American Religion and the New Materialism
What’s so new about new materialism? New materialism is more than a buzzword or this Tuesday’s theoretical vogue. It’s a reconceptualization of material things—chairs, altars, books, robes, neurons—and how these chunks of matter move us, speak to us, and make incessant demands on our thought and practice. What is new about new materialism is its argument that things are agents, in their own rights, with
“trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” This is not a playful statement. Things and their powers are serious business.
For this year’s American Academy of Religion in Atlanta (November 21-24), I’ve been involved (with the indefatigable Karen Bray) in organizing a panel on new materialism in religion, called “Between Philosophy and a Phenomenological Hard Place: New Materialism as a Methodology in the Study of Religion.” It’s co-hosted by the Philosophy of Religion Section and the Theology and Continental Philosophy Group. American religionists will find much of interest in the panel: the point is to convey an expansive sense of what new materialism—not only as a philosophy but also as a method—can do throughout the various subfields in the study of religion, including American religion. The panel is designed not only for thing devotees but also the thing-curious.
I will open the session by offering a lively introduction to new materialism, drawn from an essay in Religion and Society. I’ll describe its stakes and its relation to more common approaches to materiality in the study of religion. Even in religious material culture studies, the generative power of things receives short shrift. Things tend to be regarded either as secondary symbols of human culture, or as the background against which human subjects conduct their activities.
Three panelists, each representing different subfields in religious studies, will offer remarks that enact the first panelist’s methodological provocation in concrete, case-based ways that speak to the concerns of their subfields. Hillary Kaell will be the first to engage new materialism’s methodological provocation in her ethnographic work on wayside crosses in Quebec. Her remarks are titled, “Seeing the Invisible: Ambient Catholicism on the Side of the Road.” Karen Bray, a philosophical theologian, will follow her, with a paper on “Material Laments: Things that Pray and Temples that Feel.” Then, Peter Anthony Mena, a historian of late antique religion, will offer a reading of Origen in his called “Noetic Bodies: Origen of Alexandria, the New Materialist.” Whitney Bauman will respond and John Modern will chair.
American religion will be very much a part of this conversation, both at the American Academy of Religion meeting and in new materialist scholarship in the future. It is our hope that the panel’s multidisciplinary approach will inspire in a diverse audience an excitement around these new theoretical and methodological tools, and embolden them to put such ideas into practice concretely. No doubt, there also will be vigorous debate.