Frequencies and the Aesthetics of Spirituality

 

Theologians. They don’t know nothing. About my soul

-Wilco

Frequencies, the collaborative genealogy of spirituality curated by Katherine Lofton and John Modern, has become quite a brand across the religion blogosphere. The folks at the Immanent Frame have been posting a series of reflections on the project and its 100 entries ranging from chicken sandwiches to iPhones to my own adviser writing about LSD. The posts themselves are remarkable and the reviews have been excellent as well. I especially appreciated the bitchy essay from Martin Kavka and the musical musings of Jason Bivins.

The most striking thing about Frequencies in my eyes is its beauty. There are moments of wonderful prose, yes, but the collection is striking to gawk at on the screen. More than that, Frequencies has its own aesthetic. So, I have one question for Frequencies, a question I don’t see anyone asking:

What if Frequencies looked like this

…or this

…or even this?

What happens if we take the same text, the same objects in the collection, and reframe them? What if Finbarr Curtis’s essay on his father and the American Dream appeared surrounded by patriotic kitsch instead of smooth lines and a beautiful piece of art? What if Patton Dodd’s thoughts about evangelical Eugene Peterson looked like they were posted by a Sunday School teacher and Gary Laderman’s history of LSD looked like a Deadhead blog? Would we still see these objects a spirituality? How would the meaning of these texts shift in a different aesthetic? How much of the spirituality resonating through Frequencies is in its aesthetics? It just looks like spirituality–doesn’t it?

Compare Frequencies, the genealogy of spirituality, with the American Academy of Religion’s website. The AAR is the institutional hub for the study of “religion”–that thing that spirituality is so often not–and its website stands in stark contrast to Frequencies. So much news and so many menus. You have to scroll down a page with the colors of doctor’s office wallpaper. Or, to go to a paragon of institutional religion, look at the Vatican. A brown background? A giant picture of the Pope in the center around which myriad links to various departments and documents circle. Look at Christianity Today. So much stuff. So many pictures. It’s just so complicated. Now go back to Frequencies. There are no resonances with those other sites. They are on a different aesthetic wavelength. Frequencies has no institutional news, no leaders, no sidebars and frames. It is clean and sleek. It is spirituality–right?

Now, look at Apple. The iPad sits in front of you like the hamburger in a Hardee’s commercial.  The menu across the top is full of one word options and there’s not much to scroll down to. It’s all right there in black, white and gray. It’s clean and sleek. Now I understand why the image of a cup of coffee illustrating Adam Frank’s “science” entry fits so well as the wallpaper on my iPad. There are resonances between Apple and Frequencies–they share an aesthetic wavelength.

Art plays a big role in Frequencies, illustrating many of the entries. The artistic resonances emerge when we look Frequencies alongside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. MoMa is clean with big pictures and simple menus of black and white. The menu items are verbs: visit, explore, learn, support, shop. Frequencies asks you to seek. There are resonances.

I keep wondering about the musical resonances of Frequencies. It’s metaphors invoke sound–frequencies, tune in, wavelengths. Yet it is a startlingly silent website. What is the soundtrack for Frequencies?

I started this post with a Wilco lyric. Check out the cover to that album on the right. A Ghost is Born could be the soundtrack to Frequencies (listen to “Handshake Drugs” while you read  Luís León’s “cannabis club” entry). The cover fits right in with the artwork and feel of Frequencies. A simple egg. White on white with grays and black, while Jeff Tweedy doubly negates theologians. Again, resonances. We could look to other bands for other resonances. Who else might offer the audio for Frequencies words and images? Maybe Arcade Fire? How about Bon Iver? It might be a stretch, but how about Lana Del Rey? Who do you think of? Resonances?

Apple, an art museum, and indie rock, what does this all point too? What is this aesthetic wavelength we’ve tuned into? What do all these resonances mean? (All due respect to John Corrigan’s “meaninglessness”.) I think they point to two things. First, these resonances point to the cultural location of Frequencies within the American middle brow–that space of public radio, iPads, indie rock, the Atlantic, and SXSW. Some of its contents such as automatic writing or This American Life come from and appeal to middle brow America. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of the site and the inclusion of these objects alongside others like Eugene Peterson or Chick-Fila lift these “lower” objects up as spiritual and middle brow. Putting “Eugene Peterson” into the format of a poorly constructed webpage with Jesus fishes down the side highlights the ways Frequencies engenders spirituality in the mundane. Eugene Peterson is spirituality in sleek design next to LSD and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Put him in Comic Sans Serif font next to a Zondervan NIV Bible and a set of Precious Moments figurines and he’s just evangelical.

This leads to the second point. When Frequencies claims to be a genealogy of spirituality it also admits to being part of the spirituality family–a family located within middle brow culture. To me the project is less of a Foucaultian genealogy and more of an Ancestry.com genealogy. It is the grandchildren and great grandchildren tracing out their lineage. There are resonances across the middle brow cultural spectrum, from high end consumer electronics to MoMA to indie rock, because they too are all children in this great family of spirituality. They all share similar cultural DNA that we could trace out historically if we tried. Frequencies is not just a catalog of culturally middle brow spirituality, it is a child of  culturally middle brow spirituality.

For me, Frequencies is the Portlandia of spirituality. Like the incredible hipster sketch comedy show, Frequencies smartly digests, analyzes, and catalogs hipster culture and in the process produces some of  best pieces of hipster culture. It slides back and forth from critiquing the culture and situating itself within the culture. Likewise, Frequencies is more than a genealogy of spirituality, it is a prime example of spirituality, down to the aesthetics of the flickering pixels on the screen. It just looks like spirituality.


Yoga and the Protestant Public Sphere; Or, Taking Back Yoga Where?

Thanks to NPR, the debate about white people doing yoga is back in the news:

About 20 million people in the United States practice some form of yoga, from the formal Iyengar and Ashtanga schools to the more irreverent “Yoga Butt.”

But some Hindus say yoga is about far more than exercise and breathing techniques. They want recognition that it comes from a deeper philosophy — one, in their view, with Hindu roots.

Many forms of yoga go back centuries. Even in the U.S., the transcendentalists were doing yoga in the 1800s.

William Broad, a reporter for The New York Times and author of The Science of Yoga, has been practicing since 1970. He says people pursue yoga for all kinds of reasons, from achieving health and fitness to seeking spirituality, energy and creativity.

Yoga, Broad says, is an antidote for a chaotic world.

The story goes on to quote Sheetal Shah of the American Hindu Foundation, the force behind the “Taking Back Yoga” campaign, who argues that yoga has its roots in the Vedas and therefore in Hinduism and so it is a problem to divorce the practice from the “lifestyle” and “philosophy” of nonviolence, truthfulness, and purity–all admirable qualities.

The NPR piece prompted my colleague at Emory, Deeksha Sivakumar, to ask over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion  “do religious practices become irreligious when they travel across national borders?” I think Deeksha is on the right track, and her post over at the Bulletin makes some important points, but we need to ask another question first. Is modern transnational yoga religious? How and why? Or to put it another way, where do we need to take yoga back to?

Missing from all of the debates about yoga in the past year and half or so (see here and here) is a thoughtful look at the history of yoga in India and in the West.  Last January, Roman Palitsky, writing at Religion Dispatches, wrote the only essay I’ve seen taking a historical approach to modern yoga. In his piece he referenced a group of books that had recently been published and how they challenged the HAF and the “yoga is essentially Hindu” argument:

A corpus of literature has emerged over the past ten years, including David Gordon White’s “Siddha” trilogy, several volumes by Joseph Alter, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga and just last year Stefanie Syman’s Subtle Body and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, all of which oppose the straightforward message of the Take Yoga Back movement.

These works reveal the formative influence of (wait for it) Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, television, military calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics and the YMCA, as well as of radical Hindu nationalism, upon today’s postural yoga practice. There is no doubt that the Vedas, Upanishads, and folk traditions of India have been formative toward yoga: yoga is almost inseparable from them. Nevertheless to assert that yoga is essentially and primarily a Hindu practice means to ignore millennia of generative influence from other quarters. Worse still, it means to step blindly into a political fight for the heart of India that has simmered for over two hundred years.

Of the books Palitsky names, Mark Singleton’s stands out as wonderful history of transnational yoga that traces the connection between Hindu thought and practice, European physical culture, and Indian nationalism. Singleton writes in his final chapter:

This chapter and those which precede it have outlined some of the ways in which the early modern practice of asana was influenced by various expression of physical culture. This does not mean that the kind of posture-based yogas that predominate globally today are “mere gymnastics” nor that they are necessarily less “real” or “spiritual” than other forms of yoga. The history of modern physical culture overlaps and intersects with the histories of para-religious, “unchurched” spirituality; Western esotericism; medicine, health, and hygiene; chiropractic, osteopathy, and bodywork; body-centered psychotherapy; the modern revival of Hinduism; and the sociopolitical demands of the emergent modern Indian nation (to name but a few). In turn, each of these histories is intimately linked to the development of modern transnational, anglophone yoga. Historically speaking, then, physical culture encompasses a far broader range of concerns and influences than “mere gymnastics,” and in many instances the modes of practice, belief frameworks, and aspirations of its practitioners are coterminous with those of modern, posture-based yoga. They may indeed by at variance with “Classical Yoga,” but it does not follow from this that these practices, beliefs, and aspirations (whether conceived as yoga or no) are thereby lacking in seriousness, dignity, or spiritual profundity.

That’s a tangled web of influence for what we call “yoga” today and it is not a simple story of Vedic texts through Patanjali to Vivekananda and the West. Following Singleton’s analysis, the “Take Back Yoga” campaign is yet another chapter in the unfolding of transnational yoga. The HAF’s reimagining of yoga as an essentially Vedic and essentially Hindu practice and their entire campaign to proclaim this to America is part of their program for political self-representation and power. It is necessitated by the demands of American diversity and by the resurgence of a public conservative Protestant establishment. As religion has taken a greater role in the public sphere post-1965 (and here I’m thinking of the conclusion of Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America) the need for minority communities to make public claims to religious relevance and authenticity has increased. “Take Back Yoga” is more than a claim for a religious practice, it is the claim for power within the de-secularizing public sphere and an increasingly empowered Protestant establishment.

So, there is no where to take yoga back. There is only a pressing forward as Hindus and other minority religious communities assert themselves in the public sphere in the face of an encroaching Protestant establishment.


Things that are still true about American Christianity…

Jerry Falwell going down a waterslide in a black suite

“The new formation [born-again Christianity] was part fundamentalist, part pentecostal, part charismatic, part evangelical, and then something else in a way that none of its parts had been: morally outraged, socially engaged, and routinely politically active.”

– Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell (2000)

I was preparing my lesson for Monday’s class about the Scopes trial and Christian fundamentalism when I came across this quote from Harding. I assigned her chapter on Scopes to students in my (team taught) History of Religions in America course because it does a good job of situating the trial in the larger 20th century history of American Christianity and also emphasizes the fragmented nature of conservative Protestantism. This quote comes from the end of the chapter as she moves from the exile of the fundamentalists to the resurgence of born-agains in the 80s. What struck me, now a decade removed from Harding’s publication, is just how right she was. Since her book, we’ve heard the “end of the religious right” narrative trotted out again and again, but here we sit on the other side of Harding’s text, 9/11, two wars, and the Tea Party and it seems that  moral outrage, social engagement, and political activism still define the Christian right. This three part recipe has roots in the evangelical reform movements of the nineteenth century and the revivalism of the early republic, but in the past thirty years it has mingled with late-modern capitalism, imperialism, free-marketism, and militarism. This Voltron of religious conservatism, call it Pentevangelamentalism (or born again Christianity, as Harding does), will always look like it’s about to fall apart at any moment. It is criss-cross with internal ruptures and lines of fissure. However, the shared outrage practiced in the social and political spheres will always hold it together in the end.


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