Interview with Birgit Meyer
Brandon Sward: Dr. Meyer, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, and taking the time to answer our questions! Your work on “aesthetic formations” and the forging of intersubjective relations through religious mediation proposes a fascinating counter to Benedict Anderson’s investigation into the imagination of nationalist community (Meyer 2009). And your work on “material religion” has largely contributed to what we now consider “new” approaches to materialism, lived religion and embodiment (Meyer 2011; Meyer & Houtman 2012; Meyer 2012; Meyer 2015). Where have you found to be the best resources, or where do you find inspiration for thinking “anew” about the visual in social life?
Birgit Meyer: This is a big question! Coining the notion of “aesthetic formation”, my concern was not so much to counter Anderson’s notion of “imagined community” as to push it further. I wanted to better understand the role of the imagination and imaginaries in processes of world-making beyond the imagined-real binary, and by taking into account the material and corporeal dimension of the imagination. In my book Sensational Movies: Video, Vision and Christianity in Ghana (Meyer 2015), I have tried to show how popular video-movies and a Pentecostal visual regime take part in creating an imaginary by which people live, and which is vested with a great sense of reality. What I found particularly fascinating concerns the use of images in picturing the unseen, in a way that affirms the presence of what they show, and yet is not “there” in the same way as the image itself. This led me into a deeper study of the constitutive role of images in mediating a sense of presence. Pursuing this, I found my best resources through conversations with colleagues next door, so to speak, in the field of art history and visual culture. Next to the work of David Morgan on visual religious culture, I have been much inspired by the work of the German art historians Hans Belting and Christiane Kruse, whose approach to images as media that embody an absent presence I found extremely stimulating.
Having moved from anthropology into religious studies, I found it important to transcend the strongly textual bias in the study of religion, by paying much more conceptual and methodological attention to the paradoxical role of images in the figuration and sensation of what is held to be the invisible. This work opened my eyes to the ways in which human-image relations are at the core of projects of world making – and, of course world breaking. Pursuing an intensive collaboration between scholars from art history, anthropology and religious studies, my aim was not only to better grasp the constitutive role of images, but also to see how and why they are found and meant to be disturbing and offensive. Together with Christiane Kruse and Anne-Marie Korte (theology), I designed an open-access volume titled Taking Offense: Religion, Art and Visual Culture in Plural Configurations that focuses on contestations around images in contexts in which different visual regimes co-exist under a particular – in most cases secular, post-Christian – hegemony. Also, I got more and more interested in longstanding conflicts and tensions about the appropriateness of certain images and visual regimes in the context of Christianity, especially with regard to the presumed interdiction of images (Bilderverbot). Together with the Old Testament scholar Terje Stordalen (Oslo), I developed the open-access volume Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Contested Desires. It was through the work on this book project that I realized the extent to which the so-called Second Commandment is still invoked as formative for modernity (as in Latour’s famous Iconoclash volume [Latour 2002]). This is problematic, and there are good reasons to take the ongoing production and legitimation of images in the sphere of Christianity beyond Calvinism (as was marvelously shown by Sonja Luehrmann’s contribution to our volume) and all the artistic and conceptual work that went into the upkeep of images, much more seriously. We should not remain all too Calvinist in our critique of modernity. Being aware of the tremendous role of images in (Catholic and Lutheran) Christianity in Europe is also of help to think through the implications of de-churching. In the Netherlands, where I live, one church is closed down every week, and this means that the images and other material items are to be disposed. At this moment we witness a process in which Christianity is reinvented as European heritage, and the discarded buildings and images serve as some kind of anchor point and media for this imaginary. Images are highly productive entry points into past and present spheres of lived experience and politics of belonging in our ever more entangled world.
So, as you can see from my answer, for me the best resources are found through intensive scholarly conversation across disciplinary divides. There are so many good ideas and insights around of which we should take good notice, so as to avoid reinventing the wheel. And of course, all the current conflicts around images that are found offensive and the salient upsurge of iconoclasm also call us as scholars to try to grasp and unpack the stakes.
Connie Gagliardi: That is a wonderfully thorough answer. I truly appreciate what you cite as your sources of inspiration and best resources– as they sound very much in-line with the interdisciplinary framework of this Entangled Worlds project! Which leads me to ask, when speaking in terms of the contemporary present, what do you take to be the most important disciplinary biases of anthropology and religious studies, and what work still needs to be done to overcome them? What does a focus on (religious) mediation explicitly offer for overcoming these biases?
Birgit Meyer: Moving back from anthropology into religious studies in 2011, I was driven by an urge to spot the proverbial Protestant bias that lingers on in the methodological and conceptual approaches to religion. Hence my concern to contribute to a material approch to religion that takes concrete forms – including images, but also objects, buildings, food, and even texts – as a necessary condition for religion to exist. This approach has opened up alternative ways to research and think about religion, beyond the idea of the long dominant narrative of secularization, understood as a gradual decline of religious belief and church attendance in modern societies. Thinking about religion materially, as a practice of mediation to which things and bodies are inalienable, means that even a process as de-churching becomes an important focus for research in religious studies. As far as I can see, the material take on religion has yielded a lot of fresh research, as the journal Material Religion (which I co-edited between 2006 and 2018) shows quite well. But of course, thinking about religion from a material angle does not imply reinstating the material-mental binary by simply reversering the emphasis. For me the focus on the materiality of religion is intented as a provocation, which will hopefully yield a broader understanding of religion that ultimately contains what we now find important to mark as “material.”
I also find it important to stress the material dimension of religion because materiality was an important marker in stipulating certain religions as “primitive”, with the notion of the “fetish” becoming the epitome of what W.J.T. Mitchell called “bad objecthood” (Mitchell 2006). Tracing how materiophobia underpinned the drawing of evolutionary hierarchies through which Northern Europe, with its Christian-Protestant tradition, formed the pinnacle of religion in its fully developed, and hence less and less material and corporeal form, is a crucial step for what I called “remapping our mindset” so as to move the study of religion “towards a transregional and pluralistic outlook” (see Meyer 2019). I try as much as I can to contribute to making the study of religion more sensitive towards its indeptedness to colonialism. I find, however, that such a critical sense about the genealogy of knowledge production about religion in the world is less prominent in religious studies than in anthropology. There is still a lot of work to do to show that research on the supposed margins of European colonial outreach is central to theory formation in religious studies.
As for anthropology, I find it more difficult to name “the most important disciplinary biases.” One problem I see concerns the tendency to resist comparison, or larger statements. Of course, being bound to the particular is the strength of anthropology, but I think that we should and could do more to engage more explicitly in the problem of translating insights gained through research into broader debates in the humanities and social sciences and into public discussions than happens so far. This is all the more necessary as European societies grapple with their colonial past, and its repercussions on current forms of co-existence and attitudes towards refugees and migrants. Anthropological expertise with regard to religion in Africa, Asia or South America is necessary to understand the dynamics of new metropolitan frontier-zones, in which religious and other differences are negotiated in a secular frame. Importantly, anthropology is not just about other cultures and societies, but about the intricacies of translation across different ones, and from lived experience to scholarly discourse. As many disciplines develop a deeper sense of global entanglements, I think that anthropologists should do more to chip in and make themselves heard. This is what I try to do in religious studies – my mission is to make it more anthropological. Also, I think that as anthropologists we should think more proactively about collaborations with anthropologists from the Global South. The idea of the single, white researcher getting into a world foreign to her is outdated, I think.
Connie: You have elsewhere written about the disciplinary formation of religious studies, calling its establishment as “the secular other of theology”, and its framing as distinctly separate from the study of theology. Interestingly, in the study of anthropology, there have been recent calls to (re)turn to theology, suggesting that its revelations be considered and taken seriously alongside theory (Furani 2019). However, to even begin to do this, engagements with theology must first reckon with the long historical durée of theology’s political implications. Herein lies the entry point of “theopolitics” , which engages with theology as rife with the potentiality of a “sovereignty from below”; a sovereignty that is both performative and aesthetic in its mobilizing and forming formations of “the people” (McAllister & Napolitano 2020). From this approach, religious media and mediation then offers an interesting point of entry into understanding the performative and the aesthetic–that is, of understanding sovereignty “from below.” Do you see your work on the operations of religious media as contributing to such an understanding, implicitly or explicitly?
Birgit: This is a big issue indeed! Yes, religious studies has long been configured as the secular other of theology. And I can understand very well why scholars in religious studies, for instance in Germany, where their discipline exists on meager means next to huge faculties of theology which are kept in place due to certain state-church contracts, insist on drawing a strict line between the two. The configuration is different, however, in my current location in the Netherlands, where theology has been closed down in all but one of the public universities. The field of religious studies is quite small, and ironically, lacks expertise with regard to Christianity while being in certain respects the successor of theology. I think that the study of Christianity, just as that of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etcetera is to be a genuine part of religious studies, which should thus be emancipated from its former identity of being devoted to non-textual religious traditions. I would like to rebuild the study of religion in the heart of the humanities. In my own work, as explained in my answer to your first question, I have enjoyed collaborating with scholars from theology, especially experts in Old and New Testament Studies, Ecumenical theology/mission studies, Practical theology and Church History. I find it more difficult to have meaningful encounters with scholars in Systematic Theology, especially when they think “with” God, so to speak. My own stance in studying religion is secular, I would say, in that I respect and take seriously people’s belief in God or gods, but do not take God/s as a ground in my attempts to produce knowledge about religion. For me as a scholar, divine presence does not exist as such, but as the outcome of a particular sensational form, through which it becomes real for people. That coming into being is what intrigues me.
As for the second part of your question, I think that it is important to be more specific about what is meant by theology. Is it belief in the existence of God? Is it a recognition of the importance of knowledge developed in the different sub-disciplines of academic theology, as we know it in Germany or the Netherlands? Or does it index a sense of a gap between the world and how we can know it, a gap that can be bridged by bringing in God as a principle of Otherness, along a line we could call negative theology? Or does theology refer to Schmitt’s point that modern political concepts are grounded in theological ones, implying that the theological lingers on, albeit barely recognized, in secular politics and forms of sovereignty? I am certainly much interested in the latter strand, and would agree that what is featured as secular is heir to a religious past that religious studies scholars could and should help to unpack.
And in this sense, I certainly find it useful to pay attention to “theopolitics,” albeit from a critical stance. My work on mediation and sensational forms certainly would lend itself to analyze dynamics of mobilizing people around the name of God. How far it is at all possible to disentangle processes “from below” and “from above” remains an issue for further analysis and discussion. In my work in Ghana, I certainly see how politicians speak to their constituencies’ religious – mainly Christian – convictions and hopes, and develop popular or even populist political theologies – for instance by advocating the building of a national cathedral on state-owned land, with a stone from Israel as the first building block – that may ultimately have negative repercussions for the co-existence of Christian, Muslim, and traditionalist citizens. And across Europe populist movements as PEGIDA [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the Occident] claim Christianity as a backbone of their exclusivist, racist political theologies, while many evangelicals in the USA and elsewhere are keen followers of Trump. So I follow the enmeshment of the political and theological, and the ensuing narratives of crisis and pending apocalypse, with great interest and worried concern. I think we have passed a stage in which mobilizing theology in the above (Schmittian) sense against a cold concept of modernity as secular could yield conceptually provocative results. It is time, in my view, to think about the next steps, which will unavoidably have to allow for a critique of religion and theology as mobilized in political projects.
Brandon: These are all fantastic points to think on, and I appreciate you spelling out these tensions for us! On another note, your work has been translated into many languages and has also been taken up by anthropologists working in many different locales. Could you speak more about the role former colonial outposts – such as Brazil and Latin America more generally, and also Africa – play in “Entangled Worlds” projects that seek to draw connections across otherwise disparate academic disciplines, and trouble hardened categorical boundaries?
Birgit: Not in so many languages, I write in English, German and Dutch myself, and next to this translations were made into Portugese and Italian. In my view, it is necessary to rethink knowledge production by tracing the way in which coloniality has informed our concepts and methods. Along this line, I have just written an article titled “What is religion in Africa? Relational Dynamics in an Entangled World” in the Journal of Religion in Africa, which traces the introduction of the concept of religion into Africa, and calls to rethink what religion might entail from Africa. I think that it is necessary to be much more aware of the power dynamics and connections between Europe and its former spheres of colonial outreach, so as to decolonize knowledge production. As said, we have certainly reached a point in which it is necessary to engage on collaborative projects and inquires, involving scholars from the Global South and North. Unfortunately, due to visa restrictions and lack for funding, this proves to be difficult to implement, but we must try by all means. I am in the board of the Berlin-based Forum for Transregional Studies, which develops and supports this kind of initiatives and exchanges, with the aim to change the production of knowledge and move beyond the still lingering methodological and epistemological nationalism that still informs our thinking. This is also what we try to work towards in our project Religious Matters in an Entangled World at Utrecht University. By the way, I have thought a lot about the question as to whether use the plural “worlds” or just “world.” The fact that I opted for the latter signals my wish to recognize that, while plurality of positions and identities is the default, it is important to work towards an idea of how this plurality hangs together, albeit in intricate ways, that are to be traced through space and time.
Brandon: Lastly, in thinking about how plurality hangs together, in the academy today there are calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion which reverberate both in and outside of the academy. However, arguably less attention has been paid to broadening what “counts” as scholarship to encompass a greater scope of the ways knowledge has been preserved and transmitted across the globe for thousands of years. Do you agree with this project? If so, how do you think we might pursue it? If not, why not?
Birgit: Yes, of course! And echoing Tylor we can say that religion is a field of making knowledge. Both as a scholar in religious studies and anthropology I am very open and respectful towards pre- and non-academic modes of knowledge production. This humbleness and recognition of multiple epistemologies is close to my heart, and I find this much more compelling than pursuing an ontological line that focuses on different ways of being. I’m deeply interested in how people seek to know the world, all they do to gain knowledge, how they develop it and defend it, become sceptical, and think twice and again. And as I am not a positivist, I acknowledge that we never know the world “as such”, but always through signs, and narratives that get tied into each other, and that we try to understand and translate.
Connie: Thank you so much for this very enriching conversation, Dr. Meyer!
Latour, Bruno. 2002. “What is Iconoclash? or Is There a World beyond the Image Wars?” In Iconoclash, Beyond the Image-Wars in Science, Religion and Art, edited by Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour. ZKM and MIT Press, 14-37.
Furani, Khaled. 2019. Redeeming Anthropology: A Theological Critique of a Modern Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McAllister, Carlota and Napolitano, Valentina. 2020. “On Theopolitics – Introduction: Incarnate Politics beyond the Cross and the Sword”. Social Analysis 64 (4): 1 – 20.
Meyer, Birgit. 2011. “Mediation and Immediacy: Sensational Forms, Semiotic Ideologies and the Question of the Medium.” Social Anthropology 19 (1): 23 – 39.
Meyer, Birgit. 2012. Mediation and the Genesis of Presence: Towards a Material Approach to Religion. University of Utrecht Press.
Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational Movies: Video, Vision and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland: University of California Press.
Meyer, Birgit. 2019. “Remapping our mindset: towards a transregional and pluralistic outlook.” Religion 50 (1): 113 – 121.
Meyer, Birgit (ed). 2009. Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses. New York: Palgrave.
Meyer, Birgit and Houtman, Dick (eds). 2012. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. New York: Fordham University Press.
Mitchell, W.J.T. 2006. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.