Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Ethics
The ethical turn has brought virtue ethics to the fore in anthropological debates on practice, power, and subjectivity. Inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of tradition, as well as Michel Foucault’s studies of sexuality, anthropologists have since explored the ways in which people fashion their subjectivities in accordance with the ideals of moral traditions, as well as the new socialities that emerge from collective projects of self-cultivation. This theoretical orientation has encouraged a rethinking of our notions of agency and freedom, challenging the myth of the autonomous liberal subject, as demonstrated in the work of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Charles Hirschkind, and Nadia Fadil, among others. Unsettling Eurocentric notions of what it means to be human more broadly, this recent scholarship has demonstrated how definitions of the good life diverge greatly, with moral traditions offering radically different means to reach equally disparate ends.
While such studies have yielded important insights, anthropologists of religion like Samuli Schielke, James Laidlaw, and Magnus Marsden, among others, have noted that the concept of tradition, with its focus on practices of self-cultivation, tends to overemphasize the coherence of religious subjectivities, thereby blinding us to the role of ambivalence, value-conflict, and doubt in the lives of religious people. Drawing attention to the internal complexities of subjectivity, these scholars focus on experiences that are antithetical to certainty, enthusiasm, and devotion. Such experiences, they suggest, are inherent to everyday life and therefore continuously disrupt traditions of moral discipline.
The goal of this panel is to move beyond this dichotomy and see moral traditions not as homogenous modes of life, but as frameworks “through which people exercise an aspiration to coherence,” as Nada Moumtaz suggests. Positing that the coherence of the virtuous self is never an achieved state, but always an aspiration, and that therefore experiences of ambivalence, uncertainty, contradiction, doubt, skepticism, conflict, failure, guilt, irony, and regret, are integral to living within a moral tradition, we ask: How do people deal with such sentiments practically in their attempts to cultivate a virtuous self? What ethical value is inherent to attempts to overcome (or live with) uncertainty? How do people inhabit and navigate heteroglossic spaces of modern life, where distinct moral traditions and incommensurable sensibilities and dispositions dynamically coexist? How do power/knowledge nexuses define the stakes attached to making certain choices, and, consequently, the ways in which ambivalence is lived? Probing these questions among others, this panel thus provides a context by which to reconsider how current anthropological debates on self-cultivation and ambivalence might be considered in conversation, rather than opposition, and what new understandings of subjectivity can emerge as a result.