Saturday, July 27, 2019

We Have Moved to "The Jugaad Project"!

After nearly five years of service to open-access scholarship (2014-19), we have moved to a new and exciting phase with the publication of "The Jugaad Project". For further information on how to submit to The Jugaad Project please contact our editorial team. Follow us on Instagram.

The Material Religion blog remains open as an archive and a resource that we will continue to draw upon to promote diversity and innovation in the field of material religion studies. 

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The Jugaad Project is independent and unaffiliated with any institution or group. Our name and ethos is inspired by South Asian cultural ideas of diversity and innovation applied to material religion studies. 

Co-Founder and Managing Editor 2014-present
Urmila Mohan

Contributing Editors 2019-20
Alexandra (Sasha) Antohin
Jessica Hughes
Editor-at-Large 2019-20
Uthara Suvarathan

Friday, October 12, 2018

Book Review: Bielo, James. Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park.

Lillia McEnaney reviews James Bielo's most recent book, an ethnography of a creationist theme park in Kentucky.

MLA citation format: 
McEnaney, Lillia
Book Review: Bielo, James. Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. 
New York: New York University Press, 2018.
Web blog post. Material Religions. 12 October 2018. Web. [date of access]

James Bielo’s most recent book, Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (New York University Press, 2018) is an in-depth and critical ethnography of a creationist theme park in Kentucky. Written in an accessible yet rigorous tone, Bielo examines the planning, execution, and ramifications of a creationist theme park’s construction within the larger trend within of biblical tourism, or ‘materializing the Bible.’ Bielo fundamentally argues that Biblical attractions and entertainment venues, such as Ark Encounter, provide a key framework for understanding the production of Fundamentalism, and actively work to legitimize creationist views. 

The ethnography begins with a historiography of the ways in which the Genesis story has been interpreted, appropriated, and rendered both in popular culture and academia. Bielo bases Ark Encounter off the idea that because the narrative surrounding Noah’s Ark is prominent both within and outside of Christianity, it is vital for the Creationist movement’s overarching argument(s). Interestingly, Bielo makes little distinction between Fundamentalism and fundamentalism here, but defines a particular Protestant Fundamentalism as the belief in four defining elements: 1) The Bible is the “Word of God,” 2) Genesis should be read literally, 3) a universal flood was a historical event, and 4) Darwinian evolution is an inaccurate “attack” on The Bible. 

He continues with a history of the Fundamentalist fight for cultural legitimacy and authority within the public sphere. It is within this context that Bielo introduces Ark Encounter as a “form of fundamentalist Christian public culture” that contributes to the “global phenomenon of materializing the Bible” (Bielo 2018:4). This section of the text is made explicitly accessible to a variety of audiences through an introduction and history of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States. Bielo directly addresses the reader – both non-creationist and creationist – urging them to understand the opposing point of view. Even in these early sections, Bielo is also impressively transparent in his ethnographic methods and thought processes. 

Arguably, the most useful theoretical contribution of Ark Encounter is the explicit contextualization of the Genesis story within a paradigm of entertainment, in which entertainment is a tool of materialization, conversion, and belief. To begin the text, Bielo asks how Ark Encounter fits into larger trends of ‘materializing of the Bible,’ and what Ark Encounter’s existence says about contemporary Fundamentalism. After asking these questions, Bielo introduces us to his organizational concepts: devotional consumption, entertainment as play, and religious publicity, all of which he lays out in a clear and concise way. Bielo asks: “how does Ark Encounter seek to mobilize and solidify the creationist public, convert the noncreationists public, and claim legitimacy and authority for creationism through its work of religious publicity?” (Bielo 2018:29). 

Ark Encounter’s following chapter conducts a survey of global case studies of materializing the Bible. Produced alongside Bielo’s web-based digital scholarship project, Materializing the Bible, this section provides key examples of tangible Biblical manifestations including gardens, creation museums, history museums, and re-creations. Where his digital archive often lacks depth and analysis, this chapter fills in the gaps. He explores the devotional and pedagogical nature of various case studies, and fits them into the larger themes that were introduced in the previous chapter. Bielo concludes that the phenomenon of materializing the Bible – and the construction of affect – is a direct response to the Christian longing for authenticity, an argument I found more convincing as the text continued. 

The following chapter is framed as an ‘ethnography of cultural production,’ where Bielo argues that analyzing the thought processes and labor of the Ark Encounter team provides important context for the project as a whole. He found that the labor of creating the park was directly related to the team’s religious commitment to a creationist agenda. This commitment was strengthened by the team’s collaborative processes. They developed a shared purpose: to publicize Fundamentalism. Bielo also found that the physical layout, sounds, and decoration of the team’s workspace worked towards this same goal, and this chapter also provided a useful discussion of discourse analysis. 

Chapter 4 explicitly tackles the process of conversion. It has been made clear throughout the text that conversion – through both religious publicity and materializing the Bible – is the key goal for the project team. In this, Bielo found that the team’s key strategy for conversion was to facilitate visitors’ embodied movements while in the Ark – “Noah’s story cannot merely be told; it must be felt.” (Bielo 2018:89). According to Bielo, when you enter the park, a feeling of multisensory immersion is immediate. The project team deliberately engaged in what Bielo calls “world-building,” an extension of immersion that I found particularly engaging and thought-provoking. A second strategy for conversation is ensuring that the Noah story appears plausible within the context of ‘religious play.’ Combined, the team hypothesized that this plausibility-immersion play would serve their goal of immersion, and succeed in converting their visitors. The acknowledgement and analysis of these tactics is a key contribution of the text, but it may have been helpful for Bielo to spend more time with these ideas. 

Bielo’s next section, Chapter 5, situates Ark Encounter within the paradigm of ‘history-making,’ in which the past is a contested sociocultural process infused with power. This discussion – and the construction of power in particular – is fundamental to understanding the Ark, and it would helpful to include this framework earlier in the text. Here, the processes of history-making are largely set in the context of the Creation Museum’s Dragon Legends exhibition, which fundamentally questions the assumption that humans did not live alongside dinosaurs. The introduction of this new case study provides a key shift away from the theoretical, and situates the book within a new museum anthropological framework. Though useful, its placement in the text seems haphazard. 

Bielo then returns to the work of history, and the “struggle for symbolic power” (Bielo 2018:135). In this struggle for power, Bielo notes that both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter serve as safe havens for creationists – a place where they do not have to confront the scientific orthodoxy. This small note added the important aspect of the affective, lived experiences of Fundamentalism. His following discussion of Fundamentalist influences in education (education through entertainment – “edutaining”) acts in a similar way – it brings the experience of creationism to life, and reminds us why these discussions matter. It is here that Bielo drives the point of entrainment home – “when it comes to history-making, is creationism more fun than evolution?” (Bielo 2018:138). 

Bielo’s final chapter, titled “A Walking Poetics of Faith,” finally brings us to the realized product – Ark Encounter’s physical space. Bielo uses David Morgan’s (2012) approach to “the gaze,” in which Ark Encounter fosters an embodied “way of seeing” that furthers the team’s goals (Bielo 2018:142). This gaze results in what Susan Harding (2000) calls a ‘poetics of faith,’ where, according to Bielo, religious commitment and authority are intensified. As previously noted, immersion is key to religious authority and conversion, and Bielo continues this here by discussing the two ways in which the Ark Encounter team used immersive experiences to persuade their visitors: the construction of a “creationist past and a creationist present” (Bielo 2018:143). 

In this chapter, Bielo continues the comparison with the Creation Museum, which provides a useful frame of analysis to think through the realized park. Though close analysis of exhibition context, Bielo concludes that Ark Encounter works as both a form of pedagogy and religious publicity, with the overarching goals of converting non-Fundamentalists to Fundamentalism, while working to reify Fundamentalist beliefs. He importantly focuses on the interactive and sensory – particularly auditory, haptic visuality, and architectural – strategies, while also noting the specific and intention lack of written signage or text. 

Bielo closes Ark Encounter by again contextualizing this work into the larger projects of the anthropology of religion. Bielo expresses a wish that his book will make three primary contributions. First, “Ark Encounter demonstrates how fundamentalist public culture can emerge from a thorough entanglement between religion and entertainment” (Bielo 2018:175). Secondly, Ark Encounter fits into the larger project of “materializing the Bible” (Bielo 2018:175), and finally, it “provides an opportunity to expand our understanding of creationism and fundamentalist public culture.” (Bielo 2018:175). After reiterating these points, Bielo’s conclusion makes a sharp turn and brings in a discussion of the relationship of ‘theme parks’ to Fundamentalism. Though interesting, this conversation deserves to be moved to another chapter of the book and explicated with more nuance rather than squeezed into the conclusion. 

The most tangibly useful part of this book, for this reader, is Bielo’s appendix. He painstakingly reviews his relationship to the project team, his levels of ethnographic access, and his fieldwork experiences. Of particular interest was his reflections on his field notebook, and his frank relaying of the difficult turns his research process took. Bielo’s response and adaptation to disruptions in his research processes provides valuable lessons for any ethnographer, and particularly for young scholars. 

Overall, Ark Encounter is a useful contribution to the literature in anthropology, religious studies, and material religion, and situates itself within a deep literature in Fundamentalist studies. Bielo’s clear and concise writing style and structure, combined with his thoughtful analysis and discussion, produced a strong text that would be useful for scholars studying the anthropology of religion and is particularly useful for students because of his radical transparency in his research processes.  

Morgan, David. The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 

Harding, Susan. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dressing Rooms: Spaces of Magical Reality

Alyssa Velazquez writes about dressing rooms as transitional spaces, questioning how, and to whom, these secret and privileged spaces generate imagined realities.

MLA citation format:
Velazquez, Alyssa,
"Dressing Rooms: Spaces of Magical Reality"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 4 December 2017. Web. [date of access] 

You are now going “behind the scenes.” As you cross over the threshold you may expect to experience the intimate and exclusive, to learn the unknown, or view the insides of a specialized world. Museums, historic homes, aquariums and zoos, sports’ stadiums, and performing arts spaces alike offer this level of familiarity to their venues in various formats: guided tours and over-night sleepovers, or through sponsorship pamphlets and advertising campaigns. Dance Retailer News, a magazine for the selling and marketing of dance retail, published in 2008 a one-page tutorial on how to glam up a display case of merchandise with a dressing room “motif.” The picture that accompanied this short advertisement displayed a three-tiered makeup organizer, open for the viewer to glimpse an assortment of brushes and nail polish, a kaleidoscope of eyeshadows, and its crowning jewel: a tiara. To the right of the case was a T-shaped earring stand and a double-bar bracelet holder sitting atop a circular mirror. In front of, and amongst, these primary fixtures were perfume bottles, a powder container, and a small wooden artist’s model. Behind this display of makeup and accessories floated a—from their description—gold Rococo mirror, accented by a pair of point shoes hanging from its top right corner. All these elements, if positioned just so, were intended to create “the perfect little girl’s fantasy dressing table.” [i]

This materialized dressing room, rather than revealing the backstage to the viewer, is a staged viewpoint. The malleability of the dressing room as a space or d├ęcor is partly due to that fact that the theater’s backstage space remains one of the “least documented, least analyzed, least theorized areas of theater space.” [ii] For Dance Retailer it can be whatever they want it to be. In this case, by setting the store up in this fashion: a dancer’s private vanity, the retailer is promoting merchandise within the mystical transitional space of a dressing room. Validity is given to makeup brushes and frames through the placement of these items in a space devoid of walls and its inhabitant. Without its occupant, the dressing table, costume pieces, makeup, and production footwear are the actor’s stand-ins—not only do they represent the transformation, but also, the person who was or will be transformed. Stripped of any defining architectural features and specific production elements, the magic or the fantasy of the dressing room is encapsulated in the objects that are brought into the space to prepare and to be used on the stage, rather than what already exists. In 2008, the New York Times ran an article on Broadway dressing rooms and some of their a-list occupants. Harvey Fierstien, most known for his roles in Hairspray and Fiddler on the Roof, was quoted as saying, “architecturally, most dressing rooms are pretty horrifying—the bare walls painted seven thousand times. There is magic in the theater, but it’s not in the dressing room.” [iii]
Figure 1: Backstage Dressing Room from the Billy Rose Theater Division,
The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 2, 2017.
That statement was certainly considered true in England throughout the nineteenth-century. On November 30rd 1889 the British Medical Journal ran a short piece on the dressing-rooms of provincial theaters. The article linked the recent deaths of two touring actors from enteric fever— a bacterial disease today known as typhoid—to the “insanitary condition of the rooms in which they “change” or “make-up” before appearing on stage.” [iv] Within the write-up these spaces of change were described as being near water-closets or waste-pipes in unventilated corners that lacked the necessary fresh air circulation—all of which was believed to be the cause of actors’ ill health. The French were equally intrigued with the backstage spaces of its performance venues, exemplified to them in the writings of Emile Zola, who, vividly depicted the sexual atmosphere of chorus girl water-closets and the immodest entertaining of male audience members by leading ladies in their dim and close quarter dressing rooms. 
Figure 2: Don Nicol and Ballet, Theater Royal, Sydney (January 30th 1946). From the collection of the State Library of South Wales. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Today, from this physically and often metaphorically unclean dark and hidden space, the dressing room is emerging as the performer’s private world. The four-cornered dressing spaces of leading men and women throughout the twenty-first century (specifically with the increase of music and cinema stars debuting on Broadway) are becoming venues for interior designers to construct a “home away from home” for their client, or a center of inspiration that speaks to the actor’s character. As a result, these secret and privileged spaces built to transform the performer into someone other than themselves, are being constructed with the fictional personae in mind, as much as, the space’s physical inhabitant. These interior design makeovers are then made the feature story of newspapers and trendy publications, making their transformation public knowledge. 
Figure 3: British actor Alec Guinness in Under the Sycamore Tree, London, 1952.
Accessed October 2, 2017. 
The dressing room, as a transitional space, is a bridge between reality and the world on-stage. This physical hybrid of architecture and imagination has, over the years, been featured in fiction, poetry, news reports, interior design magazines, and even retail catalogues, making a theater’s backstage a fixture in the human imagination. But what are they? What do these spaces do? What do they generate? Why, even in 2008, did Mr. Fierstien direct the outsider’s gaze to the stage as the source of a production’s magic, rather than, the “horrifying” space in which he went day-after-day to transition from a man to a woman for his role of Tracey Turnblad’s buxom mother in the musical Hairspray? From whom or what do these eccentric spaces derive their draw and power? [v] In their marketability, as in Dance Retailer News? In their malleability, as in the professional remodeling of Josh Groban’s dressing room for his character in The Great Comet? Perhaps it’s a lingering vestige of its salacious literary past. Or is it derived from the continued exclusion from the cannon of research in theater history? It is the room? Is it the bric-a-brac that fills the room? Or is it all a product of our imagination? 

[i] Adriana Lee, “A Vanity Fair,” Dance Retailer News 7, no. 2 (February 2008): 50. 
[ii] Gay McAuley, Space in Performance: Making Meaning in Theater, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 26. 
[iii] Penelope Green, “Setting the Stage, Offstage,” The New York Times (March 20th 2008).
[iv] “The Dressing-Rooms of Theaters,” The British Medical Journal 2, no. 1509 (November 30th 1889): 1236. 
[v] The term “eccentric spaces” is derived from Robert Harbison’s book entitled Eccentric Spaces, New York: Knopf, 1977, in which he looks at spaces and interiors that are created based off human imagination. 


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Tracing the Many Lives of Religious Structures

Uthara Suvrathan emphasizes the importance of alternative traces in exploring the complex life-histories of Buddhist and Hindu religious structures in Banavasi, South India. By paying attention to ephemeral as well as more long-lasting religious material culture she offers a way of studying changing patterns of religious practice and cultural memory formation.

MLA citation format:
Suvrathan, Uthara
"Tracing the Many Lives of Religious Structures"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 11 October 2017. Web. [date of access]  

Edited by Courtney O'Dell-Chaib.

Archaeologists and historians studying religious structures frequently tend to classify temples by the initial dynastic period of their construction, and the literature abounds with phrases like the ‘Chola temple’ or ‘Satavahana stupa’ [i] However, in the academic quest for order in data, we underestimate how frequently monuments are in constant flux. Religious structures in particular cannot be fixed in time, although they might be so in space. By pinning these structures within specific temporal and dynastic periods, we often ignore the fact that religious structures are living entities. We forget that these are complex entities that have complex life histories extending long after that of their initial construction—they were constantly added on to and altered, often spanning the rule of multiple dynasties. By tracing the life-histories of religious structures archaeologists and historians can access an ever-changing pattern of cultural memory formation and religious practice. 

At Banavasi (Karnataka, India) where I worked for several years [ii], my team and I studied several Buddhist stupas, hemispherical structures constructed to enclose Buddhist relics. Site 71 is an extremely overgrown and eroded circular brick mound located about a mile north of the village of Banavasi (Figure 1) [iii]. Based on the form and size of the bricks used in the structure, the stupa was constructed around the second-third centuries CE. Ceramics and terracotta roof tiles found on the structure also date it to an early period, at least prior to the 7th century CE [iv]. It thus falls within a period when Buddhism was widespread in southern India and Banavasi itself was likely an important religious and economic center. The limited historical research on these monuments has so far focused on their form and temporal context and once the structures have been neatly categorized by these criteria their later histories have been largely ignored. 
Figure 1: Site 71, eroded stupa. Photo by author.
It is likely that the core period of the stupa’s use and worship as a Buddhist structure was limited to an early period and declined starting from the fourth-fifth centuries as Buddhist worship in south India was largely replaced by a resurgent Hindu tradition. In Karnataka, Shaivite Hinduism, which focused on the primacy of the God Shiva, emerged as predominant. As Buddhism gradually became less popular, stupas across the region were abandoned and fell into ruin. And yet, even as Hindu temples increasingly became the focus of social and religious life, fragments of “material memory” remained. At site 71 (and at other stupa locations in and near Banavasi) the mound has a looter’s hole on the top. From colonial travellers accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries, we know that the ‘topes’ were often mined for reliquaries by the rather straightforward, though archaeologically unsound, method of digging a hole in the top into the relic chamber. While the looter’s holes in the Banavasi stupas cannot be dated, it is an interesting remnant of a memory or belief that there might be ‘treasure’ in the centre of these structures. 

There is also clear evidence of the later use of site 71. In fact, at present the structure is considered a Hindu shrine although there is some memory among the present inhabitants of surrounding villages of its early history as a Buddhist structure. The hemisphere has been flattened on top, and brick fragments mined from the structure have been used to construct a makeshift shrine consisting of a platform surrounded on three sides by low, roughly-built walls (Figure 2). The shrine itself contains an extremely eroded figure of the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, as well as a fragmentary sapta-matrika panel that represents seven mother goddesses who are a part of the Hindu pantheon (Figure 3). These items have clearly been appropriated from one or more Hindu temples and date to a period after the 16th century. This fits with evidence of a second episode of roof construction on the stupa, where the terracotta tiles are of forms that can be dated to between the 16th and 19th centuries CE.
Figure 2: Shrine on top of stupa. Photo by author.
Figure 3: Shrine elements. Photo by author.
Even more recently, within the last couple of years, a set of cement reinforced steps lead up to the shrine. When we talked to people living and worshiping at the shrine there was no recognition that it was originally a site of Buddhist worship, instead the mound itself has been absorbed into a modern mythos that weaves tales of ancient mounds or 'guddas' that were the palaces of ancient (and unnamed) kings). At most of the stupas that survive in the area, there is evidence of later use and worship, including the construction not just of shrines but of simple stone alignments of unclear purpose. 

Sites like these offer an interesting contrast to other stupas that have been completely forgotten and destroyed. For instance, at site 207 we initially noticed a low circular mound, barely more than an undulation on the ground. Since there were no structural fragments (like brick or tiles) visible on the surface it was difficult to identify it as a stupa. On a visit a couple of months later, the farmer who owned that field had decided to level the ground for cultivation and was using a large mechanical backhoe to dig up the mound. With this excavation, the true nature of the structure was revealed and the distinctive bricks and terracotta tiles that emerged clearly identified it as a stupa (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Site 207, destroyed stupa. Photo by author.
Yet another example of the complex life histories of religious structures comes from a consideration of folk religious practices that often occur outside the traditional ritual spaces of the temple. Throughout South India, folk beliefs populate the landscape with a variety of divine and semi-divine beings, as well as spirits (bhutas) and other inimical forces. In many cases, these small sacred sites do not have built shrines. Instead, they could consist of rounded stones or earthen pots worshiped as forms of the mother goddess (Chowdamma); or places identified as residences of spirits or natural symbols (termite mounds, snake holes). In other cases, these shrines can include miscellaneous architectural or sculptural fragments appropriated from larger structures. These ephemeral forms of construction are a crucial part of the wider religious landscape and as important in lived practice as the larger stupas and Hindu temples. Such small village shrines are simply made of easily available materials and require little labor. Due to their very impermanence the materials they are made of require maintenance and they are continuously cleaned, added to, worshiped. These small shrines are a more organic feature of the village landscape- a rounded stone tucked away under a banyan tree, appropriating the hole of the village cobra, or a broken sculpture under a palm leaf shed. I cannot imagine that such places would leave easily identifiable traces for the archaeologist. And yet, they must have been a part of village life for generations. 

However, the boundaries between these local traditions and more institutionalized Hinduism, where worship was sited within stone temples and mediated through priests, are extremely fluid. Traditionally, if flaws or cracks developed in the central lingam (typically a phallus-shaped symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, worshiped as a generative force) within a temple it was no longer considered worthy of worship. And yet, as sacred items they had to be disposed of carefully and were, by being submerged in the nearby river. Periodically throughout the year these items re-emerged during the dry season when the water level falls drastically. Over some time, these discarded items become the focus of smaller folk shrines, with small walls enclosing them (Figure 5). In many cases worship at these shrines are the province of local families and do not require the intercession of the priest who is attached to the larger temple. However, as the shrine becomes more permanent, the priest re-enters the picture and begins to make more formal ritual offerings on behalf of the people.
Figure 5: Linga on dried river bed. Photo by author.
A more careful exploration of the life histories of small and large structures thus adds greatly to our understanding of the complexity of cultural memory in the communities we study. By foregoing some of our desire to classify the material indicators of history we can begin to explore something of the messiness of human action, past and present! 

This blog post derives from research that will be published in an article that is under review: ‘The Multivalence of Landscapes: Archaeology and heritage’. In Himanshu Prabha Ray (ed.), Preserving Plurality: Heritage in South and Southeast Asia. Routledge. 

[i] ‘Chola’ and ‘Satavahana’ refer to pre-modern dynasties known to have ruled in south Asia. The Satavahanas controlled the central section of the Indian subcontinent from the 1st c. BCE to the 2nd century CE. The Cholas ruled large areas of southern India between the 9th and 13th centuries CE. 

[ii] Uthara Suvrathan, “Spoiled for Choice?: The sacred landscapes of ancient and early medieval Banavasi”, South Asian Studies, Vol. 30.2 (2014); “Regional Centres and Local Elite: Studying peripheral cores in peninsular India”, Indian History (The Annual Journal of the Archive India Institute), Vol. 1 (2014). 

[iii] During my research we recorded and studied over 600 sites, large and small, dating from the third century BCE to the present day. Each site was assigned a unique identification number. 

[iv] Evidence from similar structures elsewhere in the subcontinent, as well as inferences drawn from the low quantities of roof-tiles found at 71 indicate that only certain sections of the structure were roofed.