Place / No-Place in Urban Asian Religiosity

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Joanne Punzo Waghorne
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     229 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The study of the changing role of religion in Asian megalopolises and new emerging urban areas has been a growing field in recent years, and Joanne Punzo Waghorne’s edited volume Place/No-Place in Urban Asian Religiosity is a welcome addition, offering a number of engaging case studies organized around the themes of “place” and “no-place.” This collection developed out of a conference held by the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, and is comprised of eleven chapters including the introduction. The book largely focuses on Chinese communities (four chapters) and Indian communities (five chapters) with Singapore as a shared point of exchange between the two, as well as a single chapter on South Korea. The ten chapters that follow the introduction include prefaces by the editor that summarize the main points of the authors, and more importantly, attempt to tie the individual chapters more closely together when possible, generally doing so using the conceptions of place and no-place.

Waghorne’s introduction situates the collection in the larger theoretical debates on urbanization and space more broadly. While religion is often absent from these fields, she writes that the volume “signal(s) a reconsideration of religiosity as a major component of today’s rapid urbanization” (2). Waghorne puts forth the category of “no-place” as central to many of the chapters. This term attempts to understand religion, not in terms of the capitalist “non-places” that define Marc Auge’s supermodernity but rather, to grasp “another relationship between ‘place’ (topos) and ‘no-place’ (utopia, ou-topos) with a long lineage in the field of religious studies” (2). No-places are those that could be anywhere as they suggest a dis-embedding of bodies and practices through digital or physical means.

Other themes that emerge throughout the volume include the ways that religiosities produce places and no-places. The changing urban infrastructure has had a major impact on how many religious groups practice, both restraining and expanding religious possibilities. In Yohan Yoo’s research on six Protestant churches in Seoul we see the ability of certain groups to make use of public spaces, transforming them from their intended uses. While Gareth Fischer’s study of a Buddhist temple in Beijing and Smriti Srinivas’s chapter on religious sites along a roadway of an old neighborhood in Bangalore show the destructive role of transportation infrastructure on older neighborhoods, they simultaneously open up possibilities for a more geographically disperse religious community. Srinivas’s study is perhaps the strongest contribution to the volume, presenting a shrine, quasi-shrine, and Ayurveda therapy center as the points of thresholds, these can be “spatial points of entry and exit, liminal figures and places between worlds, or material passages in the city” (144). These thresholds are bodily sites between reality and unreality that allow for contrasts and transgressions. While she does not engage with the place/no-place theme of the volume directly, she manages to connect the bodily and emplaced religious practices with a rapidly changing urban infrastructure.

Digital technologies offer another form of infrastructure to the city—one that has allowed for the creation of no-places that may then be used to materialize physical places. Lily Kong describes online services for tomb sweeping and offerings to the deceased in Mainland China. Jean DeBernardi’s work  explores varied usages of new media by Singapore’s Daoists. As many former neighborhood temples in Singapore are demolished or relocated, Daoist groups have used online communities to reconnect, both locally and to establish new transnational networks. These transnational networks in DeBernardi’s work take the form of both religious pilgrimages as well as the organization of semi-academic international conferences by Daoists. These new circuits of religious practice cross not only national boundaries, but also borders between religious practitioners and those who study them. Waghorne’s own contribution to the volume also presents transnational ties of “global gurus” circulating between south India and Singapore. These gurus present a kind of cosmopolitanism in their visualization practices intended to transcend spatial boundaries.

Issues of class and income disparity in a number of chapters suggest different relations to place depending on one’s position in society that result in different forms of religiosity. These relations between wealth and place are, by no means fixed. Though the majority of the studies describe the middle class as mobile and individualistic and thus, more likely to be drawn to religions defined by “no-place,” the poor and working class are largely presented as thoroughly emplaced. Juliana Finucane discusses the seemingly contradictory nature of middle-class Soka Gakkai practitioners’ claims to an exclusive truth given their views of themselves as open and cosmopolitan global citizens. Daniel Gold describes middle-class religious practitioners at three meditation-yoga-based Hindu organizations in a midsized Indian city whose practices are closely tied to individualism, but also provide a patriotic sense of national reconstruction. Ann Grodzins Gold connects the construction of a temple to Vishnu—a national deity—in a North Indian town to the increasing upward mobility and diversity within the town, linking it to a wider Urdu culture it has not previously been known for. This is contrasted with Madhura Lohokare’s analysis of neighborhood associations in India known as Mitra Mandals. She suggests that these spaces give a place for poor working class men to take back public space in a rapidly developing city, and are also key to developing an emplaced identity and civic awareness. Yoo, however, offers the only comparison between middle-class and poor neighborhoods within a single city finding that, in Seoul, it is the Protestant groups serving the poorest areas that are less concerned about holding a physical space, some even using theological interpretations to argue against acquiring a permanent space for their congregation.

Although these themes are shared between chapters, and Waghorne’s prefaces work to tie the chapters together, the chapters remain uneven in both their style of analysis and their development of content. This is expected, to an extent, in an edited volume, but some of the chapters would have benefited from more directly engaging with theories and debates in the study of space and place. While some deeply engage with the concepts Waghorne discusses in her introduction, others largely ignore them. This is perhaps why the volume ends with Grodzins Gold’s chapter, which Waghorne describes as a “un-conclusion” (205), rather than a conclusion. Regardless of this issue, there are some excellent chapters in this volume that present both fascinating ethnographic detail and theoretical insights. It is recommended to anyone interested in religion and space or urbanization in Asia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel M. Murray is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
May 10, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joanne Waghorne works in contemporary theoretical directions in the study of religion, especially issues of emerging religious/spiritual organizations, practices, and self understanding in the present era of mass communication, urbanization, and globalization.  Spatial theory, cosmopolitanism, concepts of the public sphere, world systems, and visual studies inform her interdisciplinary approach which she works to integrate with her roots in History of Religions and phenomenology. Her concerns include revisioning World Religions/Comparative Religion in a post-colonial/post-modern era. Her publications contextualize these issues in contemporary urban India and in Singapore, and in the Hindu diaspora. Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, and the American Institute of Indian Studies have supported her fieldwork in India. Recently she was a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Fellow and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Asian Research Institute (Globalization and Religion cluster), National University of Singapore, researching gurus, devotees, and their international organizations from Singapore.



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