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Materialities & Secularization Theory
In the academy, certain ideas about modernity and religion have loomed especially large for the study of visual and material cultures of religions. In the twentieth century, as the disciplines most relevant to this field of inquiry took institutional shape, the secularization theory of modernity, harnessed to a developmental model of civilization, asserted a waning role for religion in Western cultural production. Academics in the past decade have directed considerable attention to dismantling the secularization paradigm, documenting religion’s refusal to go quietly – or even to go at all. Moving into scholarly focus now is the extent and nature of impact, for the study of religion’s material practices, that has been perpetuated under intellectual regimes that characterized religion as a vestigial production, unsuited to “modern” nations like the United States.
If modernity’s narration stumbled over the notion of religion’s persistence, having relegated religious practice to a distant past and to “antiquated” cultures, this scenario situated material objects at the heart of the difficulty. What most clearly distinguished “primitive” peoples, practices, and times was their “superstitious” attachment to objects, their willingness to ascribe agency or other sorts of power to the image, to worship it, to allow it to present and mediate the supernatural. Seen through the lens of this distinction, the study of the religious stuff of pre-modernity or of “other” places and peoples did not falter – often quite the contrary: its pursuit set up precisely the contrast necessary to sustain the modernist “rupture.” Few scholars, however, attended seriously over time to similar objects in modernity and postmodernity in the West; for the most part, these similarities went unremarked, submerged, or suppressed. When they were noted, they generally set off “folk” or “native” cultures from “modern” experience.
If Western modernity’s understanding of itself left any space for religion, its developmental trajectory had to progress from “idolatrous” or “fetishistic” engagement to abstract thought, from material involvements and practices to “belief.” These binaries fit within a prescriptive supersessionary pattern familiar to the West: polytheism/monotheism; Judaism/ Christianity; Catholicism/ Protestantism; materiality/belief; religion/ modernity. For each supposedly chronological example, value accrued to the “later,” right-hand term – and, close to the core of the rupture, there was always a golden calf.
The weight of secularization theory settled disproportionately on the material practice of religion. To a startling degree, modernist “re-formations” concerned properly constraining and transforming the material world. The modern development of the category “art” consequently lifted some objects and pictures out of the “material” realm and into the intellectual or abstract. Among the objects left stranded by this set of divisions, demoted to the position of “minor arts” if noticed at all, were those most intimately connected to the material practices of religions. This Initiative seeks to address some of these focal and interpretive gaps and to suggest alternative histories, means, and theories of engagement.
Adapted from: Sally M. Promey and Shira Brisman, “Sensory Cultures: Material and Visual Religion Reconsidered,” Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, Philip Goff, ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 177-205.