Get it on

posted by Jason Bivins

The first thing you notice about Frequencies is the sheer proliferation of categories, though they clearly are not categories in either the Hegelian or the quotidian sense. They are more like soundings into the depths of a shared darkness or lenses through which we might glimpse an otherwise blinding luminescence. Words cluster inside the frame of the screen, that ubiquitous medium through which we all present ourselves to ourselves. At the top is an index. On the side is a cloud of things called “resonances” and “wavelengths,” both terms nodding to Deleuzian technologies of circulation. And within we find an even 100 musings.

Finding a thing means finding a problem, a hook, an angle. Is this what we look for when we look for the spiritual? Or is this collection more accurately seen as an opportunity for a fairly small group of (mostly) scholars to flex just a bit, to entertain a different style or genre for a weekend dalliance? We seek scholarly effervescence with and through the investment in projects like these, with their promised new formats and genres. Some authors are perplexed to find or not find “the spiritual,” while others are (sometimes frustratingly) un-perplexed. Some seek to close the distance between subject and object and context, others to widen it, each approach proclaiming itself a felt register of something called “spiritual,” where the most minute detail becomes luminescent or, alternately, very nearly lost in the vastness of things.

To make this observation, though, is not to find in these writings the conceit that anything non-institutional that “smells” spiritual is fodder for rumination. But nonetheless, there is some interesting signifying with the terms archive and genealogy. The boundedness of an archive suggestively contrasts with the openness of this project, while the Nietzschean/Foucauldian resonance of genealogy is largely absent from these considerations. Frequencies also describes itself as “collaborative,” even though it seems more accurately to be an anthology of individual reflections that might constitute a family tree of styles, subjects, and angles all wrestling with a related thicket of questions. These efforts generate a varied offspring that only occasionally wrangle with officialdom (traditions, boundaries, etymologies).

What, then, is preserved or can be read among these outpourings from a hundred authors? First and foremost, the authors preserve themselves by foregrounding their own presence in their considerations. Littered through the contributions are scholarly self-locations of the sort that is de rigueur in the humanities: an academic tell whereby we establish authenticity and methodological non-causality by performing an experiential collusion with those we study. Omri Elisha says “I’ll pray for you.” Susan Harding returns to Thomas Road, and finds there the “spiritual” practice of ethnography (that gives one “entry into another reality”). Yet these normalized practices of religious studies are paired alongside a different kind of self-location, functioning in many ways more like a journal entry. Many entries focus on a personal remembrance of moments of intense sensation or aesthetic piety: this band, novel, painting, landscape, exchange, or drug changed my life. Many are captivating and marvelously written, miles away from the kind of dull re-enchantment parable one might encounter in scholarship or Sunday papers’ magazines. And while many entries here cannot refrain, also predictably, from referring to the author’s current research (perhaps this is our own form of prostration to a cosmos which would swallow up yet another chunk of text read by a tiny cloister), I found so many others quite arresting, especially Chip Callahan’s musings on highway travel, Finbarr Curtis’s piece on his father’s death, Vietnam, and the American dream, and Julie Byrne’s gorgeous “Saint February” (among the many I could possibly name).

A second impulse moving through these wavelengths is the lure of new objects. What is it (if indeed there is an “it”) that connects Allan Chumak, the Burning Man, fast food chicken, iPhones, espresso, LSD and dope, automatic writing, pubic hair, and Avatar? What imagined properties does the adjective “spiritual” possess, enabling us to recognize something common to Alcoholics Anonymous, yoga, Philip K. Dick, school retreats, companion animals, German women’s magazines, and Neutral Milk Hotel? Perhaps we might think not of substance, locable object, or essence but instead, digesting these offerings, consider whether the “spiritual” archived here is this very impulse to locate the new and escape the confines of the recognizable. While there are still plenty of texts here (some, like the Whole Earth Catalog, we might have expected and others, like John Lardas Modern’s obsession with the DeLillo corpus, less anticipated in an index of things “spiritual”), what is more common is a focus on the investment of meaning in objects and lifestyles.

But what does the move outside of conventional objects of study portend? Does a redirected attention impel us to the dazzling, the quirky, the hip, or does it provoke new questions that might be formulated when reliable contexts and connections are absent? Does the authorial attempt to locate the new—that overtone you hadn’t heard before, that detail tucked in the corner of the canvas—represent our own search for authenticity, paralleling the search for the real, the élan of connectedness, the ontological authority of either roots or rootlessness? Yet though it might be reasonable to think these questions alongside Frequencies, it’s also reasonable to wonder what is not a potential topic. The coffee I drink has been written about (though not craft beer). The music I listen to has not been written about (though other tunes have). The academic questions I pursue resound in this expanding discursive universe of secular/spiritual studies too. So perhaps it is the very superabundance of the category that is this archive’s most salient feature.

What really compels me, though, is the problem and possibility of medium and genre. If something about the “spiritual” recedes continually despite the urgent use of authorial radar, perhaps we might think less about shared properties and connections and more about common breakdowns of signification. David Morgan writes about the “aura” of the spiritual. Jeremy Kessler meditates on “secret connections” between things. We read about unseen networks of the uncanny, paradoxes, and aporiae. Amidst such ruptures and breakdowns of signification, some of these pieces flirt with new forms and new genres.

There are poems, literary recreations, a lovely Top Ten list, and a healthy variety of photos and graphemes. But still I wonder why there isn’t even greater playfulness and abandonment of customary authorial gestures. Why, to put it bluntly, has nobody played around more mischievously (but also perhaps literally) with the notions of frequency and resonance in pursuit of the “spiritual”? After all, as Nancy Levene so cogently writes, this very project amounts to chasing an impossibility, exploring the tensile relation between thinking about something while simultaneously trying to experience it.

So what would happen if, instead of looking to a different kind of writing that would provide release for the author and diversion for the reader, we thought seriously about the vibratory, circulatory dimensions of this project and dove headlong into the possibilities of this format. Perhaps a second 100 might avoid words altogether. Let there be sculpture, sound, and dance. Let there be video, collage, and cooking.

Duke Ellington once responded to an Icelandic student’s overly serious question about “art music” by reaching into his pocket and unwrapping a pork chop he’d stashed there. This is a gesture that does what words cannot. And something about the “spiritual,” with no stable referent available to us, invites us to think about improvisation. What if we were to propose only in sound, not trying to recreate its sensualism through our words or document its structure but to offer sound and nothing more? Is such confidence in sound’s power, or submission to its inevitable disappearance, the spiritual?

Keith Rowe spins the radio dial alongside his tabletop guitar and, amidst a swirl of noise, he stops on “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” These echoes within echoes, scramblings of signals and receivers, seem as evocative of something I would call “spiritual” as any combination of words could be. Does the abundance and everywhereness of “spirituality” create a kind of discursive overdrive, a distortion of the signal (referent)? What are the means by which we amplify, creating feedback and ghost tones, exulting in their release while at the same time craving their capture in the drive of a lone medium (whether sound or image or word)? The spiritual aspirant becomes a no-input mixing board, a resonating wire, a struck membrane through which such questions project.

These speculations of course are themselves analogical and rhetorical, and hence trapped in the very thing I aim to question. But playing with that is partly the point and possibility, and one inspired by the richness of these contributions. Note how Thomas Tweed’s piece on John Cage focuses on the composer’s sense that a good question shouldn’t be spoiled by an answer. Of course Cage probably had in mind Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” and what a fitting resonance that is. Like Ives’s weird vernacular juxtapositions and declamations, these entries jar the senses and scramble convention, evoking in the process their own sources and limits. But these limits, these limits, there’s something to them. Ives: “Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason are we not too easily inclined to call them beautiful?” “Spirituality” may be a category unable to escape its over-determination, no matter the beauty or sizzle an author intends. But in the very “ugliness” of its inevitable frames we might find the questions that bother us.

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