Simulations & Spouses

Poster of “Bride and Gloom” (1918), Public Domain.

The popular philsophical writer Alain de Botton recently published an article in the New York Times outlining the ways in which, in the end, everyone marries the wrong person (a longer version of this essay can be found here) While this is often a cause for despair, de Botton chimed in with an encouraging note, as well as a note of caution with the words:

The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person…We mustn’t abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.

This observation of the effect that that what he calls the “Romantic idea” of marriage is an important one, for it would seem that the current environment of image-saturation, creating a condition that the Marxist philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s called “hyperreality”, exacerbates the “Romantic idea”. This is because conditions of hyper-reality – where images are deemed more real than reality itself – bear the potential to generate, and indeed have generated, simulations of a spouse that cement themselves into the mind’s eye to the point that actual, embodied spouses are constantly coming up short, whether it is in terms of appearance, temperament, abilities or delivery of lifestyle. The actual spouse is constantly exposed to be nothing like the sweeping movie scene, the checklist or the airbrushed photo on Pinterest. It is in love that the death of actuality at the hands of an overpowering potentiality are most viscerally experienced.

On the other hand, what the article by de Botton, and indeed the Theological work on marriage in the tradition of St. John Paul II and Marc Oullet highlight, is that the taking of a spouse is always a taking in of a mystery that is gradually and constantly unfolding before you. Marriage is that context within which the embodied reality of the spouse acts as an abrasive to grind back the simulations that the conditions of hyperreality have encrusted onto us. An important task of the spouse then is twofold, to resist the simulations of the spouse delivered by movies, music videos and social media, but also develop a disposition of active waiting for the unfurling of one’s actual spouse.

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.

Networked Loneliness: the Paradox of Smartphones and What it Means for the Church

Smartphones are not just about the device and the user, and yet, what happens when civic spaces become saturated with this very logic?
The website on place, The Atlantic Cities, published an article last year about the shift from traditional mobile phones to smartphones. In an interview Tel Aviv University’s Tali Hatuka, the article drew particular attention to the effect that smartphones had in privatising space. Our shared spaces, once seen as opportunities to engage one another (governed by certain publically negotiated rules of engagement) have now become broken up into private bubbles where the smartphone’s main functions, chats, social networking and the like – essentially private functions – reign supreme. Under such conditions, suggests Hatuka, the private and the atomised have torn through the fabric of the public and shared. People can now bypass each in a public square whilst staring at their own facebook page.

The reasons why social networking is simultaneously making us less social is explained incredibly concisely in a video by Shimi Cohen entitled The Innovation of Loneliness. The paradox the video points out is simple, the more social networking saturates the social space, the more atomised the social body becomes. As “connections” become substitutes for “conversations”, the video suggests, the more the social retreats into a series of electronic padded rooms known as “status updates”, “tweets” and “comboxes”.

If it is true that space is being eviscerated by the saturation of the market by smartphone, then this will be of significant not just of civic but ecclesial bodies as well. As thinkers as ancient as Augustine and as recent as the French social theorist Michel de Certeau suggest, the Church will always occupy spaces that are owned by some other social body.
Furthermore, as Pope Francis’ first encylical Lumen Fidei reminds us, the light of faith comes also in our traversing through space, a space that is essentially shared with believer and non-believer alike. For faith is not just enclosed within concepts, but embodied within practices, and practices occupy space. The enclosure of shared spaces – whether by smartphones, privacy laws or other measures – will present a serious challenge to the faith at the level of praxis.


Christianity, Eastertide and Liminality

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for “threshold”. Liminality denotes a time of seeming ambiguity during a period of transition from one situation to another. The word has gained a degree of importance in a number of disciplines. In anthropology, for instance, the French folklorist Arnold van Gennep used the term to speak of a time slice during particular cultural rituals when one’s identity, communal belonging or direction and purpose in life become somewhat suspended, even though the purpose of the ritual is to facilitate a radical transformation from one state to another.
This notion of ambiguity as a seriously-engaged cultural reality is important to consider, since it is reflected quite powerfully in various works of Christian art. One of the most striking is The Man of Sorrows by Lorenzo Monaco (1405). The image is one of the post-crucified Christ. His hands and side evince the holes of the nails and lance. The skin is of a colour that is far from vibrant. His head is sagging and there is even the slightest evidence of a broken neck. The Jesus depicted in this image is quite dead. The man of sorrows depicted here is “sorrowful even unto death” (Matt 26:38). In gazing at the dead Christ, however, one small detail may escape the viewer that would qualify the deathly status of this Christ. For while the signs of death are quite apparent, Monaco’s Christ is also standing. This means that the folding of Christ’s arms over his body are due to the locomotive power of Christ’s living body. The Christ depicted in this image then, is not one of conclusive, all-encompassing death, but one that is at the liminal stage as Christ processes from death to life. This is why Monaco’s image of the Man of Sorrows is sometimes referred to as The Resurrection.
Christians can gain much from a reflection on Christ’s liminality. This is especially so for those Christians who, now in the 3rd week of Eastertide, feel anything but the fullness of a visceral experience of sharing in Christ’s resurrection. When the sharing of the resurrection seems so far away even during the Feast of the Resurrection of the Lord, there may be the temptation to conclude that either the resurrection will never be a personal reality, or that God is resurrecting oneself only to a degree, only to prepare him or her for the next round of personal crucifixion.
Whilst much of the Christian’s life may feel like a perpetual state of liminality, Monaco’s painting reminds us powerfully of Paul’s assurance to the Christians of Rome. The experience of ambiguity is not permanent. It is but a phase and a prelude to a process of restoring all aspects of our life, even our bodily and material existence (Rom 8:11). The cry for help to the Lord by Isaiah “restore me to health and make me live”, is not a futile request that disappears in to a spiritual echo-chamber. Christ’s resurrection assures us that, building up below our immediate experience of continued anguish or ambiguity, is a wave of life that will one day flood one’s valley of the shadow of death, restoring all aspects of life that for now seem at best dormant, and even glorifying those aspects, and in so doing have them share in Christ’s glorification manifested in his Ascension. In the meantime, part of our discipleship consists in living in this state of liminality, and waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise of hearing our prayers and responding to them, trusting that our ability to endure this state of liminality and not giving into despair is in and of itself the beginning of God’s intervention.

The tension of the Christian life is not just caused by a living at the threshold between an earthly and heavenly realm. Within earthly existence itself, Christian discipleship will always be a life of standing at a threshold, straddling between the death of the old self, and the new and transformed life in a resurrected and glorified Christ.

Good Friday & the Prevailing Order (Repost)

A line in the Evening Liturgy of the Hours for Tuesday of Holy Week reminds us of an often overlooked aspect of the effect of what is taking place on Good Friday:
He has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order (1 Cor 1:28)

Much has been said of the redemption of Christ from sin as if the order that was overthrown was only confined to some bodiless, spiritual realm. But if God really became flesh and truly suffered and died, the redemptive effect of his work would also implicate what John Paul II called the “structures of sin”, the institutions that concretise sin, and the logic they distribute into the very fibre of our bodily existence and make us walking and breathing fragments of those institutions, to paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu.

God has chosen the logic of “mere nothings” to combat, and indeed overthrow, the logic of the status quo, framed by atomism, the lust for power, and the obsession with limitless knowledge and with that the obsession with security. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ would have meant that, to recall Isaiah’s prophecies of the Suffering Servant, empire, trampling boots and bloodied garments will be burned and consumed by fire. The passion of this hinge of human history should give us pause to consider if we still cling to these old logics even while we, living the new life in Christ, claim to reject the institutions they crystallise.

Do we continue to let the threads of this prevailing order weave through our lives as members of the Body of Christ? So while we, for example, reject statism, do we continue to grasp after the kind of security from others in such a way that would make us clamour for greater state oversight? While we reject the selfishness of abortion, do we continue to bask in the consumer culture that fuels it?

The silence of the night of his death, and of Holy Saturday, may be an opportune time to reflect not only on whether we truly have allowed God to overthrow the existing order in all facets of our lives, our souls, our bodies, and our modes of thinking. Which have we chosen as the prevailing order to frame each of our thoughts, words and actions?

Tuesday evening’s reading ends thus: In Him we are consecrated and set free (1 Cor 1:30). The passion, death and impending resurrection of the Lord of history has freed us from the presumptions that we have taken as historical truth, but he does not force us to be part of the new thing he is making.

A blessed Pasch to all.

Story on a (Cancer) Stick: Commodities & the Crisis of Cultural Narrative

As an attempt to reduce smoking and its associated health costs, the Australian government will later this year mandate that all tobacco products be sold in uniformly plain green packaging, with the most prominent aspect of the packaging being a series of graphic health warnings. Debates have raged for months on the wisdom of this measure, but this debate ignores a much subtler, more powerful, cultural dynamic underpinning the consumption of cigarettes.

In volume one of his Das Kapital, Karl Marx observed that industrialised societies have become marked by what he termed “commodity fetishism”. In a landscape where everything is turned into a thing for exchange for profit, commodities have become fetishised and perceived to have a life of their own, a value that independent of their material structure or the processes that created them. Thinkers in the tradition of the Frankfurt School have taken this analysis a step further. Whilst in the 19th century a commodity was seen as being an independent entity with an independent value of its own marked by a dollar sign, the commodity has in the 20th century acquired the capacity convey stories to their consumers.
The problem this narrativisation of commodities creates was highlighted by Conor Sweeney of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, who used the example of cigarettes, which really came to common usage after they became mass produced in the First World War as a means to deliver a quick tabacco hit to soldiers caught up in the main business of fighting. The smoke, Sweeney noted, became associated with an ideal situation in war time, the escape from the grind of killing, the “as good as it gets” moment that the soldier longed for. We, living long after the two World Wars, still have a similar association with the smoke. Smoking for the smoker is linked with leisure, a moment of communion with other smokers, the achievement of a goal, and the list goes on.
This can just as easily apply to other commodities, but the problem exemplified by the cigarette is twofold. First, the story is not inherent in the commodity itself but has been injected into the commodity by powerful commercial players who have an interest in selling the commodity for profit. Given its capacity to drench the social landscape with advertising and the domination of that landscape by  the shopping mall, there exists a massive power assymetry between the producer of the commodity and its consumer. More often than not, the dice is loaded squarely in favour of the commercial player.
The second aspect of this problem is more subtle, and is coupled by another problem of the loss of a central organic binding narrative within Western culture more broadly, and within the lives of each individual more specifically. When a central cultural narrative is either ignored or expunged, cultures or persons will clamour to find some alternative – any alternative – and the multiplicity of commercial players with their array of commodities on sale would are more than willing to provide that alternative for you, provided you fork out the cash to buy their product.
The result is a tragic culture constituted by a multiplicity of narratives with nothing in common to haromise them. Individuals become fragmented as they slowly meld with the collages of narratives conveyed by the differing products they consume. What compounds the tragedy is the fact that many of these essentially manufactured narratives, because they are essentially manufactured, will not even address the consumer’s need for a fulfilling and sustaining narrative. Indeed, the narrative of the commodity is deliberately designed not to provide that fulfilling narrative, leaving a gap that the consumer thinks could be filled when he moves onto the next act of consumption.
Thus, the government’s measure to curb consumption by mandating uniform packaging may work as a short term deterrent by removing the narrative capacities of a cigarette’s packaging, but it removes only an aspect of the cigarettes narrative producing capacities (think of the number of other ways cigarettes are glorified in our entertainment forms). Furthermore, the measure ignores the larger cultural malaise – that of the lack of a harmonising narrative – that drives people to commodities like cigarettes in the first place.
If the above analysis is true, then the Church’s contribution to the antidote is not so much to “lay down the law” with the culture, but to offer to that culture the narrative embodied in the life of Christ, as a harmonising narrative that gives to the culture a “life to the full” (John 10:10). This is so because the narrative is not manufactured by industrial players and foisted upon hapless human recipients, but by the one who not only created but assumed the human condition.

On Education and Smartphones

Smartphones have irreversibly changed the way of computing. In a space of less than 30 years, computers of ever-increasing procesing capabilities have shifted from being stuck on top of a desk to one’s jeanspocket. Moreover, exposure to computing is starting at younger and younger ages, to the point where it seems that the integration between humans and computers is either treated as a fait accompli or even an imperative.

As a sign of this, wrote a piece on the benefits of increasing pressures to allow the use of smartphones as educational aids in schools. Where once the use of a mobile phone would have warranted expulsion from the class, there is now the possibility of teachers allowing or encouraging their use in the class context.
While speaks glowingly about the potential that can be unleashed with the linking of the classroom with the smartphone, the trajectory of this line of thought alone is significant for several reasons. What will concern this post however, is the extension of the blurring of the line between education and entertainment, further entrenching the entertainment society mentioned in a previous post.
The use of mobile phones for gaming purposes is a long tradition that began with “snakes”. But the gaming in and of itself has actually paled into insignificance as the key concern. According to James KA Smith in his recent New College lectures, what is the key concern is the field of dispositions that is instilled through the mere physical interaction with the touchscreen device.
Drawing on the french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Smith put forward a compelling twofold case. First, the smallest physical motions, however minute, when done repeatedly can train a culture to generate a particular kind of lifeworld. This lifeworld can then be spontaneously recreated in the imagination of that culture whenever these physical motions are undertaken, immersing the culture in that lifeworld and in turn instilling a particular cultural disposition. Furthermore, the touchscreen and the interaction through the motion of one’s fingers has surreptitiously become part of the cultural idiom, signifying entertainment, instant access and self-gratification.
At one level, one can see how the instilling of a disposition towards instant entertainment for the individual runs counter to the process of education as a drawn out, communal and unentertaining period of training and development. At another level, it is also possible to see how in something as seemingly benign as a smartphone, one form of education is being intercepted by another.
The question to be asked is whether the proper reaction is a knee-jerk rejection of integrating technology, or finding ways to assimilate the technology into the life of the embodied community and not subordinating the latter to the former (a prospect forecasted long ago by Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, and earlier still by Friedrich Nietzsche).