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


May 2, 2013

Sensing the Unseen

[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.]


This recent field recording was made on the grounds of a Pentecostal church in Virginia (4/21/13). Early in the recording, the crunching sound of pea-gravel can be heard as cars pull out of the church parking lot after the Sunday service. Because this popular Pentecostal song foregrounds the question of spiritual presence in relation to the perceptual capacities of the religious subject, it announces crucial themes for the Materiality of Prayer collection. The lyrics of the song evince the way pious techniques of the body-in-prayer organize a specific perceptive faculty in excess of the assumed everyday capacities of the body: “I can feel the evidence of things not seen, his precious spirit when I fall down on my knees.” The spiritual exercise of genuflection augments the sensorium with a “feeling” that not only subsists within the more visceral sensations of tactility or proprioception, but opens the body to a gift of discernment capable of registering presences that resonate outside the enframements of the everyday sensorium. Once again, Marcel Mauss’ description of the doubling that characterizes the body-as technical-object is a useful point of departure for a thinking of prayer as a spiritual exercise that attunes the sensory capacities of the body (see for example, Clapping as Prayer). 

Yet the question of sensing the unseen is not only a matter of doubling within the experiential frames of the subject, what has more recently been described by Thomas Csordas as the “somatic mode of attention.” A new direction in the study of charismatic Christian prayer would take into account the way actual physical objects and tele-technologies become the “apparatus of belief,” allowing the religious subject to sense the excessive presence of the sacred through the mediation of the object. Or more precisely, the object itself senses the unseen, and produces in the subject an experience of excessive presence that subsists outside the everyday structures of awareness. In this way, it is not mere coincidence that the performers who sang this rendition of “I Can Feel the Evidence” learned this song while listening to the radio, and continue to perform this favorite from the Pentecostal songbook on their weekly gospel radio broadcast.

February 24, 2013

Clapping as 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.]

The author’s field recording from a Pentecostal worship service in Virginia, 2010.


The body is man’s first and most natural instrument. Or more accurately, not to speak of instruments, man’s first and most natural technical object, and at the some time technical means, is his body… Before instrumental techniques there is the ensemble of techniques of the body. Marcel Mauss


During performances of charismatic Christian communal prayer, the din of tangled voices is often punctuated by the percussive sound of disjointed clapping. This explosive manual gesture is neither rhythmic nor gentle, but a frenzied technique of clapping that unleashes Holy Ghost power into the worship milieu. The clap is an “elementary form” of prayer: through a violent collision of flesh and bone, a percussive break opens a space of communication between the sacred and the everyday. Prayer emerges through the body-as-technical-object; manual gestures, bodily attitudes, exercises (genuflections), breath, and perceptual attunements simultaneously open a communicative relay and allow the subject to sense the presence of that which persists outside the enframements of everyday experience. The percussive breaks of hand-prayer are inscribed like ellipses upon the surface of the body through what is called in Pentecostal communities the “Holy Ghost Bumps.”  The skin itself registers sacred presence below the level of conscious sensory awareness. The body and its technical attunements open the subject to sensual “discernments” of the spirit.