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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Many thanks, John, for providing the clarifications and extra ethnographic details.

Regarding worship at Shinto shrines, it certainly does seem to be much less involved than the Chinese transactions that you mention. Indeed, it is the apparently uncomplicated nature of so many Japanese shrine-going practices that is the very cause of their confounding complexity, in the eyes of scholars. (Witness the puzzlement of Alan Macfarlane, who’s moved to ask, ‘what are they doing?’ (Macfarlane 2007: 186), or consider the debate, some years ago, between two specialists of Japanese religion over whether such transactions could be called ‘religious’ at all. (Anderson; Reader 1991).)

In addition, many worshippers seem not to know the name of the deity to whom they are praying. (When Nelson told the priest of a particular shrine that only 14% of worshippers surveyed knew the divinity’s name, the priest was surprised. He thought it would be much lower than that! (Nelson 1996: 126).) It goes without saying that this is a problem that only seems to exercise scholars (and possibly priests); most Japanese shrine-goers just carry on regardless.

But this fact does seem to support John’s intuition that Japanese 'kami' (gods) are conceived of more in terms of an impersonal collective. I’m still not sure, though, that that, and/or the fact that 'kami' are largely imaged aniconically, and/or that the objects in which they reside are concealed from view, necessarily entails a connection with the expression or evocation of authority, or, correspondingly, entails a constraint on the possibility of establishing personal relations with them. Though, I suppose that John’s argument is not that the establishment of personal relations with Shinto divinities is impossible; merely that such relations seem to be less personal than they are in the case of certain Chinese divinities; those divinities which are imaged in anthropomorphic forms.

Going back to Gell, for a moment: Gell states that the god (in context) just looks like what the idol looks like. For the solving of John’s problem, Gell’s assertion is probably not helpful. In terms of its compact finality, in fact, it makes me think of that refrain by Run DMC: 'It’s like that / And that’s the way it is'. John, of course, wants to say: Yes, but why? Why does the idol look like that?

But Gell goes on to say that, it is because the form of the idol is the ‘visual form’ of the divinity the idol embodies, that ‘all idols are equally realistic’. He says this, of course, in order to repudiate the idea that an anthropomorphic image of a divinity is somehow more ‘realistic’ than an image of a divinity that is a block of stone. Gell’s point is quite right, I think, and it prompts me to wonder about the question of realism and representation.

Faure – in the paper I cited in a previous post – poses the following question about the relation between ‘realism’ and Buddhist icons: ‘Is the addition of real hair [for example, an image of the 15th century Zen master Ikkyû was crowned with real hair] aimed at making the icon more “realistic” (that is, at verisimilitude) or more “real” (that is, at animation)?’ Faure goes on to say, in another place (Faure 1991: 170-177) that Buddhist icons were much less made to be resemblances or likenesses (‘realistic’), than they were made to be real; that is, as bodies invested with the presence of divinities. Hence, Faure says, the significance of the ‘eye-opening ceremony’ ('kaigen shiki'), in which the eyes of the image are painted in, and so the image is given vision, animation; an action, we might say, that dots the ‘i’ of the icon.

Interestingly, however, ‘eye-opening’, according to Horton (2007: 11) is also performed on aniconic images as well, such as the wooden tablets in which ancestor spirits are invested.

In any case, what all this suggests – to me, at any rate – is that images of this kind are perhaps not best understood as participating in an economy of ‘belief’. (I don’t think, incidentally, that John was really saying this; but Lin makes this implication in her paper - that John kindly provided.) Rather than aiming at representation or the installation of belief, what the making of these images is about, is arguably the activation of presence. Such images activate, not belief in the worshipper, but the presence of the god. (The Japanese scholar Nishimura Kôchô compares the consecration of Buddhist statues to the plugging in of a TV set. Fanciful, perhaps, but a better model of understanding what these statues do than the model of belief, or so it seems to me.)

Refs:

Anderson, R.W. (1991). 'What constitutes religious activity? (I)'. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 18:4.
Faure, B. (1991). The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A cultural critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
Horton, S.J. (2007). Living Buddhist Statues in Early Medieval & Modern Japan.
Macfarlane, A. (2007). Japan Through the Looking-Glass.
Nelson, J.K. (1996). 'Freedom of expresssion: The very modern practice of visiting a Shinto shrine'. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 23:1-2.
Reader, Ian. (1991). 'What constitues religious activity? (II). Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 18:4.
Amiria Salmond writes,

Well I guess it all comes down to what it means to 'understand' each other

Yes, indeed. I would go a step further and also agree with what Michael Taussig writes about Cuna figurines in Mimesis and Alterity and conceive of some alternative to that,

defensive maneuver of the powerful by subjecting [the object in question] to scrutiny as yet another primitive artifact, grist to the analytic machinery of Euroamerican anthropology.

Here, I suspect, our paths diverge. That "belief" can be used in the dodgy ways that Aimira describes, I accept as a matter of fact. Does this, however, imply that the only way to deal with the others whose lives we share and analyze respectfully is to acknowledge

that others' truths are just as true as yours are - others' realities (at least potentially) just as real?

Here I have my doubts. It seems to me that "true," used in this way is every bit as dodgy as "belief." Lovers swear to be true. In courts witnesses swear to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," an oath that flies in the face of a growing mountain of evidence about the unreliability of eye-witness testimony. Students of legal and clinical reasoning, behavioral economics, business and other decision making have joined the epistemologists and philosophers of science in murdering whole forests of trees to record their debates about what "true" or "truth" might mean—to which we must now add that religious and political fanatics borrow what they say to insist that anyone who denies their belief not only has no case but is damned and deserves to die.

Is there, then, no path forward? Personally, I believe that science, properly conceived, embodies the right attitude. We make no assumption that our conjectures about the world are radically different from the other's conjectures about the world. Instead, we assume that both are human constructions, both are at best partial understandings, both are almost certainly flawed. We give up the assumption that some are true and others false or merely a matter of opinion. Then, and here the evidence from the history of science is compelling, we find that in many cases we can come to agreement on what we are proposing and what counts as evidence for or against our propositions. We can even agree that, while "True" and "False" are off the table, some ideas are better than others, based on the evidence before us. There will, of course, be cases in which we cannot agree and will have to agree to disagree. In the worst case, failing to find what C. Wright Mills calls a shared vocabulary of motives, our only options will be fight or flight.

Seen in this light, the proposition that "others' truths are just as true as yours are" seems less than compelling. "Some of your ideas may be as good or better than mine and also vice-versa": that seems better to me.
Ryan Anderson writes,

There are always the official meanings, and then there are the unofficial, popular, incorrect, or contested meanings. My guess is that these kinds of alternative and conflicting dialogues have been ongoing for some time--so meaning-making has to be about power at some point or another, or the ability to actually define and control definitions and narratives.

Could we, I wonder, dig a bit deeper, taking into account the historical moments in which diverse definitions and narratives appear.

In the case of Chinese temples we know that there is an ongoing process of cult formation.

In what we might call the founding moment, one or more miracles have occurred and those who come together to worship the deity in question share awareness of these events as well as, to some degree, broader folkloric understanding of the deity's identity. An altar is set up in someone's home or shopfront.

In what we might call the developmental phase, the cult expands and acquires the resources to build a proper temple. A set of oft-told stories about the deity's powers appears. These are a subset of a larger set of narratives that may include many whose distribution is limited or which fall out of use.

In what we might call the mature phase, the temple has become a local landmark. Local literati with an interest in local history write down the established narratives, which then become available for circulation in copied or printed forms.

In a few cases, the temple grows to regional or even wider significance. Its catchment area, the geographical region from which worshippers and pilgrims come, includes literati with more than local reputations. Their writings circulate among those with similar interests and may even achieve the status of authoritative accounts.

We should, however, note two additional facts.

First, the model sketched above describes only successful temples; most temples don't succeed on this scale. Many fail and are simply abandoned. Others linger as local landmarks, coming alive only at periodic festivals. Time passes. Custom persists, but old stories are forgotten. In a generation or two, the custodian the collector or anthropologist encounters may be little more than a janitor.

Second, the Chinese state, both in imperial and modern times, has most often adopted a hands-off attitude toward popular religion. Sporadically attempts have been made to collect available information and compile official accounts. There is, however, no Chinese equivalent to the Church in medieval or early modern Europe, no institution that creates and enforces a dogma. There are Daoist and Buddhist schools that claim to be orthodox, implying, of course, that others are not; the state does not enforce their claims.

Ryan is entirely right when he guesses that,

these kinds of alternative and conflicting dialogues have been ongoing for some time--so meaning-making has to be about power at some point or another, or the ability to actually define and control definitions and narratives.

In the case of Chinese popular religion, however, there is no one with "the ability to actually define and control definitions and narratives." There is, at best, a cultural system: a grammar, a vocabulary, conventional assumptions and usage that limit but never freeze the range of what counts as plausible.
---

For those who might be interested in pursuing the background to these remarks, I have attached a PDF of the chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion" that I wrote for Ray Scupin, ed., Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus.
John McCreery said:

For those who might be interested in pursuing the background to these remarks, I have attached a PDF of the chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion" that I wrote for Ray Scupin, ed., Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus.

The attached file was, however, the wrong one. I am now attaching the complete article.
Attachments:
Many thanks for kindly providing your chapter, John. Being completely ignorant of Chinese religion, I will read it with interest!
Greetings John McCreery. Thank you for your paper and the article by Wei Ping Lin, which I have read with great interest since I think your topic is truly worthwhile. I have also tried to read through and understand (although not all) the replies/discussion. I appreciate both the generosity with which these replies are given and the patience and good nature with which you have addressed them. Although the seminar is very close to concluding, I hope you will find the time to respond to my questions.

As I understand your paper’s position, you are advancing a concern for the material forms that gods take or “the object itself”, which (I gather) you oppose to something considered more vital by anthropologists. You begin by saying (and posing the problem) that anthropologists tend “to look through god statues in search of something else.” I note the emphasis on “through” which suggests that they look at it but don’t really see because they are looking for “something else” as you say. Consequently, the statues or the objects themselves “are treated as arbitrary signs” – incidental and of little interest. You propose what seems like a methodological solution and/or approach that amounts to “considering the object itself” in what you seem to describe in/as “adding the material, thickening the description” - an approach and/or model inspired by various structuralist perspectives/approaches.

My questions:

1. What do you mean by that “something else” pursued or sought by anthropologists without sufficient regard for the religious object itself? Is it cultural meaning/significance or supporting evidence required for the formulation of theoretical or conceptual narratives? If so, how is cultural meaning derived without sufficient regard for the material form of the gods? Alternatively, are you speaking of a tendency among anthropologists (a tendency among all theorists/researchers really) to impose pre-conceived notions/conclusions about the significance of the material forms so that they are made to mean something?

2. Your view of the problem appears to be greatly informed by Wei Ping Lin’s article but you point out that it is deficient because you are “neither shown or told” what the statues with which her study is concerned look like and you say that “it contains no answer to the question why Chinese god statues depict Chinese gods in the way that they do” (p. 3). Would you not consider the detailed description of the creation process or story (what brings the material form of the god into being) provided by Lin an aspect or something in lieu of the material form that you say requires greater attention (i also have in mind the iconic/aniconic and the what can be seen/not seen construct/s put forward by Philip Swift)? If not, why?

3. You regard the statue of Guandi as it appears in the Yokohama Guandi Miao website (p. 7). How do you account for the extent to which the object itself that you seek to know is not or no longer original/authentic but, as you acknowledge, the way in which the material form is explained, made to mean or framed?
Regina,

Thank you for your interest. Let me try to answer your questions.

1. The "something else" that anthropologists have been looking for. As I noted, perhaps too briefly, in the paper, the classic approach that I associate with Arthur Wolf, ed., Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society started out with a straightforward Durkheimian/structural-functionalist view of Chinese religion. Gods, ghosts and ancestors were conceived as representations of social categories or, more narrowly, local communities or corporate groups. The structure, developmental cycles, and, ultimately, the histories of these groups were the primary focus of interest. Iconographic and other ritual details were of secondary interest compared to sociological issues in relation to which they might be used as evidence.

2. Lin Wei-ping's description of creating and consecrating a god statue is very good as far as it goes. It remains, however, a generic description. The identity of the god or goddess in question is said to be important, but no particular case is mentioned. We are simply left to assume that the statues of the gods worshipped in Wanlian were produced in this way. It is as if, shifting to my other interest, I explained to you how Japanese advertising is created, taking you step by step through the brief, the brainstorming, preparing and presenting the pitch, and then, if the pitch is successful producing the ad in question. Suppose, however, that what you really wanted to know was the specifics of how the 1993 campaign for the new BMW 5-series and how they fit into Japanese or global auto advertising at the time the campaign was produced. The process might be the same, but the copy, the art, the tone and manner, and the specific features of the car emphasized reflected particular conditions not mentioned in desceribing the process.

3. When you ask, "How do you account for the extent to which the object itself that you seek to know is not or no longer original/authentic?" I find myself perplexed. Original or authentic? is not a question I raise and the more I think about it the less sense it makes to me. On the one hand, we have no idea what the first image of Guan Di looked like—we have only the description in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. On the other, every image I mention is an authentic image to those who create or worship them or use them to promote China's image abroad. Every superscription mentioned by Duara said the right thing about the god to someone. At the end of the day, I don't see it as the anthropologist's job to adjudicate local or art historical quarrels over authenticity. Our job is to understand how the field within which these quarrels occur is structured and, thus, the significance of moves to different positions within it.

Returning, however, for a moment to 1: I would be remiss not to mention the inspiration provided by Stephen Owen's Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World. In this truly marvelous book, Owen suggests that every literary genre anticipates a certain reader. Thus, for example, British romantic poets assumed a reader for whom the words in the poem are the shadows on Plato's cave, who constantly looks behind and beyond them in search of the ideal Forms of which they are only imperfect reproductions. In contrast, Chinese poets and especially those who produced the Tang lyric that was Owen's passion, assumed a reader with a classical Chinese education, who would instantly grasp allusions to the Classics or Histories. So, for example, when Du Fu writes of riding on a boat around a certain bend in the Yellow river on a particular moonlit night, the reader for whom he writes would know that he was fleeing the sack of Chang-an during the An Lu-shan rebellion and share the pathos of the moment. That reader would be in the moment, not looking for something beyond it.

For me, one of the most memorable moments in the conference for which the first version of this paper was written, was when Lin Mei-rung, now a very senior Chinese anthropologist and expert on the cult of Matzu, said that the paper made her realize that in all of the years that she had studied Chinese religion she, too, had simply taken the god statues for granted. Now she would have to go back and take a closer look.
John, thank you for replying to my questions.

John McCreery said:
Regina,

Thank you for your interest. Let me try to answer your questions.

1. The "something else" that anthropologists have been looking for. As I noted, perhaps too briefly, in the paper, the classic approach that I associate with Arthur Wolf, ed., Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society started out with a straightforward Durkheimian/structural-functionalist view of Chinese religion. Gods, ghosts and ancestors were conceived as representations of social categories or, more narrowly, local communities or corporate groups. The structure, developmental cycles, and, ultimately, the histories of these groups were the primary focus of interest. Iconographic and other ritual details were of secondary interest compared to sociological issues in relation to which they might be used as evidence.

2. Lin Wei-ping's description of creating and consecrating a god statue is very good as far as it goes. It remains, however, a generic description. The identity of the god or goddess in question is said to be important, but no particular case is mentioned. We are simply left to assume that the statues of the gods worshipped in Wanlian were produced in this way. It is as if, shifting to my other interest, I explained to you how Japanese advertising is created, taking you step by step through the brief, the brainstorming, preparing and presenting the pitch, and then, if the pitch is successful producing the ad in question. Suppose, however, that what you really wanted to know was the specifics of how the 1993 campaign for the new BMW 5-series and how they fit into Japanese or global auto advertising at the time the campaign was produced. The process might be the same, but the copy, the art, the tone and manner, and the specific features of the car emphasized reflected particular conditions not mentioned in desceribing the process.

3. When you ask, "How do you account for the extent to which the object itself that you seek to know is not or no longer original/authentic?" I find myself perplexed. Original or authentic? is not a question I raise and the more I think about it the less sense it makes to me. On the one hand, we have no idea what the first image of Guan Di looked like—we have only the description in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. On the other, every image I mention is an authentic image to those who create or worship them or use them to promote China's image abroad. Every superscription mentioned by Duara said the right thing about the god to someone. At the end of the day, I don't see it as the anthropologist's job to adjudicate local or art historical quarrels over authenticity. Our job is to understand how the field within which these quarrels occur is structured and, thus, the significance of moves to different positions within it.

Returning, however, for a moment to 1: I would be remiss not to mention the inspiration provided by Stephen Owen's Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World. In this truly marvelous book, Owen suggests that every literary genre anticipates a certain reader. Thus, for example, British romantic poets assumed a reader for whom the words in the poem are the shadows on Plato's cave, who constantly looks behind and beyond them in search of the ideal Forms of which they are only imperfect reproductions. In contrast, Chinese poets and especially those who produced the Tang lyric that was Owen's passion, assumed a reader with a classical Chinese education, who would instantly grasp allusions to the Classics or Histories. So, for example, when Du Fu writes of riding on a boat around a certain bend in the Yellow river on a particular moonlit night, the reader for whom he writes would know that he was fleeing the sack of Chang-an during the An Lu-shan rebellion and share the pathos of the moment. That reader would be in the moment, not looking for something beyond it.

For me, one of the most memorable moments in the conference for which the first version of this paper was written, was when Lin Mei-rung, now a very senior Chinese anthropologist and expert on the cult of Matzu, said that the paper made her realize that in all of the years that she had studied Chinese religion she, too, had simply taken the god statues for granted. Now she would have to go back and take a closer look.
Regina said:
John, thank you for replying to my questions.



My pleasure. If you have more, I would be delighted to try to answer them, too.
M Izabel said:
After reading Patricia Chang's "On the Trail of Chinatown’s Hidden Gods", I went to Chinatown in Los Angeles yesterday.

I hope John will forgive me, but, apart from following the discussion, I have been asking myself what precedent this online seminar sets for the future, with a view to learning from the lessons it gives us. As Regina pointed out, both the paper giver and his correspondents have established a tone that is generous, respectful and rigorous. I don't know if the conversation has built any cumulative arguments or if a more hands-on chair would be a good or a bad thing. On the whole, the prolonged period for discussion has suited me, especially since my life has been mad lately.

But your intervention, M Izabel (M in order to preclude first naming, I suppose, or is Izabel the name you prefer to be addressed by?), really excited me for the way it opens out future possibilities for these seminars. I keep asking myself what is different for us from sitting in a room together for one and a half hours. Obviously both situations allow participants to express what they carry around between their ears; but we can take time to read and maybe miss some of the cut and thrust immediacy of a live occasion. The idea that a participant could actually do some impromptu fieldwork relevant to the discussion never occurred to me; but it takes advantage of our constitution as a global network and of the time we have allowed for reflection to do something that no ordinary seminar could, go out and ask some people what they think, the key to the original ethnographic revolution. This is a new specifically anthropological twist on the possibilities inherent in virtual reality.

So thank you for that.
As the seminar draws to a close, I would like to take this opportunity to thank John Postill for starting the OAC Seminar series, Justin Schaffner for picking up the ball and running with it, and, in addition to Justin, everyone who participated. They are, in the order in which they first appeared,

M Izabel
Philip Swift
Amiria Salmond
Keith Hart
ryan anderson, and
Regina

I want to say to you all that, at least for me, you have made this a wonderful example of what academic life should be. Here I have found colleagues who have challenged and stimulated my thinking, while, as Keith Hart just put it, keeping our conversation, "generous, respectful and rigorous." For an independent scholar, who has no colleagues down the hall, no faculty colloquiums to attend, this has been a bit of heaven on earth.

Like Keith, I am especially tickled that M Izabel has taken the next step and started doing fieldwork in the Chinatown to which she refers. I look forward to seeing what she discovers.

I am also delighted to have had this opportunity to point participants (and hopefully a few lurkers as well) to the anthropology of China, where my anthropological wanderings began. Whether this is, as some project, to be China's century, I cannot say. There is no denying, however, that a quarter of humanity deserves the occasional reference in anthropological debates and that few other sources of ethnographic examples offer anything like the sheer historical depth, as well as breadth of variation, that China provides to those interested in social and cultural change over the longue durée.

As final self-indulgence, then, I am attaching here a PDF of the chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion," which I wrote for Ray Scupin's reader Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus. When I wrote it, back in 2000, I discovered how much new research had appeared since the last time I turned my attention to this topic. Nearly a decade has passed since then, and there is now another small library of books that I should read to try catch up once again—and that's just research on China. I am sure that there are lots of other relevant books and articles to which those here could point me. Please, if you have a moment, do.

And, of course, I must not forget. A special word of thanks to Keith Hart, Justin Shaffner and the other founders of OAC, without which this wouldn't have happened at all. May you live long and prosper.
Whoops. I managed to attach and remove the wrong PDF, but then found myself unable to replace it. Anyway here it is.
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