Sincerity, “Modernity,” and the Protestants

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

“The project of religious conversion commonly proposes a more or less dramatic transformation of the person. To the extent that this project succeeds or fails, it may offer more general insights into the practices by which human subjects are constituted. This article looks at the subject proposed by religious conversion in the context of certain common ideas about ‘modernity.’ Drawing on the twentieth-century Dutch Calvinist missionization of Sumba in eastern Indonesia, it concerns Protestant efforts to define the subject, especially as it is supposed to transcend this world, and thus to distinguish it from that which might threaten its relative autonomy. My focus is on changes in signifying practices and ideologies within what can be called a representational economy. The article begins with a brief discussion of the effort to reform the subject by redefining its distinction from objects such as material goods. It then turns at greater length to the normative ideal of sincerity in speech as another component of this reform. The concept of sincerity is of particular interest here because of the links it forges among language, social interaction, personal character, freedom, regimes of truth, and some narratives of modernity. I would suggest, though I cannot argue it here, that these links are part of the taken-for-granted background for the liberal tradition out of which have emerged many of the questions, methods, politics, and worries of anthropology and related disciplines at both the epistemic and ethical levels. I draw on the ethnographic example of Sumbanese Calvinists as one illustration of some general problems faced by the effort to produce and sustain a relatively autonomous subject. The trouble is partly due, I argue, to the inescapably social and material character of the representational practices by which that ideal autonomy is meant to be inhabited.”

“Sincerity, ‘Modernity,’ and the Protestants,” by Webb Keane (2002, 65).

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