Images at Work

The Material Culture of Enchantment

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David Morgan
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Why are images so important in human societies? What do images do to us? And what do we do with them? How do images make us believe in them? What is, indeed, an image? If such questions interest you, then you should definitely read Images at Work by David Morgan. This six-chapter work explores the power of images by elaborating on the concept of enchantment and providing a sophisticated theoretical framework for the discussion. The book is written in essay style, advancing in a spiral movement: key concepts such as “enchantment” and “dis-enchantment,” “image” and “ecology of image” are discussed in different chapters and from different perspectives, which generates a challenging and illuminating read. The focus lies on the image, described as a visual instrument fundamental to human life but with its own materiality and agency: “An image is an interactive device that responds to being seen by co-creating a relation with its viewer, whose consciousness takes shape with the image in intertwining structures of feeling, memory and expectation” (52). Images cannot act alone; they are always part of a performative network where human and non-human (the image as material object) interact.

The role of religious images is addressed within a broader approach to culture in which art, magic, and religion are not considered strongly separated. By defining concepts at their core, and not at their always porous borders, the author is able to develop an argument that is not specific to a particular social system or historical period. Furthermore, the book develops a general perspective on enchantment that underscores two dimensions of this universal phenomenon: enchantment always relates to practices of believing and make-believing. Morgan notes that it “is helpful to understand enchantment as consisting of both the enchanted and whatever is enchanting. In that way, enchantment is located both in the mind and in the world.” Enchantment arises from the interaction of images and humans within complex “ecologies.” It is “the glue of human cultures” (173). According to Morgan, enchantment provides humans with an essential orientation: when it is understood as “the things people do to align their life-worlds with the physical universe, it becomes clear that the primary purpose of enchantment is to secure a sense of belonging” (174). Enchantment is a response to the human quest for a favorable world. It is a coping strategy in the face of contingency. And images, including religious images with their specific reference to transcendent worlds, are the material agents of this process.

Images at Work can be read as a series of variations on a leitmotif introduced on the book jacket, which presents a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme about the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. The artist’s desire for the sculpture he has crafted is fulfilled as the object that was produced by his hands becomes a woman he can touch, feel, and love. In deepening the relationship between the act of reproducing and the independent agent that is produced, Morgan enriches our understanding of the performativity of images and their possible location within (religious) anthropology. Futhermore, his book offers a repertoire of innovative key concepts that can be deployed to analyze materiality, religion, and culture. His contribution is relevant for visual studies and other fields, for it addresses the limits of a rational view that has humans dominating the world through reason. The book makes a strong argument for reconsidering feelings, emotions, and the body as fundamental aspects of religion and culture. Still, questions remain. What of the perspective from which we consider enchantment? How shall religion studies and the humanities explore the dynamics of enchantment? Are they alone in escaping visual and material enchantment? A hermeneutical reflection on what happens when scholars of religion engage with images and materiality is missing here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati is Professor of the History and Study of Religion at the University of Munich.

Date of Review: 
August 20, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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).


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