Tag Archive | The Ethical Soundscape

SO! Reads: Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism

SO! Reads3Calling devotees to prayer, preaching on the subway, broadcasted pre-recorded sermons from a moving car, organizing drum circles in the park, resounding church bells through the city – expressions of faith to some, a nuisance, or even a personal offense (or outright danger), to others. Must religion be so noisy? Must it also be so publicly noisy?

ROLReligious studies scholar Isaac Weiner portrays public loudness as but one of many exigencies of the religious worldview in his recent publication, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism (New York: New York University Press: 2014). Weiner argues that the substantive content of religious doctrine – moral claims, theological arguments, etc. – both constitutes and is constituted by how its ideas are given expression. This might seem unremarkable. However, the claim allows Weiner to re-frame religious pluralism as not only a “matter of competing values, truth claims, or moral doctrines, but of different styles of public practice, of fundamentally different ways of using body and space.” (200)

So, according to Weiner, yes: Some religious groups must be so noisy, and must be noisy publicly. If they weren’t, their religious beliefs and doctrines would be deprived of the expressive forms that imbue them with significance.

"Street Preacher" by Flickr user Tabitha Kaylee Hawk, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Street Preacher” by Flickr user Tabitha Kaylee Hawk, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Weiner is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. Weiner is not a card-carrying sound studies specialist. Nonetheless, his output is representative of a quickly accelerating interest about religion and spirituality within studies of sound and culture. Religion Out Loud is his first book, and builds from themes explored in his previous publications, including articles such as “Sound” (Material Religion 7, no. 1 [2011]: 108-115), “Sound and American Religions” (Religion Compass 3, no. 5 [September 2009]: 897-908), and “Displacement and Re-placement: The International Friendship Bell as a Translocative Technology of Memory” (Material Religion 5, no. 2 [July 2009]: 180-205). Forthcoming are several chapters and articles that closely relate to topics investigated in Religion Out Loud.

The text ranges from America’s colonial period through the early 2000s. It largely attends to legislative efforts seeking to circumscribe the practicing of what Weiner calls “religion out loud” – public, and perceivably exorbitant displays of sonic religiosity. On the other hand, Weiner also details the various ways in which religious practitioners have resisted legal containment. Weiner thus adds to an already copious literature about how contestations over sonic space reflect broader contestations over meaning and power, that includes texts such as Brandon Labelle’s Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (New York: Continuum, 2010), Karen Bijsterveld’s Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), and other religion-related work like Philip V. Bohlman’s “Music Inside Out: Sounding Public Religion in a Post-Secular Europe” (in Music, Sound and Space, ed. Georgina Born, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). This tension between the embodied practice and legal-discursive regulation of sonic spaces throws into relief what Weiner calls a “politics of religious sensation.” However, readers with an interest in the experiential dimensions of the “religious sensorium” should look elsewhere, perhaps the recent volume, Senses and Citizenship: Embodying Political Life, edited by Susanna Trnka (New York: Routledge, 2013). Religion Out Loud appeals more to readers with an interest in the political histories of religious rights and noise abatement policy, and the ways in which “religious sensation” has been regulated according to unstable conceptions of liberalism and pluralism in American jurisprudence.

"Preaching" by Flickr user Boston Public Library, CC BY 2.0

“Preaching” by Flickr user Boston Public Library, CC BY 2.0

In order to span such a long temporal trajectory (essentially the history of the United States!), Weiner anchors Religion Out Loud in three historically disparate case studies. Each is preceded by a chapter of historical and theoretical contextualization. This forces Weiner to rapidly chronicle decades of developments in noise abatement policy. Yet he does so with both scrupulousness and concision, leaving remarkably few holes left unfilled. This gives the reader the benefit of charting the long-term effects of the policy changes that Weiner more focusedly interrogates. His approach thus differs quite markedly from some other important sound/religious studies literature, such as Leigh Schmidt’s Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), which investigates a single historical period in more concentrated fashion.

From chapter one’s onset, I was struck by the impressive depth of archival research Weiner has infused into his arguments. As a result, Weiner’s more speculative conclusions – generally modest in scope – have no shortage of evidence, and are altogether convincing. In chapter one, for instance, Weiner details shifting perceptions of church bells in colonial and postbellum America, an area well tilled in sound studies by the likes of Alain Corbin (Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, trans. Martin Thom, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) and Richard Cullen Rath (How Early America Sounded, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003). Weiner furthers this conversation by revealing how religious sounds such as church bells – what had receded to the background of what R. Murray Schafer called the “historical soundscape” – faced unprecedented scrutiny as the symbolic status of noise began to change. Likewise, city governments challenged congregants’ rights to occupy acoustic territory. In the burgeoning clamor of the modern city, noise meant progress and prosperity, for some listeners, but, for others, the stylized noise of religion practiced “out loud” signified a kind of regressive primitivism. Noise thus occupied both sides of the evolutionist coin that Weiner suggests ideologically underpinned religious self-understandings of the time.

"St. Mark's Church Philadelphia" by Flickr user Library Company of Philadelphia

“St. Mark’s Church Philadelphia” by Flickr user Library Company of Philadelphia

Weiner further explores the progressive/primitive duality in his first case study – Harrison v. St. Marks of 1877– in which Weiner quite brilliantly unravels how both perspectives were articulated in legal discourse. According to Weiner, complainants challenged the long-presumed public-acoustic prerogatives of Philadelphia’s fashionable St. Mark’s Protestant Episcopal Church. The main takeaway from the chapter is that St. Marks’s complainants voiced a formulation of suitable, modern, and thus normative religious practice as “properly disentangled from various forms of materiality and mediation, carefully circumscribed and respectful of its bounds, interiorized and intellectualized, invisible and inaudible.” (60) From the complainants’ perspective, noisy religion signified backward, immature religion. The court sided with this position, treating church bells as it would any other “extraneous” public noise. Yet in so doing, it ironically reinforced the cultural dominance of Protestantism. That is to say, by silencing St. Mark’s bells, the ostensibly secularized legal system set a precedent that legitimated the “subjugation” of all forms of religious practice to “proper modes of acceptable piety” – including “religious ‘others’” who lacked the pervasive influence that Protestantism could exercise in the public and political spheres, including the courts. (74)

In the second section, Weiner shifts his focus from acoustic territorialization to noisy religiosity as a form of dissent. He details how noise abatement legislation in the early twentieth century harkened a “new regulatory regime” that suppressed the activities of religious practitioners for whom “making noise was not merely incidental to their work; it was their work” (80). The Salvation and Army and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Weiner shows, aggressively challenged norms of community outreach through provocative exhibitions of religious devotion in public spaces. However, while exercising freedoms of speech, religion, and public assembly, such groups turned unsuspecting citizens into “captive audiences,” and thus infringed upon rights to privacy. The style of practicing some liberties, as many scholars and critics have suggested, has throughout history limited the enjoyment of liberties by other parties.

"The Watchtower" by Flickr user Scott Kellum, CC BY-NC 2.0

“The Watchtower” by Flickr user Scott Kellum, CC BY-NC 2.0

Moreover, as Weiner rightly suggests in his second case study, Saia v. New York of 1946, civil liberties have always been carefully regulated by the state. Samuel Saia, a Jehovah’s Witness, drove around the city of Lockhart, NY, and used loudspeakers to broadcast inflammatory sermons from his car. He loudly exercised his first amendment rights through what Weiner calls “sound car religion.” Yet the city managed to treat the sermons’ noisiness as extraneous to Saia’s religion, rather than acknowledging the practice as partially constitutive of it. Lockhart’s noise abatement ordinance thus infringed upon his right to religious free exercise. To that end, Weiner repositions McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message,” framing religion as media, as opposed to religion and media as separable concepts. Saia spread God’s word, and in doing so loudly fulfilled a core tenet of the Witness creed.

Throughout the case study, Weiner critiques the “liberal inclusionary ideology” that has come to characterize the Judeo-Christian tradition of American jurisprudence. But he curiously softens his otherwise pointed critique at the end of the chapter. Saia ultimately won the case, yet the Witnesses’ devotional style gradually became unmarked in the ensuing years, as they seemed to assimilate voluntarily to normative expectations of religious devotion. As such, Weiner suggests that dissenters in general often find that they can “afford to quiet down once they feel that their voices have been heard.” (135) While it is “important not to exaggerate the coercive effects of American law,” I would have nonetheless appreciated a more critical take on how the legal system had its cake and ate it too – that is, how it satisfied the demands of the Witnesses and also managed to keep them quiet. Indeed, Weiner’s mild conclusion may unsettle those readers who enjoyed the previous three chapters of incisive and nuanced analysis.

"Carillon of Peter And Paul Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg" by Wikimedia user RuED, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Carillon of Peter And Paul Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg” by Wikimedia user RuED, CC BY-SA 3.0

In the last section, Weiner shows how a controversial 1990 Supreme Court decision – Employment Division v. Smith, spearheaded by Justice Antonin Scalia – enacted into law a conception of religiosity as interiorized, intellectualized, and privatized. It favored majoritarian notions of religious free exercise such that dissenting – or noisy – religious practice by minority religious subjects risked criminalization. As a result, the granting of religious exemption from preclusive noise ordinances was left not to the courts to decide, but rather to the political arena. Potentially disruptive religious free exercise was no longer constitutionally protected. It now required approval from a political body. The last case study, then, does not deal with legal proceedings. Rather, it examines the public debates and media spectacles that surrounded al-Islāh Islamic Center’s petition to broadcast the call to prayer in Hamtramck, MI, in 2004. Al-Islāh was ultimately granted exemption from the local noise ordinance. But over the course of an exasperating six months of debate, Weiner demonstrates, formerly unvoiced identity politics that residents invested into the city’s sonic territories were brought to light in highly contentious ways.

Weiner identifies three rhetorical-discursive tropes that various parties used to debate changing the city’s noise ordinance to accommodate the call to prayer. One of them, pluralism, will likely be of most interest to readers (the others are exclusivism and privatism). The pluralist debaters envisioned the public sphere as a neutral space in which the particularities of religious difference were accommodated, but only according to an ideal of “agonistic respect.” Against this idealistic backdrop, pluralists interpreted the call to prayer not as broadcasters intended it to be heard, but rather as a symbol for the “potential for interfaith harmony.” (186) Weiner argues that the hearings refigured – effaced, even – the call’s meaning, since the Muslim community’s political recognition was achievable only by way of the discourse of pluralist forms of tolerance. In other words, if pluralist discourse takes the form by which Muslim faith can express itself, then Muslim faith itself risks effacement as a result of such “accommodation.”

"Muezzin" by Flickr user colin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Muezzin” by Flickr user colin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Surprisingly, Weiner largely omits Muslim perspectives from the chapter. How did pluralist assimilation change the meanings of religious practice as the Muslim community saw it? How did the Muslims feel they had to modify their rhetoric of self-representation? Moreover, how did Muslims perceive – or perhaps even challenge – displays of Judeo-Christian devotion? Perhaps pursuing such questions exceeds the scope of Weiner’s project, as could the inclusion of many other issues that readers might think warrant consideration. For instance, Weiner gestures toward the sonic interpellation of Muslim and Christian subjectivity, but does not pursue the topic. Further analysis could productively complement recent work on religious acoustemology such as Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), Andrew J. Eisenberg’s, “Islam, Sound and Space: Acoustemology and Muslim Citizenship on the Kenyan Coast” (in Music, Sound and Space, ed. Georgina Born, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Jeanette S. Jouli’s “Beat-ification: British Muslim Hip Hop and Ethical Listening Practices,” and Ashon Crawley’s “Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices.” Additionally, Weiner glosses over counterculture in the 1960s. How might a treatment of the Nation of Islam, for but one example, complicate his conclusions about the accommodation of religion practiced “out loud” in the period?

That notwithstanding, Weiner accomplishes his proposed task with great nuance, insight, and lucidity. Religion Out Loud skillfully unites archival research with ethnographic methods, a history of sound with a history of ideas. It will appeal to those with an interest in the “politics of sensation,” as Weiner suggests, and even more so to readers with interests in the contradictions of noise abatement policy, the legal history of religious rights, and ways in which they have contributed to religious soundscapes in the United States. And of course, it provides an emphatic—and important—affirmative to that longstanding question “must religion be so noisy?”

Jordan Musser is a graduate student in the musicology program at Cornell University. He has a primary interest in the social practice of musical aesthetics, with a focus on roles of the avant-garde in popular culture. Using theoretical frameworks from media, performance, and cultural studies, his recent projects have investigated virtuosity in 19th-century Europe, musical reenactment, the sonic imaginary, and politics of musical mythologization. In 2012, Jordan earned the M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago. Before arriving at Cornell, he was an editorial assistant with Grove Music Online, and held teaching positions from the early childhood to high school levels.

Featured image: “Microphone inside Al-Azhar Mosque” by Flickr user John Kannenberg, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Beat-ification: British Muslim Hip Hop and Ethical Listening Practices

As the beat drops for our latest Live from the SHC postCornell’s Society for the Humanities Fellow Jeanette Jouili hits us with some (social) science, sharing her ethnographic research on Muslim Hip Hop in pious communities in Britain.  To give earlier installments by Damien KeaneTom McEnaneyJonathan Skinner, and Eric Lott another spin, click here. Next week, the needle comes to the end of the groove for the “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politicscrew as Society Director Tim Murray takes us on home. Good thing Sounding Out! can’t stop, won’t stop. . . –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)

Can Hip Hop sound Islamic? And conversely, can one listen to Hip Hop in a Muslim way? What is at stake when a contemporary musical form like Hip hop (or rock or punk) is introduced into the catalogue of recognized Islamic music genres? What impact do these genres have on longstanding Islamic traditions of ethical listening? In the process of creating new genres of Islamic music, which have not been previously connected to Muslim music traditions, norms are negotiated, border zones are walked upon, limits explored. At the same time, these Islamic music practitioners, even those who push established artistic limits within the Islamic movement, nevertheless intend to uphold the initial ethical project.

Considering music as producing sensual pleasure or extreme emotional excitement, Muslim scholars throughout the ages have been concerned with its capacity to hinder the exercise of reason and self-mastery as well as with its promises for spiritual benefit.  Roughly, one can say that those who have opposed the practice of listening to music feared that music’s force arouses worldly passions which distract from the remembrance of God, whereas those who were favourable toward this practice – generally speaking these voices came from thinkers and practitioners of the Islamic mystical traditions  –highlighted music’s capacity to impel the believer to seek the spiritual world while simultaneously being attentive to its potential dangers. Among these two sides, there is a wide range of theological opinions, from those that prohibit any kind of musical singing (considering Qu’ran recitation and poetry recitation not in terms of the category music) as well as all musical instruments, to those that allow for singing and certain musical instruments (i.e. drums permitted, stroke instruments not), and those who allow for all the array of musical expressions (given that specific moral conditions are fulfilled).

If the evolution of Islamic music toward the incorporation of modern music traditions has already been controversial within many Islamic revival contexts, it is not exaggerated to claim that Hip hop, at least in the UK, is probably the most contested and is until now the most marginalized of the different music genres within the Islamic popular culture scene. Today’s British Muslim Hip Hop is an occasion to think about the struggles of young Muslims to incorporate a music tradition that epitomizes black music culture like no other contemporary genre into the larger frame of Islamic music in Britain, which has been largely associated with South Asian and Middle Eastern music traditions.

Rakin and Ismael of Hip Hop Duo Mecca 2 Medina, Image Courtesy of M2M

Muslim Hip Hop takes many different sonic and stylistic directions in the UK. Some artists advance their Muslim identity in the context of religion and others take a more political standpoint; many blend both to varying degrees.  What connects these diverse orientations is the critique of contemporary mainstream commercial Hip Hop. Many Muslim Hip Hop fans and artists see this music as little more than a glorification of materialism and sexism. The thriving Muslim Hip Hop scene in the UK, which is deeply influenced by Afro-Caribbean converts to Islam, clearly situates itself in continuity with early Hip Hop, as defined by black awareness, political messages, and an underlying Islamic identity. Their own engagement in Islamic Hip hop is thus seen as holding true to the ‘authentic’ Hip hop traditions by purifying a corrupted Hip hop and renewing and reconnecting it to its Islamic identity.

While Aki Nawaz’ FUN-DA-MENTAL were Muslim Hip Hop pioneers in early nineties British hip hop, it was notably Mecca 2 Medina which opened the doors for Muslim rappers in the reticent U.K. Muslim community. Currently, the Mozambique-born rapper Mohammed Yahya, the female rap duo Poetic Pilgrimage, the sisters from Pearls of Islam, Muslim Belal, and Rakin Niass (formerly of Mecca 2 Medina)  headline many urban Muslim cultural events in Britain. Lowkey and Jaja Soze are two well-established names in the UK Hip hop scene who are also present within the more subcultural Muslim scene.

Lowkey, Image by Flickr User The Girl 78

The Islamic Hip hop scene in Great Britain struggles to find a way to bring the tradition of Hip Hop in line with Islamic traditions, molding it to conform to Islam’s ethics of listening and sonic practices. Hip Hop can be especially problematic (from a certain Islamic point of view) because danceability is usually one of its prime objectives. The sensual dance style instigated by Hip Hop is notably achieved through amplified bass and repetitive beats that often drown the vocals.  British Muslim Hip hop artists emphasize, however, that it is not so much the beats, but the spoken word art that connects Hip Hop to the sonic-linguistic practices of Islam’s pronounced oral tradition. A minority of rappers (for instance, Muslim Belal) adhere to a specific Islamic interpretation according to which music instruments are forbidden, and therefore use no instrumentals, only human voices as background music. But the large majority of Muslim artists, including those who are outspokenly religious, do use instrumentation. Yet, a fine line seems to exist where beats begin transmuting into “nightclub” sounds. While neither clearly defined, nor necessarily articulated by the artists themselves, Muslim artists nonetheless avoid this musical point of no return so as not to marginalize the spoken word. Jaja Soze’s “Just Like Me” is a good example of such sonic practice. Soze plans to do exclusively spoken word in the future.

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Notably, according many Muslim Hip Hop artists in the UK, Hip Hop invokes important similarities with forms of recited or sung poetry, practices which were so cherished in the early Islamic community. For all these artists, reconciling Islam with Hip hop means recentering the spoken art form by sonically emphasizing the voice and the words. Thus, Islamic Hip hop is stylistically related to spoken word poetry, which frequently critiques the camouflaging of Hip hop lyrics behind beats. The lyrical content is also reflective of an Islamic ethic, often weaving explicitly pious Islamic themes with politically and socially conscious lyrics. Racism, Islamophobia, Neo-Liberalism and Imperialism in the age of the Global War on Terror are constant themes, as are critiques of the gang violence faced by minority communities in England’s major cities and cultural practices connected to the countries of origins of Muslim immigrants. “Silence is Consent,” from Poetic Pilgrimage, a female Hip Hop and Spoken Word duo and one of the few Muslim female Hip Hop artists in the UK highlights such socially conscious lyrics.

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Lowkey’s lyrics in “Terrorist?” are an especially strident  critique of the War on Terror:

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Far from constituting a vital unit with the lyrics (as is otherwise commonly assumed for Hip hop), beats and musical instrumentation are often treated as dispensable in Muslim Hip Hop. Even the artists who use instrumentation regularly perform their pieces a cappella on events that do not allow music instruments; many artists even offer their CDs in two versions: one with and one without instrumentation. Also, many artists switch easily from spoken poetry to Hip hop (the same lyrics can be performed, depending on the demands, as a spoken word or a Hip hop/rap piece), as they consider spoken poetry to be an intrinsic part of the broader Hip hop culture.

Such considerations are in line with Islamic traditions of listening, with their strong concern for listening to the voice and to the word. Listening to voices and words that carry spiritual and sacred contents or disseminate more broadly positive messages is reasoned through the paradigmatic experience of Qur’an recitation. The invocation of “beautification” (translated literally from the Arabic term tajweed, which refers to Qur’an recitation) has become a common trope among the British Muslim Hip Hop artists I have interviewed in order to defend their artistic activity (whether pertaining to voice and instruments or only to their vocal skills). As in Quran recitation, “beautification” is employed here as a tool to facilitate the reception and to reinforce the affective impact of the word.  “Clarity” by Rakin Niass, who started rapping with the British rap group Cash Crew and is one of the founding members of Mecca 2 Medina, clearly promotes a moral life style.

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Hip hop, if it wants to be considered  legitimate within an Islamic context, must enable an ethical listening. Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape (2006) argues that listening in Islamic traditions, is “not a spontaneous and passive receptivity but a particular kind of action itself, a listening that is a doing” (34). It represents a form of active listening that involves both the intellect and the senses, promoting a specific way of being in the world. Consequently, I consider contemporary genres like Muslim Hip Hop, however modernized it might sound, does still bear the imprint of earlier da’wa traditions, encouraging an  virtuous life for listeners, and cultivating necessary ethical and political sensibilities through the ear.

These new musical styles are not only reflective of new sensibilities and subjectivities, they are, as notes Jean-Luc Nancy in Listening (2007), productive of subjectivity. It is for this reasoning that one should not underestimate the significance of the evolving music genres within the Islamic revival movement. Listening carefully to them will therefore provide crucial keys for understanding the possibilities for the development of specific ethical projects within a global mass culture.

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Featured Image Credit: Poetic Pilgrimage, B Supreme 2011 © 2011 Paul Hampartsoumian

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Jeanette S. Jouili is a 2011-2012 fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities.  She has also held a Postdoctoral position at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at Amsterdam University where she did research on the (pious) Islamic cultural and artistic scene in France and the UK. In 2007, she received her PhD jointly from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris (France) and the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder (Germany). Jeanette has published in various journals including Feminist Review, Social Anthropology, and Muslim World. She is currently completing a book manuscript based on the material of her PhD dissertation provisionally titled Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in France and Germany. Jeanette’s research and teaching interests include Islam in Europe, Islamic revivalism, secularism, pluralism, popular culture, moral and aesthetic practices, and gender.

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