Deconstructing Materiality: A Phenomenological Ethnography of Darśan and Indian Story-Telling Scrolls in Western Museums
AbstractThis study investigates Western curatorial practices towards the darśan, the visual contact established between the Hindu worshipper and the deity who is believed to give life to its material representation, expressed by two sets of Indian storytelling scrolls, the Bengali pats and the Rajasthani paṛs. Whilst the scrolls, especially the Rajasthani ones, are believed to be the temples and the icons of the deity depicted, Western curators appreciate them either as examples of ethnographic theories, or as pure art works. On the one hand, materiality is thus animistically empowered (see Faure, 1998), and, consequently, is treated as an anthropomorphic entity or fetish. On the other hand, materiality is considered as a reified idea, an objectification of a social structure, or of an ideal of beauty. Latour (2010) calls this phenomenon of reification a factish concept, which is revered in a semi-spiritual or post-secular way. Modernity, according to Latour, is characterised by this opposition between self-evident, abstract and intellectual notions –e.g. the categories of the sacred and of the profane –and the concrete and irrational reality. The differentiation between reality and ideas recalls the broader boundary between the human and the nonhuman. According to Merleau-Ponty (2003 [c. 1956]), materiality coincides with nature, one of the fundamental criteria of the categorisation of human/nonhuman. While human characteristics are highly rational, materiality, along with animality, is confined within the irrational realm and is considered as a passive actor, except for Gell’s (1998) theorisation of material agency. However, his conceptualisation depends upon an anthropomorphisation of the artefact by invoking the particular example of children’s play with toys. The present thesis explores the contribution of phenomenology, as the study of embodiments and incarnations, in problematising the role of materiality in its relationships with humans, and so the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman. On the one hand, the study employs phenomenology as a methodological tool, according to which the researcher’s body reveals a particular and intersubjective appraisal of materiality. On the other hand, phenomenology, corroborated by posthumanist studies, is the theoretical approach by which the duality object/subject is problematised. By this logic, phenomenology challenges the ontological idea of the I or human as separated from the Other or the nonhuman, by replacing it with a hybridism and a fusion between the perceiving and the perceived. Fieldwork data problematises this anthropomorphisation of materiality. In fact, visitors’ responses escape from the curators’ control and reveal how museum artefacts possess an agency independent from any human projection. In addition, data emphasises the irreconciliability between epistemic categories and the empiric reality. For instance, the Durkheimian notions of the sacred and of the profane become inapt to describe the phenomenon of the recreation of religious contexts and places, such as temples and altars.
CitationGamberi, V. (2015). Deconstructing materiality: A phenomenological ethnography of Darśan and Indian story-telling scrolls in western museums. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Chester, United Kingdom.
PublisherUniversity of Chester
TypeThesis or dissertation
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