Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia

Call for Papers mid-term Conference “Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia”
Date: June 26 to 29, 2013
Place: University of Goettingen, Germany
Organized by: Competence network “Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia” (DORISEA), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. See http://www.dorisea.de/en.

Keynote Speaker: Robert Hefner, Boston University
Deadline for the submission of abstracts: November 30th, 2012.
Please send your abstracts to dorisea@uni-goettingen.de and indicate in which panel you would like to participate.

Conference topic

In global comparison, Southeast Asia stands out as a region marked by a particularly diverse religious landscape. Various “ethnic religions” interact with so-called “world religions”, all of the latter – with the exception of Judaism – being represented in the region. While religion has oftentimes been viewed as an antithesis to modernity, scholarship has shown that religion shapes (or: is intertwined with?) modernization processes in crucial ways and that its role in contemporary Southeast Asian societies is intensifying. The mid-term conference “Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia” will explore this link between “religion” and “modernity” by focusing on three dimensions of religious dynamics, namely mediality, politics and mobility. In the spirit of Southeast Asian studies as a holistic, i.e. trans-disciplinary approach, we invite papers from fields as diverse as history, anthropology, sociology, political science, media studies, geography or linguistic studies that investigate the peculiar dynamics of religion in times of globalization, and the ways in which these dynamics mediate change and continuity in Southeast Asia.

Panel 1: materializing Religion: on Media, Mediation, Immediacy

Given that religion “is the practice of making the invisible visible, of concretizing the order of the universe, the nature of human life and its destiny, and the various dimensions and possibilities of human interiority itself” (Robert Orsi 2005: 74), the study of religion necessarily has to scrutinize correlating processes and resources of its materialization. Accordingly, we have to acknowledge that the worlds of religions and the media are not separate or competing spheres of influence, but converge. The study of religion, then, is interrelated with the study of media, mediation and audience perception, of sacred books and images, material objects and the human senses, of religious practices in a public sphere, which is extensively permeated by modern communication technologies. Research on the dynamics of religion in modern Southeast Asia will profit from such a perspective.

Invited are papers on the interface of media and religions in Southeast Asia. Hereby, priority is given to four dimensions of the media and mediation of religions.

     * Concept of “medium” beyond mass media.
This involves discussing the medium not only as a means of communication between humans but also between humans and spiritual powers (ritual activities and visual representations through the medium photography; performing arts; ghost pictures and films). In its modern genealogy, the term “medium” always carries a double meaning. Therefore, we include and discuss spirit possession and mediumship as distinct forms of materialization – creating immediacy through embodiment Particular attention will be paid to the modalities of processes of mediation.

     * Constitution and circulation of codes of representation: norms and deviation.
The communication of “religious” contents via media is subject to regulation, from legal restrictions and censorship to historically and culturally constituted codes of representation (including aesthetic ones). In this context, the question may arise as to what medium / media are considered “apt” to communicate religious contents. Hereby, the authoritative role of the medium “text” has to be taken into serious consideration.

     * Medium, loss and preservation.
Media (be it textual, pictorial or material) are used in an effort to document and to preserve, or to remind: this relates to loss, to death (portraits) and cultures of remembrance. Questions surrounding individuality / collectivity emerge here as well as questions of temporal mediation and transmission (the medium as transcending time).

     * Relation between religious authority and medium / media.
New media such as radio or the Internet allow persons without formal religious training to get to a position of religious authority. The effects can be considered as dissolving religious authority and/or as fundamentally democratising. On the other hand, the spread of religious teachings increases through the use of such media, and they are, of course, used intensely by religious authorities.

Papers should address at least one of the above-mentioned dimensions, be empirically grounded and theoretically informed.

Panel 2: Secularization of Religion, Sacralization of Politics? The State of Religion in Southeast Asia

Scholars of Southeast Asia have tirelessly emphasized the tight interplay between politics and religion in the region and questioned the very salience of “religion” and “politics” as separate spheres. From the veneration of national heroes in Vietnamese temples to the declaration by former Prime Minister Mahathir that Malaysia was an Islamic state, a neat distinction between the “religious” and the
“political” seems hard to sustain. In terms of theory, this observation has generally led to a refutation of the cornerstone of modernization theory, namely secularism, as a Eurocentric line of thought. This panel seeks to go beyond the simple refutation of the secularization thesis and welcomes contributions that are both theoretically informed and empirically grounded in their investigation of the manifold relations between “religion” and “politics” in Southeast Asia – from the much noted politicisation of religion, to the ritual and performative dimensions of the political.

Historical accounts have long emphasized the mutually constitutive ties of religion and politics in the region. Religion in Southeast Asia has indeed never been solely a tradition, a belief system, the combination of belief and ritual or an instrument to explain the world. Since the introduction of the world religions Hinduism, Buddhism (both vehicles), later Islam and Christianity from the neighboring regions, these world religions have been, like their tribal beliefs systems, which existed before and together with them, instruments to create and to legitimize rules and rulers and to organize societies. This is a general feature since the times when the earliest kingdoms and empires were founded along the trade routes between India and China in the first centuries AD.

Postcolonial nation-states have intervened directly in the definition of what “religion” entails, from designating a particular religion as “state religion”, incorporating certain religious idioms into national ideology, to legally regulating the religious sphere. Indonesia’s Pancasila ideology that incorporated various “world religions” under a Judeo-Christian-Muslim notion of “religion” (Ramstedt 2004), the parallel processes of representational re-vitalization and institutional weakening of Buddhism in Laos (Morev 2002), or, more recently, the “nationalisation of Islam” in the context of globalization and neoliberal capitalism in Malaysia (Fischer 2008) are all examples of possible articulations of the national and the religious in contemporary Southeast Asia. While processes of globalization, migration, economic, ecological or demographic changes are reaching today the “last frontiers” of Southeast Asia’s rural, jungle and highland areas, so does the reach of the modern state: intensifying globalization has not brought about the demise of the nation-state. Yet, transnational religious networks – such as the Pentecostal Church – do contest the monopoly of the state over certain arenas, such as education, or reject the national as the main frame of reference and identity marker by referring to a land “in which God, not the (…) state, has dominion”
(Glick Schiller & Karagiannis 2006:160).

Rather than to equate “politics” with “the state”, in this panel, we seek to explore the manifold linkages between the “religious” and the “political” in globalized Southeast Asia, from the formal institutions and regulatory mechanisms policing the religious sphere to the political claims of religious networks. Importantly, we are not only interested in the ways in which the secular and the religious are respectively defined in local, national and global contexts, but also how religious and state officials draw the internal boundaries of what “religion” entails, marginalizing, for instance, “(its) less objectified and less rationalized manifestations” labeled as “animism” (Lambek 2012).

Papers may address – without being limited to – the following set of questions: Which political strategies do social actors deploy in the struggle for political, or, respectively, religious authority and to which ends? How are such attempts subverted, instrumentalized or resisted? How is religious authority used to gain political authority and how is the latter used to ‘authenticate’ (e.g. national, religious) identities and its ‘others’? How does the regulation of religion by the nation-state – for instance through law and education – relate to the context of economic globalization? How are transnational religious influences ‘mediated’ with national religiosities?

Panel 3: Spatial Dynamics of Religion between Modulation and Conversion

The panel aims at exploring the spatial dimension of religious change. A reflection on religious practices in Southeast Asia, where different religions share sacred places, multi-religious rituals are common and religious mobility blurs into other forms of travel, clearly shows that religious change is always entangled with dynamics of movement and place-making. But how are these entanglements to be approached empirically and conceptually? Change can be understood on a conceptual and experiential continuum between modulation – as a reproduction and variation within conventional sets of rules, orientations and meanings – and conversion – as a break with previous social and cosmological orientations. The spatial can be conceived as being constituted through the triality of extension, place and movement. Depending on the ways these formal dimensions of change and space take material shape, the dynamics of religion are articulated in historically specific ways which will be the focus of the panel. Papers may address – without being limited to – the following topics:

The movement between places can be understood as a spatial articulation of dynamics of religion. Pilgrimage, for example, potentially facilitates experiences of connectivity, similarity and alterity of places and religions. How do such experiences of movement and distant places mediate experiences and conceptualizations of religious change unfolding between modulation and conversion?

Even without geographic mobility, conversions often imply a spatial dimension. They may involve a shift of or a reorientation within spatial orders (e.g., the integration of certain groups in new structures of religious centers and peripheries). How do such shifts within spatial orders mediate religious change? How are social, political, economic and cultural dynamics related to religion through encompassing spatial orders?

Places are constituted through practices of inclusion and exclusion which can both accommodate a diversity of religious forms as well as demonstrate the purity of a single religious form. What are the different ways of dealing with diversity in religious places? How are spatial articulations of inclusion and exclusion practically implemented in processes of place-making and how are they related to experiences of modulation or conversion?

Religious places are neither self-contained nor mono-functional in yet another dimension. They may, for example, simultaneously be sites of sacred power, national remembrance, tourism and commerce. How are multiple connectivity and multi-functionality achieved and managed through spatial practices of movement and place-making (e.g., pilgrimage, migration, spatial distribution of objects and
activities, establishing of topographies, etc.) in relation to religious change?