Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses

Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses (Religion Culture Critique)
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See Joachim Radkaus marvellous biography Max Weber. Die Leidenschaft des Denkens , and also Lehmann and Peukert For a critique of this rather facile reading of Weber and Marx and Durkheim see Pels Here in the Netherlands, disbelief in modernity as being disenchanted, has motivated Peter Geschieres provocative The Modernity of Witchcraft , Bonno Thoden van Velzens notion of collective fantasies e.

In anthropology, so-called intellectualist approaches that reduce religion to a quest for knowledge as developed by E.

  • Birgit Meyer - Religious Sensations | Aesthetics | Transcendence (Philosophy);
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Tylor and, later, Robin Horton and so-called expressivist or symbolist approaches that emphasize the importance of feeling and experience have long been at loggerheads with each other. While the former tend to predominantly focus on words and meaning, the latter tend to foreground images and experience.

He says this in his discussion of the appeal that Jamess work has today. One of the things missed by James is his misrecognition of formal spiritual practices. Peter van Rooden critiques Schleiermacher along similar lines b. A host of approaches of religion as experience can be critiqued along the lines suggested by Taylor and Van Rooden.

As the term sense that is contained in sensation also denotes Sinn or meaning, it is important not to confine sensation to feeling alone, but to encompass the formation of meaning not as a purely intellectual endeavour,. This allows us to transcend the infelicitous opposition between approaches in the study of religion that focus on feelings, experiences and the body, on the one hand, and the production of meaning as a purely intellectual endeavour, on the other see also note In my understanding, the production of meaning always involves bodily experiences and emotions. In the context of this lecture it is impossible to give an overview of the question of the sublime from the perspectives of Kant, Burke and Herder to that of Lyotard and Jameson.

He stated: we must, I think, in any case admit the fact that in response to, or at anyrate in connection with, the emotions of awe, wonder, and the like, wherein feeling would seem for the time being to have outstripped the power of natural, that is, reasonable explanation, there arises in the region of human thought a powerful impulse to objectify and even personify the mysterious or supernatural something felt, and in the region of will a corresponding impulse to render it innocuous, or better still propitious, by force of constraint, communion, or conciliation ibid.

The idea that religion starts at the limits of understanding and the experience of evil and pain is also key to Geertz well-know definition a. For Geertz, religion offers ways to deal with such limits. In my understanding, the point is not so much that religion helps people deal with a perceived limit, but rather induces such a sense of limit via sensational forms see below. Ottos perspective presupposes the existence of the supernatural, albeit as a never fully graspable, and thus imperfectly representable transcendental entity, the mysterium tremendum, the fascinosum.

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The Numinous makes itself sensed through particular overwhelming emotional experiences, which can, according to Otto be circumscribed with awe ibid. Religious sensations among them goose bumps - reveal the power of this mysterious, fascinating entity, while mystifying it at the same time as the completely different das Ganz andere. This suggests, again, a view of religion as originating in an, albeit in the first instance, immediate feeling of the presence of the transcendental.

This stress of a primary, individual moment, as already pointed out in my critique of James, is problematic because it neglects the social construction of the transcendental via what I call sensational forms. I borrow the notion of the enabling limit from Samuel Weber But it would be wrong to simply oppose Pentecostalism and mainstream Presbyterian Protestantism, for in many respects the former builds upon the modern religiosity introduced by nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries. This implied not only new modes of piety, but also the submission into the regime of the church, the adoption of a modern life style, and of course, the diabolization of traditional religion and the social formations sustained by it.

Interestingly, although the missionaries themselves were part of a Pietist revival movement that emphasized personal spiritual experiences, the mission paid far more attention to the strict implementation of rules and regulations than creating a space for such experiences. While, certainly in the wake of colonization, many Africans felt attracted to this new religiosity, they also found severe shortcomings that made them, as the missionaries put it, relapse into heathendom in times of crisis.

Notwithstanding the fact that the religiosity conveyed by the mission was translated into the local context and hence appropriated and transformed converts were limited in shaping their Christian beliefs and practices in line with their own needs. The foundation of a sheer endless stream of African Independent and, later, PentecostalCharismatic Churches, testifies to the persistence of local attempts to reinvent Christianity so as to suit local expectations and needs.

One important concern was, and still is, the question of the efficacy of belief. A religion that would mainly induce believers to read the Bible and participate in rather boring church services elders used to go round with a stick so as to wake up those fallen asleep was found to be an imperfect substitute for traditional cults, that offered rituals of trance, possession, and dance, involved human beings in spiritual gift exchanges with their gods, and helped people get around in a far more practical, material manner.

Though intrigued by the promise of developing an individual relation with God, African converts nevertheless expected to feel the presence of this supernatural omnipotent power in their own bodies, and to witness its effects in a material way, in everyday life. As the Holy Spirit does not enter and stay in a person just like that, Pentecostalism teaches a set of religious disciplines such as Bible study, extensive fasting and intense individual and collective prayer in small so-called prayer cells Van Dijk To be filled with and express the Holy Spirit is not only a question of inward, contemplative spirituality, but also a question of power: only those filled with the Holy Spirit are held not to be vulnerable to evil spirits and empowered to lead an overall happy, pros-perous life.

We find such a stance not only condensed in Marshall McLuhans famous dictum The medium is the message, but also, for example, in the thinking of Manuel Castells. In Castells view, religion stands separate from the integrated communication system based on digitized electronic production, distribution and exchange of symbols that generates the social networks that characterize the information age Referring to an eternal truth.

The adoption of modern mass media by religion Castells invokes the example of televangelism ultimately destroys religions legitimacy: when all wonders are online, societies are finally and truly disenchanted ibid. I disagree with Castells view of religion as a reactive force that, by taking up modern mass media, can only be corrupted, and rendered obsolete.

For more information on this program see www. Thinking is grounded in the perceived world, that is, in experiences that precede reflection. This means that the body is central: via the body humans are both part of and able to experience the world. This experience mobilizes all the senses.

Birgit Meyer - Religious Sensations

As intimated in the section on religious sensations, one of the big problems with phenomenological approaches in the study of religion is the strong bias towards an inward interiority and the assumption of a transcendent reality out there. This entails a neglect of the social construction of the transcenddental in the immanent. In his stimulating article Asymptote of the Ineffable. Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion, Thomas Czordas critically discusses the phenomenology of religion. While his ideas about the importance of embodiment resonate with my plea to take into account the aesthetic dimension of religion, I still find his claim that alterity forms the phenomenological kernel of religion problematic because it fails to include the social dimension in the analysis.

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I agree with the point raised by Lambek in his discussion, that Czordas has some way to go now to link alterity with the social and the moral Lambek I use sensational as referring to feelings, and sensory as referring to the senses. Of course, the senses play an important role in raising particular feelings. This is why anthropological work on emotions is very close to work on the senses as argued by Brenneis It should be noted that other theories of semiotics do not necessarily propose an intrinsically arbitrary relation between sign and referent.

Peirces notion of the index does not have an arbitrary relation to its referent. Following Fabian [] , I consider as problematic approaches towards language and culture that posit an arbitrary relation between language and it referent, because they suggest an ultimate rift between language and the outside world. Instead, I understand language in constructive terms.

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Language, or more precisely: speaking, is a material performance, a practice of. From experience we all know that certain images may have a strong, fearful, or even awesome impression on the beholder. During our last family holiday, my son Sybren 11 and his friend Bram 11 created a ghost house inhabited by a Cyclopes. This creature was made up by a piece of cloth, a torch and a dress-hanger. Nevertheless, the boys found their own creature too fearful to let it stay in their bedroom throughout the night.

See Pinney for a very helpful, thought-provoking overview on four different ways of framing the study of visual culture. Of particular importance to my concerns is recent work in the interface of the anthropology of the body and the senses e. Howes ; Hirschkind and the field of visual culture studies, which addresses the power of images to touch people in our media saturated environments e. Freedberg ; Mitchell ; Sobchack ; Marks His ideas resonate remarkably well with recent approaches developed in the field of cinema studies, that challenge the association of vision and the visual with the eye alone, and its concomitant disassociation from other senses.

In particular Laura Marks and Vivian Sobchack have stressed the need to develop a more visceral, carnal approach of the visual, that is rooted in the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and Mikel Dufrenne, and takes notice of the multi-sensory, synaesthetic impact of images in constituting a sense of being in the world.

Aesthetic Formations

See Allen and Polly Roberts exploration of the power of images of Sheik Amadou Bamba to sacralize space in the city of Dakar, or Christopher Pinneys analysis of how a visual engagement with printed images of Hindu gods yields a particular corpothetics. Pinney coins the term corpothetics so as to avoid confusion with conventional understandings of aesthetics in the Kantian sense. Entailing a desire to fuse image and beholder, and the elevation of efficacy [of beholders encounter with the image, BM] as the central criterion of value , Pinneys understanding of corpothetics and my understanding of aesthetics in terms of aisthesis converge.

Here I see interesting ways to link up with work on religion in cognitive anthropology, for example the work by Harvey Whitehouse. Identity is a central concept in current debates that refers to a host of meanings. I understand identity in terms of belonging to a particular social formation that is inclusive as well as exclusive.

Identity, as Peter Geschiere and myself argued , creates boundaries and promises clarity and security in a world characterized by distraction and fragmentation. In this sense, identity needs to be placed in a dialectics of flow and closure. I suggest that it is important to take into account the importance of the senses and.

I do of course not wish to claim the existence of primordial, essentialized identities, the point is to understand why and how personal and collective identities, though constructed, are perceived as natural and real. See also Meyer c. For an illuminating discussion of habitus and hexis in the thinking of Bourdieu and Mauss see Roodenburg See in this context Stewart Hoovers important work on the ways in which religious and non-religious audiences look at mass mediated programs.


In order to avoid confusion, I would like to stress that in this understanding of religion as mediation, media feature on two levels. While the former tend to predominantly focus on words and meaning, the latter tend to foreground images and experience. Such a fierce opposition against cultural practices that are deemed immoral and un-Christian is in some aspects similar to the cultural opposition of the religious right in the United States Harding , ; Schultze ; Frankl ; Gormly Twlever Shii Islam possesses more formalised structures of religious authority. Brent hosts two offices representing the most influential senior cleric in contemporary Shiism, Najaf-based Ali Al-Sistani b. As the incorporation of new media may entail significant changes in established sensational forms, authority structures, and the public presence of a given religion, a study of the negotiation of media offers deep insights into processes of binding and bonding in our time.

He suggests a trend towards an increasingly individual, autonomous search for spiritual experience, in which media consumption plays a central role. See also Oosterbaan , who shows how Pentecostal sensory regimes shape the ways in which Born-again believers relate to mass mediated entertainment.

Bruno Latour , is deeply critical of a facile constructivist stance, that, in its eagerness to deconstruct essentializing power claims as such an important critical project , tends to miss the concreteness and materiality of construction. He urges us to think about construction rather as a building site on which solid structures emerge that cannot be de-constructed by critical analysis alone.

We need an understanding of construction that acknowledges its- at times scary - materiality. Critiques of construction need to take its material dimension as a starting point. It needs to be stressed that calling attention to the question of embodiment and the appeal made to the body as a harbinger of truth does not at all imply a romanticist understanding of the body as an ultimate reality. Rather, I argue that in our research we need to come to terms with the fact that the body is tuned via particular social practices, and in this sense constructed, but that this construction tends to be naturalized and perceived as natural and real.

See also Spronk For instance, the late Agnes Binder, a staunch member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a former mission church, told me that in her youth, though she was from a Protestant family living in the Christian part of her village, she had gotten possessed by a local family god when she passed by her family house at the occasion of a pagan funeral.

Hearing the particular drums that were beaten for this god, she was caught by its spirit, started to dance, and ran off to the bush. Through this humiliating experience she realized the need to be spiritually strong, to have the Holy Spirit in you. Droogers states that religion and power intersect with regard to three dimensions: a in relation to transcendental power, b in relation to internal power relations intrinsic to religious organization, and c in relation to society.