The More Things Change….

patterns4In October of 2013 I wrote a post elsewhere on how recent advances in the study of religion — studying so-called lived or material religion and religion on the ground — were but new names for a very old way of studying religion; for although many now opt for more empirically-sounding “embodiment” over what we once called “manifestation,” there’s still the presumption that the material is merely the domain in which the immaterial is projected, whether we call the intangible it spirit or meaning.

This thesis has been confirmed for me with a book I used in class this week, Brent Plate’s A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects. While engaging and nicely accessible, of course, it strikes me as little different from Patterns in Comparative Religion — a classic study, from 60 years ago, of cross-cultural symbolism and the way in which everything from water to stones can be an active agent that, as phrased there, “manifests the sacred.”

Which got me thinking on how my own work has on some occasions been dismissed by being characterized as doing nothing more than tilting at an old, defenseless windmill, Mircea Eliade — someone whom I’ve been told no one reads anymore, despite whatever influence he might have had a generation of two ago. While I’ve only written on his work a few times over the years, the point of the 2013 post (to which I linked above) was to suggest that, though it seems dated. his scholarship on religion is still representative of the dominant (and, I’d add, rather troublesome) approach in our field.

Case in point, I recently pointed out how a current call for papers used what I’m often told is a long outdated term — the sacred — and my tongue-in-cheek tweet rightly received the following reply:


And so, with all this in mind, it is not insignificant that on pages 7-8 of Plate’s 2014 book we find who else but Eliade (a person who, he writes, “thought long and hard about what makes certain activities, gatherings, objects, people, and beliefs ‘religious’ and not just some other part of mundane existence”), not only quoted appreciatively but, I’d say, being used to anchor the whole exercise that is to come — which also includes a chapter on what I might as well term the agency of, among other objects, stones; for they “can be manifestations of a divine force, provoking people to pilgrimage…,” Plate tells his readers.

Whether that divine force is mere human projection onto an inanimate world or the human perception of an even deeper mystery is — much like in Eliade’s work — left rather vague, at least as I read it. For instance, concerning the Ka’ba in Mecca Plate writes:

The power of the stone to draw people to it is so strong that a series of silver frames have been placed over it for protection.

It was encouraging that a number of my students saw problems here as well — understanding that mere descriptions of how people themselves might talk about the world (“I felt drawn to it…”) hardly is a sufficient academic exercise.

So, as I concluded earlier, then, Eliade definitely has not left the building, something that is especially evident when we fail to redescribe and theorize the claims made by the people we study. For while I have no doubt that people the world over claim that their objects possess a unique or inspiring gravitational force all their own, as a scholar I can’t help but but see the objects that we surround ourselves with as blank, under-determined canvases used for any number of purposes by the people who elect to signify them in either this or that manner.

So it strikes me that the stones aren’t talking and don’t have any power of their own; instead, we’re the ventriloquists throwing our voices — something Plate suggests, in places (“Perhaps it is the ubiquity of stones in human life … that has prompted us to bestow certain stones with spiritual power…” or again, “Individuals as well as communities gather objects, place them in one locations, and allow these objects to hold a significant sacred place in their lives.”), but which seems to get lost in all the advice to learn to listen to what stones are telling us.

For, as far as I can tell, we’re talking to ourselves here, making the objects that we surround ourselves with useful props that allow us to portray a monologue as something other than what it is.

6 thoughts on “The More Things Change….

  1. Russell, You’re right, definitely a difference b/n causal and representative. An important distinction even if its not one I’m particularly concerned about. In fact, not being embedded in Eliade, I may be an unwitting Eliadean. So be it.

    But again, as mentioned, if its Eliade lurking back there, it is refracted via Latour, Deleuze, and a huge pile of social scientific work that indicates the agency of things. Things have agency.

  2. Brent, re: “as for stones speaking—of course they do” … this is poetry right?

    Anything inscribed by human agency “speaks,” and we “read” the world all the time, but the linguistic signification is something going on in *our* heads, isn’t it?

    I like poetry as well as the next guy, and it can even be rhetorically useful in composing description that’s worth reading, since nobody likes to read boring old prose. But as it has ever been (at since Plato dreamed of tossing the poets out of his philosophical republic) it seems to me that there are risks in using figures and images to convey ideas; one of those risks is that we construe the figures of poetry as a statement about metaphysical reality. Some poets might even be fooling themselves about it, because the analogies and metaphors feel so solid on the page. I’ll save you the trouble of saying your next line: yes all language partakes in metaphor. (Thank you Emerson.) But in all seriousness, we know that rocks are mute, and without significant agency, unless they are first shaped and hurled by beings with agency. The rock that comes through your window is not speaking its own message to you, but bringing the message of someone else.

  3. Does it matter that you quoted Eliade several more times in this post then I ever did in the entire book? IDK about Eliade’s influence. I never read him at all in grad school, have read a couple sections of a couple books of his, of course know who he is, but if its his influence then its several degrees of separation. Certainly refracted through Michel Serres, Latour’s ANT, et al.

    I continue to find language of sacred-profane useful (whether its Eliade or Durkheim or other I don’t really care) as it’s a way to discuss difference and power. Just a heuristic tool that can be applied in many situations. As for stones speaking, of course they do. I refuse the ptolemaic universe that pretends we humans are the masters of it all…

    1. Does it matter that I cite him as an object of study and not a model for my work, or are all citations on a par? And, in fact, you provide great evidence for what I’ve argued all along–it is not that his work is causal but that his work is representative, and e.g., of a far wider trend among a certain sort of humanist in the 20th, and now 21st, C. And I see a significant difference between Eliade’s work and Durkheim’s, so I have trouble putting them into the same sentence when it comes to sacred/profane. As for your slam against Ptolemy, I think owning up to how we project our interests and voices to make sense of the world is, to my way of thinking, a humbling, self-implicating maneuver and hardly an assertion of mastery.

  4. Is “monologue” the right word? I always assume that any one person’s active construal of “things” as “sacred” takes place in something like a conversation. Even if it’s just one person who thinks xe hears or sees “the sacred” (God, Jesus, Precious, Mana, etc.) in a rock or a piece of wood at some particular place and time, such “monologue” necessarily has a linguistic matrix, a backstory, a history.

    1. Of course–agreed. The lone renunciant is just as social as anyone. I’m mainly interested here in pressing the point that we’re the only active agents in the scenario of rock and listener, we’re talking to ourselves, but since “ourselves” is a plural it does indeed tip the hat to that fact that we’re always in conversation with those who predetermined the structures in which we now move, but my rhetorical point in avoiding the word conversation is to intentionally steer clear of the way that’ll likely be read by some, as signalling that we’re all caucusing and collaborating and pursuing collective/common ends and thus failing to see that these so-called conversations involve disagreement, happenstance, voices so loud that there’s no conversing going on, etc.