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Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WhoP (Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-06-30

Whales of Power addresses a number of theoretical and methodological problems in two academic disciplines / fields of study: Asian area studies and religious studies. It has three corresponding objectives.

First, Whales of Power seeks to apply recent theoretical developments associated with the newly emerging field “environmental humanities” to the study of religion, bridging the gap between the two fields. It does so in two ways. First, WhoP wants to contribute to overcoming anthropocentrism in religious studies by introducing multispecies theory to the field, taking non-human animals seriously not only as passive objects of veneration or human-made symbols, but as historical actors. Second, it wants to move the “religion and ecology” subfield forward by arguing that we should move beyond the utilitarian, arguably outdated question of how religions can contribute to “solving” the environmental crisis, instead looking at rituals as creative means to mediate and reshape human-nature relations and cope with ecological grief.

The second objective of Whales of Power is to reconsider the role of “local” worship practices in the Asian Secular Age, examining the changing meanings attributed to such practices today. More concretely, this entails the question of how so-called “folk belief” and “popular religion” – i.e. those practices not or not fully subsumed under the institutional and ideological banner of “World Religions” such as Buddhism and Christianity – are acquiring new meanings as types of “secular sacred” intangible cultural heritage, often reconfigured as “national” traditions, throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Finally, the third objective of Whales of Power is to challenge the persistent methodological nationalism in East Asian (especially Japanese and Chinese) Studies and contribute to a new comparative paradigm – one that does not take the nation-state for granted as the main defining variable. In other words, it is concerned with processes of nation-making on the ground but does not use nations as sui generis analytical categories. It focuses on intra-Asian and intra-Pacific comparisons rather than classical East-West binary oppositions. Such a paradigm shift should help strengthen the study of Asian epistemologies not only as comparative Others that are useful for verifying or falsifying Western theories, but as fertile sites for the production of new, non-Eurocentric theories that can benefit other social scientific and humanities disciplines.

As we live in a time of planetary crisis, the study of non-Western environments, epistemologies, and human-nature relations is arguably of great societal importance. There is an unprecedented necessity to rethink the core paradigms and classification systems – ideological as well as scientific – that underlie the current crisis. For this, in-depth studies of alternative belief systems and responses to environmental change are urgently needed.
WP1:
- Ethnographic fieldwork in Vietnam (July 2019 and January-February 2020)
- Literature research; collecting written sources
- Publications relevant to objective 2 (‘World Heritage, Secularisation, and the New “Public Sacred” in East Asia’) and objective 3 (‘The Elusive Adjective: Overcoming Methodological Nationalism in Japanese Studies.’)
- Guest lectures; conference and workshop participation (see “dissemination & communication activities”)

WPs 2-5:
- Literature research; collecting written sources
- Conference and workshop participation
- Online ethnography (Skype interviews etc.)
- Some articles accepted for publication; publications forthcoming
It is too early to say much about the research outcome, especially considering the fact that the main ethnographic research stage for all WPs has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and global travel restrictions.

One early result that was not expected was the essay prize won by Aike Rots. The essay proposed some methodological interventions (in accordance with WhoP objective 3) that received positive feedback among colleagues. This also led to an invitation to give a keynote speech on Japanese studies in the Nordic countries at a Japanese studies conference Reykjavik (initially planned for August 2020; postponed to August 2021).