All religions make some use of the material to represent or lead to something beyond. But not all religions emphasize materiality to the extent that Christianity does, impelled by the doctrines of creation ex nihilo and of the Incarnation. Hence a paradox: if the Christian God is understood to redeem, not merely to transcend, the material, then corruptible, partible matter must be capable of incorruption and eternal wholeness. In her lecture, Caroline Bynum will explore one consequence of this paradox: Christianity’s insistence on material fragmentation as a way of distributing the holy, while embedding this in the idea of synecdoche. Describing first the cult of holy matter and the way in which the anxieties about decay attendant upon it are reflected in theology and reliquaries, she will then look at five wound piety (which has often been understood as erotic or proto-feminist) as an example of the devotional sense of pars pro toto.
Caroline Walker Bynum is professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and University professor emerita at Columbia University in New York City. She works on theology, religion and culture in the later Middle Ages. Her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987) was instrumental in introducing the concept of gender into Medieval Studies. Her books Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (1991) and The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity (1995) provided a paradigm for the history of the body. Her recent book Wonderful Blood (2007), which won the Haskins Medal from the Medieval Academy of America in 2011, focuses on devotion to the blood of Christ in northern Germany in the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. This lecture is based on a chapter in her new study Christian Materiality, which is due out from Zone Books late this spring.
The event is part of the ICI Focus Kippbilder / Multistable Figures. Multistable figures not only continue to fascinate cognitive scientists as a form of optical illusions, but they also function as models for probing complex epistemological, aesthetic and ethical tensions. We see either duck or rabbit, but not both at the same time. Yet the image cannot be reduced to either, it is neither (only) duck nor (only) rabbit, but both duck and rabbit. The combination of simultaneity (the coexistence of aspects in one image) and consecution (the change of one aspect to another) yields both either/or and both/and. At the same time, the image forms no synthesis. That one image should lead to the recognition of different shapes also means that the perceived shape is both less and more than the sensory data given by the image. The unity of the shape – the Gestalt of duck or rabbit – is more than the sum of black and white pixels in the image, even if it forms only one aspect of the image. Multistable figures highlight the activity of the perceiving subject, but as we can agree on the recognized shapes, it promotes no radical subjectivism, relativism or constructivism. Rather, it promises the possibility of productively mediating and distinguishing between subject and object, reality and construction, natural and conventional categories.
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