Saturday, February 3, 2018

David Morgan's "Images at Work"

David Morgan is Professor of Religious Studies with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. He is the author of numerous books, including The Forge of Vision (2015), The Embodied Eye (2012), and The Sacred Gaze (2005).

Morgan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Images at Work: The Material Culture of Enchantment, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford’s Page 99 test works well in the case of Images at Work, because when the books is opened to that page, the reader encounters a key idea in the project. What I call a “focal object” is the visible face of something much larger, deeper, and wider than we can see. It opens access to an invisible being or system, an entire network that is otherwise unreachable or transcendent. This gives the focal object a unique kind of power because by interacting with it, we engage all that we cannot see. It is not difficult to imagine how important this is in matters of religion, where gods, spirits, powerful forces, the afterlife, the mythic past, and the unveiled future all surpass human power or comprehension. The focal object makes access to them possible.

A compelling example of this is the reliquary: it contains a relic, a bit of bone, for example, from the body of a saint martyred long ago. The pilgrim travels from afar to present herself before the relic’s receptacle and to pray there. The route that has brought her there, the church and shrine that house the reliquary that contains the relic, the saint himself, dwelling in heaven, the lore that has directed the pilgrim, and the needs of the pilgrim herself—all these form an assemblage whose face is the reliquary beheld by the pilgrim. Action directed to focal objects can affect the system or network that they embody. The focal object provides a point of access as well as eclipses everything that might dissolve the sacred into randomness or coincidence: the theft or violence that procured the relic, its dubious provenance, the lack of documentation that might authenticate it, the history of its transformation from bone to relic. What the pious pilgrim encounters instead is the gleaming presence of the holy.

We can talk about this in vague terms of “symbolic expression,” but that misses the power of images to work a kind of magic, and that is why I want to use the term enchantment in exploring the cultural work that images perform. Enchantment captures something non-rational about images that modern life has not squelched beneath its regime of rational planning and scientific management. This book seeks to understand how images work a magic that we still find irresistible, for good and for ill.
Learn more about Images at Work at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Forge of Vision.

--Marshal Zeringue