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”


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”

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”

What is an Idea?

I don’t have a scientific answer to that question. I’m sure one or several such accounts exist (leave some in the comments if you know!) but I’m more interested in the phenomenology of an idea, a map of the experience of having one.

I tend to think about the world of ideas as an electro-magnetic field that hums between objects and events. There are many points of affinity or attraction between objects and events, potential connections to be made, but they are only actualized when these objects and events come into spatial and/or temporal proximity to one another and to a particular human person (at least as far as we know). When a connection like this snaps into place, we call that event an idea. Continue reading “What is an Idea?”

Arrival, Advent, and Nietzsche

In his book, The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents us with the following scenario:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?[1]

This is what happens to Dr. Louise Banks, the linguist invited to decode the language of mysterious visiting aliens in the just-released, 2016 film Arrival. In her loneliness, these aliens (which some in the film certainly perceive to be demons of sorts) give her the gift of a language that enables her to experience her future as though it is also already her past. This reality, however, is not presented to us as nightmarish but as desirable, almost eschatological. Continue reading “Arrival, Advent, and Nietzsche”

Module 3, Class 3: Rhythm and Interpersonal Communication (with particular reference to ASD)

The group of students presenting this module on the role of rhythm in communities began by considering the role of rhythm in African-American and Caribbean communal identity-construction and protest in order to introduce the ways in which rhythm functions to both hold people together and keep them apart. The prevalence of rhythm in African and later North American Black cultures in such communal identity-construction makes this a helpful place to begin for understanding the social dimensions of rhythm. However, the group’s objective was ultimately to introduce the ways in which rhythm is a part of all relationships, not only at a larger, communal level but also between particular individuals.

The difficulty, however, is that we are not usually aware of the rhythms involved in our day-to-day interactions. They are the carrier-waves of those interactions and are indispensable for indexing emotional and social meaning and keeping the conversation going, but we are not often aware of them and they are difficult to notice and measure. Some researchers, particularly Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen and Peter Auer, have begun to measure the rhythms of conversation scientifically but this requires parsing conversations quite elaborately in ways that can be confusing to follow.

Instead, Phoebe Caldwell’s research on communication with non-verbal persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder is remarkably helpful for understanding the role of rhythm in interpersonal relationships more intuitively. Continue reading “Module 3, Class 3: Rhythm and Interpersonal Communication (with particular reference to ASD)”

Module 2, Class 1: Julia Kristeva and the Rhythms of Depression

The students leading module 2, which looks at the role of rhythm in our relationship to ourselves, have chosen to focus on depression. They began with a discussion of the first chapter of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. All of the students are science majors and therefore struggled a little with the more psychoanalytic and philosophical perspective of this assigned text, but they addressed this challenge by bringing Kristeva into conversation with the most recent DSM definition of depression and helpfully concluded that what Kristeva might contribute to the conversation is a different language that could enable us to understanding depression from a different angle.

I think this is precisely what Kristeva’s text provides. More specifically, she actually looks at the role of language itself in depression. Her alternative vocabulary includes the concept of rhythm. Continue reading “Module 2, Class 1: Julia Kristeva and the Rhythms of Depression”

Introduction to “Wave Forms: A Natural Syntax for Rhythmic Languages”

My writing is currently focused on putting together a chapter/article on rhythm in the doctrine of creation. There are two sources in particular that have been helpful to me in thinking through the relationship between nature and human culture, but the ideas are also just fascinating in general. I introduce the first here and the other in the next post.

Continue reading “Introduction to “Wave Forms: A Natural Syntax for Rhythmic Languages””

The Autobiographical Compulsion

In 1931, Virginia Woolf wrote The Waves, a poetic novel that evokes the rhythms created by the interpenetrations of cosmic cycles and particular lives. Pieces of prose describing the landscape at particular times of the day, under certain heights of the sun, intersect with an account of six individuals’ innermost orientations towards the world from childhood to old age. As the title suggests, each character is evoked and communicated through the particular way that he or she experiences and interacts with the rhythm of the waves of surrounding reality and of his or her own inner experience.

Though we can never know all the reasons an author chooses to write a particular book, we do know that in this case Woolf’s theme is in part a representation of how she experienced the process of writing itself. She says, “I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot. … All writing is nothing but putting words on the backs of rhythm.”

The question, then, is: exactly what rhythm(s) is Woolf writing to? Continue reading “The Autobiographical Compulsion”

Paul Celan: Poetry and the Language of the Oppressor

Paul Celan was a German-Jewish poet who moved to Paris in light of the Holocaust. He wrote as one who was oppressed, yet he wrote in the language of the oppressor. This paradox is the cradle of Celan’s poetry, which comes out as language that tears at itself, and as image under immense pressure. Could Celan be a model for our language of lament in the light of American violence and oppression?  Continue reading “Paul Celan: Poetry and the Language of the Oppressor”