text: Philipp Staab, images and sound: Rachael Archibald

On rhabdomantic bodies – How to become a divining rod

Living in our age of ecological crises, various modes and technologies are urgently needed to render environmental shifts perceivable.1 As the work of sound artist Bernie Krause exemplifies, photographical documentation is often unable to grasp and communicate dramatic ecological changes. Since the late 1960s, Krause has been recording and archiving the sounds of numerous natural landscapes - among them forests just before and years after they have been clear cut. Even though the forests looked perfectly recovered, Krause’s spectrograms show that the diversity of animal voices has drastically diminished. In these forests, extinction can only be heard.2

If increasing ecological crises urge us to change our ways of thinking we cannot avoid to also reassess the senses: I propose that among these shifting technologies should be the hearing body.

The proposal of becoming a divining rod is guided by a question raised by sound studies scholar Holger Schulze: “how does one perform her or his auditory bodily sensorium via specific techniques du corps?”3 I want to show that the way we perform our auditory sensorium is intricately tied to Western notions of individualism and the division of mind and body. In contrast, the rhabdomantic body opens up altered ways of perceiving the world, particularly, hearing it. For the body-as-divining-rod, hearing encompasses the whole body and has no primary sensory organ such as the ear. Rather than perceive sound, it means being-in-sound. It embeds the hearing body in its vibratory surroundings, which installs an “ethos of transcorporeality and vulnerability and upsets images of human supremacy.”4

Becoming rhabdomantic requires a special form of bodybuilding, a somewhat contorted version of Alexander Technique that fosters the body’s responsiveness to impulses from the earth and atmosphere. This means a reengineering of our senses and of the fleshy infrastructures that organise our thinking, feeling and being-in-the-world.


In the 16th century, with the advent of large scale-mining, a popular conviction held that fork-shaped wooden sticks would enable their handlers to locate resources beneath the ground. Through a form of remote sensing, these so-called divining rods played a considerable role when emerging extractive industries required effective methods to locate new reserves of mineral resources such as buried metals, ground water or oil. In Jacob Smith’s Eco Sonic Media, divining rods are presented as a noteworthy alternative to contemporary media technologies, as they provide a sense of place and a sense of planet. Aside from their participation in the shift from a medieval economy to one based on non-renewable metals and non-sustainable carbon energy, divining rods provided “insights” into subterranean worlds. The divining rod has an ambiguous history as it, on the one hand, served as an instrument for the exploitation of the natural world, while, on the other, it had a territorializing effect that bound diviners to specific geographies in a time when the industrial revolution began to unfold its disembedding, dislocating characteristics. Unlike common technological objects of consumer culture, divining rods relate their users to a specific place and work their “tactile magic” depending on the specific geographic conditions. Divination with a forked twig has generally not been an object of scientific study as it is considered to be an occult, pseudoscientific practice. Only subsequent electronic devices such as metal detectors and Geiger counters could offer a scientifically recognized form of remote sensing. Yet, the divining rod has more potential of metalloscopic imagination than its electrified heirs. The commonly undertheorized junction of media theory and occult practices that surrounds the divining rod is essential to the construction of the rhabdomantic body. Practices of divination found wide appreciation in counterculture and environmentalist communities since the mid-twentieth century as they inspired notions of environmental connectedness and of a (re-)enchanted nature. They rendered seismic and electromagnetic motions and make them perceivable, thus, allowing the planet to speak to us and ground us in locality, at least temporarily.


I suggest experimenting with another potential divination technology: the human body. The following passages intend to suggest that the human body has abilities of remote sensing and rhabdomancy that have been suppressed by our usual ways of relating to sound and to our bodies.

Hearing as visceral practice

Hearing, as we normally understand it, is a kind of data transmission between ear and brain, turning the body-as-diving-rod into a mere twig. In order to develop rhabdomantic abilities, hearing must be understood as a process that occupies the whole body, a body that is constantly shaken by vibrations from the outside and from within.


The understanding of what a human body is significantly depends on cultural and historical biases. The dominant conception that structured our beliefs about the body since antiquity has, up until today, portrayed it as the unintelligible counterpart to the mind that mechanistically follows physiological rules. In this picture, mind and body are separate from one another with the former being the locus of freedom and creativity while the latter appears driven and determined by automatic processes. Different conceptions challenge this view nowadays. Cultural histories of the senses and of the body, the emergence of smart sensing technologies and confrontations with non-Western conceptions of the relation of body and mind suggest that the way the body had been presented within the Western philosophical tradition is by no means a natural given. This problematizes the ways in which we feel, think and make sense of ourselves.


However, the dualist conception of mind and body still haunts a wide range of scientific research. Most of the academic study of music and sound subscribes to this notion in that both subjects consider auditory perception as a mechanism of the ear transducing vibrations into nerve impulses and transmitting them to the brain. This approach to the perception of sound describes circuits of signal processing within the body, rather than the thoroughly visceral experience the rhabdomantic body has while hearing sound.


To reveal “hearing through the ear”, or cochlear-hearing, as a distinctive way of relating to sound, it has to be contextualized as the product of a particular sound culture. Far from being the only or naturally given manner of experiencing sound, cochlear-hearing is linked to the Aristotelian division of sensory experience, which is divided into five distinct categories – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. It often goes unmentioned that this categorization was designed to match Aristotle’s conception of a world composed of five elements. While the world’s composition turned out to be much more complex, the doctrine of the five specialized senses has continued to guide our ideas about sensory perception.


Moreover, cochlear-hearing is linked to the tradition of European music culture with its privileging of mid-ranged frequencies and its exclusion of percussion instruments. Percussion presents music as an experience that is equally felt and heard, that moves mind and body. This connection was most effectively obscured within Christian liturgy and remained so within the tradition of European art music up until the 20th century. Within this tradition, the potential of sound to work at the intersection of the tactile and the audible remains unseen as sound gets limited to audible frequencies. Within this sound culture, the hearing subject is merely receptive to sounds produced by humans, the sonic sphere which sound artist Bernie Krause calls anthrophony, disregarding the sonority of the non-human living and of the planet, that is, biophony and geophony.6


For the body-as-divining rod, however, the mid-range frequencies of Western anthropophony do not have a primary impact on the auditory sensorium: the infrasonic and ultrasonic (meaning vibrations working at frequencies below and above the audible ranges) are just as significant. Hearing becomes a being-with-sound that occurs in every organ, in the bones, on every part of the skin, in the feet, the hands and also in the ears, but not exclusively. The ear is not found in one specific place, as suggested in Michel Serres’ The Five Senses, but is spread all over the skin.7 The ear merely represents a complex fold of the skin. As the rest of the skin is also a kind of ear, excluding and transmitting exterior vibrations at the same time, the eardrum is only one membrane among others. Becoming-rhabdomantic, then, requires going beneath the five senses (towards the visceral) as much as going beyond the five senses (towards the paranormal, the seismologic).

Hearing with the ears means perceiving the world through a tiny keyhole. In contrast, being a divining rod causes an immediacy of perception that is felt throughout the whole body: the rhabdomantic body always listens with the ears pressed against the wall.

Auditory dispositives 


The dissociation of the audible and the corporeal also has an intertwined history with the gendering of sound. As essayist Anne Carson suggests the way we hear sounds is affected by our presumptions about gender.8 She draws from a wide range of sources to show how in the histories of Western societies the ideal of a self-contained, moderated, firmly bounded male was also operative in the sphere of sound. This masculinist virtue of self-control, known in Ancient Greece under the term Sophrosyne, was considered a prerequisite for moderation, honesty, goodness and rationality for which it demanded a dissociation between interior and exterior of the body. Articulation and speech were to be devoid of strong feelings and spontaneous impulses. Internal, affective events should be detached from any external exposure. The ideal of the rational male that is able to dissociate himself from his feelings conversely helped to construct the “otherness” of the female. From Aristotle to Freud, woman was considered that which is unbounded, somatic and emotional, that which articulates what should remain concealed, thus, blurring the boundaries between inside and outside. In this picture, female is that which fails to control its voice and sounds, that which fails to suppress any articulation of the inside, likewise does not manage to filter and exclude impulses from the outside. According to this ideal of the self-contained male, all passages between within and outside of the body must only occur through narrow, controllable gateways: through for example the rationalizing conversion of impulses into language. Sophrosyne should sustain the firm boundaries between inside and outside of the body, thus transcend the speaking, thinking self from its messy, mortal corporeality as from its embeddedness in material and energetic exchanges with the environment. Dissociating the self from the body and the earth was instrumental in constructing a narrative of individualism and mastery over nature.


Anne Carsons inquiry into the history and long lasting repercussions of Sophrosyne suggests that our common understanding of sound, affecting us solely through our ears, exiting us only by the use of voice, is entangled with a certain policy of the body and the self. In this light, the human relationship to sound appears as an ever performed and active practice. When I am sitting silently in a library I perform an active practice of non-sound as I am not whistling, not talking, not snapping fingers: as Holger Schulze explains, reading silently in a library entails actively avoiding noises, adapting to moral codes and being situated in a specific aural architecture of non-sound.9 Hence, there can never be an objective or “natural” experiencing of sound as it is always embedded into historically and culturally determined settings.


Abandoning the fixations of Sophrosyne transmutes the fixed, discrete and confined individual experience of Western subjectivity into a mingled, permeable and porous corporeality for which sound can vary from a merely aural to a thoroughly tactile experience. This brings increased attention to vibrations that work outside the audible spectrum. Inaudible infrasound which is at frequencies below 20Hz can cause nausea, concussion and organ resonance effects but remains unexplained when our treatment of sound only takes audible frequencies into account. Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy suggests a more intimate connection between body and sound. For Nancy, to be a living body is to be in vibrating tension.10 The muscle tone, meaning, the perpetual muscular contractions and relaxations, is what distinguishes the living human body from a corpse or mere flesh. Becoming-rhabdomantic, then, means being-in-vibrations, confronting our muscle tone with our surroundings.

The jelly-like human body mass is constantly cushioning shocks and impulses from the inside and the outside, it is opened-closed like a drum. Our bio-acoustic relationship with sound becomes a matter of touch, of muscular tensions, of how air pressure is felt on skin, of how we harness the constant pulling back and forth of the vibratory world. The experience of sound becomes undeniably real.

What sound is to us, then, is crucially determined by how we relate to our senses, how we relate to our thinking, hearing and feeling. It is rather to be asked how sound affects us in specific situations than how we can find absolute definition of it. Thus, what counts as sound and what does not can be re-engineered through modifications of the hearing body. This calls back to mind the central question guiding the construction of the rhabdomantic body: “how does one perform her or his auditory bodily sensorium via specific techniques du corps?”


Critical Bodybuilding


When we accept that the ways we relate to sound not only depend on our “aural” disposition but, more generally, on how we move with our whole body rather requires methods of physical therapy, as opposed to new modes of cochlear-hearing to intervene in our being-in- sound. Developed in the 1890s, the Alexander Technique offers therapeutic methods that can help turn the body into a divining rod as it aims at the intersection of self-awareness and bodily postures. The technique was developed based on the conviction that all processes within body and mind are connected and cannot be treated separately. The Alexander Technique offers no particular training exercises, but focuses on current movement sequences and postures in order to adjust them. Through reshaping and re-experiencing movements of daily life like walking, sitting or bending over, patients shall develop sensitivity for nuanced differences in their posture. The training is designed to produce bodily as much as mental effects establishing a somatic mode of attention which is a first step towards achieving rhabdomancy. Furthermore, the Alexander Technique fosters a spatial awareness that always puts the body in relation to its surrounding. This aspect also benefits the training in rhabdomancy as it dissolves the self-contained body into its surrounding, hence making self-perception a fundamentally relational process.


While training in the Alexander Technique produces a self that is based on continuity between body and mind, it does not suffice for developing rhabdomantic abilities. The Alexander Technique aims at an optimized working of muscular processes within the body, whereas the body-as-divining rod can only stabilize when it is self-exceeding. It constantly reaches out to the earth and atmosphere waiting to be moved by external impulses. In order to open up to impulses from the outside, the somatic mode of attention has to be centred on the unbalanced, the dynamic and the asymmetrical. For becoming rhabdomantic, a contorted version of the Alexander Technique is required that adheres to the somatic mode of attention yet draws the attention to the outside. Rather than optimizing the muscular economy of the individual body it makes the body permeable, thus stresses its openness and vulnerability. Like the classical Alexander Technique, its contorted version cannot offer a particular set of exercises but requires a personal reassessment of habitual postures and movement sequences.

In some parts of the body, muscle fibre has to be stretched and strained so that earth can play on it like a string. In other parts, body mass has to be loose and viscous in order to absorb vibrational shocks and harden over time according to the terms of a specific geography.

The body-as-diving rod provides a sense of cohesion with the vibrational environment, a visceral sense of being in tune. This “kinetic bonding” is normally felt when people rhythmically match their movements - a bodily feeling of belonging, of rhythmic stimulation can arise during dance or sports and is extensively at work in military marches. This kind of affective contagion lies at the heart of our rhabdomantic abilities - moving rhythmically with the slow tremble of the planet, adapting to varying degrees of air pressure, clinging to specific geological formations.


Altering the muscular disposition of the body, then, not only provokes an irritation of the auditory sensorium but opens up new ways of thinking through the body: vibrations running through the flesh causing excitations in every part of the body, causing thought and feeling at the same time. What can be thought and felt, then, appears as sonic traces, working as a subjectivity engine.11 As rhabdomantic bodies, the earth presses through our bodies forcing us to feel and to think.

Thermodynamic politics

Critical analyses of ideology and discourse seem to have trouble effectively challenging and altering our destructive ways of life. These rather “semiotic” politics could be complemented by interventions that aim right at the material organisation that shapes our being-in-the-world. Recent theory has been increasingly interested in the urban, technological and informational infrastructures that have a determining influence on how societies work: while ideologies and political systems may change, infrastructures are said to persist and unnoticeably outlive the times from which they emerged. They have a lasting effect on how people relate to each other and to their environment, how information and goods are brought into circulation, how spaces are demarcated and divided into private and public.


This renewed interest in the productive and structuring character of material organisations can be applied to individual bodies. In this vein, contorted Alexander Technique means interfering with the stratified, fleshy infrastructures of our thinking-feeling. When we no longer wish to endorse the division between body and mind, we will have to engage not only with ideas, concepts and language, but also with the very physical parts of ourselves. As critical bodybuilding aims directly at the workings of the body, it no longer pursues a semiotic, rather - to use a term by philosopher Levi Bryant - “thermodynamic” politics.12


Training in rhabdomancy does not support a pursuit in mindfulness and well-being but always exceeds this focus on the individual. It will insistently betray the bettering of an enclosed muscular economy as it is pursued in the Alexander Technique and, instead, emphasizes the body’s relational nature and its vulnerability. It fosters an attunement with place and planet, an engagement and being-with amidst vibrational environments. The rhabdomantic body lets the earth speak to us, bringing the geophonic to the centre of attention. If the muscular disposition of individualism and mastery is to be abandoned we have to steer bodybuilding towards the fate of the divining rod, that is, always self-exceeding and earthbinding.

  1. Michelle Comstock & Mary E. Hocks (2016): The Sounds of Climate Change: Sonic Rhetoric in the Anthropocene, the Age of Human Impact, in: Rhetoric Review 35, S.165-175.
  2. Bernie Krause (1987): Bioacoustics. Habitat Ambience and Ecological Balance, in: Whole Earth Review 57, p. 14 – 18. Video about Krause’s work on the sounds of extinction:
  3. Holger Schulze (2017): How to think sonically. On the generativity of the flesh, in: Bernd Herzogenrath: Sonic Thinking. A Media Philosophical Approach, London, p. 217-242.
  4. Cf. Comstock (2016), p. 165.
  5. Jacob Smith (2015): Eco-Sonic Media, Oakland.
  6. Bernie Krause (2008): Anatomy of the Soundscape, in: Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 56 p. 73-80.
  7. Michel Serres (2016): The Five Senses. A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies [1985], London.
  8. Anne Carson (1995): The Gender of Sound, in: ibid.: Glass, Irony and God, New York, p. 119-142.
  9. Cf. Schulze (2017), p. 223.
  10. Jean-Luc Nancy (2008): Corpus, [1992], New York City.
  11. This term is taken from Kodwo Eshun (1998): More Brilliant than the Sun. Adventures in Sonic Fiction, London.
  12. Levi R. Bryant (2014): Onto-Cartography. An Ontology of Machines and Media, Edinburgh.