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a word on behalf of the


object
gretchen buggein
Material Religion is a journal dedicated to
"materializing the study of religion," but is it also
devoted to studying the material of religion?
The editors are right when Ihey claim that many
studies of religious objects have i^een inward
looking, satisfied with taxonomy and description.
They suggest that this older "connoisseurship"
model, one that led to "biographies of objects,"
went out of fashion when schoiars initiated
a "pervasive theorization," a turn to material
practices and how they shape selves and
communities. But with an eagerness to talk
about practice, have we too impatiently breezed
by the objects? Humans do things with images
and objects, but objects also do things to
us; because of this, we need to respect their
autonomy and integritytheir materiality. If we
have an object before us (and granted this is not
always possible), how do we best make Lise of
it?
in the 1960s, influenced by the new social
history's interest in the ordinary doings of
ordinary people, social historians began thinking
seriously about objects as historical sources.
The promise was twofold. Pirst. object study
would tell us things about people who had left
no other iiistorical record. Second, objects,
if investigated properly, would tell us things
abcut human values and beliefs that were so
prevalent, so assumed, that they were othenAilse
unarticulated. American material culture study
was developed largely by scholars trained in
the decorative arts, who wanted the domestic
objects they studied to do more, to answer
bigger questions. These schoiars, nonetheless,
remained dedicated to "connoisseurship,"
a method that forced them to study objects
closely, to understand their forms, their
articulation, their materials, the details of their
production. This method demanded spending
time interacting with material sources, it also
required that one know something of the
universe of objects in which a particular thing
lived. Objects, these scholars argued, existed in
answer to specific human needs, and they also
represented choices, in order to understand
those choices, the scholar needs to know what
was not chosen as well.
Gretctien Buggein teaches hu
siudlas in Ctmsi College, ttie
U ni ver si t y, S i i ! . ' " ' " ' "-'.
feftglon, archttt:
Material ReKgkxi vrtume 5, Issue 3, pp. 357-358
D OI: 102752/175183409X12550007730066
RGI
Although definitions can be fuzzy, material
culture was never so much a field of study
as a method. As an example of this method,
consider an ordinary coffee mug (Rgure 1 ): 10
centimeters (4 inches) tall, earthenware with
a white glaze, smooth surface, comfortable
handle, contains roughly ten fluid ounces of
liquid, emblazoned with a university insignia, a
"made in China" decal on the bottom, A facile
treatment of this object might quickly suggest
that the object shows that Americans drink
coffee and like to advertise their educational
pedigree. One could then move on to
speculate abcut this ritual of coffee drinking. A
connoisseur, on the other hand, will first look at
the object closely, notice patterns of wear, ask
what it feels like in the hand, how comfortably
and successfully it does its job. She will wonder
about the choice of this rather than that material,
why the cup is white. She wili question how this
cup might come to be chosen over another, look
closely at the college mctto, ask questions about
global trade, and finally, get to questions about
ritual and economy. The proper place for theory
is after some open-minded data collection;
interpretation is built on a foundation of both
connoisseurship and theory.
It took American material culture studies a
while to find religionlargely because of strong
ties to the discipline of history, in which the
study of religion remained mired in doctrine and
2009
denominations until quite reoentty. But a turn
to the study of "lived reiigion" elevated objects
to a criticai role. One of the key differences
between materiai and visual culture stems
from the latter's origins in art history, where
recognizing the autonomy of the object didn't
mean acknowledging its social agency but
rather affirming its unique greatness. Except
for antiquarians, historians rarely felf this way
about objects. Although I generally assume that
visual culture is a subset of material culture, I
don't believe the questions are aiways the same.
Images and objects don't function in precisely
the same ways. We respond to both through
our senses, but there are important aspects of
objects that are handled and used for material
ends that require greater attention to materiality.
Nonetheless, a scholar of material religion might
apply the method outlined above to any material
thing: a plastic figure of a Catholic saint, a donm
room poster with a spiritual theme, a Hindu idol.
The study of reiigion has benefited
immensely from scholarly attention to "situating
objects within ritual contexts as material fonris
of performance, signaling the importance of
centering analysis in practice rather than the
object alone." We write enthusiastically about
practice and ritual. But the object, i fear, has
become somewhat incidental in this enterprise,
and I'm concerned that we are losing track of
its independent integrity as a historical source.
For me, as an architectural histohan, honoring
the integrity of the material means that when
I look at a building I don't immediately jump
to thinking about the "dynamic set of relations
between social actors, institutions, objects,
spaces, imaginarles, and the sacred." That is the
goal, of course, but not step one. I will want to
think about how the space is used; if possible
to witness people interacting with it. But first
I need to let the building speak fcr itseif. If I'm
patient, I'll notice things I might otherwise miss,
and these details will raise potentially revealing
questions. For instance, why is the sanctuary
dad in stone and the education building in
redwood siding? Why do the ceiling heights
change from space to space? What is the
plan, fabric, lighting of the narthex, relative to
the worship space? Why does the two-story
education wing have fourteen rooms arranged
along long hallways? Then I'll move outward
to consider the universe cf objects: how does
this education wing compare, materially, to the
one at the Baptist church down the road, or the
public school next door? These are questions
commonly asked in vernacular architecture
studies, where the emphasis, coming out of
folklore and anthropoiogy, has always been on
understanding people and communities (see the
journal Buildings and Landscapes].
I am drawn to religious buildings and objects
because I want to understand lives. I begin with
a close study of the material world but tead
outward to bigger questions of practice and,
ultimately, cultural value and meaning. If cne is
an archaeologist staring at a handful of artifacts
that are remnants of a civilization, it is natural,
in fact imperative, to give devoted attention to
the details of those things. If one studies the
modern world, however, a multiplicity of sources
clamors for our attention, tempting us to neglect
the difficult but important work of really giving
material sources our attention. Connoisseurship,
I would argue, is foundational for the richest
scholarship that readers of Material Religlor}
hope to both produce and engage.
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