Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
The later works of Michel Foucault played a prominent role in establishing the anthropology of ethics (Faubion 2001, 2011; Laidlaw 2002, 2014; see also Mahmood 2004), but recent scholarship has challenged the centrality of the self in Foucault’s fourfold analytic of ethical autopoiesis by puzzling over the role of non-self entities, such as spirits and divinities, in the ethical formation of the self (Mittermaier 2010, 2012; Bialecki 2014, 2016; Scherz 2018; Scherz and Mpanga 2019). Taking seriously the limitations of a Foucauldian anthropology of ethics stuck in what Amira Mittermaier pointedly dubs ‘the trope of self-cultivation’, this paper revisits Alfred Gell’s framework for Art and Agency (1998) to develop a Gellian approach to ethics and agency that can resolve the conceptual conundrum of the role of non-self entities in the ethical formation of the self. I argue that the conceptual building blocks of Gell’s framework—specifically, the tripartite schema of the prototype, index, and artist; the distinction between agency and patiency; and the identifiability of primary and secondary agents within agent-patient relational chains—can be repurposed to sketch out the contours of a post-Foucauldian anthropology of ethics that accommodates both self and non-self in a multiplicity of ethical projects. I conclude by demonstrating how this Gellian approach helps to theoretically articulate Mittermaier’s (Sufi followers of Shayk Qusi in Cairo), Bialecki’s (neo-charismatic Vineyard Movement Christians in the United States), and Scherz’s (a group of Franciscan nuns and a case of maternal spirit possession, both in Uganda) ethnographic cases.