Jonathan Vanantwerpen Frequencies
Jonathan VanAntwerpen is a writer, editor, and presenter. Originally trained as a philosopher, he earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.
In his current role, Jonathan directs the Henry Luce Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program. Under Jonathan’s leadership, this grant program aims to promote innovative thinking about religion in multiple social and cultural contexts, expand and diversify critical intellectual engagement with religious ideas and spiritual practices in the United States and beyond, and promote public knowledge. Visit the foundation’s website to learn more about this work.
Jonathan VanAntwerpen on Frequencies: A Collaborative Genealogy Of Spirituality
Ten years ago this spring, we set out to produce Frequency, an experimental digital project that resulted from a partnership between The Immanent Frame and Killing the Buddha. Created in conjunction with the work of the Social Science Research Council’s Religion in the Public Sphere program, Frequencies was the brainchild of Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, who served as its co-curators and executive editors. It was originally intended as “a collaborative genealogy of spirituality.”
Like The Immanent Frame and other digital projects at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the idea for Frequency arose from 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 notion 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 to and drawn to talk about God” to join them in “build an electronic network”. Tower of Babel, a Talmudic cathedral of lost and found faith stories.
The guiding vision and intellectual practice of Killing the Buddha can be presented as a creative response to various efforts to separate religion and its vocabulary from the intellectual productions, both individual and collective, of those who write about it, a difficult and perhaps difficult task. Sisyphus. I remembered again when we started our work with Frequencies.
The Immanent Frame had been another collaborative experiment, coming online in 2007, between the release of Killing the Buddha in 2000 and The Huffington Post’s launch 10 years later of its religion section. Arianna Huffington herself contributed the first post for HuffPost Religion. “I believe that 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 some cognitive scientists who agree that we are all “hard on the sacred” (and many more, perhaps, who don’t), I don’t have a particular opinion on that subject. But I can say that in the formation and development of The Immanent Frame, initially a collective effort, we were not afraid to invite and publish the kind of intellectual work that, to borrow the words of one of our contributors, “does not secure its position as privileged standard in the face of the particularities of religion”.
In some ways, an outgrowth and extension of the efforts of The Immanent Frame and its transdisciplinary discursive community, Frequency began with its distinctive skepticism of what Arianna Huffington had called “the instinct for spirituality” and with an eloquent set of ambitions for think. Otherwise, to see spirituality “as a cultural technology, as a multifaceted reverberation, as a frequency in the ether of experience.”
“We begin at a time,” wrote Frequency’s co-curators, “when novelists wonder about the divine, psychological counsellors advertise themselves as spiritual counsellors, and researchers attempt to capture the ephemeral nature of spirituality through surveys. Spirituality abounds, though it’s not clear what it is. It resists classification even as it classifies people, its evaluators and its believers as objects of its power. Whatever seems hard to grasp, spirituality entrenches itself under the skin and seeps under the radar of statistical surveys. The Frequencies focuses on this abundance in an epic anthology of in-depth analysis.”
The invitation to contribute to Frequency had asked a deceptively simple question: “What do you think of when you think of spirituality?” what followed was a digital compendium that brought together an extraordinarily diverse range of essays and works of visual art, including writings on a wide range of topics, from John Cage to Beebe, Arkansas; Muhammad’s hair for The Dr Oz show. Each invited essay was accompanied by a visual artwork drawn from more than 350 submissions in response to an open call. When we launched on September 1, 2011, with an article on the enthusiasm of Amy Hollywood, we published 100 essays in 100 days (taking weekends off).
That fall, at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco, we hosted a panel on Frequencies, with presentations by Julie Byrne, Susan Harding, Ari Y. Kelman, and Jeffrey Kripal, and responses by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern. We were halfway through our planned publication cycle and had a small but committed following of regular readers and fellow travellers.
The day after the AAR event, we published David Walker’s essay on James Strang’s original letter of ecclesiastical appointment. In 1850, Strang was crowned king by a Mormon community on Beaver Island, Michigan. Having spent time on Beaver Island and visited a museum run by its historical society, I found Walker’s contribution particularly fascinating (and I look forward to the book Amy DeRogatis is writing about James Jesse Strang and his island community).
Walker’s essay was representative of the kind of writing that prompted the invitation from Frequency, 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 on Burning Man (“a quiet nexus of complex spiritual narratives”); Melani McAlister on practising Iyengar yoga (“I do yoga to calm my brain, not fill it with nonsense”); Paul Christopher Johnson on espresso and its machines (“The divine shot is near, Duration is imminent); Luís León on marijuana (“The production and consumption of marijuana have created an epic artistic and spiritual awakening”); Pamela Klassen on the grave of Max Weber (“cemeteries consist of zones of spiritual mingling…which can frighten even the most disillusioned minds”); Melissa Wilcox on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (“spirituality appears in the strangest places”). And so on abundance, the form and content of which not infrequently surprised even those who had asked the convincing question.
As Kathryn Lofton said a few years later, “We wanted to bring a little image of the humanities to his inbox. It was meant to be a little guerrilla. We wanted to give readers a quick, intense glimpse of a smart writer who is seriously struggling.” with something that perhaps not everyone thought was so serious.
As Lofton’s musings suggest, many of Frequency’s contributors were scholars in the humanities, often based primarily on academic institutions. But indeed, not all. Through our collaboration with Killing the Buddha, we also invite contributions from various freelance writers and artists, publishers, and journalists. Peter Catapano wrote on procrastination, Patton Dodd on Eugene Peterson, Peter Manseau on This American Life, Mary Valle on retirement, and Brook Wilensky-Lanford on The Whole Earth Catalog. Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, Subliminal Kid, gave us an article on spiritual influence, and Charles Bernstein shared a short reflection titled “theology.” “I am not a secular man,” Bernstein wrote, “but in moments of crisis, I turn to agnosticism for the comfort it gives me in freeing myself from superstition.”
Following the publication of our 100th and final essay, in which Nancy Levene criticized the terms of the project, Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern promised that Frequencies would “continue to exist as a cabinet of curiosities, an archive, and an interpretive launching pad for everyone.” that seeks to explore the meaning of spirituality at this time in the 21st century”.
The Immanent Frame then invited and published a series of critical reflections and responses to Frequency, including contributions from 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. Isn’t that the truth?
A few years later, the site’s original and signature domain, which John D. Boy had created, was hijacked by a self-described “growth hacker.” The site needed to find a new home. We realized something had gone wrong. I remember because teachers who had assigned Frequency assignments in their classes couldn’t find them online anymore. I had left the SSRC at the time, but thanks to our colleagues on the Council, the promise of Frequency’s co-curators has been kept, and the site continues its digital existence.
Nathan Schneider, who joined me and co-produced Frequencies (as part of a collective that also included John D. Boy, Emily Floyd, and Charles Gelman), recently commented on Twitter that the site may now seem a bit smaller than it appears. Looked like. . in our past imaginations (“kind of like the hallways in elementary school, I remember it being… bigger”). And yet, the essays and artwork continue to command attention. Berkeley artist Scott A. DeBie’s painting that accompanies Michael J. Gilmour’s essay on pets and surrounds its persuasive discursive stretch currently hangs on my daughter’s bedroom wall.