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Anthropological Quarterly 77.1 (2004) 145-151

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Religion and Media Across the Great Divide of Essentialist and Situated Knowledge

Debbora Battaglia
Mount Holyoke College

Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, eds. Religion and Media. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

As the distinguished editors of this multi-disciplinary anthology and the majority of its contributors are writers of critical theory, cultural studies, philosophy and comparative religion, the decision to give substantial space (ten of the twenty-five chapters) to anthropologists and ethnographic writers should be noted at the outset as commendable, in and of itself. I was not terribly concerned, then, that with the exception of Talal Asad's fine critical essay on mediation in Islamic practices, the anthropological chapters are gathered together as "case studies"—as if a tribe apart from what most of the chapters in the volume are doing intellectually. There are larger questions and greater promise embedded in the volume's many pages, having to do with the nature of the engagement between, on the one hand, those seeking to distill the essence of media's relation to religion, and on the other hand, writers of culture seeking to locate this relation in its social and historical context. To some extent we are alerted to these issues by the "and" of the title: Does the conjunction merely signal an adjacency of discursive fields and social phenomena—indicating, as it were, the fact of the gap, or is it meant to propose a dynamic connection that opens up the possibility of religion's implication in media, and vice versa? [End Page 145] Does the volume set disciplinary traditions into competition for place of privilege? Given that Religion and Media is poised to offer a substantial examination of the "religious turn" in our presumed "secularist" modernity, will that opportunity be defeated by individual disciplinary boundary fixations? I was hoping for an alternative route, whereby philosophers and cultural theorists seriously engaged the anthropological evidence of heterogeneous religious and media texts, dialogues, performances, and imaginaries in different cultural and historical locations, and anthropologists for their part engaged the disciplinary others whose show, at the level of the conference that gave birth to it, this ultimately was.

The volume's structure is, as I said earlier, somewhat worrying in this last respect. Part I, "Introducing the Concepts," is largely given over to the idea-play of Hent de Vries, Samuel Weber, Jacques Derrida, Laurence Rickels, and Jean-Luc Nancy, although a fine essay on the practices of Islam by Talal Asad, is a counterforce to the prevailing essentialist terms of reference. Part II, "Seeing and Believing: Historical and Philosophical Considerations," expands upon and historicizes themes of the "concepts" essays, providing a kind of bridge to the heteroknowledges of anthropological subjects in Part III, on "Local Rites, Global Media." The many fine essays of Part III offer destabilizing ethnographic supplements to the philosophical terms of reference. And bringing up the rear, Part IV's "Two Documents" give the default-steering function of the volume's caboose to Theodor Adorno's "The Religious Medium" and Niklas Luhmann's "Morality and the Secrets of Religion."

But the value of this anthology lies deep beneath its table of contents. Hent de Vries's "In Media Res: Global Religion, Public Spheres, and the Task of Contemporary Comparative Religious Studies," a model introductory chapter, sets out the orienting themes of the book, including:

  • "the question of religion in relation to mediatization and, conversely, of the media "adopting a virtually religious quality" in modernity;
  • religion as an "enabling and destabilizing element of the public sphere... constantly contested;
  • the relation of media and religion to individual and collective identities-making;
  • how the spiritual message is sometimes the medium and not vice versa;
  • the debate about the rise of global informational capitalism as a force for good (the post-theistic effloresence of creative hybridization of formerly marginal religions) or for evil (religion deterritorialized; spiritually virtual); [End Page 146]
  • the complexity of "mediatization as such" with its issues of making the invisible visible in acts of faith;
  • the uncanny...


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