Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Imitation in worship and the imitation of worship.

I have written before about my misgivings about the integration of certain kinds of technology into the liturgy. It is difficult to express these misgivings to most people, first of all because the stronger ethos is decidedly in favor of technology everywhere it mitigates against inconveniences; and second, because the charge of hypocrisy is the prescribed medication for any modern with apparently luddite leanings. How stupid of me to write a diatribe against technology on Blogger!

But the patient listener will, perhaps, sit with me a while and learn that my complaint against liturgical technology is neither absolutist, aribtrarily prejudicial, or without the proper distinctions. I say "arbibrarily" because "prejudice" by itself is nothing more than the pejorative synonym for principle. All principles are prejudicial by their very nature; that is their function--to formulate a relatively stable structure of how values may interact with abstract qualities of manifold circumstances, in order to make the process of judgment easier. (Does this mean that all morality can be reduced to casuistry? More on that later!)

This post only points out one aspect of technology that is problematic. I believe that this aspect is sufficiently concrete to be preserved from accusations of being a mere rationalization of my private tastes. That aspect is the mimetic quality of technology. As a central example, I will be referring to the case of oil-lit candles. The issue is complex enough that I will have to consciously structure it.
  1. The difference between mimetic technology and technological development.
  2. The difference between mimetic technology and mimetic art.
  3. The realism vs. nominalism connection.
  4. The freedom vs. determinism connection.
  5. How mimetic technology shapes perception and experience in the liturgy.
  6. Concrete examples.
  7. General principles.
As a general definition, I submit that mimetic technology is any technology whose intended purpose is to stand in the place of another object, while at the same time minimizing the subjective perception of its difference from that object. It is not inherently "deceptive," as the intention is not necessarily to make people believe it is something it is not. The mimicry effect, rather, may only be for the purpose of drawing attention away from its 'artificiality', regardless of whether the subject is aware of the artificiality. Most people know immediately when a "candle" is oil-lit: though wax-colored, they are geometrically perfect cylinders of exactly equal height, bearing a flame which hardly flickers from its metalic base. Yet generally, people do not dwell on the "unreality" of the "candle," because it is functionally equivalent in all of the major areas; it is tall, wax-colored, and it burns when lit until it is extinguished. Other mimetic technologies range from the MP3 of a combustion engine roar issuing forth from an electric car, to the use of staining to make cheap furniture look like dark walnut (or similarly, imitation mahogany dashboards in cars), to even the artificial flavors in fruit drinks. Of course, I think all of these are fine things in themselves. But the question here is the effect they have on the liturgy.

An important question that some will raise is how one can make a concrete categorical distinction between wax candles and oil candles. Both are, after all, technology in the strict sense--wax candles are no less manufactured than gas candles; they do not grow on trees. If gas candles accomplish the same task as wax candles with less mess, inexpensive maintenance, and more convenient storage, why would they constitute an essentially different thing than any legitimate technological development? After all, candles did not always use wax; is a wax candle an illegitimate "mimetic" form of the tallow candle? Maybe oil candles will someday become the norm, and further on, when they are replaced by something else, another seminarian will complain that the newfangled "candles" are not really candles because they do not burn from containers of oil.

What makes oil-lit candles mimetic is not primarily the fact that they use a different technology than wax candles. After all, in the realm of portable light, oil lamps did replace wax candles. But they did not go out of their way, thereafter, to mimic the look or feel of candles. Earlier, when wax began to replace tallow as candle material, the similarity between use of the new material and the old was not a self-conscious contraption meant to distract away from the difference--they just happened to be very similar materials.

What makes oil-lit candles in churches mimetic is the self-conscious attempt, in their manufacture and deployment, to make them appear as though they were actually wax candles--again, not to deceive, but to make their oil-lit nature relatively invisible and unremarkable. There is, in that very practice, a tacit admission that something valuable would be lost if the oil-lit flames by the altar were not disguised at all, and clearly showed their oil-lit nature to the world, such that they could hardly be called "candles" anymore, but rather, the lamps that they in fact are.

Now, as far as I know, the Church does not yet have a highly developed mystagogy for the significance of candles; they are symbols of the light of Christ. Yet although the Magisterium has not (to my knowledge) explicitly forbidden the use of 70 Watt incandescent light bulbs instead of candles, few priests are jumping on that opportunity. The use of candles might just be sentimental or sheer tradition (as in, without a rationalistic foundation). Yet if one had to grasp, I would suggest that we have no other way to so eloquently domesticate fire while retaining its most commonly (i.e. naturally) occurring wildness and unpredictability of movement--a sort of retroactive reference back to Christ's own enthusiasm for wildfires--"I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" (Lk 12:49).

But the issue at present is not whether candles are inherently better than oil lamps for liturgy, but what to make of oil lamps pretending to be candles--as well as other instances of technological "pretending".

Continuing on...

Still, one other important distinction must be made. Even if people are persuaded that mimetic technology is not simply an improvement of technology, one may be tempted to ask, what is wrong with imitation? After all, the best of art imitates nature. Is not mimetic technology just another example of such plastic arts? What about those gothic columns I am so fond of, that look like trees branching out into the archways? Who is to say that lamps cannot imitate candles (and plastic, plants; and computers, pianos) when human art has always been imitative in one form or another?

The distinction between mimetic technology and mimetic art is more subtle, but I believe it is real. The fundamental difference is that real art tends to draw attention toward its representative nature; mimetic technology tends to draw your attention away from its imitative nature.

The value of art resides precisely in its being an artistic representation. It wants you to dwell on its "artificiality", not to believe or pretend that it is what it represents, but to contemplate what it is saying about its subject. In other words, there is an intentional distance between the artwork and its subject, wherein meaning rests. Something is not merely being imitated here, it is being glorified, or villified, or even simply represented, but even then to draw your attention beyond the physical object and onto the subject and its meaning.

Mimetic technology is quite a different animal. On one hand, oil lamp-candles are not gesturing beyond themselves at all; the intention is not to inspire contemplation on the nature or meaning of candles or anything else. Their self-same object is their only referent--"I am a candle!" However, ironically, the oil-lit candles are most effective when they are not looked at too closely; blur your vision a little and their differences from real candles are not so apparent. Yet who blurs their vision to appreciate art?

Consider that a single object might be both mimetic technology and mimetic art; say, an oil candle shaped like the graceful columns of the baldechino in St. Peter's Basilica. Such a thing would have a strange, almost contradictory effect: at the same time naturally guiding the eye along its lively curves, and shutting out the mind's perception that those curves are machine-molded plastic, not wax. The subjective effect is one of frustration, like being fed air. The eyes blanch at the transparent Chi-Rho stickers on the small oil-candles flanking the tabernacle.

What is happening here? What is the inner logic of mimetic technology?

Third installment:

If anyone were to bring up a complaint about the use of mimetic technology (or "fake things") in church, the response of the pastor would probably go along the following lines: they do the same things as their counterparts, while being at the same time easier to maintain, cheaper, and perhaps even safer. Indeed, one needs to look closely, in some instances, to determine whether a plant is fake; and no one denies that oil-lit candles are cheaper and cleaner than their wax counterparts. The force of pragmatism is a difficult opponent to challenge in disputes, because even if the use of 'real' artifacts provided some nebulous advantage, that advantage would seem to be too intangible to mobilize an effective counter-value.

Perhaps part of what is needed to do precisely that, is a deeper understanding of the dynamic of mimetic technology. We have to delve into the assumptions that make mimetic technology valuable and ask whether those assumptions do justice to the complete truth of the human person in the act of worshipping God. We have to "over-analyze," and never fear the accusation thereof, because analysis which stops short on account of the virtue of moderation, also stops short of truth.

The very conceptual possibility of mimetic technology is based on a conviction of a hard subject-object split. The irrevocable distance between the observer and the “thing in itself” creates a gap, which then puts to question the claim of the subject to have privileged access (or even, any access at all) to the thing on the basis of perception alone. Postmodernism takes this problem and shifts the focus: the goal is not to discover what the thing really is (which is certainly impossible) but to instead live in the world of perception alone, without the 'myth' of objective referents. Our very act of perception changes the object, such that it is the perceiving, and not the object at all, which is and has always been the center of human meaning.

The substitution of one objective locus of perceived phenomena for another is thus truly irrelevant; the less it affects our subjective impressions, the less relevant it is. Nominalism is the mandate for the cultivation of an increasingly virtual reality, which at the same time (a) disavows difference between itself and “real reality,” and yet (b) conforms itself ever more radically to our needs, desires, fears, and values. The latter process is true of how all technology affects our lives; but the former is true especially of mimetic technology. This dual process naturally fosters easy acclimatization to itself, even to the degree that those few who are ever mindful of a past pre-virtualization of their world may no longer have a clear sense of how it was different; what were the genuine advantages and disadvantages it held.

Full-on nominalism would have us believe that there is no such difference between the present “virtual” and the past “real”; the “real” is merely a fetish; everything, in the end, is and always has been “virtual,” lacking the objectivity which we all attributed to it as children. The mark of maturity is to understand how little we actually share in common, with our different subjectivities, and that too enthusiastic a devotion to vacuous terms like the “real,” “actual,” “factual,” and “objective” is not only unhealthy—if it is not sufficiently Kantian, it is downright oppressive.

The Freedom vs. Determinism connection

Another human controversy follows this pattern almost exactly, so I am going to shift gears away from the question of “reality” and toward the related question of “freedom.” When the common pattern is established, I will make a double-application to both cases in order to deconstruct nominalism.

Determinism is a major philosophical problem, and it has not gone away with the discovery of an indeterminate quantum substrata beneath atomistic physics. Quantum physics does not erase determinism; it just makes determinism very unpredictable. The question behind the dilemma of human free will was never, in the end, about human predictability according to natural laws—but rather about whether or not the human being has an autonomy of choice which is, not illusory, but real.

The special difficulty of the problem is that one cannot “step outside” the experience of life in order to verify that his freedom is true. A microscope tells us nothing about itself as a microscope; even if it were made of rubber, it could not twist upon itself to analyze itself and given us a self image that gave us any new information. Similarly, our “freedom”, or our experience of freedom, is presupposed by our very act of discussing it—we cannot not act as if we were not free.

The impossibility of proving free will itself is not the greatest obstacle to believing in objective freedom, but it combines with relative predictability—i.e., unfreedom—of the rest of the natural universe and fails to find a scientific ground for our essential difference from that universe. The psychological sciences' demonstrations that we participate, in varying degrees, in that natural predictability seems to nail the coffin.

Yet the key phrase here is “varying degrees.” Psychology and sociology have never been quite able to put a finger on human behavior, and their 'laws' have always been the least stable of any of the modern sciences, whatever substance they actually have. This anomaly has an experiential correlate in our individual encounters with varying degrees of “freedom.” The addict and the monk have polar opposites of this... this "whatever," and though we choose to call it "freedom," we still cannot say in an absolute sense that the monk's seeming non-determinedness is not illusory.

However, even if it was illusory, we cannot contradict the vast difference of the “whatever” it is the monk has and the addict lacks. The monk can drink a beer; the addict cannot not drink a beer. While it is true that these poles are not absolute—the monk has compulsions and the addict has a will—yet still a definite difference of degree is present. This difference cannot prove freedom in a metaphysical way; but what it does do is prove freedom in an immanent and undeniable, if merely functional way.

Analytic philosophers have already explored this corner of the jungle, and most, I imagine, have left at this juncture. We must be satisfied to act “as if we were free”, and any further speculation about absolutely existent, objective freedom is literally non-sense. I am not so satisfied, but what I have shown here is sufficient for our purposes in dealing with objective reality and mimetic technology, so we can move on.

Nominalism closes off our access to “objective reality” in an absolute sense. Like the case of freedom, we cannot “step out of” our subjectivity to view the world in a way unmediated by subjectivity. But, so also with freedom, “reality” and “unreality” are relative experiences we have, even within our all-encompassing subjectivity. These experiences are undeniable, even by the thoroughgoing nominalist, though he will try to persuade us that there may be nothing at all “beneath” that difference; no objective substance to our relative subjective experience of objectivity.

The correspondence theory of truth did not manifest out of thin air, or out of hopes and dreams; it is a metaphysical analogue to physical experiences, according to which 'objective' things are identical or different from one-another, or themselves illusory in a verifiable way. The identity of a candle with itself is not an illusion, and its difference from an oil lamp is not an illusion; even if every concept of objectivity were an illusion, yet we then must have illusions of realities vs. illusions of illusions.

The point is that nominalism cannot erase the functional reality of different degrees of objectivity any more than determinism can eliminate the experienced reality of different degrees of freedom.

But that having been established: why, if our subjectivity detects little difference, are objective candles preferable to candles-in-appearance-only?

To be answered tomorrow!

G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist."

1 comment:

Matt of C G said...

You said, "to be answered tomorrow" I'm still waiting.