Listening Subjects, Rationality and Modernity

Anna Strhan

On a sunny September Sunday, I arrived early before the morning service at St John's, a large conservative evangelical church in London. David,[1] the rector, was up in the large, wooden carved pulpit at the front of the church, speaking through a wireless headset microphone to test the sound system that had recently been installed. 'That's too loud', he said to the sound technician, 'a bit quieter, more conversational. Most of the time, I'll be speaking like this, he said, 'but sometimes, I might be a bit louder', increasing his volume as he spoke, whilst the technician adjusted the volume to achieve the required 'conversational' tone.

Studies of Protestant practices have often focused on their asceticism, the ways in which the invisible soul has been elevated above the visible body. Yet, as Fenella Cannell notes, 'Christian doctrine in fact always also has this other aspect, in which the flesh is an essential part of redemption ... [T]his ambivalence exists not just in theory, but as part of the lived practice and experience of Christians' (2006: 7). When I began fieldwork at St John's, the critique church leaders expressed of forms of Christianity they described as 'ritualistic', 'sacramentalist' or 'emotional' led me at first to interpret this culture as marked by a pronounced dematerializing impulse. Over time however, I became more sensitive to the pragmatic concerns of members of the church about their own material practices and how changes in broader cultures of embodiment and media technologies impacted on their desire to be formed as 'listening' subjects who hear God speak. David's sensitivity to the precise volume of his voice amplified by the sound system indicates this pragmatic engagement with an acoustic 'aesthetics',[2] central to the formation of conservative evangelical subjectivities.

In this chapter, I engage with the question of what it means to 'listen' in modernity, drawing on sociological and anthropological theories of embodiment and ethnographic fieldwork at St John's. British conservative evangelicals have garnered increased public visibility in recent years due to their arguments that Christians are being marginalized and campaigns against gay marriage, abortion and the ordination of women and gay clergy, yet studies of their everyday religious lives are rare. I conducted fieldwork at St John's - a large conservative evangelical Anglican church considered by other evangelicals to be an influential representative of conservative evangelicalism - from February 2010 to August 2011.[3] Some members of this church were involved in these broader campaigns, and spoke of themselves as increasingly marginalized in British society, for example when David spoke of Britain as being increasingly shaped by an 'illiberal, intolerant, secularist fundamentalism' inhospitable to the public expression of faith. However more central to most members' self-identifications was their sense of themselves as 'distinctive' from those around them, as 'aliens and strangers in the world', and they related this to their sense of relationship with God. My analysis therefore focused on how this sense of relationship with God and related self-identification as distinctive were practically formed; central to this was their desire to become, in David's words, 'people who give ourselves to listen to Him'.[4]

Theorists of modernity have often argued that at least since the Enlightenment, vision has been the privileged means of knowing the world, with listening subordinated to seeing.[5] Although historians are wary of accounts that trace a generalized shift from aurality to ocularcentrism, it is now, as anthropologist Charles Hirschkind notes, 'widely recognized that the politics, ethics, and epistemologies that defined the Enlightenment project were deeply entwined with a set of assumptions regarding the relative value of the senses' (2006: 13). Whilst vision is predicated on a distance between the eye and the object of perception, listening bridges the gap between interior and exterior worlds, involving the self's 'immersion within a sound from without, an engulfment that threatens the independence and integrity that grounds the masculine spectatorial consciousness' (13).

The associations of listening with an understanding of religion that was suspect to enthusiasts of human autonomy can be seen, for example, in Ludwig Feuerbach's writing:

If man had only eyes, hands, and the senses of taste and smell, he would have no religion, for all these senses are organs of critique and scepticism. The only sense which, losing itself in the labyrinth of the ear, strays into the spirit or spook realm of the past and future, the only fearful, mystical, and pious sense, is that of hearing. (1967: 27-8, cited in Schmidt 2000: 250)

The very phenomenology of listening, implying receptivity and passivity, presented a danger to the rational autonomy of the modern subject. Yet modernity is, as Mellor and Shilling argue (1997), 'Janus-faced' in its cultures of embodiment, characterized not only by Enlightenment ideals of rationality and a Cartesian dualism privileging mind over matter, but also by 'another modernity: that of Schopenhauer's "senseless will", Nietzsche's "will to power", Baudelaire's flaneur, and the reassertion of sensuality in baroque culture' (131), a sensuality in which the ear is calibrated to modes of consumption and distraction afforded by new media forms. Focusing on what it means to listen within evangelicalism therefore opens up questions about how religious modes of embodiment are shaped by broader sensory hierarchies and the modes of sociality these afford. I begin by considering the place of 'listening' in modernity, drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau and Charles Hirschkind. I then describe the means through which conservative evangelicals seek to become 'listeners', and discuss the significance of rationality within this. I conclude by suggesting that focusing on techniques of listening connects the sociology of the body to analysis of piety and, following Turner (2011: 285), allows a way of drawing the approaches opened up by the sociology of the body into the concerns of mainstream sociology.

  • [1] The names of all informants, and of the church, have been changed.
  • [2] I follow Birgit Meyer in my use of the term 'aesthetics' here to refer to 'our total sensorial experience of the world and to our sensuous knowledge of it' (Meyer and Verrips 2008: 21).
  • [3] During this time, I attended two of the three weekly Sunday services. I also participated in two weekly Bible study groups, one for students and one for more established members of the congregation, and attended other church and social events with members of the church. I conducted more formal, open-ended interviews with 32 members of the church towards the end of the fieldwork.
  • [4] I use the gendered 'Him', 'He', 'His, etc. when referring to God throughout, as this was how members of St John's referred to God.
  • [5] See, for example, discussions in Buck-Morss (1991) and Levin (1993).
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