How to capture the “wow”

Birgit Meyer’s article ‘How to capture the “wow”: R.R. Marett’s notion of awe and the study of religion’, based on her Marett lecture in Oxford, has just been published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. The article speaks directly to the concerns with iconicity and the surplus that are central to the Iconic Religion project.

Abstract: Current scholarship in the social sciences and humanities, including the study of religion, shows a marked appraisal of bodily sensations, emotions, and experiences as eminently social and politico-aesthetic phenomena (rather than reducing them to a matter of mere individual psychology). How to grasp the genesis of shared perceptions and feelings, and even some kind of ‘wow’ effect, in relation to a posited ‘beyond’ has become a central issue for scholars of religion today. Placed against the horizon of the material turn in the study of religion, R.R. Marett’s approach to religion as an ‘organic complex of thought, emotion, and behaviour’ and his concept of awe gain renewed topicality. Engaging with Marett’s ideas in the context of broader debates about religious experience, in this article (which is based on my 2014 Marett lecture) I call attention to the surplus generated in the interplay of religious things and bodily sensations and explore its role in politics and aesthetics of religious world-making. My central point is that Marett’s work offers valuable resources for an approach to religion that neither takes for granted the existence of a god or transcendental force (as in ontological approaches), nor invests in unmasking it as an illusion (as in critiques of religion as irrational), but instead undertakes a close study of the standardized methods that yield the fabrication of some kind of excess that points to a ‘beyond’ and yet is grounded in the here and now.