The purpose of this new “Right Theory” section of Right Scholarship is to explore ways in which Catholic scholars (or those of a similar orientation) have constructed or could construct approaches to the study of culture as alternatives to those that have dominated the humanities and social sciences in recent decades. The posts in this section may be reckless in their use of terminology and juxtaposition of traditions, since the point here is to generate new ideas and bring together old ideas in new ways. Still, I welcome comment and criticism. Also, while I may at times use the pronoun “we” when recommending a course of action, I realize that I am writing to a largely imaginary audience of likeminded thinkers.
Most of what is generically referred to as “Theory” in the humanities and social sciences is drawn from a set of intellectual traditions that, although they may have grown from particular disciplines (like philosophy, psychology, sociology and literary studies), are particularly well-suited to the interdisciplinary study of culture, or what is sometimes referred to generically as “cultural studies.” Although there are only a small number of programs or institutes in North America devoted to cultural studies alone—the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) (1964-2002) at the University of Birmingham is an oft-cited example—its theoretical approach has become part of a common interdisciplinary language in academia. I will assume my readers have some knowledge of the dominant forms of Theory in cultural studies, most of which are derived from the ideas of Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche, or some combination of these three. New spaces for Catholic scholarship in academia can only be created, I believe, by establishing a Catholic alternative to cultural studies—one that is interdisciplinary and engages critically with the culture of modernity.
In order to study culture, we must have an idea of what constitutes culture. I propose that we accept a key idea of cultural studies, which is that culture is a form of mediation. Culture’s mediating role comes from its inseparability from both material and immaterial forms of media. Thus, the study of culture is also the study of media.
According to Marshall McLuhan, media are “extensions of man,” and the introduction of a new medium into a culture inevitably has wide-ranging effects; this we can also accept, although we need not accept McLuhan’s extravagant view of the history of civilization as the history of media. At the same time, we must recognize with McLuhan that the astounding growth of the new electronic media of the post-World War II era has brought us into an age of intense media participation.
McLuhan also famously asserted that “the medium is the message,” but this is clearly an exaggeration: casual observation shows that the message is as important as the medium. To use a mundane example, people who identify as “liberals” and people who identify as “conservatives” often use the same media (such as books, magazines, television, websites, and Twitter feeds) to collect information about the world, yet they remain committed to opposing political philosophies. They are each connected to different channels within media, and these channels provide a flow of tailored information that feeds and reinforces their beliefs. At the same time, what the media (and especially the new electronic media) provides for both of these people, apart from information, is a sense of corporate unity with others who share their beliefs. They are each plugged in to a living multimedia entity, and they receive the great benefits of corporate involvement, which are the coordinated extension and empowerment of the senses and faculties. Fascism provided displays of such multimedia entities on a massive scale; indeed, the great appeal of fascism, as Giovanni Gentile’s work makes clear, is the “spiritual unity” or unity of consciousness among people united in a corporate whole.
If we accept that these multimedia entities comprised of both message and medium have their own corporate essence and existence, we must determine how such media formations are constructed and how they work. Given that the senses and faculties of these corporate entities are various media, their lifeblood is the flow of signification, or message. Since the message is not centrally coordinated, as it would be, for example, in a government Ministry of Propaganda, it must be composed of signs that come together through a structuring principle. Each sign that comprises part of “the message” in a multimedia entity is connected to other signs in the message through likeness or analogy, and thus the structuring principle is synonymous with the essence of this analogical attraction. At the same time, the signs comprising the message are brought together by their difference from signs in other multimedia entities. The signs in this flow of information stand in analogical relationship to each other and in oppositional relationship to the signs that flow through other multimedia entities. As a person becomes more and more immersed in a multimedia entity, they undergo a spiritual change as their soul conforms in likeness to the analogical essence that structures that entity. Thus, every click of the “Like” button (an exercise in analogical thinking) is a little prayer or affirmation that incorporates us further into the multimedia entities that populate our media landscape.
Multimedia entities, once they are of a sufficient size and complexity, may produce “icons” as signs that visually represent the structuring principle to which the rest of the entity must conform in analogical relation. Recently, the black flag of the Islamic State and the image of the desert warrior have functioned as icons of a multimedia entity into which a worrying number of young, disaffected Canadians are being incorporated.
The conception of culture and media outlined above amounts to a rejection of both technological determinism (the rigid application of the idea that “the medium is the message”) and Marxist or neo-Marxist theories of culture that employ a base/superstructure model. There is no one, single “affirmative” (to borrow a term from the Frankfurt School) media culture which can be fought through “negative,” disruptive cultural practices. Rather, there is a plurality of media formations functioning in the service of religion, politics and the other categories of guiding ideas that have always concerned human beings. If we have created a “global village” it is not a harmonious one, but rather a site of conflict between multimedia entities. The new media asks us to incorporate ourselves into one or more of these media formations and join the battle. Where we could be aspiring to citizenship in the City of God, we have instead created something analogous to the Roman Empire as described by St. Augustine: a confused pagan world populated by a chaotic plurality of gods, demi-gods and idols.
If we accept this model of culture, the most pressing question becomes how to determine which multimedia entities may lead us to God and which lead to destruction. We require a moral guide, and a guide is always a medium, so we require a medium through which to judge all other media. I propose that Jesus Christ is the medium by which and through which we may judge other media, and into which all other media must eventually be incorporated.
St. Bonaventure, in the first lecture of his Collationes in Hexaemeron, as a way of entering into an explanation of his theology/philosophy (for the two are intertwined in his thinking), states “we must begin at the medium, namely Christ. For He is the mediator of God and men (I Tim. 2.5), who holds the central position in all things” (qtd. in Kahn 13). He then identifies seven different ways in which Christ functions as medium: of metaphysics, science, mathematics, logic, morality, politics, and theology (15). In describing these seven ways, Bonaventure is most often thinking of “the medium” as a middle position between two points. However, in his analysis of Christ as metaphysical medium, he uses the term to describe the conveyance of knowledge:
“The Word—the Truth that is the tree of life—is the medium that brings knowledge. Any other truth ushers in death—the fatal consequence of falling in love with created beauty. It is by way of the First Truth that all must return, with the result that just as the Son said: I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again I leave the world and go to the Father (Jn. 16.28); so anyone could say: Lord, I came forth from you, the First Principle; I come to you, the Final Goal and by way of you, the eternal Truth.—This is the metaphysical medium that leads us back. And my entire metaphysics is this: to be enlightened by spiritual beams of light and brought back to the Most High by the steps of emanation, exemplarism, and consummation” (23, 25).
Christ is the Word and the Truth that contains all knowledge, and thus it is only in Christ that the medium and the message are one.
It may seem that I am conflating the concept of a metaphysical medium with the concept of media as a means of communication, but I am rather attempting to link the two. We rely upon media to communicate and acquire knowledge. If we are to connect ourselves with Christ as metaphysical medium, it can only be through forms of lesser media. All people are called upon to be part of the Mystical Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints: a corporate entity with an earthly component that is also necessarily a multimedia entity. Using Christ as a guide, we may navigate through modern culture and learn to conform to Him and detach ourselves from the many entities that promise freedom and unity but ultimately possess only a demonic power.
In future posts I will expand upon some of these ideas, drawing upon both neo-Thomism and the Radical Orthodoxy movement in recent theology, as well as thinkers like Giovanni Gentile, Wyndham Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, and George Grant.
The quotations from St. Bonaventure are from:
Kahn, Eric Earl. Saint Bonaventure’s Collationes in Hexaemeron: A Translation of Five Lectures with an Introduction and Commentary. Unpublished doctoral diss. St. Louis University, 1962.