With his ongoing research project “The Spiritual Life of Dolls: Religious Technologies from Adam to Barbie to AI,” Associate Professor of Religious Studies S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate has been slowly uncovering humanity’s knack for reimagining the human form and engaging with it in myriad impactful, personal ways.
Ever curious about the body’s role in religion, Plate’s newest book will focus on the history of the human-doll relationship. He has already presented parts of his research at various universities and now, to add to his project’s accolades, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) has awarded him a highly selective and distinguished fellowship to help him complete his project.
Plate joins Assistant Professor of Literature Stephanie Bahr in attaining ACLS fellowship funds that enable them to take time away from teaching to write during 2020-21. It is the first time in more than 25 years that two Hamilton faculty members have received the prestigious award in the same year, with a total of 11 Hamilton professors earning awards since ACLS began awarding grants in 1926. Describing his response to learning he had received an award, Plate said, “I was very excited; all these possibilities…very suddenly your future begins to reshape itself.”
Plate seeks to create a wide-ranging history of humans’ engagement with dolls, focusing on why and how people have historically and globally become attached to humanoid objects and how that attachment influences our inward selves. Through conducting interviews with doll collectors, artists and writers inspired by dolls, and engineers building robots and artificial intelligence, he plans to compile a range of perspectives on the forms and effects of interaction with dolls. He will also travel to museums, such as The Strong National Museum of Play, and libraries to help round out his historical research. “What I’m trying to do is push the importance of dolls to human culture and really suggest that they’ve been central to our development as humans,” Plate said.
A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, a book Plate published in 2014, similarly explores humans’ spiritual relationship with objects. Drawing on ways in which objects singularly engage the five senses, he outlines how people have involved objects in various practices.
“I started to get interested in how people, especially in religion, engaged with objects, whether it’s objects that look certain ways or feel certain ways or smell certain ways or taste certain ways,” he explained. “The way we engage and practice religion through our senses has always been key to a lot of my research.”
Plate views his interest in dolls and their relation to the body as akin to his personal journey as a professor. He described how, after 12 years of teaching at Hamilton, he has come to value how physical engagement promotes experiential learning. Noting assignments in which students attend services such as Sunday Mass or Friday al-Jum’ah Prayer, he considers the “bodily, experiential, sensual engagement with something else” as critical to holistic understanding.
In all, with his ACLS fellowship, Plate plans to analyze and present a history of dolls that has gone largely untouched. His research questions the relationship between human bodies and humanlike bodies, contemplating “what it means to be human” as we advance further into a technological world of cyborgs, AI, and overall the robot dolls only previously known to us through sci-fi.