A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Tag: material culture

New Wonder Shown (Broadcasting)

Taken from Moody Monthly, Vol 22, Iss 7, p948


Here is the story of a wonderful scientific experiment filled with sentiment — a further development of the telephone in your home — performed in a picturesque setting during a recent conference of Bell Telephone system executives at Yama Farms, near Ellenville, N. Y. In the evening quiet of the Catskill Mountains, in the midst of the tree- crested hills and peaceful valleys, an amplifier, or loud speaker, had been set up. In preparing for this experiment men with flare torches had been stationed two and three miles away from the projectors. As the sun sank in the west and the twilight came on an engineer stood in front of the loud speaking transmitter in the control room near the projectors, ready to send his voice through the country-side. The eyes of the spectators were glued on the spots where the listening posts had been established. The hour came. “If you hear me, wave your torch,” the engineer spoke in natural voice into the transmitter. Then the amplifying devices took up the tones and threw them out on the wings of the air. In a second or two — just long enough for the sound to travel through the ether — it came; a red light moved up and down in semaphore fashion. It was the two-mile man. In another second, another flare — the three-mile man. Soon after came a phonograph selection, and in a few seconds the swaying lights were seen across the valley. The selection was “America,” played on chimes, filling the air for miles around. The spectators stood motionless, but deeply moved. The distant nooks and corners were filled with this inspiring sound, as the chimes boomed out the notes which fit the words: “I love thy rocks and rills, Thy woods and templed hills; My heart with rapture thrills, Like that above.” — Selected.

Broadcasting Fundamentalism: A Telephone Revival

A Telephone Revival, 1912

This excerpt from the industry journal Telephony (Vol. 62, No. 21, p.644) recounts the story of a revival in Anson, Texas. The revival was broadcast by telephone. Yep, BROADCAST by telephone. In its early days, bold experimenters tried to use telephones as a broadcast medium. It never really caught on like the radio ultimately did, but this article tells a great story. Inclement weather produced dismal attendance for fundamentalist minister D.L. Coale’s revival meeting in West Texas. Few people from the town, and even fewer from the surrounding country, were able to make it to the event. So Coale got creative. He attached a megaphone horn to the receiver of a telephone to capture all the sounds, songs, and words of his sermons. He encouraged people to stay home and listen at their telephone. About 500 subscribers to the local telephone service listened to the revival each day at home. According to the article, “While this novel arrangement caused a lessening of the attendance at the revival it is said to have been productive of good results.” The author further speculates that this mode of address might soon become common practice in small towns across the country.

Phonograph Pastors, 1919

Thoughts on the phonograph and techno-preachers from Literary Digest, 1919. After comparing a Presbyterian conference to H.G. Wells’s “The Sleeper Awakes,” the author suggests that phonographic technology has rendered (bad) local preachers obsolete. The corollary is that phonographs can now do the basic religious work of preachers.

“The phonograph has been so wonderfully improved in recent years that it is capable of genuine oratory, and can convey its message to an audience of several hundred people–far more than ever gather in the smaller churches. But the real advantage should be in the caliber of the sermon. Who is to say that a congregation will not prefer to hear the ‘canned’ voice of a $20,000 a year minister, representing the highest intellect and the finest expression of religious thought to be found in the Church, rather than the ‘firstlies’ and ‘tenthlies’ of a man who struggles under the martyrdom of a $600 salary and preaching ability to match?” – Literary Digest (62.13) 27 Sept 1919, p 28.

AHA 2015 – Poster

Here’s the poster presentation created by Brendan Pietsch and A.T. Coates for the 2015 AHA Annual Meeting, NYC. Thanks for visiting!

PDF Download — Coates and Pietsch – Dispensational Charts

A Fundamentalist Temperance Song

Homer Rodeheaver served as song leader for the famous fundamentalist revivalist Billy Sunday. “Rody,” as friends called him, was one of the first people ever to record gospel music. Believe it or not, this was once controversial behavior for a Christian musician. The Library of Congress lists his 1916 Victor recording “Molly and the Baby, Don’t You Know?” in a catalogue of temperance songs. Their description states it “is a song of a father promising not to drink for the sake of his wife and child.” Certainly, temperance crusaders like Sunday and Rodeheaver saw liquor as a threat to family stability–hence the overt message of the song. But to students of American religious history, the song’s religious undertones are unmistakable. “Molly and the baby” is a play on Mary and Jesus. Giving up liquor wasn’t just about being a responsible husband and father, but also about being a good Christian. The success of prohibition laws proved the broad appeal of fundamentalism’s unique style of religion in the 1910s and 20s.

Matthew Engelke, “A Problem of Presence,” (2007)

Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. (U California, 2007).

Engelke examines immateriality in the Masowe weChishanu Church of Zimbabwe. Known as the “Friday apostolics,” members of this church proudly identify themselves as “Christians who don’t read the Bible.” In fact, they claim to have moved beyond the Bible to a “live and direct” faith, one that does not require the mediation of mere things like books to experience God’s presence. Conversing with the work of Webb Keane, Engelke unpacks “live and direct” as a semiotic ideology, a set of underlying assumptions about signification, representation, etc. An apostolic prophet, Madzibaba Godfrey Nzira, once phrased this “live and direct” semiotic ideology in terms unthinkable to other Protestants: “What is the Bible to me?… After keeping it for some time it falls apart, the pages come out. And then you can take it and use it as toilet paper until it’s finished. We don’t talk Bible-talk here. We have a true Bible here” (2). The thingyness, the materiality of a paper Bible makes it suspect. By contrast, the immaterial “true Bible” does not need words on the page to make its message clear, and in fact does better without them. This creates a problem for apostolics: a problem of presence. Certain objects, utterances, rituals, etc. do bring about live and direct encounters with the Holy Spirit, the true Bible, the angels—the prophet speaks, the church sings, congregants wear white robes. There is no such thing as pure immateriality, even in this tradition that prizes it. Some things are just more material than others.

Engelke’s prose sparkles. Chapter 7, “The Substance of Healing,” offered a very memorable case in point—it would work very well in a seminar on materiality. As an anthropologist, you’re bound to get sick while in the field. During one of his illnesses, church members insisted on giving Engelke “holy honey,” the most potent spiritual medicine made by apostolic elders. According to Friday principles, the therapeutic power of the honey comes only from the Holy Spirit—not from anything about the honey itself. But when Engelke drove a friend to work after church, the man, facing a long day at the office, hinted that a spoonful of the honey might really help him and sheepishly asked for one. In Engelke’s own phrasing, honey is a “sticky subject” of conversation and a “sticky object” for apostolics, since it is “the practical channel through which the apostolics articulate an exception to the rule that a Friday faith should be immaterial. . . .it represents the realization that even ‘strong’ Christians cannot divorce themselves from the material” (243). Materiality is not an either/or proposition, but rather “a matter of degree and kind” (ibid). Materiality is a sticky business indeed.

Review by A.T. Coates

Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Reformation of the Image” (2008)

Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (U Chicago, 2008)

Ostensibly, Koerner’s enormous book is “about” an altarpiece painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder for Martin Luther’s parish in Wittenberg (1547). But this book offers far, far more than a history of one painting. Koerner offers a thorough examination of how images changed during the Reformation, how what people thought about images and did with images changed during the Reformation, and how the Reformation happened in images. He begins by noting that art historians have given short shrift to Protestant painting during the Reformation. If Protestants appear at all in histories of this period, they do so as iconoclastic villains. Cranach, whose career straddled the crucial years of Luther’s reforms, is said to have “declined” in genius when making his Protestant paintings—their clear messages and inclusion of texts too didactic to be great art. Rather than join the chorus of detractors, Koerner follows his sources carefully. He not only discovers that Protestants made images as much as they destroyed them, but that the question of images stood at the center of the Reformation. Early Protestants made images to demonstrate the impotence of images; they made images to show the power of the word, the invisibility of the true church, and the transcendence of God. While some radical reformers wanted to abolish images altogether, Martin Luther realized that doing so actually acknowledged the power of images. After all, if images don’t pose a threat, there’s no reason to destroy them. Instead, Luther thought that images could become vehicles to show the power of the Word alone, to reveal the inadequacy of mediations of the Word. By creating images to convey these ideas, Koerner argues, Protestants actually helped to create a recognizably modern understanding of “art”—in particular, the “art” of art historians, who will write endlessly about the meaning of an image, simultaneously declaring that the best works do not convey obvious meanings.

There’s far too much in this book to treat in a short blog post—one reviewer calls it “biblical” in length. So take my comments for what they are and read the thing yourself: it’s worth the effort. Koerner sheds important light on the material processes by which “religious belief” took shape in the modern world. Iconoclastic Protestants radically “linguistified” the sacred, which was “formerly manifested objectively, in special elevated things, places, persons and institutions” (151-152). Where before the actions of the church and her officers held efficacy by divine right, individuals now had to believe, to reveal understanding of the saving Word. The site of sacred action moved from objects to the subjects, to “the language-based activity of understanding and being understood” (152). For Luther, the preacher reads the Word, which reveals the image of Christ crucified, which brings saving grace to the listener who understands (see image above). Even in the most extreme cases, such as Karlstadt’s iconoclasm, “belief” did not just play out on the level of minds and spirits. Things, images, buildings, practices, techniques of the body allowed “belief” to emerge.

By A.T. Coates

Latour, selections from “Reassembling the Social.”

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. (Oxford, 2005).

Officially, my reading list calls for “selections from” Reassembling the Social. That turned into me reading almost all of it very, very slowly (hence the delay in posting). Reassembling the Social offers some of the most accessible Latour, but nonetheless provocative, I’ve ever encountered. The theory is profound, but slippery. The book is less about what actor-network theory is and more about what it does—but, even more, it’s about what actor-network theory doesn’t do. It offers exciting new possibilities for how we might conduct our work as historians of religion. But trying to explain it succinctly feels like THIS

Latour first carefully disassembles the concept of “the social.” Note that I didn’t say he “deconstructs” it. For too long, Latour insists, theorists have approached the social as “a kind of material or a domain,” one usually invoked to provide an explanation for some other state of affairs (1). Religion, for example, is said to operate according to its own logic most of the time, but “social context” or “social forces” pop into scholarly accounts to explain some of the erratic behavior of practitioners. To take an example from a book I just read, this understanding of the social says evangelicalism in America looks different than evangelicalism in Canada because of the social context—or even better, the socio-cultural context—in which it “manifested.” “The social” thus stalks behind, or floats above, practitioners and their practices, ready to offer a “social explanation” at any moment. For Latour, this conception of “the social” as a domain, a realm, a kind of thing, blinds us to the associations that actors actually have with each other. Those associations change constantly, as groups are formed, dismantled, and reformed (29). Instead of positing a particular thing or domain as “the social,” Latour asks what kinds of peculiar assemblages might reveal themselves if we carefully trace the associations between actors, if we allow actors to show us what “the social” describes at a particular moment. The term “social,” Latour insists, describes “the name of a movement, a displacement, a transformation, a translation, an enrollment… an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social… except during the brief moment when they are shuffled together” (64-65). For actor-network theory, tracing those movements, displacements, transformations, and enrollments, becomes paramount.

ANT brings mediation and materiality to the foreground. In Latour’s actor-networks, actors look very different from what we usually see. Actors need not be human, nor “animate” in the sense we’re accustomed to. Gasp. Latour considers an “actor” to be “not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (46). Actors are those made to act. He uses the example of a pilgrim who claims, “I came to this monastery because the Virgin called me.” The Virgin makes the pilgrim an actor (the actor who travels), but the pilgrim also makes the Virgin an actor (the actor who calls others to action). We should take the pilgrim’s word for what’s happening when she says the Virgin called her: “Recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining, these are the Laws and the Prophets” (55).

This goes further than the kind of uncritical pandering to actors’ claims that we’re accustomed to in religious studies. Rather, as hinted above, Latour wants to understand how social worlds get constructed. So, for example, a Protestant says she believes the bread and wine in communion are mere “symbols” of commemoration, but then fears supernatural retribution for taking communion in an unfit spiritual state. An ANT would try to trace the complex connections between actors natural and supernatural, subjects and objects, persons and spirits, bread and sinners, that such a statement invokes. It’s a painstaking process, but one that pays big dividends for students of materiality because it pays attention to the kinds of agency afforded to things. Latour argues that, rather than insisting on a neat divide between agentive subjects and inert objects, we ought to explore how the relationships between subjects and objects, agents and mediators, get construed. He suggests a metaphysical openness on the question of cause and effect, an attention to how “things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on” (72, emphasis added). I’m not explaining it well, but tracing an actor-network in religious studies would never permit us to say, for example, that a certain object or image “manifests” religious beliefs. Instead, ANT would demand that we pay careful attention to ways people interact with things, the ways things interact with people, the ways supernatural and natural beings can use things, the ways causality gets described, the ways things can reveal or proclaim or mask or subvert or remind. Latour offers a negative method, in which we don’t take anything for granted about social worlds but instead wait to see what emerges…

Kelly J. Baker, “Gospel According to the Klan” (2011)

Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. (U Kansas P, 2011).

Like most significant historical works, this one makes important contributions in two ways: historical and theoretical. Baker not only sheds new light on the history of religion in 20th-century America, she also offers a compelling new model for scholarship in the field. Not bad for a dissertation book.

First, the history. Baker’s bold thesis declares that we can’t understand the KKK “revival” of the 1920s without understanding the movement’s Protestantism. That is, the KKK of the 20s was a thoroughly Protestant movement. Mainstream, “normal” Protestantism motivated and fuelled the Klan’s nativism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, gendered ideology, and white supremacy. The KKK didn’t “twist” or “distort” Protestantism for its own ends, but created an Invisible Empire of white knights as the last “manly” defenders of an imperiled Christian nation. And in the 20s, millions welcomed these protectors and their “twin messages of nation and faith” (6). Drawing on the Klan’s print culture and, to some extent, their material culture, Baker employs an ethnographic method to unpack the movement’s presentation of Protestantism, nationalism, white masculinity, white femininity, racial purity, and anti-Catholicism. As just one fascinating example, she discusses how the Klan’s iconic white robes and conical “hoods” functioned as part of its racial ideology. Klan photographs tended to show large groups in which everyone appears in white robes. The robes thus magnified whiteness and showed the racial homogeneity of the group. But the hoods also gave anonymity, protecting members from those who would persecute them for supporting the cause of the white race (189). In the eyes of members, the robes did not inspire fear (with their ghostlike appearance) or to make it easier to conduct violence anonymously. The white robe bolstered particular ideas about the persecution of white America, and encouraged concerned men to step behind it in order to protect their race.

Now, the theory. The Gospel According to the Klan also presents a new model of “engaged scholarship” (see 30). Like the best topics in our field, the 1920s Klan sits at the intersection of several important theoretical debates and enlarges our understanding of each. Baker attempts to “see with” the Klansmen and Klanswomen of the 1920s, to “take seriously” their perspective on the world. In this respect, Baker’s project resembles many other ethnographic works that use thick description to generate sympathy with their subjects. But, for Christ’s sake, this is a book about the KKK—and Baker never lets readers forget that. In some respects, this group doesn’t warrant sympathy, and certainly Baker does not want to create uncritical sympathy for their positions on race, gender, or nationalism. Rather, she insists that it is possible to be a careful ethnographic historian without resorting to mere description: “Seeing with the Klan does not mean that we have to like its rhetoric, agendas, or politics, nor does it mean that we need to avoid criticism and analysis” (240). In short, it’s possible to take our subjects “seriously” without pandering to their white supremacy, for example. More still, Baker demonstrates that we don’t need to check our politics at the door to write our histories effectively. Avoiding facile comparisons with the contemporary political right, Baker nonetheless shows how conservatism’s self-image as defenders of an embattled (white) Christian America resonates deeply with the perspective of the Klan. More than that, she argues that the 1920s Klan forms the historical bridge between nineteenth-century nativism and twentieth-century political conservatism. The point here is not to create straw villains out of her political enemies, but to show that ordinary people, even Christian people, can “commit heinous acts without evil intentions and …can promote a worldview founded on intolerance even as they describe its tolerance” (238).

Review by A.T. Coates

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter”

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter” in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, ed. Meyer and Houtman(2012).

In their concise introduction to Things, Meyer and Houtman offer a very useful overview of the state of the field in material religion. If you are curious about what people mean by the supposed “material turn” in religious studies or if you just are looking to introduce the topic to an undergrad class, this essay lights the path well.

The essay begins with a justification for the project of studying religion by studying things. Like most of those committed to materializing the study of religion, Meyer and Houtman insist that the terms “religion” and “things” need not be conceived in antagonistic terms. Though some scholars want to eschew the term “religion” altogether, Meyer and Houtman think it can still serve useful functions if properly qualified. The historically contingent term “religion” is part of our public and scholarly discourse, like it or not, and it may yet have something to teach us. For the study of religious material culture, this especially means not privileging immaterial “beliefs” in our scholarly work. By turning our attention to things, we might learn new things about how “religion” operates in public discourse, in the academy, and in people’s lives. Like “religion,” things seem to be all around us, like it or not. But far from just inserting “things” into established scholarly paradigms (e.g. throwing a few pictures into a church history book), Meyer and Houtman insist on interrogating, situating, and historicizing “things”: “rematerialization [of the study of religion] is not simply a question of bringing ‘things’ back in, but requires a critical, reflexive endeavor that rescripts the meaning of materiality itself on the basis of detailed historical and ethnographic research” (8). In other words, we ought not take for granted what “things” are, what they can/can’t do, what people can/can’t do with them, for them, to them, etc. The study of religion proves an especially rich ground for investigating things because it contains so many examples of “bad objecthood”: totem, idol, and fetish to name just a few. Such “bad objects” reveal people’s assumptions about materiality and immateriality, about the “proper” spheres and relationships between “the spiritual” and “the material.”

Review by A.T. Coates

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (2007)

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (U California, 2007)

Christian Moderns spins a beautiful, complex argument. Calvinist missionaries, Sumbanese Bible diviners, modernity’s fetishisms, subjectivities, words, things, and more weave together into an astounding work. Those interested in religion and modernity, the materiality of religions, the anthropology of Christianity, or cultural change must read this book. Below, I have struggled to summarize some of the book’s major arguments. You can find much better reviews on The Immanent Frame.

Based on his fieldwork on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba, Keane’s book explores the encounter between Calvinists (Dutch missionaries and their converts) and practitioners of Sumbanese ancestral religion (marapu). Keane’s study of this encounter circles around words, things, and human subjectivity. These Christians are not flashy or extravagant—they’re not even millennialists. This “ordinariness” of their everyday worlds makes them all the more interesting to Keane. For the Calvinists, the inertness of words demonstrates a speaker’s agency. The right words spoken sincerely reveal one’s beliefs about God. In traditional marapu practice, by contrast, words come in fixed forms from the ancestors. If you show “agency” while reciting these words, their efficacy became suspect. The Sumbanese and the Dutch missionaries lived in completely different kinds of representational worlds. But then there was a convert named Umbu Neka, who thought that the old words still had powers that needed to be redeployed in service of his newfound faith. His hybrid approach to words, things, and human subjectivity inspired Keane to examine how Protestant modernity affected the everyday lives of the Sumbanese. I found chapter six particularly interesting, as it examines how prayer operates in the mission encounter.

Among many other things, Keane argues that the mission encounter in Sumba reveals competing versions of “agency.” Bucking a trend in both history and anthropology to celebrate the agency of subjects blithely, Keane instead interrogates how “agency” comes to mean what it does in particular contexts. Without careful attention to our subjects’ understandings about what a subject is, what an object is, what a word is, what a thing is, what words and things can/can’t do, how to act meaningfully in the world,—in short, what he calls their “semiotic ideology”—we don’t have any idea what their “agency” might be. More than just calling for a deeper account of “the native point of view,” Keane cautions against imputing particular notions of agency to our subjects without attention to the discursive and material conditions in which their subjectivity emerges. Like ours, their self-understandings about agency appear as historically specific sets of concrete practices and “semiotic forms” (4). In brief, this means that there is nothing transcendent or abstract about agency—it takes shape as a historically conditioned set of practices, which are embedded in particular discourses, meaningful word-sounds, speech genres, habits of gesture, material cultures, etc. Even agency cannot escape the consequences of materiality. We must understand how our subjects distinguish words, things, and agents (not just what they say about how they do so) before we start celebrating their agency.

Becoming modern, becoming religious. Keane takes great interest in the modernist project of “purification.” Drawn from Latour, this refers to the desire to make hard category distinctions between things like subject and object, living and non-living, human and non-human. Purification never fully succeeds, and hybrids proliferate. Keane argues that Protestantism stands at the heart of the modernist project of purification, particularly with respect to language. Calvin turned the sacraments into signs of grace. Being nothing in themselves, the inert “elements” allowed agency to reside only with individual believers and with God: their “meaning” wholly immaterial, the material presence of bread and wine stood merely as a sign of the agentive action taken by God to save and the communicant’s sincere belief in it. Like reciting the creeds, taking communion as a Calvinist established the immateriality of meaning and the inertness of meaning’s material forms of expression. The norm of sincerity held this semiotic ideology together: only sincere believers could take communion or recite the creeds, and there were great moral consequences for treating the elements as anything more than signs of grace or thinking that the words of the creeds themselves held power. “Religion” described this province of private belief; “science” would come to describe the inert, material world. Thus, Keane sees this Protestant purification project as having a curious affinity with Saussure’s linguistics, in which the sign is a purely arbitrary vehicle for the immaterial meanings intended by an agentive subject. Modernity and Protestantism fed off each other in the Euro-American context, leading to similar projects of purification. Both attempted to preserve particular notions of agency.

Summary by A.T. Coates

Paul Gutjahr, “An American Bible”

Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford Press, 1999).

Review by A.T. Coates

Gutjahr’s groundbreaking work An American Bible examines the Bible’s history as an American book. That is, Gutjahr illuminates the Bible’s changing role in 19th-century American print culture by focusing on its qualities qua book—especially how its changing contents and packaging changed its role in American life. While once the good book stood at the center of American print culture, by the 1880s Americans had become a people of the good books. The mass-production of cheap scriptures, proliferating “accurate” translations, ornately illustrated commoditized Bibles, “life of Jesus” adaptations, and non-biblical school textbooks dislodged the Bible from its once-dominant position. The Bible’s cultural role changed as its material qualities as a book changed.

Chapter 2, which traces the history of Bible illustration, offers the most interesting arguments for students of visual or material culture. As the century progressed, publishers seemed to add more and more detailed illustrations to larger and larger Bibles. Commercial concerns mingled with sentimentalist education strategies, the Common Sense philosophical impulse to verify the Bible’s stories led publishers to include maps, charts, and detailed (even fanciful) pictures that would bring interpretive insight. Publishers claimed that their illustrations helped readers interpret the Bible more accurately, which brought the convenient side effect of higher sales.


Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” and “What is Iconoclash?”

Latour seems to be having a moment in religious studies right now. It is easy to see why: for Latour, religion constitutes a central element of modernity. Fetish… factish. Scientific “facts” behave suspiciously like the “fetishes” of so-called primitive religion—the truth inhabits the scientist’s microscope like the god speaks through the shaman’s mask. Latour takes the modern anthropological tools that have limned the boundaries of “religion” and turns them back on modernity itself. We accuse others of merely “believing” in gods they have made with their own hands, and yet insist that scientific facts descend unmediated into our minds, that they inhabit our apparatuses, that things must either be products of human labor (thus artificial) or completely untouched by human hands (thus true/genuine). “A Modern,” writes Latour, “is someone who believes that others believe” (42). The notion of “belief” allows Moderns to distinguish between those who are naïve and don’t know the god they believe in has been fabricated; those who are manipulative, who don’t themselves believe but convince others to do so; and those who are cynical, who know the god is made, and yet believe. Moderns don’t believe in scientific facts—they know them. Facts must be true and unmade, like the holy icon that descends from heaven

Iconoclash. When the Portuguese arrived on the Gold Coast of Africa carrying holy images of the Virgin, they invented the term “fetishism” to describe the amulets worn by the Africans. The fetishes were fabricated by people, then worshipped—such idolatry had to go. The images of the Madonna were acheiropoiete, not made by any human hand—the true, holy image. In this instance, we do not encounter iconoclast vs. iconophile, but iconophile vs. iconophile. One image gets destroyed and another is put in its place. “Iconoclasm” describes the relatively transparent act of breaking an image for the express purpose of its destruction. “Iconoclash” describes the much more complex moment where an image gets broken, but we can’t be sure why, where the act of breaking might just destroy, or it might construct something new. Latour being Latour, he swirls three kinds of image destruction together: religion, science, contemporary art. The religious reformer destroys the old idols, the scientist debunks the old model, the artist breaks down the conventions of “art.” But, as should be clear, not one of these acts of destruction dispenses with images altogether. The scientist posits a new model, the artist who hates “art” creates more art, and the Portuguese install shrines to the Virgin where the old gods once lived. Denying the power of the idols, they break them and install new icons not made by human hands, new art that breaks the conventions of art, new unmediated facts.

Bruno Latour, “What is Iconoclash?” from Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art (2002)
Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” in Material Religion 7.1 (2011): 42-49.

Review by A.T. Coates


Ways of Seeing: On the Role of Images in “Religious” Violence (repost)

Haven’t we seen this before? When the so-called “Danish Cartoon Controversy” sparked protests around the world in 2005, American media outlets spoke vaguely and often about how the image offended “Muslim beliefs.” Seven years later, and again a mocking image of Muhammad—this time a Youtube video called “Innocence of Muslims”—has received a lion’s share of the blame for a complex and varied series of protests around the world. News reports revel in the details of the film, almost always mentioning its “amateurish” production quality in the same breath as its “offensive” content. Tony Blair expressed this perspective in a BBC interview, saying the film was “wrong and offensive but also laughable as a piece of filmmaking.” According to Blair, the reaction to the video has been “absurd.” Other commentators have taken this position a step further, stating that living in the modern world means being offended sometimes, so anyone who got upset about the video should just get over it. Here we have a familiar view of Middle Eastern affairs: there’s the “modern” West on one side, “fundamentalist” Islam on the other (or “fundamentalism” West vs. “fundamentalism” East). While people are happy to blame the protests on a video that upset fundamentalists, practically no one bothers to examine how images work in the lives of the people who have protested. We’re left to ponder why anyone would take to the streets over a low-budget Youtube video. Like Tony Blair, we’re encouraged to view the response as “absurd.”

As someone who thinks seriously about how images work in religions, I’m not surprised that a video (or a cartoon) might contribute to protests or violence. This has nothing to do with the “nature” of Islam. Nor does it have anything to do with clashes between “fundamentalist” and “modern” worldviews. Rather, my statement stems from an acknowledgement that images play important roles in people’s lives—as many recent scholars of “material religion” have suggested. Even in supposedly “aniconic” traditions like Islam or Protestantism, images are far from trivial.

Images have power. Sometimes, we might best describe this as affective power: images can revolt us, arouse us, terrify us, and shock us. They provoke strong responses from our bodies. They can help us to remember lost loved ones or to imagine spiritual places. Images also have effective power: they can do things in the world. Our Lady of Guadalupe works miracles. Russian icons demand to be touched and kissed. The images a little boy saw while on an operating table proved to many evangelicals that Heaven is real. When considering images in religious contexts, we’re often looking at the places where Heaven and earth meet, where embodied individuals encounter supernatural powers. So it’s no wonder that many religious communities try to sequester, circumscribe, ignore, or control images. The wrong kinds of images can cause supernatural harm. Images can lure people away from a “proper” understanding of an abstract, distant, or indescribable deity precisely because they are so powerful.

Religiously offensive images don’t just insult people’s abstract beliefs. In an important article in Critical Inquiry, Saba Mahmood invoked Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus to describe how the Danish cartoons hurt many Muslims: “the offense the cartoons committed was not against a moral interdiction (thou shalt not make images of Muhammed) but against a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded” (35.4, p. 849). According to Mahmood, Muhammad serves as an image of the ideal Muslim for many people. His moral conduct, speech, even his bodily habits are worthy of emulation in daily life. The (usually) mental image of his experience in the world shows pious Muslims what to do with their bodies and helps them to make sense of their own lives. By attacking their image of the Prophet, Mahmood contends, the cartoons didn’t just offend a legal principle like “blasphemy”—they hurt a whole way of experiencing the world.

Images also help to foster collective identities. When we belong to a community, we share ways of seeing certain images. For example, many Catholics can discern a genuine apparition of Mary on a tortilla, in a dream, or at a shrine. Knowing the difference between dark spots and a genuine appearance of Our Lady marks the boundary of the group. Communities that share ways of seeing also share ways of feeling about what they see. Many evangelicals wept together when they watched The Passion of the Christ because they saw Romans whipping their Jesus. In evangelical communities, Jesus serves as an image of ideal moral conduct (WWJD?) and friendship (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus…”). They wept when they saw that Jesus brutally beaten in Mel Gibson’s movie. Such shared emotions and experiences aren’t trivial. They help to hold communities together.

I don’t know if a Youtube video catalyzed this week’s protests. But it wouldn’t surprise me. If indeed the video did contribute to this week’s events, we can do far more than to dismiss people’s reactions as trivial or absurd, the product of “fundamentalist” reluctance to embrace the modern world. Before we make diagnoses about what role the images played in the protest, we need to develop robust understandings of how images work in the particular contexts where protests happened.

THIS IS A REPOST OF A PIECE I WROTE FOR RELIGION BULLETIN, 18 SEPT 2012. Check out the original post here: http://www.equinoxpub.com/blog/2012/09/ways-of-seeing-on-the-role-of-images-in-religious-violence/

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