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On the Agency of Religious Objects: A Conversation

David Morgan, Brent Plate, Jeremy Stolow and Amy Whitehead discuss the subject of agency in religious material culture.

MLA citation format:
Morgan, David, Brent S. Plate, Jeremy Stolow and Amy Whitehead
“On the Agency of Religious Objects: A Conversation”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 29 October 2015. [date of access]


On the heels of the conference, “Material Religion: Embodiment, Materiality, Technology,” held at Duke University, September 10-12, 2015, and looking forward to the launch of the new book series, “Bloomsbury Studies in Material Religion,” a few of us involved had the following exchange on the topic of agency in the study of religious material culture. One way of thinking about things—images, objects, clothing, food, spaces, and our bodies—is to regard them as mediating several agents and becoming in the process agents themselves. A thing offers particular affordances, accommodating some uses and not others. It changes the user’s relationship to other agents, to the task at hand, and to the thing itself, which mediates these relations. This urges us to think about things as different kinds of technologies. The exchange got underway when David Morgan suggested that we might regard sacred things as tools with handles for both the human user and a non-human one. It is the simplest version of a network: three agents engaged in a dynamic set of relations that redefine the scope of each.

Brent Plate: When it comes to interest in “material religion,” the central question that I keep getting asked is: Do the objects have power/agency of their own? The answer is yes, but one has to get away from the hold of anthropocentrism to understand how. I think this is what Bruno Latour is after with ANT (Actor-Network Theory), and philosophers like Graham Harman are doing with object oriented ontology (though too philosophically for my taste). There is an ontology to the object, it has agent status, but that doesn’t mean it behaves just like an animal. The objects extend human agency, but humans also extend the agency of the object, and the objects have some agency with or without humans. And then I wonder if “agency” is really what matters. Dogs and wheat evolved alongside humans, not just bending phylogenetically to the human will, but humans were changed by the evolving species as well. (I know I’m adding a diachronous element here, and so “object,” which we usually try to pin down in synchronic dimensions, doesn’t fit so neatly…) We are who we are because of the objects that engage us and evolve with us.

I’m not sure I have an interest in doing so, as I hung up my philosophy hat years ago, but I wonder about some theorized ontology and taxonomy of religious objects. As we all like to say, the material medium matters. And so different media, different tools, make a difference. I like David’s idea of religious objects as a two-handled tool, that the devotee grasps on one end and “spiritual reality” the other end. This gets me immediately wondering about the specifics of tool use, and how much improvisation can occur and when there might be 3 handles, or none at all, like a ball. It keeps bringing me back to the sensorium as an overarching field from which to estimate the differences in objects and object use within groups of people. There are other ways to chart the differences, but the sensorium seems the most gripping to me.

Nonetheless, within the academy, and especially within religious studies, there is still an ongoing fear of anything that smacks of “magic,” so vast swaths of academics refuse to allow any status for an object. They think any power/agency is only what the social-ordering human puts on it. It’s all so wonderfully 20th century.

David Morgan: Giving objects wholehearted agency is, in my view, as much as a mistake as making them nothing but passive, inanimate matter. The truth is in-between. It reminds me of the art-and-religion crowd back in the 1980s: they reviled text and lauded image. But at the end of the day, how can we sever them from one another? Our brains mix both together, along with a plumber’s tool kit of other things. The quest for purity is a curiously modern obsession that fails to match the complexity of the human mind and the world around us.

A hammer transforms my hand into something else. But it takes both the hammer and my hand (and my brain and everything in-between) to get the job done. So I am not interested in purging the human presence out of the world humans participate in. To be sure, there are worlds here and far away that register hardly any or no human presence. They are non-human worlds defined in different terms than by feelings, thought, will, emotion, intuition, social organization, and so on.

I like the way Latour describes networks. He does not hesitate to factor humans into the assemblages and to show how deeply interactive people are with things. We delegate all manner of moral, functional, and ideological responsibilities to things–from seat belts to door stops, as he famously described in one essay. We make things that make us. That phrase, simply put, is what I take to be his major point. We distribute our being among non-human things, which are not simply colonized by us (in the sense of anthropomorphism), but shape our behavior, tell us what to do, scold us when we don’t, stop us from doing otherwise, and plague us with unintended consequences. I also admire the way Alfred Gell describes primary and secondary agents. His version of secondary agents certainly works best, or perhaps only, in a world where humans exist. But that seems quite fine to me since that is the world that we need to care about and which commands our intrinsic interest. Not that we want to lose touch with the limits of our being and the brutal way anthropocentrism can act. And a so-called flat ontology approach does its best when it makes things and connections visible that anthropocentrism easily occludes.

Amy Whitehead: I think re-defining “technology” to include the mechanisms of religious performance aspect is superb. Performance as technology. Great. From this I am inspired to understand the body as a fetish, embodying/being power through gestures and signs… I do have some comments which are to add to the general discussion, and to raise some issues with agency and ANT.

The “in-between” place that David suggests is what I like to call the relational zone; and in the relational zone, anything is possible. Objects can be “persons” (to use the new animism vernacular) depending on how they are related to. This means that agency (for want of a better word) or the “liveliness” of objects is co-inspired, co-created, and co-relational. Devotees and objects bring each other into unique forms of ontological being. This doesn’t mean that things are not persons when we’re not around, too – but playing Smart’s methodological atheism, or even agnosticism, card allows us ethnographic flexibility when we approach religious objects so that we are not automatically inclined to assume anthropocentric attitudes. We cannot know what happens in the “worlds” of objects, especially religious ones because of their borderland orientations, when we’re not around (if a tree falls in the forest and no human is around to hear it – does it make a sound? Maybe not in the human world, but there will certainly be a cacophony of beings out there who did hear it!).

In ANT, actors are to speak nodes in networks, and there are no actors in/of themselves. This means that agency can be present anywhere in any network, and at any time, regardless of whether or not that agency involves, inhabits, engages, or prompts so called “inanimate” objects. From this view, networks are continually in states of becoming. In any case the concept of agency (if we take the classic material culture definition) can arguably be mistaken as it lends itself to ideas of representation (according to James Leach with regard to Gell’s “Art and Agency”), and this detracts from the fair and distributed importance that the roles of objects should be receiving if we are to challenge the old dichotomies (Ingold likens agency to the sprinkling of fairy dust on objects because as moderns we don’t know how else to deal with them, and this is another form of, yet again, Tylor’s spirit/matter form of animism – so no real advance can be made). So perhaps neither agency, nor ANT, are capable of accounting for the complexities involved in the lived realities of both religion and “everyday life” (if I dare make that distinction) – but ANT is a damn good map that we can all use to build on. I know Ingold’s “meshwork” can also be problematic, but for me it tends to be paint a more organic picture in how things/humans/artefacts/nature move, enmesh, flow, stop, entangle, blend, fuse, move apart again, and take various directions. Meshwork is more volatile than network – I think – but this could be splitting hairs over a metaphor.

Jeremy Stolow: When it comes to studying religion, we are faced with a fundamental, and arguably a unique, challenge to the interpretive categories we rely upon to conduct our work. We are required to consider the role human actors (who can be classified as adherents of one or another religious formation, as members of discrete social classes, and possessing different sensorial tuned, gendered and racialized bodies, and so on) alongside other nonhuman agents that seem to occupy the religious field – animals, ritual objects, architecture, clothing, media technologies, and other elements of material culture. But beyond this, we must also find a way to take into account yet another class of actors whose ontological status remains controversial from the viewpoint of the humanities and social sciences: deities, angels, spirits, demons, magical spells, astral bodies, and so on. Do those latter sorts of nonhuman entities fall inside or outside the scope of inquiry? To whom does a religious actor pray? From whom does a supplicant receive grace, miraculous healing, or some other spiritual benefit? What are the supernatural forces with whom human actors traffic? Where do they reside, how can they be perceived, and what legitimates any claims made on their behalf? Answers to such questions are far from straightforward. Of course, there are longstanding traditions in the social sciences and humanities that give credence to religious entities only as elements within a given system of belief, as functionalist symbols sustaining social order, as opiates of the people, and so on. But one makes such ascriptions only by first assuming the non-reality of gods, spirits, demons, and magical forces: stripping them of all external existence and relocating them in the twists and turns of the collective self, the unconscious, or the neural network of human brains. What would an alternative approach look like? If, for instance, we take seriously, as many religious actors seem to do, the existence of spirits, souls, demons, and gods, would that preclude the possibility of critical distance?

For some time now, and with gathering speed over the past twenty years, scholars have taken issue with many of the key assumptions about ‘the human subject’ as a privileged site of analysis, especially with regard to studies that take human agency to be a unified, coherent, and intentional source of action and meaning-making. In the 1960s and 1970s, assumptions about human subjectivity were under attack by structuralist linguistics, deconstruction, and Foucaultian genealogy; in more recent years, other challengers have emerged, including actor-network-theory, media archaeology, cognitive science, and so-called ‘new materialist’ philosophy. Despite their many points of tension, these theoretical frameworks share a common desire to extend the notions of action and actor beyond that of ‘the human’, by pushing onto the agenda important questions about the role of everything from language games to scientific instruments to animals to media technologies to built and natural environments, and in so doing arguing that the very terms agency and action ought to refer to a broad range of transformative relationships and events, many if not most of which are not rooted in the notion of an intending (human) subject. But it seems to me that most of those research programs do not sit very comfortably with the study of the sort of immaterial nonhuman actors abounding in the religious field, since most scholars have yet to deal with the specification of objects and actors that cannot be accounted for within established natural-scientific paradigms, or whose historicity is not so readily contained in narratives of advancing prerogatives of the modern state, industrial capitalism, centers of calculation, and other frameworks of social and cultural modernization. The study of material religion has served as a powerful vehicle for exploring a range of ways that ‘religion’ extends beyond the seemingly abstract world of symbols and propositional claims about knowledge and belief. The challenge facing us today is to make sound decisions about where such investigations can and should take us next: whether we will remain tied to the assumption that ‘secular sciences’ such as physics, biology, or statistics have already adjudicated the reality of the cosmos, or whether there is room for consideration of another stratum of actors and action whose very postulation is hostile to modern scientific structures of authority. What really are we afraid of? What do we believe we will gain or lose, as scholars and as citizens, if we give credence to the kinds of nonhuman actors that religious agents have long accepted at face value? Must we believe in order to study? Does that very question present us with a false dilemma?

David Morgan: I don’t think belief is a prerequisite for studying religion. I don’t have to believe that gods exist to understand what they mean to someone who describes to me how they keep his world together in daily interventions and favors. It does not seem a problem to me to take “supernatural” beings seriously in the study of religion, that is, as actors or agents in someone’s religious world. I have to say “someone’s religious world” because it is not my world. In studying that world, I can describe it the way my informants accounts for it, I can watch what they do, study the objects they craft, exchange, display, venerate, and destroy. I can even participate in their world, but likely only as a visitor, a temporary guest. Perhaps I might join them, but it’s quite probably I won’t. I have my own world and I like it. So what we are doing as religion scholars is studying worlds—what makes them up, how people and things and gods and spirits behave within them, what matters to each of these agents and what does not matter, how that world is organized, how it deals with change and chaos, and how it interacts with other worlds.

Amy Whitehead: In addition to these provocative thoughts, I would like to add another, more anecdotal thought, based on the idea that in certain cases religious objects specifically (isolating the material dimension of religion) have the power not only to assist in the “ordering of chaos,” but to bridge the different worlds of others. For example, a current research interest of mine is based on two small, wooden statue forms of the “same” Virgin, one in Havana, Cuba, and the other in Chipiona, in Andalusia, Spain. The Cuban Virgen de la Regla is an exact replica of the Spanish one, and in both contexts the Virgin Mary plays central social, political, and religious roles to community/village life. “She” is also cared for by groups of women called camaristas (“chamber maids”) who play significant roles in their communities. Camaristas are responsible for ritually bathing and dressing the statues, maintaining cultural traditions/identities and preserving taboos surrounding the Virgin’s female corporeal form. In Cuba, however, where Catholicism and the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria co-exist, the Virgin has two religious identities – statues of the Virgin Mary are both Catholic Virgin(s) and African goddesses. Resulting from Spanish colonialism and African diasporas, these dual identities not only create tensions within Cuban vernacular Catholicism and Santeria, but they bridge them as well. La Virgen de la Regla (Havana) for example, is both Yemeya and Virgin, and the two identities share not only a shrine, but a corporeal wooden form. They are approached, venerated and given gifts in different yet similar ways – yet this aside, both are referred to as being inherently powerful. Concepts of representation are, in both of these cases, marginalised. These complex local and universal worlds of conflicting ontologies where spirits, gods, intercessors and saints reside in the same places, offering, perhaps, ways in which to re-think the roles of women, (Spanish) vernacular religions, the impact of colonialism, Afro-Caribbean diasporas, and the significance of religious materiality. Further, highlighting the powerful roles of female stewards has the potential to re-define the roles of women more generally in vernacular Catholicism(s). Oppression and violent pasts are pacified in the presences of these statues and in their shrines. So all of these “actors” – the camaristas, the statues, regular devotees, gifts given, and, of course, the statues of Mary/Yemeya come together to relationally “act out,” fuel, motivate and forge senses of community, nationalism, and connections to old and new worlds, and this provides further insight into the social and other types of cohesion that religious materiality can provide. ,


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