Commonplace - Week Beginning 28 July 2019

In order to better reflect on the reading that I do, I have decided to put together a weekly review of the articles and materials that I have read in the preceding week, with the quotes that have struck me and, as far as I can, reflections on certain themes.

Christ and Digital Media

Earlier this week, I read a fascinating article from the Church Life Journal (University of Notre Dame) entitled, “Christ and Digital Media”:

In our epoch, after the double explosion of the electronic age and the digital revolution, the human is in a paradoxical situation. Humans have never been so saturated by the fact of media in the form of a plethora of competing media and rival significations, while at the same time, the sign of the mystery of being, the medium of his own destiny and the Sign of the God-Man handed over to him on Holy Thursday, has never been so difficult to discern, so abstract and so seemingly irrelevant to his media world.

Having set out this problem, Aaron Riches explicates two factors that have led to this result. The first is distraction, the second, more complex, is alienation, from God and from man. This alienation, Riches argues, arises because today’s digital media has caused us to forget that we are embodied, limited, human, carnal. His diagnosis of the digital landscape was particularly helpful for me:

To understand the real depth of this impact, it is crucial to grasp how, for McLuhan, every media is an extension of the human nervous system, a portal of transportation both in space and time. So that, ultimately, what new media introduce, in each case, is a new experience of scale, temporal and spatial. This is the real message of the medium: the way that roads reduced the scale of distance between towns and the invention of the car accelerated this; so the television introduces us into the simultaneous spatially collapsed world of, what McLuhan called, the “global village”; or how the internet now has introduced us to the pure presence of virtual identity and connection, devoid of the significance of our carnality and geography.

But even as new media extend the human nervous system, this extension of human experience collapses not only the lineal connection of life into configuration, but overwhelmingly the carnal connection of persons. In other words, our new media, which are generated from the sacramental possibility of the human creature itself, now become the very means of the concealment of this most human fact of being.

The more the world becomes pure presence from Beijing to Buenos Aires, from New York to Johannesburg, the more the absence of the carnal other becomes unremarkable since we remain virtually connected, while its concrete presence becomes an irrelevance, apart from the inconvenience its presence poses to my use of my digital media that mediates the world to me.

But this is just the diagnosis. What then? If it is true that every media is an extension of the human nervous system, and if the current landscape that we inhabit, if the technologies that we plug ourselves into, serve only to alienate us from ourselves, how do we escape? Riches asks: “where is the medium that saves the meaningfulness of our own humanity?”

For Riches, that medium is the Victim of Good Friday, for he “made himself the medium even of the salvation of the digital age since he is now the medium of a perfect message”. What follows is the most stunning sentence I read this week:

In Jesus Christ the human nervous system is extended into communion with the whole for which it was made.

The medium of salvation, the Victim himself, is mediated to us also in the Liturgy, hence the “need for a renewed and contemplative attentiveness to the liturgical gesture traditioned at the heart of the Church’s life.” As it is a medium, Riches also points to the form of the medium, how human art became intertwined with the medium of the liturgy, the representation of the self-giving of Jesus. He ends:

The liturgy grows (it is not made) because it is not only a memory of the past, but a gathering together of the past towards the Destiny to which all human life strains, especially when it sees the desert. The Christian task in our moment, in the human desert of the digital age, is the same as it was at the beginning: “Do this in memory of me.”

Rangers and Hobbits

Over at Law & Liberty, Micah Meadowcroft engaged in an extended discussion of the relationship between the Dúnedain and the Hobbits, seeking to draw some lessons for institutions of higher education or learning. The relationship between the Rangers, who patrol the borders and ensure that no evil thing harms the Hobbits, and the Hobbits who live their simple lives pursuing the pleasures of the world allows Meadowcroft to meditate on how the institutions of higher education and learning have failed. Instead of guarding the borders, they have allowed destabilising ideas to permeate.

The distraction of the Dúnedain in our world, letting whatever is our Saruman in, came when study ceased to be about the reception, preservation, and transmission of the wisdom of the past—“we ought at least to pass on carefully the books we have received from those who have come before us to those who will come after, keeping them whole and uncorrupted, and in this manner we will usefully serve the interests of posterity and give past generations at least this one recompense for their labors,” said Vergerio—and became instead focused on the individual’s personal discovery, that experience of the philosophic moment when what was before merely assumed or received undergoes rational scrutiny, to be chosen or discarded. Philosophy only being possible from inside a tradition, that abandonment soon made its actual work impossible, wisdom well lost, and criticism for criticism’s sake, the tearing down of what ruins were left, became the occupation of “liberal arts.”

He offers an alternative:

Instead, they can be the rational preservers of a particular moral and cultural order that the normal citizen, occupied with commercial and local interests, can receive as assumed and participate in by happenstance.

Not everyone needs to be a defender of culture, a propagator of ideas, or a cultivator of the depths of intellectual heritage, but these are necessary tasks. These are necessary tasks not just because they are good in and of themselves (for what is true is true and should be preserved), but because the majority of mankind is glorified by extension when these truths are made known and form the fabric of the world in which they live. Hence,

[A]s the Dúnedain kept the bounds of the Shire, preserving space for the singing of simple songs and the drinking of simple beers, so too ought those given the gift of the liberal arts, this great conversation ringing down through the ages of the West, preserve and protect that inheritance for their fellow citizens.

This is a very attractive view of the role of such institutions which teach the liberal arts. In our world today, it is those who graduate from such institutions and who bear the mark of “education” that govern most of the world. If we fail to reckon with the fact that the way that they have been educated will affect the way that they govern, we will fail to ensure the safety, freedom, and prosperity of the majority. As power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few organisations, a few countries, a few individuals, it is all the more important to ensure that those inside the system are given the capacity to reflect, to play the long game, to understand history and humanity.

And for those outside of the system, it is also important for the cultivation of fertile ground in which goodness can be grown. It is important, now as ever, to maintain these pockets of resistance, to ensure that the true, good, and beautiful can be maintained. Vague as this might sound, it probably makes more sense in practice than simply stated on a blog.

Many of these thoughts are also reflected in A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I have just finished reading last night. These issues of propagating knowledge, of building culture, of cultivating virtue, have been pressing on my mind lately.