Project

PhD, Religious Studies, Duke University

Program

ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships

Department

Arts & Humanities

Work Affiliation

University of California, Berkeley

PhD Granting Institution

Duke University

Position Description

Dissertation: “Quantum Regimes: Genealogies of Virtual Matter and Healing the New Age Body”

My dissertation looks at “New Age” practices such as meditation, bio-hacking, acupuncture, energy healing, sacred dance, and humanistic psychology, which pervade popular culture, Silicon Valley, and bio-medical institutions in the 21st century. It makes sense of the booming alternative healthcare market in the United States by examining the spiritual currents that have bolstered it since the late 19th century, arguing that their popularity lies in their ability to make sense of reality and human existence in techno-scientific terms. Advancements in science and technology – namely quantum mechanics, computing, and the Internet but also cybernetics, molecular biology, computational biology, and information theory – have legitimized the virtuality on which prevailing metaphysical ideas have arisen. For us, the virtual, as the realm of things unseen but nonetheless real, is occupied by things like digital data, code, particles and radio waves. 19th and 20th century tech-science had filled it with electricity, electromagnetic fields, ether, and quantum energy. As science continued to discover the unseen and the digital began to dominate daily life, it became easier for metaphysics to legitimate its own contributions to the virtual realm such as souls, energies, chakras, telepathic waves, and connections to ancestors. A bulb gleaming with light, sound traveling cross-country, and messages sent instantly with a touch were all beguiling experiences when introduced; nothing short of miracles. Because of this shared enchantment, physics and metaphysics have always been intimately codependent. Emerging discoveries in ether physics around the turn of the 20th century, for example, informed metaphysical conceptions of the human body such as Theosophical models of an ethereal body, which then inspired what we know today as anesthesia. Quantum Regimes argues that religion and spirituality should be studied as material ontologies – metaphysical musings about the nature of matter, the human body, and consequent paradigms of health and healing. It traces this dance of techno-science and spirituality, which culminates in the New Age’s intersections with quantum physics, computing, and cybertechnologies today.
After exploring the history of metaphysical religions in American history through archival research, the project turns to ethnographic chapters based on two years of interviews in the San Francisco Bay Area highlighting the lived experiences of New Agers. They focus on first-generation Iranian- Americans whose prominence in the alternative healthcare landscape demonstrates the importance of including immigrant communities in studies of American religion and culture, the diversity of New Age spirituality, and the presence of racialized bodies in a movement largely known for being post-racial, universal, and progressive. Iranians also highlight healing in terms of their various subjectivities (national, political, and racial) and existential ailments, adding “homeland” and “lineage” to the repertoire of virtual matter. Weaving together the broader New Age and the particularities of the diasporic experience, I studied the body as the site on which social, political, neo-liberal, and racial subjectivities are negotiated – a unique project that requires deep reflections on the nature of materiality. My fieldwork coincided with the Trump presidency and the popularity of DNA testing, making conversations about race, ethnicity, and nationality commonplace around the Bay Area. These conversations also led to reflections on “ancestral DNA resonances,” “Eastern shamanic abilities,” “healing powers from this indigenous land,” and “tapping into the collective national soul.” As they reflected on life in diaspora, holding steadfast to connections to a homeland often embedded in the metaphysical fabrics of their bodies, they prompted the diverse population of New Agers around them to also consider the racial fabric of their own souls.
Chapter 1 historicizes the relationship between science, technology, and conceptions of the human body in American metaphysics. Chapter 2 uses film analysis to establish broader patterns of New Age engagement with quantum physics and the consequent tropes of healing. Chapter 3 traces the focus on the mind and its healing abilities since the 20th century, as we grappled with programming, coding, and the superior power of computers, and tends to the particularities of the Iranian diasporic experience, looking at how “quantum consciousness” reproduces race and ancestral connections. Chapter 4 examines the metaphorical and practical advantages of cybertechnologies for the purposes of healing, and Chapter 5 concludes by demonstrating what can now be achieved with this study of New Age materiality in hand.
Each of these chapters, in its own way, contributes to the fields of media studies, anthropology of the body, material religious studies, and history of science, technology, and medicine.

(Photo credit: Melissa Marrow)