Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In Sounding Islam, one of your primary arguments is that anthropologists of religion should focus more attention on the importance of sound and sonic atmospheres in the study of embodied religion. What originally motivated you to focus this project on the role of sound in religious communities?
Patrick Eisenlohr: In the recent material and media turn in the study of religion, the sonic tends to be rather marginal compared to work on the visual and visual cultures. But there is more to the focus on the sonic than merely redressing this obvious imbalance. There is, above all, the privileged link between the sonic and the emotive and affective. Saying this, I do not want to set up a binary contrast with the visual along the lines of what Jonathan Sterne has called a Christian “audio-visual litany.” But the privileged link of the sonic to the emotive and affective cannot easily be dismissed. This is because the sonic implicates the body, or to be precise, the felt-body, what is called the Leib in German, in a most comprehensive way, as sonic events can not only be registered by the hearing apparatus, but potentially the entire body, its flesh. In parts of sound studies, the sonic, vibrational phenomena that transmit energy through a medium in ways that very often extend beyond the acoustically perceivable, have been equated with affect. This ties into longstanding questions about the proverbial power of music to profoundly affect people in ways that often seem ineffable. Without attention to the sonic, the study of religion would be oddly incomplete. Finally, for anthropologists, the sonic, especially as atmospheric, is relevant for many other fields beyond religion. One only has to think of the present political moment, where powerful moods and felt currents are reshaping politics and public spheres across the world, while deliberation and appeals to enlightened self-interest seem so irrelevant in so many places.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout this book, you develop a theory of sonic atmospheres that accounts for the different socio-cultural factors that influence whether or not one’s body is likely to respond to a particular sonic stimulus, making a clear distinction between understandings of sound as affect versus atmosphere. For example, you describe how Mauritian Muslims of the Ahl-e Sunnat tradition respond to na‘t performance in a positive way, feeling as if they are transported to Medina by the sound, whereas Deobandi- or Salafi-oriented Mauritian Muslims respond to na‘t negatively and do not experience the same feelings or affective responses. Can you talk a bit more about why you chose to focus on the analytic of sonic atmospheres and how you anticipate this analytic being useful for the anthropological study of religion in other contexts?
Patrick Eisenlohr: Thank you, I am glad you asked this question. Distinguishing atmospheres from affect is important. Unlike affect in the Deleuzian genealogy that dominates understandings of affect in anthropology, atmospheres do not categorically operate below the threshold of consciousness. They are also highly meaningful and not “autonomous” in Massumi’s sense, yet they speak to the same concerns about the movement of energy through and between bodies and the need to grasp what cannot be discursively specified as affect theory does. Atmospheres, whether sonic or in other modalities provide a bridge across the chasm that separates affect from sociocultural mediations and forms, therefore they are relevant to many other contexts that anthropologists study, far beyond what is commonly understood to be religion. To return to the example you just mentioned, sonic atmospheres, such as those generated by a voice, exert suggestions of movement on the felt-bodies of those they envelop. They do not just provoke feelings, seen from the vantage point of the neo-phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz such atmospheres themselves are feelings extended into space. But atmospheres can also be merely observed, as the Deobandis or Salafis you mentioned are likely to do, while the Ahl-e Sunnat devotee will probably be seized by them. By locating feelings outside human subjects, an analytic of atmospheres addresses the movement of energy between and through bodies, but also allows for sociocultural mediations to influence what stance subjects take to atmospheric forces, sonic or otherwise.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: I am fascinated by the spectrogram and waveform diagrams that you include in chapters five and six. You mention that you were motivated to include these partly as a result of your training in linguistic anthropology, where formal analysis is typically paired with discursive analysis. What was it like collecting these audio samples and working with this type of data? Can you talk a bit more about your methodology here?
Patrick Eisenlohr: In order to do justice to sound as a separate mode of knowledge and meaning-making, it is important to provide other forms of access to it than discourse. This is one of the main reasons why I used the spectrograms. They give a different sense of the sonic dynamics and movements that make up na‘t recitation. Like discourse, these visual representations of sonic events also have inherent limits in coming to terms with the sonic. They captures sonic movements in a very striking way, but the movements in three-dimensional space they visualize are not the same as the suggestions of movement enacted by sonic movement from a phenomenological perspective. My interlocutors directed me to the parts of na‘t recitals they found most powerful and emotionally compelling, often expressing this through metaphors of travel and spatial displacement. I decided to complement their verbal descriptions of the power of a na‘t reciter’s voice with the perspective on auditory cultures they afford with the spectrograms and the analysis of pitch, volume, timbre, and reverb the spectrograms and waveforms allow. This was inseparable from the analysis of the technologically amplified, modified and reproduced voices, since most examples of what my interlocutors considered a particularly “moving” voice also included its media-technological shaping. Comparing the verbal description and formal analysis of vocal sound in this context helped me to make sense of one through the other in ways that an exclusive focus on either verbal characterization or the formal analysis of sonic events would not have allowed.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: You discuss how media play a very important role in the reception and performance of na’t throughout this book. In chapter three, for example, you emphasize how small media like CDs, DVDs, and books work to enable transnational connections between Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent and Mauritius. What changes have you observed over time in the way na‘t recordings are distributed and shared? Do social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube, or other internet-based platforms, play a significant role in na‘t performance communities today?
Patrick Eisenlohr: The story is quite familiar. In the late 1990s, I still encountered the use of audiocassettes with na‘t collections, which were quickly supplanted by audio-CDs in the early 2000s, and finally by mp3 files in the last ten or twelve years. A newer phenomenon is the popularity of videos of na‘t recitals. Unlike in India, cheap low-grade video CDs never really played an important role in Mauritius, DVDs were more popular, and videos streamed via the internet on mobile devices have dominated in the last 7 to 8 years. In the meantime, social media like YouTube and Facebook have come to play a huge role, performances are not just routinely recorded but now also shared online. According to what my interlocutors have told me, the visits and live performances of Indian and Pakistani na‘t khwan played a decisive role in making the genre more popular in Mauritius, not just the availability of imported cassettes and audio-CDs. These visiting na‘t khwan in turn inspired the emergence Mauritian na‘t khwan. In at least one case, a Mauritian na‘t khwan got his first training by an Indian Imam residing in Mauritius at the time. These local na‘t khwan then started to produce and circulate their own collections of na‘t recordings.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Many of the ethnographic examples you reference in this book are drawn from your discussions with amateur na’t performers living in Mauritius, such as Shareef and Nazeer. You discuss how they learn to perform na’t, imitating previously released recordings of famous na’t khwan in order to capture their unique ler or manner of vocal expression, for example, and describing the ways in which their behavior outside of performance spaces, such as their general level of piety and their reputation in the Mauritian Muslim community, affects their reception as professional performers of this particular style of religious music. I’m curious to hear more about what happened to your interlocutors, such as Shareef and Nazeer – did they end up “making it” and becoming professional na’t khwan? When does one break the barrier between amateur and professional in the world of na’t performance?
Patrick Eisenlohr: None of my Mauritian na‘t khwan friends has become a professional in the strict sense of the word, for none of them is this their main occupation. Shareef is now the director of a primary school, Nazeer is retired, and Farhad is an Urdu teacher. Although they are justifiably proud of their na‘t recordings, they all say that they do not see themselves as a match for the Pakistani superstars. The latter are famous and make a good living from reciting na‘t. But for my Mauritian interlocutors there is also a certain ambiguity surrounding the superstars’ professional status, there is admiration for them, but there are also moral doubts about reciting na‘t for money, and not for the love of the Prophet alone. Doubts over whether such professionalism allows for the benefits a na‘t performance is supposed to bring about point to exactly the importance of perceived piety and personal reputation you have mentioned. Certainly, I heard my share of stories about what some perceived as the aloofness and the high financial demands of visiting professional na‘t khwan. Seen from such a perspective, “making it” as a professional also invites suspicions of moral corruption, and becoming a professional in the sense above may therefore be felt to be not entirely desirable.