Although as a child I prayed alone and in concourse, and sometimes led group prayer at the local Baha’i center, and was seduced by prayer, and contradicted adult Baha’is I considered arrogant and cozy, and crushed on young Baha’i counselors, and experienced an oriented lightness near a few magnetic elders, and concern-trolled my secular friends, and knew eventually that “leaving the faith” was a card in my hand waiting to be pulled while I went on pilgrimage to its holy sites in Haifa, visiting the shrines of the faith’s figureheads and the adjacent historical prison city, joining in a congregation hall with hundreds of other pilgrims from 20 countries — despite all this, my first convincing experience of a holy place was, of course, that of a fairly naked women’s sauna at a YMCA.
My second was a women’s bathhouse in Los Angeles. No clothes allowed beyond the lockers, and obviously — not as a proud digital deterrent but because of pocketlessness, steam, and respect — no phones. Some materials are dispensed with so that others can work properly. The absence of men and of our devices of broadcasting and surveillance allowed for the tacit communion of women at leisure and in vacuo. Where major facets of daily life are suspended and their suspension is vaulted, like in this female room, many other interruptive regularities that permeate everyday consciousness dissolve. Here was an alternative place whose point was not necessarily affirmation but reduction.
I knew, shortly after entering with some degree of embodied vulnerability, as though my arms just fell that way, that actually I wasn’t so important. The following week I shepherded my mother, who never did things like this, into the changing room, and then napped in a robe on the heated tile at the baths’ exit until she emerged, as though from a deeper and happier rest.
Some materials are dispensed with so that others can work properly. Here was an alternative place whose point was not necessarily affirmation but reduction
I had, growing up, understood a sacred site to be a place where something had happened which had become petrified as a result, or where something was buried. I later understood it as a social belonging tied together temporally as though by ribbons. A sacred site can be built, but it can also be cast.
The same devices that are sometimes suspended to protect sanctity can also create it, maintain a partition around oneself — useful, maybe, to a woman who isn’t at the park to have her attention or speech elicited by whomever else happens to be there. Being online in public can overlay space with a sited, concentrated quality that rivals the plugged-in-ness of recognized holy sites. Devices, like psychoactive substances and sacred sites themselves, are not only means of solipsistic withdrawal but materials that can reveal the plasticity of the categories by which we live. The sacred is a room with a composite view.
My first visit to the Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Illinois, designed in the 1920s and opened a few years after the end of World War II, was an afterthought during a road trip from New York to Chicago. I remember only my impression of the bright exterior and gardens; the day is like a photograph. On a second, more intentional trip to the city and the site years later, I circled the structure with its tangled lattice engravings in limestone as before. But this time, in its inner chamber, I felt a new strange diminution of the outside, adjacent to that of the bath house or the best moments at my park or my dinner place, a sense of being “in here” that was less porous than my own home.
The Baha’i faith began in the mid-19th century as a militant sociopolitical revolt against the Shia Islamic ruling class of Iran and the Qajar state, with what seemed to Western observers as “socialist” leanings. The faith has since discarded some of its earlier mystico-philosophical speculative elements and divorced itself more completely from Islamic traditions and nationalist concerns. It has no clergy, but since the 1960s it has been governed by a global system of local and international elected administrative bodies. It forbids the use of arms, exulting universalist humanitarianism over patriotism and promoting international political unity. The faith itself has created a sort of alternate timeline between its past and the world’s future, and its rituals and temples follow suit: The space inside of the Wilmette temple feels like a time capsule that has merged Western and Eastern elements of mysticism, as though the Golestan Palace had been redone by Buckminster Fuller and voted, or dropped, into an unlikely American setting during the ravaged early part of the century.
There are nine Baha’i Houses of Worship, all publicly accessible — in Cambodia, Uganda, Panama, India, Australia, Chile, Samoa, Germany — and all are built, funded, maintained, and referred to as “mother temples” by Baha’is. Each is aesthetically unique from the others, their head architects and designs designated by more local communities and governing bodies, but they have the same foundational harmony: dome structures with nine sides in a wide pendant of green space. They are meant as a “collective center of society to promote cordial affection,” but as Shoghi Effendi, the appointed head of the faith until his death in 1957, wrote, with a caveat: Despite their “immeasurable potentialities,” the suspension these centers allow is meant to be temporary. Worshippers, especially Baha’is, are meant to “translate and transfuse” their experience of the sacred to the outside world: into service. Houses of Worship are essential to Baha’is because they offer an escape — not as an end in itself but as a concrete expression of transition and reorientation.
The temple’s inner chamber carries the effect of putting your device, your life, on airplane mode. The social air pressure is lifted, and silence is imposed; self-broadcast is adjourned
There are few photographs of the inner chamber of the temple in Wilmette, but many of the exterior: basically the same shot of the dome’s porous, embroidered exoskeleton of limestone and quartz, cascading in three horizontal tiers like fountain layers; and its nine-pronged garden and walkways, the temple reflected in water below. At the doors to the inner edifice, there is a laminated sign seemingly propelled from a desktop printer, complete with clip art: no photography, phones on silent, observe quiet.
Beyond that sign, not much goes on; the space is circular and oak, lined across with maybe 300 rusty-rose velvet seats, its translucent veined dome ceiling lets daylight into the hall, leading up to a glass cut of the Greatest Name, a calligraphic rendition of a word for God. A medium-height orange tree in a standard terra cotta pot stands modestly in the wings, taken from the house of “the Báb,” the original revolt’s young figurehead. The house was destroyed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1979. Ritual requires a permanent sense of the past and future in impermanent places; the relics gesture to nondisposability more than indispensability, within an otherwise malleable space that isn’t secularized but tended to like the private life of a household.
The temple’s innards encourage a similar relationship to spectatorship as that of the women’s bath house. We, inside, neither affirm nor deny anyone else. It carries the effect of putting your device, your life, on airplane mode. The social air pressure is lifted, and silence is imposed; self-broadcast is adjourned. Like John Berger’s reading, in an essay by the deglossed title “A Household,” of the Francisco de Zurbarán painting House of Nazareth, depicting an already grieving mother Mary at home with her young son who has pricked his finger on a thorn, the aesthetic form of the site seems to hinge on two spaces, one solid, the other visionary.
Zurbarán, whom Berger describes as “devout and sensuous,” rendered as sacred the domestic, specifically that which “accrues through labor: childbirth, ironed linen, prepared food, fresh clothes, arranged flowers, embroidery, clean children, washed floors. His art is infused, as that of no other painter of his time, by the experience, pride and pain of women.” The sense of what Berger calls the sacred comes here not from misty angels or the symbolic presence of doves but his tenebristic rendition of household objects, foregrounding them like messages emerging them out of a tuned-out background: “He sees not only a form but a task accomplished or being accomplished. The tasks are everyday household ones … They imply care, order, regularity: these qualities being honored not as moral categories but as evidence of meaning.”
If the sacred site is like a public still-life, a photograph can also infuse its subject with the sacred, or become a relic itself. Moments recorded can take a posthumous meaning, but against the chaos of recordable things, the achievement in capturing an object and making it sacred includes aesthetics. The tendency to say well-composed, dramatic captures of cascading groups are “like a Renaissance painting” highlights this kind of vision: when the mundane among daily chaos is suddenly partitioned off and called inviolable.
Last summer, the cultural geography of the U.S. was temporarily overlaid by astronomy. On the occasion of a full solar eclipse, many small American towns well situated for viewing its “totality” prepared to accommodate an influx of travelers. These visitors would pay seven times a month’s rent for a weekend in first-time AirBnbs, packing the local restaurants and leaving a mess.
The day before the eclipse, my mother and I were in a cafe in a suburb of Chicago, an interlude on our way to the temple — almost my third visit — when a friend texted, inviting me to carpool to just outside Carbondale, Illinois, in a region known as Little Egypt, where the eclipse would be most visible. I said goodbye to my mother, who would fly home the next day, watching the eclipse from the airport. One planned pilgrimage was swiftly replaced by another: My mother continued to the temple, while I quickly packed and went to join the more diffuse center of a temporal X.
The main spillways of online social life are not built to produce the busy distinction of a bazaar or plush bathroom lounge. But the dynamic co-presence that can emerge from a chatroom approximates a vaulted “inside”
As the moon’s 100-mile umbral shadow began its tramp from along the northwest, the “view from nowhere” of social media was, for several hours in many tiers, briefly suspended. Watching the solar eclipse on screen was like New Year’s Eve in reverse: Time passed at a different rate, in installments, through Lebanon, Idaho Falls, Casper, Grand Island, Kansas City, Carbondale, Nashville, Columbia. Pilgrimages were made to those coordinates, and the event was broadcast with varying degrees of technical success. Many people posted themselves simply looking up, because of course, everyone would know what they were looking at. You could, somehow, see it for yourself.
The event created a broad collective context within which to situate ourselves peripherally to a wave of totalizing awe, or at least entertainment, that made room for itself. What we offered each other were mild souvenirs of paper ephemera and crescent shadow photographs, and maybe a borrowed or stumbling description of being there, where and when the moon put the “day” out of the everyday.
The introduction to Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism, to be published posthumously later this year, describes the different forms of collectivity that emerged from 1960s counterculture. These, he argues, are typified by the place described in the Temptations song “Psychedelic Shack” — a place that, for all its “carnivalesque departures from everyday reality,” is “not a remote utopia” but possibly an “actual social space,” egalitarian and democratic, collective and “oriented to the outside,” that “bustles with all the energy of a bazaar,” where a “certain affect presides over everything. There is multiplicity, but little sign of resentment or malice.”
Fisher reminds us that Ellen Willis, who wrote that the “social and psychic” revolution, whose “seeds” lay in the counterculture of the time, believed it would concern organized care and domestic arrangements most of all. To Fisher, the psychedelic shack is not contained in any particular structure but is a dimension of many spontaneous collectives emerging at the time, a “specter” of both “actual historical developments and to a virtual confluence that has not yet come together in actuality.” Psychedelic shack, as a phrasal template, follows the same formula as internet cafe, television station, or even the somewhat inlaid web site: where something visionary merges with a material form.
The symbolic presence of an established sacred place (a church, a temple) can seem to deny the fact of its materiality and mutability and the realities of the living cities around them, as though by transcending the mundanity of the world the space is not also subject to the same dynamics. But sacred places are living: fastened to the relations that undergird them and maintain their existence, evolving and responding to capital, labor, and the people who create and make use of them. They belong to the locations in which they’ve settled, or through which they flow, and the fate of those places is their own.
Television, Fisher writes, helped constitute with other mass media a new emerging public sphere which projected itself into domestic space and back: It “broke down” a distinction “between dreams and waking life that film had begun.” The main spillways of online social life are not built to resemble semi-public places with private undercurrents, or to produce the busy distinction of a bazaar or plush bathroom lounge. But the dynamic co-presence that can emerge from, for example, a chat room, with its overtone of ambient social belonging, approximates what a vaulted “inside” can look like online. The difference between a “site” (web) and a bath house, temple, or park is a material one: the screen was designed for one-way broadcast and spectatorship, but as its reciprocal powers have emerged it increasingly evokes the setting of a fireside gathering.
When our “sites” became astronomically graced, what occurred was a brief view of collective immersion — where no one’s particular place, in looking, could be exalted above another’s. Here coordinates mattered, but the digital and the physical were resolved into an inner chamber that was more diffuse than the walls of a planetarium can express.