To Look in Small Crevices: An Interview with Jeremy Stolow
Heather: Throughout your career, your work displays an abiding interest in the relations between media, technological apparatuses, religion, and the body. What is it that first drew you to thinking about this problem space, and what is it that you hope this assemblage of terms will reveal?
Jeremy: I wouldn’t say I can identify a clear point at which this crystallized in quite that way for me. It was an accretion of interests that developed as I moved from one project to the next. My first work, as you may know, was on Orthodox Jewish print culture (Stolow, 2010). My initial engagement focused especially on contemporary, English-language Orthodox Jewish historical writing – from hagiographies and historical atlases to primary school books – to trace the ways Orthodox Jewish representations of the past were constructed, partly in alliance with and partly in opposition to Jewish history as generated and authorized by professional scientific historiography. I was interested in these different visions and claims about tradition. But after my dissertation, a colleague challenged me, saying, “Well, you know, nobody reads through any of the books that you talked about in your dissertation. They are completely marginal, and it’s disconnected with the real debates that are going on in Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. So, you know, why would you even focus on these totally obscure books?” And I thought, okay, with the gauntlet thrown down, I’ll start doing fieldwork.
So I completely re-oriented my project, and that went on for about five or six years, doing fieldwork in bookstores, libraries, and other points of dissemination of printed matter. I focused especially on one particular publishing house, Artscroll. I followed their spread in Toronto, London, and New York. And in that research, increasingly in that work it became obvious to me that the content of the books was not always the central focus of their consumers or users. Books were doing all kinds of things, only some of which can be understood adopting the sort of hermeneutical-discursive approach for which I had been trained. For instance, a key aspect of many Artscroll works, especially their prayer books, is their performative function, such as organizing the procedural mechanics of ritual practice, in ways that was very much unlike other Jewish publishers. It also became clear to me that the materiality of the books, everything from their bindings and covers to their typography, also played an important role in the way this particular expression of Orthodox Jewish authority was being communicated.
I suppose, in part I had the great fortune of going to this conference in 2001 at the University of Amsterdam, that was organized by Birgit Meyer. Some of the people I met then were at the workshop today: Charles Hirschkind and Rafael Sanchez and Patsy Spyer, but many others from around the world. For me, this conference on religion and media provided a language to think through key research questions in a comparative context. I don’t think I would’ve been able to imagine my work if I hadn’t had the fortune of being part of this larger network of people who are sharing work around everything from Pentecostalism in Africa to Islam. And those conversations increasingly led me down these new paths of engagement and focus around the senses and technology in particular. Somehow, I don’t even quite know how it happened, but I became interested in Spiritualism and technology in the 19th century, a topic that took me down another completely surprising and unexpected road of exploring questions about electrical technologies and infrastructures and their relation to religious frameworks of reception of the miracle of electricity.
Although my projects have been framed around a very specific empirical focus–whether it be a specific publishing house or a specific form of seance practice, or now this specific sort of photographic technique that I’m working on in my current project on auras–I think each of these has been driven by broader philosophical questions like: What is an instrument? What is materiality, What is a sensing body? And how do those kinds of questions open up new possibilities for thinking about religion? I say this as someone who approaches the study of religion as an outsider, not trained in religious studies. Not having that formation, it seemed to me to be, on the one hand, quite honestly, a defensive mechanism for not having the theological training and the language skills of reading ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew. But then, thinking about materiality and the social, technological, and sensorial dimensions of performed religion: these struck me as a productive way to enter into this field, and to ask questions that I did not really see being taken up in the existing literature.
In particular, I noticed a significant gap in the existing literature about religion and technology. I saw parallel discussions that were happening that seemed to me to be really fruitful but weren’t being brought together. On the one hand, there has been a clear ‘materiality and media’ turn in anthropology of religion, as numerous scholars have tried to move away from focusing on questions of belief and symbols and towards the examination of processes and practices of media and mediation. But at the same time, in communication and media studies and among other places it is striking how much recent interest there is in enchantment, the occult, the irrational, the magical, and the spectacular, although that work rarely engaged with long traditions of religious studies scholarship. And as I’ve increasingly learned over the years, historians and sociologists of science have also pursued similar questions, but again, these conversations have been happening entirely independently of one another. The same kinds of debates, the same kinds of concerns framed in a somewhat different vocabulary–sometimes the very same vocabularies–but inhabiting completely separate scholarly worlds. So this became increasingly convincing to me that there is in fact a need to try to figure out how to bring these things together. It’s an impossibly endless task, but it’s the one that still excites me.
Heather: Looking back on your Artscroll project, the themes of sovereignty and sanctity seem quite relevant. As you indicate, the Artscroll publication society authorizes very particular modalities of contemporary religious Jewish experience. And yet at the same time, precisely through Artscroll textual consumption, the reader acquires ritual knowledge that actively shapes their own everyday practices and gives them a sense of their individual command over them. Can you talk a little bit about these possible connections, between the Artscroll project and our workshop themes of sovereignty and sanctity?
Jeremy: In the ArtScroll project especially, I was interested in the meso-level of religious authority. So not the leadership, but the role of intermediary figures such as teachers, booksellers, editors, translators, and marketers. When I think about it now, I suppose this was not radically different from my later interest in instruments, tools, and their designers, as I did in my Spiritual Telegraph project or now in my project on Aura Photography. In each case, I am asking similar questions how authority is manifested, negotiated, and complicated, about how authoritative religious discourse gets worked out on the ground level. That’s where my interest lies, and I suppose if I have something to contribute to some of these discussions about sovereignty, it’s thinking about this molecular level of activity. Intermediaries occupy a meso level and their work is always ambiguous and multivalent: neither local nor global, neither sender nor receiver, neither leader nor follower, but some fuzzy space in between. I think there’s something there to sort of dwell on.
Heather: Do you think that interest in the liminal plays into your current interests in auras–something that very much fuzzies or blurs where we imagine to be the borders of the human or the subject?
Jeremy: Absolutely. Because auras are all about the construction of borders of the human body, and also the borders of science and non-science. This wasn’t initially clear to me, but it became increasingly clear that this project really provided an opportunity to rethink questions about religion and science. I love the name of the third workshop you forecasted in this project, which I assume is playing on Stephen Jay Gould’s famous account of non-overlapping magisteria. I can’t remember how Simon Coleman rephrased it: collaborating or competing or allied or misaligned magisteria. There’s this assumption in so much work on religion and science that science takes care of the facts and religion will take care of the values. And then there are the naughty characters that don’t stay where they’re supposed to belong, such as Creationists who are producing “bad science” or scientists who dare to comment on things about which they have no expertise, in matters of social value and so on. A number of people have developed this topic in different ways, but for me, reading Bruno Latour’s (2002) work on “iconoclash” was a real impetus. Although I think there are many simplifications in his account, the provocation was powerful and it was very seductive for me to think about religion, science, art as this kind of shared territory. And so part of what attracted me about my current project on auras was that it’s an opportunity to think what those categories are doing, trying to locate them in a very specific place, but trying to ask big questions in small places. My supervisor, who was a semiotician, Barbara Godard at York University, taught me to always try to find ways to ask big questions in the smallest possible places. So I try to be very narrow in my focus. It’s also what I love about anthropology. Though I’m not trained as an anthropologist, I have long felt a kindred connection with the desire to pose big philosophical questions in a very particular context. What is it to be human? What is justice? What is knowledge? To look in small crevices for ways of addressing these questions.
Heather: Although I think that some participants in this project wonder how closely they fit within the themes of “sovereignties, sanctities, soil,” I find it very convincing to look at how your work may point to these big questions: What does governance look like? What does sovereignty look like in the small places? If we think about governance as something that happens through discipline and through particular bodily disciplines, different ways of picturing the body and thinking about the body are the sites through which that is enacted.
Jeremy: I agree. And it’s not strictly a project about auras; it’s more a project about picturing, about the investment in these pictorial techniques to produce images that get named as auras. I am trying to understand what is going on here, without having to decide first whether auras are ‘really real’ or whether this kind of photography is ‘bad science.’ And in that regard, because of the investment in what instruments can do, there is a close connection with these questions about governmentality and the more molecular ways of surveillance, control, representation, power — the power to summon and to call into being — all of which have these kinds of investments in claims on the real. And obviously when it comes to how those are brought to bear on the management of health and wellness and other forms of desire, body projects of one sort or another will invariably, sooner or later, intersect with state projects which have the same kind of investment. Although I never really thought of that as a central part of this project or the motive to produce this project, it’s clear to me in conversations like this over the last two days that this is the point of it.
Heather: We have certainly appreciated having you as a part of these conversations. Thank you again for sharing your work with us, and I look forward to reading more of it soon.
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.
Stolow, Jeremy. 2010. Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution. University of California Press.