This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Matt Tomlinson. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.018



Configuring interiors

Matt TOMLINSON, Australian National University


The contributors to this collection both draw upon and move beyond the model of the sincere subject to examine diverse configurations of interiority and their construction and consequences. In doing so, they offer new insights about the orbits and alignments of those terms that circle around the concepts of sincerity and interiority, including subjectivity, intention, mediation, belief, spontaneity, and sin.

Interiority’s configurations continually shift as religious and political projects push and pull boundaries of inner and outer. A key step in any comparative analysis of these dynamics is to pay close attention to fractally recursive relations, in which “a distinction repeats a pattern within itself” (Abbott 2001: 9). Interiority is paired with exteriority in a relationship of this kind, in which each term repeatedly produces the other through opposition. The act of marking distinctions is what matters: fractal distinctions “can be used to organize virtually any kind of social fact: spaces, institutions, bodies, groups, activities, interactions, and relations” (Gal 2005: 27). Conceptually, interiority is the opposite of exteriority and exteriority is the opposite of interiority, but each is present in the other at multiple levels of comparison, and the key questions their relationship raises are (1) how one term gets identified as the relevant and consequential one in interaction, and (2) how senses of a single, natural, stable opposition are generated. As Niloofar Haeri writes in her article in this collection, “How can individuals have an interiority at all without the world outside—a world that distinguishes in such absolute terms between what lies outside and what lies inside?”

A key point that emerges from these articles’ attention to interiority and exteriority is that binarism, often dismissed as reductive and static, is put into practice as a flexibly structured strategy in which stasis is a practical impossibility. The [230]semiotic logic of fractal recursivity may be simple, but the interactive emergence of what counts as interior(ity) and exterior(ity) is anything but. Indeed, the dynamism of a seemingly simple opposition like interior–exterior is seen in the way all of the contributors discuss transformations: Russian Orthodoxy is reconfigured as a “life choice” with “sins” newly identified; Iranian Muslim women develop their ability to concentrate in prayer; ultra-Orthodox Jewish authorities embrace therapy and clamp down on the Internet; Lutheran missionaries gradually redefine what counts as vernacular.

In her contribution, Sonja Luehrmann observes that for post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church members, interiority is mostly a matter of when: it gets crafted at particular “moments of withdrawal” from regular sociality. These withdrawals are made by women atoning for abortions they had decades earlier. In confessing their newly discovered sins, they speak with priests but address themselves to God, creating and responding to “a rarefied context in which speaker and hearer temporarily strip themselves of the social attributes that normally characterize their encounter.” On pilgrimages, and while staying for short periods in monasteries, women step out “of contemporary life into a purer and less distracted past.” Sincerity, piety, and atonement are always temporary matters, not stable or continuous ones. To be sure, these moments of suspension and separation are firmly grounded in particular sites with their durable, tangible demands: confessions are made in a chapel (not an enclosed confessional) where they might possibly be overheard, and pilgrims troop, step by exhausting step, to a site commemorating the murder by fire of three young children. The cultivation of interiority takes place in a world of hard benches, cold train cars, and icy pavement; and also in a series of refusals, things resolutely kept outside, like alcohol, sausages offered by the well-meaning anthropologist, and a free ride on a bus which, despite the priests’ reassurances that it will not cheapen the pilgrimage, is rejected by elderly pilgrims who seem about to collapse.

Whereas Luehrmann approaches interiority by relating it to temporality, Niloofar Haeri focuses on sincerity, a topic of Webb Keane’s influential work on Protestant modernity (e.g., Keane 2002, 2007). For Iranian women, what it means to be Muslim after the Revolution means (to a considerable extent) praying sincerely, which means praying with concentration. Haeri notes that the generic division between formulaic, five-times-a-day Islamic prayers and spontaneous, informal prayers should not be overstated, as both require a sincere approach manifest in concentration.1 Moreover, her interlocutors observe that a formulaic prayer will change its meaning day by day as contexts shift. Sincerity in both formal and [231]informal prayers is valued, and what Haeri’s friends seem to distrust is the mediating category of informal prayer scripted by others. In her analysis, Haeri notes that too close a focus on semiotic ideology might lead analysts to miss the emotions that make ritual forms so compelling to people. Taking her point, I would add the cautionary note that unless one equates emotion with affect and subscribes to a version of affect theory placing it outside mediation, emotions are semiotic systems in their own right.

Getting at interiority means paying equal attention to exteriority, as these articles show in their keenly observed ethnography. Luehrmann notes Russian Orthodox women’s descriptions of “sin as a thing, something external to the self rather than a deep truth about who one is,” something you can deposit with the priest “as one might do with a bottle at a recycling center or an object in a lost-and-found.” For the ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York described by Ayala Fader, the exterior is clearly identified, ever-pressing, and decidedly threatening: it is the goyish world “off the path” of Jewish faith, represented most urgently by the Internet. The key danger of the Internet is the way it turns private shame into public acceptability. Fader describes a Hasidic women’s rally at which the last speaker, a rabbi, describes the Internet as cultivating people’s interior urge toward evil. In contrast to mainstream models of the therapeutic nature of interconnection, the Internet, for Rabbi Cohen, is problematic precisely because it connects people who, in the old days, would have been isolated with their faithless, aberrant thoughts, and provoked to struggle against them rather than find a community to endorse them.

Fader counterposes two models used by ultra-Orthodox rabbis to explain people’s inner doubts about their faith. One is a psychological model in which nonconformity is shaped by forces outside of the individual’s control. The other is a traditional theological model in which two internal forces struggle: the will that can lead to self-improvement and the urge toward evil, the latter being the thing to which the Internet appeals so insistently. In both models, rabbis are the proper authorities for determining moral right and wrong, but in the psychological model a therapist is given responsibility for handling the person’s emotional well-being so he or she can then be able to submit to correct religious authority.

Correct religious authority is also a key part of Courtney Handman’s examination of Lutheran missionaries’ linguistic policies in colonial Papua New Guinea. She demonstrates how the project of identifying the right language for shaping converts’ subjective interiors always configured the lingua franca Tok Pisin as shallow, mongrel, irregular, and impermanent—not nearly good enough to cultivate a Christian soul. Vernacular languages could touch the heart. Nonvernacular languages could not. But at first, missionaries’ desire to work in local languages was thwarted by sheer numbers—by the fact that PNG has more indigenous languages than any other nation on earth. Thus local languages were bypassed in favor of mission lingua francas judged to be vernacular enough. (One missionary blithely asserted that all of the languages of PNG had “practically identical thought categories, ideas, and concepts.”) For many PNG mission subjects, languages like Kâte and Jabem were not really vernacular. For the missionaries, what mattered was that [232]the languages, as indigenous languages of PNG, were configured as interior against the exterior and nonvernacular languages of English and the despised Tok Pisin. And as Handman shows masterfully, even Tok Pisin became vernacular enough over time as it came to seem utterly necessary.

When analyzing fractal distinctions like interiority and exteriority, if one term is foregrounded it seems to fold in on itself repeatedly. Where is the holy? In the Holy Land, of course. Within that, Jerusalem. And within that, the Temple Mount; the Tabernacle; the Holy of Holies. Each of these interiors is configured against a well-fitting exterior like nesting Russian dolls of faith. The forcefulness and elegance of the articles gathered here are found in the way they keep the interior–exterior distinction in full view and doubly visioned. In attending to interior and exterior to refine understandings of such terms and concepts as sincerity and subjectivity, they show how each term and concept is employed by particular actors to remake relationships of devotional practice, ritual efficacy, personal integrity, and communal identity. From a wealth of complex interactions, we see forms spinning into control, organized by a semiotic logic by which people shape interiorities through such diverse techniques as walking to exhaustion, concentrating in prayer, insisting on kosher smartphones, and seeking a language in which one can really know oneself, one’s community, and God.


Abbott, Andrew. 2001. Chaos of disciplines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gal, Susan. 2005. “Language ideologies compared: Metaphors of public/private.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15 (1): 23–27.

Garff, Joakim. (2000) 2005. Søren Kierkegaard: A biography. Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Keane, Webb. 2002. “Sincerity, ‘modernity,’ and the Protestants.” Cultural Anthropology 17 (1): 65–92.

———. 2007. Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. (1846) 1944. Concluding unscientific postscript to the philosophical fragments: A mimic-pathetic-dialectic composition, an existential contribution. Edited by Walter Lowrie. Translated by David F. Swenson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Matt TOMLINSON is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University. Since the mid-1990s, he has conducted research on language and ritual in Pacific Islands societies. He has coedited several volumes, including New mana: Transformations of a classic concept in Pacific languages and cultures with Ty P. Kāwika Tengan (ANU Press, 2016) and The monologic imagination with Julian Millie (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is the author of In God’s image: The metaculture of Fijian Christianity (University of California [233]Press, 2009) and Ritual textuality: Pattern and motion in performance (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Matt Tomlinson
College of Asia and the Pacific
Australian National University
H.C. Coombs Building,
room 7217
ACT 2601


1. This kind of concentration is also considered important in varieties of Protestantism. Kierkegaard, whose philosophy emerges from an exceptionally strong Protestant ideal of interiority—“Christianity is subjectivity, an inner transformation, an actualization of inwardness” ([1846] 1944: 51)—describes how impressed he was by a young mother who was able to maintain her prayerful focus despite the presence of her unruly son. “She was completely unperturbed by the boy’s little pranks,” he writes,

but continued with the ordained prayer, followed along in the hymnal during the communion. . . . Alas! In general parents tend to be so busy getting the children to sit still, as if this was why they were in church. How beautiful it was to see her choose the one thing needful, and how beautifully she negotiated the difficulty. (Cited in Garff [2000] 2005: 330)