- Aesthetic Formations: media, religion, and the senses
This volume focuses on the relationship between religion, media and the reconfiguration of religious groups in a globalizing world. In particular, it investigates media technologies (in a broader sense) that are appropriated by religious groups or movements and their devotees as means of communicating and promoting religious messages and conveying spiritual experiences. The collection, based on a collaborative research project, brings together studies on media usage of a wide range of religious communities in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, South Asia and Africa, and relates to a multitude of small and classic electronic media. All contributors follow the various processes of medialization of religious meaning as well as the transformation of practices of [End Page 663] religious mediation by modern media. They demonstrate the role of media in both reconfiguring the respective groups and creating new ‘sensational forms’ and bonds to religion. In doing so, the volume provides a better understanding of religious attachments today as being shaped by changing technological and infrastructural environments, and explores the ways in which the use of new media technologies and formats strengthens the sensory dimension of religious practices.
In her introductory essay, Meyer is arguing against an image of religious groups as being distant from modern media because of their assumed conservative stance, and challenges the contrast often made between spiritual and technological spheres. On the contrary, religious groups are frontrunners in their use of up-to date media technologies. Furthermore, she aims at reconceptualizing religious congregations as ‘aesthetic formations’. Meyer argues that the growing importance of electronic media for religious groups stands in a long line of mediating religious messages and the constant striving of religious actors to extend their appeal. Religion is per se contingent upon mediation, either in oral, scriptural, visual or digitally generated formats, and the experience of the transcendental – as an effect, for example, of aesthetically shaped and bodily felt mediation processes.
We are currently witnessing a shift towards new and stronger modes of bonding between members of religious communities, intricately linked to the incorporation of new media formats and their related aesthetics and particular expressive styles. Therefore, Meyer proposes the term aesthetic formations, referring by the latter term to the performative dimensions of those configurations that are constantly in the making, featuring neither fixed boundaries nor purely ideologically crafted contours. With regard to the first term, aesthetic formations, she is hinting at the experiential properties religious media offer in various environments in appealing to the (common) senses, thus creating shared emotions and particular kinds of relatedness and modes of bonding among believers. She convincingly conceptualizes the term aesthetic formation as being more appropriate and leading beyond the notion of communities, be they imagined or not. Cognitive imaginations alone, as Meyer argues, are ultimately never strong enough to bind adherents to the transcendental and a religious congregation. Imaginations and religious ideas must be symbolized, but also materialized, and need an experiential dimension to become ‘real’. The study of aesthetic dimensions of religious mediations in this volume refers to a whole range of such sensory and bodily experiences – such as noise, smell, breath (de Abreu) and expressions – aspects that have been rather neglected in studies on collective identities in recent decades.
The individual contributions to this very coherent collection are based on ethnographies and thick descriptions of mediated religious practices and their experiential dimensions in various local contexts. Part I of the volume addresses media-related modes and politics of bonding, pertinent to Candomblé groups in Bahia (van de Port) and Pentecostal believers in Rio de Janeiro (Oosterbaan) – both in Brazil – as well as representations of female bodies in Bengali films (Hoek). Part II investigates the positioning of religious ideas in wider public sphere(s), such as Tamil mythologies in popular films in Sri Lanka (Hughes) or Muslim reformist movements on the radio in northern Nigeria (Larkin), and elucidates the work of Rasta radio DJs on the (binational) island of Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten. Part III...