Aesthetics of Religion is a new paradigm that connects research approaches on materiality, the body, the senses, media, and religion. This network emerged from the working group “Aesthetics of Religion” (founded in 2007) of the German Association for the Study of Religion (DVRW). From 2015 to 2018, a network of fifteen scholars from Germany and abroad were part of AESTOR.NET, promoting this approach at six conferences and workshops funded by the German Research Fundation (DFG). The network of scholars recently published “The Bloomsbury Handbook of the Cultural and Cognitive Aesthetics of Religion”.
The role of atmosphere in Aesthetics of Religion
14 February 2022 at 8:07 am EST #56500
I hope this is not inappropriate and out of format. If so, I apologize and do not expect any response. As a PhD-student I have been exploring the production, mediation and negotiation of atmospheres in a Copenhagen Night Church. In this regard, I have learned a lot from Aesthetics of Religion. However, momentarily, I am also wondering about how atmospheres have been explored or conceptualized within the AoR framework.
I have found some very useful articles and chapters on atmosphere but it still seems to me that atmosphere (as a theoretical concept and empirical phenomenon) is a bit underexplored in AoR? Martin Radermacher, as I suspect you all know, claims that this is the case with the study of religion more generally.
Perhaps, this is an unjust statement in relation to AoR. To specify; I have not seen papers or chapters that explore the production of an atmosphere ethnographically; that is, all the mediations, negations, and (im)material that is involved when practitioners tries to create the “right” kind of atmosphere.
To specify even more: I am approaching atmosphere from a practice theoretical perspective (Latour, Reckwitz, Wetherell etc.) and Gernot Böhme’s aesthetics of atmospheres.
Perhaps, some of you are familiar with work that deals explicitly with the production of atmosphere within AoR?
I have one article published in Material Religion that explores the production of an atmosphere in practice. If anyone is interested, I will be more than happy to send it.
Again, I apologize if this is not the intention with this format.
All the best,
Andreas Melson Gregersen
14 February 2022 at 11:17 am EST #56505
Dear Andreas (if I may),
In my PhD dissertation I aim to capture the “atmospheres” which are “evoked” in the worship of a Central Himalayan Hindu Goddess by means of writing and filming, especially with an AoR framework. I know the articles by Martin Rademacher and think that he is methodologically quite close to the AoR (or AestoR) approach, which is quite diverse and bring together postions from a more culturalistic / social constructivist as well as those from a more universalist / neuropsychological background. As far as I understand this potentially very productive tension, it makes it necessary that we leave open the question to what extend atmospheres are real and “there” in a sense that all those evolved perceive in a similar way – or whether they simply aren’t. Rademacher, if I remember correctly, also tries to bring together both aspects. Most members of the network would agree with Rademacher’s remark from his 2018 article that – in addition to everything which might be afforded by spatial arrangements, by bodily synchronization and by neurological conditions which favor multimodal perception or synaesthestic experiences – we depend on verbal information from our informants which contain terms like “atmosphere” in the first place (Rademacher 2018, S. 151).
There are plenty of articles about atmospheres or similar concepts contained in the volumes published by the network – among them, the Bloomsbury handbook of the cultural and cognitive Aesthetics of Religion, whose very title points to the ambition to bring together different epistemologies. In their introduction to the 2017 volume on the “Aesthetics of Religions – a connective concept”, Alexandra Grieser and Jay Johnston demark the field of Aestor by the following questions:
- How in the context of religious practice are the senses stimulated, governed and disciplined?
- How are religious experiences, emotions and attitudes created, memorized and normalized?
- How do religious perceptual orders interact with those of a larger culture?
(Grieser & Johnston 2017, p. 2)
I find these questions particularly helpful to mark Aestor off against approaches from Material Religion or Affect Theory, which go into a similar direction, but with less focus on the (often orchestrated) stimulation, creation and normalization of “atmospheres”, which imo belong to the field of “experiences, emotions and attitudes”. Sebastian Schüler’s contribution the the same volume brings in more cognitive science to think about how synchronized, collective experience of an atmosphere is possible. Mohr 2020 provides an extensive vocabulary on the ways atmospheres can be – sometimes intentionally – orchestrated, created or shaped. Luhrmann 2020 sums up some results from her decades of research on “training and talent” as conditions for having religious experiences of “absorption” – a mental or aesthetic state which might be seen as a product of a shared atmosphere, but also as a precondition for experiencing an atmosphere in the first place.
I have many more notes on atmospheres and related phenomena as discussed in the Bloomsbury Handbook. To keep it short, I wrote in a review in the Marburg Journal of Religion that I found interesting and various tools in the Handbook to answer questions such as these:
- What is an “atmosphere of gravity”, built up and used to increase sincerity/seriousness of motivation (pp. 65-66)?
- Do rituals build up a “virtual reality”, characterized by “emotional tangibility” and “emotionally labelled sensory experience” (p. 66)?
- Do religious techniques, devices and designs engage universal psychophysiological dispositions, for instance “making use of bodily resistance toward dead and stinking objects and creating an unpleasant emotion” (p. 261)?
For studying religious “dramaturgies”, as I call it in my PhD thesis, it is worthwhile to be aware of the “filtering mechanisms” (Mohr in ibid. p. 131) of attention, motivated by exogenous and endogenous stimuli, controlled in “hierarchies of media that are privileged, restricted, or even banned (such as dance)” (Borelli&Grieser in ibid. p. 41) and even becoming measurable in “somatic modes of attention” as “bio-chemical processes” (Kreinath in ibid. p. 49). Dramaturgic means are not only directing ritual action, but also the narration of stories, which is also performative: it engages an audience by utilizing its scenery (for instance, a fire in the night). A final chapter of the Handbook even rises questions about how and whether atmospheres, “intensive personal experiences” or “deep emotions” (p. 288) might be utilized in teaching about religions.
Grieser, Alexandra; Johnston, Jay (2017): What is an Aesthetics of Religion? From the Senses to Meaning – and Back again. In: Grieser, Alexandra; Johnston, Jay (ed.): Aestetics of Religion. A Connective Concept. Berlin/Boston, pp. 1-49.
Guggenmos, Esther-Maria (2020): “Smell as Communication”, in: Anne Koch und Katharina Wilkens (Hg.): Handbook of Cultural and Cognitive Aesthetics of Religion, London: Bloomsbury, 219-227.
Koch, Anne & Katharina Wilkens (2020): Introduction, in: ibid. (eds.): Handbook of Cultural and Cognitive Aesthetics of Religion, London: Bloomsbury, 1-11.
Koch, Anne (2020): Aestheticscapes und joint speech als ästhetische Strategie. Analyse eines katholischen Fürbittgebets mit ‚Exorzismus‘. ZfR 28(2): 259–275
Luhrmann, Tanja (2020): Absorption. Koch, Anne & Wilkens, Katharina (eds.): The Bloomsbury Handbook of the Cultural and Cognitive Aesthetics of Religion. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 85–95.
Mohr, Hubert (2020): “Sensory Strategies”, in: Anne Koch und Katharina Wilkens (Hg.): Handbook of Cultural and Cognitive Aesthetics of Religion, London: Bloomsbury, 129-142.
Schüler, Sebastian (2017): Aesthetics of Immersion. Collective Effervescence, Bodily Synchronization and the Sensory Navigation of the Sacred. In: Grieser, Alexandra; Johnston, Jay: Aestetics of Religion. A Connective Concept. Berlin/Boston, pp. 367-387.
- This reply was modified 1 year, 3 months ago by Gerrit Lange.
- This reply was modified 1 year, 3 months ago by Gerrit Lange.
14 February 2022 at 5:57 pm EST #56517
Thank you very much for taking the time and replying in such a thoughtful and informative manner. This was very helpful!
While I have read Aesthetics of Religion: A Connective Concept carefully, I am still in the process of reading through the Bloomsbury Handbook. From your response, I can understand I have much to look forward to.
Radermacher’s review intrigued me. According to Radermacher (2018), atmospheres are often described by scholars of religion but rarely the main analytical target or focus of conceptual development. I think this is a fair assessment. Although, a number of anthropologists have more recently explored the production and/or reception of atmospheres in relation to religion. Even so, the general tendency amongst scholars of religion, in my humble and flawed experience, is to reify atmospheres and thereby black-box the complexity of the production and reception (which are interlinked) of atmospheres and, not the least, the potential existence of multiple atmospheres existing simultaneously.
In 2020, I co-organised a informal workshop with Radermacher on “atmosphere and religion.” Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to discuss the state of research on atmosphere in the subfield of aesthetics of religion. We did, however, touch upon the importance of exploring how atmospheres are qualified as religious by informants.
Having read studies related to aesthetics of religion, it did seem to me that there was more to be said about atmospheres (methodologically and theoretically). I do not know if you would agree?
Of course, the “problem” with atmosphere is that it is often invoked with different terms or alluded to implicitly.
As I did not find any substantial mentioning of Gernot Böhme’s aesthetics of atmosphere or Hermann Schmitz’ new phenomenology (which are the most prominent names in the study of atmospheres and often referenced and invoked in the humanities when atmospheres are studied) in the aesthetics of religion framework, I began to wonder:
1) Was this a symptom of a desire to move pass phenomenological approaches to atmospheres. OR,
2) Was it because atmosphere was rarely the primary analytical, empirical and/or theoretical focus?
From your response, I can gather that it is most likely more to do with 1) than 2). That being so, I cannot help wondering how then atmospheres are conceptualized and studied within aesthetics of religion? How do they, for instance, relate to mediation?
Inspired by others, I (2021) have tried to conceptualize atmosphere both as a type of practice (what I call atmosphering, see also Bille and Simonsen 2019) and as type of distributed agency. Patrick Eisenlohr (2018), on there other hand, follows Hermann Schmitz and explores atmospheres as “half things” in his inspiring work. Friedlind Riedel (2020), to take another example, has recently introduced the helpful notion of “atmospheric relations.”
I think the chapters by Schüler and Frank Heidemann in <i>Aesthetics of Religion </i>(2017) are very helpful for studying atmosphere. However, the former explores collective effervescence and notes, importantly, that not every atmosphere is a collective effervescense. The point being, there are also different types of atmospheric presence. Andreas Rauh, for instance, distinguish between, if I recall, four different different modes of atmospheres in his helpfull book Astonishing Atmospheres (2018). Some atmospheres, I would venture, operate akin to what David Morgan describes as focal objects (or perhaps we should say focal quasi-objects) while others remain unnoticed.
Lastly, your PhD-dissertation sounds very interesting. If you have anything published on atmospheres, I would be more than happy to read it.
Once again, thank you very much for engaging with me. I really appreciate it!
Bille, Mikkel, and Kirsten Simonsen. 2019. “Atmospheric Practices: On Affecting and Being Affected.” Space and Culture:1-15. doi: 10.1177/1206331218819711.
Eisenlohr, Patrick. 2018. Sounding Islam: Voice, Media, and Sonic Atmospheres in an Indian Ocean World. Oakland: University of California Press.
Gregersen, Andreas Melson. 2021a. “Exploring the Atmosphere Inside a Liturgical Laboratory.” Material Religion 17 (5):627-50. doi: 10.1080/17432200.2021.1945990.
Radermacher, Martin. 2018. “„Atmosphäre“: Zum Potenzial eines Konzepts für die Religionswissenschaft.” In Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft, 142.
Rauh, Andreas. 2018. Concerning Astonishing Atmospheres: Aisthesis, Aura, and Atmospheric Portfolio. Milan: Mimesis International.
Riedel, Friedlind. 2019. “Atmospheric relations: theorising music and sound as atmosphere.” In Music as Atmosphere: Collective Feelings and Affective Sounds, edited by Friedlind Riedel and Juha Torvinen, 1-43. London: Routledge.
- This reply was modified 1 year, 3 months ago by Andreas Melson Gregersen.
16 February 2022 at 5:35 am EST #56546
Dear all, dear Andreas,
many thanks for this interesting and stimulating discussion, it is exactly what we initially hope for that it would happen on this platform.
Also thnks for focussing the discussion on two questions:
1) Was this a symptom of a desire to move pass phenomenological approaches to atmospheres. OR,2) Was it because atmosphere was rarely the primary analytical, empirical and/or theoretical focus?
First of all, there is a long history of philosophical phenomenology as an approach in the Academic Study of Religion that distinguishes discourses, for example from anthropology and the problems of the fieldworker. There is the pseudo-phenomenology of the 1920s that claims rather theological experiences (R. Otto etc.); but also Boehme, Schmitz at al. focus on some a-historical “experience” and elaborately problematise the old problem how we can access the experience of others and what kind of data we have when we do what our “objects” do.
The AoR approach aims at a meta-perspective in which phenomenology is but one epistemological option to access the network of social structures, collective bodies, historical conditions, the physical preconditions of both bodies and environment. What is often left behind in these phenomenological musings about “feeling what they feel” is the possibility to analyse
a) what exactly is going on in perceptive and cognitive processes (and what specialised knowledge might help us with this analysis; see the work of Hubert Mohr: how cultural and biological “filters” are established; or the “Aesthetic Field Record” by A. Koch in the Handbook, 293, which has let to excellent analyses of dance movements, Lina Aschenbrenner, for example). Mohr’s and Brunotte’s work in particular shows that AoR goes beyond the experiential fieldwork problem and proves fruitful for cultural-historical analysis as well.
b) The analysis is just as much interested in what characterizes the “atmosphere” in terms of the physical conditions of the environment. Terms from different knowledge areas are not only used as a metaphor, but as models for analysis: to go back to the “source domain” of the term, atmospheres emerge from air pressure, temperature, humidity, sound waves, colour. There is an impact to be described that becomes clear when we look at extremes, such as creating absences, fainting, desired moments of fear, or release of emotions. The relationship BETWEEN individual and environment is, thereby, problematised and open to the questions we want to answer. It is no longer the question of whether the effects of atmospheres are individual OR universal; it is self-evident for an AoR approach that it is the processual interaction that creates the possibility of cultivating expectations, creating perceptual orders, but also undermines such orders within larger communities and systems of world-construction. “Mediation” is one concept that can be used, yet it does not explain as much as what we can say about the role of, e.g., joint speech in relaxation (Koch) or the role of height or narrowness in a Gothic Cathedral or a Capucian cloister cell.
As a stimulation for the working group: My impression is that we have not done the work to specifically roll out “atmosphere” as a key term for the AoR (as we did with the publication on another contested term: “imagination”); yet much of the work some of us have done could easily be exploited to add to the current discussion of the notion of atmosphere. Especially concrete analytical tools can be offered for analysing how atmospheres are being created and perceived (attention to factual elements and how they are combined and presented, what demands and expectations are being linked, what wider history and political implications they carry). It is the culture-historical and the explanatory claim we make that reaches beyond the “feeling what they feel” approach (own body as a medium).
We can also ask whether “atmosphere” is rather an umbrella term (again: metaphor or model?) to be broken down into analytical categories or an analytical category in itself? What is the relationship between imagination (as a process, using humans’ ability to perceive through their senses what is not actually there) and atmospheres? As the interaction between bodies, perceptual orders, cultivated expectations, physical conditions it can help, I’d argue, to explain why a male Brazilian wheelchair user and a distressed Swedish women might experience something different in a hot yoga class yet use the same language to describe the outcome of this class and why they are committing to it, and how certain constellations (“atmospheres”) are being searched for in a time that fears or favours dogmatics and beliefs. Another example would be the work on Atheism, or my own work on Science as a worldview: how rational arguments are linked to the creation of a worldview (“the magic of science”, use of awe-inspiring imagery).
Perhaps, this debate stimulates our initial idea to collect possible “key terms for an AoR”, and to build subgroups who start writing, using the work on “aesthetic subjects” and the epistemological starting points discussed over the last years …
17 February 2022 at 9:38 am EST #56577
Dear Alexandra (and all others interested),
Thank your insightful and thorough input. You raise several important points. To keep the discussion going let me rehearse my stated desire to inquiry into the present state of research within the broader framework of Aesthetics of Religion (that is, including studies on material religion and religion and media) that deals explicitly with atmosphere as the primary analytical focus of attention. This may be
1) in the form of an empirically exploration of the production or reception atmospheres in religious practices or settings,
2) in the form of a theoretical exploration or conceptualization of atmosphere in religious practices or settings.
Concerning the latter, I am referring to the question raised by Guggenmos et al. (2011) which I believe deserves renewed attention:
‘Is there a way to describe the phenomenon of ‘atmosphere’ scientifically’ (ibid. 115)?
Guggenmos et al. (2011), provides an answer to the question but I believe more can be done to develop a heuristic concept of atmosphere that would allow us to study the production and reception of atmospheres–or what Reckwitz (2012) defines as “affective spaces”– in practice (ethnographically).
In this regard, I absolutely agree with Alexandra that the ahistorical and universalistic tendencies of the dominating phenomenological approaches needs to be supplemented or, even better, abductively modified to capture the cultural, social, and political processes and aspects involved in the production/reception. Especially to bring forth the aspect of power involved the production. In this regard, it is worth recalling Philip Kotler (1974) who coined the phrase “atmospherics” to designate how atmospheres are used in marking to amplify customers’ willingness to purchase. “In some cases,” Kotler even noted, “the atmosphere is the primary product” (ibid. 48).
(On a sociological side note, we may wonder if this is not also sometimes the case in contemporary religion. What motivated the visitors of the Copenhagen Night Church, I studied, was not necessarily the opportunity experience a divine presence but simply the experience of an atmosphere that may or may not be defined as religious).
It is also a good point to be aware of the meterological origin of the concept atmosphere. ‘The dual understanding of atmosphere as a meteorological phenomenon and a spatial experience of affect and materiality should not be seen as distinct,’ as Bille, Bjerregaard, and Sørensen writes, ‘but rather as feeding on each other,’ as happens, for instance, ‘through the impact of a sunny day on the feel of the city’ (Bille, Bjerregaard, and Sørensen 2015, 36). Emphasizing the importance of weather, also highlight a significant and on-going issue in studies of atmospheres: Are atmospheres something in-between subjects and objects (Böhme) or are they rather a holistic medium encapsulating subjects and objects (Ingold, Schmitz, Heidegger).
In a recent ethnographic anthology of atmospheres, the editors summarizes the following as key contemporary questions in studies on atmospheres. Perhaps, these have already been dealt with within Aesthetic of Religion? If not, however, it would be a good starting point to explicate how an aesthetics of religion framework could approach these questions and/or answer them:
” Are atmospheres media or objects of perception, metaphors or material phenomena? Are they representations, and are they representable? Can they be created, and what do they do? How can atmospheres be affects and effects at the same time? How can we think about atmospheres through air and other elements and substances?” (Schroer and Schmitt 2018, 2).
Lastly, the reason for my inquiry (which I hope you find friendly and not provocative) is also, as Alexandra and Gerritt points to‚ that the work done within Aesthetics of Religion seems to be easily accommodated or modified to the study of atmospheres. As such, I believe aesthetics of religion have something to contribute in this regard, as well.
Alexandra, I think your work on blue brain, for instance, deals implicitly with the scientific production of affective spaces. I think that is a very good point and something be unfolded even more. In this regard, I am also reminded of Ludwik Fleck who also emphasized the importance of style for the construction of scientific facts. As I recall, he noted how style can awaken “a corresponding mood of solidarity” in the reader and it is this mood that brings the reader to assess the argument positively. Perhaps, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s (2012) work on how reading, in general, elicits specific atmospheres may be interesting in a study of the production of scientific facts and atmospheres.
Lastly, I would be very interested in following or, if possible, contributing to a key terms project involving atmosphere.
Once again thank for providing stimulating responses. I find it very inspiring.
All the best,
Bille, Mikkel, Peter Bjerregaard, and Tim Flohr Sørensen. 2015. “Staging atmospheres: Materiality, culture, and the texture of the in-between.” Emotion, Space and Society 15:31-8. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2014.11.002.
Guggenmos, Esther-Maria, Isabel Laack, and Sebastian Schüler. 2011. “Agency and the Senses in the Context of Museality from the Perspective of Aesthetics of Religion.” Journal of Religion in Europe 4 (1):102-33. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/187489210X553511.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. 2012. Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On a Hidden Potential of Literature. Translated by Erik Butler. Stanford: Stanford University Press
Kotler, P. 1974. “Atmospherics as a Marketing Tool.” Journal of Retailing 49:48-64.
Reckwitz, Andreas. 2012. “Affective spaces: a praxeological outlook.” Rethinking History 16 (2):241-58. doi: 10.1080/13642529.2012.681193.
Schroer, Sara Asu, and Susanne B. Schmitt. 2018. “Introduction: thinking through atmospheres ” In Exploring atmospheres ethnographically edited by Sara Asu Schroer and Susanne B. Schmitt, 1-12. London Routledge
- This reply was modified 1 year, 3 months ago by Andreas Melson Gregersen.
22 February 2022 at 6:47 am EST #56706
Dear Alexandra and Andreas,
thank you for keeping this going!
Unfortunately, I have nothing so far published on atmospheres. I spent the last years making a kind of ethnographic movie series to “capture” something like moods or atmospheres and the strategies of their creation, but I have so far shied away from writing about my movie and its methodology, for film editing as a kind of non-verbal thinking about my “material” or “footage” brings forth insights which cannot be translated into words. To be sure, I do not regard non-verbal forms such as dance or film or filmed dance as “non-rational” or “immediate”. However, there may be some specifically modern desire for immediality behind my search for nonverbal forms, feelings, and atmospheres, which is why I am thankful to be reminded of the prevalence of such words in advertisement and marketing, and of the ways an immediateness of experience might be evoked for very specific and potentially dangerous political ends.
I am writing a short chapter on the term “atmosphere” right now: This chapter is much more theoretical than methodological, even meta-theoretical, in searching for the implications, historical roots and inherent dichotomies of the term. Reading Rademacher’s articles, I was struck by the fact that most of its sources refer to atmospheres in terms of a “pre-dualistic”, “pre-linguistic”, “pre-rational” or even “pre-conscious” realm, without making clear whether this was “before” humans evolved, “before” an individual has grown up, or “before” sense data are processed. Without wanting to unfold a whole evolution of the idea of this idea from Husserl to Affect theory, I think some awareness of the desires inspiring also my own search for the “the nonverbal” is necessary to engage with the term, especially if I do not want to identify emotion, feeling, or atmosphere with “the irrational” in the sense of Otto.
As I doupt that feelings or emotions can be “grasped” without using metaphorical concepts, I also wonder whether there could be non-metaphorical models of shared moods or feelings. Atmosphere seems to provide an interesting alternative to the model of “emotions in bodies/selves as fluids in containers” (Kövecses 2000). Both alternative metaphors of feelings as contained within bodies or as flowing around and between bodies are based on the bodily experience of emotions or feelings (even “feeling” as a haptic sensation and “emotion” as a motion are to some extand metaphorical). Thus, also atmosphere as a metaphore is more than a metaphor, but also something “really felt” – including bodily, if imaginative experiences of the metaphor’s “source domain”. As Alexandra pointed out, “atmospheres emerge from air pressure, temperature, humidity, sound waves, colour. There is an impact to be described that becomes clear when we look at extremes, such as creating absences, fainting, desired moments of fear, or release of emotions” (May I quote that in a footnote? I am not sure yet how common these “commons” are…)
The recent publications of the Network have highlighted imagination as a process involving experiences of all the senses and their blending. Regarding your question, “What is the relationship between imagination (as a process, using humans’ ability to perceive through their senses what is not actually there) and atmospheres?”, I would guess that atmospheres are one of the fields where the blending of imaginative objects of different sense organs help to increase the emotional intensity of a situation, especially when a gathered group shares similar imaginations, associations and emotions. This sharing might be afforded by how bodies and brains in general work and/or by the shared cultural history informing the imaginative worlds of those coming together.
From Old Indian Aesthetic theory, I know several terms refering to multimodal sense objects which point to the mood or “atmosphere” of a shared situation: Most well known is rasa, described in the Natyashastra, as a sentiment created on a stage to be “tasted” by an audience, in a disattached and refined state of consciousness, like a meal tasted by a gourmet. Annette Wilke shows in some of her articles how this term evolved over the last two millenia from a shared mood savored from an aesthetic distance (but not without immersion) to a word for religious ecstasis and rupture in Krishna Bhakti. In current Indonesia, rasa is even a term for possession trance.
- This reply was modified 1 year, 3 months ago by Gerrit Lange.
24 February 2022 at 2:45 pm EST #56780
Dear Gerrit, Thank you for your reply. Your movies sound very interesting. I am not quite sure, I followed everything you noted. I suspect this is a result of a lack of understanding on my behalf. As a notorious vague term, however, it is certainly difficult to explicate in precise terms what we mean by atmospheres. Perhaps, it is even impossible. Even so, I would like to make a friendly challenge to scholars of aesthetics of religion. Would it be possible to clarify:
I) How you understand atmospheres ontologically?
II) How you propose studying them?
For my own part, I have tried rooting atmospheres in a practice-based ontology. In doing so, I have sought to add a performative element to what Friedlind Riedel describes as Gernot Böhme’s “constellationism”; the basic idea that atmospheres emanate from a constellation of things and people. Hermann Schmitz rooted atmospheres ontologically in situationism. While, this seems intriguing, he also tends to exaggerate the free-flowing character of atmospheres – even to the point of them existing as autonomous forces.
Understanding atmospheres as socio-material practices entails that atmospheres are carried out by subjects who are (ideally) simultaneously carried away (affectively) by atmospheres. The latter point connects with theories on emotions as practices (Monique Scheer) or affective practices (Margaret Wetherell). In this context, however, it also fits nicely with the emphasis on immersion within Aesthetics of Religion. The point being that in order to be carried away by an atmosphere, subjects needs to immerse themselves in it (as you, Gerrit, helpfully alerts to by referencing Schüler). From a practice perspective, the immersion is not the result of individual agency but rather a “distributed agency” (Latour). This fits very perfectly with Mohr’s notion of sensory strategies as not only being intentional (the willingness of the agent) but also the result of material display (sounds, orchestration of light etc.). In the Copenhagen Night Church, I studied, for instance, the pastors employed Fatboys in the chancel. Not only did the Fatboys operate as a type of “affective mediator” by adding a emotional tone to the room through its symbolism (it adds a feeling of relaxation and informality to a church room), it also worked as a material mediation of immersion by helping visitors to engage with the atmosphere affectively (to be carried away) by making them more susceptible to relax and open up.
I hope you will not find my questions provocative. I am merely trying to flesh out–perhaps impossible–some basic ideas about atmospheres; what they are (ontologically) and how they should be studied (methodologically).
All the best, Andreas
24 February 2022 at 4:00 pm EST #56782
I find your questions provocative in the best sense, in that they force me to make clear what I did during the last years. To be honest, I have no final answer yet to either of Your questions – but these answers are exactly what I need to finish my thesis. Understanding emotions as practices comes very close to what I am doing. To me that is rather an epistomological than an ontological stance, as I am leaving the ontology question open: Whether the atmosphere is really there or not is not my question, no more than whether the goddess I study exists or not, whether she really has fealings or not. Speaking about “distributed agency”, as my second supervisor, William Sax, does, enables me to speak of the agency of the goddess without saying that she exists. I try to add concepts of “distributed intentionality” and “distributed or shared emotions” to the agency – coming closer and closer to what I would describe as an atmosphere, but also to the ritual effects described in local terms as the śakti (power) of the goddess. In my film, I aim to catch some glimpses of how shared feelings, induced by sensual means (drumming, throwing marigold flowers, burning incense, singing, standing close to each other, …), can result in heightened tension and possession trances. Employment of Fatboys (I had to look that up…) is also very interesting as a sensory strategy!
I study atmospheres both as a metaphor occuring in ethnographic writing and as something happening in my field. “Fleshing out” or “solidifying” something aerial – which is, in a way, more “fluid” than the fluids everyone is talking about – might be as paradoxical as a project as verbalizing the non-verbal, taking the defining feature away. But anthropologist have never shied back from paradoxical projects, so why not.
Your praxis theory approach sounds very interesting and promising! Indeed, I have referred to Monique Scheer as well in my chapters on metaphors of emotions “within” and “around” people. As I am interested in “atmosphere” as an alternative to the conceptual metaphor of emotions as fluids in containers, I think that atmospheres are as much “done” as are emotions, since both terms are not so far from each other:
The distinction between “inner” and “outer” sides of emotion is not given, but is rather a product of the way we habitually “do” the experience. Practice may create an “inner” and “outer” to emotion with the “ex-pression” of feelings originating inside and then moving from inner to outer. (Scheer 2012, p. 198).
I am also sceptical of the well-established distinction between (culturally constructed and interpreted) “emotions” and (flowing, pre-linguistic, body-based animalistic) “affects”, as this seems to imply that there are un-interpreted or, on the other hand, un-embodied feelings around.
Of course, I am not the first one to have this idea: As Alexandra already pointed out above, “it is no longer the question of whether the effects of atmospheres are individual OR universal; it is self-evident for an AoR approach that it is the processual interaction that creates the possibility of cultivating expectations”.
In a meeting of the network, we discussed a text by John Leavitt, who brought together these either-or-poles under the titel Meaning and Feeling in the Anthropology of Emotions (American Ethnologist 23.3 (1996), 514-53). I find this article very helpful, not only because it is about religious emotions in a region very close to where I did my fieldwork – it also starts with the same question we are thrown back to time and again (sorry for quoting someone quoting someone):
In his book on Jewish festivals, Hayyim Schauss describes a scene during the Rosh Hashanah observances in an Eastern European synagogue early in this century:
The greatest and most exalted moment of the services comes when the ark of the Torah is opened and the chant of Un’saneh Tokefbegins. An unnatural fear grips the hearts of the worshipers. They pull their prayer shawls over their heads and recite the words in a loud voice, with tears and sobs…. [At the end of the chant] the moans die down and the congregation calms itself somewhat at the words: “But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the evil decree.” [1938:147-148]
“How does he know?” the reader may ask.
Yes, how do we know?
Thanks for distracting me from watching the sickening news of this so very frightening day.
9 March 2022 at 7:16 am EST #56996
Thank you also for engaging me in this discussion. I hope to have the opportunity to discuss atmospheres and aesthetics of religion with you and the other scholars working within this frame.
I wish you all the best with your work.
12 May 2022 at 4:00 pm EDT #58388
I am still new to this format, so I am little unsure how to share work. But for those of you who are interested in atmosphere, I have a new paper published in Poetics. It is called “An Affective Religious Boundary Tool” (2022), and it examines the strategic role of an atmosphere as a type of boundary object in a Copenhagen Night Church.
More generally, the article explores a public trial in the City Court Of Copenhagen concerning the events of a Copenhagen Night Church. A judge had to decide, if the events were concerts (something secular) or worship services (something religious)? The question to this answer was very much rooted in the type of atmosphere present in the Night Church; creating and emphasizing alternative sensory experience, a new “aesthetic formation” (Meyer), does not happen in a vacuum. It is politically, culturally, legally, and theologically infused.
Link for article: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1evla,6w-Xr1b8
If you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll be happy to provide more information or discuss matters.
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