Fokus Group 'Media'

The focus group 'media' is concerned with the relationship between religion, the senses and media. It investigates how objects (material or immaterial) and the senses are entangled in religious practice. Reciprocally, it seeks to understand the processes by which objects and the sensory experience thereof are imbued with a religious significance and communicated as religious. Our investigation on the relationship between religion, the senses and media is twofold, on the one hand comparative and focussing on development within religious traditions and on the second hand relational and concentrating on inter-religious perspectives. In this respect, the enquiry concentrates on the three following interconnected thematic foci: 1) the normative dimension of media, 2) media perception and consumption, and 3) the interweaving of media genres.

  1. The first thematic focus concentrates on the manifold natures of media in relation to sensory stimuli and religious potency. To formulate a question: what should an object look, sound, taste smell or feel like in order to trigger the adequate physiological response and create religious experience? For example, the disregard of specific iconographic prescriptions in the making of images of Hindu gods may deter the god in question from entering the image he is called to embody and curtail the efficacy of the darśan (‘seeing’) ritual according to which the devotee establishes eye-contact with the god.1 Thus touched by the gaze of the deity, the devotee is thought to be blessed and a step closer to the liberation from the incessant cycle of rebirths. The group will explore mechanisms by which objects and their sensory impacts become accepted as religiously effective and will give particular attention to the role of inter-religious encounters in this recognition (or rejection).
  2. The second thematic focus further concentrates on the relation between objects and their sensory impacts and the act of perception itself. Media consumption itself involves the senses: The act of reading a book or listening to a broadcast depends on human perception. The senses themselves act in this regard as an intermediary medium, or as an extension of the primary medium. This emphasis on perception highlights the role of the materiality of the medium: Reading a book is not limited to making sense of the written text, it also includes feeling the weight of the book, smelling the paper, seeing the particularities of the writing. In this respect, the group is particularly interested in the ways in which and by which the interaction between a practitioner and an object comes to be rooted within the physiological realm that is articulated as relevant to the religious field. The Hindu ritual of prasada is an interesting example of a sensory experience being communicated as religious following the dispute between two groups. In certain Hindu theist traditions, after having been offered to the god, edibles are distributed between the brahmans and devotees. This practice was criticised by non-theist traditions who saw priests as thieves appropriating the pious offerings for their own good. A theology of food was developed in response to this accusation according to which prasada becomes the edible that is believed to be sanctified by a deity’s tasting before being in turn tasted by the devotees as a blessing.2
  3. The third thematic focus examines instances where media of different natures are brought together in religious contexts. One may envisage, for instance, a Sunday mass in a Catholic church celebrated by a priest who reads the sermon from an IPad. Religion can be understood as a ‘practice of mediation between humans and the professed transcendent that necessarily requires specific material media, that is, authorized forms through which the transcendent is being generated and becomes somehow tangible.’3 In religious practice, in turn, such material media are addressed, used and operated in multi-sensorial settings in order to invoke a transcendent or divine presence. In other words, material objects and the human senses are interwoven in religious practice in very specific ways – an entanglement that Birgit Meyer has termed ‘sensational forms’. These forms evolve within individual religious traditions over time. More to the point, religious traditions themselves evolve alongside their sensational forms, which come to be perceived as characteristic and typical for a particular religion. In this regard, the group will tackle the question whether sensational forms might be considered useful tertia comparationis in comparative research.

Finally, against this threefold backdrop, the focus group will pay special attention to times of media change and the intra- and interreligious discourses on such changes as well as the effect of a changing media environment to the sensational forms. Historical and contemporary examples will both be considered – such as the incorporation of scriptural elements in addition to (or as replacement of) oral forms or the incorporation of audio-visual and digital media in religious practice. In turn, processes of media change pose questions regarding the sensory quality of the respective new media and the religious potency of the new medium which the group offers to investigate.

[1] Eck, Diana. 1998 [1981]. Darśan: seeing the divine image in India (3rd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
[2] Davis, Richard. 2001. Indian Image-Worship and its Discontents. In: Assmann, J. and Baumgarten, Albert I. (Eds.): Representation in Religion. Studies in Honor of Moshe Barasch. Leiden: Brill, p. 107-132.
[3] Meyer, Birgit. 2013. Material Mediations and Religious Practices of World-Making. In: Lundby, Knut (Ed.): Religion across media. From early antiquity to late modernity. New York: Peter Lang, p. 1-19, here: p. 8.