Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Secret, Hidden, and Lost Objects in Buddhist Material Culture
Monday | Wednesday: 2:00 - 3:30pm
In this course, we will explore themes of hiddenness, secrecy, and inaccessibility in the art and material culture of Buddhism in East Asia—and in writings about sacred objects, sites, and visual experience from within the tradition. We will read travelogues from pilgrims about sites and images that no longer existed on their arrival—or that they were unable to see—to think about descriptive writing on the visually inaccessible. Relatedly, we will investigate how description in the genre of pilgrimage account works to create access to icons, sites, and geographies for those unable to travel. We will also think about how a copy of an inaccessible original provides access to what is lost, far away, or absent. We will explore how the rhetoric of secrecy in hagiographies, miracle tales, and accounts of powerful relics enhances the power of objects and images. We will consider how ease of access in the present day to formerly secret or hidden texts, diagrams, objects, and sites paradoxically deprives us of the affective power of their designed inaccessibility. Can critical and expressively effective writing recover something of this allure? Lastly, we will use writing as a tool to reconstruct sites and images that no longer exist, as in the case of the colossal Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed in 2001.
This reading and composition course is on Buddhist art from the 9th to 14th centuries in East Asia, though we will engage comparative cases to think more broadly about visually-inaccessible sacred art and materiality. Coursework, assignments, and workshops will guide students towards the completion of a 10-12 page research paper on an object or site of their choosing that engages themes of the course and frameworks encountered in assigned readings.