Nick Harkness on his book, Glossolalia and the Problem of Language

Interview by Hyemin Lee

Hyemin Lee: I am curious about how this book will circulate among a broader audience interested in the problem of language. You argue that the anthropological study of glossolalia should be centered around conceptualizing glossolalia as cultural semiosis. As you put it, this cultural semiosis “is said to contain, and therefore can be justified by, an ideological core of language, but in fact is produced at the ideological limits of language” (7). That is, when Korean Christians posit glossolalia as language, this is only possible because glossolalia challenges assumptions of what is fundamentally necessary about language. Thus, you offer an analytical framework that locates both glossolalia’s denotational unintelligibility and cultural intelligibility within the production of an experience of language. How would you envision your argument to be taken up by future scholars in and outside of anthropology who study and work on the problem of language?

Nick Harkness: First of all, thank you for engaging so seriously and carefully with this book. It is a great opportunity to discuss it with a linguistic anthropologist who specializes in the study of Korea! And I appreciate your crisp characterization of my attempt: “readers are presented with an analytical framework that locates both glossolalia’s denotational unintelligibility and cultural intelligibility within the production of an experience of language.” Your first question goes straight to the problem of language as an existential and practical issue for human social groups everywhere. This issue has led to two crucial insights in anthropology. The first is that language is a dynamic complex of structure, practice, and ideology—what Michael Silverstein called the “total linguistic fact.” The second is that this dynamic complex consists of different kinds of signs; some will be relatively unique to language, and others will resemble broader sociocultural processes. This book combines these two insights by situating glossolalia within a broader linguistic, communicational, and semiotic context. This meant connecting it ethnographically and historically to the specificities of language (especially Korean), and to markedly non-linguistic practices both within the churches and beyond them. Glossolalia is interesting generally because it suppresses some of the signs that are most unique to, and thought to be necessary for, language. In South Korea, glossolalia is practiced across Protestant Christian communities, well beyond the kinds of Pentecostal or Charismatic groups normally represented in the literature. And a language like Korean and a linguistic context like South Korea present a stark contrast to the residual European (heavily Anglophone) linguistic ideologies that typically shape how language is dealt with (or not dealt with) in the scholarship on glossolalia. I treat glossolalia less as a defining feature of charismatic Christianity (which of course would be the obvious comparative approach) and instead see it as a telling feature of South Korean social life in the 20th and early 21st centuries, which was given a specific shape and amplified by Christianity’s massification and diversification there. The problem of language in this model quickly becomes the problem of the social.

Hyemin Lee: Your new book reminds me of your first book, Songs of Seoul. I would like to know more about connections between your research projects. How did you come to research glossolalia? And how is glossolalia related to your first book’s fieldwork?

Nick Harkness: You’re absolutely right. The two books could be read together as a two-volume set on voice and religion in Christian South Korea. Although the specific forms and institutional centers discussed in each book differ, the populations are continuous, and so too the practices. My research in South Korea began with an empirical question about the number and relative success of South Korean singers of European-style classical (especially operatic) music on international stages. These singers led me to the Protestant churches of Seoul, especially the affluent middle and upper-class (usually Presbyterian) megachurches, where most of them sang. And my first book became a study of human artistic vocality shaped by Korean Christianity (major fieldwork in 2008-9). These same singers, and the churches more broadly, led me to study glossolalia (major fieldwork in 2013-14), because I began to notice, with surprise, how many of them, their family members, and friends, spoke in tongues or participated in Christian settings where tongues were spoken—despite their Presbyterian church affiliations and upper-class, educated identities. The first book was oriented to the relationship between registers and genres of singing and a specific kind of (generally aspirational) social voicing, and the second was oriented to the relationship between registers and genres of speech and a specific kind of (often fervent) spiritual voicing.

In the second book I drew far more widely from different Christian contexts in South Korea. For the first book, I focused on an upper-class Presbyterian megachurch of approximately 70,000 people and one of the most prestigious colleges of music. For the second, I turned my attention to the ritual and historical center of glossolalia in South Korea, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which was established in an impoverished peri-urban settlement after the Korean War (1950-3) and over a few decades grew to claim at one point more than 800,000 people. I then followed the historical wake of the Yoido Full Gospel Church to the more upper-class populations, where glossolalia eventually became common, but far more unevenly and ambivalently practiced, often at the ritual peripheries of the church institutions. Putting these two studies together, as you suggest, reveals something far more complicated than Pentecostalism as such—instead pointing to a Korean cultural context of vocality and vocalized sociality that manifests in different musical and linguistic forms, under different Christian and related institutions, with considerable sociological and ideological fluidity and historical connection between (and beyond) them.

Hyemin Lee: It is very intriguing to find out how glossolalia and cacophony, when combined, transform the sensory environment of the prayerful where pitch, rhythm, and tempo emerge as a new semiotic orientation to produce ritually and intersubjectively organized poetic form(s). I am very interested in this rich analysis of glossolalia focusing on sounds, perceptions, feelings, and qualitative metaphors/descriptions. One might surmise that these sensuous qualities are linked to specific prayer styles (e.g., “hard, with passion” (세게, 열정적으로) (153)) and/or an idealized image of the prayerful. Could the methodological-analytical framework of qualia be applied to analyze these sensuous dimensions of glossolalia in Korean churches. Do you think it is plausible to use qualia to analyze glossolalia in Korean churches?

Nick Harkness: The short answer is: yes! By qualia, I think you are referring to the effects of sign processes as they are experienced sensuously. And given your own excellent research on Korean traditional medicine and the semiotics of bodily relief, this is an important point of connection between our work. Attention to qualia allows us to look empirically at how large-scale semiotic processes are made to seem—to “feel”—non-semiotic, that is, to be experienced as the natural, given properties of “what there is.” Such attention helps us better understand how the divine is made sensuously present (a relatively old question), and to trace a pathway from the feeling of speech and social interaction in everyday life to the more focused, concentrated modes of spiritual interaction, of which glossolalia is a limit case. As your question indicates, though, I mention qualia only briefly. Why? The press imposed a limit of 80,000 words, and a serious treatment of qualia would have pushed it way over. I was also mindful of contemporary readers’ terminological allergies (sometimes scholars need to behave like servers in a restaurant: “are there any allergies I should be aware of?”). To riff on Malinowski’s phrase: any hint of experienced obscurity is clearly not a virtue for an academic culture so influenced by a Protestant linguistic ideology of direct, unhindered access. Personally, I agree with you that further careful, technical, empirical investigation of the qualia problem in relation to glossolalia and related practices would help reveal the “production of an experience of language” as you so nicely put it above and show semiotic processes at work beyond the more familiar ethnography-as-creative-narrative-non-fiction approach to the descriptive phenomenology of spiritual encounter.

Hyemin Lee: While reading the book, I was surprised to see many connections between glossolalia and the body, such as the idea of healing the body, human anatomy, and kinesics. The human throat’s morphological and functional openness creates a semiotic space starting from the lips (or mouth) to the tongue, to the throat, and ultimately to the heart, all of which are structurally iconic to the pathway of Word travelling through the Holy Spirit. Also, an individual’s bodily movements and gestures may connect to glossolalic practice(s). What you think about these relationships between glossolalia and the human body? Do you have any ethnographic or analytic accounts where the body played a significant role in glossolalia in Korean churches?

Nick Harkness: The sequential structure of your questions overall is wonderfully figurative of this particular question! From language (1), to continuity qua vocality (2), to qualia (3), and now to the body (4). In my earlier book, I spent a lot of energy on the body—focusing on singing technique and health makes this rather unavoidable. Here, I ask how diverse glossolalic practices were held together by the problem of language. Indeed, practitioners of glossolalia regularly foregrounded bodily sensations. But they also often emphasized other aspects, such as the explicitly social (connecting with or disconnecting from others), the overtly cognitive (such as sending or decoding denotational messages), or even the blatantly apathetic (just self-reflexively and banally participating to participate). Yet the body does make frequent, vivid appearances. More broadly, elements of Korean charismatic Christianity can be traced to shamanic practices of bodily possession and healing, while Korea’s contemporary Pentecostal form was birthed from the bodily and psychological trauma of post-war South Korea. The body is many things at once in glossolalia: a source of sound production, an organized gestural space of articulation, a porous boundary (e.g., for spiritual water, fire, air), a vehicle of spiritual encounter and transmission, epistemological center, object of divine intervention, and so on. This all varied dramatically across theological spaces and individuals. There were some relatively formalized gestures and postures of prayer that could be intensified in glossolalia. But I found the spread and diversity of their contextualized functions more revealing than the formal regularities. In the book’s appendix (speaking of the body!), which is an historical reconstruction of the invention of term “glossolalia” (die Glossolalie) in early 19th Century German theology, one can see how the problem of the body (from the movement of the tongue to entire states of bodily frenzy) was a problem from the very beginning of its modern coinage.

Hyemin Lee: Lastly, I am curious about South Korea’s socio-historical context where Korean Christianity prospered. I truly enjoyed your discussion of how glossolalia as a sociolinguistic reality has to do with South Korea’s postwar context. I would like to hear more about the recent socio-historical contexts relevant to the glossolalia’s growth. Do you think that the recent socio-economic events, such as the IMF crisis (IMF 위기) in the late 1990s and rapid globalization (e.g., the lift of overseas travel bans in 1989), also played roles in shaping today’s sociolinguistic reality of glossolalia in Korean churches?

Nick Harkness: I really appreciate ending with this question, highlighting more recent Korean history against the background of over 60 years of glossolalia, and over 130 years of Protestant vocality. I emphasize the years just before and after the Korean War, when North Korean churches came south from Pyongyang and when the Yoido Full Gospel church was established. I also emphasize the 1960s through the 1980s, the most dramatic period of Protestant church growth in terms of numbers and church size. Democratization and globalization (late 80s-90s) initiated a period of global mobility. The overseas education industry produced both widespread multi-lingual contact as well as overseas enclaves, where fervent Christianity seems to have thrived. This period led to the global Korean culture industry—Kpop and the Korean wave. It also produced a surplus of seminary graduates, who ultimately needed to go overseas for missionary work because there weren’t enough Christians at home. And the Asian financial crisis (late 90s) produced major shocks for Asian societies organized around rapid economic development. One effect of financial loss was to encourage some lay members to become more devout members. When businesses failed, some turned not only to the church, but also to church business. So yes, indeed there is a connection with the development of Christianity.

However, I am not as sure about glossolalia as such. When it comes to glossolalia specifically, I think it has probably reached its saturation point, and will probably decline. I realize this is bad for business in the Anthropology of Christianity, which tends to rely on identifying new charismatic forms and sites of practice to justify its anthropological mission. But a serious investigation of the “total linguistic fact” develops a picture somewhat different from the one generated by theories that treat charismatic Christianity as an unstoppable global capitalist cargo cult or a cybernetic machine of self-reproduction. From the point of view of the problem of language, it is hard to see how glossolalia would continue at its current rates, let alone expand, in South Korea. The Pentecostal center is decreasingly influential, the communicational contexts across Christian populations continue to shift, and the diversity of practices and ideologies at the peripheries do not suggest revival, concentration, or significant formalization there. One occasionally hears that there are more former members of the Yoido Full Gospel Church than current members (and this goes for Protestant Christians in South Korea more generally).

Someone might misunderstand me to be addressing the rise of religious doubt. My focus, however, is on the “dynamic synchrony” of glossolalia in South Korea—the historical dimensions at work in its contemporary diversity. Glossolalia became widespread across South Korean Protestant communities under specific historical conditions. Those conditions have changed, and it may now be a victim of its own success. Glossolalia has spread out widely and unevenly across an (aging, shrinking) Christian population, while its explicitly theological relevance wanes. I don’t think we commit any grave analytical sin by viewing the sociolinguistic fact of glossolalia in part as a socio-semiotic trend, despite its profound significance for many individuals, its undeniable scale, the very public presence of many of its most fervent practitioners, and its obvious longevity thus far. Although glossolalia has become normalized across Christian communities, there is already a strong and growing feeling of “pastness” attributed to it (speaking of qualia!)—associated especially with earlier periods of more fervent practice and growth (such as the 1980s). Who knows exactly what will happen with Korean Christianity? The contemporary political dimensions of conservative Christianity in South Korea pose more than a few questions. But it seems likely at least that widespread, fervent, explicitly Christian denotational unintelligibility—as the formalized structural negation of a core ideological principle of language, a negation that defines glossolalic practice—will become less and less culturally intelligible (or valuable).

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