classical dichotomy of divine beauty and earthly passion
Pure Classicism: Divine Beauty Conquers Earthly Passion
Jose De Ribeira’s 1637 masterpiece Apollo and Marsyas depicts the commencement of the satyr’s flaying by the classical god of beauty and the arts. The painting illuminates an ancient myth about the power of art as it contemplates self-reflexively the function of art in the re-creation of humanity. The Renaissance re-framing of mythic material alters the meaning of a scene of torture and carnal ritual sacrifice fundamentally. An unbridgeable cultural gap separates it from its organic context.
Our reception of Ribeiro’s work removes it from the origin even further and re-inscribes it in a new aesthetic system. Yet a kernel of the myth remains and it has to do with the immediacy of the passions. Ribeiro’s rendition easily rivals the slasher and splatter images hardening contemporary aesthetics. Its gory depiction of a bloodied piece of Marsyas’s torn skin most recently prompted a Twitter commentary by Sotovoce @MP27: “…si’ come quando Marsia traesti dalla vagina delle member sue.” Translation: as if Marsyas brought forth a vagina from his limbs.
Myths, like fiction and self-reflexive art, reveal structural psychological realities that would otherwise remain buried in the common systems of signification and circulation. It has been widely contested that, like King Oedipus, who committed the crimes of patricide and incest not knowing who his parents are and did cruel penance for his offences, Marsyas too did not deserve the brutal sentence of death by flaying.
Nietzsche discovered the origin of tragedy in satyric revelry
The satyr was famed for the incomparable music he composed on the autos, Athena’s abandoned flute. Apollo, god of beauty and perfection, offended by a rivalry he could neither master nor surpass, engaged the satyr in an unfair contest that would condemn the creature to a cruel death.
The original cultural system of values the tale reflects is the basic aesthetic of classicist naturalism. Nietzsche was a devout follower and went as far as to claim that life is so horrible, it is only worth living as an aesthetic phenomenon (Birth of Tragedy). In classical aesthetics, forms and shapes that copy the paragons of nature dutifully are objectively beautiful and perfect. Everyone must emulate them to be virtuous, existence justified.
The subjective world of the satyric revelers who were famed for indulging their wild passions in drunken orgies in the wilderness was not granted human form. Satyrs are only half-human half-bestial in the mythological system of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Peter Paul Rubens’s study of a satyr
Nietzsche’s grand discovery and most profound insight was the recognition of drunken satyric revelry as the main item on the tragic menu of ritual sacrifice. Nietzsche felt the passions that moved dithyrambic poetry and claimed the origin of the beautiful proportions and mathematical precision of tragedy for Dionysus, the god of all satyrs.
The dualistic aesthetics represented by the Janus head of Apollo and Dionysus dominated all classicist movements from the Renaissance onwards. Their major flaw is the sacrificial mindset they indulge by insisting that the flayed skin of individuality and interiority is simply discarded, relegated to nothingness, sacrificed at the altar of natural beauty and mathematical perfection.
As Hegel recognized in his reading of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” the Christian world differs from its pagan heritage, including the Greco-Roman, in that it recognized the impossibility of nothingness. Killing an enemy does not make it go away. Banquo’s ghost returns to haunt Macbeth’s feasts.
the ecstasy of music transcends the woes of passion
Because its reality principle recognised, valorised, and included condemned passions as such, Christianity developed musical annotation. The only system designed for the preservation of music in turn allowed for the development of polyphonic recitals, then symphonies and eventually opera. By contrast, no Greek music survives. We will never hear the sound of antiquity. Only the voice of nature remains.
Apollonian perfection tortures the subjective dimension into submission to the laws of the created universe. Some strands of biblical thought have developed a parallel belief, the doctrine of creationism which is coextensive with the absolutism of science. Creationism declares all creatures holy, yet leaves no room for human creation.
Current global health systems are likewise dominated by the scientific-creationist doctrine, which views the body as purely natural and creaturely and does not take into account the vast systems of manmade cultural articulation that participate in the establishment of health and wellbeing. Culturally displaced human individuals suffer enormous health damages, currently unacknowledged by the barbaric administration of global migration.
Caravaggio recognised his own passions as reflexive of the ghostly sickness of the satyrs’ aberrant aesthetics; 1593 Self-Portrait as Sick Bacchus
Biblical Twist: Symptom blossoms into Beauty
Christian thought introduced the value of the symptom and the value of difference as co-creator or re-creator of the world. Hence, Christian art not only produced a vast treasury of masterpieces but also preserved the sublime legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Interiority could not develop in the classical world because, like Marsyas, its aberrant outward form was continually flayed by the demands of Apollonian perfection. It never entered the systems of circulation. As the Twitter user cited above correctly diagnosed, the interior is profoundly feminine, because it exists in the spaces between the natural units measuring systemic reality.
Feminine love saves the beast in the folk-tale. Beauty’s love endows the Beast with the magnificent shapes of human proportions. But feminine love itself is of the beastly nature of the passions, the central symptom on display in the classical arts of tragic poetry.
As Heidegger recognised in “The Question of Technology” and “The Origin of the Work of Art” (http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/filmphilology/heideggerworkofart.pdf), poetry is the engine of invisible reality, the fundamental tapestry of love. Our little lives are rounded not so much with sleep but with poetry. Caravaggio’s depictions of suffering saints emerging from pitch black darkness put the human body in all its passionate creaturely glory on display for the first time in the Christian history of art. Ribeiro’s reinterpretation of the flaying of Marsyas borrowed the poetic idiom of Caravaggio’s profoundly Christian aesthetics, thus re-inscribing the satyr in the feminine position of the saint who bears his suffering patiently in not so silent complicity with the passion of the Christ. The rest is music.
Tragic Design today: 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. (AFP PHOTO / ANTONIN THUILLIER)
The Internal and Eternal Stage
An actor is in possession of heavily curated, poetically designed content he skilfully executes on a stage of streaming light and relentless scrutiny. What comes before and after the performance, the behind-the scenes machinery and the technologies of memory employed to seal the transient moment in time link the flawless material presented in the limelight to the interior of the actor and his accomplice, the beholder. The interior represents the stage in its dismantled state and exposes its mechanics. One can say the internal actor is the only “doer,” the engine behind acting and the mere appearance of action. His script is the decisive one. The doer makes an `appearance in James 1:22, among other lines: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” A user asked the question how can a contemporary “doer,” actively collect, cure, and preserve a unique individuality from the plethora of available material goods. There are three components to address in this question: understanding proper action and its time; learning to value and research one’s unique and infinite interior as the dwelling place of the Lord; and mastering the two-way street between products in circulation and the interior.
Collecting and curating one’s identity as the dwelling place of the Lord is a life-long task and an indefinite therapeutic process. This internal action is therapeutic precisely because individual difference is always experienced as discomfort, loss, or as a symptom. At the very least, a symptom or discomfort, such as a chronic illness, a minor disability, or poverty, represents an opening and an invitation to enter a relationship with God and to begin the therapeutic process of establishing one’s interior identity as His dwelling place. This is the calling of iCulture therapy.
The term therapy is not applied loosely. At the centre of the practice iCulture teaches is the question of health. How do we think about health? How do we think about a symptom? I refer frequently to the knowledge base of psychoanalysis here because it is the only systematic discourse besides medical science that addresses health philosophically, linguistically, experimentally, in a way that can be meaningful to the individual in times of bodily and emotional distress. By definition the health standard is the common property against which the individuality asserts itself, so by default one’s unique individuality is experienced as a symptom. This is what made individualism a threat to ancient societies, which feared it and imposed long lists of laws designed to regulate and contain it. All ancient civilisations without exception used violent methods to suppress individual deviation from the law in the name of public health.
One example of ritualistic suppression of individualism is Greek tragic poetry, which staged trials of cases of conflict between the individual will and the will of the state, as we’ll see with the analysis of Sophocles’s 4th century BC “Antigone” below. In his 1912 work “Totem and Tabu,” Freud also observed that the laws of ancient sacrifice-based religions resemble neurotic symptoms. Freud may have confused individual symptoms with the symptoms of the social group, which also has a unique body and an individuality, but his insight into the compulsive-neurotic structure of the suppression of individual thought and expression is valuable. It indicates a constant threat of regression to the psychological mechanisms of ancient civilisations.
Only in Christian civilisation is the individuality pursued with vigour and passion, but also under condition that it acts — becomes a ‘doer’ — of the divine word. This is why forgiveness and mercy are the cornerstone of Christian teaching. Everyone is bound to make a mistake, even fall and get derailed, processes whereby an individual learns to collect his identity. It is through mercy, however, that the individual is granted the right to recover and give expression to his unique personal history. Unlike other founding books, the New Testament became the historical door to an infinity of books and spawned the only civilisation to invest in technologies of universal literacy.
Scientist are currently exploring the role of language in DNA modification, but the knowledge they produce on the subject would do us little good if all we can draw from it is further rules, laws, and common uses of language. To be effective in treating individual symptoms and transgressions, language must be both absolutely individual and unique to the person composing its works and translatable in common language. No easy task. Only in Christianity is every individual a reader of the book and a ‘high priest’ granted the authority to perform the sacraments. We don’t need special certification, permission, or training to read the Bible. For Christians individual prayer is as important as collective prayer. But for individual prayer to be meaningful as such, it must be written or spoken in one’s unique internal language. This requires us to develop a singular poetic idiom. It was this need for individual expression more than anything else that spurred the rise and fall of the splendid, but now as good as lost, era of European literary arts.
To pause briefly before we get to the main object of our discussion today, tragedy, let us define a “doer,” in the Jamesean sense of the word, as an actor on the divine stage directed by scripture and by the tale written in one’s unique linguistic DNA. This makes the collection of one’s interior out of the material goods and signs available in the world not some narcissistic whim or vanity, but the fulfilment of God’s design. It makes our relationship to language and poetry the central task in the life of a Christian. It is a labor of love. Soon the site will add a section where users will have the opportunity to pen, style, and share their stories and poems. But first we need to familiarise ourselves with the historic designs of grand interiors.
Tragic Design: Portrait of Louis XIV, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, Gift of J. Paul Getty. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program
Tragic Design: Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours
To understand the action of perfect objects, we have to begin with the object that emerges in the course of tragic action. Proportion and perfection of beauty is something we have been studying copiously from classical antiquity. We expect the same from our plastic surgeons. Yet, the price of material perfection, the token of its exchangeability, is tragedy. How we frame, use, sublimate, and ultimately overcome tragedy determines our actions on the divine stage.
No one understood the importance of tragic spectacle for the fashioning of political power better than the French cardinals of the seventeenth century who set up the stage, literally, for the most opulent display of rulership that was the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. What the cardinals ignored, however, as they reached for the ancient Greek formulas of unsurpassed beauty, proportion, and clarity of purpose in a public figure was the increasingly complex, profound, and ever better articulated psychological reality that had penetrated the vernacular languages with the introduction of Christian thought and sacrament.
The translation of the Bible into vernacular languages was not so much the beginning as the end of a long process of linguistic evolution that culminated in the psychological virtuosity of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The French cardinals who designed the first and last monarch to be be fully identified with the state — L’État c’est Moi — were driven by their ancient rivalry with England, a country that had moreover just broken off from Catholicism and espoused the Protestant faith. The unprecedented power of Shakespearean theatre to move, educate, and influence public perception of rulers without sparing any of the flaws and symptoms of their individual personas was a gauntlet on the ground to the French clergy. In response, France focused on a revival of the Greek tragic arts instead of pursuing the psychological depths Shakespeare discovered for language, poetry, and the stage of political spectacle. This single development in what may seem an off-the-cuff literary peculiarity in the history of French design set powerful linguistic processes in motion that dominate French thinking to this date, as we will see is the case with Lacan’s reception of German philosophy and psychoanalysis in his reading of the classical drama “Antigone.”
We may not have access to the original purpose and setting of Greek tragic spectacle, not in any absolute terms, but we do know it was rooted in something like contemporary public health, a social extension of medical practice. Enough evidence exists that the original mis-en-scene consisted of ex voto devotional objects, which served to represent a healthy body or outcome to implore or thank the gods for healing. The pinax (http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/fc04/Skinner.html) entombing the action unfolding on stage are also among the first technologies of memory. Eventually they were used for such mundane transactions as writing down debt. As in medical theatres, tragic action performs a dissection of a vital social organ, specifically the moral or state organ, by showcasing a diseased version of it in its relentless course toward death and decay and concluding with the triumph of the state as the final instance of healing and reconciliation. Unlike Western democracies, which inherited the Christian moral order and eventually separated it from the state, in ancient Greece the state was the ultimate instance of moral authority. The gods were equally subject to transgression and hence hardly a paragon of moral health, but since they were immortal, they could afford it. For humans, on the other hand, transgressions were much deadlier. Per Aristotle’s definition (https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/Poetics.pdf) the players on the tragic stage are royal, heads of state, and their transgressions are the engine driving the action. The spectacle unfolded among rich folds of the votive pinax: representations of wholesome and healthy human, social, and family bodies. Tragic spectacle is an early technology of memory that served to imprint the consequences of bad moral choices on the impressionable minds of the spectators much like healthy figures were engraved on votive tablets:
Nietzsche believed tragic poetry was born of the need to give forbidden emotional states full expression in dithyrambic verse. Like Heidegger after him, he longed for a perceived innocent childhood still nestled in the pure state of Greek antiquity, which both philosophers believed to be the native land of the only creative power available to humanity, poetry. Both thinkers ignored, forgot or simply failed to consider the movement of translatio studii and translatio imperii that took place first from Greece to Rome and then through the advent of Christianity to the Holy Roman Empire and Western civilisation. The transformations of ancient Greek civilisation through these monumental changes in the cultural and belief systems of the West were so significant that we no longer have direct access to the original context. In a sense, ancient Greek civilisation is extinct and has buried its secrets irremediably. One major transformation that changed the role of tragic spectacle was the transition from prehistoric religions based on sacrificial worship to a religion that abolished sacrifice once and for all through the Last Supper and the sacrament of the communion. Eschewing their Christian formatting, both Nietzsche and Heidegger, not only failed to reflect on that part of their thought structure, but also failed to recognise that ancient Greece was a claustrophobic world of animal and human sacrifice for which tragedy was a final and irreversible outcome, not a private expression of interior opulence.
We introduced psychoanalytic thought with Jacques Lacan to help us understand the world of objects from the point of view of psychological reality. But with Lacan we also hit a snag and a dead end, because his attempt to reconcile Freudian pre-historic thought with the classicist philosophy of Heidegger left a major historical component out of the picture, Christian experience. Lacan is Catholic and took a very critical view of Christianity. Moreover, Catholicism stalled centuries ago, because it was unable to process its own experience and to this day remains stubbornly resistant to subjective experience and to history, which is paradoxically its major calling. But the Latin base of historic Christianity remains central to the material, worldly articulation and manifestation of Christian practice, which is historically tied to Catholicism through the Nicene creed. Rome remains the portal through which Christ entered history and changed it forever.
The task of reconciling the Christian world and getting the Catholic Church to perform its duty may still be ahead of us, but for our purposes, in order to establish intelligent, reflected, meaningful consumer practices that honor the time and labor that goes into the creation and manufacture of objects, we need to understand the world of objects and consumer products. The classical definition of the object as something that confronts the subject is still prevalent today, but no longer reflects the reality of the Christian and post-Christian experience. Like Heidegger, Lacan was unable to think outside the constraints imposed on his philosophical platform by the classical Greek concept of the object.
Insofar as the interior is not entirely independent from historical formatting, the public articulation of its individual design not only includes the national or ethnic identity as a component, but in cases of complete foreclosure of individual development is perfectly identical with it. In this case of sacrificial identity construction, the internal format is an engineered object entirely dependent on the national historical art and literary archive. This structuralist reality is mirrored in Lacan’s perfectly French, perfectly tragic, and perfectly Catholic philosophical system. His reception of psychoanalysis was in full accord with the cultural tradition of classicism he as a Frenchman and a Catholic inherited from the state. The death of Louis XIV, as the king himself predicted, was the birth of the modern French state, an ex nihilo Catholic bureaucracy, born of the death of the individuality and perfectly subordinated to the radical finitude of tragic action. We only need to search out the arguments in Lacan’s oeuvres about action and tragedy to establish a full and consummate accord between his object of observation and his thought process. The utter exclusion of individual development is striking and allows for a perfect, closed system that perpetuates itself in endless revolutions of the same cycle. The French system of revolutionary cyclicality was then perfectly copied and reflected in Hegel’s phenomenology.
Let’s take a closer look at Lacan’s reading of Sophocles’s “Antigone.” He positions the tragic figure of Antigone between two deaths and tells us this is the linguistic space where technological invention happens. He writes: “The style of the poem [Sophocles’s “Antigone”], which is that of the chorus, represents Polynices’s soldiers and his shadow strangely enough as a huge bird hovering above the houses. The image of our modern ears as something that glides overhead was already made concrete in 441 BC.” Though he doesn’t cite it, Lacan is referring to Heidegger’s essay on technology, which suggests that the transformation of Antigone into a threatening bird and a menace for the community in the course of a tragic performance constitutes the poetic invention of the airplane. Lacan is most certainly referring to Heidegger’s airplane as he searches for the ethics of psychoanalysis among the remains of Greek tragedy.
Though he tells us we don’t have the key to read ancient Greco-Roman civilisation in its original context, he nevertheless performs a classicist reading of ethics as a code of law for regulating human relations. Lacan’s greatest discovery was the dependence of human desire on the law, an insight he believes to have borrowed from Freud’s interpretation of the tragedy of Oedipus as the most fundamental human psychological structure. Antigone is Oedipus daughter and sister, a child of incest, like her brothers. The basic formula of the exquisite tragic poem is: a conflict breaks out between her and her uncle Creon, the king of Thebes, when he announces that only one of the dead warring brothers is to receive state funeral, Antigone refuses to accept the decree, defies her uncle and buries her brother Polynices, getting herself excommunicated and buried alive in the process. This is why Lacan is referring to a time span between two deaths. He is referring to the time between her live burial in the self-made tomb of her brother and her eventual natural death. He is suggesting that every tragic process whereby subjectivity is born, lives and dies, is a live burial in the structures of the community, which he views as tombs. The poem is indeed breathtakingly beautiful. Every word is in perfect position and proportion to harmonise with every other and together they produce a veritable music of the cosmic spheres. The perfection of the poem is almost otherworldly and supernatural. The structures of the community, the burial caskets of Classical subjectivity, are gloriously seductive, as Lacan never tires of reminding us.
Antigone stands for absolute individualism after the classical conception of both object and subject. Her figure represents the right of the non-reproductive part of family identity, that which is truly unique among immediate family members. Greek law was founded on the prohibition of incest and hence it must have considered the kind of individualism Antigone stands for to be absolute barbarism. Exclusion from the community is death. This was the meaning of sacrifice in prehistoric religions. A sacrifice was offered as a token of one’s renunciation of one’s individuality. The part of the individual that remains banned from the community is in a sense dead, but this is also what makes it valuable to the future, because its action, unlike tragic action, is an event. Tragic action is not event-producing. The final founding sacrifice of the Christian creed, on the other hand, the death of the Christ on the cross, changed the game completely. Instead of sacrificing one’s identity, one dedicates it to Christ, the last material sacrifice — last supper — and that allows the otherwise doomed individuality to unfold in the immaterial realm of sublimation. In the Christian world Antigone would not encounter the resistance her tragic figure needs to be born and to define itself, but she has an important function nevertheless: through her the entire underworld peopled with the dead of ancient Greece and Rome gets a chance at salvation in Christ. She carries her unburied brothers in the splendid, blinding beauty of her tragic features.
For Lacan the ethics of psychoanalysis was the promise to liberate desire structured by libido. He found desire ‘sandwiched’ between two deaths because of the prohibition of incest, which formats the private sphere on one end and the law of the community, which structures the social sphere, on the other. For Lacan, there is no such thing as interiority or at least there is no way of communicating it. Indeed within the classical frame that is true. But this is precisely what Christianity liberated. Greco-Roman civilisation had no concept of the interior, the individuality, which it equated with barbarism. Ultimately, this inability to reflect the interior doomed ancient civilisations to extinction. They were star-crossed to find their desire trapped between two deaths and be irresistibly drawn to their own doom on the barbaric outskirts on which they projected their dreaded interior.
The case is very different with the Biblical tradition. Its law is not based on the prohibition of incest. To be sure incest is prohibited, but it does not form the core identity of the group and its desire, as in classical thought and society, to which Freud and Lacan also belong. Biblical law, because it is not grounded in the prohibition of incest, can only be fulfilled in its own dissolution in love, caritas. The second death of which Lacan speaks in a sense is dissolved in the absolution of the first. As mere text, an individual literary work, “Antigone” represents the legacy of the defeated and unburied Polynices. This is exactly what takes place in the Christian practice of caritas, a carrying forth after death, a survival after death. This was the secret Shakespeare buried in his poetry, which is all that remains, as he tells us in Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In the Greek scenario, instead of Antigone, Oedipus returns to lay down the law of the community. If that were not the case, Antigone would have no reason to oppose Creon’s decision and entomb herself with her disgraced brother. Had she believed her participation in Greek civic life could have carried forth the memory of Polynices, she would have obeyed her uncle. But because Greek civilisation had no place and no knowledge of the interior, it also had no formats to which women could contribute. The fact that Antigone considers a potential husband and child insufficient means of preserving and transmitting the legacy of her excommunicated brother, speaks eloquently for the low regard of the family in classical civilisations. Hence emphasis was placed on military action, where lost and confused men sought in vain after what they could have found in the family, namely private glory. Shakespeare revisits this problematic in “Coriolanus,” which is his rendition of Polynices’s tragedy.
Was the airplane invented in poetry with the splendid image of tragic Antigone? Heidegger considered poetry the driving force behind all technological invention. Poetry, techne, was simply state-of-the-art means of representing being, which is hidden in language. Lacan follows in his footsteps when he claims Sophocles invented modern airspace warfare with his poem “Antigone.” Lacan and Heidegger are absolute classicists, for whom death and its form of power among the living, which is the law, represent an absolute limit. This is why they could not conceive of human desire as anything beyond carnal pleasures that do not participate in poetry. Not so for Shakespeare.
The transition from the classical philosophical categories of the traditional object and the stage to the psychologically conjugated concept of technological design makes film an especially intriguing ‘engineered thing.’ A later post will offer some thoughts on the role of the intriguer in Shakespeare’s proto-film/video industry. The design of the festival of Cannes is yet another stage somewhere between classically tragic and modern psychological. Given that the traditional theatre and its stage belong to the class of the object, whereas the motion picture is the paragon of modern techne, the politics at Cannes remain understandably classicist and tragic.
Heidegger modified the concept of the traditional philosophical term “object” to account for the new objects of technology by shifting the emphasis to the more general term “thing.” Forgetting the techno-philosophical background of the term’s origin in Heidegger’s thought trajectory, Lacan applies it, nevertheless correctly, to the psychoanalytic object of desire, making the thing a creation ex nihilo, Latin for ‘out of nothingness.’ He illustrated the concept with the object of the empty vase, which does not hold an object, but rather nothingness. The empty space signifies nothing beyond an essence that can only be revealed in the course of its being put to use, in the course of its proper time. The vase is a reservoir of emptiness or energy that can only unfold its being-unto-death as a thing in the course of its tragic-poetic action. Kate Mandrukevica’s Dislocation, Scale and Transparency is an uncannily correct illustration of the infamous Lacanian vase. (saved from fineartphotographyvideoart.com)
Rise of Modern Literacy: Invention of the Interior
I did promise Goethe and Burckhardt for this post, but I realised we need more background in theory before we can place them properly in the discourse and practice of iCulture therapy. In preparation for the fathers of modern classicism, we need to stake the Christian position on technology. Classicism is a disappearing aesthetic today, but still structures the formal design of most products we buy, so we need to be able to reflect on it intelligently, if we truly want to ‘own’ it. The modern industrial age would not have been possible had a literate public not demanded cultural sophistication for the design of its private sphere.
Milestones in the History of Technology: the Printing Press
The invention of the Gutenberg press reformatted a large group of individuals who became increasingly aware of their interiority and whose demands were more cultural than materialistic. This historical development was lost on historians focused on materialist history. One unfortunate consequence of materialist historiography is that contemporary identities and consumer practices around the world are almost entirely structured by politics.
To understand how the immaterial human interior participates in the material world of objects and things in order to cultivate better, more self-reflexive and ultimately more satisfying consumer habits, we need to understand the relationship between the structure of Christian faith and technology. Technical knowledge alone is not sufficient to initiate the kind of large-scale technological modernisation we see in early modern Northern Europe. Many cultures have claimed pretty much every major invention in the history of technology, but none of them launched the industrial age. There are two reasons for this development: Christianity made the technological era possible by providing the needed identity mechanism and it also invented interiority in the first place by postulating that God dwells in His subjects and the subjects in God. In a sense the initiation of technological modernity worldwide was the fulfilment of the Christian structure of the interior temple. This structure was unknown to ancient civilisations, including the Greco-Roman. A number of posts will be devoted to the development of technology in Christian civilisation now and in the future, but let us begin with a few cornerstones from twentieth century philosophical thought, since the most recent past is the most repressed and most misunderstood.
Blindspots of the Academic Discourse on Technology
Academically influential twentieth century philosophy was largely unconcerned with the Christian experience and if so, either only critically or in conformity with a theological school of thought that remained absolutely divorced from modern developments, scientific, technological, and philosophical. The problem the Church has with philosophy lies in the great schism that took place in 1054, which split the Church into a theoretical East and a largely political and practical West. The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther tried to amend the evacuation of theoretical reflection and that allowed the rapid modernisation of the North. The South remained relatively underdeveloped, which carried over into the new Latin territories in America. The Reformation stalled, however, when national and socialist thought gripped the main engine of progress in Europe, the Germanic countries, in the 19th century. The Church is yet to bridge the immense gap in philosophical development socialist thought inflicted on German letters.
An important philosopher, who had otherwise a great deal to contribute to the conception of technology, Martin Heidegger, remains a national socialist thinker. His academic progeny has been struggling with this fact, failed to account for it, and remains unable to reconcile itself to it. But the fact that academic philosophy paid little attention to the monumental historic importance of the Christian experience for the development of technological modernity does not mean it was not operative in the blindspots of philosophical practice. We will try to fill in some of the gaps, insofar as they concern the practice of iCulture therapy.
The Classical Heritage and the Philosophy of Technology
Human interiority is intricately involved in the history of technology and is deeply invested in technical sophistication. Historically, the interior represents a fairly new object of philosophical reflection, one that traditional philosophy is ill equipped to handle, because philosophical structures are pre-Christian. This is why history and theology have little to tell us about the historic importance of Christian interiority for the development and refinement of the technologies of emotional and psychological design. On the one hand, history is limited to politically backed power discourses and hence is not always reliable as a source of truth. On the other hand, theology is limited to the disciplines of logic and philosophy, both unable to reflect on the core of Christian experience.
An earlier post discussed St. Jerome’s tormenting passion, classical philosophy and arts. The author of the Vulgata was unable to tear himself from the incredibly rich intellectual pleasures and passions the classical world had to offer. And perhaps he didn’t have to. Since the Nicenean creed does specify the historical time of the crucifixion, the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, classical civilisation remains an essential part of the earthly design of the Christian experience, even though the tension between the two can never be resolved. It also means that the political Latin framework remains the earthly and historical dominion of Christianity.
The Vatican has a huge responsibility to the entire ecumenical Christian community to incorporate its experience in its practices, but it keeps failing at this task. Instead of incorporating new developments of the interior and its technologies, it keeps reconciling itself to foreign political developments like Marxism and Islam, failing in its basic task to be the earthly protector of the Christian faith. The Vatican is currently more open to socialism and nationalism than to the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox teachings and traditions. This problem is not intrinsic to the Church. It is dictated by academic discursive developments of the past two centuries.
Even the Vatican cannot deny, however, that classical antiquity was carried forth by Christian civilisation. Without Christianity, the Greco-Roman civilisation would have become extinct. This fact was lost on the best philosopher of technology we have to date, Martin Heidegger. The reason Heidegger was unable to develop a satisfactory bullet-proof philosophy of technological being on the basis of Germanic etymology alone is because he failed to take into account the historical significance of the Christian mechanism of subject-formation in language. His philosophy was inspired by Germanic etymology, forgetting as it were that the German language was radically altered through Luther’s translation of the Bible. No more nor less than the Hebraic, the Germanic language is not the native or natal context of Christianity, which provided the psychological mechanism for the initiation of the technological and industrial age. Every language is native to Christianity, but the Latin language and classical antiquity remain the materialist, historical-political core of the Christian world. This is stated in the the Nicene creed. Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilatus, a Roman governor. This material event is the portal to the historical and political manifestations of Christianity then and forever. Contemporary political philosophers like Georgio Agamben have recognised this fact, but took it as licence to preach socialist dogma, without reflecting on the fact that socialism originated in a different historical and political context, namely a pagan — classicist — Germanic one, not in the native Latin of the Nicene creed.
Though always at multiple removes from their origin, Latin and classicism exist in multiple translations and not in a pure state of natality. We’ll get back to the concept of distance in sublimation. Its cultivation is another important topos (point of return) of Christian civilisation. The history of the Christian experience remains firmly rooted in the classical world, at least as far as its pure historical record goes.
Literary and Visual Archive
There is one exception to the purely historical archive: literary history and its twin branch of art history. Both disciplines run on parallel tracks with the history of technology and contain an archive that is fairly independent from political-historical data and documents. The literary and visual archive contain psycho-genealogical data and the shrouded history of technology. Before a piece of technical equipment becomes manifestly operative in the world, it exists not as a clear Platonic idea, but as psychological reality that has no means of articulating itself in existing media of communication. It has to await the invention of a suitable medium or technological equipment as it were to unfold its being. The literary archive and the visual depositories of historical data have a good deal to tell us about the psycho-genealogy of the technologies that structure our being in the world, our communication systems, and our interiors.
Technologies of Mourning
Shakespeare has more to tell us about the still ongoing burial of Julius Caesar than any historical document, because his play, a form of burial in words, focused squarely on the afterlife of the dominant political format of leadership (Workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono Giamberti Italian, 1415/17-1465 & 1403-1489 The Assassination and Funeral of Julius Caesar, 1455/60)
The most sophisticated philosophical approaches to technology have treated it as a funeral practice, a way of framing, preserving, transmitting, and storing remains, human remains. Twentieth century thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Friedrich Kittler are among the more aesthetically sensitive readers of technology. All four, though Heidegger will never admit it, work in the shadow of the Freudian pre-historic interpretation of ethics, which he based on his reading of a literary work, Sophocles’s tragedy “Oedipus Rex.” Freud was in fact more deeply influenced by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which he coupled with the ancient Greek predecessor to plummet Hamlet’s labyrinthine depths. We will return to this problematic, but for now it is important to stake that for Freud the murder of the father becomes the founding event of any symbolic system, because it clears the path to substitution.
Language functions by way of substitution. For example, in the statement “the rabbit is a carrot-eater” the term “rabbit” stands for “carrot-eater,” because they are interchangeable. The verb “to be” is in a sense the ultimate weapon and harbinger of death, because only dead entities can enter the system of substitutions. Whatever is known of the rabbit, that it is a carrot-eater, a mammal, etc., constitutes its transience, its creaturely status. The sum of all substitutes that account for its being are only equal to its mortality, the shape of its corpse and its creatureliness. The rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland,” on the other hand, is not mortal, but also not considered a real being, even though it has all attributes of a real rabbit. What the rabbit in the children’s book does as opposed to what it is makes it a techno-rabbit, a thing standing in reserve and holding energy, to borrow Heidegger. To be interchangeable is to be dispensable, i.e. capable of dying, disappearing, dissolving into dust, non-being. In Heidegger’s system the essence or presence of being is hidden in language and can only unfold in the process of thinking, not by way of metaphor or substitution, but rather by the very circumvention of the verb “to be.” In a sense Heideggerian being cannot enter the grammatical system of circulation, grammar being among the most ancient technologies known to man. Being is not available for direct representation just as the thing, something of technological nature, is not simply an object, but rather a reservoir, a container of energy, like the Lacanian vase, that will only reveal its essence, that is its ability to be present, in action.
Though Heidegger was not usually concerned with ethics, but rather with the truth of being and especially what he considered its most beautiful version, Greek antiquity, his subordination of being to language shares a great deal with Freud’s conception of the world as ordered by the law of the father. The two are reconciled completely and nearly without remainder in Lacan’s work, which inspired Friedrich Kittler’s invention of media-genealogical research and alienated Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, both of whom represent a more hermeneutic dimension of thinking about technology, that is, an interpretation based on subjective difference. Just as for Heidegger and Lacan the object of post-Socratic philosophy becomes a thing standing in reserve, a reservoir of energy whose essence is revealed in action, the subject in Kittler and Derrida becomes, respectively, a consumer and an individual, that is, non-repeatable difference.
On the set of F. W. Murnau’s “Faust” (1926), a visual interpretation of J. W. Goethe’s prophetic tragedy of the modern leader
Preserving the Cultural Traditions of Tragic Formatting
Over the course of its two thousand-year reception history, tragic poetry has remained the highest form of expression of what Heidegger called being. It is not accidental that its definition coincides with Heidegger’s shortcut definition of technological being: the unfolding of an action over a given time at a fixed place. An ancient technology of mourning, tragedy is a thing that unfolds itself over the time period of its use. A carrier of pure energy, it is synonymous with death or nothingness. In the next post we will see how Lacan treats this insight in his interpretation of the Sophoclean tragedy “Antigone” and what that may have to do with the invention of the war plane and modern warfare.
The ethical being that emerges in tragedy is mortal in an absolute sense, since its being unfolds from its annihilation. It is the only subject of war and statesmanship subordinated to the military. To the Greeks, tragic spectacle was not a matter of entertainment or aesthetic pleasure, as it is to the moderns. It was a religious ritual, probably based on sacrificial rituals, and a way of programming the citizens’ interior to accord with the ethical principles of the Greek community. This was the meaning of the Aristotelian term “catharsis,” a process whereby the emotions of the spectator are ‘purged’ of all unwanted and unethical elements. In ancient Greece tragedy was a form of social engineering.
This form of social engineering is still alive today, though it is almost entirely unaware of its origins, affiliation, and philosophical genealogy. It pervaded postwar political thought through such concepts as “bare life,” “human rights,” post-colonialist views of what constitutes a ‘native,’ and especially the concept of “natality” as we see it articulated in Hannah Arendt’s tragic writings. As a student and intimate companion of Heidegger, Arendt’s thought was programmed to understand being as something that unfolds through its action unto death. Her concept of “natality,” which was implicitly designed as a polemic against the Christian notion of rebirth and life-after-death, is in fact being-toward-nothingness and reduces human life to its funereal technologies. The native “futures” her tragic worldview defended so emotionally are in fact foreclosed. If we are to carry forth the values of universal care — caritas — for human life, we need to be more vigilant about tragic ideas contaminating discourses about native life. Arendt’s case is a good example of the confusion brought about by the perilous indulgence in pure classical philosophical thinking, especially in regard to political philosophy, that St. Jerome rightly feared.
Premature critics of Christian thought mushroomed after the war and were quick to blame Christian civilisation for the atrocities of war. This was possible largely because theologians had failed to establish a dialogue with contemporary discourses, but also because official organs of the state, by default, that is, through no fault of their own, demanded a total war effort from intellectuals. The movement was carried by blind emotions of political allegiance, horror, and moral outrage, but cannot be maintained on the strength of its poor, unsustainable arguments forever. Outspoken intellectuals who waged war on cultural Christianity, Lacan being among them, have read the Christian concept of life unfolding “after death,” especially in hagiography (https://web.archive.org/web/20150331030718/http://www.the-orb.net/encyclop/religion/hagiography/hagio.htm) as creation ex nihilo, that is, birth out of nothingness. This was a much mistaken application of the term and originated with Lacan’s Heideggerian reading of ex nihilo as the essence of technological being in his most famous seminar “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis:” http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1315975.files/6%20Seeing%20Things/Lacan-%20seminar%207%20Ethics%20of%20Psychoanalysis%201959-1960.pdf
Heidegger’s greatest contribution to human thought was his discovery of the essence of technology. His focus on the thing rather than on the classical object revealed its essence: a reservoir and a potentiality holding energy, always standing reserve. Its being is held in its action and use, its emptying of energy. The concept of the thing suffered a reduction by its subordination to Heidegger’s general conception of all being as being unto death. Thus the specific essence of technology remained bound to objectivity, its classical frame. Heidegger remained trapped in the native Germanic roots of language-based philosophy and did not take the Biblical “after death” into consideration. The proper trajectory “after death” is a means of transport to the interior as a form of sublimation and displacement. The Biblical “after death” is far removed from classical metaphysics. It points to the immaterial realm of sublimation and its action enables emancipation from material existence. Had Heidegger taken his Germanic insight further, he would have been able to position technology where it belongs: inside the human psyche. But his philosophy remained famously non-receptive to any kind of psychological formatting of subjectivity, in a truly tragic line of thought, because his philosophy remains, tragically, without a future.
Material technologies of mourning are as perishable as the contents they bury, frame, and allegedly preserve. Technologies of the interior, on the other hand, have been preserving beings without a future for over two thousand years by programming internal psychological reality, which endures beyond the material remains of bare life. Only under the protection of Christian sacramental practices does the interior attain the status of reality. Its technologies of introjection structure the psychological reality of future generations and represent the ultimate form of cultural preservation.