When Silence is Power

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote, “What first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” She went on to add, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are  not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In our present media environment, the opposite of this formula may be closer to the truth, at least in certain situations. Power, in these situations, is actualized only when word and deed are severed. In these cases, the refusal to speak is action. Silence is power.

The particular situation I have in view is the hijacking of public discourse (and consequently the political order) by the endless proliferation of manufactured news and fabricated controversy.

These pseudo-events are hyperreal. They are media events that exist as such only in so far as they are spoken about. “To go viral” is just another way of describing the achievement of hyperreality . To be “spoken about” is to be addressed within our communication networks. In a networked society, we are the relays and hyperreality is an emergent property of our networked acts of communication.  

Every interest that constitutes our media environment and media economy is invested in the perpetuation of hyperreality.

Daily, these pseudo-events consume our attention and our mental and emotional energy. They feed off of and inspire frustration, rage, despair, paranoia, revenge, and, ultimately, cynicism. It is a daily boom/bust cycle of the soul.

Because they are constituted by speech, the pseudo-events are immune to critical speech. Speaking of them, even to criticize them, strengthens them.

When speaking is the only perceived form of action–it is, after all, the only way of existing on our social media networks–then that which thrives by being spoken about will persist.

How does one protest when acts of protest are consistently swallowed up by that which is being protested? When the act of protest has the perverse effect of empowering that which is being protested?

Silence.

Silence is the only effective form of boycott. Traditional boycotts, the refusal to purchase goods or patronize establishments, are ineffective against hyperreality. They are sucked up into the pseudo-events.

Finally, the practice of silence must be silent about itself.

Here the practice of subversive silence threatens to fray against the edge of our media environment. When the self is itself constituted by acts of speech within the same network, then refusal to speak feels like self-deprivation. And it is. Silence under these conditions is an ascetic practice, a denial of the self that requires considerable discipline.

But if we are relays in the network, then self-sabotage becomes a powerful act of protest.

Perhaps the practice of this kind of self-imposed, unacknowledged silence may be the power that helps resuscitate public discourse.

Your Click Will Have Come From the Heart

wyd-rio-2013

For the first time since 1517, when Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation, indulgences are in the news. As the start of the Roman Catholic Church’s 28th annual World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro drew near, it was widely reported that Pope Francis had decreed the granting of special indulgences for those who took part in the event. A decree of this sort would not ordinarily garner any media attention, but this particular decree contained an unprecedented measure. Indulgences were offered even to those who followed the event on social media.

Perhaps a little background is in order here. In Roman Catholic theology, Purgatory is where those who are ultimately on their way to Heaven go to satisfy all of the temporal punishment they’ve got coming and otherwise get spiritually prepared to enter Heaven. This is where indulgences come in.

The Church, as a conduit of God’s grace, may issue indulgences to reduce one’s time in Purgatory. Indulgences are premised on the notion that while most of us end up in the red when the moral account of our lives is taken, saints, martyrs, the Virgin, etc. ended up in the black. Their abundance of moral virtue constitutes a Treasury of Merit on which the Church can draw in order to help out those who are still paying up in Purgatory. Indulgences, then, are not, as they are sometimes portrayed in the press, a “get out of Hell free” card. They are more like a fast-pass through Purgatory.

That early modern religious, political, and cultural revolution we call the Protestant Reformation was kicked off when a German monk named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses for disputation on the door of a church in Wittenberg. Luther took aim at the practice of selling indulgences to fill the Church’s more literal treasury. He was particularly scandalized by the abuses of the notoriously unscrupulous Johann Tetzel. Think of Tetzel as a late medieval version of the worst stereotype of a contemporary televangelist. Luther set out to shut Tetzel and his ilk down, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While the practice of selling indulgences was banned by the Church shortly after Luther’s day, the Catholic Church still offers indulgences for particular works of piety. And that brings us back to Francis’ offer of indulgences to those who participate in World Youth Day celebrations. Here is the portion of the decree that has made a story out of these indulgences:

Those faithful who are legitimately prevented may obtain the Plenary Indulgence as long as, having fulfilled the usual conditions — spiritual, sacramental and of prayer — with the intention of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, they participate in spirit in the sacred functions on the specific days, and as long as they follow these same rites and devotional practices via television and radio or, always with the proper devotion, through the new means of social communication; …

The “new means of social communication” have been widely reduced to Twitter in accounts of this story. Following the Pope’s tweets (@Pontifex) during the week is one way of virtually participating in the event. The faithful may also watch live streaming video through web-portals set up by the Vatican or keep up on Facebook and Pinterest.

Claudio Maria Celli, president of the pontifical council for social communications, was quick to clarify the intent of the decree. “Get it out of your heads straight away,” Celli explained to the media, “that this is in any way mechanical, that you just need to click on the internet in a few days’ time to get a plenary indulgence.”

As the text of the decree makes clear, the “usual conditions” apply. Believers must be properly motivated and they must see to the ordinary means of grace offered by the Church: confession, penance, and prayer. And there’s also that line, almost entirely neglected in media reports, about being “legitimately prevented” from attending. But Celli seemed particularly determined to prevent any misunderstanding on account of the inclusion of digital media:

You don’t get the indulgence the way you get a coffee from a vending machine. There’s no counter handing out certificates. To put it another way, it won’t be sufficient to attend the mass in Rio online, follow the Pope on your iPad or visit Pope2You.net. These are only tools that are available to believers. What really matters is that the Pope’s tweets from Brazil, or the photos of World Youth Day that will be posted on Pinterest, should bear authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of each one of us.

Protestants are usually taken to be more technologically savvy than the Catholic Church. After all, while the Catholic Church was weighing the moral hazards of the printing press, Protestants took to it enthusiastically and used it to spread their message across Europe. It is also true that American evangelicals have been especially keen on appropriating new media to spread the good news. As Henry Jenkins, a scholar of new media, put it,

Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.

But this way of telling the story, centered as it is on print and the communication of a message, may be obscuring the fuller account of the Catholic Church’s relationship to media technology. It may be, in fact, that the Catholic Church is well-positioned, given its particular forms of spirituality, to flourish in an age of digital media.

Making that case convincingly is a book-length project, but, allowing for some rough-and-ready generalizations, here’s the shorter version. It starts with recognizing that Francis’ decision to extend indulgences to those who are not physically present in Rio is not without precedent. This strikingly 21st century development has a medieval antecedent.

If you’ve ever visited a Roman Catholic Church, you’ve likely seen the Way of the Cross (sometimes called the Stations of the Cross): a series of images depicting scenes from the final hours of Jesus’ life. There are fourteen stations including, for example, his condemnation before Pilate, the laying of the cross on his shoulders, three falls on the way to the site of the crucifixion, and culminating with his body being laid in the tomb. Catholics may earn indulgences by prayerfully traversing the Way of the Cross.

What makes this a precedent to Francis’ decree is that the Way of the Cross represented by images – carved, painted, sculptured, engraved, etc. – in local churches was a way of making a virtual pilgrimage to these same places in Jerusalem. Since at least the fourth century, Christians prized a visit to the Holy Land, but, as you can easily imagine, that journey was not cheap or comfortable, nor was it entirely safe. By the late medieval period, the Way of the Cross was appearing in churches across Europe as a concession to those unable to travel to Jerusalem.

While the precise history of the Way of the Cross is a bit murky, it is clear that the regularizing of the virtual pilgrimage transpired under the auspices of the Franciscan Order. This is not entirely surprising given the Franciscan Order’s traditional care for the poor, those least likely to make the physical pilgrimage. It also makes it rather fitting that it is Pope Francis – who took his papal title from St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order – who first legitimized social media as a vehicle of indulgences.

What’s interesting about this connection is that Catholic theology had grappled with the notion of virtual presence long before the advent of electronic or digital media. And this leads to one of those egregious generalizations: Protestant piety was wedded to words (printed words particularly) and while Catholic piety was historically comfortable with a wider range of media (images especially).

This means that Protestants have understood media primarily as a means of communicating information, and Catholics, while obviously aware of media as a means of communicating information, have also (tacitly perhaps) understood media as a means of communicating presence. Along with the Way of the Cross, consider the prominence of images, icons, and statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints in Catholic piety. These images, whatever shape they take, are reverenced in as much as they mediate the presence of the “prototypes” which they represent.

Without claiming that the printed book created Protestantism, we could argue that in a media environment dominated by print, Protestant forms of piety enjoy a heightened plausibility. Print privileges message over presence. But high bandwidth digital media, combining audio and image, have become more than conduits of information, they increasingly channel presence and may thus be more hospitable to Catholic spirituality. Conversely, digital media may present intriguing challenges to traditional forms of Protestant spirituality.

It’s not surprising, then, that Pope Francis has seen fit to sanction digital media as legitimate tools of spirituality for Catholics. As Fr Paolo Padrini, a Catholic scholar of new media, put it, digital media allow for “Sharing, acting in unison, despite the obstacle of distance. But it will still be real participation and that is why you will obtain the indulgence. Above all because your click will have come from the heart.”

Perspectives on Privacy and Human Flourishing

I’ve not been able to track down the source, but somewhere Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

The unfolding NSA scandal has brought privacy front and center. A great deal is being written right now about the ideal of privacy, the threats facing it from government activities, and how it might best be defended. Conor Friedersdorf, for instance, worries that our government has built “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” At this juncture, the concerns seem to me neither exaggerated nor conspiratorial.

Interestingly, there also seems to be a current of opinion that fails to see what all the fuss is about. Part of this current stems from the idea that if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove’s 2011 book on just this line of reasoning in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that is worth reading (link via Alan Jacobs).

Others are simply willing to trade privacy for security. In a short suggestive post on creative ambiguity with regards to privacy and government surveillance, Tyler Cowen concedes, “People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.”  “But,” he immediately adds, “if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.”

Maybe.

I wonder whether we are not witnessing the long foretold end of western modernity’s ideal of privacy. That sort of claim always comes off as a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not altogether misguided. If we grant that the notion of individual privacy as we’ve known it is not a naturally given value but rather a historically situated concept, then it’s worth considering both what factors gave rise to the concept and how changing sociological conditions might undermine its plausibility.

Media ecologists have been addressing these questions for quite awhile. They’ve argued that privacy, as we understand (understood?) it, emerged as a consequence of the kind of reading facilitated by print. Privacy, in their view, is the concern of a certain type of individual consciousness that arises as a by-product of the interiority fostered by reading. Print, in these accounts, is sometimes credited with an unwieldy set of effects which include the emergence of Protestantism, modern democracy, the Enlightenment, and the modern idea of the individual. That print literacy is the sole cause of these developments is almost certainly not the case; that it is implicated in each is almost certainly true.

This was the view, for example, advanced by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy. “[W]riting makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity,” Ong explains, “opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set.” Further on he wrote,

Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society. It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. In manuscript culture and hence in early print culture, reading had tended to be a social activity, one person reading to others in a group. As Steiner … has suggested, private reading demands a home spacious enough to provide for individual isolation and quiet.

This last point draws architecture into the discussion as Aaron Bady noted in his 2011 essay for MIT Review, “World Without Walls”:

Brandeis and Warren were concerned with the kind of privacy that could be afforded by walls: even where no actual walls protected activities from being seen or heard, the idea of walls informed the legal concept of a reasonable expectation of privacy. It still does … But contemporary threats to privacy increasingly come from a kind of information flow for which the paradigm of walls is not merely insufficient but beside the point.

This argument was also made by Marshall McLuhan who, like his student Ong, linked it to the “coming of the book.” For his part, Ong concluded “print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space.” Presumably, then, the accompanying assumption is that this thing-like inert mental space is something to be guarded and shielded from intrusion.

854px-Vermeer,_Johannes_-_Woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca._1662-1663While it is a letter, not a book that she reads, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue has always seemed to me a fitting visual illustration of this media ecological perspective on the idea of privacy. The question all of this begs is obvious: What does the decline of the age of print entail for the idea of privacy? What happens when we enter what McLuhan called the “electric age” and Ong called the age of “secondary orality,” or what we might now call the “digital age”?

McLuhan and Ong seemed to think that the notion of privacy would be radically reconfigured, if not abandoned altogether. One could easily read the rise of social media as further evidence in defense of their conclusion. The public/private divide has been endlessly blurred. Sharing and disclosure is expected. So much so that those who do not acquiesce to the regime of voluntary and pervasive self-disclosure raise suspicions and may be judged sociopathic.

Perhaps, then, privacy is a habit of thought we may have fallen out of. This possibility was explored in an extreme fashion by Josh Harris, the dot-com era Internet pioneer who subjected himself, and willing others, to unblinking surveillance. The experiment in prophetic sociology was documented by director Ondi Timoner in the film We Live in Public.

The film is offered as a cautionary tale. Harris suffered an emotional and mental breakdown as a consequences of his experimental life. On the film’s website, Timoner added this about Harris’ girlfriend who had enthusiastically signed up for the project:  “She just couldn’t be intimate in public. And I think that’s one of the important lessons in life; the Internet, as wonderful as it is, is not an intimate medium. It’s just not. If you want to keep something intimate and if you want to keep something sacred, you probably shouldn’t post it.”

This caught my attention because it introduced the idea of intimacy rather than, or in addition to, that of privacy. As Solove argued in the piece mentioned above, we eliminate the rich complexity of all that is gathered under the idea of privacy when we reduce it to secrecy or the ability to conceal socially marginalized behaviors. Privacy, as Timoner suggests, can also be understood as the pre-condition of intimacy, and, just to be clear, this should be understood as more than mere sexual intimacy.

The reduction of intimacy to sexuality recalls the popular mis-reading of the Fall narrative in the Hebrew Bible. The description of the Edenic paradise concludes – unexpectedly until familiarity has taught you to expect it – with the narrator’s passing observation that the primordial pair where naked and unashamed. A comment on sexual innocence, perhaps, but much more I think. It spoke to a radical and fearless transparency born of pure guilelessness. The innocence was total and so, then, was the openness and intimacy.

Of course, the point of the story is to set up the next tragic scene in which innocence is lost and the immediate instinct is to cover their nakedness. Total transparency is now experienced as total vulnerability, and this is the world in which we live. Intimacy of every kind is no longer a given. It must emerge alongside hard-earned trust, heroic acts of forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love. And perhaps with this realization we run up against the challenge of our digital self-publicity and the risks posed by perpetual surveillance. The space for a full-fledged flourishing of the human person is being both surrendered and withdrawn. The voluntarily and involuntarily public self, is a self that operates under conditions which undermine the possibility of its own well-being.

But, this is also why I believe Bady is on to something when he writes, “Privacy has a surprising resilience: always being killed, it never quite dies.” It is why I’m not convinced that we could entirely reduce all that is entailed in the notion of privacy to a function of print literacy. If something that answers to the name of privacy is a condition of our human flourishing in our decidedly un-Edenic condition, then one hopes we will not relinquish it entirely to either the imperatives of digital culture or the machinations of the state. It is, admittedly, a tempered hope.

Weaponized Consumption

Boycotts and procotts are by now commonplace and predictable, the skirmishes involving a certain fast-food chain being only the latest prominent instance. This got me thinking about the boycotting impulse, particularly when it is aligned with social issues. It seems to reflect the breakdown of public reason. What I have in mind is the situation described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After VirtueUnable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will. Of course, in a consumer society what other form could such action take than marketplace transactions. Perhaps we can describe it as the commodification of public debate. Like war, boycotting is politics by other means. It is weaponized consumption.

Towers, Needles, and Wheels: Architectural Spectacles at World’s Fairs and Expositions

Today the ArcelorMittal Orbit, an observation tower designed for the Summer Olympics, opened in London. The 377 foot tall structure, England’s tallest work of public art, is part of Olympic Park in Stratford. According to an AP press release, “Some critics have called the ruby-red lattice of tubular steel an eyesore. British tabloids have labeled it ‘the Eye-ful Tower,’ ‘the Godzilla of public art’ and worse.” Its designers, of course, think of it in more flattering terms:

“One of the references was the Tower of Babel. There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long, winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it. What I’m interested in is the way 21st century thinking about older technologies allows one to go both forwards and backwards. The form straddles Eiffel and Tatlin.”

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London

Not surprisingly, the Orbit seems to automatically generate comparison to the Eiffel Tower which was constructed for another kind of international gathering/competition, the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Arial view of the Exposition Universelle of 1889

And not unlike the Orbit, the Eiffel Tower also received a mixed reaction:

“We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”

Signatories included: Guy de Maupasssant, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Charles Gounod, and Paul Verlaine. But, of course, opinions have mellowed since.

The Eiffel Tower was not the only oversized structure built for a world’s fair. There was also the world’s first ferris wheel standing at 264 feet and offering passengers an awe-inspiring view of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, best remembered as the site of President William McKinley’s assassination, featured the 375 foot Electric Tower. At a time when many Americans had yet to witness an electrified city-scape, the tower and surrounding buildings became instances of the American technological sublime.

The iconic Space Needle that has come to symbolize the city of Seattle was built for the Century 21 Exposition that was held in 1961.

The two observation towers that comprised part of the New York State Pavilion for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair still stand today.