The science of religion:

Vinyl prayers

posted by John Lardas Modern

Cross-posted at Reverberations, a digital forum produced by the Social Science Research Council in conjunction with New Directions in the Study of Prayer, where this serves as the curatorial introduction to a portal on Vinyl Prayers.—ed.

Prayer may be an act of gratitude after the fact. It may be a weapon, a request to heal the body or boost the brain, an epistemic cry, a meditation, a mediation, a quip, a plea, a means of passive resistance, a wonderful gift from God. Or any manner of combination.

Whatever prayer is or has been, it often seems to be bound up in the play of transgression and transcendence. Within the move across, there are the moves against and the moves beyond. Against and beyond simultaneously, continuously, even as a prayer is conceived and uttered, even after it is ignored or answered.

A will to negation is, of course, necessary for transcendence. And transcendence must be in the offing for this will to become manifest. In the living act of prayer, there is no beginning and there is no end. Prayer is precisely that activity which, in theory, denies the localization and stillness demanded by means of human measurement. Yet, in practice, this denial is offered under circumstances that have been utterly humanized and subject to social forms, grammars, and algorithms of immanent origin. The praying hands of humans, in other words, pray to no man, which is strange indeed in a world in which modeling the human is the key for knowing the human and much else besides.

Although I am not often taken with definitional stances, I have arrived at this tentative claim by considering the claims of those who practice what they call prayer. I have consulted the dictionaries, the doctrinal decrees, and the dead letter scholarship. And I have sought to imagine the visceral experiences that correspond to, as well as subvert, the conceptual terrain of prayer at any given moment.

Consider, for example, those who spend their days listening to long playing records. The effects of transcendence and transgression within this subculture are the price of admission. There are, of course, audiophilic declarations about the “authentic” sound of vinyl (always some variant of “warm”).

Nostalgic fantasies for a world in which our listening choices were not subject to real-time assessment and display.

Deliberate choices to experience, and to build experiences around, a materiality of sound.

To make spirit tangible is an audacious act, which perhaps speaks to how the prayerful play of transgression and transcendence may have less to do with longings for the real than for its opposite. Consequently, as a way of thinking more capaciously about prayer, I want to think more critically about the self-consciousness of sound’s deferred reality in the act of listening to vinyl. I want to consider the consideration of the medium of this particular sound—

frequencies emanating forth from speakers, from the amplifier that has received electrical signals from the cartridge that has converted them from vibrations picked up by the stylus at the end of the tone arm, from the grooves in the shiny polyvinyl chloride disc that produce those vibrations, from the stamper that makes those grooves by way of a hydraulic press, from the grooved metal record known as the “mother” that is used to make the stamper, from the ridged nickel-coated metal master that is used to make the metal record, from the lacquer placed on a cutting machine and cut according to the electric signals traveling to the cutting-head from the master recording, from the mikes in the studio and the breath from the body, etc.

I want to consider how this consideration might inspire a difference in how one studies prayer. Vinyl’s invitation (or is it a demand?) to experience the mediated expanse of sound while you listen shifts the burden of studying prayer, or anything else for that matter, from the analysis of objects or sources to the encounter with processes of rather hazy origin.

Vinyl records foreground the materiality of sound, insisting on a spiritual essence that is wholly tangible. They make a different claim upon the real than, say, a compact disc (remember the first time you heard a CD, the way in which the real was framed as immediate access to the source?). A different ontology emerges when you drop the needle, one in which imperfection is a sign of the real, difference and static and surplus are comforting, and one in which clarity, compression, and cleanliness are suspect. Matter and spirit, immediacy and mediation, life and that which is not mix seemingly and inextricably. Something about the vast apparatus of the moment is revealed. Perhaps even a sense of its ending.

I am reminded here of an early assessment in which the “indefinite repetition from automatic records” held out an existential promise—not to overcome death but to live with it and, in the end, to embrace it as a paradox (a complexity become overwhelming); the absence of the other not overcome or even understood, but listened to as the emptiness it portends.

It has been said that Science is never sensational: that it is intellectual not emotional; but certainly nothing can be conceived more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead. [“A Wonderful Invention—Speech Capable of Indefinite Repetition from Automatic Records.” Scientific American, 27/2 (17 November) 1877: 304]

There is a fleeting sense here of a tension between life and death becoming increasingly unresolved with every playback. Yet even as the life before you is made strange, the demand for immediacy remains. As in the epistemic trope of séance spiritualism, the rupture of death precipitates the promise of perfect fidelity:

With the electric record we might safely predict the passing of the tiresome needle, for it is wholly feasible that no actual contact will be made between the record and reproducer. The complete obliteration of surface noise would therefore be assured, and at long last we should have the realization of our dreams—perfect reproduction on a perfectly silent background. [Harold E. Cowley, “Why Not an Electric Record?,” Sound Wave 25/3 (March 1931): 112]

But as the following songs and selections (call them vinyl prayers) attest, the medium is not so easily overcome. What to make of the pop and crackle, the incessant catches, the hums and low-drones?

There is something about vinyl that brings the medium of sound recording to the fore—all the gears and belt drives and chemicals and heat and engineering propositions and amplification strategies. You are not listening to the illusion of presence, but to the presence as it lives—imperfectly, which is to say not wholly present to itself or you—in the world. Materiality, here, does not corrupt some imagined authenticity—you in a small room and the voice or instrument quite literally in your ear as you listen in that small room—but rather a steampunk materiality is the message, a palpable mechanical blur which negates the very possibility of imagining authenticity. Listening, in and to this process, becomes revelatory.

There is an energy to these songs and selections. Even as they are digitally reproduced for you, dear listener. Instructions are included.

Hit play.

Listen.

Read.

Repeat.

For this is what I am calling vinyl prayer—the act of trained listening to vinyl and, specifically, listening to those songs and selections on vinyl that formally and/or affectively implore the listener to move against and beyond, to encounter an otherness that refuses reduction, to somehow, and miraculously, satisfy the desire to be someone or someplace else, at least for a moment. For in this archive, transgression and transcendence are the order of the day: in the harmonies, in the stentorian instruction, in the skips and confounds and glitches and snags that move from an initial sense of disruption to loop to loop to soothing predictability and perhaps a world in which beauty, truth, and reality are suspended as categorical imperatives, at least until you walk over and nudge the needle.

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