Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Screens and Dilemmas

Last week I did something I swore I would never do, I bought a Kobo e-reader. 

Knee Jerk Conservative Fears

I had been resistant to this change for several reasons. The first was a conservative knee-jerk reaction against the seeming hubris of it all. The steady movement towards the digitalization of our works of literature seems to make their preservation all the more precarious. We sacrifice their  tangibility for levity. For the sake of convenience and succinctness, from the human urge to constantly unify and bring together the many, so that everything is increasingly only at a finger touch away or-intellectually-the whole of thought contained in a single over-arching concept: 

How many stores have to offer more and more variety, so that one can do more and more in a single location? Tim Horton's is now offering lattes, along with the McCafe, Wal-Mart is also a grocery store, other grocery stores are now featuring affordable clothing lines, and so on, while strip malls spring up everywhere. Even new condos in Toronto are featuring built in cafes, gyms and merchandize. There is, it seems, almost a crass materialization of the Platonic movement towards "the One" as the diversity of objects and options increasingly pool together into a single point. 

The idea of a personal library accessible on-the-go is in this vein.  

I remember, when I was 19, I became aware of a tendency to isolate myself in a room I was renting at an acquaintance's house. In this room, I had my shrine with its link to God, small library with its link to our cultural forbears, internet connection with its link to people, coffee maker so that I could brew coffee without having to leave the room and, after I begrudging cooked my meals downstairs,  would always eat them alone upstairs. I wanted a small fridge so that I didn't have to store my groceries in the common one. It struck me that I didn't want to leave my things downstairs, I didn't want to share or be shared, but desired all the constituents of life localized for me, not merely in the house, but in my absolutely private sphere.

This might seem tangential, but I think its an urge, perhaps shared by most to varying degrees, that is exploited or further developed by our technological situation today. With the rise of unlimited personal choice we can live alone in the midst of people in a false manner: individuals seated side by side on the subway each listening to the music of his choosing; through cellphones, we have private conversations with our absent friends while we wait in a line up  for our morning coffee, families don't have to fight over the remote because each has a tablet or a computer screen;  we don't have to show up at the TV for the right time because TIVO has recorded it and so I can choose my own television schedule, and on and on… reality itself is increasingly manipulatable towards our convenience, and is less and less burdened by having to be shared with the inconvenient wishes of another. 

He's got the whole world in His hands
He's got the whole wide world in his hands...

The world today is actually in our palm. This inevitably blunts the perception of the need for God, or the need to throw ourselves down and weep and plead at the feet of fate. I used to scoff at the saying of Rudolph Bultmann that 

“it is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (New Testament and Mythology, 5). 

Now it gives me more pause. 

E-books, E-missals, E-Bibles, E-Sacraments? 

Perhaps it has something to do with my Catholic upbringing, but the written word has always felt sacred. I think of the Missal on the altar, flanked by two candles; its weight when I had to carry it for the priest to pray the collect, which he prayed with his hands outstretched. Further, the family Bible, or the sense from my English teachers that literature disclosed the profound or sublime- a perception not very distant from that of "the holy". Books always felt like sacramentals. Holding a book in my hand felt/ feels like a sacred act, and I would sometimes just hold the Bible or a prayer book while kneeling, with the feeling, perhaps, that the profundity of truth was therein contained. Simply holding it felt prayerful. This continues/ continued, though somewhat more palely,  with texts like "The Odyssey", a Shakespeare play, or anything from the the venerable canon of Western culture. There is therefore something wrong about the E-reader, it seems. Can you imagine a priest praying the collect from an I-pad? (Though from an appropriately liturgically coloured binder is nearly as bad). The idea is very off-putting to me. But all of this can be considered,  I think, with reference to certain points of ideological fixture.  In a time increasingly characterized by fluidity, rootlessness, freedom of movement and choice, one of the primary concerns of my life, as I reflect, has been to find that "still point of the turning world".  

One reason I returned to Catholicism was because it is the only cultural form that has pervaded and characterized my family life and that of my relatives before me and, further, whose rituals and symbols seem certain to remain even after our unity dissolves, my grandparents die, the farm is sold, we disperse, and so on (its still a good reason, in my book). But is this really possible today? The cleaving of Christian faith from cultural inheritance and externalities began long before I was born, with a church composed of "true believers" offering "internal assent" and "witness", acting with "full conscious participation"-- all symptomatic of the dissolution of the link between religion and society, where religion ceases to be religio in the sense of "to-bind".

In his "Introduction to Christianity" Ratzinger observes of the early modern period that 

“the world finally appeared no longer as the firm housing of being but as a process whose continual expansion is the movement of being itself.”

And we are still there today, suspicious of every "firm house". Even though various forms of Christianity promise to offer the believer that fixed dwelling within which to abide, the very effort is constantly contradicted by the currents of culture itself, which most of these religions embrace, including Catholicism.  Catholic spirituality today is like a tumblr blog, where the art enthusiast can instantly pull up works from across the entire historical spectrum to decorate his new Facebook "time line".  One can "resource from the past", choose "baroque-retro", "patristic- chic" or go "relevant-contemporary". We can mix and match rites not just across cultural/ national boundaries, but across time: the EF, the OF, the up-and-coming "hybrid"; all of which are brought under the so called "big tent":  the great tarp over the flea market. 

Process theology continues to have its strong appeal for this reason: the entire world of culture and politics today, with the reign of pluralism and technological saturation, urges us on to reject any "hard kernel" to reality, as  the manner in which we live in order to actualize our sense of freedom, our constant striving towards defining (and redefining) the loose parameters of fragile identity, comes at the consequence of any such still-standing point. Conversely, the uncertainty and fear brought about by the endless fluidity can urge us on to find something- in some cases, anything- to anchor ourselves and escape the anxiety of permanent change. Is this the battle between progress and conservation?

In this sense, the fixed written page and the screen are a world apart. The missal on the altar or Shakespeare in the hand really do speak to truth as a fixed thing attainable within the world. Our world, "coloured and frail, with fleeting change on change", is more and more characterized by mutability, all the while the variety of options converge into a localized point. What reflects this better than the screen? To pick up a book is difficult, often boring for the fragmented attention span that increasingly characterizes today's generation. What is behind the preference of the screen over the page? Is it mere convenience?

While the book held gently in the hand might radiate with a sacred sense of cradling a fixed and profound truth (like the Blessed Sacrament shinning from the monstrance), the screen has a very different kind of magic. The screen, like the mutable, metamorphosing identity of postmodernism, is perennially "open". It can always, at any moment, become something else. It is the localized point into a all localities and none. With a book, we can turn a page; what was written and what was read remains materially. With the screen, what was read vanishes, sublated by the next series of text…

The physical Kobo or Kindle or Ipad can have none of the sacredness of a material text because it just plays host to the idea that temporarily inhabits it. 

El Pelon brought some important insights to my attention recently, when he contrasted the ideological implications of the Lutheran and Catholic doctrines of the Eucharist. Readers should be familiar with this controversy, understood as consubstantiation and transubstantiation respectively. He writes: 

The Lutheran just median, however, has spirit dwelling in the substance only to surpass it in its change into something else. In and of itself, the host is nothing; only in the process of being destroyed does it embody spirit. The truth is in the eating and not in the bread itself. One could thus say that Hegel’s entire philosophy is Lutheran par excellence: the truth only exists insofar as it is being immolated, consumed, and destroyed, to bring about a higher state of truth, ad infinitum. This is the “absolute negativity”, the “tarrying with the negative”, so often discussed in Hegel.

and then he writes of the doctrine of transubstantiation: 

Would not the feudal doctrine described above be all too convenient for these interests: the truth is a hard thing one could taste and touch, and which can be maintained by one particular group to the detriment of another? Does not the stability of the embodied host give a sort of moral and philosophical anchor to thought in the face of an ever-changing world dominated by the “anarchic” needs of the market (basically, the “Calvinist menace” that has been condemned since the Romantics and Marx)?
There is no need, of course, to stop with the Eucharist. To the extent that books were ever emblems of the truth- unquestionably so in Western culture- the e-book supplants the hard truth of the hard cover, "spiritualizes" it into the digital realm. We continue to abstract the tangible sign of the real, as into an I-Cloud. If the Protestant revolution was greatly aided- even made possible- by the printing press and the spread of information through books that helped to the draw the boundaries of the newly minted modern subject, what spiritual revolution exactly does the e-book contribute to? 
Is there good reason, beyond my own personal idiosyncrasies, to think that the sacred can not emit from an e-book like it can a physical text? I think so.

Is there any use looking for the still-point? Do fundamentalisms vulgarize this innate human urge and render it violent? Can the human need for rootedness ultimately be denied? Or is it an illusion, impossible to swallow given modern conditions? 
This is what troubles me lately, at any rate. Is there a grounding Absolute to be found beyond the confines of bitter, anti-modern fundamentalisms? What is "the absolute"? 
Do not call it fixity…
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
[T.S. Eliot]


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  3. Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

  4. I never denied that "the holy" exists, much less said I was an atheist. I was making the observation that, as far as the e-book is concerned, the holy/ the real/ the true is no longer a property perceived to be adhering in the physical thing and this has consequences for the phenomenology of the sacred. The Christian world has already made this switch, and very large portions of the Church has as well. Protestants can worship in an auditorium with speakers and screens because they are SO spiritual.

    Furthermore, as I see it, the technological/ social conditions of our time help to engineer an imaginary that is simply resistant to notions of truth as Catholic theology and philosophy conceive it. Much as we would like to draw a firm line between the life of the mind and the material, I think this has consequences. Genuflecting towards the Tabernacle does not come naturally to a generation raised on computer screens, in my opinion. We have to get to the bottom of why religion and religious practices don't seem to intuitively "make sense" to an increasing number of people- and I am convinced that the reasons are not simply hubris, pride and so on.

    The T.S poem in connection with my question "what is the absolute" should be seen as the key to what I was trying to express. Endless change IS anxiety producing AND violent to the human subject, in my opinion, just as is trying to reify the movement of reality (fundamentalism). I was not taking any personal stance on the doctrine of transubstantiation just because I quoted Arturo. Nonetheless, I think he is right that this doctrine is appealing to the political right for the very reasons he mentions, and they will probably use this doctrine in that manner.

    There has to be some kind of median point between movement and stasis- is this the Trinity which is, at once, both? Stasis in Ecstasis? The dance on the still point? Both the urge to reify and the urge to be lost in movement seem like two sides of the same coin, two "ways" if you will:

    Descend lower, descend only
    Into the world of perpetual solitude,
    World not world, but that which is not world,
    Internal darkness, deprivation
    And destitution of all property,
    Desiccation of the world of sense,
    Evacuation of the world of fancy,
    Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

    This is the one way, and the other
    Is the same, not in movement
    But abstention from movement;
    while the world moves

    In appetency, on its metalled ways
    Of time past and time future.

    (also from Burnt Norton)

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  6. I have a digital book reader (Nook) simply because it helps me magnify journal texts. Books, and especially large works with small typefaces, are sometimes difficult for people with less-than-perfect vision to read.


    I agree that process theology, which is truly Pelagius without even his pretense of subordinated divine cooperation, has created for many a "individualized" (some might say radically autonomous and antinomian) Christianity. Catholic process theology is antinomian in so far as a shallow "self-actualized" proxy grace replaces the true source of divine cooperation and theosis. True theosis the union of contemplative doctrinal assent and an immersion in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.

    Aren't most Catholics antinomian in one way or another? Humanae Vitae has illustrated that a "false sensus fidelium" has in fact almost fully supplanted the Church theological and moral narrative in individual and pastoral practice. My refusal to play the "SSA" reparative therapy game and internal refusal to assent to "intrinsically disordered" is self-actualized rebellion in the face of what I consider to be untenable, even absurd, doctrines. Do not most Catholics (save Rick Santorum, perhaps) reserve a degree of self-actualizing judgment which conflicts with the "law" of the Church?

    JD, you commented that "We have to get to the bottom of why religion and religious practices don't seem to intuitively "make sense" to an increasing number of people- and I am convinced that the reasons are not simply hubris, pride and so on." Arturo's reflection on Hegel and Christian eucharistic theologies illustrates the divergence, and in the case of the Protestant Reformation rupture, of the sensus fidelium and established doctrine. Hegel's (somewhat predictable) application of his progressive improvement of Man through dialectic to the eucharist illustrates the way in which the gradual irrelevance of certain teachings to certain groups of people can effect radical theological and social change. I find Hegel's dicing of eucharistic theology into feudal, dialectical-synthetic, and capitalistic phases an absurd reduction. Still, the consensus of many "progressive" Catholics on the role of contraception, gay people, the divorced, and other "wedge issues" will eventually force either schism or another consensus on these positions. Absurdity, sin, bad faith, or the evolution of doctrine? Perhaps all four at once.

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    2. JM, do you have a blog? I like the way you have identified "antinomian" and "proxy-grace" in your theology. It's very keen and accurate.