Language, Media, Religion Mini-conference and Roundtable

Laura Leibman

Although I said I would do the second part of my previous post on "Soul Gender" this month, I am taking a slight detour to talk about the Language, Media, and Religion mini-conference and roundtable held at Reed College on Oct. 4th, 2013.  (I will return to soul gender next month.)  This conference was hosted by one of my fantastic junior colleagues, Linguistic Anthropologist Courtney Handman.  I am making this detour because I believe the mini-conference raised some questions about the way we treat language, media, and the body in religious studies that would resonate with other Americanists, and I am curious to hear feedback from other readers of the Religion in American History blog.

The conference challenged (or at least problematized) recent assertions that we should "de-throne language, belief, and texts from the central positions they have long had in the study of religion."  Each of the participants used examples from their current work to debunk the easy divide between language and the body and to grapple with how we might reconceive the role language plays in the study of religion.

Courtney Handman began with brief introductory remarks about the recent tendency in religious studies to assume that language is a site of oppression, and how this view responds to the Protestant legacy that created a mind-language centric vision of religion.  Scholars have often argued (myself included) that whereas language has belonged to the privileged, the body might serve as a site of the "really real" or at least more accurately represent lived experiences.  Courtney asked whether just as we have sought new models of religion, might we not also see a new model of language, particularly since language does have its origins in the body.

After her introduction, the central ideas of the conference were developed by the two keynote speakers, Robert Yelle and Christopher Lehrich.  (In good Reed College fashion I will use first names for all participants, even though I know some participants better than others.)  Robert used the example of spells and magic words to talk about why current theories for understanding repetitive patterns of language are unsatisfying.  Robert is the author of two new books on semiotics in religion: Semiotics of Religion: Signs of the Sacred in History (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) and The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).  As someone who works a lot on the intersection of religion and poetics, I found his attention to the physical production of poetic language particularly fascinating and am eager to read his chapter on the poetics of ritual performance in Semiotics of Religion.

The second keynote speaker was Christopher Lehrich, who is best known for his book The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (Cornell 2007) and The Language of Demons and Angels: Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (Brill 2003).  Christopher's new work has to do with a semiology of music.  Christopher used the story of Orpheus to suggest both the power and danger of music, particularly to a logocentric vision of the world.  He respectfully disagreed with Robert about the exact nature of the challenge presented to logos by ritual language.

The keynote speakers were followed by four shorter presentations, all of which dealt with the "religion-language-media nexus":  Kambiz GhanneaBassiri (Reed, Religion Dept, who spoke about his recent work on new mosques); Laura Leibman (Reed, English/American Studies, talking about early Jewish American marriage contracts); Kabir Mansingh Heimsath (Lewis and Clark, Anthropology, talking about religious practice in Tibet); and Katharine Fletcher (ABD from the London School of Economics, Visiting Scholar in the Reed Anthropology department who is conducting fieldwork on the Christian "emerging church" movement in Portland).

Here are some general issues/questions that came out of this mini-conference that I would love to hear about from other Americanists:
  • Do you privilege the body over language in your own work, and if so why?
  • What do you do methodologically with moments when language itself seems embodied?
  • Are there points at which bodies do not "speak" (or when bodies resist being read as speaking)?  If so, what then?
  • Are there any examples in your own work that point to ways in which  language is something other than another material object?
  • What are the best resources you have found for thinking through these issues?


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