February 5, 2014

Future Shocks

[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.]

Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be, goes the old joke. Nostalgia seems to revert obsessively, and infinitely regressively, toward the past—an impossible, unreachable past that can’t be reconciled with the exigencies of the present. It locks us in a backward spiral of desire, alienated from the present in a mode of accusation, as if this present moment would give rise to a false future, one that could have been averted, if only we were more properly “at home,” if only things had been different. The affective turning toward an inaccessible past is also a lament for a lost future, an obscure but achingly felt image of the loss of what will never arrive.


February 25, 2013

The Radio as Prosthesis of Prayer

[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.]

“Many lay their hands upon the radio as a point of contact during our Healing Waters broadcast. Through this means they release their faith and through faith they are healed during the ‘prayer time’ of the broadcast.”

Oral Roberts

The new definition of prayer laid forth in this portal could be used to articulate key techniques of Pentecostal and charismatic Christian healing prayer such as the “point of contact.” Now a ubiquitous term in the performance of Pentecostal prayer, Oral Roberts developed this technique specifically in relation to the radio apparatus. As millions of listeners tuned in to the “prayer time” of his Healing Waters Broadcast in the early 1950s, audiences began to experience distanced voice-in-prayer in a radically new way. The machinations of radio loudspeakers translated a praying voice into a series of warm vibrations that were haptically registered as listeners were exhorted to “lay their hands upon the radio” as “the point of contact.” Technical reproduction allowed for a new tactile sensation of the voice through the hand, signaling a profound shift in the experience and practice of prayer.

Prayer in the age of mechanical reproduction thus marks an inversion of the rite of manual imposition: it is no longer the healer who lays hands upon the sick, but the patient who reaches out to make tactile contact with the apparatus. The radio as point of contact organized a new “apparatus of belief” that no longer subsisted upon earlier modes of temporal articulation. Instead of articulating belief through the temporal deferrals and delays characteristic of the exchange and circulation of objects (see for instance, Prayer Cloths), for example, the radio apparatus produced the sensation of belief through sensory displacements and disjunctures attuned through the medium itself.

February 23, 2013

Prayer Cloths: Remnants of the Holy Ghost and the Texture of Faith

[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.]

Prayer cloths collected by the author from three Pentecostal churches in Virginia. Note the use of pinking shears to create the “teethed” ridges on two of the cloths.

Prayer cloths are the most significant devotional objects among small Holiness and Pentecostal church congregations throughout the United States. Techniques of manual imposition and communal prayer transform these textile fragments from mere remnants or pieces of detritus into sacred conduits for the healing and apotropaic power of the Holy Ghost. Once metamorphosed through the performance of communal prayer, these objects are exchanged among members of a congregation and continue to circulate into broader communal networks of belief.

At a basic level, the prayer cloth accrues social and experiential force through the exchange of hands. In terms of the private devotional manipulation of the object, the tactile sensations produced as the cloth is rubbed between the fingers or upon the surface of the body enlivens a haptic mnemonic device for the “playback” of the initial communal prayer. Sensations of divine presence and communal bonding-at-a-distance are thus actuated through this performance of devotional manipulation. At the level of temporal articulation, the physical movement of the prayer cloth as it circulates between different members of the community, and the successive deferrals, delays, and temporal lags produced through this exchange of hands, allow for an appearance of belief. Once again, belief does not have its origin within the interiorities of the religious subject, but becomes tangible, sensible, and compelling through an economy of exchange.

The performance of communal prayer, or “anointing,” cannot be abstracted from the physical process of cutting these textile remnants from a preexisting surface of fabric. Combined with the techniques of communal prayer, this rending of the fabric makes an implicit commentary on the nature and movement of the Holy Ghost. Just as a scrap or remnant of fabric can be cut from its original totality to be patched-in to another textile surface or context, the cutting of the cloth mirrors on a material level the capacity of Pentecostal communal prayer to cut-out, wrest, or excise power from the diffuse totality of Holy Ghost potentiality and to “patch” the object into the threadbare exigencies of everyday life.