Language and Communication

Why Rhythm?

Rhythm is all around us, but why does it matter?

1. Rhythm is social glue.

Rhythm is bound up with the relational and connective dimensions of language. A particularly striking example of the connective properties of rhythm is in communication with individuals with Autism Spectrum disorder. According to researcher Phoebe Caldwell, those with ASD will often create repetitive patterns in order to focus their attention, thereby protecting an over-stimulated brain. Communication is only possible by entering into this self-talk by repeating the individual’s rhythms by, for example, responding to the rhythm of finger-tapping with a similar pattern. Repeating a rhythm opens a way out of the distressed person’s world because it feeds information back that is familiar rather than threatening. Once this connection has been established, rhythms can then be subtly altered in a back-and-forth rhythmic dialogue.[1] Communication in the case of ASD is literally only possible through the synchronization of rhythms because it is this imitation that communicates empathy, that one is entering into the experience of the other. Through this repetition, one says, “I am here with you in this rhythm, in this language.” Rhythm is therefore connected to empathy by allowing us to enter into another’s experiential space through rhythmic repetition and imitation. Based on patterns of repetition and imitation, rhythm creates connections between participants in a linguistic event. Bodily participation in rhythms of speech or gesture is therefore a way of entering into a shared psychological space that allows for intimacy.

2. Rhythm is a political force.

This is true in two senses. First, rhythm can function to hold large groups of people together under a common identity, through dance or protests, for example. This is a powerful political tool. Plato believed dance to be part of moral education because it contributes to the ordering of society.[3] Linguist Peter Auer says, “The ‘process of civilization’ (N. Eilias) is, in essential ways, a process of imposing socio-cultural rhythm on our lives.”[4] However, rhythm’s capacity for unification is not unequivocally positive, but is capable of slipping into hegemony – whoever controls the rhythm, controls society. In the case of African-American slavery, for example, slaves were taken from their familiar rhythmic contexts and were subjugated by the alienating rhythms of rigorous schedules. The natural rhythms of the slaves were suppressed by the rhythms of the machine because the slaves themselves were understood largely as parts of a machine.[5] Control was exerted through the imposition of a machine-like pulse.

However, rhythm can also be used as a way to challenge hegemonic rhythms. African-American communities rhythmically subverted imposed patterns by expressing their own rhythms. This is complicated because on the one hand, the association of race and rhythm can be essentialist, but rhythm has nevertheless been used by African-American communities as a kind of resistance.[6] The rhythms of slavery were contested by the assertion of an alternative identity based in the democratic collective expression of the group.[7] In contrast to the mechanistic rhythms that were imposed on the slaves, African-American rhythm was opportunistic, improvisational, and evolving, seizing and creating available gaps in order to create transitory communities. Insofar as questions of identity are based on to what or with whom we belong, rhythm plays a part in constructing that identity. It may therefore be important to understand how rhythm is operating in any given political situation and how it might be used for political change.

3. Rhythm connects art to life.

While there has been much work done recently on the relationship between theology and the arts,[8] the two are usually thought of as two separate approaches to the world which are only brought into conversation after their identities are established. However, while rhythm is generally thought of as an aesthetic category, its significance is much broader (as the previous two points have demonstrated). This demonstrates that an “aesthetic” category can have significance beyond the arts for thought more generally. In particular for my research, drawing out the ways that rhythm is a part of everyday life demonstrates the theological significance of an aesthetic category in revealing how it is already implicitly part of that which with theology is concerned. Theology need not be artificially applied to the arts as an analytical tool, or vice versa. Aesthetic and artistic considerations are already a part of theology itself. Rhythm is not simply an illuminating artistic parallel but is implicitly part of the structure of salvation itself by virtue of its being a structure of the movements and processes of human relationship. Rhythm therefore reminds us of the inherent connections between the arts and life, hopefully prompting us to take the arts more seriously.

4. Rhythm reminds us of our creatureliness.

As creatures, our perspective on the world and on God is limited by space and time. However, there are a myriad of ways that we try to escape these limitations precisely by overcoming or limiting rhythms. We have invented electric light so that we are no longer limited by the oscillation of day and night. We fly food around the planet so that we are not limited by the rhythms of agriculture in the region in which we live. These attempts to transcend natural rhythm can give us the illusion that we have transcended our creatureliness. We imagine that we preside over and control the earth, that we can circumscribe reality within a whole as if we are gods.

Rhythm names a mysterious dimension of existence in which the creature is embedded but which it does not control. Attending to rhythm makes the world and the God encountered in and through this world strange again, and reminds us what it means to be faithful to our identity as creatures. As a result, it also changes how it is that we think about and perform the articulation of doctrine as an articulation that happens in and through movement between various perspectives.

5. Rhythm makes salvation a question of health.

The word for salvation is related to the word salus – health. However, Christian theology, especially in certain circles, sometimes makes salvation only about justification, about how one is “saved.” But if we think of ourselves in terms of our biological, relational, and mental rhythms, we begin to think about what it means for a human to flourish and how being in relationship to God enables that flourishing. The rhythmic form of the church – its calendars and feasts, its repetitive liturgies – is not incidental or decorative, but is the form and context through which we conceptualize the nature of salvation. Rhythm provides a way of thinking how it is that the activities of the Christian life such as prayer, Eucharist, liturgy, etc. are ways of participating in a certain rhythm analogous to the way in which repetition, bodily movement, and conversation are the rhythmic means by which one participates in what is not generated by the self. The pervasive operation of rhythm in reality suggests that rhythm can show how salvation is related to ordinary human life. If we think about salvation as the process by which our rhythms are changed to become healthier, salvation becomes less about assenting to a specific belief that has nothing to do with the rest of life and more about rhythms of habit and relationship.


How has rhythm been important in your life?


[1] Caldwell, Finding You, Finding Me, 105

[3] Plato, Laws 657d.

[4] Auer, Couper-Kuhlen, and Müller, Language in Time, 4.

[5] Martin Munro, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas, 19-20.

[6] Munro, Different Drummers, 4, 16.

[7] Munro, Different Drummers, 20.

[8] Examples include the work of Jeremy Begbie, George Pattison, Richard Harries, and those involved with St Andrews Center for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts.


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