Jean Comaroff
Lecture, "The Politics of Conviction:
Faith in the Neoliberal Frontier"
November 7, 2008

Anthropologist Jean Comaroff (Bernard E. and Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago) visited the Center on November 7 to present a lecture entitled, “The Politics of Conviction: Faith in the Neoliberal Frontier.” Comaroff, who was called “one of anthropology’s most prominent and accomplished scholars” in an introduction by Kalman Applbaum (Anthropology, UWM), has written extensively about the religion of the Southern Tswana peoples; colonialism, Christian evangelism, and liberation struggles in southern Africa; healing and bodily practice; and the making of local worlds in the wake of global “modernity” and commodification.

Jean Comaroff

Comaroff began her lecture by positing that “the sacred is becoming more prominent in profane places” and then drew on the controversies surrounding the mysterious appearance of an image of the Virgin Mary under an expressway in Chicago as well as the death of Terri Schiavo as examples that “underlie a new religious realism pervading American life.” Turning her attention to growing Pentecostal revivalist movements in Southern Africa (which have arisen, in part, as a result of the missionary work of American mega-churches), she discussed how religious institutions are assuming a wider array of civic responsibilities in the face of widespread deregulation in the civil sphere and uncertainty in the economic sphere. Mass media, she argued, has allowed for the unprecedented reach of popular religion in both Africa and Latin America, so that television, film, CDs, and cassette tapes are now integral to the communication of the sacred. Comaroff then examined how evangelical churches in Africa encourage a sense of “spiritual venture capital,” vying for the competing attentions of patrons, and projecting an image of economic success in an environment rife with destabilized economies and devalued currencies. She concluded that, while faith has never been wholly separate from commerce, the new political economy “erodes the distinction between the sacred and the profane” in ways that question “the rule of liberal humanism” and constitute an “epochal shift of capital, labor, consumption, and place.”

The multidisciplinary audience of approximately fifty Center fellows, UWM faculty and graduate and undergraduate students eagerly engaged Professor Comaroff in the question-and-answer session following the formal presentation. The discussion continued during the reception the Center hosted at its conference room on the ninth floor of Curtin Hall. The Center expresses its gratitude to the Anthropology Department for its contributions to the event.


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