Posts

What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

Visual Culture and the Study of Religion

Birgit Meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. A distinguished and prolific scholar who trained as a cultural anthropologist and who worked on lived religion in Ghana for more than 20 years, Meyer is vice-chair of the International African Institute, a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the editors ofMaterial Religion. She has been a leading voice for some time in such topics and fields as diverse as the colonial missions and local appropriations of Christianity, the rise of Pentecostalism in the context of neoliberal capitalism, popular culture and video-films in Ghana, the relations between religion, media and identity, the study of lived and material religion, and the place and role of religion in the 21st century more broadly. She is the author of Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity Among the Ewe in Ghana, editor of Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion and the Senses, and co-editor of Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and ClosureMagic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and ConcealmentReligion, Media and the Public Sphere, and Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality.

Along with Bruno Latour, Carlo Ginzburg, and Jörg Rüpke, Professor Meyer was a keynote speaker at the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) and Dutch Association for the Study of Religion (NGG) Joint Conference held at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, 11-15 May 2014. Meyer’s keynote address, ‘Visual Culture and the Study of Religion,’ sought to make an intervention into the study of religion and material and visual culture through an understanding of religion as a practice of mediation, one in and through which some kind of spiritual or divine presence, however conceptualised, is effected, actualised, or materialised. Meyer argued that such an understanding of religion as mediation allows us to draw attention to the fascinating issue of religious images and sensory regimes, thinking through the implications of placing such visual culture and a consideration of material, multi-sensuous embodiment at the core of scholarly inquiry for the production of knowledge about religion.

After the keynote, George Ioannides had the opportunity to meet with Professor Meyer to discuss her work, her career, her views on the importance of studying religion and/as material and visual culture, and her advice for students who similarly wish to research topics at the intersection of cultural anthropology and the study of religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

From 30 June, the RSP will be on “summer vacation”. This means no regular podcasts and posts until mid-September. However, we will endeavour to bring you some material, including weekly opportunities digests, and you can follow our regular updates on our social media pages. Thanks for listening!

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html

 

Podcasts

What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

Visual Culture and the Study of Religion

Birgit Meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. A distinguished and prolific scholar who trained as a cultural anthropologist and who worked on lived religion in Ghana for more than 20 years, Meyer is vice-chair of the International African Institute, a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the editors ofMaterial Religion. She has been a leading voice for some time in such topics and fields as diverse as the colonial missions and local appropriations of Christianity, the rise of Pentecostalism in the context of neoliberal capitalism, popular culture and video-films in Ghana, the relations between religion, media and identity, the study of lived and material religion, and the place and role of religion in the 21st century more broadly. She is the author of Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity Among the Ewe in Ghana, editor of Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion and the Senses, and co-editor of Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and ClosureMagic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and ConcealmentReligion, Media and the Public Sphere, and Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality.

Along with Bruno Latour, Carlo Ginzburg, and Jörg Rüpke, Professor Meyer was a keynote speaker at the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) and Dutch Association for the Study of Religion (NGG) Joint Conference held at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, 11-15 May 2014. Meyer’s keynote address, ‘Visual Culture and the Study of Religion,’ sought to make an intervention into the study of religion and material and visual culture through an understanding of religion as a practice of mediation, one in and through which some kind of spiritual or divine presence, however conceptualised, is effected, actualised, or materialised. Meyer argued that such an understanding of religion as mediation allows us to draw attention to the fascinating issue of religious images and sensory regimes, thinking through the implications of placing such visual culture and a consideration of material, multi-sensuous embodiment at the core of scholarly inquiry for the production of knowledge about religion.

After the keynote, George Ioannides had the opportunity to meet with Professor Meyer to discuss her work, her career, her views on the importance of studying religion and/as material and visual culture, and her advice for students who similarly wish to research topics at the intersection of cultural anthropology and the study of religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

From 30 June, the RSP will be on “summer vacation”. This means no regular podcasts and posts until mid-September. However, we will endeavour to bring you some material, including weekly opportunities digests, and you can follow our regular updates on our social media pages. Thanks for listening!

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html