Material History of American Religion Project

Technology and the voice of God

Humans live in a sea of sound. In our modern world we associate sounds with technology, but for religious believers both past and present, some sounds come from God. Project scholar Leigh Schmidt has become interested in the history of hearing and its relation to religion and the Enlightenment. He discussed his research and his new book, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment, with the project staff.

Q: How does Hearing Things relate to the material history of American religion?

A: My book connects to the Material Religion project in a number of places. First of all, the history of the senses is an important part of writing a history of the body. Hearing Things attempts to give the senses, and the wide-ranging discourses about them, a new centrality in American religious history. It is also, to some degree, an anatomical history--one that probes the materialist fascinations of the Enlightenment with the dissection and organization of the bodily senses. Another connection to material culture studies is in the history of technology. Between the print revolution and the rise of radio, television, and film, there are all kinds of contraptions that change the way people listen and also change the way people are trained to listen. We've had relatively little scholarship on the technologies between the print revolution and the major technologies of the twentieth century--in-between things like telephones and phonographs. I explore a number of these devices in my book, like speaking trumpets, stethoscopes, and speaking tubes. Such instruments helped shape a new material culture of listening; they also helped shape new habits and practices of hearing.

Q: You say in the book that the Enlightenment is suspicious of things that are heard, particularly things that are heard just once, and favors that which is ocular or visible. How is that preference important?

A: This is part of the larger debate in the Enlightenment and its aftermath about what kind of knowledge one can obtain from the various senses. Certainly it was widely thought, following classical materials, that the eye is the noblest sense, the most comprehensive sense, the most reliable sense. In this line of thought, the ear is suspect in various ways. Natural philosophers connected hearing with the passions, especially via music and its arousal of the affections. That's also one of the things that made hearing more of a spiritual sense over and against the eyes, the spiritual longings that music kindled. So, this is a central area of debate in the Enlightenment, the kinds of knowledge that are available through the different senses. The eye is associated with the light of reason and the ear with passivity, with femaleness, with superstition, with hearsay and unreliable reports. As Feuerbach would say, the ear is "the only fearful, mystical, and pious sense." It is the womb of the gods. On the whole, the eye is seen as the domain of a critical reason, and the ear tends to be more suspect because of its association with unreliable reports of hearsay and popular credulity. But, the ear was hardly abandoned completely in Enlightenment projects. There's never a simple divorce between the eye of reason and the ear of the mystic. Enlightenment thinkers were also trying to make hearing a part of these learned enterprises; they were trying to discipline hearing, to make it less susceptible to hearsay and illusion. They were trying to refine all the senses to make them worthy adjuncts, worthy companions, to the eye of reason.

History of the senses

Q: How is this history of the senses important for American religious historians?

A: There are several connections here. First, the history of the senses is one important way of getting into the history of the history of religion in American culture. That is, I think that the learned enterprises of the eighteenth century (and afterward) surrounding the education of the senses, the disciplining of the senses, are also implicated in the development of a critical study of religion. The history of the critical study of religion is in part a history of the senses. It is not only a European story--located in the English or French Enlightenment--but also a story in the American Enlightenment. I wanted to begin to see the history of the history of religions both in terms of the history of the senses, but then also as an American story. I think we need to look more fully at the American Enlightenment's contributions to the forming of the critical study of religion. Jefferson, Adams, and Paine are obvious, but there are any number of other figures as well, including those at a more popular Enlightenment level. One of my central points is to show how important the techniques of natural magic and rational recreations were to the formation of religion as an object of suspicion. That story about illusion is both an American and a European story. Second, this is about American religion because it is another window in on the world of pietistic Christianity, an inlet into the evangelical soundscape. I don't think we could possibly say there has been any lack of good studies of evangelicalism in American culture, but this is a dimension of evangelicalism that hasn't been examined as fully as it might have been. We have a great sense of evangelicalism, and Protestantism more generally, as an oral tradition, as a sermon-centered tradition, as a preaching tradition. But we don't have a broader sense of that evangelical soundscape. It's not only about preached words but it's about thunder, it's about the angel sounding the trumpet, it's about a world of interior sounds. A lot of the most important things that are heard in evangelical circles aren't actually even spoken aloud; they are interior dialogues heard in prayer and meditation. This approach broadens our sense of what we are listening for in that Protestant culture. Also, I think, it is a story about American religion because it brings the history of the New Jerusalem Church, the Swedenborgians, into focus in a novel way. It begins to get a fuller sense of that vibrant Swedenborgian subculture, so crucial to American stories about Transcendentalism, Mesmerism, and Spiritualism. No other eighteenth-century theologian, not even Jonathan Edwards, approached Swedenborg in giving sustained attention to the Christian sensorium.

Q: To what degree is this a Protestant story? Is the role of the ear an issue for the Catholic or Jewish traditions?

A: Early on I quote Luther to the effect that God no longer requires the feet, the hands, or any other member of the body--God requires only the ears. The ears alone are the organs of a Christian. Certainly that's a common understanding of Protestantism. Protestants have often been viewed as having a rather singular anatomy. They are unusually focused on hearing, on listening to proclaimed words. But this is not only a Protestant story. I very much want to warn against that. True, there are a lot of Protestant materials here. It's hard to study Christianity and early American culture and not study an excess of Protestants. Up to 1800, Catholics are a relatively small religious group on the American scene, so one often ends up studying a lot of Protestants and various philosophical dissenters from Protestantism. But, again, this is not just a Protestant story. First of all, many of the leading modern theorists of the senses, including two I talk about a good deal, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan, are Catholics. Both of them put a major emphasis, especially Ong, on the religious world of listening. This is an extremely important part of Ong's work, to create a theology around listening, around hearing the living speech of God. Also, much of the devotional tradition that I'm talking about here is as much Catholic as it is Protestant. Thomas à Kempis is crucial, I think. He is the leading devotional writer of the period immediately following the Revolution and into the early nineteenth century. Also, many of the other devotional writers popular among Protestants in the period are Catholics. Jeanne Marie Guyon, Gregory Lopez, Gaston de Renty--these are Catholic writers that Wesley and other Methodists in particular appropriate, and they often end up having wide popularity in Protestant circles. And, of course, one can extend the history of devotional listening well beyond Protestants and Catholics. In this study, I am working on Christianity but clearly it is also an important issue within Judaism and Islam and other traditions as well.

Hearing God

Q: You're interested in people who claim to have heard God, often in an internal way. How did that change after the Enlightenment?

A: Certainly one of the most common ways of plotting the story has been in terms of the diminishment of orality. That is, the move from a world of oracular voices to a much more rationalistic demystified world where such revealed words can't be heard. One of the things I wanted to do in the story was look hard at the secularization thesis that is still so much alive in the history of the senses, and critically reexamine it. Even as the secularization thesis has broken up elsewhere, it certainly hasn't when it comes to the history of the senses. That's especially an inheritance of Walter Ong, who talked about secularization in terms of the devocalization of the universe, the loss of God's speech. It's also evident in the work of Michel de Certeau and Alain Corbin. So I wanted to upend that familiar narrative line. At the same time, I wanted to take the Enlightenment seriously and not simply create a story that reversed the standard narrative--one that says, OK, we've had this devocalization narrative, now let's have another kind of story that says that the Enlightenment was a terrible failure and there were no silencing effects to these new forms of knowledge. I wanted to look seriously at the impact of these critical ways of studying religious voices and say that they did have lasting effects in all kinds of ways. It's a tensile, both-and narrative that way.

Q: How did you first get interested in this project?

A: Jim asked me to be part of the Material Religion project because of my prior book on the impact of the market on red-letter festivals, like Christmas and Easter and Mother's Day. That project was very much located at the intersection of religion and commerce. At the end of that book I was left with this question about the way in which the market creates distrust in the authenticity of ritual. There is a lingering question about trust and confidence throughout Consumer Rites.

Q: You were also interested in deception at that stage.

A: Yes--I was interested in the way in which people are on their guard against deception. They are not quite sure that they aren't having the wool pulled over their eyes, that the holidays--Children's Day or Father's Day--might just be a bit of Barnumesque hokum. I wanted to broaden these questions to the issue of trust and confidence in wider Christian circles, especially looking at issues surrounding evangelists, imposture, and ministerial authority. I thought I could write this big history from Cotton Mather's fear of wolves in sheep's clothing right on down to more recent evangelists like Marjoe Gortner, whose impostures became famous in the 60s and 70s. But early in my research I latched onto a case, a deceptive figure in one of the great novels of the late eighteenth century, Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, which was published in 1798. In that story a voice-shifting ventriloquist named Carwin plays havoc with the stability of a pious family. The father especially begins to mistake Carwin's voices as a spiritual or divine voice. I became increasingly curious about that confidence man, that voice-shifting figure. Then the question became, how was the trustworthiness or untrustworthiness of certain kinds of experiences established? What is at stake with these auditory experiences? Why is the ventriloquist figure so prominent in this very prominent novel? In a footnote in Wieland I was pointed to Joannes Bapista de La Chapelle's Le Ventriloque, a French Enlightenment study of ventriloquism published in 1772. Once I made that leap, back from Brown to La Chapelle, I was in the thick of these Enlightenment debates about voices. And the book began to shift from the study of trust, deception, and religious authority, to this question about religious voices and understandings of sound from the seventeenth century forward. Deception and trust remained important issues, but suddenly I was on a different terrain. When Jim signed me on the research looked like it was going in one direction, but as I pursued that research it fittingly became shape-shifting in itself and took on other voices.

Modern spirituality

Q: How would you evaluate the contemporary interest in spirituality--with signs and wonders and revelation? Are we seeing a re-enchantment of our sense world? Does it have anything to do with postmodern rejections of Enlightenment worldviews, or is it just perennial out there?

A: It is very hard to get a sense of any trajectory here. Can we still speak in some limited ways of a secular trajectory, or should we just abandon all such narratives and see this in terms of an on-going proliferation of spiritual possibilities? I do think the fragmentation of religious authority, as a result of disestablishment, democratization, and other voluntaristic forces, is crucial to understanding this ongoing proliferation of spiritualities. In so many ways, our religious culture is continuous with that early to mid-nineteenth century world of evangelicals and Whitman-like Swedenborgians. Our world of superabundant spiritualities, all the angels, for example, is still beholden to that jarring multiplicity of religious expressions of the early to mid nineteenth century. I think we can still hear the Swedenborgian world of angels all around us. It would be hard for me see a decisive break, a new moment of eruptive postmodern spiritualities in which we are now finally setting the Enlightenment and its objectifying vision aside. The Enlightenment is still very much with us, for good and ill. Postmodern is a notoriously slippery term. There are skeptical, sometimes nihilistic strands in postmodernism that simply expand the most skeptical side of the Enlightenment, the absorption with illusion and simulation, with playfulness and artifice, with the theater of power, and with all the disconnected signs just floating around about us. There are also, of course, more affirmative postmodernists, but it is hard for me to imagine that they are winning this one in the realm of cultural theory.

Q: For a century now we've had technology that can reproduce sounds and time-shift them. With radio, the phonograph, tapes, CDs, and now our computers, we hear more things than ever before.

A: I'm interested in this topic in part because there is such resonance with these contemporary questions. Clearly, I think all of us are interested in the history of technology in fair measure because we inhabit a world of such profound technological change. The revolution in computer technology has changed the ways in which we do almost everything in academic life and increasingly in religious life as well. This whirling series of innovations certainly makes me interested in the way Christians confronted technological change in the past--the impact of the telephone, the phonograph, the magic lantern and film projection on them. Technological transformation is what drove this inquiry for Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong as well. They were interested, in particular, in the profound effects of print and television. Now it's the dizzying effects of the Internet that are driving us back to these sorts of questions in an intensified way. It's that same dynamic--it's an important location where our own horizon meets these earlier horizons. One apt symbol of the synergy between this history and the latest technologies is the computer giant, Oracle. That the most prominent oracle in contemporary culture should be a piece of mechanical wizardry for e-business tells us a lot about how the Enlightenment history of the oracular still resounds. Another tie is our deep cultural fascination--so evident this past summer on Survivor and Big Brother--with surveillance and eavesdropping. Enlightenment philosophers and entrepreneurs were especially keen on developing the pleasures and powers of eavesdropping.

Implications for historians

Q: It is very different doing a history of an eighteenth century event versus a history of the 1950s event because you could actually have a film or audiotape of a 1950s event. What do these kinds of things do for the way historians work?

A: Recovering a past soundscape, these auditory landscapes as Alain Corbin calls them, is a very difficult enterprise. One has to rely on textual descriptions of sounds, and that makes this an extremely elusive aspect of history to recover. These voices are indeed lost in a fundamental way. So to enter back into an acoustic world is difficult. It demands extremely patient reconstruction, really a lot of attention to these moments in which sounds echo in texts, and then working from there. Once you tune your ear to this, you start to pick up sounds in all kinds of ways. And I think once we develop our own sensory sensitivities as historians, we can evoke other sensuous worlds well beyond such auditory landscapes.

Q: Graduate students and younger historians are always in search of a good, new, relatively unexplored topic. You've just looked at an incredibly rich and unexplored topic. Do you have any ideas about related fields of inquiry that you would recommend to others?

A: I would like to push the history of the senses farther along still. There has been much more work in French cultural history than in American cultural history on the domain of the senses. It is also true that there has been much more ethnographic and anthropological work on the topic. And the same goes for historians of late antiquity, such as Susan Ashbrook Harvey who is working on the early Christian history of incense. We can still be rather snide, I think, about the smells and bells of American religious history. It's time to get more serious about these dimensions of American religion and culture. But, it's important to keep being playful about such topics as well. My book may not make for light reading, or easy listening, but it is intended to capture the element of amusement and performance that animated so much of the Enlightenment. One of my favorite didactic texts captured this in its title: Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest.

Leigh Eric Schmidt is professor of religion at Princeton University. Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment has just been published by Harvard University Press. He was interviewed by project director James Hudnut-Beumler and associate director Daniel Sack.

Return to the electronic journal page

Return to the project's home page