Participant Abstracts and Bios


Prof. D. Max Moerman, Cartographies of Religion: Visual Culture and the Spatial Imagination

Christian Jacob has written, “maps suggest a way of thinking as well as a way of seeing.” This talk begins from Jacob’s comment to analyze the role of cartography in constructing, locating, and navigating imagined religious space. It explores the possibility of a cartography of religion through an examination of world maps of the Japanese Buddhist tradition.

D. Max Moerman is a Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College, Columbia University. His interests in the spatial imagination of Japanese Buddhism are focused on the representation of religious worldview in ritual, visual, and material culture. He has written on such topics as pilgrimage, otherworld journeys, cosmology, and religious cartography. His publications include: Localizing Paradise: Kumano Pilgrimage and the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan (2005), “The Archeology of Anxiety: An Underground History of Heian Religion” (2007), “Dying Like the Buddha: Intervisuality and the Cultic Image” (2008), “Demonology and Eroticism: Islands of Women in the Japanese Buddhist Imagination” (2009), and the forthcoming The Japanese Buddhist World Map: Religious Vision and the Cartographic Imagination.


Prof. Robert T. Tally Jr., Reflections on Literary Cartography: Rhapsody, Architectonic, World System

The representational project of literary cartography is fraught with peril, as the urge to produce accurate maps confronts the specters of not only the impossible, but the undesirable. Borges sounded the alarm when he wrote of those imperial mapmakers who had developed a map coextensive with the territory it purported to depict, becoming at once perfect and perfectly useless. Arguably, such mimetic scrupulosity thwarts the project of literary cartography as well. Figures, abstractions, fantasies, and projections are necessary. The hero’s itinerary is traced along the map that is formed, at least in part, by those itinerant tracings, while the epic narrative gives shape to the world’s spaces. Like Odysseus, the bard who would sing the world into being must connect the itinerary to the map, blending lived experience with that imaginary geography to form a rhapsodic totality. Or like Dante, who pauses to study geography in the midst of his own infernal itinerary, the literary cartographer must construct an architectonic by which the otherworldly world system can make sense, such that the spaces revealed are also the spaces produced in the narrative. In these ways, literary cartography represents and produces a world system. In this talk, I will offer introductory reflections on literary cartography by examining the interrelations among the itinerary and the map, narrative and description, perception and abstraction, lived experience and the social totality.

Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University. His books include Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism (2014), Poe and the Subversion of American Literature (2014), Utopia in the Age of Globalization (2013), Spatiality (2013), Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel (2011), and Melville, Mapping and Globalization (2009). The translator of Bertrand Westphal’s Geocriticism, Tally has also edited several collections, including Ecocriticism and Geocriticism (with Christine M. Battista, 2016), The Geopolitical Legacies of Edward W. Said (2015), Literary Cartographies (2014), Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights (2012), Geocritical Explorations (2011), and The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space (forthcoming). Tally is also the general editor of the Palgrave Macmillan book series Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies.



Tanvir Ahmed, A Genealogy of Revolt: The Musha’sha’īya Movement and the Early Shi’i Messianic Tradition

The memory of the ahl al-bayt, or “People of the [Prophetic] House,” has served as a powerful device in Muslim imagination from the earliest centuries of Islam. Al-Musha’sha’a, a scholar and messianic leader of the ninth Islamic century, employed this memory by establishing a “genealogy of dissent” linking himself to the ahl al-bayt, which in turn led to the realization of temporal aims through armed action. To this end, al-Musha’sha’a provided in his work Kalam al-mahdi a deep articulation of early Shi’i claims on the nature of the Fourteen Infallibles (sacred personalities of Shi’i Islam) –specifically, claims surrounding their natures, deaths, and locations. Al-Musha’sha’a’s stances –while considered controversial by much of the Shi’i intellectual establishment of his age– were in fact closely related to those of early Shi’i movements of the first and second Islamic centuries which also employed the force of arms against Muslim rulers. This work elucidates his genealogy and offers some theories as to why this treatment of sacred memory was so central to temporal revolutionary action.

Tanvir Ahmed is currently working on his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at Stanford University. His present research is centered upon Islamic revolutionary movements and shadow-polities of the late medieval and early modern period, with a focus on the invocation and use of sacred memory, particularly that of the Prophetic House (ahl al-bayt).


Carli Anderson, “A Lamp Unto My Feet:” Traversing Imagined Space Through Bodily Metaphors of Feet in the Book of Psalms

The book of Psalms frequently uses body imagery in its metaphorical language. These images are not usually objectified descriptions of bodies, but rather are subjective depictions of the Psalmists’ perceptions of their reality. This paper will examine the imagery of feet in the Biblical book of Psalms, specifically instances where feet are represented as being positioned in imagined spaces. These embodied metaphorical depictions are metonymically representative of the lyrical speakers and serve to focus the reader’s attention to a specific locus that positions the speakers within an imagined landscape. In turn, the space illustrates the speakers’ relative sense of piety, power or well-being. These abstract attributes are embodied by the position and movement of the speakers’ feet within the imagined space which metaphorically convey how the speakers’ view themselves in relation to the Deity. Their senses of guilt, innocence, loyalty and security are illustrated through a metaphorical spatial discourse. This paper will map out the characteristics of these imagined spaces and explore the ways in which they communicate the abstract relationships of the lyrical speakers of the Psalms to their Deity.

Carli Anderson is currently a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Her research concentrates on notions of place and pilgrimage in Judaism. More specifically, her work examines the intersections of spatiality, emotion, and sense of story in religious texts and contexts.


Sara DeLozier, Mystical Dreams and Beautiful Birds: Spaces of Necessary Transcendence in The Dream of the Rood and The Phoenix

The Dream of the Rood and The Phoenix – two of the most studied Old English poems—both reveal different, yet similarly incredible mesmeric imagery. The brilliant gold-encrusted Cross in Rood and the bejeweled phoenix bird in Phoenix highly contrast the drab daily life of humankind mentioned in each poem. What is most gripping, though is that this imagery does more than simply contrast the mundane—it represents a separate space, a separate sphere, elevated above mankind. Through the lens of Geocriticism, which is a relatively new branch of theory jointly developed by Bertrand Westphal and Robert Tally, reading these two Old English poems’ geography and spatial patterning reveal a prominent spiritual geography, illuminating spaces of the medieval cosmological map previously shaded.

I will begin my paper with a brief discussion of Geocriticism and how it directly informs my analyses of these two poems. Bertrand Westphal profoundly states that, ‘Space and the world in which it unfolds are the fruits of a symbolic system, of a speculative movement, which is also a glimmer of the beyond, and (let us venture the word) of the imaginary.” Bearing this in mind, this outline, I hope, will reveal that privileging spatial discourse when examining these two texts is unavoidable. From here, I will consider how the medieval cosmological ordering of the universe presents itself in the often overlooked spatial geography in Rood and Phoenix, ultimately asserting that the spaces the Cross and the phoenix bird occupy are ethically defined and reveal their importance to understanding the medieval universe and mankind’s place within it. Through a close examination of The Dream of the Rood and The Phoenix, I will posit that they offer an alternate cartographic system, one of allegory, and represent spaces of necessary transcendence that punctuate man’s relationship with the divine.

Sara DeLozier earned her Master’s in English Literature from NYU in May 2015, with a special focus on Victorian literature from 1850-1900. Her Master’s thesis examine Sue Bridehead’s unique character construction in Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure, arguing that Hardy actively formulates Sue as one of the most psychologically realistic female characters in the literature of his time. Although a Victorianist at heart, Sara’s other areas of literary interest include the history of the novel, gender and feminist critical theory, British modernism, and early Anglo-Saxon poetry. She still resides in New York City and is currently an Editorial Assistant at W.W. Norton & Co.


Matthew M. Harris, “Sing to the Moon and the Stars Will Shine”: Space Music and Transmission of Another World

This essay tends to the sonic-spatial discourse of the genre of black music I call “space music.” Space music, one facet of a multi-faceted Astro Black Mythology, registers the (un)geographic (im)possibilities of raced bodies in a world built on black exclusion. In this context, outer space has served as place for a number of diverse musical acts to express a fundamental dissatisfaction with the present order of things through claims to have come from, or by conveying a desire to travel to, other worlds. “Sing[ing] to the moon,” as one artist articulates it, however, not only registers a dissatisfaction with ungeographic identities, but, more importantly, sounds a refusal to ground their being in the so-called real world. As such, outer space sites an insurgent ground that calls in to question the validity the world as arranged, while simultaneously transmitting possibilities of another kind of world.

Matthew M. Harris is a second year PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include critical race approaches to religion, African American religious history, and American religion and culture. He holds a BA in the Study of Religion from UCLA and an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary.


Meera Kachroo, Mapping Maṇidvīpa: the manifestation of Amritananda’s inner vision at Devipuram

Since its consecration in 1994, Devipuram has drawn a steady stream of pilgrims and tourists who are interested in the worship of Śrīvidyā’s goddess Lalitā Tripurasundarī. The vision of Devipuram’s founder, N. Prahalada Sastry (‘Guruji’), is one that integrates closely the landscape of this site with a hierophany of the goddess. At Devipuram, one of many new sites of Srividya worship in contemporary South India, visitors are invited to visit maṇidvīpa: invoked as the abode of the Goddess, the most beautiful of all the seven worlds, an island surrounded by amṛta, and created by the power of Lalitā’s thoughts. Śrīvidyā’s sectarian stotra literature, the Devī Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and the Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa describe this space in great detail as a compound of numerous enclosures containing the palace of Lalitā. This palace is commonly identified with the meru-cakra, the ritual tool of the Śrīvidyā pujā complex. At Devipuram the meru-cakra is writ large as a temple to enter and explore, surrounded and inhabited by statuary of Khaḍgamālā deities whose erotic figuration is informed by Amritananda’s meditative visualization.

Amritananda has re-imagined, constructed and revealed the jewel-island abode of Lalitā on a vast and interactive scale. Here the lush coastal landscape is a heirophany of the goddess in repose, whose body is traversed by pilgrims as they circulate around the grounds. With his emphasis on space, place, landscape, and figure, Amritananda’s vision articulates a modern synthesis of the samaya / kaula bifurcation of Śrīvidyā lineages, considered by Douglas Brooks to be the defining feature of contemporary traditions. In this presentation, I will analyze the multiple streams of influence Amritananda invokes in this synthesis: the rhetoric of gender, caste and class; the simultaneity of divine transcendence and immanence; and invocation of the values of modern society. Herein lie the traces of a Śrīvidyā’s successful updating of its classical concerns: new authorities and architecture, shifting ritual emphases, commodities, and services. This project is part of a larger study that considers the ways that Śrīvidyā initiates redefine and reimagine the meaning and implications of practicing their esoteric tradition in the modern world.

Meera Kachroo is a Doctoral Candidate in Hinduism at McGill University. Her research focuses on the contemporary circulation of Srividya texts as a lens for understanding modernity. As a lecturer at both McGill and at the University of Saskatchewan, she pursues other research interests including yoga, Indian cinema, non-violence, and environmentalism.


Matthew D. McMullen, The Enlightenment of Plants and Trees: The Soteriological Consequences of a Cosmos Without Borders

Cosmologies are rarely discussed in concrete terms. Unlike doctrines, practices, and monastic regulations, which tend to warrant lengthy explications, the structure of the cosmos and the relation of its inhabitants are often expressed through culturally specific myths and legends. Never static, these systems tend to morph over time, expanding to account for new systems or retracting into a metaphysical hegemony. Buddhism presents a particularly rich example of the multiple levels a cosmology can acquire. As Buddhism moved across the Asian continent, it absorbed a diversity of empyrean constructions. Although Buddhist cosmology was decidedly eclectic, there was nevertheless a logic to imagining a multi-world system of buddhas and deities.

A consistent theme in the writings of Buddhist scholastics is the reciprocal expression of cosmic structure and the soteriological function of religious practice. Whether one seeks to extinguish the cycle of suffering called saṃsāra, receive salvation from a super-human entity such as a buddha or bodhisattva, or simply obtain a better life in the next rebirth, the methods for achieving such goals inform one’s view of the cosmos. In the earliest Buddhist writings, allusions to the cosmos hinted at an vast expanse of space and time consisting of multiple realms of form and formless heavens. In the Mahāyāna sūtras, the notion of a multi-world system was infinitely replicated in the form of buddha lands, each land containing its own version of this multi-tiered system. Zhiyi, the founder of the Chinese Tiantai school, systemized these buddha lands into a four-part taxonomy in which buddhas occupy the highest lands and our world is the lowest.

In this paper, I argue that Buddhist cosmology and the fusion of mental and cosmic spaces proposed in Zhiyi’s taxonomy formed the doctrinal basis for the possibility that even plants and trees can be liberated as buddhas. The soteriological discourse in medieval Japanese Buddhism on the buddhahood of insentient entities such as plants and trees was an attempt to bridge the gap between the most pure buddha lands and our present world by simplifying the path to buddhahood and, consequently, collapsing the structure of the Buddhist cosmos.

Matthew McMullen is a Ph.D. candidate in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley and is currently a dissertation fellow at the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies. His dissertation concerns the development of esoteric Buddhist scholastic traditions in early medieval Japan.


Andrew Monteith, Translinguistics and Time Dilations: Terence McKenna and the Stakes of Psychonaut Cosmologies

The late Terence McKenna is among the most overlooked religious figures of the twentieth century. Building upon Timothy Leary’s religious ideologies—extrapolated from psychedelic experiences—McKenna laid the foundations for a contemporary subculture of Psychonaut spirituality. “Psychonauts” (a term meaning “consciousness explorers”) have adopted much of his cosmology. The primary reason for this is that McKenna provided a mystic-yet-lucid description of entheogens that mirrors the common experiences of many Psychonauts. For example, McKenna claimed that by using DMT or psilocybin (botanically-derived hallucinogens) he could travel into another realm of existence, one which is populated by “hyperspatial” entities he called “machine elves.” When reproducing similar phenomena, many Psychonauts have found his elven cosmology reflective of their own experience, and have thus adopted it.

This cosmology has also come packaged with an inseparable eschatology, as well as an immediate political interpretation. According to McKenna, prehistoric humans evolved consciousness from consuming psychoactive mushrooms. Since this event, humans have wavered between two forms of social organization: egalitarian cultures that embrace shamanic exploration, gender balance, and individual liberties, and dominator cultures that embrace hierarchy, fascism, and police-backed social controls. Within this schema, Psychonauts represent a subversive force quietly embedded beneath a dominator culture, and specifically a dominator culture that has initiated a drug war intended to destroy them.

McKenna also claimed that humans have not stopped evolving, and that substance use can place Psychonauts in touch with a yet-unrealized evolutionary future. In particular, the elf realm allows Psychonauts temporary access to translinguistic abilities (the power to communicate without the limitations of language), which McKenna claimed is our evolutionary destiny. In other words, entheogens provide Psychonauts access to spatial realms that exist independent of normal physical, biological, and temporal limitations. Time and space can be sidestepped, and these hyperdimensional voyages layer the present political landscape with new meaning: among other things, the War on Drugs becomes cast as the evil of a dominator culture. Psychonauts’ experiences in elf space validate for them McKenna’s cosmological interpretation and thus give credence to his eschatology and politics.

Andrew Monteith is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. His research focuses on the intersection of substance use and religion. This intersection includes people who use substances for religious reasons (such as psychedelics), but it also includes the religious history of prohibition and the drug war. Andrew also holds a BA in History from the Ohio State University, and an MA in Religious Studies from Memorial University of Newfoundland.


Sarah L. Reeser, “But Knowledge Contradicts This Observation”: Seeing, Understanding, and Shaping the Globe in the First Accounts of the New World

In his Book of Prophecies, compiled between his third and fourth voyages to the Indies, Christopher Columbus included a passage from Isidore of Seville describing three types of vision: seeing with the eyes, seeing with the mind as it forms images of things experienced with the body, and seeing through insight in order to grasp truths that cannot be revealed through the senses. Columbus was able to physically view the New World, but in his writings he rooted his authority in Isidore’s third method of vision, insight. For Columbus, the newly discovered lands were not only a source of gold and glory for the Crown, but also, as a flash of understanding revealed to him, the location of the Terrestrial Paradise. Columbus’ eschatological view of the New World drew partially upon natural phenomena that he observed, but it was this divine insight that shaped his notion of the globe.

The first official chronicle to address Columbus’ voyages across the Atlantic, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s De Orbe Novo, presented an image of the globe formed through second-hand information. Though he never traveled west of Iberia, Peter Martyr based his vision of the New World upon a combination of classical sources and new developments in cartography, which led him to argue against Columbus’ placement of the Terrestrial Paradise. The writings of Christopher Columbus, one of the first Europeans to see the New World, and those of Peter Martyr, the first to formally compile information on its form, contents, and inhabitants, show the beginnings of a dynamic tension between the seen and the unseen, the knowable and the unknowable, that would continue into many sixteenth-century accounts of the New World. This paper will explore questions of seeing and locating sacred space on a changing globe by examining the debate over the location of the Terrestrial Paradise in the work of Christopher Columbus and Peter Martyr.

Sarah L. Reeser is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. She holds a M.A. from the same institution and a B.A. in History and Medieval Studies from the University of Chicago. Sarah’s work focuses on sacred history and sacred space in late medieval Spain and the Early Modern Atlantic world. Her dissertation will explore the role of the miraculous and the place of man and God in the New World as depicted in the works of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera and other medieval and Early Modern chroniclers.


Jonathan Thumas, EmPlacing Text through Text: Temple Origins and the Production of Sacred Mountains in Early Medieval Japan

What mechanisms emplace imaged space over geographic space? In premodern Japan, engi, or temple origin tales, both described the founding of certain temples and fantastically rewrote mountainous temple properties in terms of Buddhist scripture and cosmology. In addition to being official documents, engi texts were essential to accessing otherwise inaccessible salvific spaces. This paper examines the significance of engi in applying imagined landscapes, inspired by scriptural templates and maps of the Buddhist cosmos, to traversable landscapes in premodern Japan. Through referencing Buddhist pure lands, sutras and mandalas, engi spatialized the Buddhist soteriological imagination onto tangible spaces of significance for ascetic practices, imperial patronage and pilgrimages. This paper uses the Daihizanji engi as a case study, a representative engi text concerning the temple Bujõji, commissioned by the court in the twelfth century. As a textual representation of imagined space, this text and others like it suggest the role of engi as mediators between scripture and geography. Rather than focusing on a specific text or pure land, however, texts such as the Daihizanji engi referenced and weaved together a variety of Buddhist sources, resulting in highly idiosyncratic visions of the Buddhist cosmos and the physical mountains to which it was applied. This paper will thus present how engi and their authors imbued places with power by layering a variety of imaginary realms and textual signifiers overtop a given site, resulting in a tapestry of interlocking scriptural referents.

Jonathan Thumas is a PhD student studying premodern Japanese Buddhism in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds an MA in East Asian Religions from Columbia University and a BA in Religion from Roanoke College. Jonathan’s research investigates the devotional activities of courtiers, retired emperors, consorts, and warlords at mountain temples north of Japan’s Heian capital, particularly at the mountain Daihizan. This research draws from manuscript, visual, architectural and excavated materials to illuminate the intimacies and intricacies of religious life during the tumultuous years of the late Heian period.


Kevin Whitesides, Re-Imagining Real Spaces: The Romantic Appeal of Maya Archaeological Sites

From 19th Century travel explorers seeking the origins of Atlantis to Latter-Day Saints seeking archaeological legitimation for revealed texts and New Age seekers searching for hidden clues about a utopian shift predicted for the year 2012, the jungle-bound ruins of ancient Maya cities have existed as much in the imaginations of their observers as in real space. This paper traces key trends in the re-imagination of Maya sites by non-Maya visitors in the 19th through 21st Centuries focusing particularly on the ways that such re-imaginings actually affect interaction with the spaces themselves. Ultimately, I will argue that participants, in re-imagining such spaces according to their own metaphysical impulses, wind up interacting spatially with places that are tangibly present, palpably concrete, and physically navigable and yet whose history, nature, and metaphysical significance is, nonentheless, largely imaginary. In this way, such visitors interact with a sort of virtual reality comprised predominantly of their own imaginations but projected onto the physical remnants of an exoticized other, wandering through erected monuments of stone and stucco with visions of its former Atlantean or galactic inhabitants. For Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice, Chichen Itza was considered a home in a former life and they the reincarnated former king and queen from ancient times. For early and contemporary Mormons, these ruins are evidence of a lost tribe of Israel that found their way from Babylon to the Americas before the time of Christ. For Jose Arguelles, the “speaking tube” atop the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque was the source of a channeled message of a utopian prophecy for the year 2012. Each found in the jungles of Central America a real set of architectural spaces onto which to project their own religious imaginations and, thereby, to reconstitute these sites anew each time. In some sense, then, each of them encountered a unique space of their own making, if only because the space was only partly comprised by the physical setting with the rest filled in by the imagination.

Kevin Whitesides is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara working within the cognitive science emphasis in the department. His PhD research will focus on the development of contemporary ‘new age’ networks. Kevin earned his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University with minors in anthropology, philosophy, and psychology. He completed an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on processes of countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’, ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, and ‘Nova Religio’.


Mitchell Winter, Unearthing Hallucinations: Rethinking the Ideologies of Landscape and Ruin in British India

How are architectural ruins mythologized in the Western imagination? How and why do the ruins of non-Western spaces become the objects of fascination under colonial rule? Mitchell’s paper titled “Unearthing Hallucinations: Reimagining the Ideologies of Landscape and Ruin in British India” grapples with these questions within the specific context of India under British colonial rule in an attempt to understand the relationships that uphold and reinforce our contemporary view of ruins as ‘dead’ space. He contends that, rather than being a historical constant, the Western fascination with ruin came into being during the period of European Romanticism (early-mid 19th century) at a time when the colonial domination of India was nearing its peak. By examining the early ethnographic sketches of Colin Mackenzie, the landscape paintings of William and Thomas Daniell, and the descriptive travel literature of P.V.M Meyers, this project aims to reconceptualize the canonical viewings of colonial Indian landscapes as “sublime” or “picturesque” (which rely on the tropes of nostalgia, mourning, and salvation) in favor of a way of seeing that privileges the life of ‘ruins’ and celebrates their role as necessary cultural organisms.

Mitchell Winter is a graduate student in the History of Art and Visual Culture department at the University of California Santa Cruz. His current research deals with European representations of India during the colonial period, the anthropological treatment of non-Western ruins, the politics of religious studies, and landscape as an ideological practice.