Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge, 1966)

Douglas’s classic anthropological study offers an extended meditation on the concepts of dirt and contagion. As a structuralist, Douglas insists that social categories pervade all levels of experience—from the arrangement of homes to understandings of the body. Lest society descend into chaos, these categories require constant policing and maintenance. Ambiguous and anomalous things must be incorporated into some category or another—or banished from society altogether. Certain things must remain taboo or off-limits to define and solidify the boundaries of a community. Pollution spreads without intent or moral wrongdoing: mere contact with the forbidden is enough, since the real issue is transgression of the social order. Unlike earlier anthropologists, Douglas insists that all societies remain similarly vigilant against disorder. This applies not just to the “primitive” societies imagined by earlier anthropologists, but modern Euro-American societies as well. For Douglas, symbolic actions of taming disorder—rituals of purification, strategies for managing danger—provide a strong base for the comparative study of religion, since they reveal the deep structures of societies. She rejects Tylor’s definition of religion, “belief in spiritual beings,” demanding instead that scholars of religion compare “peoples’ views about man’s destiny and place in the universe” (35). Rejecting hard-and-fast distinctions between the sacred and the secular, Douglas studies the social construction of religion via bodily practice, symbolic action, and ritual. In short, she uses cultural analysis as a way of approaching how religions work, rather than identifying religion as any particular thing in the world.

Douglas’s chapter “Secular Defilement” could prove very useful in a religion 101 class—particularly if the class dealt with a topic like zombies, vampires, ghosts, spirituality, etc. In this chapter, Douglas examines our own society’s notions of dirt and cleanliness. While we like to believe that we clean for medically sound reasons, Douglas shows that this simply isn’t true. Everyone in our society stores their kitchen cleaning supplies in the same place: under the sink. If you met someone who kept the Mr. Clean next to the mugs, you would probably run away scared. But why? It’s dirty. The clean bottle of cleaning fluid and the clean mugs together become dirty. For Douglas, the explanation for such behavior reveals the systems of classification operative in our society: “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (44). Later, she explains that “dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained,” it is “matter out of place” (50). In other words, “dirtiness” applies to things that just don’t fit into our cultural system’s normal categories.

But there’s the rub—for Douglas, everything has to fit into the system somehow, even if only as “dirt.” This makes her book a good conversation partner for later works on materiality. In particular, I think it would make an interesting intro to Todd Ochoa’s Society of the Dead, where the question is precisely how thinking matter, especially unbounded matter, can upset our usual categories of analysis. “Dirt” may just have a mind of its own. It may not want to remain the castoff of a neat cultural system. It likes to mess us up.

Review by A.T.

James Frazer, “The Golden Bough,” (1890)

James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, (1890)
http://www.templeofearth.com/books/goldenbough.pdf

Frazer’s weighty tome(s) opens by invoking JMW Turner’s painting “The Golden Bough” (above). Its idyllic sylvan setting, he notes, was the stage of recurring carnage. In Diana’s sacred grove above the town of Nemi, a runaway slave could appear at any moment to challenge and kill the reigning priest-king, whose tenure lasted only as long as he defended the wood. Harnessing the sun’s power of dying and rising, the sacrifice of the king provided necessary renewal for the forest kingdom. For Frazer, this story tells of humanity’s primeval religion. In short, he argues that the earliest religion consisted of fertility cults involving the worship, and ritual killing, of a dying/rising sunlike priest-king. Jesus, anyone? To demonstrate this claim, Frazer sets forth page after excruciating page of evidence from mythology, puzzling out the hidden meaning of everything from blood drops to mistletoe. I’m crusty and lonely this Valentine’s Day, so perhaps I’m not giving him a fair deal. He proves quite a talented wordsmith on occasion, and some people seem to love his work…

For my purposes, Frazer’s theories of magic proved the most useful part of the book. Much like E.B. Tylor, Frazer considers magic as a kind of primitive science and believes that modern science eliminates the need for religion (see 624, 53). For Frazer, magic operates according to rational laws—though it doesn’t work as well as science, the scholar can still “discern the spurious science behind the bastard art” (20a). Frazer uses the phrase “sympathetic magic” to describe this proto-scientific activity. Sympathetic magic assumes that by acting on one thing, people can produce effects on other things according to rational laws. The two great rational laws of magic are the “Law of Similarity” and the “Law of Contact/Contagion.” Thus, Frazer breaks sympathetic magic into two main types: homoeopathic (imitative) and contagious (contact) magic. Homoeopathic magic operates according to the principle that “like produces like,” that effects resemble their causes (19b). IMAGES play an important role in this type of magic—stabbing the image of an enemy’s arm with a pin causes the arm to become inefficacious in battle, touching the taboo eyes of a pig will make your eyes fall out, etc. Contagious magic presumes that things once in contact with each other remain connected despite distance of place or time—what happens to one symmetrically affects the other. Burning the hair of the enemy causes harm to the person, what happens to the placenta after birth affects the child’s future, injure the footprints and you injure the feet that made them.

May my outline of Frazer’s magic help you all find love this Valentine’s Day…

E.B. Tylor, “Primitive Culture,” (1871)

E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture 2 vols. (1871)

Vol. 1 – http://books.google.com/books/about/Primitive_Culture.html?id=AucLAAAAIAAJ

Vol. 2 – http://books.google.com/books/about/Primitive_Culture.html?id=RUMBAAAAQAAJ

Recently, a regular reader accused me of rashly “slitting the throats of the old guys” in my posts on Max Müller and William James. Though mutual accusations of bias made for good beer banter, there was a real point buried somewhere in the comment. Facile critique was never my intent, so I’ll try to be nicer to E.B. Tylor for my misguided young reader’s sake…

I’ve got a soft spot for iconoclasts, and Tylor seems to be one. Tylor locates the study of religion within the broader study of culture. This is important. Unlike James or even Müller, he does not cede religion an intrinsic place in human life—for him, it is simply a feature of many cultures. Again breaking with his contemporaries, particularly Matthew Arnold’s “best which has been thought and said,” Tylor defines culture in broad terms: it is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1, p1). Individuals have to learn their culture as members of a society. Cultures are complex, incorporating everything from practical knowledge and art objects to values and codes of law. These diverse parts adhere as bounded entities.

But this is the 1870s, and evolution is in the air. Though he assumes that all people possess similar rational faculties, Tylor understands cultures hierarchically—some are simply more evolved and rational than others. But questions then arise: how did cultures become so unequal? How do we explain the persistence of irrationality in highly advanced, scientific cultures? Again, breaking with a popular theory, Tylor presents two volumes worth of evidence to demonstrate that cultures always progress (1, p14). In other words, they move from low to high, primitive to advanced—they never regress from an advanced state to a lower one. This means that primitive cultures have simply not been educated to the same degree as advanced societies. Primitive people are just as rational as other people; primitive cultures are not as rational as other cultures because they lack the necessary education. Myths, for example, provide evidence for this progression. Tales of the gods and heroes offer useful explanations for otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena (257-258). Some cultures learn the scientific truth and abandon the old myths, others do not.

Enter religion. Tylor’s evolutionary understanding of culture becomes the base for his famous theory of animism. As I’m sure we all know, he offers a “minimum definition” of religion as “belief in spiritual beings” (1, p383). His evolutionary thinking holds the definition together. Before humanity acquired belief in spiritual beings, we had no religion because religion is not an innate human quality. After we acquired that minimal religion, some religions evolved into extremely complex systems of belief in modern cultures. Others did not. For Tylor, “animism” holds the “essence” of spiritualist metaphysics, in contrast to materialist metaphysics. It provides “the groundwork of the philosophy of religion” (1, p385). In its most primitive form, animism attributes a spiritual essence to animals, plants, people, natural forces. Later, it develops into pantheons of gods, monotheism, eternal spirits, and the like. Sometimes, a cultural feature learned in an earlier evolutionary phase will persist. Though they be completely irrational in the more advanced phase of cultural development, they subsist “by mere force of ancestral tradition” (2, p403). These he calls “survivals.” Though he never quite says it, Tylor seems to think that most of religion in modern culture constitutes a survival: “there seems no human thought so primitive as to have lost its bearing on our own thought, nor so ancient as to have broken its connection with our own life” (2, p409). The appropriate methods for the study of religion are, therefore, history and ethnography.

William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902)

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

Here’s a free pdf: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/wjames/varieties-rel-exp.pdf

You may want to save reading this until you need a nap…

One of the world’s first champions of a self-consciously American academia, James places his study of religion in the budding scientific field of psychology. He breaks with the established European disciplines of church history and theology, insisting that institutions and traditions have little to do with the enduring power of religion. Writing against a tradition of “medical materialism,” by which he almost certainly means Freud, James declares that we cannot “explain away” religions based on the psychopathology of their founders. He also insists that religion is no mere “survival” of a more primitive evolutionary state, but forms an essential part of human nature. For James, the kernel of religion occurs in the powerful experiences of individuals: he defines “religion” for the purpose of his lectures as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (38). Religion brings individuals into union with something more (God, self, Buddha-mind, the subconscious), producing feelings of tenderness and solemnity toward the world (see 493).

James’s chapters on mysticism contain the meat of his psychological theory. It’s worth noting that James was one of the first scholars to offer a comparative basis for the study of mysticism. Namely, James’s radical innovation consisted of scientifically examining the mystic’s experiences themselves. He identifies four basic features of mystical experience: 1) ineffability, 2) noetic quality, by which he means that the mystic understands the experience to bring knowledge, 3) transiency, 4) passivity, by which he means that the mystic feels pulled into the experience by a power outside the self (365-367). According to James, mystical experiences are not outliers, but are actually closer to true essence of religion than, say, sitting through an Episcopalian church service. Adducing long citation after long citation, James connects the mystical experiences of al-Ghazali, Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Upanishads, Walt Whitman, and Madame Blavatsky: all drift toward “optimism” and “monism” (403). In short, mystical experiences prove prototypical of religious experiences because: a) they are authoritative experiences for those who have them, similar to conversion, b) they are not coercive, having no power for those who haven’t had similar experiences, c) they reveal that rational consciousness is only one kind of consciousness, adding supersensuous meanings to the ordinary “facts” of experience that science usually tries to examine (410).

As far as I’m concerned, Varieties reads as little more than a curiosity of a bygone age. James’s internalized, generalized “experiences” oppose almost my own interests in fundamentalist materiality. Though he calls himself a skeptical scientist, it’s hard to read James’s book as anything but a thinly veiled apology for liberal Protestantism. In these lectures, one’s experience counts as genuinely “religious” so long as it produces good feelings—it can be oriented toward “whatever [one] may consider the divine.” Needless to say, he offers scant attention to his prophecy-conferencing contemporaries, who were probably too preoccupied determining the “literal” meaning of Daniel 7 to have bona fide religious experiences (see 394).

I would only assign James to undergraduates as a punishment. But I may be slightly biased…

Review by A.T. Coates

Todd Ochoa, “Society of the Dead” (2010)

Todd Ramón Ochoa, Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (UC Press, 2010).

Armchair anthropology this ain’t. Ochoa’s book proves worth the price of admission just for its riveting first-person stories. In Society of the Dead, Ochoa narrates being ritually cut and told he swore allegiance to the devil in an initiation ceremony, holding an overnight vigil with a plastic bag containing human remains, and being reduced to a “vomiting mess” in the presence of a particularly powerful spectral entity. Ochoa not only knows how to tell a good story—one reviewer describes his work as itself a kind of sorcery, conjuring an ontology completely foreign to the western metaphysical tradition. For his part, Ochoa calls it a thoroughly empirical experiment.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Havana from the 1990s-2000s, Ochoa dives into the “immanent materiality” of Palo, a Kongo-inspired creole tradition related to Ocha/Santo (Santería). Ochoa states that Palo “is best understood as a fluid mode of engaging the dead in matter to transform fate in a flash” (8). Palo practitioners engage the dead through drumming, candles, cauldrons, singing, and animal sacrifice. But they also feel called by the dead, get pulled out of bed at night by it, feel chilled and troubled in the gut by it. What Ochoa calls the “ambient dead,” Kalunga, is a sea: constantly in flux, the dead saturates, surrounds, generates, and dissipates. It flows through matter and assumes surprising, even contradictory, aspects. The dead is not a spirit that manifests, but material that rises and falls and folds: “Kalunga is a plane of immanence from which subjects and objects emerge and into which they are lost” (34). As a craft, Palo works with the dead to help or harm the living: it involves the creation and care of prendas (also called ngangas or enquisos). Prendas are cauldrons/urns stuffed full of dirt, sticks, feathers, and nfumbe—entities constituted of human remains. The most powerful, and the most unpredictable, prendas are the prendas judías, which contain “Jewish” or “unbaptized” nfumbe. These prendas can end a human life—but they only respond to practitioners’ pleas on Good Friday, when Jesus is busy dying on the cross. And they are volatile, unpredictable things known to turn on their keepers. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Palo doesn’t want to steal Cuban children to stuff them into these cauldrons. It wants to change fate by working with the dead immanent in matter; occasionally, doing so brings the living to their limits.

Reading Ochoa’s beautifully crafted stories, it’s easy to forget that this book presents a sustained philosophical meditation on an entire metaphysical tradition. In the conclusion, Ochoa names the villain of his story: the dualistic tradition that runs from Plato through Hegel’s dialectics to Marx and Adorno. In this tradition, matter usually appears as the abject, the base, the object, the negation of truth, spirit, subject. If this metaphysical tradition concerns the living, Ochoa’s book engages theorists of the dead: Bataille, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Deleuze. Society of the Dead explodes the subject-object dialectic—it just doesn’t work with Palo. Holding up matter without shape or form, abandoning rigid conceptual schemes and clever interpretive devices, Ochoa experiments with theory’s possibilities. He looks to matter, to the dead, to change theory’s fate.

Review by A.T. Coates

F. Max Müller, Linguistic studies of religion

F. Max Müller, Natural Religion (1888-1892) – http://www.giffordlectures.org/Author.asp?AuthorID=127

F. Max Müller, Preface to Sacred Books of the East (1879) – http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01002.htm

When Max Müller delivered the first ever Gifford Lectures in 1888, he already had an impressive C.V. Müller’s scientific approach to language helped pave the way for modern linguistics. He “discovered” many of the world’s major language families, systematically tracing connections between languages as different as Sanskrit and English (Indo-European). He presented European readers with some of the first serious translations of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada. His 50-volume edited series Sacred Books of the East brought together some of the best Orientalist scholarship of the day, convincing westerners that Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Islam (which he called Mohammedanism), Buddhism, and Hinduism had their own “Bibles.” His reputation has justifiably suffered in our own time at the hands of postcolonial theory, but his work is indispensible for any interested in the disciplinary history of religious studies. In some ways, Müller represents the most repugnant form of Orientalism: completely oblivious to his work’s relationship to European imperialism (e.g. he heartily thanks the British East India Company for giving him manuscripts of the Upanishads), Müller truly believed that his project leveled the playing field between religions and created a basis for fair comparison. In the preface to Sacred Books of the East, he writes: “If some of those who read and mark these translations learn how to discover some such precious grains in the sacred books of other nations, though hidden under heaps of rubbish, our labour will not have been in vain, for there is no lesson which at the present time seems more important than to learn that in every religion there are such precious grains.” Every religion holds precious grains in heaps of rubbish… yikes.

Müller attempts to establish a scientific system for studying religion by linking religion with language. There’s a fine distinction worth noting here: Müller links religion to language, not to texts. Though his systematic approach to the documentation and translation of sacred texts still drives much of religious studies today, Müller himself understood the study of religious texts as only one necessary part of the historical study of religion and language—if there’s one thing textual studies do well, after all, it is to document miniscule changes in language over time. But Müller’s scope is much bigger than just textual study, for he sees texts as a window into the “purer” data provided by ancient minds. He aims at nothing less than discovering the basic essence of religion, and uses texts to remove the accretions that have built over time. For Müller, religion forms part of human nature—it belongs to the natural world, to humanity’s capabilities as creatures in nature. It begins with the basic experiences of sensation, perception, conception, and naming. As many a pot-smoking high school student has discovered, we perceive that the sky is blue because we have a word “blue” that names a particular concept (not red, green, yellow, etc.). Müller goes one step further, asserting that we understand why the sky sometimes seems to hurt us if we attach religious significance to the word “sky.” Religion, according to Müller, helps us to make sense of the infinite in our finite experience, allows us to conceptualize and explain things like the boundlessness of the horizon, the world in a grain of sand, and elemental causes: “Anything that lifts a man above the realities of this material life is religion” (lecture 20). Müller argues that we can only achieve accurate comparison and classification of religions by beginning with this “natural religion,” since it levels the field between bookless religions and religions of the book, individual religions (with a founder) and non-individual religions (no founder), primitive religions and advanced religions.

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

Mircea Eliade, “The Sacred and the Profane”

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. (orig. 1957, my edition 1987)

David Morgan and I recently had occasion to talk about Eliade. It was not so long ago, he recalled, that practically everybody in our discipline cited Eliade favorably. Morgan remembered hundreds of people filling Rockefeller Chapel for Eliade’s funeral in 1986. Eliade inaugurated a “comparative moment” in the study of religion, a time when people set the “essences” and “spirits” of religions against each other—ostensibly without hierarchy. Though such projects now seem hopelessly misguided, one might argue that the field of religious studies today owes more to Eliade than any other figure. Before him, the likes of Durkheim, Tylor, Müller, even Freud, took interest in the category of religion as an aspect of social, psychological, or literary life—after him, the study of religion seemed to acquire a new level of academic legitimacy in its own right. When J.Z. Smith first published his devastating critiques of Eliade, Morgan reminded me, he was an untenured newcomer. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Eliade’s title The Sacred and the Profane (originally published in German as Das Heilige und das Profane)riffs on Rudolph Otto’s Das Heilige. For Otto, the the holy is the numinous, das ganz Andere (the wholly Other). Eliade picks up the concept of The sacred and defines it as “the opposite of the profane” (10). In other words, the world is profane until the sacred makes it qualitatively otherwise. The sacred “irrupts” into the profane world with a hierophany: “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (11). This means that human beings experience two “modes of being” in the world: the sacred and the profane (14). The sacred is that of order, being, and absolute reality, the profane of chaos, non-being, and, ultimately, death. Homo religiosus, the religious person (everyone except a handful of radical moderns, according to Eliade), desires to live in the sacred at all times. Thus, the site of the hierophany becomes the fixed central point of reality, the axis mundi (37). It founds and orders the world (21-23). It structures space (32) and time (89), generating appropriate models of conduct in myths. Because humans experience both the sacred and the profane in everyday life, the liminal zones between them become especially charged. Much of Eliade’s analysis focuses on things like thresholds (between inside and outside), mountains (between earth and sky), bridges, rites of passage, etc.

All this talk of experience and ontology got me thinking… I am admittedly weak on the finer points of existentialism (and I welcome correction), but it seems to me that it is difficult to appreciate Eliade’s text today without putting it in dialogue with thinkers like Sartre and Camus. In Eliade, humanity finds itself caught in the dilemma of existence, trapped between being and non-being. But instead of having to grasp the absurdity of his existence head-on, Eliade’s homo religiosus finds the solution to the existential crisis in religion. Even “the most elementary religion,” claims Eliade, “is, above all, an ontology” (210). Religion offers access to the sacred, the center of being, the fixed point from which the world makes sense. His comments near the end of the book read like a jab at the atheist existentialists, who refuse to recognize that, at least at the level of the (collective) unconscious, religion still operates in modern life (see 210-211). Those who deny the sacred any role in the world, Eliade contends, have simply “forgotten” it by pushing it deep into “the depths of the unconscious” (213).

Review by A.T. Coates

Marcel Mauss, The Gift

Marcel Mauss, The Gift. (1925)

Do ut des. I have to admit, Mauss’s classic study of the gift managed to surprise me, even on a re-read. Mauss upends assumptions about the gift as a category of exchange. Typically, we assume that we give gifts freely as individuals. More than that, we assume that the structure of our practice of gift giving—from one individual to another—typifies all systems of exchange. Not so, says Mauss. According to him, gifts are given, received, and reciprocated obligatorily. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and gift giving is both “constrained and self-interested” (3). More still, Mauss calls the gift a “total social phenomenon.” By this, he means that “all kinds of institutions are given expression at one and the same time [in gifts]—religious, juridical, and moral… economic ones” (3). Even a society’s aesthetics, such as dance or music, can find expression in gifts (see 79). Gifts bind individuals to societies. According to Mauss’s (troubling) understanding of social evolution, the “total social phenomenon” of gifts marks a midway point between “total services” (which bind societies to societies, clans to clans) and the purely individual contracts of a market economy (46).

Reading The Gift on the heels of Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns unintentionally drew my attention to the prevalence of religion—something vaguely like Keane’s kind of materialized religion—in this text. I’ll stop being coy: to my great surprise, the presence of things seems to trouble Mauss. Discussing Maori gifts, he notes that “the legal tie, a tie occurring through things, is one between souls, because the thing itself possesses a soul, is of the soul” (12). Religious notions of the soul connect people. The thing has its own soul, just like individuals, which binds the giver spiritually to the recipient. At this stage, he does not discuss the implications of things having souls, such as their agency or status in the community, but takes the souls for granted in order to illustrate his larger point about the “total” structure of gift exchange. Religion and exchange hang together.

When Mauss discusses the potlatch, things develop a mind of their own. In a potlatch, he observes, a “power” is thought to be present that forces the reciprocal circulation of gifts. Favorably comparing this to Roman religion, he seems surprised that North American native peoples should have “raised themselves to a level where they have personified an abstraction” (43). Despite this snide dismissal, Mauss again confronts things with presence on the very next page. There, we learn that emblazoned copper objects hold special value for the Haida and Kwakiutl—or rather that such copper objects live and move among the people. These objects have a “power of attraction” over other copper objects, and each possesses “its own name, its own individuality, its own value—in the full sense of the word—magical, economic, permanent, and perpetual” (45). Far from inert, these copper objects are thought to survive even the violent destruction to which they are sometimes subjected. “Possessing” such an object really entails something more like being in the company of a supernatural being and having it as a useful member of one’s family. Again, Mauss dismisses this understanding of things as a “survival” of a bygone phase of social evolution. But he has to explain these copper agents somehow, for their presence implies that his own society’s hard distinction between people and things is notnecessarily the natural order of the universe. Latour this isn’t, but Mauss does open the possibility that more than just the inert “property” of individuals can be exchanged in the world.

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

Geertz, Asad, and American Religious History

Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System” and “Thick Description.”

Talal Asad, “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz” aka. “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category.”

BONUS: Ronald G. Walters, “Signs of the Times: Clifford Geertz and Historians,” Social Research 47.3 (Aug 1980).

Review by A.T. Coates

Though rarely acknowledged, Clifford Geertz has exerted enormous influence on the field of American religious history for at least the last 25 years. Geertz encourages scholars to attend carefully to the cultural “webs of significance” from which meaning emerges. He demands that we look closely at the winks of culture, its feigned winks, and its parodies of feigned winks, to ferret out the intentions of religious actors as they make meaning in those “webs.” He finds religion producing “moods and motivations” and offering unique varieties of experience. He theorizes how religion connects the dots of individual and social life, providing a coherent worldview. Most importantly as far as religious historians have been concerned, he sees religion as a universal cultural phenomenon, one irreducible to its social or psychological functions. His famous definition states that “a religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (90). Religion occurs in the realm of symbol and meaning, generates special kinds of experiences, and presents a compelling worldview.

For at least one generation of American religious historians, Geertz offered a way out of the secularization and social control theses. His theory put religion on equal footing with other “meaning-making” cultural activities like science and aesthetics, suggesting that religion still held an important place in the modern era. Geertz permitted historians to take their subjects’ ideas and intentions “seriously,” since religion dealt in the “really real,” not in false consciousness. His method of close reading encouraged detachment but not skepticism, nicely aligning with the liberally Christian interests of major university seminaries. Under Geertz’s theory, a seemingly endless array of traditions and actors took their place in the constellation of American religion, each earning its own thick description. Celebrating creative agency became the name of the game. To historians influenced by Geertz, religious actors of all genders, social classes, racial groups, and (less often) sexual orientations proved themselves free, creative agents as they expressed intention and made meaning in particular symbol systems. Because they demonstrated agency, they were above criticism.

Historians of American religion seem to have loved Geertz’s work for all the reasons Asad criticizes it. Asad takes little interest in what “religion” is in any abstract or universal sense. Drawing on examples from medieval and early modern Christian history, he attends carefully to how power creates and shapes the category called “religion.” For Asad, “there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes” (Construction 29). Asad considers Geertz’s definition of religion’s essence an oddly double-edged sword wrought by a particular modern, western, Christian history. On the one hand, Geertz’s project confines religion in ways unthinkable before the modern era’s division of politics, law, science, and religion. On the other hand, it defends religion by giving it an unassailable place in modern life, locating it squarely within the free minds of individuals. Rather than endlessly documenting the sphere of the religious, Asad demands that scholars attend to the material and social conditions—the “authorizing discourses”—that make certain conceptions/articulations of religion possible. Nearly three decades after he published his reflections on Geertz, we seem to have barely begun heeding his call: “Instead of approaching religion with questions about the social meaning of doctrines and practices… let us begin by asking what are the historical conditions… necessary for the existence of particular religious practices and discourses” (Conceptions 252).

Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845)

Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845). Online version.

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach offers eleven short critiques of Feuerbach’s dialectical materialism. In the dialectical philosophies of Feuerbach and Hegel, he argues, “materialism” appears usually as inert objects or as (objects of) contemplation. For them, real human activity happens in the mind—the material serves as mind’s dialectical opposite. But for Marx, all human activity (including subjectivity and thought) must be theorized as practical, material, and social. Even “religious sentiments” are social products according to Marx; more still, the “abstract individual” who holds “religious sentiments” emerges only under particular material and social conditions (#7). Thus, Marx rejects the idealists’ claim that the essence of human subjectivity resides in the individual mind. He insists that any theory of human society must be aware of the material conditions under which such particular notions of subjectivity emerged: “the human essence. . . . is the ensemble of social relations,” not an “abstraction inherent in each single individual” (#6).

Marx demands that theory must engage in revolutionary political activity. In the most famous thesis (#11), he writes, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the real point is to change it.” This is no vague inspirational quote about “changing your world” by being a nice person or liking the right cause on Facebook. For Marx, change happens at the level of social structures and the material conditions that structure the way people think, experience, and live in the world.

-Review by A.T. Coates

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)
AND
Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” in Material Religion 7.1 (2011): 42-49.

Review by A.T. Coates

 

Joel Robbins, “Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society” (2004).

Joel Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (2004)
Review by A.T. Coates

Robbins’s Becoming Sinners explores the concept of cultural change through the lens of morality. Based on his fieldwork with the Urapmin, a group of about 400 people in western Papua New Guinea, Robbins seeks to understand the cultural changes effected by the group’s conversion to charismatic Christianity. Though he describes the Urapmin’s Christian culture using the term “hybridity,” Robbins wants to go a step further: rather than seeing this “hybridity” as simple mixing or blending, he seeks a more robust theoretical account of the interaction between the constituent parts of hybrid cultures. According to Robbins, when the Urapmin adopted Christianity they became inhabitants of two opposing cultural systems. Unlike in other postcolonial settings, the Urapmin’s traditional bases of life (family, gardening, hunting, etc.) remained unchanged before and after conversion, as did the culture that structured them. Rather than assimilating Christianity into their existing cultural categories or having Christianity transform the structural relationships between their cultural categories, the Urapmin held their traditional culture alongside their Christian culture (7-10). But the largely individualist demands of the new Christian culture conflicted with the largely relational demands governing traditional Urapmin society. As a result, the Urapmin found themselves in a perpetual state they called “sin”: the regular interactions of social life caused them to be sinful, so the Urapmin constantly had to perform Christian rituals to rid themselves of sin. Living in two cultures left the Urapmin “troubled” (314).

As it turns out, the Urapmin are not only charismatic Baptists—they are also dispensational premillennialists. This, argues Robbins, gives them particular outlooks with regard to their place in time and space. The Urapmin explain their history in episodic terms, episodes characterized by radical disjunction. Discussing the group’s conversion, people like to say, “Now is God’s time… Now is now, and before is before.” (164). Living in constant expectation of the coming Millennium, the Urapmin experience “a sloping temporal order in which people are forever pitched forward, placing their best attention on the future and their best energy on their efforts to be ready for that future” (164). Drawing on dispensationalism, the Urapmin also conceive of space in millennial terms. They map the world according to racial categories of “black” and “white”: the Urapmin see themselves and Papua New Guinea as “black” and most of the rest of the world as “white” Christian countries. “Blacks” like themselves, the Urapmin say, have very little self-control, act more immorally than whites, and are not good at getting things done. Dispensationalism plays a complex role in this racial system. The Urapmin see Christianity as a “white” religion—Robbins himself frequently heard that Jesus was white like him, and the Urapmin felt that most “white” countries were Christian. But they also see themselves as participants in a transnational Christian community. Jesus is white, but he “came for the sinners” like the Urapmin: unlike other whites, Jesus is willing to befriend and work with them despite their insufficiencies. When they attend church on Sunday, they see themselves as participants in a worldwide white community. More, the Urapmin believe they will finally be able to overcome their racial deficiencies when Jesus returns. Thus, they spend most of their lives preparing themselves for a future change.

Robbins’s chapter “Contemporary Urapmin in Millennial Time and Space” should be required reading for any course on fundamentalism/dispensationalism in America. The chapter provides much insight into cultures of dispensationalism. Obviously, not everything about the Urapmin case holds for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans. But Robbins’s anthropological approach challenges us to consider how historical American dispensational premillennialism operated at the cultural level. Robbins demands that we think about what, say, dispensationalism did to people’s experiences of the present/past/future, how it fostered transnational identities, how it interacted with cultural conceptions of space, how it related to issues of race, etc. In other words, this book has the power to do what anthropologists do best: it makes strange the familiar. Robbins challenges scholars of American history to engage and theorize Christianities as cultures, to reimagine how dispensationalism works through the case of the Urapmin.

Selections from Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism Project”

Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, “Introduction” and “Conclusion” in Fundamentalisms Observed (1991) and Marty, “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 42.2 (1988): 15-29.

Marty’s understanding of fundamentalism is the water I swim in. The Fundamentalism Project, true to its aim, now holds the status of an encyclopedia. I suspect if you asked a group of well-informed undergraduates, they would produce a definition of fundamentalism something like Marty’s. It’s a testament to the intellectual force of his comparative approach. It’s also a strong incentive to innovate.

For Marty, the term “fundamentalism” captures the family resemblances in a global array of religious phenomena. Acknowledging that the term “fundamentalism” isn’t going away anytime soon, he uses it to designate “fundamentalism-like movements” rather than any particular substantive thing. This is a key part of Marty’s argument: unlike earlier substantive definitions (such as James Barr’s equation of Protestant fundamentalism with biblical inerrancy), Marty isolates similarities among fundamentalisms across many religious traditions. First, he identifies what “fundamentalism” is not: 1) it is not conservatism, classicism, or orthodoxy, 2) it is not a vestigial remnant of earlier times, 3) it is not synonymous with certain substantive elements, doctrines, or particular tenets of a faith (e.g. inerrancy), 4) it is not the only kind of opposition to “secular rationalism,” 5) it is not just anti-science or anti-rationalist in perspective, 6) it is not opposed to modern technology or media, 7) it is not in decline or likely to fade away, 8) it is not always composed of activists, militants, terrorists, or belligerents, 9) it is not a way of compensating for economic or intellectual deprivation. Next, Marty suggests the traits fundamentalist-like movements share: 1) they are always reactive against “modernity,” 2) they are selective in choosing “fundamentals,” 3) they are “scandalous,” meaning they cause offense to groups outside themselves, 4) they are always exclusive and separatist, 5) they are always oppositional, 6) they are absolutist, 7) they are anti-developmental and anti-evolutionary, 8) they are anti-relativistic and anti-hermeneutical, 9) they consider themselves “agents of the sacred power, person or force which gives life to their group,” and 10) they are teleological. In short, fundamentalism is “a tendency, a habit of mind, found within religious communities and paradigmatically embodied in certain representative individuals and movements, which manifests itself as a strategy or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group” (Conclusion 835).

George Marsden famously defined fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.” To play Marsden against Marty a little, one might say that Marty considers fundamentalism “militantly anti-modernist” religion. For Marsden, the “modernism” against which early Protestant fundamentalism militantly rebelled was a very specific set of theological positions and changes in American culture. Marty’s fundamentalists hostile to modernity itself, opposing a varied set of political, cultural, and intellectual conditions wherever they can assume the name of “modernity.” Militancy unites Marty’s fundamentalists in their oppositions to various modernities around the world. They are “religious idealists” who coalesce around a personal and collective identity, then fight back, fight for, fight with, fight against, and fight under (Intro ix-x). This is not to say that Marty caricatures fundamentalists as terrorists. Rather, it is to observe that he categorizes fundamentalism as an internal disposition, “a tendency, a habit of mind… which manifests itself as a strategy, or set of strategies… to preserve… identity” (835).

Obviously, such a perspective takes little interest in objects, practices, bodies, media, or materiality. The conclusion essay gapes in wonder at “fundamentalism’s seemingly innate understanding of, and effortless manipulation of, modern mass media of communication (and propaganda)” (832). Fittingly for its internalized understanding of fundamentalism, this presents media as something fundamentalists understand innately and manipulate effortlessly. In this understanding, internal fundamentalism spreads by using inert media instrumentally. As the parenthetical remark about propaganda suggests, this model emphasizes content and the meaning-making activities of religious agents. Fundamentalists qua agents use media to deliver their militant mental habits to as many people as possible. They do so with quasi-magic effortlessness, innate understanding. In my future dissertation, I want turn the tables. I want to ask what kinds of mediation made Protestant fundamentalism possible. I want to examine the articulations of power, techniques of the body, networks of objects, and technologies of mediation that made it possible for something called “fundamentalism” to emerge in early 20th-century America. 

John Lardas Modern, “Secularism in Antebellum America”

Steam engines. Conversions. Inmates. Tracts. Networks. Vibrations. A white whale. Modern’s exciting book on antebellum secularism wends through Moby-Dick, evangelical print culture, spiritualism, phrenology, anthropology, prison reform, and concludes with a brief discussion of “fucking machines.” Secularism in Antebellum America examines the conditions under which certain ideas about “true religion” emerged in America. In keeping with recent developments, this book does not treat secularism as religion’s opposite. Modern primarily uses the term “secularism” to describe a social context, a discourse that connected a diverse array of “religious” activities in the antebellum period. He uses the term to denote “that which conditioned not only particular understandings of the religious but also the environment in which these understandings became matters of common sense” (7). In this book, secularism is the soil from which particular ideas about religion sprouted, “supplying both the ground and ingredients of the freedoms enacted in the name of true religion” (9). Secularism acts as a “connective tissue” of shared metaphysics, epistemology, and politics that produced good democratic citizens and subjects who thought of themselves as capable of making free religious choices (282). Secularism describes “those formations—social, conceptual, and technical—that enabled a broad Protestant majority, circa 1851, to convince themselves that they were religious” (45). In brief, a specter called secularism haunted religion in antebellum America. Like a ghostly presence, Modern writes, secularism “exceeds our capacity to name it” (10). Secularism united the American Tract Society’s colporteurs with mediums conducting séances, statements about the marvels of steam power with phrenological maps, the disestablished churches of the new republic with the crew of the Pequod. Avoiding systematic argumentation, Modern impressionistically renders a shade.

Half Foucauldian discourse analysis, half Derridean hauntology, and half revisionist religious history (trust me, those numbers add up for this book), Secularism in Antebellum America brings a fresh perspective to a burned-over region in the historiographical record. Contrary to a prevailing narrative about the flowering of “democratized” religious diversity during this period, Modern argues that secularism lurked in everyone’s garden. Secularism offered the attitudes toward technology, structures of affect, and constructions of the subject under which evangelicalism—like spiritualism and phrenology—could emerge. At the same time, secularism itself took shape through evangelical faith in the steam press, the “feedback” of colporteur reports about the population, and the cultivation of particular kinds of reading/voting/converting subjects.

For the disaffected children of the American religious history curriculum, Modern’s book reads like a manifesto. As a title in my doctoral exam list, this book offers a welcome counterpoint to a generation of Geertz-influenced religious historians who trumpeted the agency of religious actors from every hilltop. When people in antebellum America thought they made free religious choices as autonomous agents, Modern contends, secularism had always already conditioned the range of choices, the choosers qua choosers, the choosers’ ideas about what choice meant, the technologies through which choice was thought to operate, etc. Modern’s blistering critique of Mark Noll in the chapter on evangelical secularism stood out in particular. In Noll’s America’s God, Modern charges,

“The play of ideas happens independently from the bodies and contexts those ideas inhabit, that is, from the conditions that mediate those ideas. Noll’s argument, then, is a reception history of evangelical ideals with no critical discussion of reception; a chronicle of the desire for epistemological and political immediacy with no sustained attention to how this desire was mediated; and finally, a rendition of the antebellum public sphere that leaves unquestioned the historical conditions of its possibility.” (73-74)

Amen, amen, my heart feels strangely warmed. Modern’s book invites scholars of evangelical media to move beyond models that focus solely on the self-understandings of religious actors, that scrutinize the winks and feigned-winks and parodied feigned winks of religious media. It encourages imaginative engagement with the kinds of social worlds evangelical media generated and operated within. It begs that we think about the subjective, discursive, affective possibilities new media created and the historical conditions under which particular mediations of religion became possible.

Like most books worth reading, this one has its flaws. Michael Warner recently wrote a beautiful and thorough critique for The Immanent Frame. With the surgically precise analytical rigor folks like me can only hope to possess someday, Warner dissects Modern’s spectral “secularism.” He identifies three kinds of secularism that blur together in Modern’s analysis: 1) secularism as the underlying social/cultural/political conditions that structure religion in modernity identified by Charles Taylor, which he prefers to call “secularity;” 2) secularism as a localized political position, such as the states’ varied interpretations of the disestablishment clause; 3) secularism as an ethical orientation to the world. By failing to distinguish carefully between these, he suggests, Modern’s book creates two major problems. First, it ignores the ways that antagonism and conflict shaped the religious landscape during the antebellum period, instead focusing on shared metaphysics. Second, it folds many—sometimes competing—varieties of secular projects into background secularity, doing particular injustice to the kinds of secularism that are “localizable as projects of governance, ethics, or struggle.” Worse still, says Warner, Modern insists that the secular idea of “disenchantment” was the biggest enchantment of all, but leaves this claim frozen in paradox. Treated as a Derridean ghost, secularism escapes critique and historicization. Warner writes, “When the object of critique is generalized and removed from the space of antagonism, critique itself seems powerless against it; or rather, critique projects from its own powerlessness a problem that cannot be addressed, and before which one can only stand in a vaguely radical appreciation of the tragic.” Stalking ghosts is fun, but it abstracts the object of study to a place beyond critique.

Despite its problems, this is an important book. I suspect that Warner’s forthcoming title will produce a more compelling argument about the contours of secularism in antebellum America, since his work is analytically rigorous and perfectly legible in ways Modern’s text occasionally is not. But I did not read Secularism in Antebellum America just to learn about secularism in antebellum America. This book does something else. Along with the recent work of young scholars like Jason Bivins, Kelly Baker, and Katie Lofton, Modern’s project pries open the fissures in a dominant disciplinary paradigm. It changes the kinds of conversations we can have–will have–in the field of American religious history.

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/