Jonathan VanAntwerpen on Frequencies: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

Ten years ago this spring, we were laying plans to produce Frequencies, an experimental digital project that was the result of a partnership between The Immanent Frame and Killing the Buddha. Conceived in connection with the work of the Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion in the Public Sphere, Frequencies was the brainchild of Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, who served as its co-curators and executive editors. It was initially envisioned as “a collaborative genealogy of spirituality.”

Image credit: Mel Day, Study Guide for Experimental Contemplatives: Volume One (Performative Exchange), 2011 | (Coat: Miriam Dym for Dymproducts; cover photo: Jeffrey Cross)

Like The Immanent Frame and other digital projects at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the idea for Frequencies grew out of related forms of convening and engagement, in this case an interdisciplinary working group on spirituality, political engagement, and public life, co-chaired by Courtney Bender and Omar McRoberts, and funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. The conception of Frequencies was also energized by our collaboration with Killing the Buddha, an online magazine launched in 2000 by Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau, who had invited readers “both hostile and drawn to talk of God” to join them in “building an electronic Tower of Babel, a Talmudic cathedral of stories about faith lost and found.”

The orienting vision and intellectual practice of Killing the Buddha might stand as one creative rejoinder to varied efforts to disentangle religion and its vocabularies from the intellectual productions, both individual and collective, of those who write about it — a difficult and perhaps Sisyphean task, as I was reminded anew when we began our work on Frequencies.

The Immanent Frame had been yet another collaborative experiment, coming online in 2007, in between the launch of Killing the Buddha in 2000, and The Huffington Post’s launch, 10 years later, of its own religion section. Arianna Huffington herself contributed the very first post for HuffPost Religion. “I believe we are all hardwired for the sacred,” she wrote, “that the instinct for spirituality is part of our collective DNA.”

While there are at least a few cognitive scientists who agree that we are all “hardwired for the sacred” (and many more, perhaps, who do not), I don’t have any special purchase on that question. But I can say that in the formation and nurturance of The Immanent Frame, from the start a collective effort, we were not afraid to invite and publish the sort of intellectual work that — to borrow the words of one of our contributors — “does not secure its stance as a privileged default against the particularities of religion.”

In some ways an outgrowth and extension of the efforts of The Immanent Frame and its transdisciplinary discourse community, Frequencies began with its own distinctive skepticism about what Arianna Huffington had called “the instinct for spirituality” — and with an eloquently stated set of ambitions to think otherwise, seeing spirituality “as a cultural technology, as a diverse reverberation, as a frequency in the ether of experience.”

“We begin in a moment,” the co-curators of Frequencies wrote “when novelists wonder about the divine, psychological counselors advertise as spiritual advisers, and scholars seek to capture spirituality’s ephemeral nature through survey research. Spirituality abounds, even as it is unclear what it is. Whatever it is, it seems hard to capture. Spirituality takes hold beneath the skin and permeates below the radar of statistical surveys. It resists classification even as it classifies its evaluators and its believers as subjects of its sway. Frequencies will focus this profusion into an epic anthology of wide-ranging analysis.”

What followed was a digital compendium gathering an extraordinarily diverse array of essays and works of visual art, and including writing on a wide range of subjects, from John Cage to Beebe, Arkansas; Muhammad’s hair to The Dr. Oz Show. The invitation to contribute to Frequencies had posed a deceptively simple question: “What comes to mind when you think of spirituality?” Launching 9/1/11, with a piece on enthusiasm by Amy Hollywood, we published 100 essays in 100 days (taking weekends off). Accompanying each invited essay was a work of visual art, drawn from over 350 submissions in response to an open call.

That fall, at the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco, we organized a panel on Frequencies, featuring presentations by Julie Byrne, Susan Harding, Ari Y. Kelman, and Jeffrey Kripal, and replies by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern. We were roughly midway through our planned publication cycle, and had a small but engaged following of regular readers and fellow travelers.

Get on the Spirituality Bus: A Panel on Frequencies at the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion, San Francisco, CA, November 2011

The day following the AAR event, we posted David Walker’s essay on James Strang’s original letter of ecclesiastical appointment. In 1850, Strang was crowned king of a Mormon community in Beaver Island, Michigan. Having spent some time on Beaver Island myself, and visited a museum operated by its historical society, I found Walker’s contribution particularly fascinating (and I am eagerly awaiting the book Amy DeRogatis is writing on James Jesse Strang and his community on the island).

Walker’s essay was representative of the sort of writing the Frequencies invitation evoked, though this took many different forms. David Kyuman Kim wrote about his iPhone (“I love my iPhone. I hate my iPhone. My iPhone has saved my life. My iPhone is stealing my soul”); Lee Gilmore about Burning Man (“a restive nexus of complex spiritual narratives”); Melani McAlister about practicing Iyengar yoga (“I do yoga to quiet my brain, not to fill it with nonsense”); Paul Christopher Johnson on espresso and its machines (“The godshot is near, the Duration is imminent); Luís León on marijuana (“pot production and consumption have created an epic artistic and spiritual awakening”); Pamela Klassen on Max Weber’s grave (“cemeteries persist as zones of spiritual mixing…capable of spooking even the most disenchanted of minds”); Melissa Wilcox on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (“spirituality appears in the queerest of places”). And on and on. It was indeed a vast profusion, whose form and content not infrequently surprised even those who had posed the prompting question.

As Kathryn Lofton said a few years later, “We wanted to bring a little shot of the humanities to your e-mail in-box. It was intended to be a little guerilla. We wanted to offer readers a quick, intense glimpse of a smart writer wrestling seriously with something that maybe not everyone thought was so serious.”

As Lofton’s reflections suggest, many of the contributors to Frequencies were scholars in the humanities, often based primarily at academic institutions. But certainly not all of them. Through our collaboration with Killing the Buddha, we also invited contributions from a number of independent writers and artists, editors and journalists. Peter Catapano wrote on procrastination, Patton Dodd on Eugene Peterson, Peter Manseau on This American Life, Mary Valle on retreat, and Brook Wilensky-Lanford on The Whole Earth Catalog. Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid gave us a piece on spiritual influence, and Charles Bernstein shared a short reflection which bore the title “theology.” “I am not a secular man,” Bernstein wrote, “but in moments of crisis I turn to agnosticism for the comfort it gives in freeing me from superstition.”

Following the publication of our 100th and final essay, in which Nancy Levene took the project’s terms to task, Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern promised that Frequencies would “continue to exist as a curio cabinet, an archive, and an interpretive beginning for anyone seeking to explore the meaning of spirituality in this twenty-first century moment.”

The Immanent Frame then invited and published a series of critical reflections and responses to Frequencies, including posts by Constance M. Furey, Martin Kavka, Laura R. Olson, Jason C. Bivins, Jeffrey Kripal, Ari Y. Kelman, and Russell T. McCutcheon. “Language is a funny thing,” McCutcheon reminded us. Ain’t it the truth.

A few years later, the site’s original and distinctive domain — which had been creatively dreamt up by John D. Boy — was hijacked by a self-described “growth hacker.” The site needed to find a new home. We realized something had gone wrong, I recall, because professors who had been assigning Frequencies essays in their classes could no longer locate them online. I had left the SSRC by that point, but thanks to our colleagues at the Council the promise of the Frequencies co-curators has been kept, and the site does continue its digital existence.

Nathan Schneider — who joined me in co-producing Frequencies (as part of a collective that also included John D. Boy, Emily Floyd, and Charles Gelman )— recently remarked on Twitter that the site can feel now somewhat smaller than it might have seemed in our earlier imaginations (“kind of like elementary school hallways, I remember it being…bigger”). And yet, the essays and works of art still reward attention. The painting by Berkeley artist Scott A. DeBie that accompanies Michael J. Gilmour’s essay on companion animals, and enfolds its own compelling discursive proliferation, currently hangs on my daughter’s bedroom wall.

Elegant Whale by Scott DeBie

Jonathan VanAntwerpen is a program director at the Henry Luce Foundation. Originally trained as a philosopher, he holds a Ph.D. in sociology from UC-Berkeley.

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