OAC Seminar - "Why do the gods look like that?" by John McCreery

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Before I introduce our first presenter, I would like to begin by thanking John Postill for initially organizing the OAC Seminar Series.

I am pleased to announce that our first presenter is John McCreery, one of the more active members here at the OAC. John was born August 3 1944, raised in a pious Lutheran family in southern Virginia. Graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. with Honors in Philosophy in 1966 and received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Cornell University in 1973. His career includes 13 years (1983-1996) as Copywriter and International Creative Director at Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest advertising agency. From 1994 to 2005, he was a lecturer in the faculty of the Sophia University Graduate Program in Comparative Culture, offering seminars on “Marketing in Japan” and “The Making and and Meaning of Advertising.” His book, Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers was published in March 2000 as part of the the ConsumAsiaN Series (Curzon Press, UK; University of Hawaii Press, USA). Other publications include “Negotiating with demons: The uses of Magical Language,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No. 1, February 1995, “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors,” in John Sherry (ed.) Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior, 1995, and  “Traditional Chinese Religion,” in Ray Scupin (ed.) Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus, 2008.

He will be presenting a working paper entitled, Why do the gods look like that?
The abstract reads as follows:

Guan Yu Nearly half a century has passed since Claude Lévi-Strauss urged anthropologists to search for a “logic in tangible qualities” and Victor Turner proposed that dominant symbols combine a sensory pole that evokes powerful emotions with a cognitive pole where abstract meanings cluster. Material culture has become a thriving subfield of anthropological research. Anthropologists who study Chinese religion continue, however, to look for meanings behindthe images of Chinese gods instead of looking at them. This paper explores what closer attention to the visible and tangible qualities of Chinese god statues reveals about Chinese religion and its relation to religious traditions in which gods remain invisible.

This seminar will run from 27 April to 11 May 2010. During that time, members of the OAC are welcome to post comments to John about his paper in the discussion forum and he will respond. The seminar will unfold at a leisurely pace, as and when participants, including the presenter, find the time to post. After two weeks, the chair will thank the presenter and discussants, announce the next session and close the seminar.

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John, I really like the vignette you use to open your paper, as well as it's simple but profound question, "Why do Chinese gods look like that?" It raises many interesting questions.

Not being a regional specialist, my own question with be methodological. You begin by affirming Gell's critique of Bourdieu’s sociological and Panofsky’s iconographic approaches to art. The former “never actually looks at the art object itself,” while the latter “treats art as a species of writing” and thus fails to consider the object itself. You then state that your purpose is to consider what we might learn by going a step further and considering the object itself.

Saying as much, I thought the paper might be an elaborate discussion of the material forms of the gods themselves, perhaps by drawing explicitly on materiality studies such as Miller's own work or even a volume like Thinking Through Things (Henare et al 2007).

Instead, what largely followed was an analysis of various "representations of gods" in different contexts in the attempt to add up the "parts of the puzzle from which the anthropologist attempts to construct a convincing picture of the whole of what he is writing about."

Given your agreement with Gell's critique, how does a focus on representation and thick description go beyond Bourdieu and Panofsky, and toward the object itself?
Justin, that's an excellent question to which I have no ready answer. Lin Wei-ping led me to Gell and my buying The Object Reader (Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, 2009), which contains the Gell essay from which the remark was taken. I have also had a quick look at Daniel Miller's Material Cultures. But that is pretty much the extent of my current exposure to materiality studies. It would be very helpful, indeed, if those who know more than I do would join in with tips about how they might apply.

Any thoughts?

Justin Shaffner said:
John, I really like the vignette you use to open your paper, as well as it's simple but profound question, "Why do Chinese gods look like that?" It raises many interesting questions.

Not being a regional specialist, my own question with be methodological. You begin by affirming Gell's critique of Bourdieu’s sociological and Panofsky’s iconographic approaches to art. The former “never actually looks at the art object itself,” while the latter “treats art as a species of writing” and thus fails to consider the object itself. You then state that your purpose is to consider what we might learn by going a step further and considering the object itself.

Saying as much, I thought the paper might be an elaborate discussion of the material forms of the gods themselves, perhaps by drawing explicitly on materiality studies such as Miller's own work or even a volume like Thinking Through Things (Henare et al 2007).

Instead, what largely followed was an analysis of various "representations of gods" in different contexts in the attempt to add up the "parts of the puzzle from which the anthropologist attempts to construct a convincing picture of the whole of what he is writing about."

Given your agreement with Gell's critique, how does a focus on representation and thick description go beyond Bourdieu and Panofsky, and toward the object itself?
Justin, let me add a word of thanks for the pointer to Haidy Geismar's review of Thinking Through Things. I especially like the following statement from the review.

As I have argued in my introduction to the book Materiality (2005, Duke University Press), I think we should by now be beyond such issues and one of the most powerful contributions of material culture studies is to try and represent the vanguard of anthropology as a whole. An anthropology that no longer feels any such need to ground itself only in concepts such as society and social relations on the one hand, nor take refuge in cognitive studies on the other, but one that is comfortable with the idea of a prior materiality within which a more specific social anthropology can flourish. In short material culture is not a subset of social anthropology but more the other way around. Material culture is a condition for anthropology itself.

Such a material culture adds to anthropology but subtracts nothing.


I find this altogether consistent with what I am trying to do here.
Thank you for the reference. Could you say a bit more about why you recommend this particular author? There is no need to belabor her credentials, which are readily available on the Internet. I note, for example, the publisher's blurb for Hidden Meanings: Symbolism in Chinese Art:

Can decorative objects increase one's wealth, happiness, or longevity? Traditionally, many Chinese have believed that they could--as long as they included the appropriate auspicious symbols. In this book Asian Art Museum curator of Himalayan and Chinese decorative art Terese Tse Bartholomew, culminating decades of research, provides a thorough guide to such symbols.
Hidden Meanings: Symbolism in Chinese Art is richly illustrated with photographs of art objects and original hand-painted drawings by the author and by Mulan Bartholomew, organized in numbered sectors for ease of reference, and enhanced with extensive bilingual indexes and other supporting materials, making it an indispensable reference book for anyone interested in Chinese art and culture.


On the face of it this appears to be the sort of dictionary or glossary of Chinese symbols of which I already own a small library, the sort of work in which one can find out, for instance, that a bat is a symbol of good fortune because the pronunciation of bat is a homonym for good fortune, both being pronounced "fu" in Mandarin. There might, however, be something in the introduction or essays included in the volume or in other works by Bartholomew, which bears on the issues raised in the paper before us, and, if so, I would be most happy to learn about it.




M Izabel said:
"Why do Chinese gods look like that?"

Read the works of Terese Tse Bartholomew on Manchurian Sino-Tibetan art and iconography.
If the gods themselves are without form, and people make statues -- that is, give representation to them -- in order to establish a working relationship with them, could you tell us a little more about this process and how it is done? How does one go about domesticating a god in a statue or image? Thanks!!


John McCreery said:
Justin, that's an excellent question to which I have no ready answer. Lin Wei-ping led me to Gell and my buying The Object Reader (Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, 2009), which contains the Gell essay from which the remark was taken. I have also had a quick look at Daniel Miller's Material Cultures. But that is pretty much the extent of my current exposure to materiality studies. It would be very helpful, indeed, if those who know more than I do would join in with tips about how they might apply.

Any thoughts?

Justin Shaffner said:
John, I really like the vignette you use to open your paper, as well as it's simple but profound question, "Why do Chinese gods look like that?" It raises many interesting questions.

Not being a regional specialist, my own question with be methodological. You begin by affirming Gell's critique of Bourdieu’s sociological and Panofsky’s iconographic approaches to art. The former “never actually looks at the art object itself,” while the latter “treats art as a species of writing” and thus fails to consider the object itself. You then state that your purpose is to consider what we might learn by going a step further and considering the object itself.

Saying as much, I thought the paper might be an elaborate discussion of the material forms of the gods themselves, perhaps by drawing explicitly on materiality studies such as Miller's own work or even a volume like Thinking Through Things (Henare et al 2007).

Instead, what largely followed was an analysis of various "representations of gods" in different contexts in the attempt to add up the "parts of the puzzle from which the anthropologist attempts to construct a convincing picture of the whole of what he is writing about."

Given your agreement with Gell's critique, how does a focus on representation and thick description go beyond Bourdieu and Panofsky, and toward the object itself?
John: Apologies for not commenting sooner, but your paper raises some important and interesting issues which I wanted to think about before offering a response.

As I don't know anything about Chinese religions, I unfortunately can't offer much of a contribution to your informative discussion of that particular material. But your more general argument is most welcome, against the widespread scholarly tendency to want to see straight through the materiality of images, to access a meaning behind or beyond them - a tendency which is, I think, motivated by a modernist epistemology (Ricoeur's 'hermeneutics of suspicion', if you like), that thinks it comes equipped with a kind of X-ray vision, able to fathom and figure out the real depths of sense behind surface appearances.

One could say, I guess, that, for the devotees of these images, there is also something behind or beyond them; namely, the divinities that 'have no shadows and leave no trace', except that their hither existence is, as you indicate, captured or contained within the images themselves. But this notion that such images are temporary repositories of an efficacy that is also 'out there', is clearly different to the concerns of the art collector - unless, I suppose, the efficacy invested in the image is its monetary value.

I was definitely persuaded by your argument that, whatever Chinese divinities may look like, they don't look like they do just because Chinese society happens to look like that (gods as bureaucrats, etc). I entirely agree that this kind of quasi-Durkheimian move - religion is a projection of the social order - is too simplistic.

I also very much see eye to eye with your proposal that we should treat with the material specificity - the 'tangible qualities' - of the images themselves. It is interesting to learn that these images, and the gods invested in them, are defined in terms of their efficacy (ling). It almost made me think that the Chinese had already understood Gell's Art & Agency long before he came to write it!

Up to a point, your general proposal does sound rather like Gell, who you quote in support, and similar sentiments are expressed in a paper on Buddhist icons by Bernard Faure (writing completely independently of Gell), that we should attempt to

'free ourselves from the obsession with meaning (symbolism, iconology in the Panofskian sense) and form (style) in order to retrieve the affect, effectivity, and function of the icon. We need to go beyond the traditional concerns about the genesis of particular works of art; influences; attempts to retrieve historical or aesthetic categories (the sublime, and so forth)'. (Faure 1998: 787)

But as Justin notes, the programme of your paper moves in a rather different direction to the that one Gell takes. You aim to leave behind meaning (or, at least, leave behind the meaning behind images) towards a focus on forms, and - if I've read the argument correctly - you suggest that different forms of divine representation express and enable different kinds of relations towards divinities.

The contrast seems to turn on the difference between iconic and aniconic images. (The former: images that aim at resemblance; such as Chinese gods looking like people; the latter: images that don't obviously aim at resembling anything, such as gods represented as spirit tablets, or the concealed objects that embody the deities in Japanese shrines.) I could be mistaken, but I took there to be an extra, overlapping contrast: between images that can be seen (as in Chinese temples) and those that cannot (as in Japanese shrines).

At any rate, iconic images express or enable more intimate, reciprocal relations between worshippers and divinities, while the relationships that aniconic (or invisible) images project or promote is more authoritarian.

I think that the scheme introduces great scope for comparative possibilities, which is clearly the excellent intention behind it. But I have some reservations. As I remarked in a previous post, it does generally seem to be the case that Japanese Shinto shrines are devoid of any obvious iconic imagery. At least, a Shinto priest said as much to me, that, in shrines (as opposed to Buddhist temples), one cannot 'see' the god. So, there may indeed be something rather interesting at work here, but I'm not certain that there is necessarily a connection between an-iconicity (and/or invisibility of imagery) and the expression of authority. Or, to put it another way, it's not clear to me that aniconic or otherwise invisible divinities constrain the possibility of intimate relations with them. Contemporary ethnographies of Japanese shrine-going show both that the range of relations people aim to establish with the gods (as well as the ways they go about doing so) are very diverse, and the relations so established can indeed be intimate and reciprocal (see, e.g., Nelson 1996: Reader & Tanabe 1998).

Of course, on the face of it - if you'll pardon the pun - it would seem to be intuitively easier to establish more personal and intimate relations with an anthropomorphic and visible divinity or its image, because all the more easy to see it, to address it, to touch it (as in the nade-botoke that Faure mentions, 'buddhas to stroke' - Buddhist statues that worshippers touch in order that merit or benefits might rub off on them). But equally, many hundreds of thousands of Japanese go to shrines at New Year, in order to re-connect, to reciprocate, with gods that are either deemed to inhabit trees, stones, or are otherwise nowhere to be seen.

One last point. It seems to me that you hit on a potentially significant distinction: that between gods that are anthropomorphic and those that aren't - certainly, ancient Roman writers seemed to think so, noting that before the influence of the Greeks, their indigenous gods were never represented as people, but did their divinities change when the way they represented them did? Gell, at any rate, thought that the gods are what they look like:

'Whatever the idol looks like, that, in context is what the god looks like, so all idols are equally realistic, because the idol-form is the visual form of the god made present in the idol.' (Gell 1998: 98)

But this, of course, doesn't answer your question!



Refs:

Faure, B. (1998). 'The Buddhist icon and the modern gaze.' Critical Inquiry 24:3:768-813.
Gell, A. (1998). Art & Agency.
Nelson, J.K. (1996). 'Freedom of expression: The very modern practice of visiting a Shinto shrine'. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 23:1-2:117-153.
Reader, I. & G. Tanabe. (1998). Practically religious: Worldly benefits and the common religion of Japan.
Dear John,
I Just took another look at my remarks and realised that they seem to go on forever! Sorry for the lengthy commentary. But, if it's any consolation, your excellent paper really chivvied me to think.
Philip, thank you so much. You are the sort of reader of whom writers dream. I will reply in more depth. May I have a day or two to think and see who else chimes in?



Philip Swift said:
John: Apologies for not commenting sooner, but your paper raises some important and interesting issues which I wanted to think about before offering a response.

As I don't know anything about Chinese religions, I unfortunately can't offer much of a contribution to your informative discussion of that particular material. But your more general argument is most welcome, against the widespread scholarly tendency to want to see straight through the materiality of images, to access a meaning behind or beyond them - a tendency which is, I think, motivated by a modernist epistemology (Ricoeur's 'hermeneutics of suspicion', if you like), that thinks it comes equipped with a kind of X-ray vision, able to fathom and figure out the real depths of sense behind surface appearances.

One could say, I guess, that, for the devotees of these images, there is also something behind or beyond them; namely, the divinities that 'have no shadows and leave no trace', except that their hither existence is, as you indicate, captured or contained within the images themselves. But this notion that such images are temporary repositories of an efficacy that is also 'out there', is clearly different to the concerns of the art collector - unless, I suppose, the efficacy invested in the image is its monetary value.

I was definitely persuaded by your argument that, whatever Chinese divinities may look like, they don't look like they do just because Chinese society happens to look like that (gods as bureaucrats, etc). I entirely agree that this kind of quasi-Durkheimian move - religion is a projection of the social order - is too simplistic.

I also very much see eye to eye with your proposal that we should treat with the material specificity - the 'tangible qualities' - of the images themselves. It is interesting to learn that these images, and the gods invested in them, are defined in terms of their efficacy (ling). It almost made me think that the Chinese had already understood Gell's Art & Agency long before he came to write it!

Up to a point, your general proposal does sound rather like Gell, who you quote in support, and similar sentiments are expressed in a paper on Buddhist icons by Bernard Faure (writing completely independently of Gell), that we should attempt to

'free ourselves from the obsession with meaning (symbolism, iconology in the Panofskian sense) and form (style) in order to retrieve the affect, effectivity, and function of the icon. We need to go beyond the traditional concerns about the genesis of particular works of art; influences; attempts to retrieve historical or aesthetic categories (the sublime, and so forth)'. (Faure 1998: 787)

But as Justin notes, the programme of your paper moves in a rather different direction to the that one Gell takes. You aim to leave behind meaning (or, at least, leave behind the meaning behind images) towards a focus on forms, and - if I've read the argument correctly - you suggest that different forms of divine representation express and enable different kinds of relations towards divinities.

The contrast seems to turn on the difference between iconic and aniconic images. (The former: images that aim at resemblance; such as Chinese gods looking like people; the latter: images that don't obviously aim at resembling anything, such as gods represented as spirit tablets, or the concealed objects that embody the deities in Japanese shrines.) I could be mistaken, but I took there to be an extra, overlapping contrast: between images that can be seen (as in Chinese temples) and those that cannot (as in Japanese shrines).

At any rate, iconic images express or enable more intimate, reciprocal relations between worshippers and divinities, while the relationships that aniconic (or invisible) images project or promote is more authoritarian.

I think that the scheme introduces great scope for comparative possibilities, which is clearly the excellent intention behind it. But I have some reservations. As I remarked in a previous post, it does generally seem to be the case that Japanese Shinto shrines are devoid of any obvious iconic imagery. At least, a Shinto priest said as much to me, that, in shrines (as opposed to Buddhist temples), one cannot 'see' the god. So, there may indeed be something rather interesting at work here, but I'm not certain that there is necessarily a connection between an-iconicity (and/or invisibility of imagery) and the expression of authority. Or, to put it another way, it's not clear to me that aniconic or otherwise invisible divinities constrain the possibility of intimate relations with them. Contemporary ethnographies of Japanese shrine-going show both that the range of relations people aim to establish with the gods (as well as the ways they go about doing so) are very diverse, and the relations so established can indeed be intimate and reciprocal (see, e.g., Nelson 1996: Reader & Tanabe 1998).

Of course, on the face of it - if you'll pardon the pun - it would seem to be intuitively easier to establish more personal and intimate relations with an anthropomorphic and visible divinity or its image, because all the more easy to see it, to address it, to touch it (as in the nade-botoke that Faure mentions, 'buddhas to stroke' - Buddhist statues that worshippers touch in order that merit or benefits might rub off on them). But equally, many hundreds of thousands of Japanese go to shrines at New Year, in order to re-connect, to reciprocate, with gods that are either deemed to inhabit trees, stones, or are otherwise nowhere to be seen.

One last point. It seems to me that you hit on a potentially significant distinction: that between gods that are anthropomorphic and those that aren't - certainly, ancient Roman writers seemed to think so, noting that before the influence of the Greeks, their indigenous gods were never represented as people, but did their divinities change when the way they represented them did? Gell, at any rate, thought that the gods are what they look like:

'Whatever the idol looks like, that, in context is what the god looks like, so all idols are equally realistic, because the idol-form is the visual form of the god made present in the idol.' (Gell 1998: 98)

But this, of course, doesn't answer your question!



Refs:

Faure, B. (1998). 'The Buddhist icon and the modern gaze.' Critical Inquiry 24:3:768-813.
Gell, A. (1998). Art & Agency.
Nelson, J.K. (1996). 'Freedom of expression: The very modern practice of visiting a Shinto shrine'. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 23:1-2:117-153.
Reader, I. & G. Tanabe. (1998). Practically religious: Worldly benefits and the common religion of Japan.
If the gods themselves are without form, and people make statues -- that is, give representation to them -- in order to establish a working relationship with them, could you tell us a little more about this process and how it is done? How does one go about domesticating a god in a statue or image? Thanks!!

The process is an elaborate one. The best description I know is in Lin Wei-ping's paper, of which I have a PDF. I also have some nice dramatic photographs of my Taoist master performing the final "eye-opening" ceremony that I could scan and post. Does the way the seminar is set up allow us to attach files or display images? Is there an easy way to do this?
Thanks, Justin. Here is Lin Wei-ping's paper. Images to follow. I need to retrieve the slides from the freezer in which they are kept, do some scanning, that sort of thing.
Attachments:
John, the response to Thinking Through Things you quote from above is by Daniel Miller, not Haidy Geismar. Readers may also be interested in Martin Holbraad's reply to Miller, which they can read if they scroll down past the bottom of Miller's piece.

Miller's take on the arguments are quite reasonably designed to reassert the place of material culture studies, which Miller (perhaps optimistically) locates at 'the vanguard of anthropology' (Miller is of course Professor of Material Culture at UCL), in response to our query in TTT 'what would an artefact-oriented anthropology look like, if it were not about material culture?’

Of course, what we were querying was not the existence or value of material culture studies as a (sub-)discipline, but why it is that anthropologists persist in segregating objects from their meanings. We were not the first to do so, of course, as we acknowledge in the following passage from the Introduction:

'Understood as a realm of discourse, meaning and value’, Tim Ingold has observed, ‘culture is conceived to hover over the material world but not to permeate it’ (2000: 340). On this model, meanings attach to things, impose themselves on things, may even be inscribed or embodied in certain things, but are always presumed to be – in the first instance – distinct from the things themselves. Marilyn Strathern (1990) has attributed this view to the epistemological preoccupations of a modernist anthropology that takes as its task the elucidation of social and cultural ‘contexts’ - systems or frameworks used to make sense of social life (see also Pinney 2005). In this scheme, she notes, the primary task of anthropologists is to slot things into the social and historical systems (such as ‘society’ or ‘culture’) wherein their significance is produced. One effect of this procedure is that the system itself becomes the object of study, its artefacts reduced to mere illustration: “For if one sets up social context as the frame of reference in relation to which meanings are to be elucidated, […] then explicating that frame of reference obviates or renders the illustrations superfluous: they are become exemplars or reflections of meanings which are produced elsewhere. It was in this sense that social anthropology could proceed independently of the study of material culture” (1990: 38).'

If you are really interested, as the beginning of your paper suggests, in approaching things such as Chinese gods differently, you might also look at Michael Taussig's work, since he somewhere asks and discusses a very similar question (if the statues only 'represent' the gods, why do they need bodies at all?).
Amiria,

Thank you very much, both the for correction re Daniel Miller and the pointer to Taussig.

This is precisely the sort of advice I come to OAC looking for and find particularly valuable. Like Keith Hart, I find the appeal of anthropology to lie primarily in the hope it offers to learn something about humanity as a whole. I am also, as you have noticed elsewhere, committed to the notion that what we have learned so far suggests that to reach that goal we must first work our way through a thicket of particulars and the differences they embody. Close, concrete, comparative analysis is us.

Your comments and Philip Swift's also highlight another issue for me, the context in which work is produced and presented. The paper presented here was written for a conference whose theme was "Chinese popular religion in Taiwan." Only three of the participants were non-Chinese. In writing for that audience, I was particularly aware of the need to cite Chinese authors and not bury local scholarship under a barrage of references to non-Chinese scholarship. I apologized during the presentation for the fact that I had not had time to thoroughly explore the work of the people in the room, the vast bulk of which is published in Chinese instead of English. In that context, the embarrassment was having so much of the paper about what non-Chinese authors had said about Chinese religion.

Now, of course, the situation is reversed. Our seminar participants are, so far at least, entirely non-Chinese and, naturally enough, more concerned with how the paper's findings relate to work in other places that they themselves find important. Now the embarrassment lies in the scantiness of the references to the work of such scholars as Bernard Faure (Japanese Buddhist art) and Michael Taussig (Mimesis and Alterity?) as well as the authors of Thinking Through Things, of whose very existence, along with that of the GADT debate "Is Ontology Another Word for Culture?" I have only learned about through participation in OAC.

John



Amiria Salmond said:
John, the response to Thinking Through Things you quote from above is by Daniel Miller, not Haidy Geismar. Readers may also be interested in Martin Holbraad's reply to Miller, which they can read if they scroll down past the bottom of Miller's piece.
Miller's take on the arguments are quite reasonably designed to reassert the place of material culture studies, which Miller (perhaps optimistically) locates at 'the vanguard of anthropology' (Miller is of course Professor of Material Culture at UCL), in response to our query in TTT 'what would an artefact-oriented anthropology look like, if it were not about material culture?’ Of course, what we were querying was not the existence or value of material culture studies as a (sub-)discipline, but why it is that anthropologists persist in segregating objects from their meanings. We were not the first to do so, of course, as we acknowledge in the following passage from the Introduction:

'Understood as a realm of discourse, meaning and value’, Tim Ingold has observed, ‘culture is conceived to hover over the material world but not to permeate it’ (2000: 340). On this model, meanings attach to things, impose themselves on things, may even be inscribed or embodied in certain things, but are always presumed to be – in the first instance – distinct from the things themselves. Marilyn Strathern (1990) has attributed this view to the epistemological preoccupations of a modernist anthropology that takes as its task the elucidation of social and cultural ‘contexts’ - systems or frameworks used to make sense of social life (see also Pinney 2005). In this scheme, she notes, the primary task of anthropologists is to slot things into the social and historical systems (such as ‘society’ or ‘culture’) wherein their significance is produced. One effect of this procedure is that the system itself becomes the object of study, its artefacts reduced to mere illustration: “For if one sets up social context as the frame of reference in relation to which meanings are to be elucidated, […] then explicating that frame of reference obviates or renders the illustrations superfluous: they are become exemplars or reflections of meanings which are produced elsewhere. It was in this sense that social anthropology could proceed independently of the study of material culture” (1990: 38).'

If you are really interested, as the beginning of your paper suggests, in approaching things such as Chinese gods differently, you might also look at Michael Taussig's work, since he somewhere asks and discusses a very similar question (if the statues only 'represent' the gods, why do they need bodies at all?).

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