For a long time I blogged at A Lively Experiment. Unfortunately, the experiment became less lively than I had hoped. Moving my professional site to my own domain offers me a chance to start again. Metasacralities is the open research portion of my site, a home for unfinished thoughts and early writing.
The word metasacralities is a neologism. It shares its origins with some of the work done by Ann Taves, a colleague and former teacher of mine from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In “Building Blocks of Sacralities,” Taves outlines a way cross-cultural comparison might operate for religious studies. In the academic study of religion we have been wary of comparisons that collapse differences of time, space, and culture. Taves proposes we avoid this problem by examining the fundamental units that cultures use to assign sacred meaning. This results in many different conceptions of what is sacred and multiple processes for making things sacred. Sacralities, for me, captures the many-ness of both sacred things and sacred-making.
During the time when I was learning about religion in religious studies programs, I thought I was interested in the “sacred.” I read Rudolf Otto, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, and Jonathan Z. Smith carefully to try to parse out the complex battle over the term. That work remains valuable as historiography of our field’s development, but I see clearly now that I was always more concerned with the deployment and operation of the term than in its value as a truth claim (which, like Taves and others, I always rejected).
Meta is a word in far more common use today than when I began my studies over a decade ago. Websites are coded with meta-text that describes the content of webpages (and manipulates search engine results). The “dude, that is so meta” meme more casually refers to moments when artists break the illusion of a performance as in films where actors address the audience directly or reference themselves as films. This play-within-a-play (to follow Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is a process of self-awareness. In philosophical circles, meta also indicates a level of abstraction. A physical sign painted with the word sign is meta because the word “sign” is an abstraction for the physical object onto which the word sign is painted. It is as well as refers to itself.
In all of these senses do I mean and intend to use metasacralities. The “sacred” is not a thing out there waiting to be discovered or revealed; it is many things always becoming sacred in times and places for specific people (usually through deliberate effort). Even the plural hint of becoming of “sacralities” fails to capture the way in which the academic study of religion has come to see the term sacred as meta: both authoring itself and aware of its own production.
If I aim to continue thinking about religion, religions and the religious, I would like to do so by beginning with a term that risks orienting my work from the outset about the theoretical issues at stake. As the presumed object of study (itself deeply problematic), the term religion cannot bear this weight. Nor does “religion” seem to grapple as deeply with the issues of space and place that occupy my concern with architecture and landscape, my fascination with the cultural production of things that care about religion like comic books, films, art, and literature, or even my more specific work with the consequences of mobility on prayer and religious imagination. So welcome to Metasacralities–a place for thinking about the meaning of sacreds and how they are made, maintained, and manipulated.