The original, the copy and the ontological distance of fidelity

“There is an unbroken chain from the sound in the living room to the original sound as recorded.” In other words, analog recording technologies have an authentic relation with the “original” behind the recording because…sound bears a causal relation to the analog recording.  Digital recording, meanwhile, converts sound into a series of zeros and ones to be reconstructed as sound at the moment of reproduction.  For Rothenbuhler and Peters, digital recording is, therefore, more ontologically distant from live performance than analog recording.  While their thesis that phonography is ontologically different than digital sound recording is certainly a fascinating proposition, their definition of phonography assumes that recording captures sounds as they exist out in the world.  In essence, they argue that mediation is an ontological problem brought about by the technology of sound reproduction itself.  In contrast, this chapter argues that mediation is a cultural problem and only one possible way of describing sound reproduction…the “original” sound embedded in the recording – regardless of whether the process is “continuous” – certainly bears a causal relationship with the reproduction, but onlybecause the original is itself an artifact of the process of reproduction.  Without the technology of reproduction, the copies do not exist, but, then, neither would the originals.  A philosophy of mediation ontologizes sound reproduction too quickly.  Therefore, a notion of sound fidelity based on a fundamental distinction between original and copy will most likely bracket the question of what constitutes the originality itself.  In emphasizing the products of reproduction, it effaces the process.  (Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Production. Durham: Duke University Press. Chapter 5, “The Social Genesis of Sound Fidelity.” 218-19)


Extract from an interview with J. Z. Smith

SS: You mentioned that your teaching style is peculiar. Can you describe what you mean by that?

JS: Oh, I don’t know. Well, first of all, given the range of religions I teach, the issue of where I stand in relation to them is moot. And most people who teach religion have a clear relationship with the religions. I cannot. Obviously, most of them are dead, I would get in trouble with the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] if I sacrificed a bull ox to Zeus. I have a friend who recently died, but he actually decided to show kids what a sacrifice looks like, so he sacrificed a lamb at Easter time. “We talk about it so much—here’s what it looks like!” Half the class puked, half the class had angry letters from mommy and daddy. But he did demonstrate that it’s not just a metaphor. It’s a messy and not altogether pleasant process. Since [then] we’ve converted it entirely into an economic question. I ask students the meaning of sacrifice, and they always start talking about “mommy and daddy sacrificing so I could go to college.” We’ve been at war for four years, and I haven’t heard one person yet say some soldier sacrificed themselves. That language is gone. It’s entirely economic. One kid whose name I sent to the Development Office said sacrifice was joining a golf club for the four years that he was here, so he would have money to go to Europe when he graduated. I thought Development ought to keep an eye on that kid. I rarely do that, but I turned him in. That’s just his notion, but it’s the same idea—it’s economic: “I give up something now to get a better thing in the future.” Well that’s a shitty theory of sacrifice. But that’s the kind of thing I try to do, I try to make students answer questions, and not in class, but in writing.

On the whole I don’t teach seminars. I used to teach a lot of seminars. It’s a young man’s game. Some people like [U of C Classics professor James] Redfield can keep it up. I can’t; it’s very tiring. To really keep track of what everybody’s saying is like a computer dating service—”You should really talk to him,” or “Come on, stop talking!”—it’s like conducting an orchestra. And I can’t do it any longer. So I mostly talk. And I let them talk back in writing basically. And sometimes I’ll identify who asked something—it depends on how many people are in the room. If there’s 20, I’ll identify them. If there’s 80, I won’t. I try, I suppose, very hard—someone once said religion is a topic you have to un-teach before you teach, because in some sense, everybody comes in with an idea in their head, so they’re obviously sure that they know something about it. Your job is to suggest, without being incredibly in their face, that they don’t. So you have to take it apart, respectfully, but nonetheless take it apart. And sometimes you try juxtaposing it to something, you sometimes try asking an awful long question about it, sometimes you play dumb. Sometimes you do some history, say, “You know, it wasn’t always like you just said,” and there’s a reason behind why you’re saying what you’re saying, because something happened that caused people to talk like that. No one until Charles Darwin ever knew the Bible had no errors. No one in the history of Christianity has ever claimed until Christianity that the Bible had no errors, so why suddenly did they have to announce the Bible had no errors, at the beginning of the 20th century? It’s not an internal religious movement, it’s what they perceive as an external threat. Of course after that you drop the second shoe, which is, the sentence continues: “It’s only an error in the original autograph.” Well, fat chance you and I are ever going to see that one! And fat chance there ever was one, incidentally. The whole damn thing, written down in the same handwriting, all at once? No way. So you ask questions. That’s what you do. And most religions that are interesting spend a lot of time asking questions.

The difference I think is when religion is left alone to ask questions, they can actually be far more daring than I can be in a classroom. And usually people who ask questions are fairly comfortable with their religion. They ask the craziest—I mean I wouldn’t dare ask some of these questions. But they’re never going to leave, because the answer to that question—that’s who they are, and they just want to find out more about it. And if it leads them to things that make them say, “My God, yuck,” they’re still not going to say, “So, tomorrow I’m going to join some other group.” Whereas when you deal with a mixed audience, when you deal with somebody else’s faith, it gets tricky.

I loved teaching Self, Culture, and Society. It was I think my favorite teaching I’ve done here. And I would come in the winter quarter when they did religion, with Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, all those good people. And one year we read a book about education by Derek Bok and another former president of another university, called something like The Shape of the River, and it was an argument basically for the educational requirement for diversity. It was the book the University of Michigan used before the Supreme Court to make its argument about what Republicans like to call quotas. They’re targets. A quota means you have to reach it. A target means you try, and there’s a big difference, and they know damn well there’s a big difference—anyway, that’s neither here nor there. It’s remarkable because since they were the president of Princeton and the president of Harvard, they got access to everybody in the business and they got access to everybody’s files. And so they were able to give us longitudinal surveys of attitudes over a 20-, 30-year period. Alumni associations have polls, Harvard has a continual poll that they bother people with until they die. Some other places do the same thing. And they tried to summarize—and I was fascinated by a discrepancy, it seemed to me, in two questions. They said, “Do you think it is important to go to school with people of other cultures?” And I don’t care what population you were looking at, the answer was always in the high nineties. Old, young, black, white, rich, poor—not so poor, for the surveys these places were doing—but still, everyone said, “Yes, it’s important educationally to go to school with someone from different cultures.”

But 150 pages later, they said, “Do you think it’s important to go to school with someone of different beliefs?” Thirty-eight percent was the highest “yes” on that one. I looked at that. I said, “You know, I don’t consider my classroom a zoo where I have to have a specimen of every animal. So clearly what I want is I want people from different places because they bring with them different beliefs. So what the hell is the difference between those two?” As interviewers sometimes do, they reword the same question and ask it. I asked Bok, who I know, and he said, “No, no, that wasn’t it at all.” He hadn’t noticed the discrepancy. Well I said, “You’re no God damn use, I’ll ask my students.” They’re the ones who presumably fill out things like this, so I asked them. And they thought I was crazy to think there was a contradiction. First of all for them the word belief means only religious. I’d never quite realized this before. They don’t have beliefs about science, or beliefs about Obama or beliefs about War and Peace. They only have beliefs about religion. If you say “what do you think about…” that’s not beliefs! So somehow beliefs isn’t about thinking about, first of all; that’s the first thing I learned from my students.

Secondly, though we had read Clifford Geertz’s arguments, which tell you that culture, science, everything is a matter of belief, they obviously didn’t believe him. And that pissed me off, because I’d just given out some As for their reading of Clifford Geertz. And now they’re telling me religion is the only thing you could believe in. All right. Now I’m beginning to catch on, aha. Well if they all read it that way, yeah I guess I see, but still. Didn’t they know different beliefs were going to come with all these different cultures, even if it’s religion? I thought it was fascinating and horrifying—the students weren’t horrifying but it was…. If there was someone from some place else, if there was someone from India, I could go to their house, I could like their food, I could like the samosas and go home. Or I could go to an ethnic fair and enjoy all the different—and that’s a zoo!—all the different dances, foods, costumes, and all of that, and I go home. If I like someone else’s religion, I have to leave and convert. I can’t go home. And I listened to that, and I thought, “My God. Your choice is to be a tourist or to be a convert, there’s nothing in between.” There’s a whole world in between! You don’t have to run fast through a museum from Greek art through French impressionism, watching your clock because you have to go to a natural history museum in a couple hours. You don’t have to do that. There’s other things you could do. You could slow down a little bit. But you also don’t have to become an apostle—there’s a lot of room in between. And that really got me all reanimated about this business. I was quite struck—and I suspect they were telling me much the same things from the minds of the [surveyed] people, that explains the gap.

I thought that was quite amazing. So the question is, how can you look, like you look at a museum at something, look at it, without having to run to something else right away, but without saying—I’ve seen very few paintings where I’d like to live in what I see, but it doesn’t stop you from looking at them for a while, trying to figure out, “What the hell’s going on here, how did they do that?” You know, all the questions you ask yourself. The same kind of thing should somehow happen in the world of beliefs, even religious beliefs.

The Fleeting

Although I’d prefer to just throw these videos up I think their subject deserves contextualization: This is a thoughtsickle on the relationship between the temporary and the permanent, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ academics and the world they hold themselves above yet claim to write about the essence of in some sort of timeless insight into the nature of human existence. The tension between the temporary and the timeless and opposition of permanent human nature and temporary relevance, is interesting in contrast to someone whose permanent legacy is work that embraces the fashionable and the seasonal, yet is striking for its humanity, presence, and insightfulness into what may be human nature- or existence itself.

‘One of the strongest criticisms you can levy on an academic is to call their work fashionable’ – paraphrased from the Little Red Schoolhouse acclaimed academic writing program at UChicago

‘Fitting one’s work into anthropology is often tricky- does your study have relevance beyond the current trend? And what does it mean to make the topic into a subcategory, which has sometimes sunk the topic and people’s then boxed-in reputations and careers with them. We’re just getting over a time when it was fashionable to compare the global and the local- all people were talking about was the global versus the local in various topics and places all over the world. But at the time, it was what you had to do if you wanted funding. Before that it was [I forgot] and now it’s [I inconveniently forgot]‘ – poor paraphrasing of a conversation with Professor S. Scott

1) In Flower

2) Fall?

3) Ice Pack

4) Wistful

Four (un-embedable and therefore self-sourcing) excerpts from the work of the poorly photographic, yet marvelous street photographer Bill Cunningham

In Contrast to the Scholar: Through the Photographer’s Lens

From the photography blog,, by Justin Kern.  The most recent post is on how to improve one’s photography.

“All photographs are indeed lies: they are lies that we use to tell a truth.”

“Let go of the idea that your photographs should represent the real world perfectly, embrace the idea that your photographs should communicate the emotional state of a person, place or event to your audience.”

Briefly On History and Religion

Hi all.  With respect to the mission of this blog, I do not intend to editorialize here, but I would like to take this moment to provide a few introductory words.  Let me begin with expressing how excited I am to be involved in this collaborative effort, and I really dig the ideas and intentions in producing this space of sharing knowledge.  Well, thats it.

I wish to share an excerpt from Bruce LIncoln’s recent book, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions.  For a bit of preliminary context, Lincoln is a Professor at the University of Chicago, and his work arguably defies basic categorization, as he moves throughout conducting historical research of religions, as well as employing a critical anthropological approach in his studies.  This recent book is a collection of essays, involving case studies from across the world and range from the contemporary to the deep past, as he attempts to provide a framework for a critical approach to the study of religions.  This portion I have selected is the entire first chapter; it is less than 3 pages.

Theses On Method

(1)  The conjunction of that joins the two nouns in the disciplinary ethnonym “History of Religions” is not neutral filler.  Rather, it announces a proprietary claim and a relation of encompassment: History is the method and Religion is the object of study.

(2)  The relation between the two nouns is also tense, as becomes clear if one takes the trouble to specify their meaning.  Religion, I submit, is that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.  History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.

(3)  History of religions is thus a discourse that resists and reverses the orientation of that discourse with which it concerns itself.  To practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline’s claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, communities, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.

(4)  The same destabilizing and irreverent questions one might ask of any speech act ought to be posed of religious discourse.  The first of these is Who speaks here? — that is, what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text, whatever its putative or apparent author.  Beyond that, To what audience?  In what immediate and broader context?  Through what system of mediations?  With what interests?  And further, Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience?  What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should happen to succeed?  Who wins what, and how much?  Who, conversely, loses?

(5)  Reverence is a religious and not a scholarly virtue.  When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the demands of the latter ought to prevail.

(6)  Many who would not think of insulating their own or their parents’ religion against critical inquiry still afford such protection to other people’s faiths, via a stance of cultural relativism.  One can appreciate their good intentions while recognizing a certain displaced defensiveness, as well as the guilty conscience of Western imperialism.

(7)  Beyond the question of motives and intentions, cultural relativism is predicated on the dubious–not to say fetishistic–construction of “cultures” as if they were stable and discrete groups of people defined by the stable and discrete values, symbols, and practices they share.  Insofar as this model stresses continuity and integration of timeless groups, whose internal tensions and conflicts, turbulence and incoherence, permeability and malleability are largely erased, it risks becoming a religious and not a historic narrative: the story of a transcendent ideal threatened by debasing forces of change.

(8)  Those who sustain this idealized image of culture do so, inter alia, by mistaking the dominant fraction (sex, age group, class, and/or caste) of a given group for the group or “culture” itself.  At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions favored and propagated by the dominant fraction for those of the group as a whole (e.g. when texts authored by Brahmins define “Hinduism,” or when the statements of male elders constitute “Nuer religion”).  Scholarly misrecognitions of this sort replicate the misrecognitions and misrepresentations of those the scholars privilege as their informants.

(9)  Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought to probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other.

(10)  Understanding the system of ideology that operates in one’s own society is made difficult by two factors: (a) one’s consciousness is itself a product of that system, and (b) the system’s very success renders its operations invisible, since one is consistently immersed in and bombarded by its products that one comes to mistake them (and the apparatus through which they are produced and disseminated) for nothing other than “nature.”

(11)  The ideological products and operations of other societies afford invaluable opportunities to the would-be student of ideology.  Being initially unfamiliar, they do not need to be denaturalized before they can be examined.  Rather, they invite and reward critical study, yielding lessons one can put to good use at home. 

(12)  Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as “reductionism.”  This charge is meant to silence critique.  The failure to treat religion “as religion”–that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status–may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.

(13)  When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interests in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths,” “truth claims,” and “regimes of truth,” one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.  In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of imported goods).  None, however, should be confused with scholarship.

Lincoln, Bruce

2012  Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions.  University of Chicago Press: Chicago, p. 1-3.

An open invitation to ‘sense politics’

This is a collective reading, hearing, and listening journal, a chronicle of passages, words and expressions, images both still and moving, acoustics, and memoranda towards unimagined futures waiting to be discovered.

I will share some visions, masquerading as guidelines if you may, on how this space could be used:

1. You come across a passage, image[s], sequence[s] in a film, sounds or a combination that you, for some reason, would like to extract and share it on thoughtsickle.

2. Log in to wordpress, compose and submit a new post with only the extract. List the source of your chosen extract at the end of your post.

3. Try to keep your reasons to yourself, if possible, unless introductory, biographical, or other forms of commentary are in someway vital to your extract.

That’s it, truly. That’s all there is to thoughsickle. There are, as you are already aware of, many academic blogs offering a range of opinions on several fields of thought. I do not want thoughtsickle to be a space for us to comment on the extracts we choose to share, however witty, insightful, crass, condescending and effusive it may be. Some commentary, as we all have come to experience, is inevitable and should be filed under the comments category of the respective post.