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WORKSHOP | Religion, Place and Modernity in East and Southeast Asia (University of Goettingen, 19-22 September, 2012)

Comparative Perspectives on the Placing of Religion in the Context of Modernity

The concept of secularization has been thoroughly criticized on conceptual, historical and empirical grounds. This critique led to a new understanding of the relationship between religion and modernity. It became clear that religion in modernity cannot be understood as an antithesis to modernity or as a pre-modern survival, which has a function in modernity as private shelter against the impositions of modern life or as an object of educational or consumption value, but not as a factor actively shaping modernity. Rather, religion appears more and more to be a genuinely modern phenomena existing in modernity, not beside or against or in spite of it. From a Western perspective, this concept of religion in modernity implies that religion and modernity are conceived as mutually interpenetrated and constituted. But is this concept of religion in modernity useful in Asian contexts, too? Is “religion” being constituted conceptually and practically in similar ways in relation to “modernity”? Is “religion” rendered “modern” in a more than just a superficial sense, i.e., is religion an integrated part of those multiple projects we call „modern“ and which are aimed at autonomy, rationality and this-worldliness? Is “religion” a real mediator of “modernity”, appropriating “modern” practices and actively shaping “modernity”? Which are the consequences of such an appropriation of “modern” practices for “religion”? And which are the consequences of a “religious” mediation of modernity for “modernity” itself?
To answer these questions, we have to develop better understandings of  the possibilities and limits of using the concepts of “religion“ and “modernity“ in Asian contexts and how “religion“ and „modernity“ are articulated and related in conceptual and practical ways. Starting from a concept of “religion” several dimensions of inquiry emerge, as for example theological discourses, ritual practices, systems of belief and meanings, spiritual experiences or the social, political and economic structures and involvements of religious communities. To bring together the different dimensions of inquiry within one workshop, the places of religions will be used as the common focus. To use the concept of place is, on the one hand, theoretically challenging because it allows us to discuss of different forms of spatial articulations of religion and modernity in culturally defined localities. On the other hand, to use the concept of place is ethnographically inspiring in its capacity to relate “religion” and “modernity” in and through the spatially articulated practices of the actors in places as physical structures, on their virtual, spiritual and corporeal paths between places in local, regional, national, transnational and global dimensions and in practically referring to places as parts of their imagination, their cosmological structures or their metaphorical relations.
The concept of religious places implied in this attempt to define a common focus for a workshop is a concept which does not reduce religious places to sacred places in the narrow sense of bounded meaningful structures within religious symbolisms. The critique of spatiality in the vein of authors such as Henri Lefebvre, Akhil Gupta, James Ferguson, David Harvey or Arjun Appadurai and concepts formulated within these discourses such as the production of space, globalization, deterritorialization / reterritorialization or ethnoscapes made clear that places cannot be reduced to themselves. Rather, places have to be understood within complex practices of positioning, spatializing, interrelating and imagining. Places are not just given as bounded entities. They are brought into existence within complex relations to other places as parts of encompassing spatialities of local, national, transnational, regional and global scopes, in the processes of being related through the virtual, spiritual and corporeal paths of the actors and in their function as intersection and as point of reference of different actors and structural principles of socio-cultural praxis. It is this complex relationality of places which renders them relevant for a comparative attempt to approach the relation between “religion” and “modernity”. Religious practices are forming their places in specific ways through practices of sacralizing, ritual and ascription of meaning. However, places such as temples, churches, shrines or abodes of spirits are being shaped and rendered meaningful not only in relation religious meanings, practices and spatialities alone. The fundamental relationality of place implies that other, not primarily religious practical contexts as well as encompassing structures of spatiality not reducible to religious dimensions alone are constitutive for religious places being positioned, spatialized, interrelated and imagined. And often it is exactly through these multidimensional practical and spatial contexts that “modernity” is mediated to “religion”: “modern” structures of economy, society, urbanity, state, administration and planning, involvement in tourism, interconnectedness through “modern” technologies of transport and communication, embeddedness in local, national and global discourses of commemoration, identity and legitimization, confrontation with new concepts of personality and world – and many more. Consequently, the workshop will approach the relation between religion and modernity through the discussion of such processes of placing and spatializing of religious practices in relation to practices and spatialities conditioned by modernity. And using places as a focus for such an approach implies to reflect on the complex relationality of places brought about through the paths and referential practices of the actors within local, national, transnational, regional and global structures.
It is planned to start the workshop with two keynote lectures on „Religion and Place in East and Southeast Asia” and “Religion, Modernity and Urbanity in East and Southeast Asia”. After that, the workshop will comprise sessions arranged around three major issues:

Practices of modernity shape and form religious places:
There are a lot of so-called modern practices which are involved in shaping and using religious places, e.g., the bureaucratic administration and control of space, the commodification of rituals and sacred places, the commercial exploitation through tourism or the interpretation of religious places as cultural heritage or historical monument or as part of transnational or diasporic constructions of spirituality and identity. Such practices are influencing the meaning, the accessibility and the practical utilization of these places and render modernity perceptible and disposable. How does modernity form religion in and through the places these practices of modernity are articulated in?

Religious places are present in spatialities of modernity:
Modern structures such as the bureaucratic national state, capitalism or transnationally structured diasporic communities have powerfully shaped and produced their own forms of spatiality and the places present in these spatialities. However, part of these spatialities are also religious places: shrines used to ask for success in the capitalistic market, sites of mass production of sacred objects conceived of as the first step towards sacralization of these objects, temples, used for ritual, prayer and devotion, which are also part of the economy of tourism or diasporic networks. How is religion present in the spatialities of modernity? What does the presence of religious places in modern spatialities mean for modernity and religion?

Modern urbanity and religious praxis:
Contemporary cities appear in many ways as the spatial articulation of modernity par excellence. However, modern urbanity is more than a form of physical space. It is also a bundle of specific social, political, economic and cultural forms. How does such a complex bundle of modern forms condition religious practices and how do religious practices condition the modern cities in Asia?


The workshop is open to a limited number of guests. Please register via until September 16th, 2013. The registration fee for guests is 40€ (20€/single day) and students 20€ (10€/single day) and includes beverages and lunch.

For further information please visit the DORISEA website.

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