Frequencies:

Besides

posted by Constance M. Furey

I love the story about Shakeela Hassan. I just told it again last night, in fact. In the late 1950s, Shakeela Hassan arrives in the U.S. from Lahore, to begin a medical internship at Northwestern University. She is greeted at the airport by Malcolm X, a young minister in the Nation of Islam, who was sent to meet her because of a chance encounter between her brother-in-law and the NOI prophet, Elijah Muhammad. Her husband’s family is related to the Pakistani publishers of the most widely read English-language translation of the Qur’an, and although Shakeela Hassan never joins the Nation of Islam, she becomes a regular dinner guest at Elijah Muhammad’s home, a great admirer of his wife, Clara, and the improbable designer of the hats which become Elijah Muhammad’s trademark. As readers of Frequencies: A Collaborative Genealogy of Spirituality will know, this is a much-too-short version of the story Winnifred Sullivan recounts in her eponymous entry. But it is the way I tell it, with the irresistible ending about the hat. Shakeela Hassan’s design created symbols for the Nation of Islam by incorporating the Crescent and Star. She purchased the velvet at Marshall Fields, on State Street, in Chicago. And then she sent the fabric to Pakistan, to be stitched and embroidered.

I teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my introduction to religion class because it juxtaposes the racial exclusivity of the Nation of Islam—an exclusivity that the students judge as spiritually bankrupt—with the inclusivity Malcolm X claimed for Islam after his pilgrimage to Mecca—an inclusivity that is regularly hailed as the mark of genuine spirituality. Malcolm’s story is, in other words, a great way to start conversations about how we judge religion and how assumptions about spirituality affect those judgments. What did (and do) “real” Muslims think about the Nation of Islam, students often ask. There are many ways to answer that question. But none better than a story like this one. Listen to this, I say. The hat that Elijah Muhammad wore, with the symbols that defined the distinctively African-American spirituality cultivated by the Nation of Islam, was made by a doctor from Pakistan. Or by a seamstress in Lahore, as my friend pointed out last night.

Shakeela Hassan’s story is then also a story about Frequencies. Not (or not yet) a genealogy as much as a story about juxtapositions and materiality, or the juxtapositions that constitute the materiality of spirituality. It is in this form that spirituality gains contour and some specificity in 100 entries, each announced by titles that give little away, proclaiming the impossibility of containing the subject by opting for the elliptical, the obscure, the unusual, the surprising. The governing order is alphabetical; the encyclopedic logic turned inside out with series of entries that make no claim to totalizing knowledge.

Are you being ironic? A friend of mine, a musician and a funny man, is often asked because all his stories are true, and unbelievable. Are you being ironic? There’s no irony here, or there. No distance between what appears, and what is true. In Frequencies, spirituality is brought to the surface. It is all there to be seen. Described in the project statement as a digital compendium, Frequencies demonstrates the irrelevance of the weighty Latin etymology (com-pendere: to weigh together). By the same token, Frequencies rejects the linked metaphors of depth and transcendence that are conventionally understood to define spirituality. It instead presents spirituality as planar relations, a network of terms linked to one another by their coincident appearance on a screen and to other terms and images by whatever links the readers choose to follow and create.

As Jonathan Schorsch observes of the sexy angels in “The Apotheosis of Pittsburgh,” often enough “the visual metaphor of the spiritual subverts itself, leaving only carnal figures.” If this is true, Schorsch says, the joke is on high art. This could just as well mean that the joke is on religion. Teresa of Avila, designated a doctor of the Catholic Church, describes being pierced by an angel. But the marble statue by Bernini depicts an orgasmic woman. Émile Durkheim says that the totem is the sacred itself. This means the sacred is the fat of a kangaroo or the tail of an opossum. Religion doesn’t get the joke, though, because in religion the subversion often works the other way. Incarnations of Vishnu, like the discovery of a dead lama reincarnated in a ten-year-old-boy or the teaching that Christ was fully human and fully divine, are held up as fundamentals by religions that affirm that the profane subverts itself by revealing the sacred.

In Frequencies, however, spirituality is not rooted in a claim about the relationship between carnal and spiritual, or sacred and profane. Spirituality is not religion. As Kerry Mitchell says in his entry on “Paradox,” citing Niklas Luhmann, “In the realm of the observable (where else?), the difference between the observable and the non-observable must be made observable. [Religion] does not deal with the one or the other side of this distinction but with their form: with the distinction as such.” Religion is all about the distinctions that clarify relations.

By contrast, the spirituality we encounter in Frequencies leaves aside distinctions in favor of examples.

There is more than one kind of example. We could—as early modern Europeans loved to do—view examples as exemplary: understood in this way, the example is the fulfillment of what it represents. But it is now more common to understand example as exemplar: as one of many, demonstrative but not sufficient. The examples in Frequencies are of the latter sort. Avowedly idiosyncratic, these entries are presented as part of a proliferating series, requiring readers to do the all-important work of comparison to move beyond the singularity that might otherwise seem to be the only claim made on behalf of stories like Shakeela Hassan’s and the 99 others in Frequencies.

If each example is one of many, how do we understand the spirituality they are presented as examples of? Here I take my cue from Eve Sedgwick, the pioneering queer theorist whose last book, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performance, explored an alternative to the critical practices her own earlier work had championed. Much of her own literary analysis (think here of her famous article “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”) was dedicated to exposing the hidden, the unseen, the unsuspected. Wearying of this endless cycle of exposure and wanting to find some way around the “topos of depth or hiddenness,” she focused instead on the “spatial positionality of beside.” This, I believe, is what the entries in Frequencies instantiate: the besideness of spirituality. Juxtapositions instead of depth, visibility instead of transcendence, and examples instead of distinctions. It is all on the surface, but it is not self-evident. Just as the seamstress in Lahore escaped my gaze—and my telling—so too spirituality itself as a concept might well escape the gaze of those caught in the rhythm of unexpected frequencies. The work is just beginning.

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