane 1997, 2007), and that Hanks (2010) or, more recently Handman (2015), have explored in the Mayan and PNG cases. But what to do in cases where the Divine chooses to reveal itself in a language – or let’s say: in locally specific semiotic forms – that the deity deems uniquely privileged as the material conduit between itself and those humans on whom it bestows the privilege of address?

That angels, the arch-translators, as John Durham Peters (1999) argued – from Gabriel to Moroni – figure prominently in stories rationalizing such divine selections of material channels of communication is surely not a fluke.

CSSH: And it might not be a fluke that Jassin and Bascom are the “fallen angels” of your essays. Each serves as a kind of translation device. Each delivers a necessary part of the message and opens up a realm of interpretation.

Palmié: But what is so striking about Jassin’s case, is that it is precisely at the potential point of “transduction” that theological friction between different views about how the umma could possibly be linguistically founded produces ideological and practical snags. In Webb’s case, the faultline lies between a devout modernist keen on aesthetic reform to beautify and so render more compelling an “Indonesian Qur’an” to Indonesian nationals (in an only recently “nationalized” variety of Malay), and his opponents who insist on what Greg Urban (2001) has called a “metaculture of tradition” which conceives of the spread of cultural forms through space and time as a moment of faithful replication of the original message in its supposedly original form.

In other words, isn’t it that both Jassin and Bascom (another Lockean modernist – in Bauman and Briggs’ [2003] terms) just don’t get it?

CSSH: There’s obviously a lot they don’t get right. Their role in your essays seems to depend on that. They reveal precisely in the way they (un/intentionally) overstep and misconstrue. As angels of revelation, they are useful because they distort the message, or are impervious to essential parts of it. Yes, that is indeed ironic!

Palmié: But here’s what may be the crucial difference between them: while Jassin worries about the potentially unpredictable semiotic productivity of translation (after all, he even recounts a sort of conversion experience), like many anthropologists at the time, Bascom remained immune to such concerns. Devout practitioner of American acculturation research that he was, translating Cuban practices into latter day survivals of African origins would have been enough for him … had it only worked! As it was, it didn’t, turning Bascom’s perplexities into a unique opportunity to rethink the historicity of the game that we, as his successors, may be playing today.

CSSH: So the better angel is the one open to the perplexities and unpredictable results of translation. Jassin is the better angel. That’s very gracious of you, Stephan, to favor Webb’s guide! But it’s yet another irony, because it was Jassin who arguably committed the graver offense – by trying to improve on a text, the Qur’an, that is already perfect – and he knew he was doing so. What do you make of this, Webb? How do Bascom and Jassin help you think about the disturbances that occur when cosmologies, or semiotic ideologies, are so clearly in contradiction?

Keane: The clash of semiotic ideologies is not just within the scenes we portray in our texts, but also between us, the authors, and those who inhabit our texts. To be sure, the focus in both our essays is on the double challenge posed within our ethnographic topoi: one, how divinity manifests itself in human material worlds, and, two, how those within those material worlds do or do not understand one another’s relationship to that manifestation. But you might also say that both Bascom and Jassin play parallel roles in our thinking, as transductive operators. By this I mean that each of them stands in for aspects of our own perspectives yet also, as subjects of our own critical analysis, allow us to stand outside that part of ourselves that identifies with them. They facilitate for us that which is, perhaps, most definitive of the anthropological way of seeing and hearing: for it is neither ethnographic or subjective intimacy, not analytic or comparative distance from which we seek insight, but rather the movement between them.

CSSH: Yes. Part of the problem is the simultaneity of identification and separation. It generates analytical tension, this pulling for and against your “main characters.” It creates a sense of movement between ideological options.

Keane: But we aren’t the only ones in motion: as Stephan observes in note 12 of his article, babalaos, like everyone, aren’t confined within just one “ontology,” and are at home just as much with baseball scores, market prices, TV shows, and no doubt communism, Catholicism, and their cousins in Miami, as they are with the divine. Indeed, we might ask, when they tell stories about animate stones, isn’t it because they’re interesting? And why are they interesting? Could it be because they’re strange?

CSSH: Footnote 12 also tells us to beware of our attraction to “radical alterity,” which is prudent advice. It seems that both of you manage that attraction by locating a share of it in the “transductive operator.” That makes you transducers, too, because you are deriving analytical power from evidence that is accumulating in another medium, in another set of assumptions that can be translated into (or against) your own. That’s why both of you seem to be working so closely with your characters, despite the varying levels of criticism or agreement you display in your arguments.

Keane: If we recall the word’s allusion to generation of electricity from the movement of water, transduction produces energy. Now, to be sure, Stephan is hardly seeking survivals of African origins like Bascom. But still, Bascom is more of an ancestor to Palmié than are the ifá or oricha or their Cuban partners. Similarly, my interest in Jassin is motivated, in part, by the way in which he represents the voice of the very modernity out of which our own conceptual and critical apparatus emerges. However much anthropologists, at least some of them, struggle against the methodological atheism, or at least the secularism, immanent in the sociological gaze, it remains a struggle. Jassin, of course, is interesting because of his divided loyalties, since we have to take his piety seriously, even if some of his critics don’t. He facilitates transduction between “we” who share his way of reading and his other “we,” the umma, with whom he shares his faith. And our ethnographic generosity should extend to Bascom as well, who is not simply a misguided predecessor on whom we can look down from our more enlightened perch. He has his own form of earnestness, located somewhere between the Cubans he knows, and those Stephan knows. Both Jassin and Bascom facilitate in us, the authors, a certain reflexivity. To the extent that they stand in for aspects of our own positionality, even ontology, if I can rescue that word from its current brand managers, they permit us to speak as critical outsiders to (aspects of) “us,” insofar as “we” (whoever that may be) remain unfaithful offspring of the projects of modernity. Pivoting between us and their Cuban and Indonesian interlocutors, they effect a transduction by ventriloquizing our own puzzlement, in a language that somewhat resembles our own, within the ethnographic scene we observe from without.

CSSH: That’s a vivid description of what “transductive operators” are doing in your papers, and in comparative work of a distinctly anthropological kind. Can gods and things do collaborative work, too, with us or with each other? Is that a role only humans (and our translating angels) can play? Is that ultimately why Jassin and Bascom are there? You’ve given us several ways to answer such questions, and to ask them differently. Thank you for both.

Bauman, Richard and Charles L. Briggs. 2003. Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Handman, Courtney. 2015. Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hanks, William F. 2010. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Keane, Webb. 1997. Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
__________ . 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Urban, Greg. 2001. Metaculture: How Culture Moves through the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society (California, 1997), Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (California, 2007), and Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories (Princeton, 2016), and co-editor of The Handbook of Material Culture (Sage, 2006). In addition, he has published numerous articles on materiality, language and semiotics, value, exchange, moral economies, religion, and social theory.

Stephan Palmié (Dr. Philosophy, University of Munich 1989; Habilitation, University of Munich 1999) is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Das Exil der Götter: Geschichte und Vorstellungswelt einer afrokubanischen Religion (1991); Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (2002); and The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion (2013), as well as the editor of several volumes on Caribbean and Afro-Atlantic anthropology and history.