Thinking, acting and knowing through religious 'things': artefacts in the making of cosmology
Nico Tassi (UCL)
Diana Espirito Santo (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)
Arch & Anth LT2
Start time:
7 April, 2009 at 9:15 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short abstract:

This panel aims to further the debate on the material culture of religion. We will explore artifacts as intrinsic to the creation, articulation and experience of cosmology and propose alternative ontological frames to classic dualistic distinctions, such as material/immaterial.

Long abstract:

Ever since anthropologists have studied the religions of non-Westerners, they have grappled with how to conceptualize their informants' experience of the immaterial or spiritual in its relation to the material or tangible world, often ending up by reproducing this division. Thus, the religious 'fetich' and its historical pathologization, underlying which is the idea that artefacts somehow represent or stand for religious symbols, but are devoid of agency or power in themselves. Many recent studies within the so-called sub-discipline of 'material culture' have pursued an explicit dissolution of this dualism, where the general recognition is that things are not just constructed or made by people, but in turn construct and make people through the consequences of their materiality (Miller, 2005).

In this panel, we explore the role of things - religious and ritual objects - in the active construction, negotiation and experience of religious cosmology. We wish to question the object/idea distinction by aiming to take religious 'things' as encountered in the field, be these idols, clothes, or consummables, not as 'containers' or representations of meaning, but as entities where medium and meaning intersect. Such a focus undercuts the taken-for-granted divide between the material and the immaterial in two major ways, by: 1) allowing for artefacts to transgress their status as mere 'objects' and actively participate in the creation of cosmology as concepts or meanings too (Henare, Holbraad, Wastell, 2007), 2) questioning the priority given to the 'transcendent' as the place where knowledge happens and where the 'spiritual' dwells.