Bringing Kierkegaard into anthropology: Repetition, absurdity, and curses in Fiji

Type Journal Article - American Ethnologist
Title Bringing Kierkegaard into anthropology: Repetition, absurdity, and curses in Fiji
Volume 41
Issue 1
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2014
Page numbers 163-175
URL​ces/Reading group/tomlinson-bringing-kirkegaard-into-anthropology.pdf
nthropologists have paid little attention to the work of the Danish
philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55). In this article, I
examine two concepts he developed that can be especially productive
for the anthropological analysis of Christian discourse
and practice: “repetition,” or the act of “recollecting forward” to
reshape old things into new ones, and “absurdity,” the acceptance of irresolvable
paradox. I begin by reviewing two models of temporality in the anthropology
of Christianity, one associated with the work of Fenella Cannell
and the other with the work of Joel Robbins. I suggest that Kierkegaard’s
concept of “repetition” offers a third and especially insightful perspective
on Christian ideologies of change. Following that discussion, I examine
Fijian Methodist rituals for overcoming curses, analyzing them within this
Kierkegaardian frame. Finally, I turn to the concept of “absurdity” to make
sense of a key paradox: While it may be true, as Marshall Sahlins asserts,
that many Christians have long characterized “life as movement towards
those things that made one feel good and away from those things that hurt”
(1996:415), many communities, nonetheless, display great zeal in engaging
with apparently hurtful, dangerous things as a foundational element in
their Christian practice. This tendency is, I argue, not simply a matter of
motivation—bringing the devil into church just so you can kick him out—
but something more perplexing and not ultimately reducible to a systematic
logic that separates pleasures and gains from pains and losses.
In this article, I have three main goals. The first is to begin to bring
Kierkegaard into dialogue with cultural anthropology to discover new aspects
of recuperative ritual action. The second goal is to illustrate my argument
above by expanding on an ethnographic claim I have made in earlier
publications: namely, that Fijian Methodism generates pervasive and recurrent
senses of loss even as it raises the possibility of recuperation from
such loss. My third goal is to use Kierkegaard to reevaluate the claim that
Christian models of human action are oriented toward the “pursuit of happiness”
and the avoidance of pain. Christianity is not a single, disarticulated
thing, and it may shape visions and actions that actively seek suffering
through an embrace of faith as absurdly compelling.

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