Monday, July 30, 2012

The Spirituality of New Media: An Excerpt from a Developing Dissertation

At this point in the dissertation, there is considerable temptation to claim that in the final theological analysis, everything that has gone before, even those topics that have appeared completely secular, sociological, ethnographic, cultural, or technological, are in fact, spiritual. No special theological discourse transcending layering over the previous discourses is necessary. In fact such a discourse on the theological or spiritual analysis of media and faith formation as a special case requiring further reflection would itself be problematic, because it reinforces and reifies a dichotomy between the secular and sacred. So the chapter could be very short. Christ works through faith formation technologies. God is in the gears. Social media is spiritual. MMORPGs are a proleptic taste of the New Jerusalem. God as Trinity is into new media and especially likes the catechumenate.
            Of course I jest, and yet such claims have merit. Often we look for the activity of God, the work of the Spirit, the presence of Christ, in all kinds of places separate from the very places we tend to hang out. God cannot be here, with me on the futon typing these words on an old Mac laptop, right? Yet the answer is God is, and can. However, a theological analysis is still necessary because although it is certainly true that God works through means, God seems to have preferred means for working God’s work in the world. It behooves us, given this reality, to try and tease out precisely what aspects of the development of new media are especially fertile for the Spirit, which aspects of new media are in actuality more temptation than opportunity, curse than blessing. Much of the contemporary discourse around technology tends to either demonize or deify it; in this situation, subtle awareness of theological implications is as important as the awareness of media effects we have been trying to cultivate in previous chapters.
            So let us begin raising awareness of theological implications by attending to a rather incredible and famous essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Here we have an excellent test case, because at first look, it seems referencing Benjamin’s work is simply once again attending to secular cultural analysis rather than the theological canon proper. But bear with me. Benjamin begins his essay arguing that the work of art prior to the age of technological reproducibility had an aura because it had a history, and was embedded within a tradition. This “aura” is “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of distance, however near it may be.”[1] We are familiar with this aura, it is the awe experienced because of the proximate distance from us of a celebrity, an historic painting, or architectural wonders. Benjamin, however, sees strange things happening to this aura in the era of mechanical reproducibility, arising out of “the desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction.”[2] Already at this point it is clear that careful cultural analysis on Benjamin’s part is bearing theological fruit. Then he continues, “The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for all that is the same in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing significance of statistics. The alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception.”[3]
            Benjamin’s insight here is remarkable. He turns the tables on statistics. Instead of statistics serving as a secular science that can inform ecclesial discourse, Benjamin sees the rise in significance of statistics occuring precisely as the result of an apocalyptic flattening, even dissolving, of reality into the masses and the masses into reality. At the very least this is a theologically anthropological observation. It may even have soteriological implications. Aura is transfigured and displaced in this new era, and just so what is perceived as spiritual and real are perceived differently because of the rise of new (reproducible) media. More precisely, in the case of statistics, which are a perfect example because statistics are so often referenced in ecclesial strategies and planning, statistics become not tools for "reading the audience" but are instead what make reality itself and become the new scripture. Statistics in this picture do not simply give us new insight into reality. Instead, whatever statistics say are the reality to which reality then conforms. So in short order we have already illustrated the degree to which cultural analysis properly considered is itself theological.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press), 23.
[2] Benjamin, 23.
[3] Benjamin, 23-24.

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