An elephant squeezes the house of religion. Yet it is little studied in its own right. Pieces of it fill analyses but its stomping, enormous form is almost ignored, even though it increasingly requires walls be rebuilt and floors reinforced. Its demands for food become the house’s budget, and its waste… oh my gosh, it’s waste.
If the house is belief, faith, and ritual, whether properties of individuals or communities, the elephant is the organizational form they as well as the individuals and communities take. One recent book grabs hold of the elephant by trunk and leg for the house of Mormonism. Its doing so has relevance for grasping all kinds of contemporary faiths, whether Catholicism, Pentecostalism, or Islam.
Yet, like the beast it stalked, it is not a simple nor a small work as its subtitle indicates: A Book about a Book about the Corporation that Owns the Mormons. Key for understanding it as an ethnography of Mormonism are three things, the word “owns”, the social reality of “corporation” and a chain of “reference”.
The book’s main title is The Book of Mammon, by the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Daymon Smith (CreateSpace, 2010), or is it by Daemon Smith an alter ego and simulacrum of Daymon? At the same time Daemon is an alter ego of Daymon and a character/ author—object and subject—in the abstract world of text and property that is both the book and the book about the book.
If this last bit seems confusing, it is because the Book of Mammon takes us into the hall of mirrors that is meaning. But it makes us pay attention to the mirrors, as if in the temple for a “sealing” and instead of seeing the couple extending into eternity, we see the mirrors and an infinite reproduction of images that are not really identical to one another. It makes us split signifiers from their object. And, it requires we notice what, or was it who, attempts to bring them together.
In ordinary life we proceed as if it were the couple extending into eternity, since that is what we mean. The Sealers will be sure we know that is what we are officially to take from the image of image of image of . . . The Book of Mammon breaks the naturalness of being told what something means to show the mechanics of it and how it takes a lot of work to produce mirrors that reflect so “cleanly” and Sealers who simply state a meaning. The relations among them cannot be taken for granted in this book.
Daymon Smith’s intellectual background is, no surprise, a linguistic anthropology that focuses on discourse and semiotics. One of his mentors, Asif Agha, wrote the book of reflexivity, on the way language folds back on itself to create meaning. Daymon moves beyond language, however, following chains of signification—of meaning—to things like mirrors and churches. He follows the material forms of the things that carry meaning and notices how meaning is attached and asks the implications of the how.
As a result, The Book of Mammon is a book about a book. It is playful and literary in its use of styles of narrative from a much earlier century, especially genres of complaint. It also is a meditation on the silliness and pretentiousness of reflexive ethnography. This latter was a movement in anthropological writing from the eighties and nineties to cope with the situatedness of ethnographers by including them in texts they write about other people. But, as Daymon’s use of Daemon, with all its demonic ambivalence, suggests, the writing of oneself into the text is the creation of simulation, not unlike all the other chains of simulation that form our world, but it is not capable really to measure an author and his/her relationships with the people studied.
Thus, Daymon worked in the LDS Church Office Building, a tangible representation of the corporation in the subtitle, but it is Daemon’s working in the Church Office Building, with all the various kinds of motivations that bring Daymon and Daemon, the Church Office Building and the COB together.
That kind of playful awareness demands a lot of the reader. And, of anyone who wishes to grapple with this very important but exasperating text. However, for the rest of this review I am going to leave the issues of reflexivity and semiotics mostly alone. I want to talk about why I find this book important for understanding the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and why I think it important for the study of religion more generally.
Daymon brings to the fore of analysis the issue of ownership. He explores consequences of religion becoming property and fitting into regimes of property established by the state. Although his book is filled with the kind of angsty awareness of someone who first stumbles of the issue and repeats it over and over, nevertheless his insights are good and lay the foundation for much future work.
For example, Daymon notes that there are no members, technically, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the way it as legal organization is established it is not the kind of organization that has members, despite the common usage whereby people call themselves members. The Church is, Daymon notes, a trademark owned by a corporation.
Many people will be non-plussed by this observation and argument about “what is is”, at least at first read. Most Mormons feel themselves members of the Church and that membership means something powerful to them. So what if member means something different legally than it does to them?
But Daymon’s focus is not ordinary Mormons, since he feels that there is an enormous discrepancy between what they think and feel and the material reality of the Church as form that can be owned. Daymon carries his focus further to note that the corporation owning the Church is The Corporation of the First Presidency, which only has one member, the President of the Church.
But, although there is a real person occupying that position, Daymon continues to argue that person is not the same as the position and that he is limited precisely because of the nature of ownership within a corporation.
Although stunning to Latter-day Saints, and perhaps infuriating, the basis of this idea is not new. It lies in Marxist ideas of fetishism or in the classic Weberian notion of formal rationality, hence modernity, as an “iron cage” that removes the substantive rationality that is typically most human.
Nor is Daymon’s thinking on corporate bureaucracy new in its broad outlines, for, yes, his book is about the corporation and its various instances. It is new as an expansion of a creative ethnographic look into the workings of bureaucracy and especially a religious bureaucracy where maintenance of the bureaucracy and its functioning becomes a clear value rather than the evidently religious purposes that ostensibly guide it.
In this light, Daymon’s work is along the lines of the work of Veena Das and colleagues who challenge Weber’s understanding of rationality to show how government is often not a Weberian rational bureaucracy where there is coherence from one side of a syllogism to the other. Rather it is typified by a foundational illegibility, a foundational incoherence.
This is an important part of Daymon’s observations about the Church Office Building and the Church as Corporation. While attempting rational management, ostensibly, it is wildly irrational and illegibility is important to its functioning. This is also an important part of his anguish as an active Mormon ethnographer writing this monograph.
In between thoughts about the corporation, I must write about Daymon the ethnographer. Despite Daemon, or rather because of Daemon the alter-ego, Daymon the Latter-day Saint who is also an Ivy-League trained anthropologist is very much a part of the book. Ethnography depends on its practitioners being part of the reality they study. But most ethnographers are outsiders, or they make themselves such by becoming inside-outsiders to use Jan Shipp’s felicitous term. Daymon is an inside insider of Mormonism who is doing ethnography. In that, some will read betrayal because of the expectations of the methodology and Daymon’s text can be painful as well because of the non-break between the inside and him as an insider. Or better said the breaks are between his expectations and faith, related to deep traditions within Mormonism as religious community and its dissociative relationship with the Church as corporate property.
The dissociation becomes visible, knowable, and narratable for Daymon because of his penchant for following signs as material things and noticing how they function in discourse and society to create meaning by becoming fixed and quotable within discourse and social relationships. In this he follows the theoretical traditions of his graduate department. He pays close attention to language and to meaning in ways most people and most analysts don’t.
This returns us to the elephant. While most believers and scholars will focus on religion as a matter of faith, even a universal need for meaning—if one believes Stark and buddies—Daymon finds a tension between that and the mechanics that make it function, not in the relationship of individual to other individuals, per se, or in the relationship between individual and the supernatural, but in the mechanics of forming religious social organizations and coordinating individuals. He finds it in the gap between people and the things they have created, religious corporations in this case.
Daymon’s analysis is important here. Mormonism is unusual for the degree to which it embraced the corporate form just as it was developing and becoming significant as a matter of society. Catholic social organization is significantly different, caught between the Vatican as symbolic state and individual diocese, or Pentecostalism with its struggles to create organizations that can stay true to its emphasis on individual gifts of the spirit while finding an economy of scale, i.e. size, that allows them to move as a body in the world consonant with their numbers. In each case the form matters and has implication for the nature of the resultant religion.
Though a book that will raise many people’s hackles, The Book of Mammon is an important one, not just for the study of Mormonism but for the social science of religion. It looks the elephant of religious structure into the eye without blinking. As a result, I shall use it as a required text in my seminar on the anthropology of Christianity next semester. I welcome discussion on the issues it raises.
Administrative note: This review and the book in question raise difficult and sensitive issues. It is easy to imagine a rather non-productive conversation ensuing. We have decided to open comments on this thread, among other things as an act of faith in our readers. Needless to say, the usual standards of civil interaction and moderation (in both senses) will be expected and enforced, and comments should confine themselves to the content of this review and Mr. Smith’s book. There is potential for rich and substantive discussion here. Please, readers, do not disappoint!