Blogs 2019

“Voice, Sound and Atmospheres: Religious Feelings and Beyond”

A blog on the workshop held on 7 Feb 2019 at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity, Göttingen.

Patrick Eisenlohr • February 2019


What is behind the peculiar power of voice and sound in religious settings? What is the relationship between the sonic and the body? As the sonic incites sensations that are often difficult to render into discourse, how can we bring the sonic into the purview of established ethnographic methods that have traditionally focused on discourse and directly observable practices? Participants of the workshop organized by Patrick Eisenlohr (U of Göttingen) and Peter van der Veer (MPI-MMG) addressed these questions that have drawn increased scrutiny against the background of a turn toward the mediatic as well as the emotional and the affective in the study of religion that has taken place in recent years.

Neo-phenomenological approaches to atmospheres and affect theory featured prominently among the analytics workshop participants discussed. Drawing on them, participants tried to do justice to the sonic as a modality of knowledge that cannot be reduced to language. They focused on religious settings, but also went beyond them. There was a distinct sense pervading the event that the interrelated terms atmosphere, affect, and the sonic might provide crucial insights into issues that have become rather urgent in the context of recent transformations of politics and public spheres. These are the growing irrelevance of deliberation and critical analysis in public spheres and the reshaping of politics through powerful currents, often labeled “populist,” in numerous settings around the world. Might the sonic provide us with clues into these developments that we could not easily gain from the study of discourses, narratives, and interests that anthropologists and historians have typically engaged in?

Jan Slaby (FU Berlin) kicked off the event with a keynote, combining a meditation on Heidegger’s reflections on existential thrownness and situatedness with the theme of “haunted atmospheres”. To Slaby, atmospheres are durational phenomena that operate at the intersection of the intentionally framed and the unruly excess that haunts atmospheres, making them polymorphous and polyphonic in ways that are often impossible to predict. Andy McGraw’s (U of Richmond) paper took us to the Richmond city jail, where inmates’ musical practice could turn atmospheres of incarceration into “happening”, liberating atmospheres, producing a form of collective effervescence that at least temporarily transcended the very real conditions of spatial confinement. Focusing on musical epistemologies in Palau, Birgit Abels (U of Göttingen) showed how in Palauan group chant, the musical event’s sonic materiality is transduced into the shared feeling of an atmosphere. There, the sonic works as a modality of knowledge about Palauan divinely inspired notions of community, and the performance of group chant passes on such experiential knowledge beyond words to further generations.

Rainer Kazig (CNRS/U Grenoble-Alpes) addressed the issue of urban atmospheres, making a case for how the sonicity of movement through the city can be thought through, both with the German neo-phenomenological tradition, as well as with francophone work on ambiences. Daniel Fisher (UC Berkeley) explored grief, law, and sovereignty as atmospheric power in an Australian Aboriginal context, focusing on the voice of the very popular Yolngu singer Dr G Yunupingu and the contested circulation of its recordings after his death. In his reflections on secularity and chorality, Jeffers Engelhardt (Amherst College) showed how in Estonian Orthodox Christian chant, the acousmatic choral voice morphs into a collective voice body. The production of this kind of collective body then allows female monastics to engage the secular limitations and recognition of their way of life through literally voicing a category of religion. Patrick Eisenlohr (Göttingen U) made a case for the privileged position of the sonic in bringing about the holistic Gestalten that are atmospheres. Discussing sonic movements in the recitation of Urdu na‘t poetry among Muslims in Mauritius, Eisenlohr suggested that an analytic of atmospheres bridges the impasse that adoptions of affect theory in anthropology and sound studies have resulted in.

A lively discussion capped off this round of papers. There was a strong conceptual focus on the merits of affect and atmospheres as related and competing analytics, and the crucial role that the sonic plays for both of them. These concerns then opened into a debate on the ethnography of religious experience, and the merits and difficulties of approaching sound and sonic practice. A key question here was whether formal analysis of sound and sonic events could usefully complement traditional ethnographic methods. Finally, the felt dimensions of diversity and recognition that several of the papers touched on, including, but not only in domains one could call religious, came up as issues where the sonic and the atmospheric could offer a timely approach. As we cannot afford to ignore the ongoing upending of public spheres through forces that cannot be discursively captured, studying the couplings of the sonic with the feeling body as atmospheres can offer a different route for making sense of the current global situation.