BY JOHN SANFORD
Contrary to the predictions of most scholars in the early- and mid-20th century, religion has become a greater political and social force in the world, not a diminished one. Meanwhile, new forms of media have proliferated.
These dual notions underlay the final session of a conference here late last month featuring the high priest of postmodernism himself, Jacques Derrida, and other well-known philosophers and literary critics. The two-day event -- "Cruelty, Death Penalty, the 'Return of the Religious,' with Jacques Derrida" -- was billed as "celebrating Stanford University Press authors and the future of the humanities as they will help define it."
Jacques Derrida participated in a conference last month at Stanford. Photo: L.A. Cicero
Derrida, who is director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes-Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and a professor of humanities at the University of California-Irvine, was joined onstage in Kresge Auditorium by four Stanford professors and five other scholars for the roundtable titled "'Global Religion' and the Pluralization of Public Spheres."
Rescuing the subjects of media and religion from the paranoid banality of cabal watchers and college-band lyricists, these scholars examined the very grounded, if subtle and intricate, relationship between the two phenomena.
Perhaps the most compelling argument during the more than three-hour roundtable was made by Haun Saussy, a professor of comparative literature and Asian languages. Citing the work of the Toronto historian Harold Innis, Saussy turned the usual way of looking at the relationship between media and religion -- that is, as media in the service of religion -- on its head.
"Innis recognized that a civilization was a communications network, and a network required a basis in hardware -- human messengers, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, paper, print or what have you," Saussy said. "His examination of human history reinterprets the rise and fall of empires as crises in the media of communication."
In Innis' view, the Roman Empire "is not so much an empire of the Romans as it is that of papyrus," Saussy added. In other words, communication, which is perhaps the key ingredient for empire building, is largely based on physical media.
"As in the story about the cobbler's theory of history, it all comes down to leather and tacks," Saussy said. "In Innis' telling, the media become the protagonists of the story of history, and humans merely their unwitting accomplices, carrying out in their activities the potentialities dormant in parchment, type, radio or whatever other physical support may emerge to underwrite a social bond."
Thus, the media are autonomous; they "use" us, rather than the other way around. Saussy noted that, in 17th-century China, Jesuit missionaries relied on woodblock printing, which was a popular and cheap method of communication in that country, to circulate their ideas. But as they aspired to gain more influence and status in China, they tried to promote a new system of communication that would be as expensive to own and operate as the European printing presses. The Jesuits, Saussy said, were accustomed to "an intellectual economy in which the circulation of ideas was too costly for unauthorized voices to have much of an opportunity."
And while communication via woodblock printing was efficient and economical, neither the Jesuits nor Chinese officials had much to say in support of it, Saussy said. He argued that their lack of enthusiasm probably stemmed from the fact that woodblock printing was, in their eyes, too "advanced" -- that is, democratic and accessible; they had no control over the message it was being used to carry. (By implication, the Internet is the ultimate form of woodblock printing and, as we know, the bane of China's communist government.)
Another panelist, Mary Pratt, the Olive H. Palmer Professor in the Humanities, suggested that there should be more discourse on the relationship between religion and the current phase of "neoliberal capitalism."
Some people have started looking at the way in which religion may perhaps mediate a central contradiction of neoliberal globalization, she explained.
"On one hand, you have the propagation of consumerism and consumer culture and, on the other hand, you have the radical polarization of wealth that in fact has decreased most people's ability to consume -- in many cases, decreased it to zero," she said.
Meanwhile, national governments have begun retreating from their custodial and redistributive functions, Pratt said, adding that this means "everybody is increasingly on their own, entitled to nothing."
In the United States, Christian television programs seem to devote a lot of time and energy to trying to manage this situation, she said. They emphasize ideas about taking charge of one's life and dealing with desire and temptations, "which you cannot satisfy," she said.
In Latin America, similar practices have taken root in a growing movement of evangelical Christianity, which began displacing traditional Catholicism during the rise of neoliberal globalization, Pratt said. New religions also have started appearing -- for example, the cult of Maria Leonza in Venezuela and neo-Aztec religion in Mexico and even in California's Central Valley -- many of which also are concerned with "how to make a meaningful life out of absolutely nothing," Pratt said.
Derrida, who decided to put aside his notes and speak extemporaneously, asserted that Christianity is "the religion of the media"-- much more than Islam or Judaism is -- from the point of view that actual religious events, such as the liturgy of Eucharist, can be watched on television.
Although there are Islamic television programs, only in Christianity can one witness such a "religious experience" on television, he said.
Other roundtable panelists were the philosopher Richard Rorty, a Stanford professor of comparative literature; Professor Hent de Vries, chair of metaphysics in the Philosophy Department at the University of Amsterdam and director of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis; Gil Anidjar, an assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University; and James T. Siegel, a professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Cornell. Samuel Weber, a professor of comparative literature at Northwestern University, was unable to appear on the panel; his comments were read by Helen Tartar, humanities editor for the Stanford Press.
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford, was the respondent, and Thomas Carlson, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was chair of the roundtable.
The event was sponsored by Stanford University Press, Humanities Center, University Libraries, School of Humanities and Sciences, Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Law School, School of Medicine's Arts and Humanities Program, the Program in Modern Thought and Literature, the Interdisciplinary Institute of French Studies, and the departments of Religious Studies, Comparative Literature, English, Philosophy, and French and Italian.
Assistance also was provided by Cultural Services of the
French Embassy in the United States.
Stanford Report, May 8, 2002