“The Channeling Zone” (1997)


The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age
Michael F. Brown
Harvard University Press, 1997
$25.50 • £18.95 • €23.00
ISBN 9780674108837
252 pages

From the jacket copy.   Few expressions of New Age spirituality evoke greater skepticism and derision than does channeling, the practice of serving as a vessel for the voices of ancient or otherworldly beings. Channelers claim to be possessed by angels, aliens, and “ascended masters” who speak through them, offering advice and solace. Intellectuals dismiss them as cranks and charlatans; evangelical Christians accuse them of trafficking with Satanic forces. Meanwhile, the steady spread of channeling from the West Coast to the American heartland fuels the fear that the United States now confronts an epidemic of public irrationality.

The Channeling Zone reveals that this controversial practice has deep roots in earlier forms of American spiritualism while manifesting the most current concerns and anxieties of American life at the end of the twentieth century. Basing his analysis on dozens of interviews with practicing channels and extensive participant-observation research in New Age workshops, Michael Brown takes readers into the world of those who find meaning and inspiration—and occasionally a lucrative career—in regular conversations with spectral beings. Drawing on his previous research among Amazonian Indians, he brings a historical and comparative perspective to the study of this flamboyant expression of contemporary spirituality.

Neither a debunker nor an advocate, Brown weaves together the opinions and life stories of practicing channels and their clients to bring their world and its assumptions into higher relief. He describes the experiences that lead often highly educated, middle-class Americans to conclude that useful information is filtered through the spirit world. He pursues the nature of the quest—the fears, hopes, and expectations of the seekers—and finds its roots in traditional American notions of individualism and self-perfection. The Channeling Zone is a lively journey into the complex social world of the thousands of Americans who have abandoned mainstream religions in search of direct and improvisational contact with spiritual beings.

Reviews and comments.

[An] artful analysis of a largely artless, anti-analytical phenomenon… Happily, The Channeling Zone digs beneath the fluff [of its subject]. Mr. Brown explores the ways channeling experiments with sexual identity (most channels are female, while most of the spirits they embody are male), retails religion and celebrates our post-modern fascination with multiple identities (channeling has ‘elevated the protean impulse to a sacred principle’). He sees channeling, correctly, as utterly American in its individualism, commercialism and faith in progress… Mr. Brown…deals splendidly with the subtexts of channeling.—Philip Zaleski, The New York Times Book Review

Brown spent four years studying channelers and their clientele in New Mexico, Arizona, and Upstate New York, often working as a participant-observer in channeling sessions. His descriptions of these encounters are detached but vivid, often admiring, and not without a sense of humor. In modern channeling Brown sees the continuation of a positive tradition of renegade spirituality that dates back to the birth of the nation. He also recognizes a worldview that is largely asocial, amoral, and self-absorbed, as well as a sense of ‘universal community’ that seems ironically at odds with the civic engagement necessary in a true community.—Will Hermes, Utne Reader

[An] interesting and objective new work… Brown’s book is part anthropological account, part history. He aims to show that a seemingly bizarre and marginal phenomenon in modern life actually has parallels in American religious history and reveals much about the American psyche past and present… [Brown] has interviewed 40 channelers and hundreds of session participants. The fearless anthropologist himself took part in numerous sessions and weekend seminars. These ranged from informal meetings in suburban living rooms to elaborate, staged events with professional channelers like Kevin Ryerson.—David Myers, The Chicago Tribune

Michael Brown is an anthropologist, who is admirably typical of his trade in refusing to be drawn into endorsement or rejection of the beliefs of those he studies. It is revealing that the mere fact that he takes an interest in channeling is a matter of surprise to some of his academic colleagues.—Hugo Meynell, The Globe and Mail

The Channeling Zone explores the quintessentially American phenomenon of channeling. Michael Brown donned the hat of a participant observer, attending New Age workshops and interviewing both practitioners and participants. Channeling practices range from the bizarre to the therapeutic, with channelers (or channels, as they prefer to be called) acting as vessels for noncorporeal entities who emerge from the past, the future, or other worlds.—Diane Diamond, Contemporary Sociology

[A] provocative work… [Brown’s] accounts of his personal involvement with a number of channeling groups are at once empathetic, good-humored, skeptical and critical… This is a fine work: engagingly written, theoretically sophisticated, skeptically sympathetic.—Peter W. Williams, American Studies [UK]

Michael Brown’s Channeling Zone is an absorbing book, eminently readable and also exemplary for its brand of scholarship. In it Brown seeks to provide a comprehensive account of the late-twentieth-century phenomenon called ‘channeling,’ a variant, broadly speaking, of spiritualist activity in the United States. With an anthropological background and a sophisticated adaptation of fieldwork methodologies to the demands of his subject, Brown moves well beyond the traditional anthropologist in his pursuit of this new urban shamanism and in his ability to articulate its concerns with religious studies sensitivities. He is also willing to glance, however briefly, backwards through time to point to nineteenth-century spiritualism in a comparative gesture that help makes his work an overture, at least, to a new ethnographic history. What is as remarkable is Brown’s evenhandedness in treating his subject. There are no snide remarks here, no subtle asides to remind the reader that he thinks these folks are crazy; nor, on the other side, are there saccharine celebrations of religious freedom and creativity among channelers. Rather, in a series of chapters that probe the phenomenon of channeling from a variety of perspectives, Brown examines the cultural world out of which channelers operate and how that world works. He explores questions about individual expression and communal formations, about theological meaning-making and gendered roles, about commerce and commodity in the goods of the spirit… Brown has produced a solid work that makes an important contribution to our knowledge of contemporary New Age culture. He has also produced a model study for a new kind of scholarship that positions itself in a place from which both criticism and kindness are possible and out of which both methodological suspicions and regard can come into play.—Catherine L. Albanese, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Michael Brown’s investigation into New Age religiosity and specifically into the phenomenon of channelling is lucid and informational and shall come to rank as one of the more accessible and comprehensible presentations of ‘a diffuse social movement of people committed to pushing the boundaries of self and bringing spirituality into everyday life’… For anyone seeking a provocative and thorough, yet entertaining, understanding of the New Age and the practice of channelling, [this book] is an excellent and highly recommended work.—Michael York, Journal of Contemporary Religion [UK]

[An] admirable new study of channeling—the popular New Age practice of receiving spiritual information and guidance from ‘higher sources’… Brown covers the more commonly discussed aspects of channeling in a clear and well-informed manner, and his discussions of the relation between channeling and so-called ‘multiple personality disorder’ merit particular mention… Readers owe him their gratitude for indeed keeping a near-perfect balance between ‘respect and detachment,’ thereby producing what must be considered one of the very best introductions not only to channeling but to the New Age phenomenon in general.—Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

A remarkably skilled ethnographer has made his way to a distant place within the borders of his own country, and he now returns with a wise and compelling report on New Age channelers in our time. Like so much else in this shifting cultural landscape, channeling is a new phenomenon that nonetheless has roots reaching deep into the history of American spirituality. A fascinating account.—Kai Erikson, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology and American Studies, Yale University

A sophisticated, open-minded, and serious study of one of America’s major alternative spiritual paths: mediumship. If Brown is not channeling Alexis de Tocqueville, at least he comes close.—Michael Harner, author of The Way of the Shaman

Vividly reveals the sense behind this seemingly exotic New Age but historically grounded practice.—James Peacock, Kenan Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Michael Brown has written a brilliant book on one of the most controversial religious phenomena of our time. He shows why channeling has become attractive to millions of Americans, how it works, and what its role in the spiritual marketplace is.—Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University, author of Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community

Article about The Channeling Zone in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 1997

This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.

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