Right Scholarship

A blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism

Month: December, 2014

Right Theory: Jesus Christ as Medium

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.

Right Thinkers #8: Roy Campbell (1901-1957)

If you, like me, have been distressed and agitated by some of the recent debates in higher-ed media regarding the problem of “microaggression” on university campuses and the need for “trigger warnings” in course syllabi, I highly recommend indulging in some unapologetically macroaggressive literature as an antidote (preferably in the privacy of your home, but if you are at work you can hide your chosen text with a suitable decoy book to void alarming others). For such essential refreshment, I’ve lately turned to one of my favourite twentieth-century poets, Roy Campbell.

Campbell was a white South African poet who found modest fame in 1920s London with his audaciously bombastic long-poem The Flaming Terrapin (1924). Soon, however, his conservative political views and distaste for the literary left became an impediment to his career. He turned on the literary establishment that once welcomed him and became a right-wing outcast and eager disciple of the mighty Wyndham Lewis (who will be the subject of a future post). His life over the course of the 1930s was one of constant turmoil: he left England for Spain, converted to Catholicism, lived through the Spanish Red Terror, and became an outspoken supporter of Francisco Franco and the Spanish Nationalists. Most of the British literati never forgave him, and he remained unrepentant regarding his politics until his premature death in 1957. His most satisfyingly aggressive works include The Georgiad (1931), a verse satire, and the long-poem Flowering Rifle (1939) (the title of which is itself a trigger warning). Although some of Campbell’s poetry contains much quiet sophistication, these two works are classic examples of bare-knuckled literary violence. In them, Campbell burned all the bridges that led him to acclaim and accepted ostracization for the sake of his deeply-felt moral values.

Both The Georgiad and Flowering Rifle consist of reams of heroic couplets that toss insult after insult upon Campbell’s enemies. In “Talking Bronco” (1946), a later poem, Campbell explains the reason for his use of iambic couplets, contrasting his approach to poetry with that of “MacSpaunday”—his nickname for the then-fashionable “Auden Group,” which consisted of W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis (yes, the father of Daniel Day-Lewis), Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender:

For what poor Spaunday never understands—
The couplet is a verbal pair of hands
With a two-handed punch, more clean and deft
Than his one-armed and butterfisted Left. (414)

This kind of jab may seem uncalled for to anyone who enjoys reading Auden (and I include myself in this group), but Campbell was reacting less to the formal aspects of the Auden group’s poetry and more to what he perceived as political posturing—posturing that had real social and financial consequences for those with opposing political views. Campbell thought of himself as a scrappy underdog in the world of poetry, fighting a hegemonic leftism that was draining the life out of literature.

The Georgiad is a satirical attack on the ‘Georgian’ poets (a now largely-forgotten coterie centred around Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Sir Harold Nicholson) and some of those associated with the Bloomsbury group (specifically Virginia Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy, and Bertrand Russell). It was not, as the Wikipedia entry on Campbell suggests, directed primarily at the Bloomsbury group, although the Georgian mentality was pervasive in that group as well and some of the boundaries between the two groups are unclear. In any case, for the casual reader of today, knowledge of the real-life referents for the characters in the poem is mostly irrelevant. All one needs to know is that Campbell’s targets are the cloyingly progressive, self-involved, secretly prudish, exclusionary literary types that are still with us today. Terrified of real conflict with the outside world, they construct artificial—and always very exclusive—social environments in which they can imagine themselves as artistic renegades and flirt with ideas that supposedly subvert dominant social norms. To compensate for their own impotence, they indulge in malevolent gossip about members of their own ranks, as Campbell observes in this gem of a couplet:

Cain had more Christian mercy on his brother
Than literary nancies on each other. (208)

Although it is not an overtly political poem, The Georgiad displays Campbell’s acute sense of the political implications of seemingly innocuous artistic discourse. Like Wyndham Lewis (whose monumental satire The Apes of God was most likely the inspiration for The Georgiad), he understood that the genteel progressivism of the Georgians and Bloomsburies had implications reaching far beyond the stuffy environment of their elaborate dinner parties. Campbell saw that the Georgian/Bloomsbury aesthetic was tied to a politics that could, if unchecked, lead to the further dissolution of Western culture and the rise of a deadeningly egalitarian society (presumably one in which microagression would be extinct and trigger warnings would abound). Speaking of the Georgians, Campbell writes:

For with deep broodings and colossal pains
They hatch Utopias from their dusty brains
Which are but Hells, where endless boredom reigns—
Middle-class Hells, built on a cheap, clean plan,
Edens of Abnegation, dread to scan,
Founded upon a universal ban:
For banned from thence is all that fires or thrills,
Pain, vengeance, danger, or the clash of wills—
So vastly greater is their fear of strife
And hate of danger than their love of life . . . (200-201)

Campbell is envisioning the Georgian end-of-history—a peaceful world where sensitive souls are free to pursue their artistic goals, but where art has lost all meaning. Later in the poem, Campbell imagines that the people of this future society will look upon The Georgiad with fascination:

When prudery, anonymity, and chat
Have killed all difference between this and that,
And progress has reformed this cosmic frame
To that great Nothing out of which it came—
The ghosts and neuters who frequent that scene,
The moonlit people of the might-have-been,
Reading this page in that eventless time
Shall praise me for the meekness of my rhyme,
Who in an era of annihilation
Refrained from the wild rage of mutilation,
And gave self and identity to many
Who in their own existence hadn’t any . . . (216-217)

Perhaps all of us, in the twenty-first century, are among these “moonlit people of the might-have-been.” At least, it seems this label would apply to most of those who comprise the global mutual admiration society that is the world of contemporary literature.

Campbell’s fury at times led him into anti-Semitism, as the following quotation from Flowering Rifle reveals (although in this example I believe he is referring disparagingly to “the belittler, / The intellectual Invert, and the Jew” and not just to “the Jew”):

When cheapened, hypnotized, unmanned and cowed,
The gelded slave his ‘freedom’ is allowed—
A tyranny far worse than blamed on Hitler
Whose chief oppression is of the belittler,
The intellectual Invert, and the Jew,
Whose tyranny’s the harder of the two,
Since not by force, but a more sure refinement,
Rather akin to solitary confinement,
They isolate the man who won’t surrender
Or join their mass-crusades ‘against all splendour’—
And strong is he, with triple armour brassed,
Who will not hedge or compromise at last. . . . (568)

I won’t follow him down the twisted path of anti-Semitism, and his dismissive attitude towards Nazi tyranny was obviously misguided, but I can sympathize with his general point regarding the hardships faced by those who are publicly critical of social “progress.” The current ubiquity of social media makes the threat of “solitary confinement” of those with controversial opinions all the more menacing.

There is so much more to say about Campbell and his poetry, and some good information is available online. Those with access to a library may wish to look up the four-volume Collected Works and the few books on Campbell that exist. My purpose here was merely to provide some refreshment to those feeling the squeeze of the trigger warning.

Works cited:

Campbell, Roy. Flowering Rifle. 1939, revised 1957. Collected Works I: Poetry. Eds. Peter Alexander, Michael Chapman, Marcia Leveson. Craighall: A.D. Donker, 1985. 497-605.

Campbell, Roy. The Georgiad. 1931. Collected Works I: Poetry. Eds. Peter Alexander, Michael Chapman, Marcia Leveson. Craighall: A.D. Donker, 1985. 179-217.

Campbell, Roy. “Talking Bronco.” Talking Bronco. 1946. Collected Works I: Poetry. Eds. Peter Alexander, Michael Chapman, Marcia Leveson. Craighall: A.D. Donker, 1985. 407-416.

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