Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

The Skin of Religion

Aesthetic Mediations of the Sacred

S. Brent Plate, Hamilton College

“That which is most profound in the human being is the skin.” -Paul Valéry

“The body is the place where things happen.” -Vito Acconci


We begin with the skin. The liminal, semi-porous boundary between inner and outer worlds, between self and world. Here is the edge of productive space: the ebb and flow of sight, scent, sound, touch, and taste.

Herein, I articulate the beginnings of an approach to understanding religion in and through its skin, and through the sensually mediated experiences of religion. By religious “experience,” I don’t mean the stories people tell of so-called im-mediate, mystical experience of the gods and goddesses, but rather of the sensual sacred experiences of the human in her/his physical spaces. By focusing on the vital role that the sensual body plays in human experiences of the world, we are able to investigate religious traditions in ways that complement and expand traditional approaches to religion. The study of religion has continued to focus heavily on the interpretation of sacred texts and intellectual exploration of philosophical doctrines. In contrast, experiencing religion through its sensual, material, and artistic practices challenges the student of religion to think through the seemingly mundane dimensions of religions: what religious people eat and taste and see in their sacred settings. What seems trivial and easily overlooked, in the end, becomes foundational for religious environments and traditions.

This article builds on the ancient Greek roots of aesthetics, in which the term pertains to “sensory perception.” Aesthetics, as discussed here, is about the ways human bodies sense their religious worlds around them through sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, among other possible senses. Sometimes the sensual encounter enables humans to be touched and transformed by beautiful art in the space of a museum, but these aesthetic experiences more often occur within other spaces: in the incense smelled upon entering the temple, in the bitter herbs eaten at Passover, in the chanted call to prayer of the Muezzin, in the watercolor portrayal of the head of Jesus Christ, in the stroll through the Zen and Jodo inspired gardens of Kyoto {Fig.1}. Aesthetics cannot be bound to a theory of art, and here I mine the term and its history for sacred-sensual purposes. The fixed-but-still-moving point of the religious skinscape is the permeable boundary at the edge of the body, constituted by what passes in and out via the sense organs. Religion itself is, in part, produced by the experiences formed in these mediated sites betwixt and between.

To begin, I outline some of the meanings of a “skinscapes” and the role of the sensual body in the production of sacred space. Then I turn to revive the understanding of aesthetics as sense perception, suggesting the senses as boundary markers that define the space of the body, which in turn defines social and sacred space. Following from this, a further investigation of the skin of religion suggests that it is comprised of two components: sense perception and the mediated, sensational forms that make meaning out of religious objects, sights, shapes, and sounds. In conclusion then, I’ll offer some notes toward an aesthetic-sensual construction of sacred space.

I. Skinscapes

The skin wraps the body, defines it, sets it apart from the world. At the same time, the skin is the contact point, the connection with the world. The skin is media. Persons as subjects encounter each other at the site of the skin, and it is this fleshy screen that marks our identity. In modernity, as Claudia Benthien puts it in her book Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and World, the concept of the self is “understood rather as hidden on the inside of its body house, invisible and immaterial.”i And thus we talk negatively about things only being “skin deep,” and suggest our “true self” is “deep down” below the surface. But this is a misrecognition of the active role that the skinscape plays in the construction of body, self, other, world, as well as social-sacred space. In a manifesto for the surface of things, the noted geographer Yi-Fu Tuan makes a case for the importance of the surface, “Satisfaction with life consists largely of taking pleasure in form and expressiveness–in sensory impressions, modified by the mind at all scales from the smile of a child to the built environment and political theater. So much of life occurs at the surface that, as students of the human scene, we are obliged to pay far more attention to its character (subtlety, variety, density) than we have done.”ii

Identities are inscribed on the skin, and the skin becomes a screen by which identity images are projected onto each other’s bodies. Our bodies are in process, and identities flow. As ritual theorist Ron Grimes puts it, “The human body is not an inert object. It is carried, ‘worn,’ decorated, ignored, experienced. Not only is our exterior–our skin, hair, eyes, teeth, and so on– enculturated, but so is our interior. How deeply we breathe, how we habitually feel about ourselves, where we sense our center to be, how we imagine, feed, and care for a fetus in the uterus–all these are shaped by the histories behind us and the societies around us.”iii The skin, in short, makes us who we are. Skin is deep.

Within the skinscape, which can be initially defined as the ever-unfolding site of connection between bodies and physical world–social-sacred space is created along with individual identities. Space is not “out there,” and then we move around within it. It is not empty, neutral, or formless. Instead, space is a production, a process, and our bodies form its basis. Just as our embodied identities are not static, neither is space. This is part of the now forty-year old, but still cogent and influential notion put forward by the philosopher Henri Lefebvre, in his Production of Space. Almost at the very end of that book, he sums up some of the relations between body and social space, with a slight nod toward the constitutive role of the senses:

The whole of (social) space proceeds from the body, even though it so metamorphoses the body that it may forget it altogether–even though it may separate itself so radically from the body as to kill it. The genesis of a far-away order can be accounted for only on the basis of the order that is nearest to us–namely the order of the body. Within the body itself, spatially considered, the successive levels constituted by the senses […] prefigure the layers of social space and their interconnections.iv

Religious studies scholar Kim Knott has followed Lefebvre’s notions, and suggests that “the act of trying to locate religion and the procedure for doing so [ . . . ] must be informed by the spatial sense we have ourselves acquired by being embodied and spatially oriented, and through our capacity for thinking and representing things spatially.”v Knott’s work nicely develops the constitutive role of embodied spatial understandings for a reconceptualizing of religion. And Tom Tweed follows a parallel but distinct line in his work, suggesting, “religions are about dwelling and crossing, about finding a place and moving across space.”vi

Following these precedent lines of enquiry, I want to shift the perspective slightly, and reemphasize the skin, that liminal place that constructs the body, the self’s identity and relation to the world, and ultimately constructs religious space. While embodiment and the self’s movement in the world is a key notion, many of these theories do not dwell on the ins and outs of information and sensation pulsing through the skin of the body. Lefebvre does not go into detail in his work, but the quote above hints at the role of the senses in laying the groundwork for the production of social space. This is a suggestion that I think is worth taking up.

Moving, enculturated bodies create social space, but those bodies are themselves not fixed. The skinscape is in flux as the porous membranes at the surface of our body are always being shot through with new sense data, just as we produce our own sensual data (speech, body image, body odors, handshakes and hugs) and other sensing bodies smell and hear and see and touch us. And just as there is no self without the skin, there is also no religion without the skin. I mean this metaphorically, but also quite literally. The sense organs, situated at various parts of surface of the human body, coexistent with the skin, are the passageways that allow interrelations between people. Religion itself is founded on a relation between embodied beings and the world around them.

Before returning to the relation of the senses and religion, I want to take a detour through aesthetics to highlight the active nature of sense perception in the construction of the world.

II. Aesthetica Naturalis and Aesthetica Artificialis

Alexander Baumgarten founded the modern study of aesthetics in the mid-eighteenth century. Beginning with his dissertation in 1735 (published in English as Reflections on Poetry) and expanded upon in his 1750 Aesthetica (which remains untranslated into English), he cordoned off the field of sense perception, and revived the Greek term aisthesis (in other words that which pertains to “sensory perception”) as its name. Aesthetics was to be a new science dealing with the knowledge that is gained through the bodily senses, and would be a complement to the field of logic, the two together forming a more comprehensive theory of knowledge. Logic supplies us with “things known” (conceptual), while aesthetics supplies us with “things perceived” (perceptual). In Baumgarten’s initial positing of the field of aesthetics, there is no mention of “beauty.” He is nonetheless clear that aesthetics trucks with the “inferior faculty” of perception while logic deals with the “superior faculty” of the rational mind.vii Following Baumgarten’s ultimate subduing of the sensual body to the rational mind, the sensual roots of aesthetics are largely forgotten today.

Baumgarten’s ideas lead Terry Eagleton to state, “[a]esthetics is born as a discourse of the body,”viii yet the discipline of aesthetics has been displaced into inquiries about style, art, beauty, and taste. Baumgarten himself called these latter things aesthetica artificialis, as opposed to the sensually-oriented aesthetica naturalis. So, while the “natural” scope of aesthetics, Eagleton continues, is to examine the relation between “the material and the immaterial: between things and thoughts, sensations and ideas,”ix it has “artificially” come to involve itself in abstract theories about art and beauty.

To revive an understanding of aesthetics as “sense perception” is to focus on how we perceive (and, simultaneously, create) our worlds through vision, taste, smell, touch, and hearing, among other possible senses.x Sensations are interpreted and made meaningful by a conscious brain that is guided by learned and biologically inherited structures of the mind, most notably memory. Sense perception changes due to geographical and chronological circumstances, as well as by age, race, class, gender, sex, and religion; it is crucial to identity formation, both individually and socially, based on how we sense and are sensed by others; it is a primary component of our interactions with religious myths, rituals, symbols, and memories; and it is the fundamental nexus for understanding both religion and art, and particularly the passage between the two. With sense receptors as the crux of the matter, perception also links the inner world to the outer world, the body to the physical stuff around us, the body to the mind, bodies to other bodies, and ultimately the activities of perception are responsible for the formation of community and society.

There is, I argue, a dialectical relation between “natural aesthetics” (that dealing with sense perception and rooted in the body) and “artificial aesthetics” (that dealing with the objects and arts in the world, along with their creation and reception). I suggest this dialectic forms an originary point for the study of religion. Fundamental to this is the contention that sense perception is a central point of mediation for the reception, creation, and reproduction of social- sacred space. Religious historian David Chidester argues in his study of the religious discourse surrounding the senses of seeing and hearing: “To adapt (and modify) a familiar aphorism from Paul Ricouer, perception–particularly the perceptual modes of seeing and hearing–gives rise to symbols, and symbols give rise to thought.”xi This is to insert aesthetics as primary to any hermeneutical enterprise.

Meanwhile, a number of contemporary cognitive scientists have reviewed the relation between natural and artificial aesthetics, and offer many instructive guidelines to scholars interested in religion. There are many to quote here, but I offer a summarizing comment from the philosopher of mind Mark Johnson, who argues in his book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, that we can no longer assert that meaning is made out of propositional statements by way of verbal language. Rather, “meaning is not just what is consciously entertained in acts of feeling and thought; instead, meaning reaches deep down into our corporeal encounter with our environment.”xii As he and others continue, meaning is made initially through our sensorimotor experiences with the world, and this occurs long before linguistic meaning, and remains more primary to our experience.

So, what do the senses do within religious structure? How do they create sacred space?

In December, 2005, the New York Times reported new scientific findings on a strange, and often mythically imagined creature, the narwhal, a smallish whale with a long “tusk” on its head, looking like a submarine unicorn. Long thought to possess magical powers, the tusk of the arctic dwelling mammal is now understood to contain over 10 million nerve endings that can detect changes in water pressure, temperature, particles in the water, and probably much more. Beyond its mythology, the tusk is, in strict terms, an extended tooth that functions like a sense organ. The lead scientist suggests of the creature in its chilly, aquatic environment: “Of all the places you’d think you’d want to do the most to insulate yourself from that outside environment, this guy has gone out of his way to open himself up to it.”xiii

What does a narwhal have to do with religion? Do narwhals have religion? Such a question will not and cannot be answered here, but what I want to highlight is the way a sense organ operates first as an “opening” that establishes a spatial connection between an individual creature and the world around them. Further, those openings have adapted to fit particular animals in particular places for means of survival. Narwhals need to know about fine gradations in water pressure and temperature in order to survive, but this is not the case for humans and we thus have no sense organ like the narwhal’s tusk.

Humans, like narwhals and all sentient beings, can only exist in the world in and through the senses, especially as the senses are finely attuned to the environment in which we live and breathe and have our being. Persons without sight, hearing, or other sense faculties develop their other senses in a heightened way to accommodate for a lack in one or the other. The bottom line is this: We would die without the senses, for not only would we fail to sense danger through our sense-based survival instincts, we would also fail to give and receive love, a deep-rooted and vitally necessary emotional experience that can only be displayed sensually. Further, as we understand in relation to human sensation, environmental and cultural differences influence the overall sensorium of the beings that inhabit these worlds.

What must be stressed is that the sense organs are openings between the being and world, but they are not wide openings that would allow all forms of information to pass through. Instead, they function in quite particular ways. The senses filter information about the outside world, letting in some data (heat, pressure, brightness, loud sounds) but ignoring other data. The filtering processes of the senses have endlessly more complex functions than the simplicity of, say, a coffee filter.

Writing in The Atlantic in 2009, Jamais Cascio discusses some of the ways new media technologies are working to increase human intelligence. His is not a fear-driven scenario in which Google makes us stupid (or, “stoopid”), and resists the apocalyptic rhetoric of Matrix-like humans v. machines. Rather, he sees the new computer driven technologies within a history of media technologies and the ways Homo sapiens co-evolve with technology, a point made by McLuhan and many others. What is of interest to me here is that one of the key technologies in computer-based, wired media is the need for the media “to adapt to us,” and central to this is not more memory and faster processing speed, but filtering. For anyone who has an inbox over 500 right now, the overwhelming amount of information through connectivity can be paralyzing. And of course Google, Apple, Amazon, and the rest are actively working out “spam filters” and selected products “based on” previous selections. One of the current holy grails in computing is the ability to carefully select, to allow some products, websites, email messages, and disallow others. Computer operations will learn from human practices and inclinations.xiv

In other words, networked computer media will increasingly act like the senses. Just as we are overwhelmed by seemingly too much information through new media, so would we be overwhelmed by too much sensory input. That I cannot remember where I put my car keys is not necessarily a good thing. That I cannot remember every face of every person I passed by today is. The useless information competes with the useful information, and human perception has adapted in order to filter the useful, and hence meaningful, impulses from the others–if I could remember every face I saw, I would have a harder time decoding the face of my daughters as I return home from work. Computer systems will have to learn to forget as well. Thus, the sense organs, like these new media, pare down and shape information, selecting some of it, and packaging data in ways meaningful to us.

We are embodied creatures, and bodies learn about their environment–whether social, familial, religious, or other–through sensual processes, along with intellectual learning. We also create our environments. As scholar of religion William Paden says, drawing on the previous work of Emile Durkheim, Immanuel Kant, Peter Berger, and others, exercises in “world building” are what make religion what it is. “Religions do not inhabit the same world, but actually posit, structure, and dwell within a universe that is their own,” says Paden. He goes on to suggest how “all living things select and sense the ‘way things are’ through their own organs and modes of activity. . . . They see–or smell or feel–what they need to, and everything else may as well not exist.”xv Recall the narwhal’s tooth-tusk: it senses what it needs to–temperature, pressure, particles–and connects with the environment through those data which are critical to its survival in the icy northern waters. We humans, in the process of creating specific religious worlds, do the same. In writing about the spaces that people inhabit, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall once suggested that “people from different cultures not only speak different languages but, what is possibly more important, inhabit different sensory worlds.”xvi Some worlds prioritize certain senses, while others offer a different version of reality. This is the sense of “aesthetics” I mean to indicate as constitutive of the varieties of religion and religious experience.

As many scholars in the humanities and social sciences are beginning to demonstrate, we will increasingly be able to create a method for comparative religions by examining the varieties of ways the senses function within different cultures and religious traditions.xvii And cognitive science is doing similar research, showing the social and cultural influences on perception, work that can be easily adapted to show forth religious differences as well. They argue that “different cultures’ practices and beliefs encourage very divergent cognitive and attentional capacities involved in either incorporating or ignoring context while making a judgment about a focal object.”xviii Further, culture “influences perception and cognition by encouraging different attention strategies” and “people in different cultures are bound to acquire attention strategies that vary in attentional breadth.”xix In other words, human bodies have biologically inherited sense receptors, but their functions and filtering devices may be altered depending on the practices and uses made of the world and its objects. Natural aesthetics meets artificial aesthetics.

III. The Skin of Religion

I borrow the phrasing, “The Skin of Religion,” from Laura Marks’ book of film theory, The Skin of the Film. In many ways her discussion of film can be stretched over religion as well. Commenting on the title of her book, Marks says:

The Skin of the Film, offers a metaphor to emphasize the way film signifies through its materiality, through a contact between perceiver and object represented. It also suggests the way vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes: I term this haptic visuality. Finally, to think of film as a skin acknowledges the effect of a work’s circulation among different audiences, all of which mark it with their presence. The title is meant to suggest polemically that film may be thought of as impressionable and conductive, like skin.xx

So my initial suggestion is to replace the word “film” with the word “religion” through Marks’ comments. Thus, The Skin of Religion, offers a metaphor to emphasize the way religion signifies through its materiality, through contact between perceiver and object represented. It also suggests the way vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching [religious images and objects] with one’s eyes: I term this haptic religiosity. Finally, to think of religion as a skin acknowledges the effect of [symbolic] circulation among different audiences, all of which mark it with their presence. The title is meant to suggest polemically that religion may be thought of as impressionable and conductive, like skin.

I want to take the rich language embedded here and apply some of these notions to an understanding and theory of religion. To unpack this, I begin with a chart that attempts to spatialize in table form something of an outline for a religious experience:




The vertical lines are perforated, intending to indicate the unstable boundaries between one realm and the other, the fact that in reality these are impossible to separate. Realizing the limitations of a linear charting of a dynamic process, I am attempting to get across a couple notions here:

1) The dialectic between cognition and sense perception operates at the level of “natural aesthetics” 2) The dialectic between the media and the message deals with “artificial aesthetics” 3) These two dialectical processes (natural and artificial aesthetics) themselves work dialectically, leading to:

4) The “skinscape of religion” as that which is grounded in the relation between sense perception and media and unfolds outward in both directions.

— The Skinscape of Religion —





Natural Aesthetics ←

→ Artificial Aesthetics

The skinscape of religion stands at the crux of the matter, the heart of religion: it happens at in- between, mediated places. From this focal point, it unfolds outward to become the foundation stone in the construction of social-sacred space. Recall Lefebvre’s comment: “Within the body itself, spatially considered, the successive levels constituted by the senses […] prefigure the layers of social space and their interconnections.”xxi To understand religion and its places, we cannot merely operate through third or fourth order disembodied hermeneutics regarding texts, doctrines, or previous relatable experiences. Neither can we submit that so-called “mystical” and “im-mediate” experiences occur without the mediation incurring through one’s cultural environment. Neither is it enough to iconographically study the visual arts, or phenomenologically investigate rituals movements and extract from them a system, disregarding sensual encounters with the works. Finally, to suggest that the new cognitive sciences can describe everything for us is also bound to fail for it often lacks the ways cultural environments shape cognitive processes; hard wiring is always a little bit soft.

Unpacking the chart more, in the first instance the skin (a synecdoche for the senses in general) is to human cognition as the medium is to the message. (And I am here conjuring McLuhan’s hyperbole that the medium is the message.) The senses are the media of the body, the channels through which understanding occurs. The senses do not merely influence cognition, but become the thought itself. Beliefs, and conceptions of supernatural/transcendent higher powers are not possible to be disentangled from sense perceptions, nor from the media in which religious conceptions occur. If, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have observed, there is a bodily basis to metaphor, there is likewise a bodily basis to mythology, to the stories and proverbs and ethical commands of sacred texts, and to sacred symbols.xxii The sensual body is not relegated merely to the ritual and behavioral aspects of religious life, as is commonly posited. Rather, the body pervades all aspects of religion.

This fact proves to be bound to issues of power, coercion, influence, and education within religious structures. Maria Montessori famously influenced childhood education with the principle: “First the education of the senses, then the education of the intellect.” Since various media are engaged by the senses, religious educational structures can use these to challenge, shape, and discipline the sensibilities of religious persons. Cultural anthropologist Birgit Meyer talks of this activity as an “aesthetics of persuasion” that operates with and through “sensational forms.” Sensational forms, says Meyer,

are relatively fixed, authorized modes of invoking and organizing access to the transcendental, thereby creating and sustaining links between believers in the context of particular religious power structures. Sensational forms shape both religious content (beliefs, doctrines, sets of symbols) and norms. Including all the media that act as intermediaries in religious mediation practices, the notion of sensational form is meant to explore how exactly mediations bind and bond believers with each other, and with the transcendental. These forms are transmitted and shared; they involve religious practitioners in particular practices of worship, and play a central role in modulating them as religious moral subjects.xxiii

Meyer here is suggesting that sensational forms ultimately form religious tradition and practice, and this is far prior to the teaching and learning of doctrines and texts. Artificial aesthetics influences natural aesthetics, confusing both sides.

Even so, that the senses can be trained has a curious biblical precedent. While there are almost two dozen uses of some variant of the term aisthesis in the Septuagint’s Hebrew scriptures, it appears only briefly in the New Testament. In Hebrews 5.14 the term aistheterion (“senses,” sometimes translated as “faculties”) is used: the “senses have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” This passage is interesting in that the senses here are invoked to stir moral judgment. The author of Hebrews is using metaphorical language, of course, but metaphors are based in material, especially spatial-sensual, experiences. The senses are active, they make decisions and filter information, which makes the concept applicable to the filtering processes of moral judgment. Discernment of good and evil is predicated on sensual discernment.

Sensational forms are not simply in play to transmit a message within religious experience, they are active in shaping the sensual bodies of persons within cultures, and forming social cohesion. Here too we begin to see how the “natural aesthetics” are never so natural. There is no sense perception without objects to sense, and these objects, these sensational forms, change the structures of perception. The natural and artificial cannot be disentangled.

Human senses also inherently have the potential to resist imposed modes of perception, opening up to alternative doors of perception. And this is where the arts (and perhaps other perception-altering substances) come into play, where the artificial aesthetics become important- -including perhaps the Nietzschean-Foucauldian aesthetic self-construction. The arts tell us things about perception. It is little wonder that so many cognitive scientists are drawn to the arts to chart the processes of cognitive developments and structures, or why the art historian Barbara Maria Stafford has turned to examine what she calls the “cognitive work of images.” The arts can change our perceptions, or at least challenge the ways we have come to understand our worlds, and thus our religions.xxiv

IV. Conclusion: Building the Skinscape

Taking the social construction of space from Lefebvre, and seen through the religious studies work of scholars like Kim Knott, we have taken a slight detour by developing the function of the sensual body as constitutive in the creation of social-sacred space. The skinscape of religion, ancient and modern, east and west, unfolds in the space between the natural and the artificial, the neural and the cultural. An analysis of social-sacred space needs grounding in the sensing body– there are sensual meanings made before and beyond what can be linguistically and propositionally grasped. The aesthetic body, however, does not merely sense, it must be sensing something, some sensational form. At this juncture, meaning, space, and religious experience are produced.

To conclude, I offer two examples of how this occurs. Architects, architectural theorists, and scholars studying sacred space often utilize visual terminology regarding a place’s depth and height, color and light, epigraphy and ornamentation. Yet, throughout history social-sacred space has been constructed through sound, smell, touch, and taste. I highlight the role of smell and sound here.

Architectural historian Nina Ergin has been investigating sixteenth century Ottoman mosques, discussing the role of food, sound, and smell in the operations of these Islamic sacred spaces. In a study of the olfactory elements within mosques, Ergin demonstrates that “it was not so much the mosque’s architecture itself that mattered to the Ottoman viewer, but the experience of being in that space; a spiritual experience based on the auditory and the olfactory as much as on the visual reception of the divine. An Ottoman mosque arguably was a synaesthetic Gesamtkunstwerk to be experienced by all senses simultaneously.” {Fig. 2} Using scented plant matter for the courtyard gardens, the choosing and burning of specific substances for incense, and the preparing of foods within one part of the mosque, smells proliferated through the architecture, creating a specific environment for devotion. As Ergin continues, “scenting a ritual space makes it into an emotive environment–one that, based on the memory of previous experiences, may trigger a meditative mood conducive to an enhanced spiritual experience. Furthermore, ritually significant events and occasions may be recognizable by their associated smells.”xxv The skinscape here is created through the sensational forms of particular scents that trigger emotions and memories in the bodies of the faithful. This in turn creates the social-sacred space of particular Muslim devotional practices.

Likewise, the sense of sound can create space. Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti are architectural historians who have explored the role of sound within Renaissance-era Venetian churches. Using contemporary scientific instruments, they tested acoustic resonances in a dozen churches around Venice, to understand better the architectural spaces in ways not always apparent to the seeing eye. The results showed how some interiors were constructed for a visual experience of transcendence, but those did not necessarily create a good space for acoustic experiences, and vice versa. Churches and cathedrals, mosques and temples, are not merely visual edifices, but rather can be built for reasons of sound and smell.xxvi

Finally, it should be clear that the other meaning of aesthetics, the more contemporary, post-Kantian one that relates to “theories of art” is not totally ignored. It is in and through the arts, through that which might be sometimes termed beautiful, and sometimes terrible, sacrilegious, and blasphemous, in which religions continue to adapt to new situations and environments. Among other things, a history of religions reveals how tradition itself is based on change, on adaptability, on keeping up with newer cultural manifestations. And art, in spite of the utter relativity of that term, continues to be a conduit for innovation and change, for society, for culture, and for religion in general. Thus, one of Franz Kafka’s early twentieth-century parables becomes pertinent: “leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”xxvii Systems such as religious traditions are not stable. There are constant eruptions to relative states of equilibrium, oscillations between rest and movement, chaos and cosmos.

The artist and the shaman both have, through history, worked to expand experience by experimenting with the senses. Whether by curious and quirky experiments in trompe l’oeil or anamorphosis; the ingesting of soma or peyote; surreal, tragic, absurd, or majestic theatre or music; the beautiful and the blasphemous. Individuals and cultures reorient their perceptual habits based on new experiences.

I am conceiving of art as part of the transformational force of religion, especially but not limited to ritual, that keeps it from becoming routine and static. “Without constant reinvention,” claims Ron Grimes, “we court disorientation. Without rites that engage our imaginations, communities, and bodies, we lose touch with the rhythms of the human life course[.]”xxviii Such reinvention is part of the function of art within religion. Mark Johnson, following John Dewey’s notions in Art as Experience, suggests “the arts are important just insofar as they help us grasp, criticize, and transform meanings and values.”xxix The skin of religion is a training ground, and the skinscape can be reoriented. But note, the reorientation and reproduction of new meanings and identities and communities begins with a transformation of sense perception. Reformation is somehow always about sensual renewal.




i Claudia Benthien, Skin, translated by Thomas Dunlap (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 7. ii Yi-Fu Tuan, ” Surface Phenomena and Aesthetic Experience,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 79.2 (Jun 1989): 233.

iii Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply Into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 37. iv Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991 [1974]), 405.

v Kim Knott, “Spatial Theory and Method for the Study of Religion,” Temenos 41.2 (2005): 153- 184 (158). Knott’s placing of religion in these terms relies on Lefebvre, as well as Michel Foucault. See also Knott’s The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (London: Equinox Press, 2005), and the work of Veikko Anttonen, “Rethinking the Sacred: The Notions of ‘Human Body’ and ‘Territory’ in Conceptualizing Religion,” in Thomas Idinopulos and Edward A. Yonan, eds. The Sacred and its Scholars: Comparative Religious Methodologies for the Study of Primary Religious Data (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996): 36-64.

vi Tom Tweed, “Space” in Material Religion 7.1 (2011) pp. 116–123. See also Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. vii The first instance of the use of “aesthetics” in the modern world is found in the penultimate paragraph of Baumgarten’s Reflections on Poetry, trans., Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holther (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), 78.

viii Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 13. The initial development of the field of aesthetics, Eagleton further states in an excellent phrase, “is thus the first stirrings of a primitive materialism–of the body’s long inarticulate rebellion against the tyranny of the theoretical” (ibid). ix Ibid. x The notion that there are “five senses” is not universal. In the West, the number was chiefly derived from Aristotle’s philosophy, but many other thinkers in the West have had different ways of counting the senses, and other cultures continue to divide the world into two, three, or more senses. For interesting overviews on this, see David Howes, Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991);

Constance Classen, Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1993); and Louise Vinge, The Five Senses: Studies in a Literary Tradition (Lund: LiberLäromedel, 1975). xi David Chidester, Word and Light: Seeing, Hearing, and Religious Discourse (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 1. The well-known aphorism by Paul Ricoeur is from the conclusion to his The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).

xii Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 25. xiii Quoted in William J. Broad, “Its Sensitive. Really.” New York Times, 13 December 2005. xiv Jamais Cascio, “Get Smart,” The Atlantic, (July/Aug 2009): 94-100.

xv William Paden, Religious Worlds (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 51, 52. xvi Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 2. xvii The groundbreaking work of cultural anthropologists Constance Classen, David Howes, and others has already begun to account for such comparative work. While the literature is growing quickly, a couple initial works worth noting are Constance Classen, The Color of Angels (New York: Routledge, 1998); David Howes, Sensual Relations (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2003); Howes, ed. Empire of the Senses (Oxford: Berg, 2005); and the journal edited by Howes, Senses and Society. Howes has also set up the “Sensory Studies” website, with many excellent links to work being done around the world: xviii Shinobu Kitayama, et al, “Perceiving an Object and its Context in Different Cultures,” Psychological Science 14.3 (May 2003): 206.

xix Hyekyung Park and Shinobu Kitayama, “Perceiving Through Culture: The Social Attention Hypothesis,” in The Science of Social Vision, Reginald Adams, et al., eds. (Oxford: Oxford Unviersity Press, 2011), 76 xx Laura Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), xi-xii.

xxi Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991 [1974]), 405. xxii George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

xxiii Birgit Meyer, “Introduction: From Imagined Communities to Aesthetic Formations: Religious Mediations, Sensational Forms, and Styles of Binding,” in Birgit Meyer, ed. Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 13. xxiv See, e.g., Margaret Livingstone, Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (New York: Abrams, 2008); Donald Hoffman, Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See (New York: Norton, 2000); and Barbara Maria Stafford, Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). xxv Nina Ergin, “The Fragrance of the Divine: Olfactory Aspects of Ottoman Mosque Architecture,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, Chicago, April 2010. xxvi Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti, Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009).

xxvii Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes (New York: Schocken books, 1961), 93. xxviii Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage, Life Passages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 3. xxix Johnson, Meaning, xiii.