Material Religions in the Digital Age

Or, What Mother's Hair Has to Do with the Study of Religion

[Adapted from DH2017 conference panel, "Digital Religion, Digital Theology," Montreal, August 8-11, 2017. Delivered in absentia. These remarks were prepared for a brief conference paper. I invite conversation, but please reserve judgement.]

In 1868, one Nelson Bowdish owned and operated a photography studio in Richfield Springs, New York. A decade earlier Bowdish had been a “melodian maker,” a craftsman specializing in small reed organs manufactured for small churches and private homes. Bowdish’s transformation from manufacturer to photographer was common enough, especially as the new print methods, which created a negative from which many paper prints could be made, succeeded the fragile single-exposure methods on metals and glass of earlier generations. Not long after Bowdish exchanged the melodian for the camera, someone living in or near Richfield Springs purchased a small leather photograph album and began to fill it with portraits from Bowdish’s Photographic Gallery on Main Street. About six inches long, four inches wide, and two inches thick, the album opens by unfastening two bronze clasps and is filled with small card sized photographs.

The album is now a gallery of ghosts. Almost no identifying information has been inscribed to help later beholders—us—find who these faces belong to. But the album and its likenesses are also material objects that link beholders across time and space. As I argue in my book, A Communion of Shadows, commonplace photographs are best understood not only as icons that represent but also as relics that disclose. Deep within the Bowdish album is another order of relic. In the only pages that have any trace of writing, we encounter not photographic likenesses but instead carefully arranged hair: “Mother Died Dec 16 1867 Aged 56 Years” and “Father Died May 31 1872 Aged 64 years Born March 16 1808.” Mother and Father’s hair was once an entirely ordinary—perhaps a personal glory, perhaps a personal nuisance—part of their bodies. In death, it became a tangible link to their physical existence among their bereaved and also, for many, a promise of future reunion in celestial glory. In each of these instances, Mother and Father’s hair was decidedly material—it had texture and weight, it could be arranged, displayed, caressed, and, in violent moments, cause pain. When I found the Bowdish album with Mother and Father’s hair through an antiques dealer in Massachusetts, it was undergoing another transformation that has recently been completed—it is now not only a physical object that exists in an archival box in my school office. It is now also a digital object that lives on the Internet Archive.

Mother and Father’s hair invite us to consider the process of transformation and translation of physical objects into digital objects in the study of religion and theology. The questions that I start with are these: What kinds of analyses might we freight across these points in the object’s history, and what new modes of analysis does the process of translation require? For clarity and focus in these brief remarks, I want to separate the uses of digital infrastructures of procurement, composition, publishing, and promotion from modes of analysis that utilize digital technologies and platforms to develop new questions, reveal networks of interaction and influence, and posit new trajectories in the field. My interest here is in the latter. An historical analogy may be illustrative: when photography was invented towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the new technology was immediately used to attempt to shore up the status of cultural elites through daguerreotype galleries of prominent citizens, ministers, and lawmakers. Civic portraiture relied on metrics of authority borne out of early modern regimes of rationalism, imperialism, and, oddly, bibliocentrism. At the same time, however, daguerreotypes and subsequent photographic technologies became objects in the apparent toppling of those regimes—I say apparent, of course, because those regimes are still very much alive and well. Nevertheless, as likenesses became more accessible, this traffic in objects conditioned new paradigms of representation and tactility that did not so much relocate older epistemic regimes into a new visual register as they did create new ways of scrutinizing selves and others, imagining and interpreting the past, and even the profound ordinariness of being in the world.

I don’t intend to oversimplify the comparison here, or to synonymize digital texts with civic portraiture, per se. But as we continue to navigate the transition from a predominately “old” to a predominately “new” media landscape, wherein objects from the past are freighted into a digital existence, we too are faced with the task of scrutinizing the extent to which digital technologies are used to enforce modes of thought and police habits of perception that were borne of earlier technocultural regimes. We can of course think through these lines of inquiry on grand social scales, but we can also think through them in the more contained (however artificial that containment may be) spaces of our disciplinary habits. To what extent can we, as scholars of religion and theology, not only use digital technologies in our research, writing, and teaching, but also interrogate what those technologies are and do, and, further, how this scrutiny reveals our own complicity in regimes we seek—perhaps merely, perhaps courageously—to describe?

As with any developing field of inquiry or analysis, it is going to take a while for our descriptive repertoire to settle into broadly accepted categories and classifications. Setting aside the larger field of digital humanities and the study of religion, my questions today spiral around a specific concern with historical objects—created by and for people who lived prior to the advent of digital technology—in digital worlds. As a historian of photography and religion in the United States, my research extends outward from the material artifacts of nineteenth-century photography—from ornately decorated daguerreotypes and ambrotypes to cheap stereographs—and yet also benefits richly from recent efforts to amplify accessibility to such artifacts through high-resolution visual scans that effectively transform a profoundly haptic experience into a primarily optical engagement with a translated “image.” In this instance, the change from material object to digital image is a process of, for lack of a better term, translation that, as we as students of religion know so well, is also always a process of interpretation. Thus emerges one nagging question that lingers behind the field of material studies of religion: How do we conceptualize and describe historical objects that have been digitized? Do our modes of description and analysis, developed in relation to physical objects and artifacts, translate across these dimensions of existence? And, as I will conclude with here, how do we incorporate these nuances and challenges into pedagogy?

Throughout the modern era, religion and theology have been intertwined in a decidedly material world. Over the last several decades, students of religion have begun to carve out intellectual headroom for an approach to material culture scrutiny that recognizes objects and images as generative sources of theological inquiry and religious practice and that, in turn, critiques disciplinary prioritization of texts as normative sources of theological and historical inquiry. Objects and artifacts, this body of scholarship asserts, are the stuff of theology and religion no less than (if nevertheless of a different order than) the doctrines, treatises, commentaries, and creeds that have contributed to generations of theological and critical cultural reflection. As many have noted, the digital turn of the twenty-first century has profoundly influenced the study of religion and theology in many ways, perhaps most profoundly by augmenting access to historically restricted collections and creating new paradigms of comparison and analysis that have in turn begun to raise questions that cut to the heart of disciplinary practice and intellectual genealogy.

Despite the potential to upend inherited methodological and epistemic biases, however, the lion’s share of this benefit has, arguably, privileged text-based methodologies rather than elevate aural, visual, and, especially, haptic registers of experience and analysis. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. The American Religious Sounds Project, for instance, uses digital technologies to capture the sounds of religion and digital platforms to archive, curate, and circulate these sounds to professional researchers and the general public. Yale University’s Material and Visual Cultures of Religion is another project that uses digital technologies at all stages of the research process—from procurement to analysis to display—in order to promote robust engagement with the “stuff” of religion. Numerous projects have incorporated mapping technologies in order to generate visualizations that, again, invite reflection on previously unexplored paradigms of affiliation, flow, concentration, and rupture. Despite these and other projects that have been designed to scrutinize religion outside the written text, the lion’s share of digitization projects generated and, more commonly, used by scholars of religion and theology have had the effect, if not the intent, of reinforcing the privileged, even normative, position of texts as primary authorities in matters of religion and theology—from extensive databases of theological texts to deep-dives of religion in historical newspapers. 

Given the epistemic legacy of “the text” in the study of religion, and historic disciplinary bias against materiality, what models do exist for conceptualizing, describing, and analyzing material objects in digital translation? Yale University’s MAVCOR is instructive here. The born-digital project’s description of their Material Objects Archive asserts that:

Objects, images, and a proliferation of materialities engage bodies and minds, events and ideas, in ways both profound and subtle. Material objects, especially as they are activated in religious practices of some sort, are situated at the heart of MAVCOR. The Material Objects Archive offers an ever-expanding online gallery of such objects.

The Material Objects Archive is populated by high-resolution images paired with short descriptions. The metaphor of the “gallery” invokes a physical space populated by physical objects, wherein beholders move among these objects on display. Elsewhere on the site, researchers can engage Object Narratives, which provide extended contextual analysis of specific material objects; Essays; Constellations, which bring together several objects to analyze in relation to one another; Collections of objects “curated by a single individual”; and Medium Studies that attend closely to “materials, media, and techniques”; among other arrangements and analyses of digitized objects. MAVCOR is among the most sophisticated intellectual endeavors to bring material culture studies squarely into emerging digital modes of scholarship (be sure to explore the Giga Project). And yet at the same time, the project seems not to engage systematically with questions of digital translation. The project, in other words, asserts the importance of materialities in experiences, practices, and analyses of religion, and carves out an important space in which to explore these materialities in various forms and contexts, but we are left wondering what to do about that leap from strands of hair in a leather bound album to a digital image of the hair that, for all of its resolute clarity, lacks qualities of heft, tactility, and space. The subject of the beholder, too, is transformed into a kind of fixed spectator that clicks through virtual networks rather than moves through physical arrangements of proximity and distance.

In the context of American theology, Heidi Campbell and Stephen Gardner have identified some of the challenges of what they call a “networked theology”—their shorthand for an “approach to theologizing about the digital, technological, and network society in which we live”— in relation to the physical world (2). After reflecting on the abundance of Christian scriptural imagery of a physical world, they write that “a networked theology must address questions relating to the relationship between the physical and digital worlds by considering what human identity, authentic human relationships, and community look like across those worlds” (80). Campbell and Gardner are writing to unspecified “faith communities” who have confronted a demand for “Christian theological reflection on digital technologies.” Network theology, they aver, provides this framework of reflection within broader “systematic investigations” of new media and its attendant social practices as well as “concrete resources for evaluating the theological trajectory created by new media values” (2). When it comes to materiality, network theology pivots quickly from acknowledging the physical world that animated Christian scripture to a framework of neighborliness that, Campbell and Gardner contend, traverses “our life in the physical world and ha[s] bearing on our digital interactions” (80). In this instance of theological engagement with digital technologies, then, there is a tendency to jump from the physical world of stuff and space into a metaphorical rendering of materiality.

Thus while the academic study of religion and theology each begin to address the abundant intersection of materiality and digitization, neither field as of yet defines a specific repertoire of description, analysis, or method that satisfies the process of translation from physical media to digital object—and, in some cases, back again, and yet in others, from digital-born to material object. When it comes to teaching, these questions become especially urgent. How do we not only get students into archives, museums, and field sites, on the one hand, and into rigorous interrogation of material objects, on the other, but also how do we train them to attend to their own participation as translators—and thus interpreters—of such objects through the tasks of capturing through digital technologies and “sharing” on digital platforms? My teaching project, Arch City Religion, attempts to instruct students in media literacy and cultural analysis, through their own collaborative research on religious sites, objects, rituals, and persons in St. Louis. The project began somewhere on the spectrum between pedagogical hoodwink—how do I encourage interest in a required class—and professional commitment—how do I bring my expertise in visual and material studies of religion into a traditional Catholic theology curriculum? As the project has grown into its second year, I see a potential for the project to address the seemingly habitual tendency of students to blur boundaries between physical and digital spaces and thus, in the process, to think more directly about my own tendencies to participate in this elision of analytical specificity.

Digital platforms have vastly augmented access to and information about the material traces of previous generations and distant populations. For cultural institutions with historical, ethnographic, architectural, and literary resources, digital humanities can be an effective tool not only for indexing and imaging those materials for data analysis but also for inviting researchers and the public into physical spaces and into contact with deeper dimensions of material worlds. At the same time, these very contributions often work against methodological gains in the study of material culture. The problem we are left with, then, is an interpretive and pedagogical tangle. How we comb through the physical and digital strands of Mother and Father’s hair in a disciplinary vortex that employs digital technologies, in effect, to valorize the interpretive primacy of texts will shape the direction of academic studies of religion and theology in the digital age.