Religion is Media

Is there something about mediation itself that resonates with modern ideas of religiosity?

By Angela Zito

Excerpted from
Rethinking Religion 101: Critical Issues in Religious Studies, edited by
Bradford Verter and Johannes Wolfart . Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2009.

The critical cultural anthropologist in me asks this question first of all: What does the term “religion,” when actually used by people, out loud, authorize in the production of social life? What does it allow people to do? And that question immediately opens others: What acts can then possibly be performed? What stories can be told? What conversations can be had? What thoughts can be thought? What sorts of people are imagined to be interlocutors, and audiences? Who becomes the enemy? Who an ally? What histories are excavated, and negotiated aloud? What is perforce forgotten? What hierarchies and politics of power are then possible? And above all, what pleasures of self-making? What communities do those senses of personhood entail? And finally, what happens when “religion” is rejected?

When we open the question of “religion” to being understood as an original moment of definition, the act of defining itself can be recognized as a social act of some importance, one that shapes the ongoing embodiment of religious life. And having done that, the way lies open to connect the study of religion to the question of “mediation” in the deepest theoretical sense of that term: the ongoing production of social life itself.(1)

What do I mean by “mediation in the deep theoretical sense of the word”? When the construction of social reality is considered dialectically, people are seen as constantly engaged in producing the material world around them, even as they, in turn, are produced by it. (2) No social practice can take place without a material framework or vehicle. One can follow this line of theorization from the Marxist Bakhtin circle in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, especially in the writing of V. N. Volosinov (who noted that “the existence of the sign is nothing but the materialization of [that] communication.”) to its later bourgeois incarnation in Clifford Geertz’s cultural anthropology. (3) Despite many differences, both authors strongly advocate that an imagined subjective interiority can be accessed only via the exteriority of mediated materiality: signs. In fact, both Volosinov and Geertz, ironically, would extend this beyond “analytic method” to a truth about social life itself—as for analysts so for actors. That is to say, we live a life “between” through the various materialities with which humans persevere into personhood collectively, among themselves: relations forged between people and things, between the body and language. (4)

Languages and the gesturing bodies that speak them are the most naturalizing media through which human life takes place. (5) At the opposite end of the spectrum are entire industries of media production—print, radio, television, film, video, the internet—whose commodified machinations are become more and more obvious to more and more people. The production of social life proceeds so well because most of us do not notice it happening and proceed to devote our energies unhampered by self-reflexivity. It provides us with a ground of “natural” culture that functions like a bowl of water in which we swim like fish, unaware of the edge or end of our horizon of survival.

People are aware of these processes of endless mediation to differing degrees. Take language—all humans speak it; some use it to write poetry or advertising. For general speakers, it just appears when we open our mouths, but for poets and ad copywriters every word is precious and carefully wrought, producing a language apparent and resistant with a with a life of its own. We might, in an older idiom, say “reified.” However, that would imply that someday de-reification would come and we could live in an im-mediate reality, when in fact, such a sense of “natural” im-mediacy is itself, a mediated effect.

The interruption of that process by moments of reflexivity, of self-conscious agency, occurs more often than Marx might have thought. In a world of increasing commodification, the media themselves appear as reified products for consumption. When people notice that the power to mediate is actually in the hands of someone else, that representations of one’s community are either absent (thus consigning people to oblivion in the mediated world) or deleterious to its well-being, then there have been repeated efforts to seize the means of media production. (6) Just as often, however, people rush in the opposite direction, giving vent to longing for authenticity, as though media makers have the power to interrupt the self’s imagined flow of authentic im-mediate experience, and that turning off the TV will return us to the possibilities for genuine sociality that have been killed off by viewing .

In this sense, taking the practices often named as religion—as a subset of the processes of the mediation of social life that I have just described— can help us to reframe the traditional analysis of religion by revealing that they have much in common with the problems of media themselves. Religion indeed also often functions most wholly and efficiently when no one notices it, as people appropriate it as an always-already present aspect of social life. Yet, religions have also had prophetic epiphanies and transformations precisely at times of self-reflexive understanding. The longing for “religious experience” as the definition of the personalized “spiritual,” that ever-present default position in modern religious life, reveals a similar wish for the im-mediate that drives much engagement with media such as television, film, or the internet that is equally founded upon for(e)getting its materiality. (7)

So from the point of view of the dialectical mediation of social life, “religion” and “media” can be seen to function in surprisingly intimate ways, and to form even more potent forms of social practice when deliberately intertwined. They both involve and mobilize epistemological and cosmological matters of the constitution of the real. Thus, in placing religion within a theory that accounts for human sociality through mediation, I join Jeremy Stolow in his excellent plea that we finally abandon yet another myth of modernity (there have been so many to lose!) that “the mere expansion of modern communication technology is somehow commensurate with a dissolution of religious authority and a fragmentation of its markers of affiliation and identity.” (Stolow, 2005: 122) On the contrary, not only has the secularism thesis been buried and reburied in the last decade, religious practitioners have shown themselves to be brilliantly adept at extending their mediated reach in examples ranging from televangelism, through cassette sermons, to the internet. (Hoover and Clark 2002; Hoover and Lundby 1997; Meyer and Moors, 2006; Morgan 2008) The stakes could hardly be higher and in their details raise questions of great import for theorizing: mediation begins with, and never quite leaves behind, the sensing, gesturing body. It is through our embodiment that humans attain “subjectivity,” a position from which to speak and act in the world. Religious life has always been heavily invested in disciplining and producing subjectivities of all sorts.

Understanding religion as constantly mediated through and produced within social relations between people then poises scholars and analysts to recognize our own practices of category-building, definition and classification as part of the ongoing production of religion in social life—as yet another mediation. Hence, “religion” is constantly produced as a moment in the endless “mediation” that constitutes dialectical production. Within this framework, one can analyze “religion,” as a socially produced and authorizing category of practice both embedded in, and thus similar to, other categories of social practice, while often functioning as a specially marked category. The dimension of temporality that opens within a dialectical mode of thinking about social life can show us human life as less comprised of discrete “spaces” or “sites” that then interact over time, and more as a series of constantly contested “moments” of boundary-making and transgression that give us the sense of stable sites of social practice. What is a category, after all, if not something made possible by a moment in time when we all think we agree? This analytic inversion of space and time shows us that reification—the needful concretization of a sense of stability such that we can get up in the morning without undue anxiety—is, in fact, a constant source of creativity, not a kind of “alienation effect” that need be overcome.

Let us begin again and note two senses of the term “media” as: First, denoting any material mode of expressing aspects of socio-cultural life, in this case, religious life. This view is based upon a notion of the symbol that comes through semiotics that basically says: internal “experience” cannot be understood or shared unless it is externalized or objectified in some form. We then can pursue “media” in terms of performance (ritual is a privileged category for those who have studied “religion”) and use of the body in its engagements with the world. Our senses require and seek modes of mediation and we are trained in them. Thus we note how religious practitioners mediate themselves in their life-worlds, taking a capacious view of “media” beginning with the human body itself in gesture and ritual, and moving outward through the various prosthetic extensions of our sensual capacities, oral, aural and visual. (8) Media transforms religious possibilities, and religious necessities press upon and re-form media. (This process being an aspect of the dialectical mediation of all social life…)

Only then do we move to the second sense of “media” because, historically speaking, and developing within this ongoing basis of human social life, there exists a particular cultural domain, ”The media” in print or electronic form. Paying attention to this modern media sphere immediately leads us to the problem of how “the media” treats religion: how it is discussed and portrayed, distorted and hailed in print and electronic forums. Thus, as people become interested in explicitly studying the relation of religion AND media, they first looked at them as 1) separate and 2) competing, which is sensible because at this level of institutionalization they are indeed social domains with hierarchies of power and internal rules of governance for prestige etc. (9)

This sense of them as separate and competing must be interrogated further, however. In fact, they compete precisely because the specialized domains of religion and the media sphere also share the sociocultural ground of mediated practice, based upon the first semiotic notion of media outlined above, and compete for the same symbolic resources for creation of self and community identity. Christian rock music and commercial movies that feature messiah figures meet in the middle ground of fierce competition for the resources of money and enthusiasm that both Evangelical churches and Hollywood movie companies require for forward momentum. (10)

As we theorize media and mediation, however, we must also constantly re-visit “religion” that vexing and terrible term. Squelching the desire to define religion a priori and in terms of a set of intrinsic attributes, whether these be of form or function, we should instead try to understand the genealogy of such difference itself. Perhaps differentiating between the interior/formal and the exterior/functional aspects of an event or object that serves to mediate religious life holds special significance in that domain of social practice. Let us first look at each aspect separately, as do most analysts.

If we concentrate upon the “interior” the “content” of religious life, we can see immediately that religious practitioners emphasize as special (or “sacred”) writings of various kinds; or certain portable objects such as relics and paintings; or spaces for gathering collectively; or certain bodily actions such as meditation or ritualized bowing; or certain oral forms such as sermons or chanting; or deities and divinities who are then represented in any or all of the forms just mentioned; or certain styles of thinking and believing. Often, comparative religious studies approaches have rested with these matters of essential content, making lists of matters that we should now think of as “media” and calling that religion.

By concentrating instead upon “function” we are able to discern another, “exterior” aspect to these mediations, that is, the level of their processes of production, circulation, exchange and use. How they contribute to the creation of a politics, a sense of identity that is personal or communal. Indeed, analysts do tend to concentrate on one aspect or another when analyzingeither religious life or the media sphere: Cinema Studies, for instance, often tends to favor interior analysis of text, as does most comparative Religious Studies, while historians and anthropologists of either religion or media, tend to err in the opposite direction, going for social process and often slighting the semiotic details of the mediations in question. The former lose touch with the vicissitudes and politics of social life, while the latter seem to drain away everything that makes religions (and their media, or the media in general) so seductive and moving, or maddening and painful, to practitioners in the first place.

I propose that one of the most interesting things we might note about religious practice is the close attention paid by practitioners to lining up the “interior” and the “exterior” of religious mediation. They are keenly interested in the emotionally engaging, meaningful details of their media— is the Quran recited correctly, the Bible translated properly, the bows perfect in order to gain merit? Indeed, we might say that “religion” is famous in modernity for being the designated region of the production of meaning (as against, say, the economy which produces wealth, and science which produces factual knowledge). Therefore, rather than opposing meaning and function, we ought to grasp instead that, for religious life in modernity, meaning often IS the function. Small wonder that more and more attention is paid by religious practitioners to seizing the means of mediated production in the media sphere!

Thus, by concentrating upon religious media in their functioning as mediations, and not essentializing “religion” by reducing it to those moments, we actually can ask: Is one of the special characteristics of “religion” in modernity its close attention to things relegated to “non-functional” and “useless” in any utilitarian sense, in other words, meaning? Does the deep investment in the mediated details (where, we are assured, God himself resides) in fact, actually tend itself to produce an effect (and affect) of religiosity? And is this why even denominational religions are turning ever more often to art practices of dance, poetry, music to engage their practitioners more deeply? (11)

Finally, we are then able to wonder aloud how media and mediation function in ways that have been often described as “religious”: Is there, in fact, something about mediation itself that resonates with modern ideas of religiosity so that dedication and immersion in media-worlds, online or in front of the TV set, the meticulous attention to their internal semiotic minutiae, can come to displace or replace more traditional religious practice, providing the sense of community connection or personal transcendence we have previously associated with religion?

Angela Zito is co-director of the Center for Religion and Media and director of New York University’s Religious Studies Program. She is the author of Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in 18th Century China. A contributing editor for The Revealer,her last essay was an interview with the director of Into Great Silence, Philip Groening.



1. The new field of “Religion and Media” now boasts its own journal (The Journal of Media and Religion), a programming group in the American Academy of Religion and several anthologies: Hoover and Lundby 1997, DeVries and Weber 2001, Hoover and Clarke 2002, Mitchell and Marriage 2003, Hoover 2006. My own thoughts on these matters have developed in the context of The Center for Religion and Media at NYU, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts which I co-founded with Faye Ginsburg in 2003. The Center, with its many wonderful working group members and Bridging Seminar participants, has provided me with the practical context within which to work out this style of theorization. I am grateful especially to Faye, Barbara Abrash, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Elizabeth Castelli, Ann Pellegrini and Jeremy Stolow, as well as Fred Myers and many other members of the anthropology department at NYU. Two conferences in Amsterdam, “Religion: Beyond the concept” convened by Hent DeVries in June 2005, and “Media Technologies, Sensory Experience, and the Making of Religious Subjects” convened by Birgit Meyer and Charles Hirschkind in March 2006 offered me fresh contexts as well.

2. See Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Berger, 1967; Morgan 1998.

3. Volosinov 1973, p. 13, Geertz 1977.

4. Minus the Marxist sense that the world is progressing toward some moment of perfect synthesis, I see this approach having much in common with the work of Bruno Latour, whose commitment to Actor Network Theory renders the world open and dynamic. Besides We Have Never Been Modern see also and “The promises of constructivism,” Paper prepared for a chapter in Don Idhe (editor) Chasing echnoscience: Matrix of Materiality to be published in the Indiana Series for the Philosophy of Technology.

5. Marcel Mauss 1979.

6. For indigenous communities’ efforts, see Ginsburg 1999; Ginsburg, Abu Lughod and Larkin 2002. For the parallel communications universe of fundamentalist American Christianity, see Hendershot 2004.

7. See Derrida, 2001; Weber 2001; Burlein 2003

8. Classic work on ritual such as Victor Turner 1967, 1965 and Tambiah 1985, but also Charles Hirschkind’s new work on cassette listening and the training of the sense in Egyptian Muslim piety. (Hirschkind 2001). The bibliography on religion and embodiment is extremely rich, for example see Sarah Coakley 1997.

9. See Stewart Hoover’s cogent tracing of this paradigm, and his discussion of its waning usefulness. (2006: 7-10)

10. See the writing around The Passion, Mel Gibson’s film, released in 2003. Landres and Berenbaum 2004.

11. See the pair of books by Robert Wuthnow released in 2003, Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist and All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American Religion In Synch. One concentrates upon art practices as in themselves productive of religious sensibility, and the other analyzes how standing churched religions lean ever more heavily upon art practice to generate the same sense of engagement for which one might have assumed they were already a sort of headquarters.

Sources for Religion as Media(tion) –Angela Zito

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Coakley, Sarah, ed. 1997. Religion and the body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001 “Above all, no journalists!” In Hent DeVries and Samuel Weber eds. Religion and Media. Stanford University Press. pp. 56-93

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Geertz, Clifford. 1977. “From the native’s point of view: On the Nature of anthropological understanding”. In Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books.

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Ginsburg, Faye, 2002. Lila Abu-Lughod, Brian Larkin, eds. Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain, University of California Press.

Hendershot, Heather. 2004. Shaking the World for Jesus : Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Hirschkind, Charles. 2001.“The ethics of listening: cassette sermon audition in contemporary Egypt” American Ethnologist 28.3 (2001): 623-649.

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___________. 1965 “Ritual symbolism, morality and social structure among the Ndembu” in African systems of thought (Oxford University Press, 1965): 79-95.

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______________. 2003b. All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American ReligionIn Synch Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zito, Angela. 2007 “Can television mediate religious experience? The theology of Joan of Arcadia”in Religion; beyond the concept. Edited by Hent deVries. New York: Fordham University Press.