a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

project statement

America has always been rife with spiritual songwriters. I announce the great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully armed, Walt Whitman wrote. I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold.

Whitman’s announcement was but a measure of the American atmosphere, a persistent promise that the proclamation of a national freedom was not just a patriotic rallying cry but also a passionate mysticism. Descriptions of the spiritual and spirituality emerged as a way for seekers to define their wanderings in new worlds of experience, colonial occupation, and social order.

Yet there is more to spirituality than this sort of creative belief. From the transatlantic mission of Christopher Columbus to the planning session of this very project, spirituality has always been an argumentative tool, a political project, and a sectarian squabble. Scholars now evaluate the meaning of spirituality in theological questions. Pundits and political leaders worry about the competing claims of ascendant spiritual authorities. Philanthropic institutions invest in the exposure of the spiritual to the sick, the hungry, the needful, and the sad. And certain religious leaders argue vehemently over the role of the spirit in the expansion of religious empires. To approach spirituality is to be deeply complicit in the unfolding idea of liberal democracy as well as its refusal.

Frequencies seeks to commence a genealogy of spirituality. This project approaches spirituality as a cultural technology, as a diverse reverberation, as a frequency in the ether of experience. We begin in a moment when novelists wonder about the divine, psychological counselors advertise as spiritual advisers, and scholars seek to capture spirituality’s ephemeral nature through survey research. Spirituality abounds, even as it is unclear what it is. Whatever it is, it seems hard to capture. Spirituality takes hold beneath the skin and permeates below the radar of statistical surveys. It resists classification even as it classifies its evaluators and its believers as subjects of its sway. Frequencies will focus this profusion into an epic anthology of wide-ranging analysis.

Frequencies will be a digital compendium in which the ideals of spiritual self-expression and individual flourishing are held in tension with the historicity of those conceits. What is the relationship, we ask, between these ideals and their ongoing deployment in political and social arenas? In the first phase of this project, we will assemble 100 short pieces about spirituality from eminent scholars, writers, and artists. These pieces will identify specific texts, images, objects, movements, individuals, or events within the histories of spirituality, such as are listed here. Although this initial phase of the project will focus on American instances, we invite replies that mobilize a transnational perspective. Few incidents or characters in the history of spirituality can be contained within national borders.

Creating such a documentary collection draws upon traditions evoked in the bimonthly essays of Roland Barthes for Les Lettres Nouvelles, in the boxes of Joseph Cornell, and in the curiosity cabinets of old. Like these displays of natural history and antiquity, Frequencies seeks to create a study of spirituality that is comprehensive yet open-ended, an encyclopedic account that is premised on its contributors’ specific location as intellectuals and citizens of the contemporary landscape of the spiritual