de Abreu, Maria José. 2021. The Charismatic Gymnasium: Breath, Media, and Religious Revivalism in Contemporary Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 256 pp. Hb.: US$99.95. ISBN: 978-1-4780-0971-9.
Breath as a practice and as a category of religious imagery rarely becomes the subject of anthropological concern, whether due to humans’ usual unawareness of this process or its seeming inaccessibility for direct observation and ethnographic analysis. The book being reviewed, The Charismatic Gymnasium: Breath, Media, and Religious Revivalism in Contemporary Brazil, constitutes an exceptional example of a meticulous anthropological description of this subtle phenomenon. However, this study is not so much about breath itself, as the title and even the preface suggest. As Maria José de Abreu points out, the main protagonist of this book is pneuma (p. 8). Pneuma is a multifaceted term – in Greek, it means ‘spirit’, ‘air’ and ‘breath’, and for the anthropological account of Brazilian Charismatic Renewal, it simultaneously serves as a theological concept, media for religious sensations and specific somatic performance.
The Charismatic Gymnasium is a remarkable journey through the most cutting-edge themes in the contemporary anthropology of religion – theopolitics, technologies and materiality, religious senses, iconoclastic tendencies, neoliberal power – with pauses to take a breath and savour the vibrant colours and nuances of the Brazilian religious landscape. It also provides a significant contribution to the ethnographic studies of Catholic religiosity – the field that is still overlooked by anthropologists, as compared with various Protestant groups. Based on her extensive fieldwork among Catholic Charismatics of Brazil, Maria José de Abreu eloquently tells a story of the religious revival that has started from a particular blasphemous moment. The well-known case of Guerra Santa – a typically iconoclastic controversy initiated by Brazilian Evangelical pastor Sérgio Von Helder, who kicked on camera a small statue of the patron saint of Brazil on the feast day of Our Lady of Aparecida – encouraged the rise of a counter-acting movement based on the socio-political baggage of the Counter-Reformation. However, the reaction to this attack was not one of strong opposition in terms of doctrinal positions or aesthetic sphere – it was the search for balance. The author uses the metaphor of the Ancient Greek gymnasium to depict the underpinnings of Brazil's Catholic Charismatic elasticity that combines Greek Orthodox theology with media technologies, traditional prayer techniques with fitness. The notion of elasticity functions in two ways here. It evokes the ideology of compromise intrinsic to this type of religious revivalism that consistently reconciles seemingly contradictory tendencies of being conservative and innovative or, rather, being Catholic and Charismatic at the same time. Moreover, in this book, this term also refers to a sort of spiritual muscle development. Instead of cultivating flashy baroque aesthetics, this Counter-Reformation-inspired Charismatic movement provides gym spaces for training bodies and souls, thus forming the subjects that are spiritually fit newly emergent neoliberal demands.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part establishes the context of the religious life of the global Charismatic network, Canção Nova Community. Thematically, it is linked to the classic anthropological problem of religious media and presence reflected through the Christian notion of pneuma. Chapters 1 and 2 evolve the practices of prayer and public confession as ways of cultivating breathing bodies as well as the community itself. Chapter 3 explores the case of mediatising the immediacy itself – the programme Adoration Thursday during which the Holy Eucharist is demonstrated on TV Canção Nova, producing specific somatic modes of attention and representing a canonical example of Catholic Charismatic integration of extremes.
The second part of the book more specifically addresses the complex intertwining of pneumatic and material in the discourses and practices of particular social actors. It is the popular figure of charismatic priest and former bodybuilder Padre Marcelo Rossi who mostly comes into focus, owing to his incomparable religious creativity and fluency in the languages of mass media. Chapter 4 deals with the core of Padre Marcelo's pastoral activity – the so-called ‘aerobics of Jesus’ that combines elements of the Hesychast tradition of prayer, singing and physical exercises to structure breath, stretch bodies, vocalise souls and thus enable the circulation of pneuma. Chapters 5 and 6 elaborate on materiality as a vehicle or even icon of the significant spiritual and political meanings. The author discusses how not only the body is becoming the temple of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Charismatic community but also the very temple (the sanctuary dedicated to the Byzantine icon of Theotókos) is socially and materially constructed as a representation of the Virgin's body. The last chapter presents a piece of ethnography concerned with the social life of one object – a monobloc chair usually associated with Pentecostal churches – as well as its affordances and aesthetic properties. This chair metaphorically accumulates emblematical characteristics of Charismatic Catholicism – ubiquity, non-hierarchical anonymity, plasticity, portability that ease the circulation of bodies and spirit. Altogether, in this book, Maria José de Abreu presents an intense reflection on a specific kind of pneumatic sensibility that emerged in the iconoclastic milieu. Focusing on metaphysical concepts and using them in a mix with the latest analytical trends makes the anthropological description in a certain sense unearthly. The main strength of the book appears to be its main, though the only, shortcoming. Due to the scholarly excellence and sophistication of this research that naturally required a relevant style of description full of vivid metaphors, readers should also train for this book, or, using its terms, go to the intellectual gym. Sometimes it is hard to see, beyond the devious analytical and aesthetic façade, the very social life of the community under study – those people whose bodies and souls are subjected to different spiritual exercises, their everyday routines, their own interpretations of the described respiratory program. Indeed, if the main protagonist of the book is pneuma, all other characters inevitably take a back seat. Aside from this criticism, this book could definitely be called a breath of fresh air in contemporary social studies of religion, both in theoretical and empirical senses.
Work on the review was supported by a grant from the Russian Science Foundation, project no. 21-18-00508, https://rscf.ru/en/project/21-18-00508/
European University at Saint Petersburg (Russia)
Agier, Michel. 2021. The Stranger as My Guest: A Critical Anthropology of Hospitality. Cambridge: Polity Press. 160 pp. Hb.: 50.90 €. ISBN: 9781509539888.
Rather than being ‘unbound’ as previously theorised, nation-states are being territorially ‘rebound’ with the cement of xenophobic instincts and atavistic desires. As a result, the last two decades have seen borders become increasingly restrictive for human mobility. Current migration regimes and their proponents see hostile borders as the only solution. Their ultimate solution encompasses physical borders, those unwelcoming spaces of hostility that divide and keep the unwanted stranger out, to everyday borders, those symbolic actions of hostility that mark certain human bodies as outsiders. Under such circumstances, Michel Agier's The Stranger as my Guest paves a conceptual pathway towards a much-needed welcoming door. A door of hospitality that can counter the effects of hostile migration regimes normalised under the guise of national interests – economic, security, social, cultural, etcetera.
In this compelling read, Agier challenges this very normalisation of hostility as a sensible approach towards managing mobility on our planet, the only one we have to share. Instead, he advocates a better understanding of hospitality to develop more sustainable, prosocial and empathic approaches to global mobility. In doing so, he delves into the pathology of the so-called ‘migration crisis’. He reminds us that the torchbearers of borders forget that, more than a panacea, borders are the source of our (mobility) maladies.
As suggested by the subtitle, this Critical Anthropology of Hospitality draws on anthropological, philosophical and political approaches to unpack the phenomenon of hospitality in a mobile and connected world. At the most fundamental level, hospitality (like hostility), Agier argues, is a means to deal with the ambiguities surrounding an encounter with someone from the outside – the stranger, the foreigner, the alien. Thus, in a sense, Agier digs out an old anthropological lens: that of hospitality/reciprocity. With this lens, he reimagines the trilateral relationship between the state, citizen and migrant for contemporary times.
The core thesis of this stimulating read is that institutional and public forms of hospitality offered by churches and states in Europe are on the decline, and private forms of hospitality provided by citizens, though laudable, are not enough to deal with mobility in the 21st century. The situation leads him to consider a few possible (secular) prosocial principles and prefigurative forms of hospitality required for our times. Hospitality for this century, one could say.
In the first two chapters of the book, Agier sheds light on hospitality from various angles. He discusses numerous issues from different manifestations and relationalities of hospitality in various societal and cultural contexts to distinct forms of hospitality (and hostility) that the ‘national stranger’ or foreigner encounters in Europe and beyond. The latter, i.e. forms of hospitality, lead him to expand on two main kinds of hospitality in the wake of the ‘migration crisis’. First, unconditional private hospitality – that is, the kind of hospitality epitomised in the German term ‘Willkommenskultur’ and seen across Europe since 2015. Second, conditional or limited hospitality offered by the state – that is, refuge or asylum if one meets some conditions and follows some others.
Throughout the book, state and private (citizens’) attitudes towards the stranger are juxtaposed. Agier sets the foundation of such comparison early on by framing ‘private hospitality’ towards strangers as a form of ‘civil disobedience’. Indeed, many European citizens chose to act in solidarity with migrant newcomers, no matter their reasons for coming or legal status in the host country. In this way, they challenged their respective governments and the criminalisation of specific acts of hospitality and reciprocity.
In Chapters 3 and 4, Agier tries to imagine the political possibilities that the concept of hospitality offers and discusses the condition of migrant-hood. He does this by expanding on an argument about social movements made in the preceding pages. According to him, social movements and actions to help and accommodate the stranger hint at the need for a ‘principle of hospitality’. Therefore, in imagining a form of principle-based ‘universal hospitality’, he brings into question methodological and epistemological nationalism as human blinkers limiting our understanding and thus imagination of dealing with mobility. Piggybacking on Ulrich Beck's valuable insights into the epistemological conflict between ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ and ‘methodological nationalism’, Agier argues that it is not only an epistemological conflict but also a political one. Then drawing on the likes of Emmanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida and Hannah Arendt, he claims that even the most avid supporters of ‘universal hospitality’ are ‘politically cosmopolitan’ but ‘epistemologically nationalist’.
Agier urges us to question this epistemological nationalism but more urgently demands scrutiny of the ‘siege mentality’ that seems to grip many governments of the world. Concluding the book on a hopeful note, he envisions what he calls ‘a nomadic citizenship for all’.
University of Munich (Germany)
Szántó, Diana. 2020. Politicising Polio: Disability, Civil Society and Civic Agency in Sierra Leone. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan. 338 pp. Hb.: US$81.20. ISBN: 978-9811361104.
As the author maintains, ‘this book is not about disability per se’ (p. vii). Instead, Politicising Polio focuses on the informal inhabitants of Freetown, who came from rural areas and in Freetown have organised in polio-homes or squats and disabled people organisations. The polio-disabled Freetowners struggle to make ends meet in post-war Sierra Leone, where they not only face polio but also poverty, questionable urban citizenship and uneven development. The author seeks to be of relevance to the field of critical disability studies on the Global South and to urbanisation studies.
This ethnography is divided in two parts. The first part constitutes a critical ethnography of disability, which is set up as a theatrical play complete with a stage, set, cast and scripts or stories. The individual story of a polio-disabled performer and key informant going by the stage name Manish is nested within Szántó's larger ‘play’ narrative. This ‘play’ tells the collective story of 13 informal polio-homes or squats and 14 disabled people organisations in Freetown during post-civil-war society-building. The second part of the book seeks to criticise ‘project society’, which shapes the lives of the disabled and non-disabled poor Sierra Leonians in countless ways. ‘Project society’ is postcolonial society-building through ‘NGOisation’ informed by capitalism without welfare provisions and by the social model of disability and international human rights for disabled people. The book set up as a play and the vivid storytelling-style of Szántó appear to lend a poetic quality to the later book chapters particularly.
Szántó stresses that polio-disabled Freetowners, although among the desperate poor, are not helpless victims. They are not abandoned by their families and friends, who allegedly have exclusionary traditional ideas. Szántó maintains that the problem is not traditions but institutions and policies that let people suffer. The polio-disabled and other poor Sierra Leonians are abandoned by the State. State abandonment entails the lack of access to housing, infrastructure, education, social and healthcare services, employment and urban citizenship. The poor are under constant threat of structural violence and the possibility of eviction from the informal polio-homes or even from the city of Freetown. A central argument in the book is that disabled Freetowners’ greatest concern is not discrimination but poverty, in both material and moral senses. The poor are denied citizenship rights in part because they are despised by local elites as beggars and in part because uncertain urban citizenship serves savage capitalism which appears to thrive in parallel with human rights. More concretely, state representatives may illegally detain, beat and even kill disabled and non-disabled poor without facing serious consequences. Szántó provides compelling examples of the latter. The advancement of human rights for disabled people post-war with ‘project society’ has had important benefits – sometimes the polio-disabled poor achieve political successes by invoking their human rights individually and collectively as disabled citizens. However, as Szántó maintains, the shift from needs to rights without welfare provisions has turned much-needed attention away from the basic material needs of disabled and non-disabled Sierra Leonians, who are in the majority very poor. What is the value of human rights when it helps one to integrate into poverty and contestable urban citizenship?
Szántó persuasively counters the still widespread notion that mainly an attitudinal shift from traditional to modern thinking, as propagated by ‘project society’ in Sierra Leone, is necessary to improve the living standards of Sierra Leonians. A complicating factor here is that Sierra Leonians who have internalised colonial and racist thinking subscribe to this simplistic notion.
According to the author, there is hope for a better future when hopes invigorate the polio-disabled poor and their allies to use their combined resources to change their life conditions as subjects and citizens for the better. Individual and collective agency, as expressed by the polio-homes, Szántó sees as positive examples of resilience. Hope lies also in Global Southern scholarship, politics and policies that seek models and ideas for society building that fit the African context better than imported policies and concepts from the Global North as embodied by ‘project society’.
The strength of Politicising Polio is that Szántó does not limit herself to abstract and complex reasoning. She is an excellent storyteller who provides shocking, clear and vivid situated examples to support her analysis and arguments. It also makes the book an enjoyable read that stimulates thinking, notwithstanding its serious and at times devastating content.
Erasmus MC Rotterdam (The Netherlands)
Philipp Budka and Bridgit Bräuchler (eds.) 2020. Theorising Media and Conflict. New York: Berghahn Books. 339 pp. Pb.: 110.00 €. ISBN: 978-1-78920-682-1.
Current technology enables professionally trained journalists to report about conflict development in a way that increases the media's reach and presence and also has the potential to influence conflicts. Media presence in times of conflict affects human perception of conflicts and can also have a significant effect on the conflict and the parties involved. Theorising Media and Conflict, edited by Philipp Budka and Bridgit Bräuchler, showcases how the media is now more than simply journalists and official, recognised or licenced news agencies: the general public also comments on conflicts through a number of social media outlets. This volume argues the value of studying worldwide conflicts concurrently with the media that is being disseminated, therefore it could be of interest for those who study anthropology, geopolitics or media. The editors ‘aim for a non-media-centric, non-media-deterministic approach – that focuses on the contexts of both conflict and media’ (p. 8).
The book is divided into seven parts and is comprised of 14 chapters by international experts. The chapters are well arranged in the order that achieves the aim that the editors had set for the volume. Part I, entitled ‘Key Debates’, sets the tone for the book by allowing the reader to get familiar with the role of technology in the dissemination of news related to conflict and how that technology is implemented in the ‘developing’ parts of the world. Part II, ‘Witnessing Conflict’, presents two recent conflicts, the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Syrian conflict, and how modern technology, particularly the use of mobile phones, had affected each conflict. Part III, ‘Experiencing Conflict’, touches on how media can affect public/human perception of conflict and what tools can be used to enhance or diminish such perception. ‘Mediated Conflict Language’, Part IV, examines the language of trolling particularly during the 2014 Gaza War. Part V examines the ‘Sites of Conflict’ by exploring the Egyptian uprising and agrarian disputes in Mexico. ‘Conflict Across Boarders’ examines how media can influence those that are not geographically/indirectly involved in a conflict. In this sixth part, two distinctly different conflicts are presented to demonstrate such media presence. The final part, ‘After Conflict’, presents how the conflict and media affect people, policies related to media, society and the media landscape overall. John Postill of RMIT University (Australia) concludes the book with a thought-provoking suggestion: ‘to theorise conflict mediation is a finite, multi-sited, dynamic process in which old and new mediators shape the lived reality of conflict’ (p. 322).
Conflicts, varying in nature, are addressed by the contributors as well as the media tools and techniques that were used to analyse conflict. Despite the fact that each chapter presents a new conflict, the thematic structure of each part allows the reader to understand the diverse effect that media can have on conflict. The qualitative approach to media analysis and substantial theories pertaining to media analysis allow the reader to better understand the effect that media has on people, the parties involved and those observing remotely. The qualitative methodologies that contributors rely on are interviews and direct and indirect observations, therefore the book presents valuable empirical materials.
The volume raises a number of questions that challenge the reader. For instance, should the sociocultural context be considered prior to evaluating media presence in any conflict? Are we an information or disinformation society? And which media outlet/domain should we trust? Such questions prompt the reader to reach certain conclusions, yet the work contained in this volume demonstrates that media is a tool that ‘can be used in various ways and for various objectives’ (p. 296). In my opinion, the thought-provoking questions, relevance of the information and substantial qualitative data that contributors present in each chapter make this book very engaging and relatable to the reader.
Theorising Media and Conflict reveals that current technology allows a conflict to be borderless. It becomes evident that media has an influence on conflicts but also has a substantial influence on the people directly or indirectly involved. ‘Images of conflict seem to be much easier to convey than images of reconciliation and peace’ (p. 297). The volume makes it apparent that it is in human nature to look for conflict and media is used as a tool to feed that need by providing either informatic, visual or audio stimulation.
University of Eastern Finland (Finland)
Rippa, Alessandro. 2020. Borderland Infrastructures: Trade, Development and Control in Western China. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 282 pp. US$124.00. ISBN: 978-94-6372-560-6.
China is better connected to neighbouring countries than at any other time in its history. Journeys across the Chinese border, which once took days, are now feasible via new roads and railways. Development via infrastructure has come to the border areas, and in far reaching and rapid ways.
Rippa's Borderland Infrastructures demonstrates the official and everyday politics of these changes. Peripheral areas are no longer remote, over-there places, but connected to the centre, to the state. He notes that development and infrastructure are intertwined and it is impossible to talk of one without the other in the context of China, concluding that what happens in border areas is relevant far beyond them. Moreover, in bringing development and new connectivities to remote areas, this also creates alienations, disconnections and separations for communities already in those areas through disruptions of traditional networks and pre-existing connections. The book considers these fast-changing landscapes in relation to two principle locations: Xinjiang and the Yunnan Borderlands, supplemented by data collected from elsewhere and conversations with interlocutors since stints of fieldwork in different locations.
The book is structured in three parts, each of which introduces a key part of the argument. These are: proximity, curation and corridor. Each section consists of a chapter with one case study from each location followed by an interlude, and coda, which delve deeper into the theoretical concepts. The sections of the book can be read independently but add up to a vivid and convincing picture overall.
Part 1 – Proximity considers how large-scale infrastructure projects, often designed to transcend borders through providing new connections and connectivity, have disrupted and dismantled existing networks, kinship relations and shared histories. All this has brought the state much closer to those at its periphery, not only through new infrastructures of roads but also the apparatus of the state: checkpoints, custom houses and so on.
Part 2 – Curation, which for this reviewer is the strongest part of the book, considers how initiatives to develop minority citizens at the borderlands involve a process of curating ethnic difference. Here Rippa argues for curation as related to curing or healing the minorities of their deemed backwardness. Rippa demonstrates this with reference to how Drung citizens are placed in new houses, separated from traditional livelihoods, and from there, become ideal and grateful minority citizens. Moving to Xinjiang, this process of curation takes on a far more sinister form, as what it is to be Uyghur is now a matter for the state to decide. Uyghur citizens are cleansed of their traditional practices and beliefs that are negative to the agendas of the state. This is in tandem with transforming Kashgar itself into a model heritage project, which, as with the Uyghur population, must be preserved and presented in very specific ways and subject to strict state agendas. The inter-relation between development and control in this section could hardly be starker.
Part 3 – Corridor is in some ways reminiscent of Part 1. It takes two trade corridors and looks at their effects, but also argues for the notion of corridor as selective and who has access to do what within that corridor space. Rippa notes that in corridor situations, one may be geographically close, but far in other ways. This is particularly so through increased security and regulation which produce control but also channel towards particular directions and in specific ways. As a very minor quibble, this reviewer found the arguments in Part 3 slightly more difficult to follow than elsewhere, but the use of corridor as a conceptual tool works well.
Taken together, all three parts add up to a timely, and relevant, conclusion of the book, which notes that in developing the borderlands, the state, or the centre, has become a very real and close entity in hitherto remote corners. Moreover, what happens at the borderlands is relevant for us all, as the development of the borderlands offers a glimpse of the future of China, of its relations with neighbours and changing role in the world (p. 251).
This is an excellent book, which builds on over a decade of research, and is rich with ethnographic description and underlines the importance of nuance and the value of lived experience. The book is very accessible, elegantly written and convincingly argued.
Bielefeld University (Germany)