media, information, the contemporary

The Attentive Heart and Its Apparatuses – Facebook, Bluetooth, WhatsApp

This is the third research note by Epsita Halder, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2016.

Ayesha mourns the death of Fatema’s son

pic 1 pak panjatan-1Picture 1: panjtanpak as WhatsApp Display Picture

Ayesha befriended me at our Arabic preliminary class. An English literature student, she caught my eye in the university corridors as not many burqa-clad girls take admission in Jadavpur University. Recently, after five-six years when I found her using WhatsApp, we started exchanging messages. Last October, I was elated to see her using panjtan pak[1]as her display picture during Muharram. I thought I’d now get to know from a university educated woman what affect binds religion to technology.  No, she was not a Shia but reaffirmed that “we, who claim to be Muslims, all mourn the death of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet. But, we, the Sunnis, do it differently. We are not so… physical”. Her surprise at my asking her about her sectarian identity was subdued when I told her about my engagement with Muharram. Next day, she forwarded me some snaps of the taziyeh and mourning processions in Mumbai which she got from her uncle who, she informed me, had married a woman from a Shia family. “I will take you to him later so that you get some authentic knowledge from his in-laws,” she wrote. In this expanding zone of circulating sacred material (from a Sunni man with a Shia wife to his Sunni college teacher niece to her non-Muslim researcher friend, me) I figured out certain unique qualities of our virtual world that shape the new network, in terms of inclusivity and deliberation. The study of media affirms shows the ever-emerging potential of the form. Brian Larkin’s study of loudspeakers airing sacred knowledge shows an uncontrolled unilateral dissemination which goes beyond its intended receivers and reaches a wider audience[2]. This is open to further scrutiny when the virtual sacral is transmitted based on a deliberate choice of sharing. Cassette sermons, when played in private, screens the un-selected audience/public[3] but has a limited shelf life compared to contemporary new media objects, which are reborn at every moment of existence by being tagged, shared or forwarded. Here we have entered a new web network which is a post-social media phenomenon, phone-driven and operating in the network of Web 2.0.[4]

Beyond redemptive attention and technological distraction   

I shall call an apparatus anything that has in some way to capture, orient,  determine, intercept, model, control, or secure, the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Giorgio Agamben[5]

Religion as cultivated and disciplined attention and technology as distraction – such binaries are difficult to maintain when we take the media out of its classic secular, unilinear formulation. Rather than looking at technology as the condition for distraction that makes contemplation and redemption impossible, we look at forms of media technology as something that enables what Brian Larkin calls religious attentiveness[6].  Larkin, taking cues from the works of Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, marks forms of bodily training within the religious discipline that produces intense affect. Larkin proposes religious attentiveness as a cognitive ability which emerges through religious disciplining[7].  We can look at the sacral space as not something alienated and separate, but rather as connected to the everyday elements of the community, the practice of using cellphones being one of them. Media anthropologists such as Charles Hirschkind and Larkin have explored forms of technology (cassettes and loudspeakers) and sacred listening as mutually constitutive. The structure of media influences the coordinates of the community by inducing ‘discrete sensorial and ideological’ experiences[8]. In the wake of insights from Hirschkind and Larkin, I will see how medial elements can be both everyday in their usage and alienable as the sacral. We need to talk about the apparatus connected to these new forms of perception, new sensory responses from body and mind and how attentiveness through the daily discipline of religious practice can be read as technology’s effect on the sensorium.

The heart says Husayn Husayn

So far, studies on the interface between media and religious attentiveness deal with the Sunni sacral behavior based on the meditative practice of listening. My study of the Shia media sensorium offers a new challenge, because for the Shias, an attentive, regulated listening and a practiced frenzied lament over Iman Husayn’s martyrdom together become an intense, affective performance. For the past year-and-a-half, I have personally observed the growing presence of the recording tool around the Shia performance of lament. First, it was the entry of the video camera on the tripods operated by a professional at important events at major imambaras to be archived. Now, the ubiquitous smartphone, with the recording option, is in every hand.

Sequentially, the Shia lament progresses thus. The zaker (sermon giver) spells out episodes from battle of Karbala and praises its heroes, especially Imam Husayn, leading to the painful narration of how the family of the Prophet was prosecuted. This results in a collective expression of grief performed in a way that the individual body loses its corporeal materiality and individuality by becoming the collective embodying the sublime pain.

In the tripod-video camera-only days, the structured performance of grief was captured with notable omissions. The sermons preparing the audience for the lament to follow was recorded, but the imambara lament sessions were often not, as the frenzy could seem too unwieldy for an official archive. The public processions on the streets were sometimes recorded. But the videographer, in those cases, was strictly not a part of the lamenters; his was a paid job.

With the advent of the smartphone – the cellphone with recording and sharing options – the religious community has become its own recorder; the agent of lament is also the onlooker and recorder. The so far ethereal ecstasy of the sacred performance of lament is imprinted with the co-presence of an ephemeral recorder on a person’s consciousness. When the person is both the performer and the recorder, will the spontaneity of the performance freeze under the double weight? How do media gadgets, with their medial attributes, configure the new Shia sensorium?

On Facebook accounts like Calcutta Azadari,, West Bengal Shia Welfare Society, Anjuman Shamsheer E Abbasi, Karbala: “A Message of Humanity” and many others of individuals, pictures and videos, shot by people or their Facebook friends, show a paradigmatic shift. The single-minded frenzy gives way to a coexisting ‘will to record’ the ecstasy of pain. The cellphone is now an integral part of the sacred, a co-presence in the Shia sensorium that redefines ecstasy, ecstatic community and affective cohesion within the community.

I sent a friend request to Kamran Mirza, an LIC agent and a small shop owner in Kolkata, who, while having his own Facebook account, is also the ‘admin’ of Calcutta Azadari. I also visited Bibi Anaro Imambara on a mild, unassuming Wednesday evening when there were only three men sitting on the imambara courtyard. Among the trio, Syed Parvez Abbas, in his early 40s, had a Facebook account. Abbas, who has also been on pilgrimages, including to the Karbala for ziyarat, seriously explained the religious benefits of social media that are “neither light nor profane” “See, when I stand on a sacred site, I immediately take a picture and post it or share it. Some recipients are in my locality, some are in Lucknow, some in Dubai. It helps people who cannot afford such journeys to experience this pilgrimage. I switched on my video option and recorded the sacred site of Karbala, rotating 180 degrees for a fuller vision, and immediately sent it to friends via WhatsApp. A friend in Hyderabad responded instantly, saying he felt like it was he who did the ziyarat,” Abbas said.

My newfound Facebook friend Kamran Mirza has been doing the same, I discovered. Visiting sacred Shia sites in Lucknow and Delhi, he diligently posts photographs with detailed captions on Facebook. He even gets love mark in the comment slot as response. Taking a cue from Birgit Meyer, we can say that by providing the modalities to create ‘aesthetic formations’, new media blurs the religious-versus-tec hnological binary and creates a new sensory experience[9].

pic 2 Capturing AttentivenessPicture 2: Capturing Attentiveness

pic 3 The gaze-conscious selfPicture 3: The gaze-conscious self

The Shia ritual of lament has an inclusive and open format of bodily performance. While the lamenting bodies have a regulated and disciplined code of performance, with or without direct semantic cues, they are also open to improvisations, letting people enter the performance zone and perform lament as a part of the core performing group. The Shia imambara interiors are structured with several layers of attention/inattention. children roam around accompanied by women, individuals offer namaz or read the Qur’an or a book of elegy sitting in their chosen corners, many groups visit the relics and tombs inside the imambara and together follow the sacred timeline to prepare for the final session. I have seen solitary women reading the Qur’an while others, standing in a group, read nawhas. Often, I have seen women in Bibi Anaro Imambara reading nawhas or elegies while holding a cellphone in their palms. Sadiqa, a second-year BA student of a city college, who acts as the gatekeeper at the women’s quarters of Bibi Anaro during the weekly Thursday ritual, showed me a “video of the seventh”[10] that she has kept in her cellphone. “It feels good to have this video with me,” she said. “I can carry it with me.” Technology seems to have taken the religious affect to a new register.

I asked Muhammad Zaffar, a young man who had been watching me talk to people, what he felt about recording the sacred sessions while being a part of them. “You can utter ‘Ali Ali’ without really meaning it from your heart. But if your heart says ‘Ali Ali’, no matter whether you are, with a camera or a cellphone, nothing can dilute your focus.”

With this, we come back to the matters of the heart, the sublime feeling embodied in performance that is reaffirmed and secured by technology — the smartphone, the social media — which creates its own network. The heart and the handset stand hand in hand to form new modalities of attention, create new understandings of the Shia community and its religious behavior.


[1]Panjtanpak is a common Shia sacred relic symbolizing Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatema, son-in-law Ali and grandsons Imam Hasan and Husayn. This looks like the palm of the right hand.

[2] Brian Larkin, “Techniques of Inattention: The Mediality of Loudspeakers in Nigeria”, Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 87, Number 4, Fall 2014, pp. 989-1015.

[3] Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermon and the Islamic Counterpublics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[4]Web 2.0 indicates a World Wide Web with user-generated content, usability and interoperability. It is predicated upon interaction and collaboration in social media transactions which allow the members become creators of user-generated content rather than confining them as passive consumers of virtual content. Social networking sites, wikis, blogs, video sharing, WhatsApp, mashups and Web applications are the basic applications of Web 2.0. Whether this form of mediality is paradigmatically different from previous Web technologies is a subject of debate among contemporary media theorists.

[5] Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus: And Other Essays, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p14.

[6]Larkins, 2014

[7] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[8] Ibid, p5.

[9] By introducing the concept of ‘aesthetic formation’ Birgit Meyer wishes to go beyond a notion of community that is embedded as fixed and limited in the notion of an ‘imagined community’. Formation, for her, is the process of formation, which, through aesthetic forms, makes the notion of the community dynamic. Birgit Meyer (ed), Introduction, Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion and the Senses, Palgrave: Macmillan, 2009,

[10] I couldn’t ask her what the “seventh” stands for because of the rush at the gates to enter the imambara for blessings after the monajat. I’m waiting for her reply on WhatsApp and hoping she will also share her sacred video with me.