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Speculations about Rowan Williams’ Recent References to Rhythm

My colleague and I had the pleasure this week of taking some students to hear Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams speak at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The two of them (as well as the presentation by Tiffany Kreiner in particular) gave beautiful and inspiring presentations which will take me some time to digest, but I was particularly struck by the fact that Rowan Williams referred to rhythm a couple of times in his formal conversation with Robinson.

As far as I know, Williams does not treat the subject of rhythm in any of his books in any direct way or in any detail, although it has been very difficult for me to keep up with his publishing speed lately (if somebody knows of a place in his corpus where he does deal with rhythm, please let me know!). Nevertheless, he made rhythm a central dimension of his response to two different questions: Continue reading “Speculations about Rowan Williams’ Recent References to Rhythm”

James Turrell: Using Space to Resist Consumerism

So many of the technological advances produced by a consumer society involve an attempt to eliminate space for the purpose of commodifying time: telegraph, television, telephone, automobile, airplane, photography, internet. How we “spend” our time is now more a result of consumer-type choice because less of it involves the simple necessity of traversing space.

I do not know how to “solve” the problem of consumerism. Any claim that we can somehow escape it seems naïve. But every redemptive response that I can think of keeps coming back to the idea of space. If consumer society involves the attempted elimination of space, of distance, then perhaps space is a kind of threat, a resistance to a totalizing consumerism that can be leveraged against it. Where it persists, space is a kind of other that requires reckoning. We have attempted to colonize it, to eliminate it, to confine it using noise and motion just like we have done with all the other others we have created. We do so because space thwarts the immediate gratification of our desires. If consumerism is the attempt to make the whole world malleable in response to our desires, then space holds the potential for resisting desire. So, perhaps one way to resist consumerism is the act of opening space.

I think this is one of the ways in which art is most meaningful today. Several current artists are intuiting something like this and are working with a kind of spacious minimalism. One of the most prominent is James Turrell. One of his pieces – Acton – is installed in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I did not even know that it was art at first. I thought it was a room under construction until a friend pointed it out to me. The artwork is literally a space, and it is a space on a couple of different levels. For the piece to work, it requires a full room because the lighting has to be right. Once in the room, you have the impression that you are looking at a black sheet hanging on the wall. It seems like a black sheet up until the very moment that you are close enough to touch it. But then, when you’re right up close to it, you know it’s not a sheet. It still looks like a sheet but you somehow know that it’s presence is not the presence of a sheet. So you reach out to touch it and realize that what looks like a flat rectangle on the wall is in fact a gaping hole. The IMA describes the piece like this:

 

In these works, Turrell defines two distinct areas of a room: the “viewing space,” where the audience stands to view the work, and the “sensing space,” which is filled with diffused light. A thin partition with a large opening in its center separates the two spaces. Turrell creates an optical illusion in which the viewer initially perceives the opening as a flat, monochromatic surface. Prolonged viewing yields a surprising shift in perception, as the viewer may see and even reach into the sensing space.

That’s it. It’s that simple – simply, literally, a space in a wall. By all accounts it should not be very interesting. And yet it is fascinating. There are benches in the room that invite you to sit with the space and many visitors do so. I’ve even been there when the benches were full and so people sat on the floor instead. Just think about that. You are in a whole museum full of marvelous, breathtaking images and yet scores of people are choosing to sit in front of a big empty hole instead.

My friend says that she sits there just because she likes to watch people’s reactions – their shock and confusion and joy is delightful – but I think it’s more than that, at least for me. We are so constantly inundated with images; we constantly do the difficult work of navigating these images – consuming them, making judgements and choices about them – that I think we might be tired. There is something soothing about clearing them all to the periphery, and just making a space. This hole in the wall is so unlike anywhere else in the world. We don’t see chasms in walls that are so absolutely black. When I peered into the space, I felt like myself, just my most naked self. And it wasn’t an experience of terror, which is typically how I imagine such experiences must be. I felt free to pray in a way that is not usually the case; I was somehow free to open myself up to something beyond myself.

Whenever I take classes to the IMA, I always tell students to go into that room and to reach out and touch the black rectangle on the wall, just as my friend had to tell me. Often, they report that it is their first spiritual experience with art. In that moment, when their perception shifts from “sheet” or “rectangle” to “chasm,” they experience something that we don’t typically allow ourselves to experience in everyday life. They experience their own smallness, the fact that they do not see things as they are, that reality is so much bigger than they are able to comprehend, and, perhaps most astonishingly, they experience the fact that this realization is not threatening, as we so often suppose, but is a source of joy and gratitude and wonder.

Turrell has opened a space – literally, physically – and that actual, physical space also becomes a space in the psyche, a brief hiatus from the tyrannous question of consumerism: “what do you want?” In Acton, there is nothing to want because the space cannot give you anything. All you want is what is. You just want to be. If that’s not a resistance to consumerism, then I don’t know what is.

 

The Spiritual Rhythms of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Sermons

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not the only example of an African American preacher who intentionally relies on rhythmic devices for spiritual purposes, but he is an example of someone who does so very effectively. The rhythms of Dr. King’s sermons involve, firstly, the rhetorical dimensions of the speech itself. This includes his use of repetition, patterns of pausing, the rise and fall of tempo, and alliteration. He regularly repeats words or phrases, but he also sets up a relatively regular repetition of syllable-stress that is not dependent on the sense of the words themselves,[1] a style more typical of poetry than prose. He pauses after every 3-5 beats such that his lines of speech are more akin to the lines of a poem than to straight prose. In this way, he sets up something like a beat, which carries the listeners along. According to Richard Lischer – a scholar of King’s sermonic style – this is called the “soundtrack.” It is the non-discursive dimension of the sermon more available to emotion than reason. King’s congregation did not always know what he was saying, but they were always able to connect to his rhythm.[2] Continue reading “The Spiritual Rhythms of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Sermons”

Does Rhythm have a Metaphysical Ground?

Quite a while back now someone asked me a really good question that I wonder about sometimes. It just occurred to me that this might be the sort of thing that is interesting to more people. The question is something like this: “Is there a more transcendent rhythm than the rhythm of creation that grounds it in some way? Is it tied to some metaphysical scheme?” Here’s where I stand on that question at this point:

Continue reading “Does Rhythm have a Metaphysical Ground?”

New Rhythmic Questions for 2018

It has been a long time since I have written. The reasons, however, are directly related to this project of rhythmic theology on which I have embarked. I am in the middle of making some decisions about my professional future and this has taken up large quantities of my capacities of imagination. In the midst of that, however, I have also been developing the next iteration of this rhythmic theology project. Continue reading “New Rhythmic Questions for 2018”

What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?

In the churches of which I have been a part – the Protestant, free-church, evangelical variety with little formal liturgy – form is often treated as irrelevant. This attitude typically appears when someone has a complaint related to music, and the approach that leadership takes to such complaints is often to simply suggest that they should not be made at all. What matters is doctrine and beyond doctrine what matters is relationship, community, and unity. Issues of form are matters of preference only and are therefore debates into which only the “immature” enter. Arguments over form are not arguments over doctrine and are therefore mere threats to unity. We should therefore strive not to critique or enter into conversations about form at all. Certainly not everyone feels this way and I don’t know that everyone who gets frustrated with such arguments would express it in this way, but I frequently hear a variation of “there are more important things to talk about” in response to such critiques. Continue reading “What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?”

Parsing Poetry and Public Discourse

I have been quiet over here because I have been using the summer to finish my manuscript of Rhythm: A Theological Category. I have now submitted the manuscript and expect to be entering into several rounds of revisions over the next year or so. The last weeks of developing the manuscript have involved dealing with a few interesting side issues related to rhythm in theology that I wanted to share here. In this case, I want to talk about parsing poetry and why it matters. Continue reading “Parsing Poetry and Public Discourse”

Beyond Baudrillard: The Rhythms of Media Society

My last post pointed out the rhythms that Baudrillard has identified as part of consumer society. Given that he wrote the text in 1970, it’s remarkable how true it remains to the nature of Western society today. Nevertheless, there are ways in which the text does not account for all the rhythms of the current expression of consumer society. This is not to say that his text is wrong or obsolete, but that there are new instances of the commodity rhythms that he identifies.

Consumer society is becoming increasingly dominated, not by the rhythms of physical commodities, but by media rhythms. The rhythms of commodities still exist; we continue to buy and replace objects at ever faster rates as more and more objects become disposable. But these physical rhythms now intersect with more ephemeral media rhythms, which arguably hold tighter sway over everyday life than commodity rhythms because they are compound-rhythms, they include cycles at multiple levels of time-length: days, weeks, years.

A helpful picture of these rhythms has been recently supplied by Anthony Curtis Adler in his book Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life. Like Henri Lefebvre before him, who identified the cycles of radio as a significant rhythm in modern life in his book Rhythmanalysis, Adler notes that the rhythms of television are perhaps those rhythms that are now closest to us, without ever quite being our own.

The cycles of television occur at a multitude of levels that mimic natural rhythms. Each particular segment or show includes its own cycles (most visible in even “giving us the time, between shows and scenes, to defecate” (27)). These are embedded in daily cycles, like the circadian rhythms or the oscillation between night and day. Television moves through the levity of morning news, the possibilities of the game show, the heaviness of soap operas, the seriousness of prime time and evening news, and finally the infomercials for the nocturnal (27-28). These daily cycles are also, in turn, embedded in weekly cycles, in which the weekend marks a weekly repetition through the injection of sports and religion, film, and the Saturday Night Live party (28). Finally, each show has “its own time, space, and manner of truth,” in other words its own rhythm, that unfolds over the course of successive installments thus lending a longer arc to the smaller cycles. “The privileged vehicle for quality television is a series extended over the course of may seasons, combining an ‘epic,’ world-building scope with ‘dramatic’ plot lines that unfold rhythmically not only in each episode and throughout each season, but over the course of the entire series” (30). And thus shape is likewise given to the year.

This is not unlike the church calendar, which provides a yearly arc through the drama of Christ’s life, which is both the same and different every year. In the case of the church calendar, however, the dramatic plot lines that “unfold rhythmically over the course of the entire series” are not only Christ’s life as a drama that we passively watch each year. It is our own lives, the dramatic plot lines rhythmically unfolding are those of the body of Christ, in which we are participants. Adler says,

television orchestrates and organizes a kind of everydayness, …it accompanies the times and seasons of our lives. We still also exist in everydayness, between life and death, but now we…, while living, watch TV, which has become the constant accompaniment to a life beyond work, organizing it through a complex system of rhythms (interstitial, hourly, daily, weekly, yearly) that, in contrast to the schedules that govern monastic orders, the military schools, factories, and hospitals, no longer have any sacral, political, or even purely instrumental and productive rationale (25).

Television works in the same way as the other institutions that have historically codified and transmitted and accompanied the natural rhythms in which we are embedded, institutions like the church. The difference is that television does not seem to do so for any particular purpose. Rather than conveying meaning or purpose, it conveys moods, moods that organize everyday life without exactly being ours (27).

Remember that Baudrillard suggests that the life beyond work, leisure time, does not really have a rhythm of its own that is different from the consumption-production cycle of work. Instead, we live according to rhythms that are not our own, the rhythm of objects. Adler is essentially saying the same thing, that our leisure time is marked by rhythms of something that is not really our own. “The moods of everyday life have everything to do with the fact that while each of us has been consigned to the one life that we have to live, we are, for the most part, always evading this responsibility, losing ourselves in the distractions of the world.” (28)

Each show shows its own time, space, and manner of truth (disclosure) – each opens onto its own life and its own world – and yet these are all fused to a clock and calendar time that presents itself with an almost perfect mathematical precision. While the clock and the calendar are tools organizing the activities of everyday life, this mathematically precise time elicited by the television is precisely not the time of our lives. It exists as it were at the limit of our lives as a time that imposes itself on us but that we can never actually inhabit. It is at this limit hat television touches our life, but we should never suppose on this basis that the rhythms of television have anything to do with the everyday life that we live (29).

The difficulty with Adler’s assessment, which he himself acknowledges, is that the domination of television’s rhythms is of course not exactly the relationship to media in which we currently find ourselves. His analysis is not, and he thinks it cannot, be absolutely contemporaneous. The only reason his analysis of television is at all possible is that this age of television has, in important ways, already passed. The rhythms of television have themselves been absorbed into another, more totalizing medium: the internet,

which replaces the orderly schedule of television with the absolute simultaneity of possibilities. The past coexists alongside the present, or is forgotten utterly, and the future is no longer the prospect of the new day and the new year but the constantly abiding expectation of something different showing up for us (38).

This becomes particularly the case through the “gadget,” which I take to be a veiled reference to the smart-phone. Adler describes the gadget as that which “through a strange ambivalence, names both the ‘novelty’ item without use and the eminently useful item without name (it was originally sailor’s slang for anonymous tools) – and thus, by a savage and strange irony, would also be the name bestowed on the first atom bomb, the first of the things to end all things…” (126). The smartphone is the perfect confluence of these two definitions in that on the one hand everything that a smartphone can do, other things can also do; it is a novelty item without use much like a fidget-spinner. But on the other hand, this is also what makes it eminently useful and its very multi-purpose usefulness is what means it does not have a name other than a derivation from a prior invention, “the phone,” that has now been made “smart.” Perhaps it too will in some way play a role in ending all things.

Adler seems to suggest in the above quote that a central difference between television and the internet is that the latter has no rhythm, it simply makes everything available at once. We must be careful, however, not to confuse the lack of schedule with a lack of rhythm. The rhythms of the internet are simply located somewhere slightly different, namely, not in the schedule produced independently of the viewer and projected onto his or her life from the outside, but in the user him or her self. The rhythm of the smart phone is compulsive checking that punctuates the day, beginning very likely immediately upon waking. This is interwoven with the more serious and sustained flow of laptop or desktop work. It clearly forms a rhythm of work-flow punctuated at semi-regular intervals by pings, messages, and general smart-phone checking. The internet is thus a much closer, co-operative human-object production of rhythm, which looks slightly different and yet also remarkably similar between different users. Thus the rhythm might appear slightly different – more like free-verse than like a nursery-rhyme perhaps – but it nevertheless persists.

I therefore locate this difference somewhere slightly different. Adler points out that the television is rhythm of moods without purpose. The internet is likewise without clear purpose. The difference is that it invites the production of individual meaning, identity, purpose in a way that the television cannot. I suspect this makes the internet a far more robust medium than the television. Thus, I suggested at the beginning, that we need to not replace Baudrillard’s rhythm-of-objects within the production-consumption cycle, but to understand the ways in which it intersects with media rhythms. The most saturated point of such confluence is the smart phone. Itself an object with inbuilt obsolescence, requiring very regular replacement, it is a portal into an ever-shifting self-production-through-consumption that is not limited to the object itself.

To consume in this context is not to purchase specific objects but to absorb all of life into “creative” electronic self-production. We, the consumers, have become ever more clearly not merely consumers but producers-through-consumption. We consume electronic content generated by others while nearly simultaneously consuming the whole of life as a production of posts, tweets, photos, memes, videos etc. All of life is directly subjected to the project of electronic self-production. The circle between consumption and production has revolved ever tighter until it has coalesced into a dot.

 

Features Image: By ArnoD27 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47890803

 

Baudrillard and the Rhythms of Consumer Society

Jean Baudrillard wrote a book called The Consumer Society in 1970 in which he considers an enormous number of phenomena from the perspective of consumerism, including time. The way in which time itself is changed or re-conceptualized in consumer society is especially evident in the idea of “leisure time.” We work for leisure time as much as we work for money. In fact, in consumerism, money and time are entirely exchangeable in an almost one-for-one correlation evidenced by the adage “time is money.” Baudrillard says “Divisible, abstract, measured time thus becomes homogeneous with the exchange-value system: it forms part of that system on the same basis as any other object. As an object of temporal calculation, it can and must be exchanged against any other commodity (in particular, money).” (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 153). When we pay for the convenience of something (pre-made orange juice rather than oranges themselves is Baudriallard’s example) what we are in fact buying is time. Continue reading “Baudrillard and the Rhythms of Consumer Society”

Sciences of Rhythm

One of the foundational claims of my research is that, as with many phenomena, the way in which one approaches rhythm will impact how one thinks about it. Pascal Michon, probably the most explicit philosopher of rhythm, thinks about this in terms of the two different definitions of rhythm identified by linguist Benveniste in 1966. Benveniste argues that the Platonic definition of rhythm is the default one for which we all reach – an oscillation between strong and weak beats, an order of a sequence of time, associated with concepts like meter, number and periodicity – but that it is not oldest. The older, pre-Socratic, ionian version of rhythm, Rhuthmos, denotes an ephemeral shape or improvisation. Michon takes this schema and traces a battle between these two versions of rhythm that plays itself out over the history of philosophy. One feature of his narrative is that the scientific disciplines tend to gravitate towards the Platonic understanding while the poets attempt to recover something of the pre-Socratic. Philosophers are split down the middle. You can read the whole of Michon’s history of the concept for free here. Continue reading “Sciences of Rhythm”