[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
Emphasizing their capacity to hear and respond to prayer, representations of the gods in the ancient world often depicted deities with disproportionately large ears. The popular Pentecostal paraphrase from the book of Isaiah (59:1) gives a more contemporary resonance to this ancient motif, “His ears are not too heavy to hear the cries of his people.” Among many Pentecostal communities in the United States and elsewhere, performances of communal prayer that produce an excess of sonic intensity are believed to be more effective in opening communicative relays between the sacred and the everyday. This production of “numinous noise” emerges not only from techniques of the body such as breath, posture, rhythmic schemas, and other modulations of the voice, but a body-in-prayer that is amplified and extended by technologies of sound reproduction such as the microphone and the loudspeaker.
On a basic structural level, the “loudspeaker” is itself a technical reproduction of glossolalia (unintelligible language), one of the most important forms of prayer in the Pentecostal tradition. Focusing upon technological terms such as “loudspeaker,” theorists of the radio apparatus have commented upon the fact that early devices of sound amplification not only mimicked human organs of vocalization, but produced uncanny sensations of doubled immediacy between a voice that emerged from within the apparatus, yet simultaneously resided in some displaced elsewhere. Like glossolalia (literally a tongue that is moved by forces radically exterior to the religious subject), the “speaker” creates a particular experiential intensity precisely because it seems to produce an unmediated presence, yet is animated by forces that are distant or displaced from the artificial apparatus of sound production.
One possible approach to the technological history of prayer, therefore, would be organized by the techniques employed for the displacement and amplification of the voice. These technologies for the displacement of the voice (as if the voice were not always fleeting!), moreover, could be tracked not only within the space of the auditory, but across a range of sensory experiences that are enabled and extended through the process of technological reproduction. Techniques of ventriloquism, the ritual manipulation of the mouth through the mask, speaking tubes, and electronic amplifiers could all be invoked, among many others, in this particular technical history of divine communication.