December 12, 2013

There's Always a There There

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Recently, while doing archival research on a book project, I read a 1946 letter from Woody Guthrie to Folkways Records founder Moe Asch, in which the singer complains that he lacks the type of phonograph that would allow him to stack up a bunch of 78s rather than have to reload and reset the device every time a record finishes playing. It’s a tiny point in a much longer letter about the wealth of projects Guthrie has underway. Still, one feels tempted, as a scholar, to transform even such a small moment (the smaller the better, some might be inclined to say) into something else, into significance. It tells us Guthrie wasn’t well off, even after he’d recorded his most famous songs. It tells us he was really busy and productive in this period between his military service and the onset of the Huntington’s Disease that would end his career in a few years. It tells us that listening to music fueled his productivity. For a figure of Guthrie’s status, a figure so obviously worth studying, everything is important, so this must be. In a broader historical narrative, his letter might also tell us something about leisure, masculinity, and the impending success of the LP.


July 12, 2013

Holy Ghost Amplification

[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