Right Theory: A summary before proceeding
Right Scholarship is, as its Twitter description states, “a blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism.” More specifically, this site is a contribution to the development of a Catholic approach to Cultural Studies, or the scholarly and interdisciplinary analysis of culture.
Cultural Studies is often mocked by conservatives, but its influence in academia is no joke. Although there are relatively few programs and departments devoted exclusively to Cultural Studies, it nevertheless provides a common interdisciplinary language for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. A Sociology professor will often be as familiar with the cultural theory of Michel Foucault or the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School as an Art History professor. Generations of BA students in North America have developed their critical thinking skills within an intellectual environment shaped by Cultural Studies, and these students have gone on to become some of today’s most significant consumers and producers of culture, shaping the content of everything from Internet memes to Hollywood blockbusters.
Cultural Studies is a product of the intellectual tradition of the political Left, and its practitioners are often committed leftists or radical liberals who see their scholarly work as a form of activism. This being the case, what space is there for the Catholic student who wishes to engage in the interdisciplinary analysis of culture? Too often, they must hide their beliefs and simply adopt the language of the intellectual status quo, perhaps hoping to steer it in a subtly Catholic direction. Some universities offer courses or programs in “Catholic Studies,” but these are rare and tend to focus on the study of Catholic culture, rather than the Catholic study of culture.
Catholics have every right to assert themselves within Cultural Studies, even in secular universities, and to develop alternative ways of looking at culture. If Cultural Studies is merely a critical project of the Left, then it has no right to its name or to the status it currently enjoys in the humanities and social sciences as the source of a common interdisciplinary language. If it is an open field of scholarly inquiry, then the Left has no right to exclude other approaches to the study of culture.
The “theory” or speculative thought that currently guides Cultural Studies is based on fundamental principles and core theoretical models that are self-evident only to the secular Left, although the normalization of “theory”-derived concepts within the academy means that these models are often accepted implicitly or unknowingly by students and professors who may consider themselves politically agnostic. The most important theoretical models in Cultural Studies are Marx’s base/superstructure understanding of society and culture, Freud’s ideas regarding the unconscious, and Nietzsche’s perspectivism. It is also surely not irrelevant that Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche were all strongly anti-Christian. However mundane the employment of “theory” may seem in the context of everyday academic work, its fundamental principles are bold, radical, and opposed to those of Christianity. Any form of Catholic Cultural Studies, if it is to last and thrive, must be founded upon similarly bold, radical principles.
In this summary, I have provided a list of principles upon which a Catholic form of Cultural Studies might be built. These are not all specifically Christian in conception, but those that are Christian align, I believe, with Catholic philosophy and theology. All of these ideas are elaborated upon in my Right Theory posts (which I have linked to at the bottom of the page) or elsewhere on the site. I will try to update and refine this list of principles on a regular basis. As always, I invite comments.
The study of culture is always also the study of media and mediation.
Media are, as Marshall McLuhan said, “extensions of man.”
Media are extensions of man that make possible the formation of corporate entities, or Persons made of persons. All forms of media are incorporative (in that they unite people into corporate bodies), to a greater or lesser extent.
The lifeblood of a corporate (multi)media entity (a Person made of persons, united through media) is the flow of signification. The three primary types of sign, according to Charles Peirce, are icon, index, and symbol. Each type of sign is important not only in enabling effective communication within and between corporate bodies but in structuring and strengthening such bodies.
One person may belong to multiple corporate entities. In fact, there is no time in our lives in which we are not part of some corporate entity.
Through the work of McLuhan, we can see that the medium of print worked against its own incorporative tendency as a medium, fostering individualism and specialism. Also through the work of McLuhan, we can see that the new electronic media, with its immense incorporative power, is creating a new aural/oral world culture in which the individual and the specialist are increasingly irrelevant.
We now live in a Global Village (to borrow McLuhan’s term) consisting not of individuals but of corporate multimedia entities, and we await the development of the Global Person, in which humanity will be united as a corporate whole. McLuhan seems to refer to the development of the Global Person in his famous 1969 Playboy interview, when he says, “Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness” (262).
All people are ultimately incorporated, by the end of their lives, into one of two great corporate bodies: the Mystical Body of Christ (MBC) or the Mystical Body of Anti-Christ (MBAC). Each of these bodies seeks also to incorporate the Global Person. The distinction between the MCB and the MBAC is made with exceptional clarity by St. Thomas Aquinas, in De Venerabili Sacramento Altaris (translated by H.A. Rawes): “there are two mystical bodies in the world, namely, the mystical Body of Christ and the mystical body of the devil or Antichrist, to one of which all men in the world belong. [. . .] The mystical Body of Christ is the Holy Church, His Spouse, pure and faithful. He is the head of this Church, and all the faithful without mortal sin are His members. [. . .] On the other hand, the body of the devil is the whole assembly of the wicked men, who are, as it were, his adulterous nurse. He is their head, and all the wicked are his members. [. . .] Jesus, by His own work, and by the work of His servants, is always seeking to cut men off from the body of the devil, and incorporate them in His own. So the devil by his own work, and by the work of his servants, is always seeking to draw away the members of Christ, and join them to the vile members of his harlot” (99). McLuhan speaks of the MBC in the Playboy interview referred to above: “In a Christian sense, this [“Psychic communal integration”] is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man” (262). McLuhan seems to reference the MBAC a 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain, writing, “Electronic information environments being utterly ethereal fosters [sic] the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. After all, the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer” (72).
The Mystical Body of Christ is the Church understood as a single corporate entity stretching from our material realm, through Purgatory, to Heaven. At baptism, we are incorporated into the Mystical Body. The Head of the Mystical Body is Jesus Christ, and the Soul of the Mystical Body is the Holy Spirit. The Mystical Body on Earth is the Church Militant; the Mystical Body in Purgatory is the Church Suffering or Church Expectant; and the Mystical Body in Heaven is the Church Triumphant. The members of these three parts of the Church form the Communion of Saints within the Mystical Body.
Communication between the parts of the Mystical Body occurs primarily through the sacraments and the medium of prayer. Communication within the Church Militant (the Mystical Body on Earth) and between the Church Militant and those outside the Church, makes use of all the usual “earthly” forms of media we have at our disposal.
Christ is the “ultimate extension of man” (McLuhan, Playboy 262) or ultimate medium. Not only is He the medium between man and God, and not only is His Mystical Body the medium through which the members of the Church may be united, but he also provided humanity with a new perspective on the material world, through which we may discern the underlying forms or ideas that exist in the mind of God (according to the doctrine of Divine Exemplarism). Speaking of this gift of discernment that has been given to man, St. Bonaventure states, “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).
Iconic signs play a crucial role in communication within the Mystical Body of Christ, since it is through the contemplation of analogical relationships or likenesses between existing things that we access the “metaphysical medium that leads us back [to God]” (Bonaventure 25).
The MBC and the MBAC interpenetrate our media environment.
The MBAC is the Satanic inversion of the MBC, with Satan as its head.
The MBAC, instead of providing a connection to the immaterial realms of Purgatory and Heaven, creates virtual realities that mimic the immaterial. The media environments within the MBAC are “closed” in the sense that they exclude Christ and the immaterial.
The forms of representation that dominate within the MBAC are primarily symbols (arbitrary signs) and simulacra. Simulacra are superficial imitations of the real, rather than faithful reproductions (or “icons” in the Platonic sense) that maintain an internal analogical relationship with their originals and with the Divine Ideas. Both symbols and simulacra ultimately form arbitrary sign-systems structured through difference rather than likeness or analogy. For more on simulacra and difference, see Gilles Deleuze’s “Plato and the Simulacrum.”
Any cultural object may be understood as being part of the MBC, the MBAC, or both. Even the lowliest of objects have some analogical relationship to God and the Divine Ideas, if only in the fact that they exist. At the same time, even the most sublime of human creations are in some way corrupt and simulacral.
The Catholic study of culture should employ a double perspective, revealing both the emptiness behind the sophistry and simulacra of the MBAC, and the traces of the “metaphysical medium that leads us back [to God]” (Bonaventure). We may heed the following words of Jesus to his disciples: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Insofar as Catholic Cultural Studies is a form of political activism, it should be rooted in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching.
For more, see the following posts:
Aquinas, St. Thomas. De Venerabili Sacramento Altaris. The Bread of Life: or St. Thomas Aquinas on the Adorable Sacrament of the Altar. Trans. H.A. Rawes. Library of the Holy Ghost Vol. 1. London: Burns and Oates, 1879. Available at https://archive.org/details/breadoflifeorstt00thomuoft.
Bonaventure, St. In 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.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Plato and the Simulacrum.” Trans. Rosalind Krauss. October 27 (Winter, 1983): 45-56.
McLuhan, Marshall. Letter to Jacques Maritain, 6 May 1969, from Toronto. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999. 70-73.
McLuhan, Marshall. “Playboy Interview – A candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media.” Rpt. From Playboy (March 1969). Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1995. 233-69.