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C u r r e n t A n t h r o p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

䉷 2004 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2004/4502-0002$3.00

In hitting upon a mathematical metaphor for the title of

this essay, I surprised myself. I am not typically one to
Asymptote of the think in mathematical terms. But it is precisely the ca-
pacity to surprise oneself that I want to draw attention
Ineffable to as an initial indication of my argument’s direction.
We can surprise ourselves; indeed, we are always a bit
outside ourselves, outrunning or lagging a bit behind and
seldom in perfect accord with ourselves. In making this
Embodiment, Alterity, and the observation I am neither appealing to the unconscious
nor putting forward a description of consciousness. My
Theory of Religion1 point is about being-in-the-world, our human condition
of existence not only as beings with experience but as
beings in relation to others. And here also we are inev-
itably surprised by others, given the impossibility of per-
by Thomas J. Csordas fectly coinciding with them in thought or feeling, mood
or motivation. In this sense, the problem of subjectivity
is that we are never completely ourselves, and the prob-
lem of intersubjectivity is that we are never completely
Alterity is the phenomenological kernel of religion, and insofar in accord with others.
as alterity is part of the structure of being-in-the-world, religion In a moment I will formulate a thesis about religion
is an inevitable feature of human existence. This essay elabo- that is foreshadowed in this observation about surprise.
rates these ideas by juxtaposing traditional phenomenology of re-
First, however, we must come to terms with just what is
ligion with contemporary theorizing about alterity. The argu-
ment moves from an opening reflection about the “origin” of included in “religion” as a category of human activity and
religion and the presumed interiority of religious experience to a experience. In her 2002 distinguished lecture to the So-
critique that modifies the phenomenologists’ understanding of ciety for the Anthropology of Religion, Edith Turner di-
religion’s object as a majestic and wholly “Other” with the no- rectly confronted this issue in her title, which includes
tion of an intimate alterity grounded in embodiment. The inti-
mate alterity of the gendered self as embodied otherness is illus- the question “What Does This Binding Word ‘Religion’
trated in a series of ethnographic moments that pinpoint the Mean?” With this she alludes to the source of the word
elementary structure of alterity described by the term “écart.” “religion” in the Latin religare (from ligare, “to tie or
Applying these insights to contemporary events suggests that bind”). This etymology has often been disputed; most re-
there is a sense in which political alterity is also a religious
cently, Jacques Derrida (1998), in a reflection on faith and
knowledge as sources of religion, invokes the debate about
t h o m a s j . c s o r d a s is Professor of Anthropology and Reli- whether the word derives from religare or relegere (from
gion and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Case West- legere, “to harvest or gather”). But what or who is being
ern Reserve University (Cleveland, OH 44106-7125, U.S.A. bound or gathered, by whom, for what purpose, and as
[txc9@case.edu]). Born in 1952, he was educated at The Ohio protection against what? When we use the adjective “re-
State University (B.A., 1974) and Duke University (Ph.D., 1980).
ligious” to qualify reference to institutions, ideas, rituals,
He was on the research faculty of Harvard Medical School
(1984–89) and taught at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee experience, or imagination, what is being added that is
(1989–90) before joining the faculty at Case in 1990. He was a re- unique? What is the difference between “the religious
cipient of the 1988 Stirling Award for Contributions in Psycho- imagination” and imagination toutcourt? For that matter,
logical Anthropology and has been a visiting fellow of the Rus- to borrow Derrida’s words, “All sacredness and all holi-
sell Sage Foundation (1996–97). He has served as editor of Ethos:
Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology ness are not necessarily, in the strict sense of the term, if
(1996–2001) and as president of the Society for the Anthropology there is one, religious” (1998:8–9).
of Religion (1998–2002). His research interests include anthropo- Moreover, as Derrida insists, as soon as we adopt the
logical theory, comparative religion, medical and psychological word “religion” to designate our interest “we are already
anthropology, cultural phenomenology and embodiment, globali-
speaking Latin” (1998:29). This means that we are al-
zation and social change, and language and culture. Among his
publications are The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of ready laden with a great deal of cultural and historical
Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, baggage, sedimented through the profound change em-
1994), (edited) Embodiment and Experience: The Existential bodied in the succession of the Roman Empire by the
Ground of Culture and Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Holy Roman Empire, the Roman Church, and the Pax
Press, 1994), Language, Charisma, and Creativity: Ritual Life in
the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (Berkeley: University of Cali- Americana. Indeed, it is simple enough to relativize the
fornia Press, 1997; paperback ed. Palgrave 2002), and Body/Mean- word with a few examples. In Japanese the word that
ing/Healing (New York: Palgrave, 2002). The present paper was translates as “religion” applies only to so-called new re-
submitted 27 ix 02 and accepted 13 vi 03. ligions and not to the established cults of Buddhism or
Shinto. In Navajo there is no generic word for “religion,”
[Supplementary material appears in the electronic edition of this
issue on the journal’s web page (http://www.journals.uchicago/ though there are words for “holy” and for “sacred
edu/CA/home.html).] ceremony.”

1. A version of this essay was presented as the Presidential Address

ful to Janis Jenkins, Michael Lambek, Veena Das, and the anony-
to the Society for the Anthropology of Religion in 2002. I am grate-
mous referees for current anthropology.

164 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

If the word “religion” carries too much baggage, neither Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and
can we depend on neologism, as in “numinous,” a coinage adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
of Rudolf Otto (1923) from the Latin numen, self-con- mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their
sciously on the model of the derivation of “ominous” from enlarged and numerous senses could perceive. And
“omen.” Nor does it feel safe simply to add together the particularly they studied the genius of each city and
entire vocabulary of relevant words—“religion,” “the nu- country, placing it under its mental deity; Till a sys-
minous,” “the sacred,” “the holy,” “the supernatural,” tem was formed, which some took advantage of, and
“the divine,” “the transcendent,” “the occult,” “mys- enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or ab-
tery,” “sacrifice,” “salvation,” “faith”—and declare that stract the mental deities from their objects: thus be-
their sum constitutes our interest. The relations among gan Priesthood; Choosing the forms of worship from
these terms are endlessly nuanced, and we must be mind- poetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the
ful of the dangers in attempting to construct a universalist Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that
definition of religion brought to the fore by Talal Asad All deities reside in the Human breast.
(1993) in his critique of Clifford Geertz’s (1966) well-
known definition. Yet I am in favor of keeping “religion” Blake’s theory is evidently a theory of primal animism,
as part of our conceptual repertoire: Asad’s critique of the but it is even more a theory of poetic and corporal bring-
category was a necessary one, but it no more does away ing-to-life made possible by the “enlarged and numerous
with religion as an anthropological category than Wolf’s senses” of the prelapsarian moment. For Blake the fall
(1982) critique of “history” or Abu-Lughod’s (1991) cri- is a flight from concreteness to abstraction and the slav-
tique of “culture” forced scholars to stop using those ery of mystification. Forgetting that all deities reside in
terms. Such critiques do not force us to abandon our con- the human breast is for Blake equivalent to saying that
cepts; rather, they constrain us to use the concepts more the “binding” achieved by religion is the binding, or
wisely. binding off, of the human imagination. Blake’s manifesto
In this respect, we are less well served by trying to is thick with meaning, one strand having to do with the
outline the boundaries of religion as a category than (tak- already braided historical-existential origin of religion,
ing a cue from the cognitivists) by searching for a pro- another having to do with the apparent “interiority” im-
totype around which what we will provisionally call “re- plied by the residence of deities in the human breast,
ligion” has been built up. This prototype would be, in a and yet another having to do with the humanism in the
particular sense, the origin of religion—its experiential poet’s—and the scholar’s—skeptical stance toward reli-
source, its phenomenological kernel. My thesis concern- gion. In this section I will discuss origin and interiority,
ing this problem is that religion is predicated on and returning to the problem of skepticism later.
elaborated from a primordial sense of “otherness” or al- The notion of an “origin” of religion can be taken in
terity. Furthermore, because of this the religious sensi- both a historical and a phenomenological sense or, in
bility exists sui generis, that is, is not reducible to any other words, a temporal and an existential sense—just
other category. But let me say this more precisely: as the word “moment” can mean either a minute portion
Thesis: Alterity is the phenomenological kernel of of time or importance in influence or effect. I want to
religion. clarify the sense in which I understand alterity to be the
Corollary: Insofar as alterity is part of the structure of phenomenological “origin” of religion. In looking for
being-in-the-world—an elementary structure of exis- help on this topic from an anthropological quarter, it will
tence—religion is inevitable, perhaps even necessary. not do to turn in the most obvious direction toward the
In the remainder of this essay I will elaborate, qualify, contemporary masters Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz,
and illustrate this thesis and its corollary. To begin, al- and Mary Douglas, for, as penetrating as their analyses
terity is neither objective nor absolute. In the sense in are, their studies of religion are often means to an end
which I am using it, alterity is an elementary constituent rather than attempts to understand religion in its own
of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, and this is how it right. Religion offers clear and compelling symbolic per-
is part of the structure of being-in-the-world. Not only formances and imperatives for behavior, and these can
can it be elaborated into the monstrous as well as the in turn tell us much about cultures and social life. For
divine but it can be transformed into identity, intimacy, our present purpose, however, we will turn briefly in-
or familiarity. Certainly the mystics have discovered that stead to two scholars who do make religion as such their
the wholly other can be modulated into the wholly one problem, namely, Weston La Barre and Roy Rappaport.
and that it is equally awesome either way. The first thing one notices about these two otherwise
so different thinkers is that their masterworks on reli-
gion share a concern for origins. The subtitle of La Barre’s
Originary Alterity (1970) Ghost Dance is The Origins of Religion, and Rap-
paport’s (1999) posthumous magnum opus is Ritual and
Religion in the Making of Humanity. Both are concerned
Let us begin with William Blake, poetic master of alterity
in their own ways with adaptation and evolution and
and imagination, from “The Marriage of Heaven and
less with the nature of culture and society than with the
Hell” (1988:38):
nature of humanity as discerned through religion. Both
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with make explicit reference to Rudolf Otto’s notions of the
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 165

numinous and the mysterium tremendum, Rappaport parts of the psyche from one another that it causes. The
more favorably than La Barre. Most germane to my ar- emergence of language created an originary rupture, a
gument, both look for the origins of religion and the holy profound alterity. He frequently calls attention to Martin
in biology. I want to point to a correspondence between Buber’s argument that the root of evil is the dual capa-
what appears in their work as an appeal to evolutionary bility of humans to lie and to pose alternatives and em-
origin through biology and what I am trying to outline phasizes that these possibilities were constituted by the
as an existential origin through embodiment, with the emergence of language. At the same time he suggests
point of correspondence being the sense of alterity. that “the sacred is inconceivable in the absence of lan-
In La Barre’s formulation, religious response is guage,” which is unique to humans, but conversely that
uniquely human and foreign to animals because “the “language could not have emerged in the absence of re-
context is the universally human nuclear family, the ligion”—they are coeval (1995:602; 1979:210). Indeed,
condition is individual human neoteny” (1970:12). Neo- language and the sacred “emerged together in a process
teny is the human condition of being born immature. In of mutual causation formally similar to, and in all like-
contrast to other animals, we have an unusually large lihood concurrent with, that which is said to have or-
brain at birth that keeps growing afterward, generally ganized the interdependent evolution of human intelli-
instinctless learning, and prolonged adolescence. In the gence and human technology” (1999:418).
context of “the extravagantly heightened mammalian In fact, the formal similarity of these two evolutionary
dependency of the unfinished organism” (p. 94), “human pairs is only apparent, for while intelligence and tech-
neoteny not only provides conditions for learning both nology developed in complementarity, by Rappaport’s ac-
of group culture and individual character, but also forms count the sacred and language developed in opposition
the experiential matrix for magic and religion, and in- or reversibility. In other words, if the emergence of lan-
deed for the scientific world-view as well” (p. 87). In guage introduced alterity into the structure of existence,
biological terms, the effective environment for the hu- there was a second level of alterity simultaneously in-
man baby is not the material environment but that cre- troduced within the structure of language, in which one
ated by other people. “The biologically infantilized hu- term ceaselessly corrects the other. In terms of adapta-
man learns his humanity from infancy onward. This tion, which Rappaport understands as the processes by
humanity arises in the psychological experiences of his which living systems maintain themselves in the face
particular animal milieu. The emotional reality of magic of perturbations (1999:408), “sanctity has made it pos-
and religion lies precisely in these experiences” (p. 357). sible for associations of organisms to persist in the face
For La Barre the feelings of dependency and power orig- of increasing threats posed to their orderly social life by
inate in experiences of infantile omnipotence and the the increasing ability of their members to lie” (p. 416).
subsequent omnipotence of the parents, particularly the “The innumerable possibilities inherent in words and
father. His psychoanalytic argument from neoteny is one their combinations are constrained, reduced, and ordered
way to ground alterity in the body and to assimilate the by the unquestionable Word enunciated in ritual’s ap-
wholly other of religion to the intimately other of the parently invariant canon. Sanctity orders a versatility
father. that otherwise might spawn chaos” (p. 418).
Rappaport picks up this theme of infantile dependency, To put this slightly differently (as Rappaport does in
though beginning from Erik Erikson he does so in ref- a way that we will construe as consistent), for Rappaport
erence to the infant’s experience of the mother rather there is both a dangerous rupture and potential for chaos
than the father. He also calls attention to the “pseudo- in language and a direct connection leading from lan-
infancy” evoked in some rituals, suggesting that it may guage to logos. He understands logos as a virtually pan-
have “its ontogenetic origin in the relationship of pre- cultural conception of a cosmic principle of order that
verbal infants to their mothers” (1999:390). Several pages undergirds the sacred and sanctity, ritual, and the reli-
earlier he cites Bateson citing Aldous Huxley on under- gious foundations of humanity. He refers to the “epochal
standing a state of grace or holiness, “the holy” being significance of language for the world beyond the species
for Rappaport the union of the discursive and nondis- in which it appeared. . . . Language has ever more pow-
cursive aspects of human experience or, in his terms, the erfully reached out from the species in which it emerged
union of the sacred and the numinous: “the communi- to reorder and subordinate the natural systems in which
cation and behavior of animals has a naivete, simplicity, populations of that species participate” (1995:606–7).
which man has lost. Man’s behavior is corrupted by de- This formulation of Rappaport’s almost appears to give
ceit—even self-deceit—,by purpose, and by self-con- language an intentionality of its own, an alterity that
sciousness. As Aldous saw the matter, man has lost the foreshadows its construal in human experience as logos.
‘grace’ which animals still have” (p. 384). Now, pseudo- This formulation reveals the alterity within language,
infancy and animal grace are incommensurable, both be- the split that pits sanctity and logos against lies and
cause one is preverbal and one nonverbal and because alternatives. And finally, this analysis introduces a third
for the infant there is already a powerful other while for level of alterity, showing that in both positive and neg-
the animal there is none. ative forms, as logos and lie, it appears compellingly on
Rappaport strongly suggests that if there was such a both sides of the holy—the discursive sacred and the
fall from grace in human evolution it came about nondiscursive numinous.
through the evolution of language and the alienation of We must turn now to the second issue evoked by
166 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

Blake’s argument, the apparent “interiority” implied by representations and transpersonal processes, on the one
his reference to the residence of deities in the human hand, and bodily processes and embodied subjectivity,
breast. William James (1961) based his well-known study on the other.
of religion on the most acute and extreme interior, per- The shared theme of otherness in the above reflections
sonal, solitary spiritual moments of religious geniuses, speaks directly to my thesis about the phenomenological
seeking the essence of religious experiences in those kernel of religion. The most explicit clue to what con-
“which are most one-sided, exaggerated, and intense.” stitutes this kernel, however, comes from the work of
The reverse strategy of seeking the minimal criterion of phenomenologists of religion. Here I am thinking not so
religious experience—the phenomenological kernel that much of the more widely read Eliade as of the less fa-
is the origin of religious symbol, sentiment, and insti- miliar Rudolf Otto and Gerardus van der Leeuw. Among
tution—can be just as productive. Instead of examining anthropologists, van der Leeuw is virtually unknown,
the most religious moments of the most religious man, and Otto is often emblematic of anachronistic theories
we want to know about the most marginally religious of religion. As a student in the 1970s I learned about the
moments of the least religious person. study of religion from an anthropological standpoint that
James’s insights have been addressed by two eminent acknowledged precursors whose ideas were seminal but
anthropologists in the William James Lecture on the Va- who were now to be understood as quaint and out-
rieties of Religious Experience at his home institution moded—among them Sir James George Frazier, Max
of Harvard. The 1998 lecture was delivered by Clifford Muller, Edward Tylor, Numa-Denis Fustel de Coulanges,
Geertz, who, as one might surmise, shifts the ground of and Rudolf Otto. I recall being surprised at some point
discussion from the solitary to the public. He suggests to discover that Otto was relatively quite contemporary
that our times require “firmer, more determinate, more and continued to be read quite seriously in certain quar-
transpersonal, extravert” terms than “experience,” ters of religious studies.
terms such as “meaning,” “identity,” and “power” (all For Otto, the object toward which the numinous con-
spelled with capital letters and placed within scare- sciousness is directed is a mysterium tremendum et fas-
quotes) (2000:175). Yet in the end he recognizes that
cinans, and he described its central characteristic as fol-
James’s sensibility remains relevant to our era of seismic
lows (1923:26–27):
religious change insofar as it provides “circumstantial
accounts of the personal inflections of religious engage- Taken in the religious sense, that which is “mysteri-
ment that reach far beyond the personal” and reflects an ous” is—to give it perhaps the most striking expres-
“openness to the foreign and unfamiliar, the particular sion—the “wholly other,” that which is quite be-
and incidental, yes, even the extreme and the brainsick” yond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and
(p. 185). To foreshadow the implications of my argument, the familiar, which therefore falls quite outside the
this openness to otherness and the unfamiliar is precisely limits of the “canny,” and is contrasted with it, fill-
the route by which we can and must trace the link be- ing the mind with blank wonder and astonishment.
tween personal experience and, in Geertz’s words, the . . . the essential characteristic . . . lies in a peculiar
“conflicts and dilemmas of our age” (p. 185). “moment” of consciousness, to wit, the stupor be-
In the 1997 William James Lecture Arthur Kleinman fore something “wholly other” . . .
takes the opposite tack by explicitly embracing an an-
thropology of experience. For Kleinman the point of con- The invocation of blank wonder, astonishment, and stu-
vergence between an anthropology of experience and the por is striking, but I would call attention instead to the
study of religion is suffering, not so much in the sense phenomenon of the “wholly other,” pointing as well to
of theodicy as in the sense in which it constitutes “the the manner in which Otto cites the “limits of the
stuff of experience that summons inquiry” (1997:316). ‘canny’” (an issue to which we will return). Van der
Speaking of the Weberian paradigm represented to some Leeuw (1986 (1938):23) had a corresponding observation
degree by Geertz, he is led “to speak almost of a tyranny about the object of religion:
of meaning” (p. 317) that suppresses the “fragmentary,
contradictory, changing, unexpressed, and inexpressible” The first affirmation we can make about the Object
aspects of sensory conditions, moral and aesthetic sen- of Religion is that it is a highly exceptional and ex-
sibilities, muscular agency and action, social relations tremely impressive “Other.” Subjectively, again, the
and memories. Citing Primo Levi and Veena Das, he ob- initial state of man’s mind is amazement; and, as
serves that meaning-making can be inadequate, distort- Soderblom has remarked, this is true not only for
ing, and inhuman, “a political tool that reworks expe- philosophy but equally for religion. As yet, it must
rience so that it conforms to the demands of power” (p. further be observed, we are in no way concerned
318). Again to foreshadow my argument, Kleinman sug- with the supernatural or the transcendent: we can
gests that the profound otherness of suffering can be un- speak of “God” in a merely figurative sense; but
derstood only insofar as one understands that “experi- there arises and persists an experience which con-
ence is both within and without the boundary of the nects or unites itself to the “Other” that thus ob-
body-self, crossing back and forth as if that body was trudes. . . . this Object is a departure from all that is
permeable” (p. 326), and that meaning-making is most usual and familiar; and this again is the consequence
consequential insofar as it is a bridge between cultural of the Power it generates.
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 167

This formulation is somewhat more sober than Otto’s, cation one finds, as Charles Long has observed, that
even in the way it identifies amazement as the initial “Otto is telling us that it is possible to experience apart
state of man’s mind. It also, at least momentarily, speaks from the categorical schema,” that is, to have “experi-
of God in a figurative sense and of the supernatural and ence of reality as a priori, as a datum that has not yet
transcendent as secondary to the encounter with oth- become a structure of the human project” (1976:402)—
erness. Then there is power, which van der Leeuw ini- in short, as simply other. I think that the basic insight
tially elaborates as a sublime potency using familiar eth- can be given a theoretical grounding that is not theolog-
nographic examples of mana and orenda. Otto too ical but accounts for the possibility and perhaps inevi-
evokes the notion of power but in his characteristically tability of religion. My argument is that alterity is a fun-
more dramatic fashion initially elaborates it as an over- damental aspect of human being—let us say an
powering “aweful majesty” (1923:20). elementary structure of existence—and that misrecog-
In looking to these quarters for insight about alterity, nition of this has resulted in both untold misery and
it is well worth noting that vehement opposition to the boundless creativity in human life. This is no more than
phenomenologists of religion persists. For example, as if what Blake said in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
William James had initiated some kind of degenerative In sum, the phenomenologists’ error was to make a
process, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben identifies distinction between the object and the subject of religion
Otto as the culmination of the psychologization of re- when the actual object of religion is objectification itself,
ligious experience. Agamben argues that with Otto’s the rending apart of subject and object that makes us
“concept of the sacred that completely coincides with human and in the same movement bestows on us—or
the concept of the obscure and the impenetrable, a the- burdens us with—the inevitability of religion. The “ob-
ology that had lost all experience of the revealed word ject” of religion is not the other; it is the existential
celebrated its union with a philosophy that had aban- aporia of alterity itself. The difficulty in recognizing this
doned all sobriety in the face of feeling. That the religious is precisely the difficulty of distinguishing a psycholog-
belongs entirely to the sphere of psychological emotion, ical from an existential language and moving from a lan-
that it essentially has to do with shivers and goose guage of interiority to a language of intersubjectivity.
bumps—this is the triviality that the neologism ‘numi- This being said, our task is to rehabilitate the basic in-
nous’ had to dress up as science” (1995:78). This critique sight of these writers in the light of anthropological in-
indeed captures some of the flavor of Otto’s text, but in terpretation and update it in the light of contemporary
its harsh dismissiveness it squanders the embedded jewel theorizing about alterity.
of insight. Taking a different critical tack, Donald Wiebe
(1999) has identified the work of van der Leeuw as a
religio-cultural quest the effect of which is to depreciate Intimate Alterity
and undermine the scientific study of religion. Wiebe
cites van der Leeuw’s interest in comprehending phe- For Otto, the numinous can be understood only “by
nomena in accordance with their spiritual content and means of the special way it is reflected in the mind in
his claim that all comprehension is ultimately religious terms of feeling.” Following Schleiermacher, he identi-
insofar as “all significance sooner or later leads to ulti- fies this feeling as a certain kind of dependence (but is
mate significance” (p. 180). But let us be aware that in it really a feeling of contingency?) the object of which is
religious studies the stakes in the battle between expla- the numinous. Curiously, he names this “creature-feel-
nation and understanding are even higher than for the ing . . . the emotion of a creature, submerged and over-
same battle in anthropology. In religious studies the sci- whelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that
entific account is pitted against theological commit- which is supreme above all creatures” (1923:10). Is this
ment, and to admit that religion has any existence sui creature the infant or the animal, or the adult in prayer?
generis implies the theological conclusion (see Allen It has been said that apes cannot swim and indeed often
1996). In anthropology the causal account is pitted panic and drown because, unlike other mammals in-
against the interpretive one, with the issue being the cluding dogs and horses, which swim instinctually, they
relative merit of hard (I prefer to say “brittle”) and soft are rational beings and reason tells them that they will
(or “flexible”) methods, and the debate over whether re- drown if they breathe in water. Humans cannot swim
ligion has a sui generis status is often either sidestepped instinctually, either, but we have the capacity to imagine
or recognized as more a matter of theory than of the- beyond reason, and it allows us to transcend ourselves—
ology. to surprise ourselves—and figure out how to move
The problem with these formulations is not just that around in the water.
the phenomenologists were inordinately psychological The image of water, of being submerged, the invoca-
in their approach, nor is it simply that they were Chris- tion of the creature, of dependence, and most of all of
tian theologians and therefore both spiritually commit- our attempt to come to grips with alterity suggest the
ted and ethnocentric. The problem is a theoretical one relevance of Georges Bataille’s theory of religion, in
or, perhaps more accurately, a methodological one that which animality and water figure heavily. Bataille’s work
comes from reifying alterity—reifying otherness as an invokes a profound alterity by inverting the expected
object, rendering it “out there” in such a way that we relation between immanence and transcendence. In his
can be “in its presence.” If one can suspend this reifi- view the goal of religion is to recapture the intimacy of
168 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

an immanence prior to all alterity, and he shows how frightening and “vertiginously dangerous” (p. 36). It is
very strange that is. The primary image is that of one immanence and not transcendence that constitutes the
animal eating another. “What is given when one animal true otherness of animal oblivion to which our con-
eats another is always the fellow creature of the one that sciousness aspires but which, asymptotically, “it must
eats” (1989:17), in complete immediacy and without lose again as it draws near to it” (p. 57).
there being between the two any relation of subordina- Put otherwise, “intimacy is the limit of clear con-
tion, difference, dependence, transcendence, objectifi- sciousness” (Bataille 1989:99); consciousness as such
cation, discontinuity, consciousness, or duration. Since cannot grasp intimacy because intimacy cannot be re-
for the animal nothing is given through time, the de- duced to a thing. But consciousness can undo itself, re-
struction of the eaten is “only a disappearance in a world verse its reductive operations in order to reduce itself to
where nothing is posited beyond the present” (p. 18). intimacy, by dissolving and destroying utilitarian “ob-
Bataille might respond to Otto that this is the original jects as such in the field of consciousness,” thereby re-
creature-feeling as opposed to the feeling of having been turning “to the situation of the animal that eats another
created that Otto implies. And far more than the feeling animal” (p. 103). The sovereign act of destroying objects
of being submerged, far more even than a feeling that is is simultaneously the destruction of the subject as an
“oceanic,” this ultimate intimate immanence of ani- individual, “but it is insofar as clear consciousness pre-
mality is a mode of being “in the world like water in vails that the objects actually destroyed will not destroy
water.” (A startling, if not compelling, image that Ba- humanity itself” (p. 103). This is a form of violence, but
taille might endorse as evocative of his point about an- it is necessary—and here I am again reminded of Blake—
imality and watery immanence is included in the elec- “for anyone to whom human life is an experience to be
tronic edition of this issue on the journal’s web site.) carried as far as possible” (p. 110), and it leads directly
For Bataille the moment that renders us human is the to the limit, the impossible. When we search for the
moment in which we posit an object. The initial object existential structure of this final alterity, we must take
is the tool, the “nascent form of the non-I” (1989:27), our clue from Bataille’s observation that humanity’s first
and the moment of alterity and discontinuity constituted object is the tool and combine it with Marcel Mauss’s
by positing an object is what Bataille calls “transcen- (1950) insight that humanity’s first tool is the body. But
dence.” From this moment he demonstrates an inexo- the body is also the site wherein this “internally wrench-
rable unfolding of a consciousness that reduces the orig- ing violence that animates the whole . . . reveals the
inal immanence of the world to thingness and invents a impossible in laughter, ecstasy, or tears,” and this im-
supreme being that is also a kind of thing considerably possible is nothing other than “the sovereign self-con-
impoverished from the animal sense of continuity. Dis- sciousness that, precisely, no longer turns away from
continuity multiplies as humans sequentially develop itself” (p. 111).
We have more to do in specifying this embodied oth-
sacrifice, festivals, warfare, military order, universal em-
erness, but let us pursue it by way of intimacy. The phe-
pire, and industrial order by means of processes including
nomenologists of religion had not only a too objectified
dualism, reason, transcendence, mediation, morality,
understanding of the “wholly other” but one that was
clear consciousness, and sovereign self-consciousness
too grandiose. Instead of the wholly other projected onto
(pp. 56–57):
cosmic majesty, I want to turn our attention to the in-
Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, timately other. The intimate alterity that I will juxtapose
that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy. Con- to the wholly other is not the intimacy of animality but
sciousness could not have become clear in the one that can only be an intimation of that intimacy,
course of time if it had not turned away from its insofar as it begins necessarily from our human con-
awkward contents, but clear consciousness is itself sciousness. As we have seen, one of the ways that Otto
looking for what it has itself lost, and what it must characterized the wholly other was that it was outside
lose again as it draws near to it. Of course, what it the canny, and, indeed, he equated the uncanny with the
has lost is not outside it; consciousness turns away numinous (1923:40). Here we must fold Freud into our
from the obscure intimacy of consciousness itself. account for the manner in which he captures a much
Religion, whose essence is the search for lost inti- more intimate alterity in this feeling. In his study of
macy, comes down to the effort of clear conscious- religious representations of the monstrous, Tim Beal
ness which wants to be a complete self-conscious- compares the two writers’ approaches to the uncanny or
ness: but this effort is futile, since consciousness of unheimlich as follows: “What Otto calls ‘wholly other’
intimacy is possible only at a level where conscious- Freud would call ‘other’ only insofar as it has been re-
ness is no longer an operation whose outcome im- pressed. For Freud the unheimlich is only ‘outside the
plies duration, that is, at the level where clarity, house’ (the house of the self, the house of culture, the
which is the effect of the operation, is no longer house of the cosmos) insofar as it is hidden within the
given. house” (2002:8). Yet the progression from self to cosmos
within Beal’s parentheses is itself a clue that we need
Insofar as we are human we are always already in the not choose between the two, for the wholly other and
world from the stance of alterity so that, paradoxically, the intimately other are two sides of the same leaf.
it is identity and continuity that are alien to us and hence The image of otherness in Freud, insofar as it relates
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 169

to our topic, is to be found less in the notion of the and return in a myriad of forms. In the language that I
sovereign id or the hidden unconscious than in the no- have been developing here, the return of the repressed
tion of the uncanny. My emphasis is not on the uncanny is the inevitable betrayal of identity by alterity, the reen-
as frightening but on the uncanny as close to us, as in- chantment of the world that imposes itself as soon as
timately other. First, there is something uncanny about the disenchanted world finally becomes so familiar as to
the word itself: not only can unheimlich refer to both begin to appear strange—that strange interchangebility
the wholly other and the intimately other but the root or transposability of heimlich and unheimlich that Freud
word heimlich can in certain contexts mean its opposite. talks about. At least, such an analysis might make it
Heimlich can mean something that is familiar or agree- easier to understand Eliade’s (1958) notion of hierophany
able but also something hidden and kept out of sight. not as a manifestation of divinity but as an upwelling of
Although Freud is unclear about the precise relation be- alterity, a spontaneous epoche or lowering of the veil of
tween the two meanings, there appears to be a devel- cultural taken-for-grantedness that covers the illusion of
opment along the lines that what is familiar becomes self-identity. The point again is that the other is much
private, what is private becomes hidden, and what is closer than we would be led to believe by the phenom-
hidden becomes spooky. In any case, there is a semantic enologists of religion or at least that there is no under-
alterity in this word such that “heimlich is a word the standing of the wholly other without the intimate other.
meaning of which develops in the direction of ambiva- Let me specify this sense of intimate alterity with a
lence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, un- concrete ethnographic instance from my studies of Cath-
heimlich” (1955:226). olic Charismatic healing. In what I called “imaginal per-
Freud’s famous conclusion is that the uncanny even- formances,” Jesus or the Virgin Mary would often appear
tuates in the recurrence of something that has been re- or be evoked in healing prayer that took the form of
pressed, something originally familiar that by means of visualization in which one of these divine presences
this repression has become alienated and threatening in would speak and engage the afflicted person in a healing
the sense that, although we may yearn to return to the embrace. Although these presences can be understood as
womb, we would be terrified to find ourselves there again internal transitional objects in a psychoanalytic sense
or in the sense that the experience of having a double, and even as ideal objects or Others to which one can
reassuring at a very young age, becomes a harbinger of have a mature, intimate relationship that serves as a
death much later. For Freud the factors that turn some- prototype for intimacy as an aspect of a sacred self, I
thing merely frightening into something uncanny in- wanted to push the interpretation farther. I suggested
clude the effacement of the distinction between imagi- that this experience is a genuine intimacy with a pri-
nation and reality found in animism, magic, and sorcery, mordial aspect of the self that is the existential ground
the infantile omnipotence of thoughts, the human am- for both its fundamental indeterminacy and the possi-
bivalence toward death, involuntary repetition, and the bility of an intersubjective relationship—its own inher-
castration complex (1955:243). Freud qualifies his ac- ent otherness. In other words, the imaginal Jesus is the
count as perhaps satisfying psychoanalytic but not aes- alterity of the self. In this sense, to speak of intimacy
thetic interest in the uncanny and differentiates between with oneself is not to speak metaphorically. It is instead
the uncanny we actually experience and that which is to say that the capacity for intimacy begins with an ex-
portrayed in art and literature. Although he says nothing istential coming to terms with the alterity of the self
explicitly about religion, he approaches it in summariz- and that the presence of Jesus is an embodied metaphor
ing the two closely related phenomena that are the for that condition of selfhood. This is the Jesus that
sources of the uncanny: “An uncanny experience occurs speaks with a “still, small voice” within and whose pres-
either when infantile complexes which have been re- ence is an act of imagination (Csordas 1994:57–58).
pressed are once more revived by some impression, or This intimate alterity appears again in the Charismatic
when primitive beliefs [animism] which have been sur- practice of “resting in the Spirit,” in which a person is
mounted [by reason] seem once more to be confirmed” overwhelmed by divine power/presence and falls, typi-
(p. 249). cally from a standing position, into a sacred swoon. Al-
Freud too easily discounts, I think, the importance of though again we cannot fail to strike a psychoanalytic
a rival’s theory that highlights uncertainty about chord in noting the “oceanic” passivity before an om-
whether something is living or not—a body ambiguously nipotent paternal deity that characterizes this experi-
dead or alive, an automaton ambiguously animate or in- ence, I also suggested that the experience is constituted
animate—because it does not quite fit the psychoana- in the bodily synthesis of preobjective self processes.
lytic account. It is also curious that among his examples This is to say that the coming into being of “divine pres-
he does not mention the feeling of a presence that is not ence” as a cultural phenomenon is an objectification of
really there. This would be a feeling that we could con- embodiment itself. Consider the heaviness of limbs re-
trast both to the feeling of invisible divine presence in ported by people resting in the Spirit. Quoting Plugge,
religious experience and to the feeling of concrete inti- R. M. Zaner points out that “within the reflective ex-
macy in the caress of another person. But including perience of a healthy limb, no matter how silent and
these, and with a somewhat broader notion of alterity weightless it may be in action, there is yet, indetectably
building on Freud’s intuition, we can see one reason that hidden, a certain ‘heft’ ” (1981:56). This thinglike heft
religion can never go away—that it will always return of our bodies in conjunction with the spontaneous lift
170 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

of customary bodily performances defines our bodies as heimlich (homelike) and the unheimlich (uncanny). Za-
simultaneously belonging to us and estranged from us, ner’s discussion shows that the uncanny is grounded not
and hence the alterity of self is an embodied otherness. necessarily in an abstract recognition of mortality but
While resting in the Spirit, the heft that is always there in the concreteness of everyday embodied existence, in
for us indeterminately and preobjectively is made deter- which the “chill” is present even “at home.”
minate and objectified. Its essential alterity becomes an Elizabeth Grosz carries this line of thinking a step far-
object of somatic attention within the experiential ge- ther, not only grounding alterity in embodiment but
stalt defined as divine presence. The divine presence is making it the very precondition of embodiment (1994:
an intimate presence in a way that, because it encom- 209):
passes multiple modalities of the body-self, surpasses hu-
Bodies themselves, in their materialities, are never
man companionship. Like the divine presence in ima-
self-present, given things, immediate, certain self-ev-
ginal performance, resting in the Spirit thus offers both
idences because embodiment, corporeality, insist on
a surrogate source of intimacy for the lonely and a pro-
alterity, both that alterity they carry within them-
totype for human intimacy (Csordas 1994:246). selves (the heart of the psyche lies in the body; the
This alterity of the self can be taken in at least two body’s principles of functioning are psychological
senses. According to Zaner, self-presence and presence and cultural) and that alterity that gives them their
to the other are the two foundational moments of self. own concreteness and specificity (the alterities con-
Zaner understands self-presence as “situated self-reflex- stituting race, sex, sexualities, ethnic and cultural
ivity” and presence to the other as an “urgency . . . to specificities). Alterity is the very possibility and pro-
reveal itself to other inwardly realized selves” (1981:153). cess of embodiment: it conditions but is also a prod-
This is tellingly reminiscent of the urgency or energy uct of the pliability or plasticity of bodies which
that Otto says is an element of religion’s mysterium tre- makes them other than themselves, other than their
mendum. Yet on the level of the intimately other rather “nature,” their functions and identities.
than the wholly other I think it appears more clearly as
imagination and desire. The vivid presence of Jesus or Grosz makes these comments about alterity in the con-
Mary in Charismatic imaginal performance is a cultur- text of sexual difference, and we will be obliged to return
ally specific way to complete the second foundational to this issue as well. In general, the insistence on alterity
moment, providing an ideal Other to correspond to the of which she speaks is a direct consequence of the in-
moment of self-presence. determinate pliability and plasticity that is emphasized
A second sense of the self’s alterity is grounded in our by much contemporary scholarship on embodiment and
very embodiment. Zaner shows that the inescapability for our purpose can be identified with the body’s spon-
of our embodied nature and the limitations it imposes taneity in contrast with its “natural” (regular and law-
contribute to the feeling that our bodies are in a sense governed) functions and cycles.
“other” than ourselves. Our intimacy with our own bod-
ies also implicates us in whatever happens to them, and
realization that we are thus “susceptible to what can Embodied Alterity
happen to material things in general” corresponds to ex-
periencing the “chill” of mortality. In addition, our bod- I must make this notion of alterity of the self as em-
ies are always “hidden presences” to us, both insofar as bodied otherness more precise, because when Blake says
autonomic processes typically go on outside of aware- that all deities reside within the human breast I want to
ness (see also Leder 1990) and insofar as the possibility take him literally and say, yes, the breast and the limbs
persists of seeing ourselves as objects from the perspec- and the genitals and the head and the manner in which
tive of another. Our bodies are thus hidden presences to all are synthesized into the same bodily existence. Mer-
us at the same time as they are compellingly ours, and leau-Ponty goes to the heart of the matter when he dis-
accordingly Zaner argues (1981:54–55): cusses the intertwining or chiasmus between the sen-
tient and the sensible within our own bodies: “My hand,
My body is at once familiar and strange, intimate while it is felt from within, is also accessible from with-
and alien: “mine” most of all yet “other” most of out, itself tangible, for my other hand” (1968:133). Fur-
all, the ground for both subjective inwardness and thermore, he observes that one can have the curious sit-
objective outwardness. Whatever I want, wish, or uation of one hand’s touching an object and at the same
plan for, I irrevocably “grow older,” “become tired,” time being touched by the other hand, such that there
“feel ill,” “am energetic.” . . . The basis for the oth- is a crisscrossing and reversibility of the sentient and the
erness (and thereby the otherness of everything else) sensible (p. 143):
of the embodying organism is its having a life of its
own, even when the person is most “at home” or There is a circle of the touched and the touching,
“at one” with it. . . . The otherness of my own body the touched takes hold of the touching; there is a
thus suffuses its sense of intimacy. circle of the visible and the seeing, the seeing is not
without visible existence; there is even an inscrip-
The necessity of this embodied alterity of the self even tion of the touching in the visible, of the seeing in
when one is most “at home” evokes the notion of the the tangible—and the converse; there is finally a
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 171

propagation of these changes to all the bodies of the it is a reversibility always imminent and never real-
same type and of the same style which I see and ized in fact. My left hand is always on the verge of
touch—and this by virtue of the fundamental fission touching my right hand touching the things, but I
or segregation of the sentient and the sensible never reach coincidence; the coincidence eclipses at
which, laterally, makes the organs of my body com- the moment of realization, and one of two things al-
municate and founds transitivity from one body to ways occurs: either my right hand really passes over
another. to the rank of touched, but then its hold on the
world is interrupted; or it retains its hold on the
Merleau-Ponty struggles for metaphors to describe this world, but then I do not really touch it—my right
intimate alterity of embodiment, trying two leaves or hand touching, I palpate with my left hand only its
layers, two halves of a cut orange that fit together per- outer covering.
fectly but are still separate, two lips of the same mouth
that touch one another in repose, “two circles, or two Weiss observes that “écart, as the moment of disincor-
vortexes, or two spheres, concentric when I live naively, poration that makes all forms of corporeal differentiation
and as soon as I question myself, the one slightly de- possible, is also precisely what allows us to establish
centered with respect to the other” (p. 138). boundaries between bodies, boundaries that must be re-
Slightly and, I might add, inevitably decentered, this spected in order to respect the agencies that flow from
“fundamental fission or segregation” is also overdeter- them” (1999:128). Yet it is the ground not only for bound-
mined. We can see it in our mirror image, the encounter aries but for intersubjectivity and intercorporeality. To
with which Lacan (1977) argues is formative of the self reiterate, the écart “founds transitivity from one body
at an early stage of development. We can see it in the to another.” Merleau-Ponty says, “If my left hand can
bilateral symmetry of our bodies, which is, moreover, an touch my right hand while it palpates the tangibles, can
imperfect symmetry, as anyone can observe who has at- touch it touching, can turn its palpation back upon it,
tempted to grow nicely balanced sideburns on a face with why, when touching the hand of another, would I not
one ear inevitably slightly higher than the other. In an- touch in it that same power to espouse the things that
other sense, the phallus is the other of the male, as the I have touched on my own?” (1968:141). Here my em-
fetus is the other of the female. Certainly both the phal- phasis is on this inevitable moment of embodied oth-
erness as the kernel of the self’s alterity (an inner re-
lus and the pregnant female are images that can be found
versibility that corresponds to the reversibility between
throughout human religion as symbols of the divine. But
self and other) and hence of the alterity that is ultimately
the other on the body’s outside that is the phallus is
elaborated into the religious sentiment in all its multi-
different from the fetal other within precisely in relation
tude of forms.
to that profound dependence that Otto labeled creature-
Luce Irigaray, in her sensuously intimate critique of
feeling and may be one of its sources (the other being
Merleau-Ponty (she calls him a male solipsist who ul-
infantile neoteny as identified by La Barre). In other
timately privileges the visual over the tactile and makes
words, when the penis becomes the phallus it is sover-
the diagnosis that his version of seeing “remains in an
eign, and the man who withdraws his allegiance in a incestuous prenatal situation with the whole” [1993:
moment of doubt can be punished by the disappearance 173]), adds to the stock of images for embodied otherness.
of this other, the reversion of the phallus to a mere penis, She asks how the feeling-felt relation of hand touching
leaving him to drown in the mirror of abandonment. In hand differs, with no subject or object and neither passive
the case of the fetus, the valence of dependency is re- nor active, if the two hands are joined “palms together,
versed; it is the fetus that is profoundly dependent and fingers outstretched, constitut[ing] a very particular
cannot exist alone. Thus there are two gendered modes touching. A gesture often reserved for women (at least
of intimate embodied otherness with different valences in the West) and which evokes, doubles, the touching of
of dependency and therefore different potentials for be- the lips silently applied on one another. A touching more
coming vehicles of the divine. From this standpoint, the intimate than that of one hand taking hold of the other”
recurrence of the phallus and the pregnant female in re- (p. 161). And as for the lips, in women there are two sets
ligious symbolism does far more than to signal the ven- of two lips, those above and those below, touching each
eration of potency or fertility. other in different ways and existing in relation to one
To describe the kernel of embodied otherness Merleau- another. “And this would be one of the differences be-
Ponty uses the French word écart, which can be trans- tween men and women, that these lips do not re-join
lated as “gap,” “interval,” “distance,” “difference,” or each other according to the same economy” (p. 167).
“lapse.” Gail Weiss calls attention to this term in a brief There is a para-theological strain in the interplay be-
but important chapter, calling it a “space of non-coin- tween Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray, and this is not acci-
cidence that resists articulation . . . the unrepresentable dental, since they are so close to discovering the origin
space of differentiation . . . the invisible ‘hinge’ that both of religion in embodied otherness. In sorting out the va-
makes reversibility [between the sensible and the sen- lences attributed to the interpenetration of vision and
tient] possible and, simultaneously, prevents it from be- touch Irigaray opens the question of how “God is always
ing fully achieved” (1999:120–21). Merleau-Ponty (1968: entrusted to the look and never sufficiently imagined as
148) indeed takes pains to emphasize that tactile bliss” (1993:162). Elsewhere she chides Merleau-
172 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

Ponty for espousing a form of animism. Indeed, he speaks the songs would sit close enough to the chanter to see
of a flesh of the world that interpenetrates and is re- his lips move as he sang. With the invocation of moving
versible with bodily flesh as the general description of lips, the song emanating from the bodily portal, power
the more specific instances of the “coiling over of the passing by force of breath through the gap of the lips,
visible upon the seeing body, of the touching on the tan- and the apprentice focusing on the action required to
gible body” (p. 146) and the “double and crossed situating bring the chant into intersubjective being, my under-
of the visible in the tangible and of the tangible in the standing shifted ground from textuality to embodiment.
visible” (p. 134). This flesh that bridges or, better, enfolds It shifted from context and technological medium to
the écart is for Merleau-Ponty an element of being in lived spatiality and physical proximity.
the sense that water, air, earth, and fire are elements. Somewhat later I came across the following passage
When he speaks of language as flesh in its sonorous being in a book by Gladys Reichard on Navajo religion: “Since
there is a sense of the ultimate sacred postulate of the power is to the Navaho like a wave in a pool, always
Bible as being reversed to read “and the flesh was made effective though becoming weaker the farther it radiates
word,” and when he ends his essay with an ellipsis the from chanter and patient, each person in attendance de-
preceding words are that reversibility “is the ultimate rives benefit from what is done in proportion to his prox-
truth. . . .” Moreover, it is no coincidence that when he imity to the ritual” (1950:xxxvii). Previously I would not
writes, “The world seen is not ‘in’ my body, and my body have taken the image of a wave in a pool quite so literally,
is not ‘in’ the visible world ultimately: as flesh applied but I read this passage in the light of the chanter’s in-
to a flesh, the world neither surrounds it nor is sur- vocation of watching moving lips in immediate prox-
rounded by it” (1968:138), his articulation of the world imity, of recording from across the hogan, of recording
as “flesh applied to flesh” is resonant with the way in from outside, of recording from 100 yards away. Though
which, for Bataille, an animal’s life is like “water in wa- perhaps attenuated, power is still power at 100 yards’
ter.” Could it be that both are referring to the same in- remove. But the optimal form of otherness as power is
timacy of immanence, that we are no more aware of flesh hardly grandiose, taking form in the écart—the narrow
than the fish is of the water in which it swims, and that gap between the chanter’s lips and the narrow gap be-
the difference between the animal’s state of grace and tween healer and apprentice. This is the origin of reli-
our state is the existence of the écart, or alterity itself, gion, the sacred, the holy: the intimate alterity of power
that includes the possibility of becoming aware of the as a bodily secretion, not the wholly other of abstract
element in which we move? majesty.
I will turn again to an ethnographic instance to capture
this element of embodiment more precisely. A Navajo
chanter of my acquaintance will declaim at length Contested Alterity
against the contemporary travesty of tape recording sa-
cred songs as a means of learning how to conduct cer- Let me anticipate several objections that might arise to
emonies. Perpetrators go from ceremony to ceremony my thesis that alterity is the phenomenological kernel
conducted by different healers instead of appropriately of religion. The first is that it is an essentializing move,
learning from one mentor over an extended period of but this depends on how one construes it. The relevant
time. They begin performing the ceremony without tak- dichotomy is between the essential and the contingent,
ing the trouble to understand how the songs are supposed and the current theoretical bias is in favor of the con-
to be used. Worse, they use the material without either tingent. The objection to positing an essence is valid
being authorized by the chanter from whom they took when that essence has a specific content that is abstract
it or acknowledging the source. He tells of having caught and invariant. What I have called attention to, on the
people in his ceremonies with a tape recorder concealed contrary, is an alterity that is experientially concrete but
in a coat or a blanket and expelling them from the pro- has no content prior to its elaboration in an ethnographic
ceedings. He says that sometimes a person with a re- or historical instance. Alterity is not an essential thing
corder will be sitting all the way on the other side of the but an essential displacement, not a center of meaning
hogan from the healer or standing outside the hogan, and but a duplicity (doubleness/deceit) of the kind that is
if the chanter is a powerful singer the person may even recognized in the phenomenological epoche. This epo-
be 100 yards away and still be able to record the song. che, often referred to as a phenomenological reduction
My initial understanding of why tape recording is un- or bracketing, is not a mystery but a method. To give a
acceptable and inauthentic was in terms of the textuality rudimentary example, it is the effect produced by utter-
of the songs and their appropriate treatment. It was a ing a word (try it with “egg”) 20 or 30 times without
violent taking out of context, an arrachement, both as stopping. This effect is the bracketing off of the word’s
a tearing out of its setting within a moment of perfor- sonorous being from its semantic being. The point is not
mance and as a wresting away from its legitimate owner. to wrench the word from its context but to allow it to
It was also the imposition of a nontraditional medium, become reduced to a “phenomenon” that can then be
inscribing and preserving sacred material that should subject to precise existential description. The epoche is
never be so fixed and frozen. Then the chanter told me then a methodological elaboration of the alterity that is
something that changed my understanding of his objec- an elementary structure of existence. When alterity is
tion. He said that it used to be that the person learning elaborated in and for itself, what results is what we call
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 173

religion. From this duplicity, this gap, this écart there for James the choice between agnosticism and belief was
develops an uncanny array of religious forms precisely a “forced option” and claims that James’s poignant for-
because of the inevitable contingency and indeterminacy mulation of this sometimes agonizing choice qualifies
of existence. If there is an essence involved, it is an es- him as “our great philosopher of the cusp” (2002:59).
sence of the particular—that is, it is to be empirically James challenged the “agnostic veto” of faith that re-
described where it is found among the “minute partic- quires skepticism “as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’
ulars” of existence (again to borrow a phrase from Blake). for religion can be found” (James, quoted in Taylor 2002:
A second objection is that the alterity I have described 48), on the grounds that it is not necessarily more irra-
is everywhere and therefore it is nowhere and can ac- tional to risk erroneous belief than to risk hoping that
count for nothing in particular. Here an evaluation is what we desire to believe may be true. The cusp is pre-
needed, because if alterity is everywhere and nowhere, cisely the choice of which form of risk to take, and, as
my thesis may on that count be judged either as trivial Taylor says, the choice must be made on “gut instinct”
or as positing something equivalent in the domain of (p. 58). Yet although this gut instinct may be derived from
existence to the “dark matter” recently discovered by originary embodied alterity, its content—including not
astrophysics in the cosmic domain. Alterity may be con- only theistic principles but also the sense that a choice
stituent of a “general atmosphere” pervading existence must be made and that this choice must be in the form
in a manner similar to sexuality as Merleau-Ponty (1962) of a commitment—consists of many layers of historical
described it, a trace or dimension of it being present in context and cultural meaning sedimented upon the phe-
all our dealings with the world and others regardless of nomenological kernel. To be precise, Taylor observes
whether they have any explicit sexual reference. Yet if that James’s notion of religious experience is predicated
this is the case, alterity is hardly specific to religion. upon the development of a kind of personal religion that
Freud framed his essay on the uncanny as a discussion was made possible by Protestantism and that today has
of aesthetics, saying that the uncanny is a province of evolved into a post-Durkheimian expressive individu-
aesthetics that has to do with the frightening. If the un- alism in which “a host of urban monads hover on the
canny is essential to religion and the aesthetic, how can boundary between solipsism and communication” (p. 86)
we distinguish the two? I might want to say, again fol- and in which the emphasis of religion has “shifted more
lowing Blake’s theory of imagination, that I do not want and more toward the strength and genuineness of the
to distinguish the two—but it is more precise to say that feelings rather than toward the nature of their object”
they are distinguished in that, though alterity is impor- (p. 99). The phenomenological kernel I have identified
tant to both, alterity itself is the object of religion. To is at the opposite end of this continuum of elaboration
state this point in more general terms, when alterity is from James’s notion of religious “experience.” It does
elaborated as oppression of the other we are in the do- not have to do exclusively with a personal religion ex-
main of politics; when it is elaborated as striking beauty perienced in solitude, for the alterity of self I have dis-
we are in the domain of art and aesthetics; when it is cussed is also the ground for intersubjectivity and, by
elaborated as competition we are (perhaps) in the domain extension, collectivity. It does not have to do with a
of athletics; but when it is elaborated as alterity in and personal religion that is an encounter with a personalized
for itself, we are in the domain of religion. What can be divinity, for the sense of alterity can be eminently im-
gained by this intimation of religion as diffused through- personal. If my argument is accepted, one cannot be skep-
out social reality? It might suggest the need to translate tical that there is a religious impulse that inevitably be-
or update van der Leeuw’s and Otto’s notion of power comes culturally elaborated in a myriad of symbolic,
as divine majesty into Foucault’s notion of power as in- institutional, and experiential forms but must be skep-
habiting the very interstices and sinews of social life. It tical of any particular elaboration as a product of its his-
might suggest as well a reinterpretation of the thesis of torical and social conditions. In this sense, the thesis I
disenchantment of the world put forward by Marcel have developed here may contribute to the anthropolog-
Gauchet (1985), the last great theorist of religion’s in- ical theory of religion but offers no help in resolving
evitable decline. For Gauchet, despite the persistence of theological questions or dilemmas of faith.
belief, the human-social world was being reconstituted A final objection is that my understanding of alterity
not only outside religion but independently of the reli- is too different from the way it is customarily used in
gious logic within which it originated. But it is perhaps anthropology, as referring to political, racial, ethnic, gen-
possible to interpret Gauchet’s disenchantment as an es- der, class, religious otherness—the otherness that is the
cape of alterity from the domain of the strictly religious, occasion for identity politics, war, conflict, violence
such that the sacred does not disappear but becomes dif- (Corbey and Leerson 1991, Taussig 1993). But the im-
fused through reality, rendering the human world even plication of my argument is that these forms of alterity
more rather than less a religious phenomenon. are also grounded in embodiment and have a religious
These considerations raise a further question, if not structure, and I agree with Derrida that “in these times,
an objection: If religion is inevitable, then how does the language and nation form the historical body of all re-
question of skepticism, the problem of belief and un- ligious passion” (1998:4). Occasionally the religious di-
belief, enter this argument? Let us address this question mension of political and ethnic alterity comes to the fore
by turning again to William James and another of his in discussions by anthropologists. Here I am thinking of
recent commentators, Charles Taylor. Taylor shows that Michael Taussig’s intuition of “the marked attraction
174 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

and repulsion of savagery as a genuinely sacred power “raw existence” in contrast or confrontation with what
for whiteness” (1993:150). The colonial contrast between Agamben (1995) calls “bare life.” Reaction to the ma-
noble Indians and degenerate blacks is not only a history chine (and, I would add, its uncanny side, that of self as
of labor discipline but “a Sacred History too, in which automaton) is at once immunitary and autoimmune. It
race-fantasy takes the place of heavenly fantasy” because is a fear of self in the context of the dislocation (alien-
insofar as the black phallus becomes a demonic figure ation?) produced by what Derrida calls tele-techno-
of what Durkheim called the impure sacred, race “ac- science, which contemporary religion allies itself with
quires the burden of carrying the emotive charge of men (thereby becoming it) and reacts strongly against (thereby
exchanging women across the colorless line of colonial reacting against itself) (p. 46).
proletarianization” (p. 150). I cite these examples in order “Globalatinization” (mondialatinization) is the term
to suggest that if there is something to my thesis that he coins to describe this “strange alliance of Christianity,
alterity is the phenomenological kernel of religion, then as the experience of the death of God, and tele-techno-
there is a sense in which we will be able to say that scientific capitalism” (1998:13) or, again, “the strange
political alterity is a religious structure. phenomenon of Latinity and its globalization” (p. 29),
Let me pursue this line of argument in the light of where Anglo-American is the direct inheritor of Latin
Derrida’s (1998) account of religion in the contemporary proper. In this cultural regime,
world, which is riddled with reverberations of alterity at
almost every level. At the level of meta-discourse he Religion circulates in the world, one might say, like
observes the apparent inevitability of finding not one but an English word (comme un mot anglais) that has
two sources of religion, an alterity in the form of “di- been to Rome and taken a detour to the United
vision and iterability of the source” (p. 65). In his title States. Well beyond its strictly capitalist or politico-
he identifies these two sources as faith and knowledge, military figures, a hyper-imperialist appropriation
but they reappear as messianism and chora, experience has been underway now for centuries. It imposes it-
of belief and experience of the unscathed (the latter is self in a particularly palpable manner within the
elsewhere called “experience of sacredness” [p. 62]), re- conceptual apparatus of international law and of
legere and religare, attestation and disenchantment (pp. global political rhetoric. Wherever this apparatus
64–65), immunity and autoimmunity (p. 47), absolute dominates, it articulates itself through a discourse
respect for life and human sacrifice (p. 50), fiduciarity on religion. From here on, the word “religion” is
and unscathedness (p. 58), and the works of Kant and calmly (and violently) applied to things which have
Bergson (p. 33). These pairs roughly map onto one an- always been and remain foreign to what this word
other at different levels of analysis, and I would want to names and arrests in history.
add to them the intimate alterity of the self and the
Globalatinization, the cultural dimension of the Pax
imposing alterity of the wholly other, but the one that
Americana, is the language of “religion” pronounced
is of most interest in the moment is the image of im-
with the accent of John Wayne. But I bring in these con-
munity and autoimmunity.
siderations not so much to endorse Derrida’s argument
Derrida asks, “Is not the unscathed (l’indemne) the
very matter—the thing itself—of religion?” (1998:23). If per se as to recognize in it one way in which religion
“the thing itself” is the same object of religion identified can be discussed as a cultural elaboration of alterity on
by Otto, then the wholly other is precisely the un- the level of global society at large and not merely as an
scathed. But the most radically other for Derrida goes element of individual, interior experience. This goes be-
beyond the positive Other represented in messianism; it yond saying that specific forms of religion are spreading
is chora, nothing (no being, nothing present), “the very globally or even that religion has taken on global sig-
place of an infinite resistance, of an infinitely impassible nificance to suggest instead that the very boundary be-
persistence (resistance): an utterly faceless other” (p. 21). tween alterity in its political and alterity in its religious
Indeed, for Derrida the holy is associated with un- sense is becoming blurred.
scathedness, indemnity, indemnification, and he links In this context, the contemporary return of religion (of
these with immune, immunity, immunization, “and the repressed?) can be understood as a global upsurge of
above all, ‘autoimmunity’ ” (p. 70). In the autoimmune alterity that increasingly takes the form of autoimmun-
response the immune system is not just reacting to itself ity. There is no need for a society-as-organism metaphor
but “protecting itself against its self-protection by de- here—I follow Rappaport (1999) in identifying the locus
stroying its own immune system” (this is a unique in- of the autoimmune response as an adaptive system
terpretation of immunology, I think). He says that as this rather than an organism. Yet I want to say that this au-
becomes more prevalent “we feel ourselves authorized toimmune response “metastasizes” to places like Na-
to speak of a sort of general logic of autoimmunization. vajoland, where it creates the religious aporia encoun-
It seems indispensable to us today for thinking the re- tered by the chanter discussed above. Should I, asks the
lations between faith and knowledge, religion and sci- chanter, risk the dangerous desecration of committing
ence, as well as the duplicity of sources in general” (p. sacred material to this technological medium of audio
73 n. 27). But this is really a general logic of alterity in tape that is an arm of global culture, or should I risk the
the form of an alterity of the self grounded in embodi- disappearance of that knowledge altogether as the via-
ment, that is, corporal immediacy—what I would call bility of my practices is eaten away by the encroachment
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 175

of global culture? This autoimmune response is even appears to inhabit the American national consciousness
more virulent in those places less insulated from glob- in the form of the villain in a James Bond movie. Yet
alatinization, more open to the brute presence of tech- another, the author of a book on al-Qaeda, said that the
noscience and empire. Here the coefficient of hate, the group’s media-conscious desire to put on the biggest
coefficient of alterity as self-destructiveness, language show possible had made its charismatic leader a kind of
itself as wholly other have risen in a demonic logic since Mick Jagger of religious excess. When the shifting in-
September 11, 2001. It is now possible, for instance, in
determinacy of this protean otherness became too un-
the case of the American government, to reason autoim-
nerving, the target shifted to a more stable state, a more
munely as follows: “We are at war (in Afghanistan), in
that war we capture prisoners, but they are not prisoners stable face, that of Saddam Hussein. Yet quickly enough
of war.” Or again, “We believe in free trade (e.g., the the unnerving alterity became manifest there as well,
North American Free Trade Agreement): we are free to and no one could tell if the media images of Hussein or
export at the price we freely choose and free to import his recorded voice were “really” his or those of shadowy
at the price we also freely choose.” And also, “We want impersonators.
the Iraqi people (following their military defeat) to take The well-publicized video tape of bin Laden’s com-
control of their country as soon as possible, but those ments on the World Trade Center attacks exhibits this
municipal authorities that have arisen without being in- uncanny otherness in a different way. While most West-
stalled by us need to step aside.” ern accounts emphasized its revolting hilarity and bla-
To move once more to a concrete illustration from tant self-incrimination, too little attention was drawn to
social life, we are in fact living through a profoundly the wonder and astonishment expressed. There is an el-
religious moment. The transformation of consciousness ement of the unimaginable coming to pass that contrasts
and of history that took place on September 11, 2001,
jarringly with the sense in which the events were uni-
was a manifestation of the sacred in an unprecedented
maginable for Americans. This unimaginable resides in
and profoundly unsettling manner. What makes it reli-
gious? It is the rending of reality’s veil, the shock of bin Laden’s assertion that the result was miraculously
knowing that the world is not as we thought it was and beyond his expectation—that from his experience in the
that we are not as we thought. Our experience (I use this construction industry he was optimistic that the top
pronoun with the caveat that the immediacy and rele- floors would be destroyed but never thought that both
vance of this experience vary widely) of the collapse of buildings would completely collapse. Then there is the
the World Trade Center is raw religious experience, prior incredible invocation of dreams and visions that pre-
to morality, prior to God in the form of the Trinity or ceded the attacks, dreams of airplanes and/or tall build-
Allah or Yahweh, prior even to meaning. The religious ings recounted by various people within the network.
part of it lies not in why it happened and certainly not The interpretation of these dreams was that somehow
in the fact that it was done in the name of God but in the plan was percolating in the collective imagination
our response at the moment we first heard what had and bubbling to the surface of consciousness. Because so
happened and in the moments when with terrified fas- many were dreaming about it, bin Laden says, at one
cination we watched the film clip of the crashes. For just
point he told someone not to speak of his dream for fear
a moment after the second plane had vanished inside the
that the secret would be revealed.
building, just before the smoke and flames began to bil-
low, its outline appeared like a perfect silhouette on the So a towering edifice of global capitalism implodes and
shiny glass facade. That was the point of no return for collapses, and several thousand lives are destroyed. But
the modern consciousness, because it was the moment now our subject is Enron, followed by WorldCom, Tyco,
of absolute alterity. Moreover, to reprise our earlier dis- and Global Crossing. The real shame of the perpetrators
cussion, this image captures an alterity that was simul- of such corporate scandals is to have created the occasion
taneously intimate and awesome. Impossible and pos- to bring a smile to bin Laden’s face. If America’s recent
sible collapsed upon each other and touched us at the nemesis can boast of any triumph, it is to have rendered
origin point of religion itself, that point in our souls at it impossible to avoid making a connection between
which we are never at one with ourselves and everything these events. The shadow of the collapsing towers casts
is strange. a pall of religion, in its most frightening form of other-
Alterity in its public religious modality is also evident ness, over the collapsing corporation. Perhaps this shows
in the figure of Osama bin Laden. It is less instructive that in some sense globalization is fundamentally a re-
to say that bin Laden was demonized than to say that
ligious rather than an economic process, something that
he became a magnet for images of otherness. This is not
partakes of a mysterium tremendum that we must strug-
to say that demonization has been bypassed: when
George W. Bush referred to bin Laden as The Evil One, gle to understand and control. Perhaps it suggests that
the capitalization in his tone of voice made that quite the destructive potential unleashed by globalization has
literal. Yet there was also, particularly among European both an inside and an outside, the beast without and the
commentators, an impulse to cast him as a Franken- beast within. Or perhaps there is no “inside” and “out-
stein’s monster created by the excesses of United States side,” which renders even more challenging the struggle
military diplomacy. As one commentator noted, he also to understand and control our lives.
176 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

Inevitable Alterity elementary structure of kinship? Should we be surprised

that Durkheim (1995) found totemism, conceivable as a
Here I return to my title, which I confess was intended primordial problematization of collective alterity and
to be a bit mysterious. The asymptote is the line that is identity, an elementary form of the religious life? Per-
approached by a parabola but never touched by it. There haps for now our advance is in the ability to refine the
remains a gap, an écart, no matter how close the curve critique of Durkheim to say that, in arguing that society
approaches. We humans are the asymptote of the inef- is the powerful other whose mystification leads to reli-
fable that never touches us, that “deifines” (this word gion, his error was not one of reductionism, the attempt
to explain religion in terms of society (cf. Csordas 1997:
appeared—surprised me—as a typographical error, but I
265). Instead, it was to mistake the specific instance for
retain it as a contraction of “deify ⫹ define”) the alterity
the general case—the alterity of the social for the general
that makes us human and that makes the ineffable in-
existential condition of alterity. Such a refinement al-
evitable. Of course, the mathematical metaphor has its
lows religion, as a cultural elaboration of alterity sui
weaknesses. Perhaps the ineffable is the asymptote and
generis, to maintain its status as sui generis vis-à-vis
we humans are the curve that approaches it; perhaps the
society without granting it the right to turn the reduc-
point is the reversibility of the two. Then again, there
tionist tables and reduce society to itself or to claim any
are non-Euclidean geometers who insist that ulti-
content or meaning save that elaborated in the course of
mately—in the ultimate—the curve and the line do
human life. It also allows us the possibility of examining
meet. And there are nuclear physicists who have posited
the proposition that religion emanates from the core of
the existence of asymptopia, “a hypothetical region in
existence in a way that goes far beyond what we typically
which the interactions of high-energy particles approach
label as religious. And as long as we leave the possibility
constant values” or, as Time called it, “the far-out region
that we can still surprise ourselves, there is hope for us.
on the energy scale where all the complex events inside
the atom . . . come within reach of man’s understanding”
(World Book Encyclopedia).
I also confess that the theoretical move I have made
to embrace alterity is not yet so much the presentation Comments
and defense of a thesis as the outline of a program of
research. My original intent was to bring contemporary fiona bowie
thinking about alterity to bear on the rehabilitation of Department of Anthropology, University of Bristol, 12
the notion of otherness found in Otto and van der Leeuw. Woodland Rd., Bristol BS8 1UQ, U.K. 14 xi 03
My preliminary conclusion is that it is the latter who
provide insight into the proliferation of theorizing about The search for origins has fallen out of favour in an-
alterity insofar as it coincides with the return of religion, thropology, which, in its social and cultural forms, has
the reenchantment of the world. Does this leave me on become increasingly the study of human beings in their
the verge of my own encounter with alterity, on the brink local context rather than the study of humanity. Csor-
of a theological position, or at least with the desire to das’s article is an exception to this rule. The question of
make what William James called a spiritual judgment the origin of religion, often considered irrelevant in an-
rather than an existential judgment about religion? I can thropology and best left to the archaeologists if worth
do no better than to quote Karl Jaspers, who said, “When pursuing at all, has been taken up in several recent
the professor is told by the barbarian that once there was works, all of which have approached the question on-
nothing except a great feathered serpent, unless the tologically rather than temporally. In this sense they are
learned man feels a thrill and a half temptation to wish the successors of Noam Chomsky’s search for a universal
it were true, he is no judge of such things at all” (Smart grammar in the structure of the human mind. It is our
1986:xi). For myself, I feel no need to declare any religion, biology, manifest in walking, talking contemporary hu-
since from my standpoint we are in the realm of the man beings, that holds the answer to the questions
religious whenever we encounter otherness in its own “What is the essence of religion, and how did it
right, whether or not it is impressive, and whenever originate?”
imagination sends a spark across the écart, animating Pascal Boyer, in his recent work Religion Explained:
the alterity that is the phenomenological kernel of our The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001),
existence. looks to cognitive psychology to provide a theory of re-
The theoretical consequences of this approach remain ligion, seen to derive from mental templates that are in
to be elaborated. I have used the phrases “phenomeno- turn the result of an evolutionary process which favours
logical kernel” and “elementary structure” interchange- certain forms of cultural transmission over others
ably in this discussion to describe alterity. I have made (Dawkins’s memes). Csordas’s argument shares certain
no effort to account for how or why different religious features with that of Boyer. It too eschews lengthy dis-
forms and institutions are elaborated from this point. Yet cussion of what we mean by religion or a focus on its
should we be surprised that Lévi-Strauss (1969; see also particular manifestations in order to ask more funda-
Geller n.d.) found incest, conceivable as a primordial mental questions concerning its nature and origin. Csor-
problematization of intimate alterity, to be critical to the das also makes assumptions regarding the essentially hu-
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 177

man origin of what is a priori conceived as a uniquely unproblematic, but to see religion as “alterity . . . elab-
human cultural phenomenon (other animals do not have orated in and for itself” rather than as an intimation that
language and therefore cannot have religion). Both the permits dialogue with the world is to condemn our spe-
phenomenological approach favoured by Csordas and the cies to a lonely, disengaged, and self-contained exist-
psychological one proposed by Boyer reject historical ex- ence.1
planations of religion (it can never be replaced by science,
as Marx or Malinowski might have imagined, or ex-
plained away as an epiphenomenon of power and privi- m a r i e - c l a u d e d u p r é
lege, pace Foucault). It is a function of the mind, hard- CRENAM, 6 rue Basse des Rives, 42023 Saint-Etienne
wired into our brains and reproduced in human infants Cedex 02, France. 7 xi 03
as they are socialized into language and culture not be-
cause they are told what to believe but because that is You have experience of charismatic religions, healing and
the way we have evolved. creativity, phenomenology and sacred self. Now you want
It is a tenet of Arctic shamanism that while appren- to get a wider view of your academic achievements, and
ticeship to a more experienced shaman may be desirable you pack the lot into three new words, “embodiment,”
it is not essential to a shamanic vocation. The spirits “alterity,” and “theory-of-religion.” You bait Google with
can call individuals and grant them powers irrespective them and wait for the fish that fall from the net. At the
of any previous contact with a shaman or their personal same time, your prior work enables you to give special
wishes. This is similar to a cognitive or phenomenolog- meaning to the key words. Thus, “embodiment” refers to
ical view of religion in its severance of the necessity of phenomenology, a philosophical school. “Alterity” re-
cultural transmission from its ontological core. The form ceives an interesting bias, meaning the wonder we feel on
that a religion (or shamanic practice) takes may be cul- sensing that we may be something more (or other) than
turally determined, but the fact of its existence is not. a self: the experience of an inner alterity. “Theory-of-re-
A key difference between the explanation of a shamanic ligion” is a critical assessment of previous theories, all
calling and the explanation of the origin of religion given issuing from a particular corner of the world, Christian
by Boyer or Csordas is a form of anthropocentricism. The Europe, and therefore suffering from ethnocentrism and,
anthropologist, in contrast to the shaman, can conceive far worse for a U.S. academic, Eurocentrism. Derrida suc-
of an explanation of religion in which it is possible to cessfully surfs on this roaring ocean.
begin and end with human beings or, more specifically, We must keep in mind that Csordas is offering us a
the human mind (albeit embodied rather than abstract). prospective essay—unfinished, upsurging, and in need of
Csordas’s elegant and simple explanation for the origin trimming. The three key words, whatever their biases,
of religion (if rather complex in its working-out) is that are enough to lead the prospector onto side roads, by-
it is based on a fundamental embodied alterity. The self passes, and cul-de-sacs. Thus, the “surprise” metaphor
is both subject and object; it contains “hidden presences used at the outset disappears in the long run, while the
to us at the same time that they are compellingly ours.” “asymptote” is picked up only at the end and barely
The asymptote of the title represents this alterity. The saved from oblivion. We Europeans, old and weary as we
desire for oneness or unity and identity can never be may be, are accustomed to displaying key words in a
consciously achieved. As we approach others or our- kind of genealogical chart. The main (and new) path of
selves we become strangers. Religion, in essence, is this Csordas’s essay is signalled by the coining of “inner al-
“inevitable moment of embodied otherness as the kernel terity.” Yet, the fairies gathered around the cradle of the
of the self’s alterity.” newborn are not related to each other. Csordas is unable
While a minority voice in a search for origins, Csordas, to follow the growth of ideas running to and fro among
with Roy Rappaport and Pascal Boyer, represents at the philosophers, historians, and writers who build upon
same time a conventional materialism in the anthro- each other’s work. Coincidences or resemblances do not
pological study of religion. There may well be much to make a new line.
learn from their explanations, as indeed I think there is, Phenomenology, for example, brought to life by Hus-
but I am concerned about the image of discrete human serl (Europe, 1859–1938), full fledged with Merleau-
bodies and minds or even groups of humans that these Ponty (Europe, 1908–61) and others not mentioned, and
explanations conjure. The fascination with the self has glossed by Irigaray (Europe, still living), intends to grasp
overtaken an understanding of human beings in the consciousness at its very roots and has nothing to do
world, with the world as equal partner rather than as a with Blake’s poetic statement that “All deities reside in
cipher for language and culture. The notion that an ex- the Human breast.” Certainly, it is academically chal-
ternal reality (let alone a metaphysical reality) might ac- lenging to mix poets and philosophers in one essay. The
tually impose itself upon us or interact with us is sub- shot misses the mark because deities do not reside in
ordinated to a dominant and exclusive focus on human any part of a human body (incidentally, biologically
beings. There is no space in the erudition of Csordas, minded cognitivists tend to “see” God—that is, the hu-
Rappaport, or Boyer’s language for a Word that does not man ability to pray or to meditate—in electrical activi-
originate from and remain within the structures of the ties in one corner of the brain). Deities are created by
human mind and society. To assert that our being-in-the
world is mediated through our embodied experience is 1. I thank Dimitrios Theodossopoulos for his comments.
178 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

human bodily/mental experience of an inner alterity, body. With reference to his previous study on Christian
which can be termed, as Csordas does, embodiment of charismatic healers, Csordas claims that “imaginal per-
the ineffable; being ineffable, before language, this par- formances” of Jesus and the Virgin Mary should be re-
ticular sensual experience is translated into external al- garded as “embodied metaphors” for that alterity of self-
terity, into a relation with an entity other than the self hood. Actors come to feel that heaviness of the limbs
and (generally) deemed (cognitively) superior. Then cul- that “is always there for us indeterminately and preob-
tural rules give a name to the phenomenon so that rites jectively.” By means of performance its essential alterity
and gods of all sorts help the mind/body to turn the becomes an object of somatic attention. To get it right,
“wholly one” into a “wholly other.” Csordas strives to according to Csordas, the “object” of religion is not nec-
go the other way round, and I am grateful to him for that, essarily a well-defined other but the “existential aporia
mainly because I have walked a few miles on the same of alterity itself.”
path (Dupré 2001). This idea of the intimate otherness of the self is ex-
According to academic rules (or should I say religion?), tended by a complementary notion of “embodied alter-
an intuition, which is a kind of bodily/mental experi- ity.” Citing Merleau-Ponty, Csordas shows that human
ence, has to be clothed with quotations and bibliography. beings have no choice but to sense the world through
It has to be translated into an “other” by means of ac- their own bodies and therefore divine alterity ends up in
ademic language. I agree with Csordas’s intuition but embodiment as well. From both perspectives alterity is
consider many of his references useless or superfluous grounded in embodiment. These two sections form the
(unless he were to knit them all, with many more, to- core of Csordas’s argument and can be regarded as a fur-
gether in a very big book). Capturing the inner other is ther interpretation of his previous works on embodiment
a wonderful experience—disturbing and totally new but towards a more general thesis on the experience of
not always awesome. When we call it “awesome,” we alterity.
turn it upside down or, rather, downside up, and this is The next section, however, raises a number of prob-
how deities rise from and fly high over the human breast. lems. In “Contested Alterity” Csordas tries to outline
We remain prisoners of European Christocentrism, his argument against a number of objections. He admits
which can only think of a deity as superior to man. Trav- that alterity is elaborated for different purposes in diverse
eling round the earth as ethnologists do gives one a dif- cultural domains, such as politics and the arts and aes-
ferent view of deities. The ineffable can also be voiced thetics. However, it is only the alterity that is elaborated
(seen, termed, sensed, experienced) as ludicrous, joyful, neither for oppression, glorification, nor competition—
mean, compassionate, and what-not all at once. Thus that is “in and for itself” and has “no content prior to
the wholly one, turned into the wholly other, can be its elaboration in an ethnographic or historical in-
captured by ambivalence and framed as a coincidence of stance”—that serves as the “phenomenological kernel of
opposites. Some European philosophers, long before religion.” To me, this specification raises more problems
Freud, termed this “coincidentia oppositorum,” consid- than it solves. Alterity strikes me as the basis of all com-
ering this oxymoron the best way of phrasing God’s re- munication, including the communication with god
lations with his creatures. Europe is not entirely (whether male/female, plural, or amorphous). One might
Eurocentric. certainly recognize specific attention to alterity in reli-
gious discourse, but I doubt that this embodied alterity
significantly differs from that in other domains. Besides,
beatrix hauser how are we to recognize whether the elaboration of al-
Institut für Ethnologie, Martin-Luther-Universität terity is for its own sake or not? Since religion is not
Halle-Wittenberg, Reichardstr. 11, 06114 Halle, only belief but social practice, an encounter with alterity
Germany (hauser@ethnologie.uni-halle.de). 5 xii 03 “in and for itself” does not seem convincing. Moreover,
Csordas himself is not consistent with his definition. He
The main purpose of this very stimulating essay is to considers, for instance, the general perception of the
provide us with a new approach to theorizing about re- crash of New York’s twin towers as a “raw religious ex-
ligion. Csordas proposes to reconsider basic insights of perience” in the sense that it created a transformation
the phenomenology of religion (such as Rudolph Otto’s of conciousness. In my view, this “moment of absolute
concept of the wholly other) in the light of contemporary alterity” is hardly elaborated “in and for itself” and there-
thinking about alterity. Moreover, he aims for an an- fore collapses Csordas’s specification of a religious do-
thropological theory of religion, but instead of defending main as well. At the same time, if any embodied oth-
a consistent thesis he wants us to regard his contribution erness is regarded as basically religious, then not only
as an outline of a research program. will religion be inevitable but there will be hardly any
He argues that religion is based on and elaborated from other domains left. Still, I do agree with Csordas that the
a “primordial sense of ‘otherness.’ ” Insofar as alterity is significance of alterity for the experience of religion is
an elementary structure of existence, “religion is inev- not to be underestimated.
itable, perhaps even necessary.” Subsequently he elab- A theory of religion built on the assumption of a pri-
orates on “intimate alterity” as a human condition of mordial sense of otherness seems to reestablish the ob-
life, allowing the self to become surprised, have visions solete priority of belief against religious practice. Have
beyond reason, and objectify physical stimuli outside the we not learned that through repetition (folding the
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 179

hands, prostrating oneself, keeping silent, chanting ro l a n d l i t t l e w o o d

hymns) humans develop a “sense of ritual” (Catherine Department of Anthropology, University College
Bell)—that belief follows action rather than vice versa? London, London WC1E 6BT, England (rejurol@
Is the failure to realize the “imaginal performance” of ucl.ac.uk). 5 xi 03
Jesus and the Virgin Mary merely a matter of “untaught
bodies” (Talal Asad)? Considering alterity as the phe- Whilst welcome as a return to considering the origin and
nomenological kernel of religion, how are we to include nature of religion in general, Csordas’s particularization
this process of embodiment? After all, it is familiar and of “religion” as high religion and as a phenomenological
repeated actions (embodied practices) that serve as the experience follows William James in wondering if this
basis for an encounter with alterity. I wish that Csordas kernel and prototype does not follow the “pattern setters
had elaborated a bit on this point. In any case, his paper . . . for whom religion exists not as a dull habit but as
raises a number of thought-provoking issues. an acute fever” (James 1958[1902]:24). But, as the first
functionalists argued, origin is not continued practice,
and the psychology of creation is no guide to the psy-
chology of dutiful observance. We cannot assume that
michael lambek
the followers replicate the founding process (which may
Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto at
be, as James and La Barre argued, a radically idiosyncratic
Scarborough, 1265 Military Trail, Toronto, ON,
psychosis) in any close degree.
Canada M1C 1A4 (lambek@utsc.utoronto.ca). 22 x 03
One autumn I gaze into my garden orchard laden with
apples and dimly perceive some movement at the end
Csordas is one of the most original writers in the an- which, following my experience among my fellows, I
thropology of religion; he continues to surprise us all and characterize as some human or semi-human forms
not only himself. He is also one of the few (I would add whom I later interpret as the pink fairies who have come
Bruce Kapferer) who is both comfortable and well-read to steal my fruit (and this is the origin of the Pink Fairy
within the European tradition of phenomenology. This Religion, with its well-known apple sacrifice). I look up
is not a tradition in which I feel at home, and therefore at the night sky and wonder about the recurrent cycles
I find it difficult to respond to this remarkable paper with of the planets and decide—again on the basis of everyday
the insight it deserves. Csordas anticipates many of my human experience—that some human or human-like
criticisms and answers them brilliantly—for example, form is necessarily guiding them, ensuring that each
where he asserts that “alterity is not an essential thing planet rises and sets at its appropriate time and that it
but an essential displacement.” However, I do think that conforms to its evident course. Now, are my cognitions
his move from acknowledging Asad’s skepticism about in these two cases so very different from my experience
the existence of religion as a category to trying to “un- and understanding of normal social life among my fel-
derstand religion in its own right” is a bit abrupt. Rather lows? Are my assumptions of action and agency in these
than, say, surveying for a family-resemblance (polythetic) mythical creatures so very different from my habitual
approach, Csordas dives straight for religion’s “minimal experience in perceiving my omnibus turning the corner
criterion or phenomenological kernel.” The ensuing dis- and bearing the desired number? On closer examination,
cussion is extremely interesting, but it does not convince they are not, in fact, but until the rise of natural science
me that (a) intimate alterity is the core or kernel—or my pink fairies and planetary angels were not subject to
specific object—of religion, (b) religion is necessarily the closer examination.
kind of thing that has a core, or (c) if religion were the Or take my daughter (a well brought-up bourgeois
kind of thing that had a core, that core should be found atheist without television), whose pet cat died. Two and
in experience. Csordas cites Rappaport, but Rappaport’s a half years old, she had never experienced death before
or witnessed any mortuary rites. We had just dug a hole
theory is notable not only for balancing the experiential
in the centre of the garden and laid the cat in it when
“holy” with the discursive “sacred” but for giving much
she said, “Wait a moment,” and went to fetch the cat’s
greater attention to the latter.
ball and its toy clockwork mouse, which she then put
I remember being intensely irritated reading van de
in the grave. Astonished, I asked her why she had done
Leeuw as an undergraduate, perceiving his inflated lan- this, and she just replied that the ball and the mouse
guage as a smokescreen for the underlying theological were for the cat. An extension of modern British ideas
assumptions. Csordas joins van der Leeuw in the as- of property ownership rather than an instance of the
sumption that “religion has a sui generis status,” but he “naturalness” of grave goods? Perhaps.
is brilliant in de-reifying alterity as an external object of Religion is only our normal social world read in
power and reconceptualizing it as “intimate.” To say that slightly different colours. It is hardly so “other.” If re-
“the actual object of religion is objectification itself” is ligion is some solution to the problem of deceit and lying
very interesting and reminiscent of Durkheim, a com- (Buber and Rappaport), then why do the gods, demons,
parison that Csordas reaches at the end of his essay. He and jihns of most local religions practice deceit on us?
works hard to distinguish his position from that of Wil- The Pink Fairy Religion, once established and recog-
liam James’s personal religion, but he has some way to nized, becomes an idiom subserving other human inter-
go now to link alterity with the social and the moral. ests—aesthetic, jural, agricultural, sexual, kin, and so on.
180 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

Operating within it, the priest, prophet, or functionary portant currents in British religious history is to reduce
may well seek to simplify matters and follow Occam’s oneself to phenomenology indeed.
Razor to reduce the multifarious denizens of our parallel The second problem with the body as the origin of
world to one transcendent and ever less human power. universal religion is, again, that the “techniques of the
But this is hardly the origin or centre of religion. Far body,” as Marcel Mauss has taught us, are historical.
from being an origin or prototype, the phenomenology Mauss (1979), followed by Bourdieu (1977) (who is not
of high religion is a secondary elaboration by the lonely even mentioned in Csordas’s discussion of embodiment),
mystic or ambitious thaumaturge. uses the concept of habitus to analyse the ways in which
The contemporary analogues of religion may lie not bodily aptitudes are formed. From this perspective a re-
in bin Laden and Saddam Hussein but in such phenom- search program that explores ways in which people learn
ena as alien abduction and multiple personality disorder. to experience has been developed (van der Veer 1988)
The unknown world is not so unknown, for it is closely which seems more promising than speculation about pri-
modelled on our own and is not so very far away. mal experience. Csordas anticipates these two objec-
tions, but his response that one might want to translate
Otto’s notion of power as divine majesty into Foucault’s
peter van der veer notion of power strikes me as slightly disingenuous. Fou-
Research Center Religion and Society, OZ cault’s perspective has been developed in anthropology
Achterburgwal 185, 1012 DK Amsterdam, The by Talal Asad (1993) precisely to address the problems
Netherlands. 17 xi 03 that a universal definition of religion would confront.
As usual, the step from the universal to the particular
So much attention is given to the political significance is quickly taken, and, indeed, one often encounters the
of radical religious movements and to their violent universal as the universalization of a modern Western
clashes with the Other these days that it may come as particularity. Csordas sees the happenings around 9/11
a relief to turn to religion as “feeling” and as an expe- as profoundly religious. This may be the case for Osama
rience of alterity that does not imply ethnic cleansing. bin Laden and for apocalyptic Christians in the United
Nevertheless, Csordas’s contribution evokes a strong States, but from an analytical point of view it seems
sense of alterity in me. It reminds me how much German preferable to analyse the impact of the media on the
understanding of the self and on events that lead to war.
romanticism is still foundational to major strands in
To me the impact of the media today is a historical trans-
American cultural anthropology. Writing about the ori-
formation that affects the public sphere but also affects
gins of religion—phenomenological or evolutionary—
religious experience (van der Veer and Munshi 2004), and
has always made me uncomfortable because its specu-
it should be understood historically rather than phe-
lative mode seems so close to theology. The phenom-
enology of religion, whose founders Rudolf Otto and Ger-
hardus van der Leeuw Csordas brings back to haunt us,
was developed in departments of religious studies within
o t á v i o v e l h o
divinity schools and rejected by anthropologists, whose Departamento de Antropologia–Museu Nacional,
interest lay more in the social production of religious Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de
experience and the problems of cross-cultural translation Janeiro, Brazil (otaviovelho@alternex.com.br). 6 xi 03
of key concepts such as “religion,” “ritual,” and “belief.”
The impetus of much anthropological work on religion Csordas has always had a stimulating effect on anthro-
has therefore been moving away from theology or the- pological debates. I can testify to this for my own coun-
ology dressed up as philosophy such as the work of Der- try, where “embodiment” has encountered an affinity
rida and Irigaray. I have always found it attractive in the with local practices. Now, 13 years after “Embodiment
anthropology of religion that it is close to the anthro- as a Paradigm for Anthropology” (1990), Csordas again
pology of labor and ordinary life and that it examines surprises us. We are once again confronted with a major
theology as an object of study without becoming theo- theoretical piece that will certainly give rise to much
logical itself. It is therefore fair to say that I am not very discussion and influence the future of the discipline.
sympathetic to Csordas’s perspective and see some major Thus a first reaction can only be provisional.
difficulties in it. Csordas arms his argument with many writers, an-
The first problem with this kind of universalistic ap- thropologists and nonanthropologists, inventing, so to
proach is that it is ahistorical. One can, of course, derive speak, a lineage for himself. This is done in such a way
inspiration from William Blake for a theory of interiority that the reader himself can suggest other possible mem-
and the self as embodied presence, but I think that much bers. Michel de Certeau, for instance, with his passion
would be gained by reading Blake as an antinomian poet de l’altérité (De Certeau 1987:xii) may be a candidate,
who writes against the established doctrines of the as is Paul Ricoeur, with his notion of ipséité in contrast
Church. Blake’s poetry does not simply well up from with mêmeté (Ricoeur 1995:101–8), not to mention Kier-
deeply felt emotion but is inflected as a subaltern cri- kegaard and Sartre. We are faced here with an illustrious
tique (van der Veer 2001:60–62). To do without a histor- lineage, and the question arises to what extent it ob-
ical contextualization of what is one of the most im- scures and reduces more than it clarifies Csordas’s con-
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 181

tribution. Alterity has had its detractors. In spite of a would suggest, following Latour (2000:203–7) to a certain
certain boom in the 1990s, it has been the target of much extent, that the global upsurge of alterity could be seen
postcolonial critique. It has also been seen as creating as a lack of recognition of attachments in the name of
distance in the spirit of modernist anthropology, which a Western ideal of detachment. This is what creates al-
Ardener (1985) dates approximately between 1920 and terity vis-à-vis those who are not considered detached.
1975. Frequently it has also been seen as an instrument It is the alterity of attachments that is not realized. This
for the construction of identity by opposition more than inhibits the recognition of a common world and the
as the means of access to the other’s reality (and, in a choice between good and bad attachments. Perhaps one
way that may be relevant for the issue of religion, one could then say that we are in the realm of the religious
might add from the experience of constituting a “Bra- whenever we recognize attachments in their own right.
zilian culture” that this is not necessarily the case only
vis-à-vis subalterns). To mention a well-known example,
Nicholas Thomas (1991:308–10) considers that ethnog-
raphy itself has been compromised precisely because the Reply
“fabrication of alterity” is central to its project. One can
therefore say that there are general epistemological and
political problems involved with the concept. Although thomas j. csordas
at first sight religion is not the main target in these dis- Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A. 12 xii 03
cussions, the homology that exists between the general
question of alterity and its application to religion, as These international commentators have done the
Csordas proposes, may not be without consequence. It greatest possible service to a writer, none of them uni-
is as if one were confronted with the risk of exoticizing formly embracing or condemning the arguments I have
God himself. put forward but all offering reflections that invite me to
Csordas may answer that this is why he ends up with clarify my position in a variety of critical ways. I am
“intimate” alterity. The point is that if the trajectory he grateful to them all.
has followed is not misleading, it aligns him with what In Bowie’s reading, I approach the question of religious
one could label the “dualists.” At the same time, the origins ontologically rather than temporally. In fact I con-
idea of intimacy seems to point in the direction of a sistently choose the term “existential” rather than “on-
promising critique of a supposedly insurmountable dis- tological,” and reflection on the difference between the
tance between object and subject, words and things, etc., two is likely to be pivotal for this discussion. Certainly
without falling into easy monistic solutions. In my opin- it is critical insofar as framing the discussion of religion
ion this puts him in the company of Bruno Latour, Tim along the axis ontological/temporal is doubtless what
Ingold, Nicholas Thomas, and others. Were he to choose allows her to juxtapose my argument with the approach
this other path I believe he would be able to come back to religion taken by Pascal Boyer, a position which, from
to Merleau-Ponty and the preobjective. He could then where I stand, could not be more different from my own.
consider dwelling in the world in very concrete terms But there is more to Bowie’s point than can be resolved
while also widening the world to include artifacts, non- by simply rejecting (as I must) the assertion that I would
humans, images, and the gods themselves. Kierkegaard agree with Boyer that religion is “a function of the mind,
would have to be traded for Spinoza and natura naturata, hard-wired into our brains.” In fact, what I agree with is
but he could still have the sacred “everywhere,” al- that religion can neither be explained (causally) nor ex-
though in a very immanent, perhaps embodied, way. plained away (as an epiphenomenon). For Bowie the prob-
In this way, there would be no treatment of difference lem posed by the approaches she groups together is how
hinting at an oppositional economy but partial differ- to recognize a reality that imposes itself on us or inter-
ences in a continuous social process, gaps (even those acts with us, and she wants us to see religion as an “in-
between words and things) overridden by chains of me- timation that permits dialogue with the world.” The
diators, networks, affections, and attachments—inti- phenomenological insight that she perhaps misses is that
macy, so to speak—but no alterity in the sense of the we are always already in the world, and establishing that
concept of the alien objectified other and the creation of is not a burden that need be placed on religion.
uniformity by pushing difference to a boundary that de- Dupré evokes the image of a fish taking a bait and
mands translation for the artificial reconstitution of the falling into the net, but I won’t take the bait that she
continuity of the world (Ingold 1993:227–30). Describing offers to engage in a trans-Atlantic culture war of aca-
both Otto’s and Csordas’s concepts in terms of alterity demic styles and Internet phenomenology. I will, how-
may create a nominalist illusion. Besides, why cling to ever, take exception to her claim that the phenomeno-
the modern obsession for separating humans and non- logical goal of grasping consciousness “at its very roots”
humans that is so foreign to the cosmologies of most and Blake’s assertion that all deities reside “in the Hu-
peoples and—as the debates on the nature of the Indians man breast” have nothing to do with one another. The
in the sixteenth century suggest—is at the root of the respective metaphors are quite compatible in any but a
division between “them” and “us”? very literalist reading. Aside from this, I fully appreciate
I would like to endorse Csordas’s point of not consid- Dupré’s suspicion of a Christocentric understanding of
ering religion merely an individual experience, but I deity as necessarily superior to humanity, something
182 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

with which I was once profoundly impressed when the bus—but I could say that assumptions about surprise
watching a film of women laughing and joking while might be different in the two cases. Where assumptions
gathering important sacred plants. This is immediately about surprise are the same, however, this could be so
in accord with what I have discussed with respect to an either in the sense that Pink Fairies are taken for granted
intimate alterity and with my attempt to domesticate as easily as is the appearance of the bus around the corner
the melodramatic flights of Otto and van der Leeuw or in the sense that one is transcendently and prayerfully
about the majestically awesome wholly other. Finally, I grateful at the miracle of the appearance of the correct
am grateful for Dupré’s comment that my intuition de- bus, brought about every day by the most loving and
serves being worked out in a very big book. powerful lord of the universe. And this takes us to Lit-
Lambek observes that my move from acknowledging tlewood’s key phrase, “Religion is only our normal social
Asad’s critique of religion as a category to registering a world read in slightly different colours,” which I think
desire to retain it is abrupt. I agree. The problem is as precisely corresponds to my argument. There is hardly
much with “religion” as a word as it is with religion as a need to choose between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein
a category. It is only as useful as we make it, and we can on the one hand and alien abduction and multiple per-
be trapped by careless and uncritical uses of the word sonality disorder on the other as privileged sites of al-
just as we can be trapped by the historical matter from terity—what I am asking us to consider is the nature of
which the category is constructed. But surely this can the écart that accounts for Littlewood’s “slightly differ-
be said of any word or category when we try to capture ent colours.”
it and harness it for scientific use. This would be the When van der Veer responded to this article given as
Wittgensteinian approach to the critique of the cate- a talk in Amsterdam, he recalled that as a graduate stu-
gory—we find the meaning of religion by examining the dent he had contracted with a professor to be exempt
ways in which we use the word. It is one interpretation from examination of van der Leeuw on condition that
of the strategy of surveying for polythetic family resem- he would never himself teach about religion. This is per-
blance that Lambek identifies as an alternative to mine. haps related to his relief that anthropologists have by
But actual religion as it is lived and felt and practiced is and large rejected the insights of phenomenologists of
not about the use of words per se, and it is not incom- religion and his feeling of being haunted by ghosts res-
patible to ask what might be the basis for that family urrected in my argument—but thank goodness for his
resemblance. Is there a core of religion? How about of defiance of the bargain with his professor and the op-
economics? That would be exchange, right? (Or was that portunity to engage his vigorous critique. Let us begin
production?) And I am not so sure I want to say that the with Blake, who was not at all about interiority, self as
core is found in experience (since that word too easily embodied presence, and deeply felt emotion in the sense
takes on a Jamesian cast). Rappaport does, as Lambek that van der Veer uses these phrases but about imagi-
observes, give more attention to the discursive “sacred” nation. Blake saw visions and ghosts all the time and
than to the experiential “holy” (Lambek thereby might refused to be surprised by them or awed by them, because
have used the word “overbalanced” rather than “bal- his revelry in imagination in all its spontaneity was a
anced” to describe Rappaport’s position, developed from full frontal embrace of alterity as the existential core of
an almost rabbinical sensibility for language while sin- being. This was the source of his antinomianism, as van
cerely remaining open to the transcendent). But the ex- der Veer calls it, though I would prefer simply to call
istential structure of alterity appears on both sides of him a political and religious radical, supporter of revo-
Rappaport’s equation, for example, in the possibility of lutions and enemy of the mystification bred in power.
lies on the discursive side and the numinous on the ex- Second, to say that the body is the universal origin of
periential side. The fact that it can be identified in var- religion is not the same as to say that the body is the
ious domains speaks to Lambek’s observation that al- origin of universal religion (van der Veer’s reading of me).
terity needs to be linked more precisely to the social and Van der Veer would have been correct to observe that I
moral. This was the step I began to take by addressing have not mentioned Bourdieu in my discussion of alter-
contemporary events. I am gratified that Lambek rec- ity, but he is rather off in saying that Bourdieu does not
ognizes that this is where the argument is going and figure in my discussion of embodiment or, for that mat-
needs to go. ter, religion, insofar as my work is thoroughly seasoned
I am off on the wrong foot with Littlewood insofar as by Bourdieu and breaded with habitus (Csordas 1990,
I can neither figure out how he reads my discussion as 1994, 1997, 2002). Indeed, the notion of habitus is not
referring to “high” religion nor embrace his description the most obvious tool for getting a grasp on alterity—
of how I am following James. These characterizations do but if we were to bring habitus into this discussion it
not go to the point of my attempt to domesticate the would be in conjunction with the unheimlich, precisely
phenomenologists like van der Leeuw with the notion where those dispositions inculcated in the body and en-
of intimate alterity or to marshal the phenomenologists shrined in the symbolic order of the household begin to
like Merleau-Ponty in support of embodied alterity, and reverse their sense of familiarity and reappear as down-
I am not sure how they could be read from the ethno- right spooky. As for the transmutation of Otto’s notion
graphic instances I evoke. I agree that assumptions about of power into Foucault’s, I would prefer “tenuous” to
action or agency are no different when comparing the “disingenuous” as a descriptor, particularly since I agree
Pink Fairy religion with habitual actions such as riding with Asad’s use of Foucault to warn against a universal
c s o r d a s Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion F 183

definition of religion. But I never offer a definition of problematic and where the most is at stake—the point
religion as Geertz does, only a thesis about its phenom- at which the theory of religion begins to engage the
enological kernel. Missing this, in referring to my dis- broader social domain. She reads me as saying that it is
cussion of 9/11 van der Veer also glosses over a large only the alterity that is elaborated in and of itself and
space between the religious (relevant only to bin Laden has no content prior to the elaboration of it that serves
and apocalyptic Christians) and the analytic (where focus as the phenomenological kernel of religion. What I have
should be on the impact of the media). Are those anon- said is that alterity has no content prior to its elaboration
ymous people who are the actors behind the media really in cultural life and that it is only when it is elaborated
any more phenomenologically removed from the events in and of itself—as what we can recognize both as the
than anyone else within their purview? (And of course phenomenological kernel and reflexively as the object of
there are those beyond the reach of media who may still practice—that we are speaking of religion proper in dis-
not have learned of the collapse of the World Trade Cen- tinction to other domains such as politics, aesthetics, or
ter.) All of these issues are debatable, but in the end van athletics, for, as Hauser plainly agrees, alterity is the
der Veer lessens the impact of his critique by appearing basis of all communication. She also has difficulty with
to assume that history and phenomenology are mutually my attributing a religious dimension to the attacks of
exclusive, diametrically opposed, or theoretically incom- September 11, 2001. It is of course the case that the
patible rather than complementary moments of analysis. alterity of the final attack on the World Trade Center
Velho’s outline of a possible lineage for my argument was not elaborated purely “in and for itself,” but I would
perhaps provides a head start toward the big book that argue that in this case it is quite possible to identify that
Dupré requires to be convinced of my argument. As part phenomenological kernel in the sense of a residue of
of his subtle outline of alternative readings and routes alterity that can be accounted for in no other terms ex-
to take in developing this argument he calls attention cept its own, that is, in terms of what I have called “raw
to the trickiness of using alterity in a rhetorical climate existence” in contrast to the “bare life” of biopolitics.
of scholarly debate that might obscure its usefulness. In other words, the kernel is not eliminated or super-
The notion of exoticizing God himself is particularly seded by cultural elaboration, political appropriation,
intriguing, because it suggests a discussion in which the historical circumstance, or rhetorical spin but occasion-
alternatives to exoticizing might be reducing, explaining, ally becomes recognizable in and for itself, sui generis.
embracing, identifying with, and so on. Reverting again Thus what accepting my position on alterity means is
to Blake, I would have to say that it is religion itself not that there will be hardly any other domains left aside
rather than a theory of alterity that exoticizes God, and from religion but that those domains contain an element
this is part of the phenomenon we are called on to ac- of the religious and, furthermore, that the salience of
count for. A similar response can be made to Velho’s this element can vary according to historical conditions.
more specific interrogation of where this argument falls Perhaps part of our difference has to do with Hauser’s
with respect to dualism and monism. To paraphrase understanding of my thesis in terms of a distinction be-
Drew Leder (1990), the possibility of dualistic thinking tween belief and practice. What I am saying has nothing
(for example, the dichotomy between mind and body as to do with belief. Indeed, if I am to be consistent in
we have inherited it from Descartes) is grounded in the arguing that there is a valid sense in which religion is
existential structure of embodiment itself. It is thus sui generis, then it must be existentially prior to belief.
again part of the phenomenon to be accounted for in a As for practice, Hauser perhaps introduces another way
synthetic theory of the body, and to adopt it as a theo- we can bring the notion of habitus to bear on this ar-
retical stance is a form of going native. I do not think gument. Certainly the kinds of practices and techniques
that recognizing alterity in the form of the écart we have of the body to which she refers are forms of cultural
discussed requires “the artificial reconstitution of the elaboration that can be said to inculcate dispositions of
continuity of the world,” precisely because it is already devotion, belief, and allegiance. To observe also that they
a part of the structure of human worlds, so that yet again, are the basis for an encounter with alterity—a process
“alterity in the sense of the concept of the alien objec- of embodiment in the verbal sense (“to embody some-
tified other” is part of the phenomenon we have to ac- thing”) attuned to evoke an aspect of embodiment (“em-
count for. This would be the case whether the empirical bodied alterity”) understood as our general existential
instances in question were describable in terms of op- condition—is intriguing and worthy of much more
positional economy or in terms of partial differences in discussion.
a continuous social process. Finally, I detect a tantalizing In sum, I acknowledge again that my drawing upon
bit of Lévy-Bruhl in Velho’s notion of the alterity of at- some of the contemporary literature on alterity in order
tachments and his suspicion of the way the moderns to rehabilitate the phenomenologists of religion had to
separate humans and nonhumans. And where Lévy- be evocative rather than definitive and that the same is
Bruhl would stand on the notion of alterity as the phe- true of my ethnographic illustrations of various points
nomenological kernel of religion is certainly a point for in the argument. I also acknowledge again that there is
further investigation. much to be done along the lines I have sketched out here
Hauser summarizes the first parts of my argument ac- to specify the role of alterity and of religion in social,
curately and succinctly, then encounters problems pre- moral, and political life, particularly at this moment in
cisely at the point where the argument becomes most which the upsurge of alterity is taking place so broadly.
184 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004

In recognizing alterity in the sense I have elaborated it, dieux: Transe et possession (Afrique noire, Madagascar, la Ré-
we are recognizing that the grounds for creating distance union). Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires de Blaise-Pas-
cal. [md]
are also the grounds for creating intimacy. We are rec- d u r k h e i m , e m i l e . 1995. The elementary forms of religious
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level at which political narrative (“secular”) and cos- e l i a d e , m i r c e a . 1958. Patterns in comparative religion.
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