I’ve just moved to Uppsala, Sweden, where at first I knew no-one, apart from my old friend Kalle, who with characteristic kindness invited me to go see Amazing Grace with him as soon as I arrived. We packed into the smallest room of the Fyrisbiografen, a tiny cinema constructed in 1911 and now showing its age, in all the best ways. Around thirty theatre-goers crammed into the old wooden seats. Perhaps you already know the complicated story behind the film: in 1972, Aretha Franklin performed for two consecutive nights at the Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She was at the height of her fame, and could have done anything; she opted to go back to singing the gospel with which she had started her career as a precocious child. The recordings formed the basis of a live album that appeared the same year, and were filmed by Sydney Pollack for a documentary commissioned by PBS. The latter, however, was plagued by technical problems: the audio and visual footage couldn’t be synchronised, and by the time that digital technology came around, Franklin, now aged and frail, mothballed this reminder of her prime. Only following her death in August 2018 could the now-synchronised footage appear.
What we saw on the screen before us, as we sank deeper into our padded chairs, remained a wonderfully ragged mess. No amount of digital restoration or retouching could paper over the cracks of those two evenings, nor should it, for the jerky transitions and shaky camerawork offer one of the few fitting visual counterparts to Franklin’s remarkable performance. As she sings gospel standards and not-so-standard gospel-blues fusions, the distinctions between her, her backing musicians and her audience begin to break down. It becomes difficult to know where the concept of licensed musician ends and the concept of audience begins. Singers and spectators alike take it in turns to leap up out of their seats, or to shout amen, or to start swaying upright, or to take to weeping. Sometimes the very same person rotates through all these states in the space of a few seconds. At one stage the Reverend Dr. James Cleveland has to take a break from the music that he’s in the process of directing, in order to weep publicly. (Mick Jagger stands at the back of the room, for once at the periphery of filmed proceedings.)
No amount of surveillance cameras, however steady and relentless their focus, could have captured the organised chaos of those evenings, or the emotional contagion that spread through the bodies in the room. Sinking ever deeper into my seat, I had a strange and divided feeling: for as long as the film unfolded I was unable to lift my eyes for a moment from the performers and the worshippers in that space four decades ago; yet at the very same time, I was somehow also aware, through my peripheral vision, or through the percussive taps that were communicated through the wooden armrests, that my fellow audience members were, like me, nodding, toe-tapping, finger-rapping. Oceans of time and space and cultural privilege separated these two very different communities. On the screen was an ecstatic gathering, most of whose bodies are by now dead and gone: mid-way through proceedings, C. L. Franklin pays a moving unscripted tribute to his daughter, twelve years before he will be shot dead at point-blank range during a botched robbery. The Swedish auditorium contained an exclusively white and incomparably more restrained social body. None of us jumped up to say hallelujah, however much we might have felt it. Yet even in our more subdued responses, the same voice reverberated, transporting us into a past space to which for many reasons we could never belong. At a certain stage in proceedings, Aretha Franklin starts sweating profusely. In a gesture of incomparable tenderness, Cleveland mops her brow and neck with a soft towel. Soon thereafter, the camera falls out of focus again. You might almost fancy yourself watching the scene through your own sweat, your own tears. I say you: of course, I mean me.
Even in our more subdued responses, the same voice reverberated, transporting us into a past space to which we could never belong.
Why have I spent so long telling you about this film and my relation to it? Because I feel that only this kind of thick description, which involves the onlooker as participant rather than as detached credentialed observer, can adequately describe a truth that is difficult to put into words. The truth in question concerns social rhythm. What transpired in Los Angeles in 1972 (and in Uppsala in 2019) was at one and the same time chaotic and organised. Amazing Grace is all about the complexity of synchrony, and not only because of the difficulty fitting audio and visual tracks. The people who jumped up and sang and swayed and cried did not move in the synchronous fashion that we find in contemporary RnB videos, whose choreography drills each performer into military precision. Their movements were far more spontaneous and disorganised, yet nevertheless formed part of a complex, dynamic and measurable whole. Weeping with joy or in sadness was an expression of an individual’s feeling, yet also a necessary stage that the group as a whole had to move through. Franklin’s voice connected our very different bodies together into a differential relation. Subjects did not fully surrender their bodily integrity, yet were porous.
We don’t have good words to describe these sorts of events, for the very good reason that they are difficult to describe. The feminist critic Teresa Brennan saw in such experiences what she called ‘the transmission of affect’: the feeling that you get when you walk into a room and feel that the group already has a certain ‘vibe’, which you can’t but soak up as a condition of entry into it. A cognate word for the same phenomenon is entrainment, a broader phenomenon that has totally infected my thinking these past months. Entrainment concerns the tendency for individual oscillators to synchronise their endogenous rhythms to external periods or phases. That’s a pretty technical definition, but I believe that it helps us get at some serious ethical questions that otherwise remain intractable. That’s what this short essay will try to start to do. The condition of its doing so, however, is that you continue to feel the reverberations of Aretha Franklin’s voice.
Let’s go back to my definition of a moment ago. The ‘individual oscillator’ that synchronises its endogenous rhythms could mean a variety of things. It could mean a human being like me or (dare I presume?) you. If we tap our toe to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ (guilty) we are entraining. Or it could be one of the parts of our bodies that makes up what we are: a recent study found that when a parent reads a nursery rhyme to his or her infant, while making eye contact, the neural brainwaves of both parties synchronise. Or it could entail ‘simpler’ organisms, such as cyanobacteria, to whom we owe a great deal given their assistance in the process of oxidisation of the world, and whose genes are expressed rhythmically. It could even be found in non-organic matter under certain conditions: the first recorded instance of entrainment is an example of this kind. In 1665, the Dutch horologist Christian Huygens, who was attempting to measure the longitude coordinate, noted that two of the pendulums that he had assembled for the task, whose periods had started out of phase, were slowly beginning to synchronise. (They did so because the wooden platform on which they were placed enabled the transmission of just enough energy as to set up a negative feedback loop.) In an excited letter to the Royal Society, Huygens called the phenomenon ‘odd sympathy’. You can see a rather wonderful recreation of the experiment here.
I don’t plan to attempt a detailed history of entrainment in this essay; I don’t have the time. But I do want to look at a couple of historical prefigurations of the concept, in order to clarify its operation and to suggest some of its ethical affordances and problems. To begin with, I want to drive a distinction between rhythmical entrainment and another example of ‘odd sympathy’, namely, harmonious resonance. The latter phenomenon has been well known to Chinese and the Greco-Roman world from late antiquity. Two strings set to the correct frequency can vibrate, even if the latter remains an untouched: an A string at 440 Hz will cause an E string at 330 Hz to resonate. This uncanny phenomenon led several philosophers to posit an essential harmoniousness and balance to the world: the human being was a kind of lute or stringed instrument (the Greek neuron and the Latin nervus mean both tendon and string), connected to a cosmos governed by exact and unchanging proportions. The resonant subject was often imagined as a passive entity animated by the breath of God, as in Coleridge’s famous poem ‘The Aeolian Harp’ (1796).
Rhythmical entrainment differs from harmonious resonance in significant ways. The latter phenomenon implies a unilateral relation of activity and passivity: the vibrating E string is compelled to respond to the impulse of the sounding A. In rhythmical entrainment, by contrast, the two entities that come into being already possess intrinsic rhythms, which giether produce a third phase irreducible to either. Where harmonious resonance implies a static, unchanging cosmology, rhythmical entrainment enables its constituent individual entities to fall in and out of phase-locking (Huygen’s pendulums synchronize only later to fall out of step). We can see a concrete example of this conceptual distinction in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), probably the single most important text in Western philosophy for developing the concept of sympathy. The suffering individual, writes Smith,
[…] longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own. To see the emotions of their hearts, in every respect, beat time to his own, in the violent and disagreeable passions, constitutes his sole consolation. But he can only hope to obtain this by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him.
Note how disquieted Smith is by the affective states driven by his rhythmical metaphors: when a heart ‘beats time’ to that of another, affect threatens to get out of control. The suffering individual is required to tone down, or ‘flatten’ such feeling, at which point the metaphor of harmony significantly returns: not only ‘concord’ with other subjects, but also, as Smith goes on immediately to specify, with society as a whole.
Smith’s moral philosophy is here representative of a much broader anxiety, which burgeons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, regarding the embodied, or contagious, or rhythmical nature of affective experience. A remarkable example of this tendency is A Tale of Two Cities: not Dickens’s best work, but a novel whose weaknesses (flat characterisation, reactionary politics) tell us more than a parlour-room of richly individuated characters ever could. The work describes the build-up to and fallout from the French Revolution: if you want a snapshot of its attitude towards the events, take a look at Phiz’s illustration, ‘The Sea Rises’, which accompanied the serial publication in All the Year Round. Note the significant equivalence between violence and rhythmical force: the prominent woman at the centre-right of the tableau, who brandishes a bloodied cleaver in one hand, and a drum mallet in the other.
Dickens’s prose style does more than offer a literary counterpart to such images. For not only does it represent the compulsive force of rhythmical entrainment; it actuates it, in the body and mind both of the narrator and the reader. Take this passage, which describes the very same scene as Phiz’s illustration, and which requires extended quotation to take full stock of its effect:
As these ruffians turned and turned, their matted locks now flung forward over their eyes, now flung backward over their necks, some women held wine to their mouths that they might drink; and what with dropping blood, and what with dropping wine, and what with the stream of sparks struck out of the stone, all their wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire. The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood. Shouldering one another to get next at the sharpening-stone, were men stripped to the waist, with the stain all over their limbs and bodies; men in all sorts of rags, with the stain upon those rags; men devilishly set off with spoils of women’s lace and silk and ribbon, with the stain dyeing those trifles through and through. Hatchets, knives, bayonets, swords, all brought to be sharpened, were all red with it. Some of the hacked swords were tied to the wrists of those who carried them, with strips of linen and fragments of dress: ligatures various in kind, but all deep of the one colour. And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes;—eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun.
Note how Dickens’s multi-clausal, alliterating, parallelism-strewn sentences compulsively entrain readers to their periods. Not only readers: by the end of this lengthy description of carnage, the narrative voice ironically falls into the very revolutionary violence from which it recoils in disgust. What is an ‘unbrutalised beholder’? Certainly not us, having been compelled to behold this human devastation. The strangely specific ‘twenty years of life’ might try to dissemble itself behind the pseudo-rationality of judicial sentence, but in fact is not so arbitrary as it may at first appear. Two decades is almost precisely the amount of time that Dr. Manette, one of the more sympathetic characters in this novel, was incarcerated in the Bastille, during which time he paced obsessively in his cell, manufacturing with his hands shoes that did not in reality exist. Behind an illusion of narrative distance and political impartiality, Dickens’s fiction reverberates with the rhythmical experience of suffering bodies.
Entrainment offers us a powerful means for understanding the contagious effect of bodies upon other bodies. But Dickens’s example compellingly shows the ethical dilemmas attendant upon the concept. If affect is contagiously embodied, how can we prevent instinctual and involuntary reflex from issuing in the mob violence to which history has repeatedly born witness? How can we find or fashion rhythmical collectivities less like Dickens’s revolutionaries dancing the Carmagnole, and more like the differentiated community in the Missionary Baptist Church? I have two answers to this question. The first takes the form of a book that I’m presently writing, which tackles the concept of rhythm as it develops over the course of the nineteenth century, and which tries to find social spaces and literary works that demonstrate the profoundly embodied nature of rhythmical transmission, without effacing the differences and variations that separate human subjects. But I don’t think that this is enough. It isn’t enough for academics like me to write our books, however good they may or may not be, however ambitious their intellectual scope or imposing their battery of footnotes.
My second answer therefore seeks not merely to describe the representation or operation of rhythmical entrainment, but to actuate it, in what I hope are enabling and non-coercive ways. In hard currency, this means developing a range of new pedagogical practices that I use both in individual and group sessions. At first these were born of necessity. A couple of years ago, I was teaching an MPhil seminar on ‘Cultures of Rhythm’ to an unusually large group of students. I wanted them all to deliver oral presentations at some point in the term, but didn’t want these to take up too much of our (painfully) limited time. So, I asked them to record, upload and share verbal essays on the texts that we were reading, with one twist: they had to choose a specific locale, and think actively about how that place impacted upon the thoughts that their minds (and bodies) produced. One student spoke into a smartphone by the side of a river. Another used his technological expertise to introduce all manner of audio distortions and background effects. Another spoke upon the treatment of the maternal body in the Victorian poet Alice Meynell, sitting in a café, where she reflected increasingly upon the experience of being a woman in a café, alone, speaking, a potential object for others.
Entrainment offers us a powerful means for understanding the contagious effect of bodies upon other bodies.
This experience, which began as no more and no less than a practical expedient, encouraged me to attempt to formulate more explicit pedagogical strategies that similarly utilise social or environmental rhythms. I won’t outline them all for you know. It’s getting late. I can feel the light fading on this latest day of my brain. But I will reproduce in full a series of itemised instructions that I now routinely give my first-year undergraduate students. All you need to complete the task is a smartphone and an interest in how our thinking is embodied. The goal of the procedure is to account at one and the same time for the compulsive effect that art has upon us, and the significant resistance of our irreducibly distinctive bodies, each of which has an internal structure and an accumulated history different from all others. Here are the instructions (you can replace the word ‘Cambridge’ with wherever you happen to be based):
1: Using a digital or an analogue map, choose a walk to take in Cambridge. This walk has two conditions: i), it should last circa thirty minutes; from a starting-place that you are free to choose ii), it should be conducted through a part of Cambridge that you have never previously seen. Do not feel under an obligation to select the walk according to its perceived aesthetic merit: an industrial estate will serve just as well as a college garden.
2: On Thursday, you will receive an mp3 file containing a recitation of a poem. Download this file into your smartphone. If for financial or moral or aesthetic reasons you have no smartphone, one can be provided via the college. Listen to the poem once.
3: Pull out the wires that connect you to the internet.
4: Take the walk that you have prepared, while thinking about the poem that you have heard. What phrases or rhythms linger in your mind, and what overall tone arises? You may wish to listen to the downloaded poem while you walk, in which case you should take care not to be hit by oncoming traffic in your distraction. This walk should not put you in actual danger, so do not walk through e.g. the industrial estate alone at night. Cambridge is a small place, so you may recognise the faces of people that you know while conducting your walk. This may prove socially embarrassing but is not a substantive problem for the task at hand; indeed, it may aid that task. You may wish to think explicitly about the poem during this time, but equally you may wish to allow yourself to notice incidental matters (trees, buildings, weather). Try to notice moments when you unconsciously quicken your pace, or forget to chew your thoughts.
5: With your circa thirty-minute talk completed, find a place to sit down. Take the smartphone and, using its Voice Memo setting, record a further fifteen to twenty minutes of your thoughts about the poem that you have heard. Do not be unduly concerned if your thoughts appear fragmented, or if silences arise. Nor should you worry if atmospheric conditions (wind etc.) will be registered. You are welcome to write down the poem that you have heard, according to whatever typographic format seems appropriate; in this case, however, you must submit your written version as an Exhibit (see below).
6: Send your completed discussion of the poem as an mp3 file to your teacher Ewan. With it you should also submit, via analogue or digital means: i), Exhibit A, a hand-drawn sketch or Google Maps printout of the itinerary that you have adopted; ii), Exhibit B, a short statement outlining how you feel that this itinerary affected the thoughts that occurred while you conducted it; iii), Exhibit C (if appropriate), your visual rendition of the heard poem.
For several reasons, I won’t tell you what my students came up with. Suffice to say that their responses encouraged my conviction that it was possible, even in this day and age to come up with spaces in some way like the Baptist Church, where assembled persons can be together without ceasing to be themselves. This essay therefore ends not with a conclusion but an invitation. (My personal preference has always been for the latter.) If the idea appeals to you, grab a smartphone, listen to this poem, and send your recorded thoughts through our new and upgraded form of ether, to email@example.com.
Cover image of Uppsala Glacier Retreat via Flickr
This is part of RHYTHM, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring rhythm as individual and collective, as poetic and biological, and the ways that rhythm dictates life. RHYTHM is conceived and edited by Rachel Goldblatt.