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„Material Religion“ in „Virtual Worlds“?


by Simone Heidbrink

Impressions of the Summer School’s public lecture by David Morgan (July 31st, 2010)

At first glance it might seem contradictory to invite an expert on „Material Religion“ to teach at a summer school dedicated to the research on online matters. However, after the lecture of David Morgan, Professor of Religion and Art History at Duke University in Durham (USA) and renowned specialist of Religious Visual culture and Religion and Media, the audience agreed, it was NOT. But let’s start by reflecting on some of Morgan’s main topics and assumptions.

In order to be able to follow Morgan’s line of argument, one has to regard his view on the two basic terms of „belief“ and „materiality“. Obviously the term „belief“ with its inherent christocentric emphasis on cognition (in short terms: „THE word“) in opposite to other non-intellectual expressions of religion has been critizised and rightly so! However, Morgan propagates its use (MINUS its epistemological components) to indicate the different products of religious practise like icons, architecture, rituals, music etc. In that way, it is possible to coin the term to express the different forms of „materialized religion“ like sensations, things, places and performances as a matrix, where „religions happen“. „Belief is not primarily a structure of knowing or an epistemological rubric, but rather the condensation of practice experienced as feeling, sensation, moral obligation, historical momentum (custom), cultural connectedness, and the aesthetics of belonging. Religion is therefore a community of feeling structured immanently and transcendentally.“ (Quote taken from Morgan’s presentation slides.)

Many (if not most) expressions of material religion concern visual aspects (if not exclusively). However the theoretical framework as well as the means and methods of Art History do not suffice to assure a thorough analysis of the content scholars are confronted with in the field of Religion online. Due to the fact that the Art History traditionally mainly addresses so-called „fine art“ (in contrast to popular imagery which is often pejoratively labeled as „kitsch“) the discipline falls short of even recognizing these objects as subject to study. Moreover, an analysis of such material has to go beyond merely looking at style and iconography and needs to include and focus on the contextual aspects of production, circulation, display, authorial intentionality, reception, etc. as well as its mutual interdependencies and thus includes the discourse field(s) a religious object is embedded in. The latter also refers to processes of social and cultural construction, interpretation and ascriptions to the religious objects of research by the different members of discourse. „The image is not a disembodied essence floating in a pure realm of meaning, but is rather a social presence or agency with which humans engage, and through which they engage with one another and themselves.“

Using the example of visual material, the functionality of religious objects is manyfold. According to Morgan’s presentation slides they (among others):

  • create a heightened sense of time and / or place (e.g a church or a site of pilgrimage that signifies a spot where some miracle or important religious event occured)
  • preserve the material sense of transcendental presence by enabling touch
  • extending the body of the transcendence to other media or embodying the sacred in the believer (e.g. the Kaaba in Mekka)
  • give face to the sacred, enabling devotional access through icons and totem-portraits (e.g. certain forms of ancester worship)
  • embodying the social body of “us,” defining who ‘we’ are…
  • protect and empower (e.g amulets)
  • unleash power by being broken (e.g. a Buddhist sand mandala)
  • display the iconicity of texts—especially in allegedly aniconic religious traditions (e.g. calligrapies in Islam traditions)
  • enable leaving, giving and taking in communication and pilgrimage (e.g. pilgrim certificates)
  • conduct commerce and the economy of belief as forms of exchange (e.g. religious goods shops)
  • facilitating divination: harvesting purpose from chance by two common semiotic techniques—(1) token; (2) figure…
  • figural divination: revealing the miraculous in ad hoc visual trace; unveiling the hidden in an arcane visual code(e.g. Tarot cards).

Even though these function help structuring and classifying an analysis of religious visual objects, they are not to be understood as fixed typology but as heuristic matrix of intertwined discourses.

The questions, which were raised in the discussion after the lecture mainly addressed the applicability of the presented concepts to the realm of the virtual, namely the Internet. It was generally agreed upon the fact that material religion in the sense of David Morgan was indeed to be found online in various forms. Be it on Websites or in virtual 3D environments: the regime of the word over the visual has to be questioned. In contrary, in most cases the impact of religious symbols as signifier of religious space and ritual practise cannot be denied. On the Internet, the visual and auditory are predominant and often seem to compensate for the lack of olfactory or tactile perceptions, as it can be seen in the emphasis of aesthetics in religious practice within virtual environment, as e.g. Radde-Antweiler shows in her chapter on wedding rituals in Second Life.

Except the religious objects that could be found within virtual Internet settings, the problem of the materiality of the tools which „mediate“ (and thus bridge) the gap between the offline and online realm (e.g. computer keyboard, screen, etc.) and therefore determine and influence the bodily and mental perceptions of both spheres was also discussed. Which role do my offline surroundings (e.g. the tactile sensation of the keyboard I am typing on, the ambient sounds or other external influences) play for my experience of an online world? And how is this mediation between the spheres used or interpreted by the designers of Internet content (like in the case of „Sacred Space“ the boundaries of the computer screen serve as focus for Christian meditation along the lines of Ignatio of Loyolas writings)? How does (in general) the offline setting add to the experience of immersion in an online world?

In conclusion, the exact methodical and methodological strategies of how David Morgan’s approach to material religion can be applied to online matters still seems to be debatable. It cannot be doubted however, that in terms of theory Morgans explications can be rightfully considered as important gain to a better understanding of discoursive analysis of the aesthetical and sensual side of Internet research.

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