When asked how he processed his fieldwork experiences and data, Claude Lévi-Strauss replied that he always took a lot of notes and collected file cards, “a bit of everything, fleeting ideas, summaries of readings, references, quotes.” If he wanted to understand something, he took a stack of cards from the box and laid them out like a game of Solitaire. The random combinations helped him reconstruct his memory and always gave him a new angle on the matter. At first glance, it might appear astonishing to produce knowledge by means of random combinations. But, taking a closer look into the processes of knowledge production, it is not that astounding at all. Tools to collect data, and the ways materials are categorized to produce meaning, are often based on experiments rather than on purely systematic practices.
As I walk up from the Oakland subway station on a Sunday morning, rain is falling in a slow drizzle and the downtown street is deserted. Around the corner, I spot the “Tropicana Ballroom” sign on a 1920s building that is my destination. I pay $15 at the entrance and walk up the red-carpeted stairs to a ballroom where art deco wall sconces softly glow onto an 8000-square-foot floor full of dancers warming up. On the far side of the dance floor, beneath floor-to-ceiling windows, an altar has been laid with candles, a vase of gladiolas, a statue of Shiva, and Osho Zen Tarot cards. A young woman sits cross-legged in meditation in front of the altar; the man next to her is kneeling and praying; and two hundred other dancers—ranging in age from infants wearing padded ear coverings to men and women in their 70s—are preparing to “sweat their prayers” on the dance floor.
“Lord, hear our prayer.” That was the sound of religion to me growing up, Sunday mornings in the darkened warmth of Saint Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, D.C. I heard these intonations not as the sound of heaven and earth mediated so much as a response to silence, and the courage to overcome it while also dwelling in it. Indeed, there were vast expanses of silence in this part of the service, some of them seeming to stretch out almost audaciously. Even as an altar boy (a pretty bumbling one, I admit), I wondered, was this how people did and sounded out religion elsewhere? Years before I knew about Quaker meetings or the range of meditative practices in religious traditions, the oscillation between prayer’s orality/aurality and those silent chasms unnerved me. But always, almost mercifully, a lone voice would rise up from some distant corner of the church, those vast vaulted ceilings giving the prayer a gravity, a context: a plea for strength as a relationship frayed, or for comfort during illness, to which the congregation responded as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I remember being stunned when my father became one of those voices, praying in 1985 for Uncle Bill, in 1989 for Grandma, in 1992 for himself. The possibility that one of those voices might be so close by, his hand in mine, had never even occurred to me. It terrified and consoled me at once.
[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.]
In 1935, Samuel Saia, a garbage collector from Buffalo, New York, and a devout Jehovah’s Witness, purchased an electroacoustic loudspeaker and affixed it to the roof of his Studebaker automobile. On a weekly basis, he would drive up and down the streets of upstate New York, using a portable phonograph to broadcast the recorded sermons of “Judge” Joseph Rutherford to all who could hear. Saia’s practice was common among Jehovah’s Witnesses of his time, who took advantage of all sorts of media and auditory technologies to spread the word of God. But it is inadequate to think of their use of “sound cars” as merely instrumental. Instead, Saia and his co-religionists practiced what I have described elsewhere as “sound car religion.” That is, their choice of media was inextricably entangled with their message: sound cars and loudspeakers materialized their imperative to preach the gospel as loudly and widely as they could, their rejection of a popular inclusionary ideology that assumed sectarian differences were best kept to oneself, and their refusal to abide by the liberal norms of civil restraint that often seemed to govern American public spaces.
[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within John Modern’s “Vinyl Prayers,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
Prayer may be an act of gratitude after the fact. It may be a weapon, a request to heal the body or boost the brain, an epistemic cry, a meditation, a mediation, a quip, a plea, a means of passive resistance, a wonderful gift from God. Or any manner of combination.
Whatever prayer is or has been, it often seems to be bound up in the play of transgression and transcendence. Within the move across, there are the moves against and the moves beyond. Against and beyond simultaneously, continuously, even as a prayer is conceived and uttered, even after it is ignored or answered.
A will to negation is, of course, necessary for transcendence. And transcendence must be in the offing for this will to become manifest. In the living act of prayer, there is no beginning and there is no end. Prayer is precisely that activity which, in theory, denies the localization and stillness demanded by means of human measurement. Yet, in practice, this denial is offered under circumstances that have been utterly humanized and subject to social forms, grammars, and algorithms of immanent origin. The praying hands of humans, in other words, pray to no man, which is strange indeed in a world in which modeling the human is the key for knowing the human and much else besides.