A Universe of Terms
Religion in Visual Metaphor
Series: Religion and the Human
- ISBN: 9780253064172
- Published By: Indiana University Press
- Published: November 2022
Mona Oraby and Emilie Flamme’s A Universe of Terms: Religion in Visual Metaphor is a wonderful book to experience and a difficult book to review. Much of what makes this book so engaging, thought-provoking, and beautiful stems from the reader’s own experience of interacting with the thoughtful juxtapositions of text, images, and design in the book itself. In this case, the medium really is the message. It is impossible to obtain a full sense of any book from a review, but because the experiential aspect is such a key feature of this particular book, A Universe of Terms really must be read, engaged with, and enjoyed.
In creating their graphic work of nonfiction, Oraby and Flamme “propose an alternative form for scholarly communication” that questions conventions, including “associations of seniority or pedigree with superior knowledge,” to rethink the various terms included in the book and create “new thought circuits” (xiv-xv). Their ambitious project to shake up and reorganize existing thought patterns, flatten knowledge hierarchies, and imagine “a more inclusive, responsible, and communicative future” is, in my view, hugely successful (xvi, xvii, xx). Again, it is the medium itself rather than the specific words or images in the book that makes this project such a success.
The book invites readers to explore eight key terms that intersect with religion and secularism, and with one another: spirit, economy, human, media, performance, space/place, modernity, and enchantment/disenchantment. Each chapter’s text is made up entirely of quotations drawn from essays included in the multimedia project A Universe of Terms that was posted on the website of The Immanent Frame in 2020. The quotations are not marked as such in each chapter and so ideas from various scholars who participated in the online project flow together and bounce off each other in interesting ways. Readers who wish to locate the essays from which these quotations were drawn can find the full excerpts and bibliographical information at the end of the book. Oraby and Flamme also include a note on quotations at the beginning of the book that explains how multiple layers of authorship (quotations within quotations) are marked in the text. This innovative practice allows readers to engage with text out of context, which is one way in which the authors succeed at shaking up and reorganizing existing thought.
The book also succeeds at challenging scholarly conventions. Rather than present a clear, logical, and complete argument supported by references, the book presents instead evocative fragments that invite the reader to develop their own insights, understanding, and responses. While reading the book, I had to continually resist the urge to find the original essay on The Immanent Frame to contextualize the quotations within a larger coherent argument. In other words, I had to resist the urge to transform the book into conventional scholarship by acting like a conventional scholar. But in avoiding scholarly conventions, A Universe of Terms puts forward a new and productive model for scholarship. As Oraby explains in her preface, “what readers, whomever they are, see, infer, and emote enables scholarship to thrive” (xviii). While scholars of religion and secularity will certainly be inspired and challenged by the book, students and readers without any prior knowledge of religious studies scholarship will be introduced to complex ideas presented in both words and images. As such, the book also succeeds in its attempt to “reverse the knowledge arrow, pointing it from the scholar to the reader . . . ” (xvii).
The images in the book and its graphic design are integral to its overall effect. The images are much more than illustrations included to support or build upon the quotations in each chapter. To provide just one example, an image in the chapter on media depicts several religious artifacts enclosed in glass cases in a museum. The quotation asks “how do such old religious media matter in secular contexts? Which memories, stories, and powers can they mediate and transmit?” But the image allows readers to ask different (but related) questions, such as what does it mean for these artifacts to be placed alongside one another, out of their religious contexts and yet placed in the new context of “religion” as a modern category? What are the connections between colonialism and secularity? In the top left corner of the page is a small CCTV camera. Who is monitoring and policing these artifacts, or indeed the categories “religion” and “secular,” and to what ends?
Inspired by Oraby and Flamme’s project to shake things up and challenge conventions, I will risk being somewhat unconventional myself and take a moment to describe my own experience while reading the book. The book made me pause, ponder, stand, walk away, return, flip back, flip forward, look away, look back, think forward and . . . think differently. I read some of the book in class while my students were engaged in independent work. At one point I felt compelled to interrupt the class, stand up, wave the book in the air and exclaim that this is what scholarship can look and feel like. After walking over to see what had me so excited, one of my students asked: “if scholarship can look like this, why are we still writing essays?” I could not come up with a satisfying answer to her question. It is also perhaps conventional in a book review to include some criticisms. I do not have any. A Universe of Terms is a wonderful and inspiring project. My only question for the authors is, when will your next collaboration be published?
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is an Instructor in the Humanities Department at Dawson College, Montréal.Ian Alexander CuthbertsonDate Of Review:August 19, 2023