Media: what a messy, capacious, contentious term, in all the ways Raymond Williams described for Keywords. Slipping across material substrate, technological means, and environment, it incarnates the in-betweens that make processes either possible or not, or possible in some ways and not others, and in so doing exert their own force in the world. Media intervene: in art history between the artist and the work; in media studies between senders and receivers of messages; in religion between divinities or spirits and mortals; in the natural sciences between bodies and their vitality. Media both are, and are like, infrastructures (more on that below), objects of study as well as an analytical frame. So claims about them are made at various levels and scales, in the singular and the plural, their archaeologies straining against the linear temporality of progress (remediation; residue; emergence; topoi; once-new “old” media; “new media” getting old). The use of the term is therefore a freighted matter of “epistemological and political commitments,” as Brian Larkin observes of infrastructure. That is, when the term “media” is used, for Eurocentric assumptions about the senses and sense-making limit where and how it operates.
In my study of vernacular images in modern and contemporary India, whose overwhelmingly devotional nature has pulled me willy-nilly into the maelstrom of religion, what’s striking is the term media’s surprisingly and unsurprisingly belated application to religion. Media theory emerged in relation to Western mass media, seen as integral to a secular modernity and a public sphere predicated on religion as private belief and practice. In India it wasn’t until the 1990s—as it became increasingly clear that religion was an inescapable political force despite India’s putative secularism, and that print, cinema, and television had something to do with this—that communication and media studies began to wake up to religion. Even then, their overriding concern has been with nationalism, publics, or urbanism, rather than the role of media in emergent religious practices, which have been of more concern to religious studies, anthropology, and area studies. Media were of interest to scholars of India’s religions before religion was of interest to those working on Indian media.
Were it not for the coconstitution of mass media and secular modernity, this late engagement with religion would be surprising, for South Asian religions have been enthusiastic early adopters of newly introduced media, from woodblocks and oil painting through photography, cinema and television, to comic books, animatronics, 3D printing, and of course social media. Further, scholarship on religious images, as well as sacred texts or devotional poetry and music, often describes these as channels to the divine. This mediation unfolds not only via communication as the dissemination of messages, or by inducing transporting affects, but also through ritual exchanges of material substance with icons or other objects/beings understood as imbued with divine presence. Here, even the gaze has been described as a fluid medium coursing between devotees and embodiments of the sacred in a situation of mutual presence (darshan).
If such material processes haven’t been theorized in terms of media or mediation, this isn’t only due to the secularcentrism of media studies that consigned religion to the past. It’s also because religious studies has been mired in the authority of text as the ur-medium, along with a theological conception of religion (that is, primarily as belief or faith rather than the material practices lurking under the dread sign of the fetish). Both are legacies of Protestantism’s role in constituting the category of religion. So, for instance, the pioneering work on images in modern Hinduism came from scholars of religion who initially studied classical texts, such as H. Daniel Smith and Richard Davis. Of course, many elements of rituals and iconography do conform to canonical texts, contributing to the cyclical stickiness of religious traditions. But in many religions ritual cycles also constantly remake traditions, often embracing new media forms. New practices don’t replace canonical ones; these are layered onto and modulate each other to create complex, dynamic circuits of religious authority and links with other social, political, economic, and technological processes. This layering refutes the linear language of “shifts” and “transformations” that often characterizes narratives of media, technology, and religion.
The hegemony of the text is complicit in what Jacques Rancière calls “distributions of the sensible,” by which textual authority polices access to knowledge, power, and the divine. In India this distribution has crystallized in the deeply pernicious social/religious hierarchy of caste, headed by Brahmin priests as the gatekeepers of temple icons and sacred texts. So my point here is not to privilege images as sites of material exchange rather than texts as vehicles of theology, for both are mobilized to uphold Brahminical privilege. But attending to image practices or iconopraxis shines a more direct light on the sensible or mediatic regime of caste in which both textual and image-based media are embedded and “make sense.” The caste regime’s primary instrument of distinction is the practice of untouchability: the control of bodies in space and their coding as pure or polluted. In this regime, I would argue, vision does not primarily forge the dominant nexus with knowledge and power, but touch, presence, and habitations of space. If the body, corporeality, and the sense of touch are often celebrated as resistant to the post-Enlightenment hegemony of vision, here touch—refusal to touch, violent touch—is the very idiom of oppression. As I suggested earlier in relation to the gaze, vision is one of several kinds of material substance the image deals in; the image exceeds the visual and cannot be reduced to that modality alone. But this regime cannot be seen in essentialist terms, for it coexists unevenly with the hegemony of vision; further, as Aniket Jaaware has argued, its spatial and haptic mode of distinction is not exclusive to India.
Approaching such regimes as infrastructures of the sensible effects a convergence between “material religion” (again, a pleonasm for some of us) and media archaeologies that attend to complex temporalities and intermedialities, or that work at the level of platforms or infrastructure to revisit early ideas of medium as environment. This convergence resonates with my own commitments as an art historian who draws on anthropology to provincialize a constitutively Eurocentric discipline. The promise of approaching media at this infrastructural level is one of making different kinds of sense of media (or, following John Durham Peters, rendering epistemological what seems ontological).
So, for instance, medium-specific distinctions between photography, painting, and printing aren’t as meaningful for Hindu icons as they were for post-Renaissance European discourses of art and visual culture that hinged on originality and realism. More pertinent to the icon is the medium as material substrate. Here, the salient property is durability, in a regime centered on presence and the habitation of space. Accordingly, stones and hard metal alloys are valued above concrete, wood, or paper. This maps onto a patriarchal spatial schema where hard stones like granite are classified as male and suitable for outdoor use; soft ones like marble are female, and kept inside. This in turn relates to the centrality of distinctions between inside and outside, as with the gopuram (temple tower) whose remote visual spectacle of height and rich ornamentation was directed at those once known as “Untouchables” and excluded from temples, as against caste Hindus’ intimate corporeal exchanges with icons in the sanctum, mediated by Brahmins. Even as caste and gender exclusions based on untouchability and pollution have been outlawed (at least until recently), in practice their logics continue to generate resonances and interferences with democratic processes in the public sphere.
Both religious and media studies are now reckoning with religions as media that necessarily intercede between worshippers and the divine. But this reckoning must also mean attending to the varying regimes or environments of mediatic value, meaning, and efficacy within which religious and other mediations take place. These sensible infrastructures, unfolding through material and spatial practices, continue to undergird structures of relation and separation between subjects, and hence between bodies and their vitality. Caste in India is one instance of such a regime; we know there are others in which religion has also played a part, not least race and settler colonialism in North America.