Show and Tell

edgeclassroomA post on the Facebook page for the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) recently caught my eye; it announced a session at the upcoming conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions and read, in part, as follows:edgebasrApart from not really understanding what scholarly objective can be accomplished by providing a venue for such…, I don’t know, shall we just call it show and tell or maybe engaged audience participation (other than amassing a variety of indigenous self-reports without the hassle of going through all the IRB paperwork), I wondered what the participants in a session like this would make of someone standing up and showing a photograph of the British Museum’s display of the Parthenon marbles. After all, the Parthenon is a temple, no? The marbles are therefore religious objects of deep and abiding sacred significance, right? If nothing else, it would make for an interesting moment amid the various relics, souvenirs, and plain old knickknacks that will possibly make an appearance.edgemarblesDon’t know much about the controversy over why these sculptures aren’t in Greece and the role they played/play in ongoing debates over national identity, let alone the continuing ramifications of a seemingly bygone age of imperial rule? Then click here.

As for the topic of materiality, it is no doubt telling that the word “meaning” appears over and over again in that Facebook post — a signifier that, as usually employed, names an immaterial dimension that material things are said to embody and exhibit. Though perhaps I’m being unfair; for the session may instead invite attendees to consider how meaning is ascribed and not just shown, prompting them to consider that it is a residue of practice, continually re-created by human actors in contingent social situations. Perhaps meaning will be seen as an historical, political construct associated by means of focused repetition with ad hoc objects that we mistakenly think emanate it. And perhaps they will entertain that this thing called meaning is constituted in the very act of telling a narrative to the group, rather than just seeing it as an inner dimension of objects that simply shows itself of its own accord. For if this latter model is the theme of the session then an emphasis on so-called material religion is just a trendy short hand for what we once called phenomenology and hermeneutics: the study of “that which presents itself to our senses” aimed ultimately at intuiting the deeper, transcendent meaning of the object.

If we’re all as intent as some scholars say they are in leaving those old school pursuits behind, then I’d expect to hear “What and how do you make something come to mean?” replacing the usual refrain of “describe what it means” and “What does it mean to you.” And that move would turn “show and tell” entirely on its head, for the telling is no longer merely secondary commentary, for now we show because we tell — suggesting that the fate of those marbles may depend more on how good the story is that someone tells about them than how nicely they’re carved.

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