(P007)
Aesthetics and the making of religious collectivities
Location SOAS Senate House - S312
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3

Convenors

  • Timothy Carroll (UCL) email
  • Alanna Cant (University of Kent) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

This panel explores how the aesthetics of religious practice work to constitute religious collectivities through processes of community-making and boundary-making. Papers will consider the ways that material, symbolic, affective and bodily experiences work to define religious 'selves' and 'others'.

Long abstract

In his discourse on the aesthetics of ritual, Bruce Kapferer (2005) examines the "dynamic logic of aesthetic processes that are variously realised through performance," which he suggests are "symbolically constitutive rather than expressive". Following his argument that "aesthetic processes draw human beings towards major moral issues that are at the center of their existence", this panel explores the links between the aesthetics of religious practice and the making and maintaining of collectivities.

Within anthropology, aesthetics has been approached through the productive interplay of three main theoretical concerns: (a) the meanings and constitutions of elements such as style, form, colour and rhythm; (b) the captivating enchantment of objects and practices; and (c) concerns with particular sensory or embodied experiences of the material world. Howard Morphy (1989) has shown that it is through aesthetic experience that Yolngu people are able to encounter the ancestral dreaming, and we contend that this is also true in wider religious, spiritual and transcendent contexts. We invite papers that explore the ways that such aesthetic phenomena work to constitute religious collectivities through processes of community-making and/or boundary-making. Paper topics may include, but are not limited to: the making, use, or veneration of art-like artefacts; symbolic forms; ethics and aesthetics; performance and practice; aesthetics of place and space; mediation; objects, bodies and dress; the everyday versus spectacle; circulation and commoditisation; ritual and aesthetic orthodoxy or heresy (doing it right, doing it wrong); aesthetics in collective effervescence; anaesthetics; aesthetics in non-religion/secularism.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

From Demon to God: Forging a new iconography for Mahishasur

Author: Moumita Sen (University of Oslo) email

Short abstract

This paper will focus on the forging of a new iconography for a "demon" in Hindu mythology who is being reclaimed by indigenous communities both as a god and as a champion of their political autonomy. Mahishasur stands now as the symbol of radical caste politics in India against Hindu nationalism.

Long abstract

This paper will focus on the forging of a new iconography for a "demon" in Hindu mythology who is being reclaimed by indigenous communities both as a god and as a champion of their political autonomy. Since 2011, in a radical subversion of dominant Hindu narratives, several indigenous communities in Jharkhand and West Bengal have been worshipping the so-called 'demon' Mahishasur as their benevolent king and ancestor while framing the most important Hindu goddess Durga as a prostitute who tricked and killed him.

A part of this newly minted ritual-- which was deemed blasphemous by the Hindu nationalist party in power-- was to come up an image of the 'demon' who had so far only been pictured by Hindus as horned, fanged, green and writhing at the feet of the goddess at the moment of his death. The image of Mahishasur, among the clay-modellers of Bengal since the 20th C, has its own fascinating tryst with European art particularly naturalism. In this paper, I will look at how the contemporary caste minorities completely turn away from all existing images of Mahishasur to come up with their own. Several villages forged new iconographies—while there is no standardized image yet— for this political icon of minority rights in the face of Hindu nationalism. Through interviews with image-makers and organizers in the villages of West Bengal, I will show how local aesthetic ideals of masculinity, beauty and virtue are expressed in the new iconography of this emerging hero of Indian politics.

Scary Mask/Local Protector: the curious history of Ida Ratu Gede Gombrang

Authors: Laurel Kendall (American Museum of Natural History) email
Wayan Ariati (World Learning) email

Short abstract

Stories told about a tourist mask that returned to Bali to become a local protector, Ida Rati Gede Gombrang, exist at an intersection between the aesthetic/sacred realization of a Balinese mask—how it is crafted, tended and performed—and contemporary life in the tourist mecca of Ubud.

Long abstract

Cue the scary music. The beginning is evocative of generic horror movies: A suspicious object enables occult forces to invade and derange a placid middle class American home as with the voodoo-empowered evil doll Chucky in the eponymous horror series. As a traveler's tale of a known genre, a fanged and wild-haired witch's mask from Bali rattles on the wall of a New York apartment and cases much mischief. Turn down the scary music, turn up the festival gamelon, make audible a conversation enriched by Balinese talk about the sightings and activities of the mask Ida Ratu Gede Gombrang, now housed in the Palace (Puri) of Ubud. A mask that goes bump in the night can still be scary--power is a dangerous thing--but when its potency is recognized and its intentions articulated through the aesthetic act of ritual performance, its active presence protects the community from terrorism, black magic, and an occasional illegally parked car. Balinists describe a connection between community well-being and the periodic performance of masks and entranced dancers who temporarily right the precarious balance between divine and demonic forces. The community that acknowledges Ratu Gede Gombrang is no village, but a hub of global tourist activity. We examine how the stories told about Ratu Gede Gombrang make sense at an intersection between the aesthetic/sacred realization of a Balinese mask—how it is crafted, tended and performed—and contemporary life in Ubud. Ida Ratu Gede Gombrang is a distinctively 21st century Balinese phenomenon.

Envisioning the Enemy: Mastering the Boundaries of Life and Death in Southwest China

Author: Katherine Swancutt (King’s College London) email

Short abstract

Offering new ethnography on death rites and exorcisms among the Nuosu, a Tibeto-Burman group of Southwest China, I show how their views of the enemy are upheld, or occasionally overturned, through ritual aesthetics that are above all meant to be boundary-making.

Long abstract

Visions of the enemy are perhaps always inherently aesthetic. I discuss how Nuosu envision their enemies in ways that enable them to uphold the proper boundaries of life and death. Revealingly, while the Nuosu term for the 'enemy' (jji ꐚ) may evoke a 'slave', 'bee', or 'wasp', its glyph is meant to resemble a bee's nest or honeycomb. Like drones in a hive, Nuosu enemies and slaves were ideally conceptualised as being bound to their master's purposes. Slaves once lived close to their masters, took meals with them, fought under them during lineage warfare, and sometimes deserted them for their rivals. Being reduced to slavery among Nuosu thus meant submitting to a radically different mode of life, followed by an often dangerously ambiguous position in death. Nowadays, former slaves are still routinely envisioned as enemy ethnic others. Focusing on the aesthetic dimensions of Nuosu rituals, I discuss the 'spirit capsules' (ma ddu ꂷꅍ) occasionally produced for slaves in post-mortuary rites, the Daoist-inspired chants and wooden 'ghost board' effigies used to exorcise Han Chinese ghosts from the home, and the joint rituals held by Nuosu and Han Daoist priests, which are underpinned by different aesthetics and rival conceptualisations of the cosmos. While Han priests focus on peaceably sending ghosts to their places of origin, Nuosu produce bee's nest effigies that they shoot with rifles, without revealing to the Han the notions behind this motif. Each of my cases shows how Nuosu ritually mobilise visions of the enemy to maintain socio-political boundaries.

Fun and 'deep play': Playing with demons on Lombok, Indonesia

Author: Kari Telle (Christian Michelsen Institute) email

Short abstract

On Lombok, minority Balinese make and use demon puppets at New Year in order to control public space and bring dangerous demonic forces under control. Aesthetic creativity is central to the efficacy of this ritural endeavour and its ability to assert a Balinese public identity.

Long abstract

Over the past two decades, processions with puppets depicting demonic forces (ogoh ogoh) have become an integral yet somewhat controversial aspect of the Hindu Balinese New Year celebrations in urban Lombok. While inspired by similar practices on Bali, the exuberant display of demons and their wild power holds different signifance on Lombok, an island where Balinese are a religious and ethnic minority. Drawing on anthropological perspectives on aesthetics, the paper reflects on why the making and display of demonic figures has captivated the imagination of Lombok Balinese youth. The paper shows how the making of these puppets is a collective and ritual endeavour designed to turn them into temporary bodies of demonic forces. As such, the handling of hese puppets is fraught with a sense of risk. Whereas Geertz (1972) famously described the Balinese cockfight as 'a story they tell themselves about themselves,' I explore ogoh-ogoh processions on Lombok as a constitutive aesthetic practice of community-making. Set in a context marked by tension between minorities and the Sasak Muslim majority, these processions are rare moments when Balinese assert control over public space, manifesting their creativity and ability to bring demonic forces under control. Oscillating between order and the chaotic wrestling with demons, I suggest that the heavily guarded ogoh-ogoh processions intimate that Balinese are not to be messed with.

The aesthetics of belonging in Buryat ritual and dance

Author: Joseph Long (University of Aberdeen) email

Short abstract

In Buryat communities there are formal analogies between clan offering rites and the circle dance institutionalised as part of national culture. Here I explore the collective experiences in both forms that suggest a Buryat aesthetic of belonging.

Long abstract

In Buryat communities of Siberia, belonging to lineage and clan groups is constituted through tailgan rituals in which animals are butchered and the meat shared among spirits and kin at the ancestral hearth. The Buryat circle dance, the yokhor, formed a key part of ritual events before it was divorced from its ceremonial context during the Soviet era. While shamanist practices were actively repressed the yokhor was re-framed as a part of an institutionalised national culture .

There are formal analogies in the spatial and embodied elements of Buryat ritual and dance. Where scholarly analyses of both tailgan rites and the yokhor have emphasised symbolic and imitative elements of these practices, this paper considers the experience of ritual and dance performance. Participant accounts chime with Durkheimian notions of collective effervescence and the communitas described by Victor Turner.

In accounting for the way in which participants experience the yokhor as a meaningful and significant act in the contemporary political context, I propose moving beyond anthropological analysis of dances as lexicons of gesture, and historical accounts of the yokhor that seek to assign semantic reference to the dance. Instead I turn to the work of theorists that include Langer (1953,1957), Turner (1969, 1979) Jackson (1983), and Hobart and Kapferer (2005) to explore the aesthetic and experiential power of these forms. Rather than invoke notions of beauty or the sublime, I look to a more contextually meaningful notions of value inherent in these experiences, and consider belonging to people and place as an aesthetic experience.

Musical aesthetics, spirituality and the morality of performance in Mongolia

Author: Rebekah Plueckhahn (University College London) email

Short abstract

This paper examines Mongolian musical aesthetics and corresponding creations of moral personhood. Drawing from the public performance of two spiritual genres, it examines the interconnection between everyday musical sociality and the formation of changing postsocialist spiritualities.

Long abstract

Among the Altai Urianghai in rural west Mongolia, musical performance is a key medium through which a person's character and moral personhood can be brought into being. This paper explores the innate synthesis between musical, performative aesthetics and social aesthetics and morality by examining public performances of two spiritual genres - an Altain Magtaal, (praise song), and tuul' (epics). The musical and performative aesthetics of these two genres, while having causal properties that interlink with active animist landscapes, also extend from and to everyday social life within the rural district.

This paper focuses on how Altai Urianghai musical aesthetics interconnect and blur distinctions between the social and the spiritual, the secular and the religious in the making of spiritual imaginaries. Through drawing from everyday examples of how musical performance can influence the formation of 'good' personhood, I discuss how musical-social aesthetics are linked to the creation of fundamental social networks and changing postsocialist spiritual practices. I examine this interlinked process through the Mongolian concept of yos, an encompassing term that can mean both preferred forms of efficacious social behavior and aesthetics, as well as forms of exemplary moral personhood. Both performers and audience members alike negotiate these secular and spiritual moral frames, drawing from a range of 'divergent, multiple possibilities' (Humphrey 2008) of action and thought. This paper examines how musical aesthetics are fundamental to the way that changing Mongolian postsocialist spiritual practice and collectivities emerge from everyday secular socialities.

jw.org and the Publisher Aesthetic: The global Watch Tower Society and social 'republication'

Author: Danny Cardoza (University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

Publishing is central to the Watch Tower Society so much so that votaries often call themselves 'Publishers', creating a 'publisher aesthetic'. This aesthetic changed in 2013 to be centered around digital technologies and the internet rather than traditional printing. This paper explores this shift.

Long abstract

The Watch Tower Society, now commonly known as Jehovah's Witnesses, was originally founded around print media produced for the dissemination of their ideas to the public. The various technologies used to create these media have become the cornerstone of the central aesthetic in the Society, which can be thought of as the 'publisher aesthetic'. Witnesses qua Publishers—something Witnesses call themselves—has been central to how the Society organizes itself around the world and to how they represent themselves in their own publications. What it means to be a Publisher has dramatically shifted since the publisher aesthetic underwent a major 'rebranding' in 2013, introducing the now ubiquitous 'jw.org' logo as part of a digital-technocentric overhauling of how Publishers represent themselves in Watch Tower media (both digital and print). With the pervasive presentation of this new publisher aesthetic, Jehovah's Witnesses around the world seek to reckon themselves part of the global collectivity by adopting the aesthetic, recreating themselves and their meetinghouses in the process, something that could be called social 'republication'. By tethering themselves to broader religious community, Jehovah's Witnesses continue to reify the boundary between themselves and the rest of the world. This paper explores the role of the 'jw.org' motif in the recent shift of the publisher aesthetic by an analysis of Watch Tower media, an exhibition at the Society's visitor center in New York commemorating the centenary of The Photo-Drama of Creation, and ethnographic research with Witnesses who find themselves in the borderlands of the global religious collectivity.

Surgical Reversion to "Fitra": Understanding Islam through Cosmetic Surgeries in Iran

Author: Marzieh Kaivanara (University of Bristol) email

Short abstract

This paper focuses on the pursuit of beauty in Iran and its implications for the cultivation of Islamic collectivities.

Long abstract

This paper focuses on the pursuit of beauty in Iran and its implications for the cultivation of Islamic collectivities.

In Islamic cosmology, beauty is seen as a reflection of God's utmost beauty and the face is an important locus through which the inner qualities and the person's piety and good deeds are communicated. Yet, any "unnecessary" intervention in the body is a matter of debate in many Islamic societies. In Iran, however, this practice is legitimised and widely practised; God is seen as the source of aesthetics, and any beauty in this world is seen as a reification of God's perfection. Quranic verses and Islamic hadith such as "God is beautiful and He loves beauty", are largely evoked to "prove" the view that the elevated urge for undergoing cosmetic surgery in Iran is a response to the beauty-loving constitution (fitra) of human beings.

In this paper, drawing upon my ethnographic study of cosmetic surgeries in Tehran, and through conducting interviews with several Islamic jurists, plastic surgeons and clients of cosmetic surgery, I interrogate how bodily beautification practices are used as a means to understand and maintain the Islamic collectivities. I argue that cosmetic surgeries provide space, through an embodied experience, for the religious self, and thus the ethical/religious society, to be cultivated. This is not only limited to the beauty-loving nature of humans, but also cosmetic surgery's compatibility with and contribution to social and religious roles (through marriage and procreation) and maintaining the "natural" order of the society.

How to hear: aesthetics of worship and the value of subjective experience among English evangelicals

Author: Malcolm McLean (University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

Based on my current fieldwork I argue that the aesthetic of musical worship forms a boundary between conservative and charismatic evangelicals in England, and that their different aesthetics reflect and produce different valuations of objectivity and personal experience.

Long abstract

Drawing on my current fieldwork among evangelical churches in an English university town I argue that aesthetics, not theological doctrine, form the boundary between charismatic and conservative evangelicals, and that these aesthetic differences reflect different attitudes to the 'post-modern' challenge of textual and religious authority. I examine practices of 'listening' to God employed in church services, prayer meetings, and bible studies between the churches to show that for conservatives good listening means finding 'objective truths' through historical-critical readings of universal revelation as found in scripture, and musical worship centres on the theological content of a song's lyrics. In contrast, charismatics emphasise hearing through bodily experience and their worship aesthetic seeks to remove social and personal inhibitions to hearing God, through using darkened rooms and normalising expressive movement such as dance, so that one is receptive to God.

I argue that aesthetics are a significant boundary for my conservative interlocutors because of the high value they place on 'objectivity'. Their worship aesthetic of theologically dense songs sung in a physically inexpressive manner reflects, reinforces and inculcates their belief that God primarily reveals himself to everyone in the same way: through scripture, the objective meaning of which can be discerned through good study. Their dislike of the charismatic aesthetic stems from its embrace of the subjective and idiosyncratic: it suggests God reveals himself through subjective bodily experience. Finally, I relate this concern for objectivity to broader debates around post-modernism, epistemology, and authority in contemporary Britain.

Aesthetics, Authority and 'Scales' of Belonging in Lived Mexican Catholicism

Author: Alanna Cant (University of Kent) email

Short abstract

Based on ethnography in a rural Mexican parish, this paper explores the social space between local 'popular' and local 'official' Catholicism, and argues that aesthetics constitutes a medium through which religious authority can be negotiated and different 'scales' of belonging are constructed.

Long abstract

Differences between the aesthetic practices of religious groups often serve to clearly mark the line between 'us' and 'them.' However, such differences in aesthetics also work to constitute finer distinctions and connections within a community of believers. In studies of Latin American Catholicism, 'popular' religiosity is frequently contrasted to that of the institutional Roman Church, often without considering how this distinction is experienced in the everyday life of communities that necessarily include both perspectives. Based on research in a small parish in rural Oaxaca, this paper argues that aesthetics is the medium through which religious authority can be negotiated and different 'scales' of belonging are constructed. Where the priest is generally accepted to be the local authority on questions of scripture and the liturgy, religious aesthetics are much more open to negotiation by different members of the congregation. Examples of such aesthetic practices in Catholic Mexico include devotional care for particular images of saints and the ritual treatment of the dead. As such practices are of a sensuous and experiential nature, they are less amenable to definitive evaluations of correctness or worth, and therefore promote polysemous interpretations of their value and meaning. As the paper describes, this flexibility or ambiguity allows for different modes of authority to emerge locally and for belonging to be delineated in fluctuating ways that at times include, but at other times exclude, the parish priest.

'Wearing a cross doesn't make you a Christian': theologies of 'religious' jewellery among English evangelicals

Author: Meadhbh McIvor email

Short abstract

Drawing on dual-sited fieldwork split between a Christian lobby group and a conservative evangelical church in London, UK, this paper uses intra-Christian disagreement over the legitimacy of 'religious' jewellery to explore the twin theological categories of grace and law.

Long abstract

The past decade has seen a rise in Christian-interest litigation in the English courts, with increasing numbers of conservative Christians taking to law to frame themselves as the victims of 'secular intolerance'. While many of these cases centre on gender and sexuality, others have involved the 'right' to wear religious jewellery - including cross necklaces and purity rings - in breach of official uniform policies. Drawing on dual-sited fieldwork split between a Christian lobby group and a conservative evangelical church, this paper uses intra-Christian disagreement over the legitimacy of 'religious' jewellery to explore the twin theological categories of grace and law. For Christian activists, these cases function as proof of the legal system's discriminatory approach to Christianity, which, by virtue of its antinomian approach to religious dress - that is, because Protestants are not required to wear certain clothes to achieve salvation - allows the courts to deny evangelicals the right to wear religious jewellery. For evangelicals on the ground, however, these cases are problematic precisely because they seem to imply that one needs to wear a religious symbol to be a Christian, thereby conflating grace and law and misrepresenting the faith to outsiders. The paper concludes that the court's failure to appreciate the role of materiality in maintaining even that most Protestant of virtues - sincerity, or the alignment of thought, word and deed - is evidence of the problematic nature of 'legal religion', in which the law, by policing the legitimate limits of religion, defines it out of recognition.

Aesthetics and the making of religious collectivities: A discussion

Author: Timothy Carroll (UCL) email

Short abstract

This paper works to draw out key themes and emerging perspectives from the contributed papers, placing these within a wider critical context.

Long abstract

This paper will lead to an open discussion, and offers a critical assessment of the individual papers, and common themes and emerging perspectives. Considering the individual case studies in a wider context of key theoretical perspectives, the paper seeks to place the unique contributions in relation to each other and the larger discussions on religion and aesthetics.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.