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Gods In The Time Of Automobility

Mar 23, 2017

Alongside an explosion in print, televisual, and digital media, India’s late twentieth-century economic reforms produced an unexpected new genre: monumental statues, mostly Hindu deities built in cement, now steadily proliferating across India and its diaspora. How do we think about the newness of such a form given, on one hand, the genealogy of its publicness in late colonial religio-cultural nationalism, debates on electoral representation, and a particular form of politico-devotional public designated as sārvajanik and, on the other, its coemergence with the reconfigurations of space, time, and affect unleashed by the booming postliberalization automobile and construction industries? The newness of “new media” and of the publics they engender is still too often unwittingly framed within the much-critiqued modernist narratives of linear progress and evolutionary succession. In this paper, however, I attempt to address the layered temporalities and spatialities at work here that simultaneously remediate and initiate circuits with “older” forms of iconopraxis, sociality, territoriality, and distributions of the sensible. In doing so I propose a processual view of media/objects that disaggregates them into assemblages of multiple processes unfolding stochastically and at varying speeds, drawing their force from potentially vastly different yet intercalated “moments.”

Introduction: New Old Media, Old New Media

Alongside an explosion in print, televisual, cellular, and digital media, India’s late twentieth-century economic reforms produced an unexpected new genre: monumental statues, mostly (but not all) Hindu deities, upward of 60 feet tall, steadily proliferating across India and its diaspora since the early 1990s (figs. 1, 2). How might we think about the newness of such a form, indeed a new medium, where religious icons as channels of communication with the divine now address an expansive public beyond that of statues sequestered in temples? What do we make of its remediation of popular painted icons circulating digitally and in print as well as of much earlier colossal rock-cut statues such as the second- and sixth-century CE Buddhas of the Swat Valley and Bamiyan, or the medieval Jain statues of Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, now reappearing as freestanding figures in stone and concrete? Why does such a resolutely material, physical, immovable form (re)emerge at this moment of accelerating circulation, virtuality, and mass mediation, and what might it tell us about the constitution of political and devotional—politico-devotional—publics?


Figure 1. Hanuman sculpture (101 feet) by sculptor Matu Ram Verma, inaugurated in 2002 at the Shri Adhya Katyani Shakti Peeth Mandir (Chhatarpur Mandir), Delhi, 2007. The cars in the temple parking lot in the foreground are a Tata Indica and two Marutis (Maruti is also a name for Hanuman).


Figure 2. Standing Shiva (80 feet) by Matu Ram Verma, inaugurated in 1994 at the Birla Kanan opposite the international airport on National Highway 4 between Delhi and Gurgaon. Photographed in 2007, when the models of Nandi and Shiva’s family in the middle ground were being turned into larger statues along with 15- to 30-foot Radha-Krishna and Ram-Sita statues.

Clearly the specificities of new media must be thought of in relation to the sensory/aesthetic, social, and political ecologies in which they emerge and are mobilized: this is what ethnography can do. But the question of newness here raises the question of oldness, or rather of temporality, demanding a layered historical approach to the moments, speeds, and scales at which processes and ways of knowing or experiencing them emerge, unfold, and converge, including the very salience of novelty, speed, and scale as elements of the affective field. The language of historical “changes” and “shifts” elides the inertia and subtle mutations of older forms and processes, and hence the circuits and turbulences between newer and older forms, or remobilizations and resignifications beyond remediation per se. The new does not necessarily make what preexists it old or obsolete, though it can make it anew; emergence can coexist with and morph the persistence and duration of objects and technologies or media as well as of forms of power and sociality.

In this essay I seek to disentangle the idea of newness in “new media” from the much-critiqued modernist narratives of linear progress and evolutionary succession in whose terms it is still too often unwittingly framed—or rather to provincialize this as just one of the temporalities at work when thinking about what enables newness to emerge and what the newness of the new makes possible. It brings together “new materialist” concerns with becoming and emergence—or becoming otherwise, whose processual approaches to temporality primarily draw on Bergson and Deleuze (see Hodges 2008; West-Pavlov 2013)—and postcolonial concerns with historical difference (Chakrabarty 2000) and with the heterogeneous temporalities of uneven development (Harootunian 2015). These approaches to temporality invite a disaggregation of putatively discrete objects or events into assemblages of processes, unfolding stochastically and at varying speeds, that—as I aim to illustrate here—draw their force from potentially vastly different “moments.” Here objects-events belong both to the moment and space of these processes’ convergence and to multiple other space-times (in the Deleuzian-Bergsonian concept of la durée, as in the anthropological conception of Nancy Munn, space and time cannot be thought apart; see Hodges 2008).1 This indivisibility of object-event and process, of space and time, troubles the distinctions between objects, media, and experience or the space-time of encounters (and hence, arguably, between art history, media studies, and anthropology): objects endure, unfold, change, signify or “communicate,” and cohere via experience; media are not simply channels through which messages travel through space but have object-like efficacy; experience is profoundly mediated and formed through encounters with objects-events.

Taking a processual view of media, objects, or genres and their emergence is useful in at least three ways. For one, it breaches the art-historical impasse between a formalism that engages with the qualities of the object as encountered in the phenomenological present and a contextualism that privileges the singular moment, location, and human agent(s) of a work’s production. Second, it refutes the secular-modernist relegation of religion to the past, which all too often causes religion to drop out of media/communication studies–oriented accounts of contemporary media and urbanism, clearly a handicap to understanding their political dimensions (a counterexample is Stolow 2013; this has also not been an issue in anthropology, as other papers in this special issue of Current Anthropology attest). Third, it promises a richer anthropological analysis of how the very discourse of “new media” becomes productive in rendering these media efficacious (although this is not addressed here, because religious icons are not generally seen as “new media”).

At stake here is what counts as contemporary. Keeping one eye on “old” media amid the excitement over “new media”—primarily understood as digital technologies (with their mass address, virtuality, and seemingly sudden, radical transformations in the modi operandi of publics)—provides a more accurate sense of how the whole range of existing media and cultural forms are enmeshed with the way publics constitute themselves and the things they worry about. These include the exploitation of labor and dispossession of land, both occurring on a massive scale in old and reconfigured forms. They also include the recalcitrant yet also protean forms and genres—that is, aesthetics—of social distinction, hierarchy, and exclusion based on race, class, gender, caste, religion, sexual orientation, etc., as well as of the means, such as democracy, of making these otherwise. Despite our exhaustion with identity politics, these concerns show no sign of getting old.