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.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Unfinished-ness: Ritual, Temple Structures, and the Sacred as Visceral Conversations

Jodi Shaw theorizes the sacred in South Indian Hindu temples by maneuvering affect theory and her current ethnographic work in Cidambaram into dialogue. Shaw directs our attention to the pre-verbal and extra-linguistic elements of temple encounters in order to shape a sense of the sacred as "visceral conversations."

MLA citation format: 
Shaw, Jodi 
 "Unfinished-ness: Ritual, Temple Structures, and the Sacred as Visceral Conversations" 
Web blog post. Material Religions. 18 September 2018. Web. [date of access]

Figure 1: Renovations of the Panntyanayakam Murukaṉ temple near the north gopuram were “completed” in January 2018, but the wall was left unfinished while work continued. Photo by author.
Could affect theory help elucidate the touch and feel of the history of those who walked, sat, and climbed upon the stones of the Nataraja temple in Cidambaram? [i] Could it help make sense of how we make our own imprints in these spaces? 

Figure 2: East gopuram. Photo by author.
The word sacred, seemingly understood by everyone due to its ubiquitous presence in religious studies, is of course a word rife with different meanings and an assortment of arguments about what it is, if it in fact is anything at all. When Crispin Branfoot writes of South Indian Hindu temples that “the site is sacred, not the architecture,” [ii:46] do he and I mean the same thing when we write, “sacred?” Do you and I infer the same bundles of meaning when we read the word “sacred?” When a site is categorized as sacred does it mean the site has been infused with value over the course of generations despite the change of practices and structures built upon it? The idea that society forges the sacred and the sacred forges society comes from a Durkheimian understanding of religion. In his definition of religion Durkheim [iii] describes the sacred as held separate and protected from the profane. It is something around which beliefs and practices develop, and where individuals come together under these shared beliefs and practices to believe in something more than themselves (they call it God, he sees it as society). Conversely, could a site be sacred in the sense of Mircea Eliade’s hierophanies? Those places, oftentimes rocks, mountains, trees and bodies of water, where the divine manifests, and where through repeated ritual action humans step into eternity; into what Eliade contends is our true nature [iv]? Regardless of how the origins of sacred space is theorized, according to practitioners and scholars like Eliade, some places “feel” sacred, or more sacred than others, whether they be houses of worship or a particular clearing in the woods. But what does sacred feel like? Is this feeling transmitted from person to person? Or place to person? Or place to person to place? With these types of questions in mind, I contend affect theory offers a powerful addition to conceptions of sacred space. Affect theory, with its, as Donovan Schaefer [v] suggests, attention to the pre-verbal, to the sensed but not processed, supplies a means to talk about the extralinguistic undercurrents of things without them being a-historic, covertly Christian, and/or anthropocentric, all potential pitfalls in the discussion of religion and/or the sacred [vi]. The following is my initial foray into theorizing the sacred in the South Indian Hindu temple context. It, as my title suggests, is itself unfinished. Herein, I begin to cobble together affect theory with theories of Saiva temple ritual, mantra, and Tamil-ness. In order to flesh out the importance of unfinished-ness and the idea of the sacred as visceral conversations, I move from more personal ethnographic narratives of the Naṭarāja temple in Cidambaram to some of the current conversations about sacrality and South Indian temples and back again. 

Figure 3: On the mornings of the annual dance festival the performers dance for Nataraja. Photo by author.
Morning of July 12, 2016, nearly 7 am. I arrived before the doors opened at 5:45 in order to meet the Brahmin/Yogi/Saiva devotee I met serving a Diksitar [vii] family’s warm, sweet, sticky prasad (consecrated food) on East Car Street during one of the Ani festival’s high points, when Nataraja and Sivakamasundari are carried from the inner sanctum and pulled on carts through the streets amongst thick clouds of incense, drums and horns, dancing, devotional songs, and pop-up children’s rides. The night before he announced he would teach me Manikkavasakar’s Sivapuranam early the next morning. After he’d bathed in the Sivaganga tank and adorned himself with vibhuti (sacred ash), we sat across from the East entrance to the temple. From that vantage point I could see through the entryway, still festooned with palm fronds and fruit, past the dip down of steps and the dark hall-like walkway to the open courtyard and the sight of the meeting place of the golden roofs of the Cit and Kanaka sabhas (the Hall of Consciousness and the Golden Hall, which serve as the inner sanctum and ritual stage respectively). 

Figure 4: The gold tiled roof of cit sabha (hall of consciousness) and the kanaka sabha (hall of gold) taken from the south west corner of the roof. Photo by author.
“நமச்சிவாய வாழ்க ! நாதன்தாள் வாழ்க! (long live nama sivaya [the pancaksara mantra]. Long live the foot of Śiva) [viii] Again நமச்சிவாய வாழ்க ! நாதன்தாள் வாழ்க! Again நமச்சிவாய வாழ்க ! நாதன்தாள் வாழ்க!” 

I tried to follow the words on paper and the sound of his voice as he sang more rapidly than I could read Tamil. He insisted I sing too and told me not to fret about what it meant. We sang together the opening lines of this poem memorized by generations of Saivites across the centuries. Later when I mentioned learning a snippet of the Sivapuranam to a Diksitar, to a retired school teacher I met in the Kali temple, and to an employee at a high-end hotel in Pondicherry they all, almost before I finished saying Sivapuranam, began to sing the first four or five lines. This was my first time to sing it, off key and mispronouncing the words.

“இமைப்பொழுதும் என்நெஞ்சில் நீங்காதான் தாள்வாழ்க (long live the foot of the one who never leaves my heart [even] for the length of a blink of an eye) இமைப்பொழுதும். இமைப்பொழுதும். இமைப்பொழுதும் என்நெஞ்சில். என்நெஞ்சில். நீங்காதான் தாள்வாழ்க.” 

He turned to me in that bright yet morning diffused light and then looked at the entranceway in a manner that invited me to do the same. His words conveyed that surely I must know that once you walk down those 21 steps into the temple something changes inside you… “maybe at a cellular or molecular level.” He emphasized that this was all due to Siva’s grace, of course. You are altered when you step down and into this temple “Om nama Civaya. Om nama Civaya. Om nama Civaya…” 

Figure 5: Flowers on the threshold of the east entrance (crossed before reaching the 21 steps). Photo by author.
December 25, 2014, around eight pm. I entered the East entrance with Douglas R. Brooks and some of his students. He signaled me to pay attention, then whispered the srividya [ix] mantra followed by the pancaksara as we tripped down each syllable and step (ka e ī la hriṁ, ha sa ka ha la hriṁ, sa ka la hriṁ, aum, na-maḥ śi-vā-ya). The sixteen syllable srividya mantra (sodasi) would make a perfect 21, but while I failed to ask him what happens to the last step with this fifteen-syllable mantra (pancadasi), I could easily interpret it as the space between the sounds, or maybe the space for more. Because mantra, the universe, and even temples are never finished [ii, x, xi]. 

Unfinished-ness is a key idea. In Srividya ritual, and more broadly in Saivism, movement, room for expansion is integral to the efficacy of the ritual and for its continued relevance. The ritual re-enacts what Siva does, or rather what the cosmos does, moving from srsti (creation) to samhara (destruction), or laya (re-absorption), and back again. Don Handelman and David Shulman describe Saiva temple ritual as recreating each day by taking away the previous one, where time and space are then made anew through ritual [xii]. Thus, while one may feel obligated to perform pujas in order to maintain a deity’s presence in a murti, for example, or to continue the momentum built through repeated practice [xiii] it is not a by-route, deadened obligation. It is a creative endeavor; a co-participation in the making of the world and a conversation which may be more visceral than verbal. Mantra does not require grammatically coherent sentences. For example, the srividya mantra is made up of bijas (seeds), which do not have any literal, grammatical meaning. This allows each syllable to simultaneously hold multiple interpretations of meanings and no meaning [xiv]. Whether daily practice includes an elaborate placing of mantras onto one’s body and/or an image (nyasa), or preparing the ground for and then drawing a kolam on the street in front of the home, it is a creative, never-ending process which takes away what was there and makes something new. 

Figure 6: Arudra Darshan festival 1/10/2017, drawing kolams people help sacralize the streets before Nataraja and Sivakamasundari are taken out on their carts. Photo by author.
While mapping the srividya mantra onto the steps may be rare, there are plenty of devotees who repeat Siva’s name as they move through the temple spaces. In the early mornings it may sound like a low sibilant buzz until the person is near enough to pass you, “Civa, Civa, Civa, Civa, Civa” (in Tamil pronounced Siva, Chiva, or on occasion, Shiva). However, many people take the steps simply carrying on whatever conversation they were engaged in as they walk across the courtyard to the entrance. Some are busy trying to keep their kids in check. Old folks work at maintaining their balance down the steps. Others may well take a quick glance at the ladoos and other sweet prasad sold by Diksitars right near the bottom of these steps, already planning which ones they will purchase when they leave. Are they transformed by taking those steps, even without engaging in mantra practices? If so, is it by the design of the temple? Not simply in its layout, but in the type of stone? Or is it by the shadows —the darkness and thick rays of sunlight which pierce across pillars at certain times of day? Or is it by the weighty feel of now that the temple brings, that sense of moving into the past and the future at the same time? 

Describing the step into a temple as a process of exiting the mundane to cross into the sublime is a well-worn trope [xv] to which some sort of sensed or not sensed transformation is often attributed. One removes shoes, meets the carvings of the gopurams (temple towers), crosses the first of many thresholds, bathes (at least theoretically), passes shrines, all with the awareness of entering a space deemed sacred. Whether that sacrality of space was discovered or forged is a different matter. A regular visitor carries embodied memories of previous visits. They may also carry their parents’ visits, transmitted through the ways mother and father walked and paused through the temple space as they moved their children through their particular temple practices. 

Studies of Hindu temples often describe the sanctum as being the oldest and most sacred part of the temple, to which devotees are drawn and from which all other building projects emanate [ii]. Scholars like Leslie Orr and Crispin Branfoot not only challenge this by examining the history of renovations in a number of South Indian temples, but also challenge the standard interpretation that devotees circle-spiral their way through temples in order to get to the tootsie-roll center of the inner sanctum. Devotees, in fact, visit multiple shrines, and some may find little personal resonance with the central deity. 

Scholars from the colonial period bemoaned rebuilding projects, fought to preserve sites, and insisted this is because of the sanctity of the structures [see ii, xvi]. However, after close study of the history of temple renovations Branfoot surmises, “the site is sacred, not the architecture” [ii:49]. From the longue duree perspective this is clearly true, we have long lists across traditions and continents of new worship centers built atop the ruins of older worship sites. Within the Hindu temple context Branfoot and Orr, challenging notions of an unchanged inner sanctum, discuss cases where the inner sanctum was demolished and then rebuilt. Branfoot describes temples with inscriptions and/or devotional poetry verifying earlier dates ranging from the sixth to twelfth centuries, but with the rebuilt vimana dating no earlier than the early Nayaka period in the late sixteenth century [ii: 27-28]. There are also plenty of examples of multi-religious sites, sometimes with layers of a previous religious community evident but fallen into disuse like the remnants of Buddhist, Jain, Naga and Yaksa cults excavated in Mathura, the birthplace of Krsna [xvii]. Oftentimes sites are simultaneously sacred to more than one community, like rock-cut Buddhist and Jain temples found alongside each other [x], or the sri pada rock footprint in Sri Lanka believed by Hindus to be Rama’s, by Buddhists to be Buddha’s, and by Muslims to be Adam’s [xviii]. While “the site is sacred, not the architecture" is an important corrective to a “western” interpretation, and dare I say imposition on the life of South Indian temples, I do wish to qualify it for the short-term. At the risk of sounding flippant, the architecture is sacred until it is not. 

Sacred in the South Indian Hindu temple context is very hands-on in a way that is cumulatively and practically sensorial. The more flesh touches stone, whether walked on, leaned against, climbed upon, or touched with fingers that are then brought to lips, the more sacred. The more incense wafting, the more sacred. The more substances like sandal, kumkum, and vibhuti smeared, the more flowers delicately placed, the more lamps lit and re-lit with oil leaving black stains on stone, the more sacred. The more bells ring, the more times temple musicians lead mini processions (audible long before they are seen), the more the saints’ songs echo through walkways, and the more Vedic chants chanted, the more sacred. If it becomes sacred in that silent museum quality hands-off way, then it becomes brittle, and Hindu temple sacrality can fade. 

Of course, Cidambaram has places which are hands-off to most. Unless you are a Diksitar, you and I will never enter the Cit sabha and we will never touch Nataraja and Sivakamasundari. However, among the Diksitars there is near constant hands-on activities in these sanctum places, some of which are visible to devotees and some of which are not. For example, in early 2017 I was woefully confused about the color of the curtain covering the rahasya (the secret). Everything I read said it was black and that it was changed twice a year. However, when I stood with the morning and evening group of, what I referred to as the dinamum ladies (daily ladies) in our spot with a clear sidelong view for when it was pulled aside and the rahasya revealed, the curtain looked faded to gray. Even from within the east side of the Kanaka Sabha when I would lean over the rail near the five steps into the Cit Sabha to gaze at Nataraja, and then look to his right to peak at the curtain up close, it looked gray. One evening a Diksitar invited me to enter the Kanaka Sabha through the west entrance at a time earlier than I normally went inside. The light was such that as I stood up against the silver lattice right in front of the curtain I could see it was black. What made it appear gray from a distance were thick streaks of sandal paste. Sandal was smeared nearly everywhere inside the Cit Sabha that evening. 

Figure 7: A core group of women come every morning to make flower garlands for the deities. They stand, sit and lean on the stone, and if the scissors are out of reach they cut the string on the stones. Photo by author.
What do I mean when I write architecture is sacred until it isn’t? Branfoot, Orr, and Samuel Parker all successfully demonstrate that the living South Indian temple is ever unfinished. It must be unfinished in order for it to continue to grow [xi]. The temple is a changing, pulsing thing. The temple sheds its skin. When funds are available, there are regular renovations of temple spaces, but very little restorations. A temple like the Nataraja temple is steeped in history. Texts, websites, and temple patrons will tell anyone and everyone how ancient the site is, even if scholars do not agree on the early, pre-recorded ‘mythical’ history date attested in the earliest stala purana (ancient tale of a place), the Cidambaramahatmya (12-13th century). According to the stala puranas Siva has always danced in Cidambaram, but it was not until the gods witnessed his dance that they built the temple at his bidding [xix]. Maybe because the temple’s historical pedigree is a given among those connected with it there is no need to restore things to the way they were. Or maybe the drive to restore is a foreign one. Temple stories, Siva’s stories, the Goddess’ stories, the saints’ stories all interweaving within this temple and many interconnected to other temples, are carved into pillars and painted on ceilings. Some of these carvings and paintings are from the 11th century, some from the 20th, a few which are older, and a few which are younger than those periods. Some of these figures rise and fall in prominence like waves over the course of history. Others have surely been forgotten. While still others remain present but their names have changed [xx]. 

Figure 8: East gopuram: Durga/Tripura Sundari Devi. Photo by author.
The architecture, I believe, is sacred not simply because it is infused with value or because deities and saints are carved into pillars (some of which are sources of worship in their own right) but in part because, as Valentine Daniel’s study of Tamilness [xxi] suggests, of its porousness. For me, the most influential section of Daniel’s work is the idea we imbibe the earth into us when we walk it and as we do we imbibe something of all those who have walked that same ground before us. Different earth changes you as does the company of different people [xxi, xxii]. This porousness and fluidity between persons and places in Tamil culture reinforces and adds another culture’s self-knowledge to the exchanges sensed at pre-verbal levels found in affect theory. This similarity is particularly evident in Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect which challenges post-enlightenment claims of a self-contained individualism to argue there are transmissions of affects between peoples and places, which often change people at a subtle biochemical and neurological level [xxiii]. This is significant because affect theory’s various genealogies are virtually all sourced from “western” thought [xxiv], and it is sometimes critiqued as yet another “universalism.” Thus, these ethnographic studies where regular folks in very specific places attest to exchanges between peoples and places (generally different places within the same village), which are felt or sensed before they are verbalized, and often changes the parties involved contributes another layer of flesh to theory. 

Figure 9: Arudhra Darshan festival 1/1/2018. 3:30 am, the crowd waits for the doors to open. Photo by author.
Granted Daniel’s discussion of earth is just that, earth. Earth teems with levels of fecundity that stone does not. While the exchanges in affect are generally between living things, there is also the specter of lives sensed in places, whether it is an event(s), which happened and is carried on by stories and cultural memory [see xxv, xxvi], or the residual others have left behind, a devotee’s layers of previous visits, or some other element not yet captured into words. In other words, I understand residues of centuries of memory as part of affect’s framework. In this way, the unfinished-ness some affect theorists talk about as emotions, memories, transferences between bodies, spaces and places is akin to the ever unfinished-ness of the temple. 

The architecture is sacred as long as various types of visceral conversations happen therein. They may be like the more formal mantra rituals discussed above, informal rituals like the men and women who every day strategically place tiny flowers on certain carvings, and/or they may be visceral conversations with the specters of history. Conversations end, and new ones begin. A very simple example can be found in comparing a few photos from James C. Harle’s 1963 book Temple Gateways in South India: The Architecture and Iconography of the Cidambaram Gopuras, with how these images look now. One of the only photos of a worshipped image is of the Durga on a low tier of the North gopuram [xx plate 149]. She is clearly worshipped because of the flowers near her head and adorning her weapons, as well as by the powder on her feet (turmeric? vibhuti?). When I looked for her in 2016 she was rarely visible, hidden by a lush garden and enclosed by a locked gate, which was not present in 1963 [xx plate 42]. However, the multi-armed goddess on the low tier of the East gopuram, who stands broken and unadorned in Harle’s photo under the name Tripura Sundari Devi [xx plate 167], in 2016 was always well adorned. Temple visitors consider her Durga. She is always dressed like a murti in a sanctum, and always decorated with kumkum and turmeric. There are often garlands of flowers in her hair, and oil lamps lit at her feet. One conversation ends, and another begins. An architectural element is sacred, until it is not.
Figure 10: East gopuram: Durga/Tripura Sundari Devi. Photo by author.

Endnotes and References 

i. Cidambaram is a town in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu, which is synonymous with the Nataraja temple, and temple grounds (approximately 40 acres) located at its center. Among South Indian devotees of Lord Siva it is simply known as the temple. One of its many distinctive features is that the main deity under worship, Nataraja (Dancing Siva or more literally, The Lord of Dance), and his consort Sivakamasundari (The Lovely One Whom Siva Desires) are bronze processional deities, which are taken out into the street twice a year for the temple’s major festivals. Typically, in South Indian temples, the central deity is made of granite and stays “permanently” in its shrine, while the separate bronze processional deities are ritually enlivened for festivals. 
ii. Branfoot, Crispin. “Remaking the Past: Tamil Sacred Landscape and Temple Renovation.” Bulletin of SOAS 76, 1 (2013). 22-47. 
iii. Durkheim, Emile. Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Carol Cosman, translator. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001 [1912]. 
iv. Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 (1958). 32-33. 
v. Schaefer, Donovan. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 
vi. The underlying Christian worldview in much of religious terminology is a topic of extensive study. Words like sacred, mystic, faith, holy, God, creation etc., tend, for those of us raised in “western” educational systems, to be understood within, if not Christian, at least an Abrahamic worldview. See Assad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD, John Hopkins University Press, 1993. Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. King, Richard. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the Mystic East. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. 
vii. Diksitars (the initiated) are a special Brahmin priestly community in Cidambaram who serve the temple. The temple is one of the only ones in India without any government control (something battled over in a number of court cases) and is basically “owned” by the Diksitar community. 
viii. Translations are my own, unless otherwise stated. 
ix. Srividya (Auspicious Wisdom) is an erudite Goddess centered Tantric tradition (Sakta Tantra), which, in Tamil Nadu is primarily practiced by Brahmins. The mantra has a number of differing variations among lineages including the number of syllables and which syllables it contains. For more on Srividya see Brooks [xiv]. 
x. Orr, Leslie. “Temple: Form and Function.” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2010. 495-510. 
xi. Parker, Samuel K. “Sanctum and Gopuram at Madurai: Aesthetics of Akam and Puram in Tamil Temple Architecture.” Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India, Martha Ann Selby and Indira Viswanathan Peterson, editors. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. 143-172. 
xii. Handelman, Don and David Shulman. Siva in the Forest of Pines: An Essay on Sorcery and Self-Knowledge. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004. 61. 
xiii. See Hancock, Mary Elizabeth. Womanhood in the Making: Domestic Ritual & Public Culture in Urban South India. Boulder & Oxford: Westview Press, 1999. 
xiv. Brooks, Douglas, Renfrew. Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India. Albany: State University Press, 1992. 97-103. 
xv. According to the treatise on temple construction, the Hindu temple is a map of the cosmos, and a modeled after the human body, with various subtle body anatomy elements (like the energy centers or cakras and their association with the elements) found therein. In theory, moving through the temple takes devotees more deeply into the “creative energy of the universe.” Bharne, Vinayak and Krupali Krusche. Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanism of India. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2012. 93. 
xvi. Hancock, Mary Elizabeth. The Politics of Heritage from Madras to Chennai. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. 
xvii. Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Braj, Lost and Found.” Indo-Iranian Journal 18 (1976): 195-213. 
xviii. Bayly, Susan. Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 [1989]. 
xix. Loud, John Alden (1988). The Diksitars of Chidambaram: A Community of Ritual Specialists in a South Indian Temple. PhD Dissertation. University of Wisconsin, Madison. 
xx. Harle, J.C. Temple Gateways in South India: The Architecture and Iconography of the Cidambaram Gopuras. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1963. (See Harle on the East and West gopurams’ goddess who looks a lot like Durga, but is called Tripurasundari in inscriptions). 
xxi. Daniel, E. Valentine. Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 
xxii. Mines, Diane P. Fierce Gods: Inequality, Ritual, and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005. 
xxiii. Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004. 
xxiv. I write “virtually” in part, because, as some post-colonial literature attests, there are mutual influences between “East” and “West.” The influence of the west on a post-colonial country like India is a well known subject, but India’s influence on the “West” is a lesser known topic. 
xxv. Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. ebook. 2007. 
xxvi. McCormack, Derek P. “Sensing Affective Afterlives: The Spectral Geographies of Material Remains.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 100, No. 3 (July 2010): 640-654.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Interview with the Curator: Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles

Urmila Mohan, our founding editor, discusses her new book and exhibit, Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles.

MLA citation format:
O'Dell-Chaib, Courtney
"Interview with the Curator: Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 29 January 2018. Web. [date of access] 

Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles 
Exhibition On View: February 23–July 8, 2018 
Bard Graduate Center Gallery: 18 West 86th Street, NYC 
Curator: Urmila Mohan 
Bard Graduate Center/American Museum of Natural History Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology 

Mohan is a 2016-2018 Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology across the American Museum of Natural History and the Bard Graduate Center and her research focuses on objects as a way to understand people, and their religious beliefs and cultural values. This exhibit builds a story around Balinese textile objects as ceremonial and ritual objects, collected by the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson during their research in Bali (1936-38) and currently housed at the American Museum of Natural History. Other objects in this exhibit are from prominent museums such as Brooklyn Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Fowler Museum at UCLA, and Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, as well as generous private collectors. 

MR: How did you become interested in Balinese textiles? 
UM: I researched religious clothing among the “Hare Krishnas” (also known as Iskcon) in India for my doctoral studies in anthropology at University College London. Textiles were always at the back of my mind and the CFP from Bard Graduate Center (focused on South East Asia) gave me the opportunity to extend two of my interests, cloth and religion into a new geographical area. I chose Bali because I have always been interested in that island and Balinese Hinduism, and the project had to involve objects at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York. The latter has a collection of ritual cloths collected by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali (1936-38) that became an important part of my project. 

MR: What do you mean by, Fabricating Power? 
UM: Western scholars and artists like Mead and Bateson converged on the tropical island of Bali, Indonesia, in the first half of the 20th century attracted by its unique culture and vibrant artistic practices. My exhibit and the accompanying book (published by Bard Graduate Center and University of Chicago Press) consider the making and use of textiles as processes of fabrication of objects and people. Ceremonial objects with spiritual power operate within a unique Balinese Hindu cosmology and textiles, in specific, are agents as well as symbols of cultural resilience and continuity. Deriving their aesthetic and ritual powers from techniques of fabrication and use in various lifecycle ceremonies, the exhibit’s textiles also serve as records of an important period in Balinese and Western history. Drawing on information from the 1930s, such as the Mead archives at the Library of Congress, and subsequent research, I present an overview of Balinese textiles and encourage visitors to consider the value of these objects as they are made and used today. 

MR: What is important about materiality/material religions to you? What does a focus on materiality/material objects allow you to do/explore as a scholar of material culture and religion? 
UM: I focus on objects as a way to understand subjects, that is as a way to understand people and in some cases, specifically, how their agency is enhanced or limited by materials, substances and objects. My ideas are influenced by my anthropological studies at University College London which has a thriving material and visual culture department, and more particularly by the Matière à Penser group (one of the main reasons I started the Material Religion blog) and the work of associated colleagues (Douny and Naji 2009). Material religion allows me to combine the insights drawn from social sciences and material culture and bring that into the study of religion with ideas of praxis, agency, ritual efficacy etc. I recently co-edited with J.-P. Warnier an exciting special issue of “Journal of Material Culture” that explicates the idea of religion as a bodily AND material practice that makes religious subjects. 
Figure 1 Weaver working on a continuous warp loom. Tenganan Pegeringsingan, Bali, 2016. Photo by Urmila Mohan.
MR: What can these textiles teach us about Balinese Hindu cosmology? 
UM: A majority of the Balinese population practice a unique form of Hinduism that, while having historical roots in the Siwa-worshipping sects of South India, has been transformed into a composite belief system that embraces ancestor worship, animism, and magic. Apart from Siwa, the Hindu deities Wisnu and Brahma are also worshipped, and Balinese paintings often illustrate the stories of these deities. Man is a microcosm (buana alit) within a macrocosm (buana agung), and bodies are made up of the same five elements (pancamahabuta) that constitute the earth. The three levels of visible and invisible existence—that is, the human, the divine, and the demonic—may be expressed and felt in virtually every medium, including textiles. 

Cloth should feature more prominently in the anthropology of Balinese experience, since the bodily and material are intertwined. In anthropological studies, cloth is considered as skinlike because it has a similar function of wrapping and containing the body, mediating the movement of substances, both visible and invisible, between the internal and external. In contexts that can be ritualized (ranging from weaving cloth on a loom to protecting one’s body for a rite of passage), textiles and people, objects and subjects, are coproduced by actions. In a toothfiling (a rite of passage from child to adulthood), for instance, people using the cloth object are affected and transformed by it in some way because it offers protection during a liminal phase. Just between these few examples we can understand weaving (and its products) as generative and transformative activities. 
Figure 2 This Balinese youth is protected by a geringsing cloth during a toothfiling ritual. Ubud, Bali, 2016. Photo by Urmila Mohan.
MR: How would you address your role as a curator, or the power and responsibility of curation? 
UM: Even as people are writing and theorizing about curating, the term curator itself seems to be getting more diffuse—one can seemingly “curate” anything, a magazine, a shoe collection, even one’s life! So it’s probably better to consider this an evolving field where there are as many kinds of curators as collections. Having said that, my agency was exercised specifically as a guest curator in a small art museum in New York city that also functions an educational space. Being a guest curator at a smaller institution gave me much more freedom to experiment. Keeping in mind that a “guest” curator is by definition a transient presence, the first power I can think of is the ability to materialize my ideas. The process is highly collaborative because you are working with so many people and departments, and you have to be both passionate and flexible. Institutions are not necessarily innovative but when the system can make space for you, new ideas emerge, and curating becomes very rewarding. 

I cannot separate the question of curatorial power from the process. I think of curating and my research as a “museum anthropologist” as forms of rhizomatic growth, a kind of branching out and feeling and sensing that takes place in several directions simultaneously. The vision for the exhibit has to be shared and embodied not only by the curator but also by the numerous other people needed to make the idea a reality: the gallery staff, label writers, graphic, web and exhibit designers, marketing, development, registrar, installation crew—the list is endless. In addition, I also had to think of ways to engage my students in the process in different ways. Once the exhibit is up, students from other schools and colleges in the city can use it as an educational and explorative prompt. Further, none of this can be done without funding and we were fortunate to have the Coby Foundation, Ltd. support this exhibit. So in true Gellian fashion, the exhibit is a “distributed” person that mediates the power of various people in their absence. 

The next kind of power is to what extent a curator can represent the culture of non-Western “others” and source communities in a responsible manner. In the book that accompanies this exhibit, I was critical of Colonial Dutch politics in pre-Independence Indonesia and placed the actions of Western artists, curators and collectors against this historical background. In this context, anthropologists like Margaret Mead were products of their times and acquired their iconicity by working within the system of the AMNH. What museums “fabricate” are not just objects and their histories but also specific kinds of subjects. That is, museums make curators, visitors, critics, researchers, etc. as much as the latter shape these institutions. 

While postcolonial theory has been with us for a while, the “decolonize” movement has drawn fresh attention to these sites (for instance, at the AMNH) and researchers should be doing much more work to critique not just the contents of these archives but also how these contents are affected by institutional power. That is, we should be working both within and outside the museum frame by interrogating the question of power through an “anthropology of museums” as well as “museum anthropology”. A more culturally-informed attention to questions of power, agency and access is something that benefits all curators (and visitors), not just anthropologists. 

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 décor 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.