Media Studies: Centralizing the Material in the Magical

For my proposed dissertation (an ethnographic study of members of the Church of Satan), I am increasingly interested in media studies, often studied under its umbrella discipline of communications. Media studies can be viewed as the study of material culture, but it is much more. It is the study of objects, technologies, music, and any other sensorial aspect of human experience that informs how humans behave and act. Materical culture has certainly been studied before under various disciplines, but when we merge them with religious studies, we begin to see a methodological divide between the material (historically denounced as lesser, base, and carnal) and the spiritual (the high culture, the philosophical, the superior). We therefore have an implied dichotomy, a fracture in our approach that places the spiritual above the material. I want to usurp that ostensible divide.

Jeremy Stolow, in his article, “Religion and/as Media,” claims that media has been credited with, “a key role in the world-historical disembedding of religion from public life, and its relocation within the private walls of bourgeois domesticity, or deeper still, the interior, silent universe of individual readers and their infinitely replicable activities of decoding texts” (2005, 122). Stolow is addressing the notion that “religion” is often considered a private, interior phenomenon, and that anything that happens externally from one’s thoughts is somehow lesser, not quite as genuine.

This type of scheme is a holdover from Protestant denouncements of Catholic rituals, now embedded in academia, which is itself an idea as old as Plato’s dualism. The same mind/body, spirit/material, divine/human (and its gendered equivalent: male/female) fracture gets played out over and over again in various forms, where the first is considered the ultimate, perfect, and pure, while the latter is considered flawed, imperfect, and corrupt. This ostensible dichotomy has only relatively recently been challenged in academia.

Stolow suggests that, while media and religion as an emerging discipline is naturally cross-disciplinary, that the most fruitful approach is to begin with the premise: “religion as media” (125). That is, that:

Throughout history, in myriad forms, communication with and about ‘the sacred’ has always been enacted through written texts, ritual gestures, images and icons, architecture, music, incense, special garments, saintly relics and other objects of veneration, markings upon flesh, wagging tongues and other body parts.

The premise, then, of media studies, is to center the technologies involved in mediating religious phenomena. Place them in the foreground, not relegated to (an implied lesser) afterthought. Much of the history of religious studies has emphasized philosophy, theology, interiority, and sincerity, and has then claimed that mediation has “compromised, diluted, or eviscerated religious belief” (Morgan 2008, 1). [1]

Stolow is instead claiming that religious studies have always been studies of media. Religion is, by nature, mediated. Given this, perhaps media studies is best understood as a methodological approach that places the communication through various media as the foundational starting point.

My next project/article is on media (the objects) used in Satanic magical rituals that have cross purposes: The Satanic Bible not only as ritual script, but as a talisman, an object of importance with aesthetic properties; writing out one’s own script is not solely for liturgical guidance, but has artistic value as the letters scrawled in cursive, written with nice pens, become word-images; music played during ritual is more than an aural experience, as your presence in the chamber alters the resonance and sound and promotes a physiological reaction. Books are smelled. Letters are touched. Sound is felt.

In Satanic ritual magic, heightened sensorial experiences are designed to stimulate a transformative and effective magical rite. The media, then, is the magic.

This next project on Satanic magic is cross-disciplinary, using studies in material culture alongside studies in magic and esotericism, approached with the intent of centralizing the material aspect. David Morgan’s introduction to religion and media studies lists the multiple and varied fields and scholars engaged with media studies, addressing similar questions in the field, stemming from different disciplines. It is fitting to end this blog post with his open-ended commentary that: “To date, participants have felt no urgency to limit the discourse or dominate it by discipline, field, or methodology. For many of us, this is a sign of robust intellectual health” (2008, 13).

[1] As an important parallel: challenging the very term “belief” as a defining factor of religion is an ongoing discourse in religious studies. I can state anecdotally that it is a hurdle introducing the concept that religion takes many (unrecognizable) forms to new students, many of which have little or nothing to do with “belief.”

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