Peterson – Mediating Religion and Materializing Imagination

In Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana, Birgit Meyer chronicles the liberalization and commercialization of the Ghanaian film industry from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s.  Of particular concern to Meyer, in this historical-ethnography, is the relationship between popular “film videos,” a term Meyer uses to differentiate popular films from state-sponsored films and art cinema, and Pentecostalism.  Meyer argues that popular film videos during this period, while not propagated by or as Christian or Pentecostal specifically, reify and mediate the dialectic tension between good and evil or God and Satan in a way that would appeal to those who are sympathetic to a Pentecostal epistemology.  Ultimately her project does not function as an emic study of Pentecostalism from within, but instead an etic study whereby she theorizes on the relationships between religion and media in general and explores, more specifically, those processes artistic and logistic that pertain to media production and distribution.  Her focus on film as a “symptom and facilitator of profound transformations of the public sphere,” yields to a broad study on Ghanaian film over the last three decades (2015, 298).  Her own expertise as a film director, producer, and anthropological scholar give her a keen ability to explore “the dynamic process of the making of video as a new medium for the imagination by tracking the interlacing of its technological, economic, social, cultural, and religious aspects” (35). Meyer’s primary interlocutors are filmmakers, directors, and producers.   Her relationship with them is multifaceted, at times casual, sometimes academic, other times professional, and occasionally collaborative.  These dynamic relationships allow Meyer intimate access to their creative processes, artistic concerns, financial challenges, and desire for commercial success.  In addition to these perspectives, Meyer’s research is informed by observation and conversation with a variety of publics – film critics, consumers, religious characters, and state officials.

The power of this work as a religious ethnography lies in its willingness and intention to explore the feedback loop between religious ideologies and popular culture.  In this case, Ghanaian film videos and Pentecostalism inform material culture during this time period.  In the first two chapters, Meyer makes chronicle changes in the film industry and situates them within larger political changes, namely the liberalization and commercialization of media and the rise of Pentecostalism.  Pentecostalism with its strong focus on God’s ability to prosper individuals emerges, per Meyer, as a viable alternative to the post-colonial government’s failed attempts at development and national prosperity (8-9).  Pentecostalism not only offers a theological framework with which to understand the world but also welcomes particular patterns of consumption that affirm wealth and prosperity.

The theological binary present in Pentecostalism works on several fronts simultaneously.  On one hand, it directly resists the State’s strategic sanitation of traditional African beliefs, that is the elevation of particular Akan symbols and narratives, by associating them altogether with the occult and the devil. On the other hand, it associates health, wealth, and prosperity, ideas readily conceived in a particular kind of urban lifestyle, with the favor of God (99).  Meyer is keen to note the role of sense experience and how mediation both in religious contexts as well as through film make “real” those things imagined or invisible.  Meyer calls this phenomenon “technoreligious” (189). The extent to which the physical and the spiritual are both sensed and understood in Ghanaian epistemology as common-place makes possible their imagining in film videos, specifically in “Revelation” films (170-172).  These films materialize the invisible spiritual world in ways that resonate with Ghanaian Christians imaginaries but are not offered as explicitly Christian or in a religious context.  The commercially successful films are ones that tap into the anxieties, hopes, and aspirations of the audience by using special effects, creating alternate worlds via set-design, imaging God/Jesus, creating ever more fantastical renditions of the occult and evil, and developing targeted marketing and distribution campaigns (Chapters 5&6). While Revelation films are not the only films in the Ghanaian film repertoire, their engagement with the Christian imagination certainly set them apart in this study.

I found Meyer’s willingness to address issues of African representation to be quite helpful.  She framed a version of “respectability politics,” that is the need to portray blackness, or in this case African heritage, positively such that it works against perceived negative stereotypes.  The extent to which these approaches, which she explores in depth in chapters 1 and 7, reify colonial categories can be easily overlooked. Representation in the public sphere is indeed a tricky subject for marginalized people who are trying to find their own voice in a public not really designed or built for them.  Ghanaian filmmaker’s interest in creating a new public for their content and willingness to work within the imaginaries of these evolving publics is not only a capitalistic engagement but also a reflection of the dynamic nature of cultural formation and re-formation.  For me, this kind of tending to the people where they are and trying to imagine what is possible is a necessary condition for theological reflection.  While Meyer does not explore this explicitly her notion of transgression points to an etic theological exploration that happens outside the confines of orthodox theological imagination.  I can see how paying attention this is not only of important in the ethnography of religion but why it is also important in the field of theology as well. Don Seeman, gets at this by raising questions around film’s ability to address a variety of moral imaginations and subsequently shape people’s lived experience.  Mediation is indeed powerful in its own right, but it’s ability to both manifest, manipulate, intensify, and altar belief makes it a powerful conversation partner with religion and popular culture.

Questions

Has media always been a site for religious exploration and imagination?  If so, how, and how might we analyze religious history in light of such a claim?   (Codices, Guttenberg Press, amplification)

How does access to and usage of media reveal larger social, political, and economic changes?

How is power mediated and how is media a site for power? How do media, power, and religion negotiate publics concurrently?

How might we explore social media ethnographically? And how might it help us to see how people express a wide range of beliefs and imaginaries almost instantaneously?

How does this kind of study of religion differ from other thinks of religious ethnographies we have studied?

How might we pull this ethnography in conversation with James and Otto on religious experience?

3 thoughts on “Peterson – Mediating Religion and Materializing Imagination

  1. Hey Nick,

    Thanks for the thoughtful precis—it was very helpful for processing a lot of the themes tackled in this book. I especially like that you draw our attention to Meyer’s emphasis on the complex and “entangled” mediation of dialectic tensions. You discuss the give and take of culture and religion and of the visible and invisible. I think it’s also worth talking through (as Knauss begins to) how these overlap with the dialectic of individual-collective and traditional-innovative. This cycle in which established traditions become internalized by the individual and then embodied as part of a collective seems to have a sort of hysteretic effect through which innovation is necessarily introduced. This gap may allow for the intentional shaping of traditions (e.g. to be more just or more inclusive of marginalized populations, etc.) over time.

    I’m also curious about your thoughts regarding the emic-etic status of this ethnography. As you point out it functions primarily as an etic account—do you think that the inclusion of more emic material would have fleshed out this account further or do you think it would have just gotten in the way/distracted from the goal of the text?

    I think it might also be fun to discuss in class the role of images and the imagination for sharing theological concepts (making them collectively available). Dr. Seeman’s response article talks about what theologies are encouraged by particular media (e.g. manichean ways of thinking are almost unavoidable with the Ghanaian approach to film). It seems we can extend this question—is there a medium that encourages a Maimonidean/apophatic theology? Human knowledge and language are both built out of images; is there any shared way at all to transcend those limited categories?

  2. Hey Nick, thanks for your precis. I liked the way you highlighted Meyer’s strong methodological adherence to the lived experience of the people she studied. I found this especially evident and powerful in the introduction to chapter 5, “Picturing the Occult,” where she wrestles with how ethnographers can approach with integrity “occult forces that are real to people in Africa but not necessarily to the anthropological reader” (193). I found this thoughtful, moving, and a testament to her professionalism. I would like to know if you understood where she landed on this issue the same way I did, namely that an ethnographer is best suited to study how people act because of the occult; what effect does it have on their lived behavior?

    There was so much conversation in this book on the moral aspect of the videos viewed and produced that I again felt myself wondering how we are using the word moral in this class. This book seemed to utilize it in a way that feels in line with my understanding: good or bad, right or wrong, etc. How does this contrast with our tendency to talk about a person’s “moral experience?”

    I also found myself fascinated with Meyer’s discussion of watching, viewing, and vision. We’ve read a TON of “seeing” theory in my iconography class, much of which I was interested to see Meyer drew from also, especially Mitchell and the idea of “what pictures want” from us. Meyer makes a fascinating comparision between this kind of sophisticated theory and the theology of seeing or “ethics of watching” as she called it which is present in the Pentecostal tradition. I would have liked to see her expand the theory aspect of this discussion; don’t we all open and close our selves to a certain extent when we ingest media? To what extent has this been intensified by the amount of media with which we are inundated each day? Does this contribute to the “echo chamber” effect that has been discussed in social media, where we limit the discussions present on our pages to those with which we agree?

    To your question about how does this study compare to others we have read, it felt most similar to me to Maya Deren’s study in Haiti, in part because both attempted to “come at” a religion through a certain technology, dance in Haiti, film in Ghana. There was much less consideration here for outlining the structure of the followed religion, in part because the author seems to assume most readers will be familiar with Pentecostalism. I didn’t find anything wrong with this during my reading, but there is something a bit disconcerting about it upon reflection; as with Luhrmann, it would likely behoove the ethnographer to be extra careful and precise when dealing with religions with which many are familiar, because then one is also dealing with a myriad more assumptions and preconceived notions.

  3. Hey Nick, who knew that when you mentioned the connections between Pentecostalism and neoliberalization in Africa last week, you were (perhaps?) talking about this book! 🙂 Very cool. I appreciate you bringing up the question of power (to sound like the ethics student I am). Specifically, I think it’s interesting to think about the ways that power and resistance are more complex in the picture Meyer paints than many portrayals out there, ethnographic or otherwise. On the one hand, filmmakers post-liberalization can be understood to be resisting the state’s claims about what a film/video should do, what kinds of stories it should tell, morals it should espouse, etc. On the other hand, these filmmakers are very much falling in line with the new economic system, making use of the new tropes as well as new material environments it has helped bring about. So it seems there may be some complexity there in what “resistance” means–I guess it’s important to ask, resistance to whom or what? I’d be interested in how we would tease out these categories in analyzing the book, as well as the question of how you get to a place where you can present this level of complexity so subtly and powerfully. Maybe the only answer is, through 25 years of fieldwork and a 400 page book! :/

    Also, related to your question of social media, I’m curious if any of her insights have changed in the smartphone era, in which everyone (or many more people) has instant access to video recording all the time, everywhere. Or did this not change things because most people aren’t professional filmmakers?

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