American Ethnological Society
Oral Presentation Session
In this talk, I argue that anthropologists must develop more expansive notions of secrecy and concealment to make sense of the production and circulation of knowledge in esoteric traditions. Anthropologists often portray esoteric knowledge as a concealed object that religious specialists gradually reveal to initiates. Many traditions certainly involve such instruction, but then what do we make of the fact that many esoteric texts circulate in public? And what should anthropologists make of the way practitioners say the meanings of these teachings are indeterminate? To address these questions, I analyze the ways Ismaili Muslim’s draw on ideas about authority, expertise, and the nature of “esoteric” (batin) knowledge when discussing aspects of their religious tradition with non-Ismailis. A close look at the pragmatics of these conservations reveals how speakers prompt audience members to infer the meaning of certain statements using knowledge of the tradition’s history, ideologies about religious authority, and practices. I use the term “implicit knowledge” to refer to how Ismailis draw on this combination of linguistic competency, pragmatic awareness, and shared background information to actively interpret and speculatively talk about religious ideas in public and private settings. I conclude by discussing the importance of attending to how knowledge is concealed, produced, and reproduced in the study of esoteric traditions.