Temptations of the “Everybody”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nota Bene: Due to the impending porting of The Divine Wedgie to the Patheos Catholic channel, this will be the final substantive post on this platform. Links to the new site will be posted once it is live.

Commonweal Magazine recently published a highly informative article by Regina Munch, on her reflections on the post-Brexit fallout among millenials, as well as the recriminations of racism and xenophobia following the narrow victory of Britons wishing to leave the European Union.

Though this is not the central point of her article, what is indeed interesting is what seems to be Munch’s calling out of a kind of universalism in the production of political opinion by media elites. In a way, what she indicates goes beyond what Michel Foucault wrote about deviancy in his History of Sexuality. There, he spoke about the processes that led to the production of normality on the one hand, and deviancy on the other.

The difference in what Munch seems to indicate is that, while there are still the shrill cries of deviancy (namely racism and xenophobia) from the Remain camp, the manufactured commentary from both online and broadcasted sources actually go further by also denying the existence of a different opinion altogether, with cries like “everybody” or “universally” thrown about like so much political confetti, papering over any geographical, class, age-based or economic nuance on the ground.

Regardless of the side of the debate, or regardless of the topic of debate, and regardless of the variety of opinions that the media showers us with, it would seem that the filtering of opinion via media channels both new and traditional still bears a new form of the logic of massification identified by Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, a logic which the Marxist saw as a form of totalitarianism. In a way, this form of massification is more insidious due to its attempts at erasure of any type of complexity by manufacturing a simulated notion of the “everybody”, outside which no real thought or person exists. What is more, this simulated uniformity can apply to opinions manufactured on all sides of any debate.

As the media, rather than lived experience, becomes an increasingly important source of information, one temptation to resist would be the one that such media encourages, namely the tendency to ignore the complexity that embodied experience can uncover and adopt the virtual uniformity of whatever is being flashed on one’s screen. Indeed, it would appear that vigilence against the processes that generate such uniformity might be needed in order to defend the politics presumed by Aristotle to be predicated on difference. The converse is that, if one were to give into manufactured uniformity, the existence of any truly political exercise is put at risk.

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Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince

 

People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

Doctrine Divides While Justice Unites?: An Interview with Catholic News Agency

 

Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, written by the Divine Wedgie’s blogger at large, was recently the subject of an interview with Ann Schneible of Catholic New Agency, under the title of “Doctrine Divides while Justice Unites?“.
The interview centred around this claim, which presumed that social justice naturally united those of different confessions. The question that needed to be raised here was not so much whether social justice united Christians.
Rather, following Graham Ward, the real question centres on what a Christian action would look like when it is being undertaken whilst surrounded by the discourses of Liberalism, and whether that action can be recognised as Christian when filtered through these discourses.
The full text of the interview can found by clicking here. You can also follow Ann Scheible’s work in Catholic News Agency and at Vatican Radio on twitter at @AnnSchneible.

What Kierkegaard Knew About Charlie Hebdo

 

In an important guest post on Discourses on Liberty, Charles Taylor recalls a work wherein Kierkegaard warned about the dangers of mass media, not as a source of information, but as a site of the manufacturing of false and abstract collectivities, what he called a “phantom public”. The danger of this “phantom public” was twofold. The first danger was that, precisely because “the public” is a media manufactured abstraction, it served to remove the media consumer from the reality of the event being reported. Rather than giving the media consumer an appreciation of the nuances of an event, the media instead “empties events of real significance by focusing on trivialities”. 
 
What is more insidious, however, is that apart from eviscerating a story’s content, the media’s creation of the “phantom public” also has an even  more insidious homogenising effect on the media consumer’s identity and thought. For in Taylor’s words “the media and press are actively creating a society that takes away peoples’ individuality and treats everyone as a single all encompassing ‘mass’ entity.” Under such circumstances, nuance is squeezed out of the realms of possibility, as the scope of what counts as a valid opinion to be held becomes more and more drawn into the maw of the media. 


Take for instance, the narrative threads coming out in response to the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, and the resultant generation of the #jesuischarlie hashtag, which in turn became the catch cry of that weekend’s million man march in the streets of Paris. What has become apparent was the collapse of solidarity with the victims of violence with an affiliation with the contents of Charlie Hebdo, which is in turn collapsed into celebrations of European civilisation, with those participating in the counter campaign of “I am not Charlie” being lampooned as purveyors of hate or national division or being championed by some as the voice of courage winning out over the timidity of the PC-thugs. Regardless, one nonetheless feels almost pressganged into one or another position as a sign of one’s acceptability in the eyes of “the public”, with the refusal to comply with such manufactured opinions becoming synonymous with the hatred of civilisation on the one hand or cowardice on the other.

This media-facilitated collapse has all but erased the other possible responses and other narratives, such as the qualified solidarity with victims coupled with the condemnation of highly offensive material, the legacy of French imperialism in the areas from which those who perpetrated hail, the experience of reprisals in the wake of the attack, or even the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks by the French, or even the role of the media tail in wagging the civilisational dog.

 

It would seem opportune at this crucial juncture to revisit Kiekegaard’s critique of the media which, though centuries old, still maintains a strange freshness. Taylor’s summary of Kierkegaard is an excellent place to start.

Crying and the Life of the World to Come

 

Another year has passed, and with that comes the catharsis of committing yet another year to the realm of history. This catharsis would be particularly so if 2013 has been a year where causes for deep regret outweigh those for joyous celebration.
For those whose experience of 2013 was a veil of tears, there is a hope that 2014 not be a repeat of the travails of the year just past. The question to be asked is whether there is a legitimate basis for this hope beyond mere optimism. Furthermore, there is the question on whether the tears of yesteryear would be nothing more than a meaningless footnote with no bearing on the year to come.
A partial response was given in a previous post on the redemption of regret, but a more authoritative voice on this comes from the 8th century mystic St. Isaac the Syrian, for whom the subject of tears was an important part of the renewal of the Christian. Indeed, the Psalms speak of tears as the meeting point between heaven and earth (Psalm 34:18), and even the beginning of a time of the renewal of the creation (Psalm 126:6-7). Nowhere is this more vividly captured than in a passage where Isaac writes
The fruits of the inner man begin only with the shedding of tears. When you reach the place of tears, then know that your spirit has come out from the prison of this world and has set its foot upon the path that leads to the new age. Your spirit begins at this moment to breathe the wonderful air which is there, and it starts to shed tears. The moment for the birth of the spiritual child is now at hand…
Whether 2014 actually is the year where such renewal becomes a reality is yet to be seen, but we can find comfort in the reasonable hope that with the tears of 2013, we sow the real seeds for renewal in this life, and indeed herald the “life of the world to come”. 

Francis…What’s to a Name?

The Roman Catholic Church has elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires to be its 266th Vicar of Christ. At the announcement of his election, social networking sites around the world flared to life. There are expressions of immense joy that the Church has elected for the first time in centuries a Pope from the Global South. At the same time however, others have expressed blinding-hot rage that this particular citizen of the Global South is one that will not budge on particular matters that reform-fetishisers regard as indispensable to the continued survival of Catholicism.
Speculations are plentiful concerning the implications of elevating to the Papacy the much-rumoured runner up to the 2005 Conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger. Speculations also abound as to the significance of his chosen pontifical name, Francis. Whilst the change of name follows the tradition of the Apostle Simon son of John to Peter, the name itself is also often indicative of the biography of the Pontiff specifically, as well as indicative of his desires in terms of the future direction of the Church more generally.
Many suspect that this otherwise Jesuit pope has taken the name of the famous founder of the Franciscan Order, on the basis of Bergoglio’s very visible life of simplicity as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Another factor would be his equally vocal and much-publicised proactive committment – some call preoccupation – to the poor of Buenos Aires, as well as denunciations of the inaction of the wealthy and powerful. While such speculations are well-founded, these analyses miss other reasons concerning the suitability of the Pontifical name to the biography of the Pontiff-elect.
For starters, the emphasis on the well worn stereotype of Francis-of-Assisi-as-Poor-Guy misses the point that Saint was also an ardent missionary who was unafraid to stare down powers and principalities in order to spread the Gospel. In 1219, during the 5th Crusade, Francis hoped to bring peace by bringing about the conversion of Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt and nephew of Saladin. To do so, Francis moved across the battle lines and entered al-Kamil’s camp in order to meet him face to face and spread the Gospel in the midst of the Sultan’s hosts. In Bergoglio, one sees someone whose biography includes visible clashes with powers and principalities over not just an exclusively select set of issues that Catholics – whether they be devotees of liberation theology or neoconservativism – regard as indispensable to the living out of the Gospel. Bergoglio appears to have a history of very public engagement on a whole spectrum of issues that could be considered proper to Catholic concern. Indeed, Bergoglio has a track record of being able to get into public stoushes with political leaders over the redefinition of marriage to legitimise same-sex couples, about as easily as locking horns with business leaders on the crushing poverty hitting the slums of Buenos Aires.
The hopeful note that could be gleaned from the choice of Franciscan nomenclature is that the Saint, apart from embracing what he called “Lady Poverty”, was also associated with a period of profound transformation. Within the Church, Francis and his followers brought about a spirit of renewal that remains the stuff of legend to this day. But as St. Bonaventure (discussed in a previous post) noted, the person of St. Francis acted as the gateway to the transformation of the whole cosmos. Whether such profound transformations can be effected by this latest successor to the See of Peter remains to be seen, but the indicators from his previous biography remain encouraging.

The Australian Child Abuse Royal Commission & the Redefining of Religious Liberty

This week, the Australian government announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse across religious, state, sporting and community groups. Whilst the scope of the Royal Commission is wide, attention by the media has been strangely focused on abuse within institutions run by the Catholic Church. The most recent development in this vein have been calls by politicians, both progressive and conservative, (including a number of prominent politicians who try to pass off as the “staunchly Catholic” type), for the seal of confession to be dispensed with in cases of child abuse. The rationale behind these calls, broadly speaking, is that the welfare of abuse victims are in the public interest, and because they are in the public interest, it overrides any sacramental peculiarities of the particular religious body.
Whilst there can be no doubt about the importance that must be given to the welfare of abuse victims, the emotions that this issue would rightly generate may nonetheless prematurely paper over the nuances of a number of serious civic concerns. With this in mind, there is a serious need for attention to one of these nuances, namely the discursive underpinnings for demands by such politicans to use civil law to what is essentially an element of the worship life of the Church. More specifically, it is necessary to cast attention on the implications to the concept of religious liberty if the breaking of the seal of confession is to be legally sanctioned. The Muslim commentator Waleed Aly has today hinted at this issue in The Age, but this post would go further by focussing on how this most recent demand regarding the seal of confession is symptomatic of a wider trend towards the narrowing of the scope of religious liberty.
Protests of religious liberty as a response to this most recent move by the politicians presume that religious liberty is some kind of naturally given and morally neutral category. But, as an interview with historian David Sehat on volume 114 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal suggests, “religious liberty” is never neutral, natural or stable. Instead, “religious liberty” is a civic category and thus the result of constant definition and redefinition by the civic body. What constitutes “religious liberty” therefore is the avoidance of state interference in religious affairs, though what that may entail is completely subject to the imperatives of the state.
Furthermore, as Ryan Messmore pointed out on the ABC Religion and Ethics portal, the scope of “religious liberty” has in recent decades been gradually narrowed. Whereas once “religious liberty” was taken to mean the freedom of religious bodies to act out on one’s religious convictions in the public square without state interference, the concept is now taken to mean only the freedom to engage in worship within the confines of religious institutions, away from the public square, without government interference. This is also becoming known as the “freedom of worship”, which is increasingly becoming the discursive substitute for “religious liberty”.
What may be missed in the demands for the breaking of the seal of confession so that the public interest is served is the point that, in these calls by the representatives of the state, the state is engaging in a further narrowing of “religious liberty”, negating even the notion of freedom to worship without state interference. In demanding the breaking of the seal of confession, the state is inferring that it has the authority to dictate the ends to which one of the elements of the Church’s worship is directed. More specifically, the implied right by the state to demand the breaking of the seal of confession is not possible if it was not accompanied by an implied right for the state to direct worship towards state ends. Thus, Christians resorting to the “religious liberty” defense in response to calls to break the seal of confession will ultimately have no civic defense from the state, as Aly suggests.
It will be interesting to see how the inquiries by the Royal Commission unfolds. As justice is rightfully meted out, however, something that should also be constantly flagged is the extent to which citizens would allow the state to control what little is left of the private sphere. For if one recognised confidence in the private sphere can be forced to become undone in this instance, there will be little that can prevent the undoing of other kinds of confidences (e.g. those between doctors and patients, lawyers and clients, husbands and wives etc) in other instances. As an ancillary, what should become apparent to Christians is that the reliance of the distinction between the private and public sphere is a weak grounding for both the practice and defense of their faith (which in modern contexts will always be situated in the private sphere). As the computer analyst Clay Shirky once argued, the private sphere is quickly shrinking and being substituted by a expansionary secular public panopticon (a process facilitated by the consolidation of social networking).  The grounding of the practice of faith then, should not be the private sphere of a civic social landscape, but the public sphere of a distinct public, namely the Body of Christ.