Brian Larkin Former Senior Fellow

Brian Larkin
June - July 2011


Brian Larkin (born 1964) is Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University. He also is affiliated with Barnard's Africana studies program. He received his PhD in anthropology from New York University in 1998 where he took part in the Program in Culture and Media and became Adjunct Professor in the same year. He is the author of Signal and Noise: Infrastructure, Media and Urban Culture in Nigeria, (Duke UP 2008). The book traces the introduction of media technologies into the Muslim north of Nigeria and examines the interaction between the material qualities of technologies, religious practice and political rule. He has published works on media circulation, on piracy and intellectual property, on infrastructure and its breakdown and on Nigerian and Indian film. His current work examines the overlap between religious theory and theories of religion.

Dated from 2011

Fields of research

Media technologies in secular and Muslim modernities in northern Nigeria; circulation of transnational media flows; Indian films and Islamic media; the influence of media technologies on the rise of new Islamic movements in the north of Nigeria; Film, television, and the World Wide Web as ethnographic media.

IKKM Research Project

The Secular Machine: Operations of media and religion

The word Qur’an literally means recitation, the encoding of a religious message into a particular form mediated by voice and body. As a direct revelation from God, recited by the angel Gabriel to Mohammed, who in turn recited it to the Muslim umma, the process of transmission is as central to the constitution and authority of the text as is its meaning. Recursiveness is thus an immanent aspect of the Qur’an. Mohammed is known to Muslims as ‘the Messenger’, his enormous power derived from the fact he is a medium of transmission and the words he transmits represents God’s presence on earth. Since this originary moment of pure presence, each encoding of the Qur’an into differing media platforms – script, lithograph, print, radio, cassette – represents a move away from fullness and these remediations have often been subject to considerable discursive contest in the Muslim world. In this way, the Islamic tradition exemplifies a powerful lineage in Western thought that sees writing as deadening of the fullness and presence of oral speech. What is particularly interesting in Islam, however, is that discursive contests over religious mediation, particularly the issuing of fatwas, provide meta-commentary on the nature of a medium and its legality or illegality within Islamic law and practice. They provide, in part, an Islamic theory of media. This project examines the mediality of religious practice in Islam. It draws on traditions in media theory to open new ways of conceiving of religion, and at the same time analyzes how traditions of religious discipline create conditions of existence for media. There are two main aspects to this. On a conceptual level, I wish to explore the complex relationship between theories of religion and media theory. It is a basic claim of media theory that media shape our experience of space, and time, they rewire our cognitive faculties through techniques of the body that twist us into using our ears, eyes, hands, mouths in new ways, and create the technological apriori for modes of solidarity and community. Religions do not use media, from this point of view, rather media create the conditions that allow religions to exist and religious practice to be made palpable. This is also the terrain, however, that theorists have arrogated to religion. Emile Durkheim famously argued that our basic categories of thought such as space, time, number, genus, - “are born in religion and of religion”[1]. Moreover, for Durkheim and his student Marcel Mauss, religions institute basic disciplinary practices – practical techniques of repetition – that operate upon the body and out of which the experience of time, space community emerge. This is how religion is transmitted, “enter[s] into us and blend[s] with our inner life” (419)[2].

Media theory and religious theory are sometimes jealous cousins, then, competing over similar territory, drawing on similar processes. The competitive yet mutually influential interactions between religion and media are countered by the contradiction that media theory has often been constitutively secular in its orientation. This is not just the idea that modern media technologies are usually seen as presumptively secular by scholars, but that media are viewed as comprising the force that brings secularization about. Secularism, in this sense, is a kind of practical training separable from exterior ideologies of enlightenment or liberalism and locatable within media machines from literacy, to print, to electronic media. These are the secular machines of modernity. My aim is to examine these issues in more depth and interrogate the complicity and distinction between media and religion. Second, my research examines key moments of the introduction of media as it relates to religious practice. Drawing on archival and ethnographic research in Nigeria and in colonial archives in England, I focus on the moment when the Qur’an is resignified onto differing platforms – especially gramophone records and radio – and the controversies that ensue. I use fatwas as privileged sites where the ontology of media within the context of Islamic law is debated and where the disciplinary practices of technology and of religious law are placed into mutual interaction. The radio operates upon the ear, but as Charles Hirschkind has argued, for instance, ‘listening’ is also a religious competence, a socially regulated state that one cultivates within the norms and operations of religious practice. Islamic law disciplines how the secular machine of the phonograph is to be used just as the phonograph renders unstable the ritual conditions of the Qur’an. By examining the materiality of media technologies within the context of Islamic movements in Nigeria I trace the imbrication of technologies and religious practice.



Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2008.

Edited Books

mit Charles Hirschkind (eds.): “Media and the Political Forms of Religion”. Special Edition of Social Text, No. 96 (Fall 2008).
mit Faye Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod (eds.): Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain. Berkeley: University of California Press 2002.


“Imperial Circulation: Cinema and the making of anxious colonialists”. In: Brian Edwards, Dilip Gaonkar (eds.): Globalizing American Studies. Chicago: Chicago University Press. (forthcoming 2010)
“Islamic, Renewal, Radio and the Surface of Things”. In: Birgit Meyer (ed.): Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, Senses. New York: Palgrave 2009, p. 117-136.
“On National Allegory”. In: Social Text, No. 100 (Fall 2009), p. 164-168.
with Birgit Meyer: “Pentecostalism, Islam and Culture: New Religious Movements in West Africa”. In: Emmanuel Akyeampong (ed.): Themes in West African History. Oxford: James Currey 2006, p. 286-312.
“Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy”. Public Culture, Vol. 16, No 2 (Spring 2004), p.289-314.