The Shakes

The Shakes: Conditions of Tremor

Steven Connor

Published in The Senses and Society, 3 (2008): 205-20.

To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. Isaiah 66.2

So terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake. (Hebrews, 12.21)

‘It’s a boo-‘ (Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits)

It is not merely human persons and actions and institutions that have discernible lives and tellable histories and even destinies. There are feelings and sensations that also get a life, transmitted like names or memes across the generations. Among these, there are many forms of movement, shared between human beings and animals and natural objects, of which it is dull and proprietorial of us to pretend that they are merely adjuncts of our lives which live out their lives in human and natural history. Many of the things we do and feel and are, start to make shift for themselves. They may begin as mere adjectival features of human life, mere aspects or attributes or properties or qualities, but have long since acquired the status of substantives, their own shape and history, as the trace of a movement inscribing itself into the permanence of form. They not only have secondary, intermittent lives in our languages and images and social styles and fantasies; they are also objectively transmitted across generations. Just as photography has shown to us the uncanny persistence across generations of the family nose, the tilt of a brow, the pursing of the lips, so moving pictures and sound recordings can be expected to show viewers in the future the persistence and recurrence of gaits and postures, accents and timbres. Among the lives that ripple through our individual lives are all the ordinary forms of movement: of falling, of leaping, of running, along with other gaits and ways of going (think of the literally untold riches contained in limping and crawling); and also all the manners and postures of keeping still: sitting, standing, lying, none of which are ever merely still, but are forms of holding back from movement, in which, rather than being absent, movement is held up, or is in waiting.

Some of these forms are merely idiosyncratic (though we can never be utterly sure of this); some of them become the subject of systematic organisation (they are turned into organs and organisms), and are the effect of concerted and determinate social actions upon what can be thought of as social bodies, or the social body. One could imagine a history of military bearing, or of religious posture, with its repertoire of forms of lowering, or of the modes of female decorum. Only a couple of generations ago, the inhabitants of maritime nations would still claim to be able to detect a seagoing roll in the gait of a sailor in civvies. Richard Sennett and others have begun to make out ways of telling the story of public sitting. Too often, however, the tendency is to see such effects as the mere imprinting of abstract forms upon an otherwise neutral and indifferent bodily clay: Foucault’s remarks, for example, about the schooling of the school-body, by the shape of the desk and the evolution of the form of the classroom – known in English public schools as, precisely, a ‘form-room’.

But there may be another kind of story to be told, or another way of telling the story of the movements of bodies, in which it is the actions and movements and cadences of the body which are taken to be agential; surviving because of certain processes of selection and accidental privilege, and gradually coming to have something like an autonomy, or a life of their own. What follows comes out of an intuition that these forms of life might be told of, might be disconcerted, disaggregated from the large-scale, long-range, preconcerted ways of understanding and discussion in which they customarily, invisibly reside.

I have in mind something like the sensations spoken of by Deleuze and Guattari in the remarkable chapter of their What Is Philosophy? that deals with art and the aesthetic. There they write that it is the work of a work of art to preserve blocs of sensation, by which they mean compounds of percepts and affects, always remembering that ‘Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 164).

Undoubtedly, some of these cadences and dispositions of the body are preserved in visual art. The stations and postures of the voice leave ghostly prints in literary writing. Others are recorded in dance styles, though these are nowadays subject to rapid degradation. But I am not interested in art, or the aesthetic, that great territorialising mass which exerts so remarkable an attractive force on this last, recanting work of Deleuze and Guattari. I am helped, not so much by their overheated arguments for the specific power of art to join its mode of nonhuman becoming, or becoming inhuman to the becoming of the cosmos, as by their sense of the autonomy of sensations from those who live them, who are their bearers or instances. Sensations and action-sensations, compounds of actions and sensations, are trying to make a living from us. The sorts of thing that get variously grouped together and called art are certainly to be included in the ways in which these livings are made. But, for me, it is not necessarily, or even mostly in art that this living on and living out occurs. Forms of artistic embodiment are gatherings, comings to rest and relay points for the forms of life in which I am interested.

These styles of life are not merely evanescent. Before the development of recording technologies, they were hard to fix reliably, but this did not mean that they merely passed across the face of human history, leaving no trace. For such things always consist as much in their aptness for contagious mimesis as in the difficulty of fixing any one particular instance of them. A smile, a gesture, an attitude will pass; but will also be resumed, at some other time, in some other body. Such things survive like viruses and other organisms, not by monumental means, but by the effects of mnemonic mimesis. They remain where they are by coming and going; they could be called ‘mimemes’. Their passage is in large part the possibility of their preservation. Their instancings in human culture and history, the necessary sedimentations which make them visible, by which I mean crudely, the ways in which such things get talked about, pictured and presupposed, do not hold them in place, since they consist of their power to move from place to place, always to have come from somewhere else, always to form part of some other aggregate, and to be on their way towards some other instancing.

One way to think of this way of making history out of sensation is as a mythopoeic procedure. In a sense, I am allowing the possibility of a certain kind of mythical personification of sensations. I think of the sensations in which I am interested in something of the way that Yeats conceived powerful passions, or what he called Moods, which, he thought, had an existence that went beyond and moved between the human beings who experienced them. A mood, or a passion did not come from inside: it descended like a mask. This is why the passionate man is always an actor, possessed by the godlike mask of his passion. The demon of the man’s passion cannot exist without the man, just as the parasite or virus cannot exist without its carrier-host, but it is more, or other, than the man. The parallel with Yeats has only to be stated in order, I hope for the most important difference to appear. Yeats was interested in the lifting up or concentration of ordinary experience into passion or mask. I am interested in feelings and sensations which seem to want to stay below the threshold of visibility and experience, feelings and sensations whose survival depends, again virus-like, on lying low, that scarcely seem detachable from their immediate, and intermittent appearances and functions, that appear merely phenomenal, animal. Such forms of always-temporary and incipient organisation insist and survive on being, without ever coming into being. They are sensations and forms of bodily organisation, in other words, that have the minimum of form or outline necessary to be recognised, that it seems absurd or beside the point to pack together or lift up into autonomy.

Among the most curious and compelling of these action-sensations is shaking. We have many words for this particular kind of agitation of the body and of bodies in general. We shake and quake and quiver and tremble and flutter and shudder with anger, with fright, with disgust, with horror, with sexual arousal, in religious ecstasy, in conditions of illness and debility, and then just from old age (all age being old age). Shaking sometimes erupts into highly visible forms: into sneezes, orgasms, fits, rages and religious convulsions. If we think of shaking as involuntary action, it can nevertheless take channelled forms, as in tics and twitches and other compulsive but spasmodic syntaxes of the body, which signify, not so much a body out of control, as a body submitted to a different, sometimes higher principles of control. Of course, what shaking means will always be relative to the particular area of life in which it is at work or frame of interpretation that goes to work on it. Shaking will mean fragility, fear, awe; it will be ‘sacred theater’ or medical problem, depending. But the possibility I would like to allow a little breathing space to here is that a fragile, discontinuous chain – a chain held together by its breaks – runs through all these shifting instances and contexts, forming a miniature, parasitic life, the life of a sensation.


Shaking can be classed as an action-sensation. I mean by this, that it is an action that invariably connotes and corresponds to a corresponding sensation. The action becomes the object of a perception, but a perception that participates in high degree in the sensation. Watching the twitching of an eyelid, the trembling of a pair of hands, it is hard to retain our composure. We seem to feel the action incipiently, as a sensation, a ghostly ripple of sympathy at work in us. Itch might be said to work in the opposite way, as a sensation which is inevitably coupled with or leads to an action (the action of scratching). Perhaps itch is a sensation-action. Shaking must be confined, because its nature is to transmit itself. It takes on its life in its lines of flight. This is true of most action-sensations, actions which impart themselves, through the desire to imitate; yawning, crying, laughing and sneezing – in all of which trembling plays an important part. The esoteric tradition saw powerful and important resemblances between different forms of shaking. Paracelsus saw fundamental acts of shaking as equivalent: the gathering and bursting of the earthly ‘egg’ in earthquake and the bodily egg in orgasm.

Shaking, swaying and trembling appear regularly in trance-inducing behaviour and ritual practice in various different cultures, including among Finnish, Siberian and Japanese shamans, the Kalahari !Kung and the Magar Rama of Nepal (Fries 1996). The purpose of this kind of ecstatic shaking is both to bring about effects of dissociation and to signify the onset of the magically altered condition to observers. Shaking and swaying centre a being on itself, while also seeming to open it to another manner of being, another kind of body altogether, a body of movement. Shaking compels and sustains itself; it is mesmerising because the sympathetic principle is extended inwards as well as outwards. The shaking creature is lost in self-imitation.

The communicability of these sensations can come about partly because shaking is an imaging of a body that is resonating or has become sonorous. The shaking body has become diffused, its mass has been volatilised into process. Shaking belongs to a different universe or physical order from the universe of colliding solids announced by Newton. It belongs to a physical universe based on the principle of sympathetic resonance, in which substances and events reach into each other’s hearts.

Strong Weakness

Shaking is to be understood as one of a number of bodily affections which explore and continuously reinvent the power of weakness and abasement.

The Encyclopédie defines ‘tremblement’ in its medicinal sense as ‘an involuntary alternating weak and disorganised movement in one of our organs, or in several at once’ The malady of tremor is caused by ‘a lack of tone and the effort of the afflicted parts to restore this tone’, and goes on to distinguish between the active and passive forms of tremor (Diderot and d’Alembert 1765, 583).. Medically, trembling and convulsion have been associated with palsy, or paralysis, mostly in the attempts to understand neurological events like stroke and degenerative conditionsuch as Parkinson’s disease, first described in James Parkinson’s Essay on the Shaking Palsy of 1817. Palsy in fact implies just such a mixed condition, a commingling of power and debility. In palsy, as opposed to paralysis, it is as though powerlessness had a presence and a power of its own.

Trembling always signifies a disequilibrium or passage of power. An object may be made to tremble as a result of a blow, or a sound, or some incoming influence that transmits an energy into the receiving object which cannot all be diffused in movement, but is, as it were held and dispersed in the aftershock of tremor. But trembling can also, in living bodies, be the expression of an inner impulse or desire, which moves from the inside outwards. During the nineteenth century, there was considerable medical interest in the effects of alcoholic and syphilitic shaking, which were seen as expressive of an inner debility or depravity.

But, in both cases, trembling involves the meeting and exchange of a strength and a weakness, a form and a deforming impact. A strength meets a weakness that is not quite weak enough simply to absorb it, to collapse and vanish under the blow. Indeed, if the weakness were total, the blow would be lost, like a sword that cleft only air. Instead, the passive side is just strong enough to capture and hold some of the strength that assails it, and thus to send the strength back to itself. Whence does weakness, passivity find this residual, this resiling strength? Not from itself, but from the elasticity disovered in it as the result of impact. Weakness borrows the strength to be weak in the face of assailing strength from strength itself. It borrows its resistance from what it resists. Tremor is the prolonging of an impact. Whether as the expression of an inner impulse, or the mark of an outer impact, tremor, the sign of weakness, is a kind of holding, a deflecting detention of power. In it, there is always a weakness that speaks to and has commerce with a strength. Tremor sometimes passes across the skin; but even when it does not, it seems to happen at or amid a skin. For tremor is a matter of a border, a membrane. The sail is taut enough to detain the wind; the paper holds together enough to keep the hand’s mark. In the writing of a page, we can see the commerce of this strength and weakness. For the hand that would write needs a page that is strong and stretched enough not to give way under it, but then borrows from that resistance strength to continue with its work of marking. Tremor makes out a mobile firmament in which strength and weakness can communicate.

Holding and diffusion are the same thing in trembling and shaking.Trembling holds shock, in the form of its vibrant tension, as the spider’s web protects itself against being torn by the strugglings of the fly. It holds the shock by diffusing it, across a network or surface. Diffusion is the strength of weakness, It is weakness that threatens to spread, to replicate itself. Tremor is seduction, induction; a temptation as well as a terror.

But shaking is also the sign of an endogenous turbulence; of a force or power gathering from within, and a resulting disequilibrium between inner and outer that will result in some effusion. In religious or ritual uses, shaking is nearly always preparatory or annunciatory, and the effusion is almost always of sound, often in the form of glossolalic utterance. This vocal effusion stays on a borderline between pure somatic sound and signifying utterance, between sound and sign, body and language. As such it both perfects and replicates the preparatory tremor. Tremor is a border between a weakness and a strength, a tension and a release. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the borderline between the body and an event, especially the event of language. Tremor speaks. The stammer is the perfect form of this tremulousness; the stammer is not just a hesitation in speech, it is a hesitation between speech and the nonspeech of the aphonic body.

The debility of the shaking hand lies in its incapacity to grasp, of the tremulous foot its inability properly to plant its weight. Shaking prohibits the concussive encounter with the world necessary to its grasping. Shaking prohibits and dissolves edges, faces, clean lines of contact. The shaking hand or finger is incapable of that grasping and using, that purposeful blending of hand and world evoked by Heidegger’s hammer. All the shaking hand can do to the world is to shake it. Shaking makes everything with which it comes into contact – and it seems to want to spread, in order to come into contact with everything – weightless, placeless, edgeless; it brings about commotion. Shaking turns one into a quivering marionette.

And yet the power of shaking is immense. Shaking is far more destructive than buffeting: an earthquake can do more damage than a hurricane, because a hurricane can impact only the outside of things. An earthquake reaches into the heart of things, like a sound. When a wind reaches a certain frequency and regularity, when it approximates to a vibration, it multiplies its power, and can become an earthquake, can coincide with the resonant frequency of objects, and liberate the energy of earthquake in things. Shaking makes things strong and weak at once; it makes them strong enough to shake themselves to pieces.

Shaking in Time

Tremor, in its most familiar manifestations, is passing and temporary (only so can it hold time up, or gather it together). Tremor is annunciatory; the quiver before a sneeze, or a sexual climax, or a convulsion of the earth, or the shaking of the sacrificial goat sprinkled with water that confirmed the readiness of the god to appear in his oracle. Perhaps because of biological parallels: the tiny shudderings that precede a sneeze, the agitations that precede sexual climax, the quivering that precedes and produces defecation of pellets in animals such as owls, shivers and shakes are powerfully impending. There was much concern in the late eighteenth century about the danger of convulsions in childbirth. Tremor will give way to or issue in some other event; in exhaustion, in death, or cry, or climax, or religious appearance. It is aimed at its outcome, at what lies beyond and outside it. It is not itself a sign, so much as a proof that there is to be a sign. But tremor has a will to the dilatory, to prolongation rather than ending. Tremor is a drawing back, or delay of what it portends; it is a rippling or stuttering of time. Tremor is the refusal of series, and wants to go for ever. What powers this refusal of series, this spot or distension of time, this marching on the spot? It seems to power and feed on itself, as the stammer seems to derive its energy from some alternative principle, that wards and wards off speech at once.

If shaking is a holding together, a membrane, its is also a morcellation. When you shake, you are enacting a coming apart, a shaking to pieces. It is because of this that shivering and shaking are related to granularity – to particulate matter, and the shiftings of sands, the swirls of powders and dust. To shake is to enter the manner of life of the multiple. It is to turn things to dust, to that which swarms and swirls. Shaking gives massed beings the swarming movement of tiny aggregated particles – of powder or dust. The only way to give dust a shape is to shake it.

The word ‘convulsion’ comes from con-vellere, meaning to tear apart, to pull into all directions. The prefix ‘con’ works to add the sense of pulling together; convulsion is a way of pulling yourself together, as well as being torn apart. It is the enactment of a dismemberment, the body torn into tiny pieces, that is nevertheless held in one place. Convulsion is a held-together-coming-apart.

Being in Motion

Quaking has a central core, which is not to be understood without the human involvement with the shaking of the earth, that most terrible disruption of all. Shaking signifies the ancient apprehension that there is no true stillness ever, anywhere, not even sunk in the heart of the deepest permafrost. Not, all things are flowing; but all things are ebbing-and-flowing. Shaking is not movement towards any end. Shaking is movement freed from itinerary; movement on the spot; coming and going without ever getting anywhere. It is being-in-motion which we polarise arbitrarily into points and vectors, stillness and movement. As such, it amplifies and mimics the fluctuations and oscillations that enact the mere, sheer process of life going on: the contraction and release of the heart, the intake and expiration of breath and of food, the cycles of desire and fertility. We are accustomed to refer to such processes as cyclical rather than linear, but they are perhaps better understood as oscillations, undulations, or movements back and forth. Human life, like all carbon-based organic life, consists of a shaking down; of movements of shuttling oscillation that gradually shake us to bits, wasting and eroding our frames. Shaking testifies to a different order from that of objects and trajectories and territories and forces; an order of intensities and slackenings, dilations and contractions, accelerations and slowings, ebullitions and chills, liftings and lapsings, distensions and narrowings, seethings and creepings, sensitivities and numbness. Not time, but temps: temper, temperature. The history of shaking would make sense as part of a history of oscillations of temperature in history.


One of the areas in which shaking has attained a kind of distinguishable profile is in symbolic religious action, and particularly in the ferment of new sects and forms of religious performance in England in the 1600s and in France in the early 1700s. The most successful and long-lived of these sects is the Quakers, who were originally and insultingly so-named because of their habit of demonstrating the access of the spirit by fits of trembling or quaking. As with the other radical sects who rose up during the Civil War – the Diggers, the Ranters, the Muggletonians – the Quakers did not name themselves. The name was given to them in scorn, and has been embraced in the same way as other religious and racial minorities have embraced such opprobrious terms. George Fox, their leader, records that ‘This was Justice Bennet of Derby that first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God, and this was in the year 1650′ (quoted Steere 1984, 73). Others have assumed that the Quakers were so called because of the fits of shaking and trembling into which they themselves were thrown by the closeness of the spirit. There is a hesitation of meaning here between the transitive and intransitive meanings of the word: the Quakers who are caused to shake, and the shaking they themselves caused or threatened. Shaking and quaking caused a disturbing communication or short-circuit between abasement and self-assertion. The Quakers were indeed regarded, like the Ranters and Diggers, as acting in ways that shook the fabrics of religious and even political truth. Their hostility to forms of polite behaviour and civility – which extended not just to the refusal to doff their hats to their superiors, but also to their refusal to engage in the ritual niceties of greeting and leavetaking – seems to have attracted to them rather more than their fair share of persecutions; imprisonings, abuse, buffetings and whippings. It is hard not to see a relation between the ‘threshing’ of souls which was said to take place at Quaker meetings and the spectacle of the judicial thrashings seemingly courted by some Quakers. Whipping was an unconscious parody of the mode of bodily mortification of the body cultivated by Quakers themselves. Higginson saw the disordered and discontinuous speech of the Quakers, correlate of the inspirational shaking and quaking that gave the movement its name, as a shuddering, particulate mass:

His beginning is without a text, abrupt and sudden to his hearers, his voice for the most part low, his sentences incoherent, hanging together like ropes of sand, very frequently full of impiety and horrid errors, and sometimes full of sudden pauses, his whole speech a mixed bundle of words and heap of nonsense. (Higginson 1653, 12).

Others, like the author of The Quakers Beacon Fired, saw a multiplicity of forms of turbulent and disruptive motion in the activities of the Quakers, mocking ‘the preposterous ways of many of them which like a strong gust of wind, violently turns about the Wind-mill of their affections, having no settled Tenets, but each Vulture-like, gnawing upon the invented prey of his own brain-sick Fancy, whirling about, being dislocated from the true Centre’. They are ‘of the same Race as Lurchers and Tumblers‘, such that ‘by the vertue of Hocus, they can knock all old frames in pieces, and blow up a new one in an instant, as they do bottles at the Glass-house; and all this without the help of Reason (Anon 1655, 4-5).

I have said that shaking is related to the sense of powerful imminence, or temporal proximity. Closeness is an essential feature in the explication of shaking offered by the modern Quaker writer Rufus M. Jones.

These first Friends who trembled with a consciousness of God’s nearness to them, and who rightly got the name of “Quakers,” were in no doubt about the main fact. There was One nearer to them than breathing who “spoke to their condition.” They felt the healing of God drop upon their souls. The whole creation had a new smell. They were “moved” to their tasks. They were dealing not with flesh and blood but with Spirit. They were called out from the plough and shop to enter upon a high commission. They at least had no doubt that “something in man” was in direct correspondence with God. They therefore eliminated mediators and seconds, and insisted upon the direct way and that which was first. (Jones 1980, 42).

But closeness is not complete, or it would already be identity. Closeness in space, like closeness in time, closes the gap between separated entities, but does not entirely dissolve the membrane of difference formed by their very proximity to each other. Shaking signifies, not so much the absolute surrender of the body to a power, as the asymptotic propinquity of that power, a power in the immediate vicinity, a closeness that penetrates without ever losing its imminence. Shaking is not a display or sign, or net yet a sign. Or it is the sign of the not-yet, the legible promise that a sign is in the offing. The oscillation between act and sign, between what is now and what is about to be, is one of the many ways in which the act of shaking – whether as act or sign, whether presently or proleptically – offers itself to be read. In Quaker performance, shaking is a kind of bodily speech before speech, and actually precedes the access of the spirit. Rather than accelerating the inundation of spirit, the entering of new life, shaking actually holds it back, holds it together in its imminence.

Like many other radical sects, the Friends used what Clarke Garrett has called their ‘sacred theatre’ to demonstrate their contempt for language and the proud theology of the worldly Word (Garrett 1987). Trembling was the opposite of language, one of its many opposites. It was silence’s other voice. Perhaps the desperate and deliberate impoverishment of language in Quaker discourse was an attempt, as Gilles Deleuze has put it, to make language itself tremble or stammer: to take the hesitation on the brink of language which belongs to the stammerer, and import it into language, to create ‘a stuttering, with every position of a or the constituting a zone of vibration’ and a language which ‘trembles from head to toe’ (Deleuze 1998, 109). Language can be considered as a universal frame or container, that is capable of getting outside, containing and holding together everything with which it has dealings. But when language is made to stammer or shake, the frame itself is threatened. Threatened, but not broken: for that is the meaning of shaking: it is pulverisation with everything kept in place. Shaking is the actualisation of the possibility of stepping outside the skin or envelope of precedence and predictable forms. What holds or supports shaking? It holds itself together. It is a routine for holding together dissolution.

Quakers were often confused with Ranters, and did indeed have in common with them a fascination with the idea of a purifying destruction. Where Quakers joined a suggestive ecstasy of the body to extreme plainness of speech and demeanour, the Ranters were characterised, as their name suggests, by extreme prolixity and elated disturbance of speech. Both sects were concerned to assault the conventional forms of religious discourse; but where Quakers sought to lower and degrade the outward forms of language, Ranters sought to explode language into wild hyperbole. Where the quivering body of the Quaker is a motion with the mute powers of a voice, Ranters like Abiezer Coppe offer images of voice as raw motion, as in the culmination of this section from his Some Sweet Sips of Some Spirituall Wine:

The King himself (whose houses you all are) who can, and will, and well may break open his own houses; throw the doors off the hinges with his powerful voyce, which rendeth the heavens, shatter these doors to shivers, and break in upon his people. (Smith 1984, 52).

The Ranters have in common with the Quakers a desire for a sonorised divinity, one which is evidenced in the power of voice both to affect and itself to appear as a state of matter, capable of intervening in other states of matter – in particular human bodies. Ranters like Cope act out a kind of shaking of the established truths and practices of religion. Shaking involves a melting of the distinctions that set truths apart from their representations:

Oh dear hearts! let us look for, and hasten to the comming of the Day of God, wherein the Heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the Elements (Rudiments, first principles) . (Imagine formall Prayer, formall Baptism, formall Supper – &c) shall melt away, with fervent heate, into God; and all Forms, appearances, Types, Signes, Shadows, Flesh, do, and shall melt away (with fervent heate) into power, reallity, Truth, the thing signified, Substance, Spirit. (Smith 1984, 71)

But shaking is not toppling or inversion,or the destruction of all difference and mediation. The Ranters may have promoted a near-diabolic refusal of the conventional religious associations between truth, piety and bodily restraint, asserting the holiness rather than the iniquity of the flesh in their energetic drinking, fornicating and holy swearing, all of which find a parallel in the foaming invective style invented by Abiezer Cope, their great spokesman. But they could not rest content with the simple inversion that would assert the holiness of the profane. Rather, holiness and profanity must be made to oscillate – to be made to shake permanently, which is to say, to alternate the holy and the profane unceasingly. During his imprisonment following the passing of the Blasphemy Act, Coppe wrote a defiant letter to his followers. Though imprisoned in the stronghold of Newgate, he is enthroned in his own ‘stronghold’ which enables him to be in Coventry where his followers are imprisoned.

I live in yor peace & freedome because I dwell in my selfe att Coventrie, Newgate (where I am) [(] for suspicion of Blasphemie and Treason agt the State) is noe prison to mee while I am inthroned in my Triple heart wch is but one and triangular, which is as firme as a stone, when I my selfe ( heere & there and everywhere) raise uppe my selfe, the mighty shall bee afraid by reason of Breakings … My deare salute all the saints in the Goale, Haile from the Genall to the Peddee’s, with an Holye Kisse. Love mee & love my dogge, I am soe backwards forever,
Alpha & Omega ABC. (Smith 1984, 117)

In later weeks, Coppe wrote a series of recantations, explaining that he had been misled, but had now regained his sober piety. But his recantation takes the form of a series of falls and risings, collapses and restorations. First of all, he writes, he was undone into inspiration, by a Lord who required him, like the Israelites to pitch and remove his tents from place to place, ‘fling dirt’ in the face of all other ways or worship. He is then inveighed upon to leave that way, by the vision of ‘unfathomable, unspeakable mysteries and glories’ – a period of excessive, unspeakable bliss. This itself gives way to another convulsive awakening, named by Coppe with the favourite allusion of the Quakers, to Habbakuk 3:

at length the terrible, notable day of the Lord, stole upon me unawares, like a thiefe in the night…
when I saw him –
My bowels trembled, my lips quivered, rottenness entered into my bones, &c (Smith 1984, 129).

The larger context of the passage evoked by Coppe speaks of the trembling of the prophet at the prospect of the vengeful Lord God striding through the land, causing the shaking and scattering of mountains, the trembling of the curtains of the land of Midian, and (another favourite Quaker reference) ‘threshing the nations in anger’. But this vision of the Lord heralds for Coppe, not awakening, but further intoxication and degradation, as he builds a great Babel, and sinks to the level of the beasts:

And thus was I driven from MEN.
And I have been with the BEASTS of the field, Dan, 4, 32, 33.
I have fed with BEASTS, &c.
I have eaten GRASSE with OXEN.
Have been conversant with BEASTS.
And have been company for BEASTS, &c.
And sure I am, (a) my hairs were grown like EAGLES feathers; and my nails like Birds CLAWES. (a) Dan 4. 33.
And (now I am come to my self) I know it, and divers will know, (as many have felt) what I mean. -
But those daies are ended, Dan. 4. 34. (Smith 1984, 130)

This recantation is in part re-incantation, re-enchantment. The word comes and goes, flickering between beast and man, man and God, word and Word. The obsessive, quivering song of exaltation keeps reasserting itself as Coppe tries to unloop himself from it into plainness. Shaking may not be written, since it is the shaking of speech and reason. But this is a kind of writing that is shaken by that shaking, in its obsessive back and forth, its involuted iterations.

One might expect there to be much more documentation of and reflection on the very distinctive form of bodily affection which gave the Quakers their name. In fact, after the highly damaging public condemnation of the visionary John Nayler, the Quakers made conspicuous efforts to distance themslves from the corporeal displays that had characterised the 1650s. William Penn wrote in 1671 that ‘by revelation we don’t mean whimsical rapture, strange and prodigious trances. We disclaim any share or interest in those vain whimsies and idle intoxications, professing our revelation to be solid and necessary discovery from the Lord’ (quoted Endy 1973, 255). The growing uneasiness of Quakers with the bodily manifestations that gave their opponents a name to fling at them in scorn means that there are very few interior accounts of the phenomenology of religious quaking.

The question of naming vibrates within the nameless action of shaking, as the action and its name oscillate. When did shaking and quaking first become recognisable and nameable as such, as a characteristic action, rather than an effect, as an affection capable of being folded over into affectation? Hints may be given by a pamphlet of 1653 called The Quakers Shaken by John Gilpin, a convert to Quakerism, and then a convert from it. Gilpin describes a period of intense religious mania and hallucinations brought on by his contact with the Quakers and his desire to experience the intensity of religious feeling he saw among them. His aim is to show that what he took an experience of possession by a divine spirit was in fact demonic possession. His account gives us a vivid and powerfully interior picture of the semiomachia or struggle for meaning involved in the variegated forms of his shaking and associated fits and spasms.

Like other Quakers, Gilpin was hungry to bypass the word, and to assert a kind of Artaudian primary body beneath or behind words or the official ecclesiastical Word. His quakings prostrate him. laying him low on the ground, as is normal in such ritual abasements; but they also repeatedly set him on his feet. His shakings are not just a regular lateral movement, moving the body to and fro and from side to side, they are a knotting together or rotation of all the body’s orientations. His shakings are read as a birth, the shaking of a hand (Quakers would not salute each other with conventional forms, preferring the simplicity of bodily movements) and, most importantly a crucifixion. In this phantasmal crucifixion, the body is both tossed and crossed over itself, front and back, left and right, top and bottom changing places; and yet the figure of the cross, the very figure of the incarnation as an intersection of worlds and orders of being, divine and human, holds together and apart at once the crossings of which it consists. His movements signify not just the shaking of the body between different postures, nor even its shaking back and forth between the conditions of the profane and reborn flesh; they also signify the movement between signification and nonsignification. The body is no mere sign or picture, for Quakers distrusted and disdained all such signs. It is itself bodily ostension of the unmediated power, the unlessenable proximity of the divine light. But in being a proof, a showing forth, it must also be a doubling, folding over, a showing of itself as a showing – a nameless self-nomination. As such, its status as sign begins to shudder. It is the sign of a trembling of signification, a sign that trembles with the trembling that it itself thrusts forward. Being on the cross is the sign, not just of identification with Christ, but with exactly the opposite, hanging from the tree of knowledge. Many of Gilpin’s enactments concerned the taking up of an imaginary cross, or the sketching of a cross in the dust and grinding his head against it. But he is deprived even of this support by the apprehension that Christ has no love of the false and deluding image of the cross. The cross, the very sign of fixation, the fixing of signs, comes and goes restlessly.

The very unrepresentability of shaking is what might make it that kind of bodily tensor which Lyotard has evoked in writing of the hysterical performances of Charcot’s clinic – a state or disposition of the body that comes before the law of sense, before it is raised into legibility.

They were photographed to make up an album of hysteria, so as to decipher what they might possibly be saying by these postures. Which implies this: that these bodily states were semantic elements and that they could be linked together by a syntax. One would thus obtain sentences, regulated sequences, and, along with them, meaning. But the photograph which was to make them speak produces an opposite impression on us. It fixes thestates in their suspended instability, isolates them one from another, does not restore the syntax linking them. It makes us see tensorial stances. (Lyotard 1991, 133)

Lyotard evokes a performance with no scene, or a minimal oscillation between action and performance. Like the atomisation of the photographs of the hysterics – a kind of acinematisation before cinema – shaking provides no surface, no syntax, no scene, no ground on which to support itself. Only shaking holds it together, the same shaking that is shaking it to bits. (This is perhaps why the victim or subject of shaking is so perilously, deliriously close to things, as close as one is to oneself, so close that distance cannot any more be registered.)

Like Coppe, Gilpin is here writing a recantation, seeking to show ‘how prevalent the imposture of quaking hath been’ (Gilpin 1653, 2). As his paroxysms grow more exorbitant, so he begins himself to recoil from them, suspecting that they may emanate not from God but from the devil. (This is what all the opponents of the Quakers were wont to say and what eventually they began themselves to suspect.) What is remarkable about Gilpin’s account is the way in which he is thrown back and forth between the demonic explanation for the power acting upon him and a divine explanation. Each time he seems to awaken into the awareness that he has been acted in and on by the devil, he enters into a condition of godliness, which in its turn is revealed to be an imposture. Things would be simple if there were simply power (God) and the imposture of power (the devil). But imposture has become itself a power, a power to simulate the operations of power, which may in fact be more powerful than what it simulates. Soon, Gilpin’s narrative has turned into the same condition of unassuagable equivocation as Abiezer Coppe’s, of pure stammer between these alternatives. The only way to still this perturbation is by a renunciation of the idea that God can indeed express himself directly in the body, as instanced by quaking. From now on, quaking and trembling must be assigned to the devil alone, and the ‘principles of Christian religion and Sanctified reason’ reasserted over them.

General Perturbation

The Quaker shakings took place during a period of marked religious and political convulsion, a time out of time that gave way to new forms of settlement, as, after a storm or earthquake, the contours of the land reestablish themselves and the earth starts to go about its business again. Convulsion has always hitherto appeared in the light of a new birth, a quickening, a gathering to a climax. This is perhaps to say that all kinds of convulsion have issue in something else. But taken on its own terms, convulsion, whether of the body, or of the body politic, or the body scientific, stands aside from time. It is not just convulsion in time, it is also precisely the convulsion of time, the pulling into apartness of time. Convulsion clots, conglomerates or ravels time. It is the body’s revenge on the time that slowly and irresistibly makes away with it; shaking draws time up into the body; more even than this, it makes time into a body, an agitated corporeal mass. When shaking is generalised beyond these religious or pathological instances, it is the sign and promise of a different relation to time, a different economy of time.

Where do the signs and effects of convulsion linger in our time? Certainly in contemporary forms of dance, in which shudder and convulsion predominate, in which the body attempts to go beyond the body, into matter or mechanism, or matter and mechanism supply the form of a volatilised body (‘swing’, ‘shakin’ all over’, rock and roll, good vibrations). But perhaps more generally in a reawakened conception of the irradiating world, the world of waves and sympathies, mutual enfoldings, rather than collisions, encounters and assemblages. The shaking world is a world of electromagnetic inductions rather than the locomotive world of propelled objects; it is a world of reciprocally modifiable states of matter rather than the laborious world of mechanical science, a world of intensities rather than itineraries, a world of rapid iterations rather than extensions. The mechanical world was one in which mass and motion were perpendicular to each other, in which change was effected by work, the movement of mass through space, and the overcoming of frictional inertias. The electro-magnetic world is one in which everything stays exactly where it is and shakes, moving up and down a spectrum of agitation. It is governed not by large kinetic forces that were easily subject to entropic decay, but by the transmission and amplification of tiny fluctuations in electro-magnetic charge, which were easy to preserve without loss or degradation, as in electric motors and electronically-driven apparatus like the telephone, or the exploitation of other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum in radio waves. The great principle of technological modernity, the interconvertibility of forms of energy, whether thermodynamic, or electromagnetic, depends upon sympathetic vibrations. The principle of the regulated shiver, of tiny oscillations in the state of matter, underlies most electronic and communications technology. The development of the cinema depended upon the rapid alternation of visual impulses: the body of cinema being a body of flickers between light and dark; TV depends similarly upon patterns of alternation, and audio technology from the phonograph to the CD player depends upon movements of rapid vibration. It is no surprise to find confirmation of the analogies between the new scientific view of the world and the magical thinking of spiritualism at the beginning of the twentieth century, in which the production of voices in the séance was explained as the communication of states of matter vibrating at different rates. Digital technologies recast the entire world in terms of a elementary binary logic of yes and no, on and off, which is anticipated by the quivering, minimised bodies of ecstatics at various times and places in history. Human bodies, like the apparatuses with which they begin to meld, are now conceived of along a spectrum not of life or death, usefulness or idleness, or activity and passivity, but of being on or off, aroused or inert, open or closed to stimulus.

The kinds of shaking concentrated emblematically in the bodies of actual persons have radiated outwards into a host of different cultural forms; into the interests in repetition in contemporary music from 1960s minimalism to trance and other dance-inspired styles, and in the shift from a music based on melody and narrative to a music based on intensive repetitions driven by the yes/no pulse of percussion and the manipulations of sound-masses; in the aesthetic of assemblage and appropriation, in which the work is formed in the exchanges between self and other; in the body-art which reimagines that shaking, impermanent membrane between substance and sign enacted in forms of religious ritual; and generally in the art of implicated contrarieties, from Yeats, with his theory of gyres, to Joyce, with his interest in Gordano Bruno’s theories of the coincidence of maxima and minima, to modern forms of narrative implicature, and strange loopings together of texts and metatexts, from Italo Calvino to Robert Coover. We might even add to this Gilles Deleuze’s suggestions about the change in the inflections of sport.

We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there’s a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance,with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports – surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding – take the form of an entering into an existing wave. There’s no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting into orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to ‘get into something’ instead of being the origin of an effort. (Deleuze 1995, 119)

All of this may be said to unfold the possibilities of a cultural topology of convulsive undulation. Convulsive undulation, or the mystery of the shakes. has penetrated psychoanalysis, in the form of Freud’s discovery of the labyrinthine intertwining of life and death, in which the iterative alternations of eros and thanatos, doing and undoing, joining and parting, infiltrates and contaminates the possibility of a life-story, and the strange extrapolations or intensifications of this thought in the philosophical labour of the negative undertaken by Bataille, Blanchot and Derrida. Wherever there is a membrane, skin or hymen, wherever opposites are brought together at the point of their division, there is a shaking. It has flourished in the philosophy of intensities enlarged by Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, in the sciences of turbulent and emergent forms and their literary and artistic analogies unfolded by Michel Serres. It is at work at the borderlines of bodily action and artistic meaning, in the oscillation between the given and the performed body in contemporary art-performance.

Perhaps the clearest analogy we could imagine for the way in which shaking or oscillation between polarities folds those polarities into each other is a short, miraculous play by Samuel Beckett called, simply Come and Go. Where other dramatists move towards dénouement and unfolding, Beckett commonly gives us sequences of action and reaction that fold inwards or coil together. Here, three women come and go upon a stage, describing a kind of ring-dance, a slowed down, three cornered to-and-fro, in which each woman successively occupies the position of the one who does not know of her terminal condition, the one who tells another of it, and the one who receives the news. At the end of the play, all that has happened is that the play has happened. It has shaken itself into a vibrant stillness, like the rocking chair in Beckett’s novel Murphy, of which Beckett remarks that, while most things in the world get slower and slower and then stop, this gets faster and faster and then stops. At the end of the play, the play gets to its middle. The three women join hands in a complicated Celtic love-knot, each woman holding the hands of the two others. ‘I can feel the rings’, says one of them.


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