past working groups

2005–2006 Annual Theme: Religion, Media, and Body Politics

Control of the body has always been a central concern of religious life. As possibilities emerge in medicine, sexuality, and biotechnology that have never before been imagined, the status of religious regulation in these novel circumstances has been challenged, and has become central to many key debates in contemporary politics and culture in many parts of the world. Media is deeply implicated in how these debates are structured, from what new medical technologies reveal about fetuses, DNA, HIV status, sexuality, etc., to the ways they are imagined and discussed in both secular and religious arenas.

Working Groups:

The Body, Belief, and Bioethics
Conveners: Rayna Rapp, Anthropology and Faye Ginsburg, Anthropology
This group addresses how the mediation of the body—particularly with new pandemics, biotechnologies, genetic knowledge, and the potential for the creation of unprecedented life forms—has become increasingly unstable. The need and desire to understand these new bio-boundaries frames debates in many religious traditions, from the perennial conflict over abortion in the United States to the status of “kosher sperm” in Judaism, or corneal transplants in Islamic law.

Sex, Secularism, and Other Religious Matters
Convener: Ann Pellegrini, Religious Studies/Performance Studies
This group considers the place of religion in contemporary U.S. public life. How do these dynamics play out in public debates about sex and sexuality, issues that so often seem to stand in as barometers of “moral values”? What role do the media play in shaping and narrowing public discourse about religion, sex, and secularism?


2004–05 Annual Theme: Memory, Media, and the Commodification of Religious Experience

How are different kinds of media–from rosaries and prayer wheels to audiocassettes and the internet–implicated in creating embodied religious subjects? How do various spiritual traditions, emphasizing different sensory capacities, mediate the everyday as an expression of the divine, valorizing some and excluding other avenues of experience? How does its material culture facilitate the transportation of religious experience across time, anchoring memory? These classic concerns underlie the modern commodification of religious material culture and its circulation across cultural boundaries. This second year builds upon the first year’s work on “Confession, testimony and witnessing”, asking anew how media transform the overlapping domains of secular and religious practice through the lens of material culture.

Working Groups:

Mediating Asian Religions
Convener: Angela Zito, Director, Religious Studies
What role do new media—the internet, television, and desktop publishing—play in establishing religious life as parallel public space for discussion, critique and community, linking those in the diaspora to homelands in post-socialist China and advanced capitalist Japan? How do these new media grow within older forms of the mediation of religious experience such as writing and ritual performance? This group focuses upon the use of media in domestic revivals and growth of Buddhism, Taoism, ancestral veneration/lineage formation and new healing movements in China, and in the transformation of state Shinto and New Religions in Japan.
Christianity in New and Old Media
Convener: Bambi Schieffelin, Anthropology
How do Christian communities capitalize on the interest in and power of the media to work on their behalf? How are different media deployed for Christian evangelization, from audiocassettes in remote indigenous communities to the complex multi-million dollar transnational media production known as the “Jesus Film Project”? How does the explosion of media constitute an opportunity and a threat to the moral and religious concerns of Christian communities, especially when children are consumers?

Indigenous Cosmologies
Conveners: Fred Myers, Chair, Anthropology and Faye Ginsburg, Anthropology
Indigenous—or 4th world people, encompassed in contemporary nation states—face a particular set of problems as they attempt to sustain through time the cosmological frameworks that underlie the organizations of social life and personhood that distinguish their presence. The mediation of their religious traditions and their cultural presence has taken on ever greater significance as these have become crucial to claims to land, sovereignty, cultural rights and identity – articulated most recently in the frameworks of intellectual and cultural property. At the same time, the objects and practices that constitute their traditions have become subject to the threats of appropriation and commodification, from museums to popular culture. Thus, the display, revelation, transmission, reproduction, or control over indigenous religiosity is a subject of ongoing concern. This working group’s interest lies in examining the processes and materialities of the circulation of indigenous cosmologies, in performance and cultural production, both within the orbits of local practice, transmission and control, and beyond it.


2003–04 Annual Theme: Confession, Testimony, Witnessing

Media of all sorts have been central to practices of confession, testimony, and witnessing that are at the core of so many religious practices, creating solidarity, protesting worldly conditions, and promising salvation by communicating the meaning of the suffering body according to diverse religious interpretive traditions. These range from the Crucifix, to the Passover seder, to the self-immolation of protesting Buddhist monks for television cameras, to the testimonial videos made by Islamic martyrs. Witnessing and testimony are central to the power of such imagery, increasingly deployed in human rights activism, as well as in darker efforts to mobilize religious fervor.

Working Groups:

The Islamic Public Sphere
Convener: Michael Gilsenan, Chair, Middle Eastern Studies
This group addresses the enormous scholarly and journalistic interest in ‘the Islamic Public Sphere’, fueled in part by contemporary events in Iran, Indonesia, India, Algeria and Afghanistan, as well as in Europe; by the deeply problematic representations of Islam in ‘the West’; and the relationship between media and the building of religious movements, particularly since 9/11.

Jews, Media, and Religion
Conveners: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Performance Studies & Hebrew /Judaic Studies and Jeffrey Shandler, Jewish Studies, Rutgers University
This group combines a contemporary perspective on the uses of new media with an historical perspective on how a Jewish diaspora, over two millennia, has used “media” (the book, rabbinical correspondence, etc.) to constitute, sustain, and mobilize itself across wide geographic areas. A particular focus is on how digital media technologies are being used across a wide range of Jewish groups–with special attention to their mobilization in orthodox communities.

Media, Religion, and Human Rights
Convener: Meg McLagan, Anthropology
What is the relationship of media to contemporary democratic projects concerned with religious rights, humanitarianism, and global justice? We focus on how media operate in the production of new communities of conviction and commitment whose activism spans the moral-political continuum, from conservative evangelicalism to anti-globalization radicalism.