'Writing is like lovemaking; passion without virtuosity is clumsy, while virtuosity without passion is cold and clinical.' - John Barth
There was, a few years ago, a cartoon in the New Yorker, in which a corporate board room was portrayed, mostly men but a few women dressed in standard business attire, sitting around a conference table, with a few charts and displays on easels in the foreground. At the head of the table was a man, obviously drawn to be a mid-to-upper management type of person, wearing instead of the traditional business attire, a dance tutu. As he holds forth at the meeting, gesturing in the direction of the charts, all eyes from those attending upon him, he states (as the caption reads), ‘Today I would like to discuss our business data by means of interpretative dance.’
The juxtaposition of this artistic, creative and atypical form of communication in a setting such as corporate boardroom, dealing not with the standard fare of interpretative dance subjects such as love, hate, sex, fear, and other human emotions, but rather dry business facts and figures, has many layers of nuance that the casual reader thumbing through the New Yorker pages is likely to miss. In fact, interpretative dance is a far more common and traditional means of communication – far more cultures embrace the communication through dance than through the communication of corporate board meetings. Dance predates the standard business meeting by many millennia. And yet, we see the corporate board room as traditional, and the idea of the dance as being avant garde. What precisely is being communicated?
I have spent most of my life in settings where communication has been the primary (if not the only) goal. In politics for a decade, the production of communication (for indeed it was a commodity) was as important as the substance of that being communicated. In higher education and religious institutions for another decade, often bearing the title ‘Director of Communications’, the idea of communication was paramount, in all of its different forms: communication as advertising, as information transmission, as art, as spirit and information, as connection. Even the embodiment of communication in the liturgy, where the ‘communicant communicates’ by physically receiving the material elements of the sacrament – interesting that should the person come simply to listen to the scripture readings, preaching and join in the prayers, but not partake of the sacrament, we say that the person ‘did not communicate’.
I love to tell the story…
Communication in a religious setting, as in many settings, is ambiguous even if it is carefully choreographed and enacted. Few things in the history of the world have been as rehearsed, revised and analysed as the liturgy of the Christian church (few things have lasted long enough or widespread enough to be of challenge to that distinction). Yet the story of Christianity through its practice still remains a mystery, and though communal, retains strong individualistic elements.
In some churches, ‘worship’ consists of hearing a sermon, singing hymns, listening to prayers, and putting money in the collection plate; in others it is an outpouring of gospel hymns and speaking in tongues; in still others, it means watching a priest at a distant altar. For worshipers themselves, the experience varies as well: it may be primarily intellectual, or emotional, or mostly a matter of habit. But whatever worship looks like or feels like, it is only a means to an end: to create and nourish a relationship with God with other Christians.
There is a telos, a purpose to worship and religious communication, but this ultimately depends less upon the human beings functioning as ‘church’ as it does upon the Holy Spirit and its movement among the people, in ways mysterious from the earliest days recorded in Acts, where it was evident that the Spirit was among the people, but exactly what was going on remained obscure. It remains difficult for us still.
The Jewish Christians' transmission of religious thought through narrative poses two immediate difficulties for the modern interpreter. The first of these is our temptation to simply state the meaning of the story in sentences…. The second difficulty is the fact that Jewish Christians lived out the Hebrew Bible in a way most moderns do not understand.
The movement toward narrative theology in many ways strives to remove the problems that systematic theological and biblical interpretation frameworks have developed when trying to impose overarching paradigms on the subject.
In the present modern-to-postmodern time, however, the problem becomes more pronounced, as the church has found itself in competition, not with other churches, but with a prevailing ethos of commercialism and consumption. The commodification of religion, as suggested by Jean Baudrillard, is a natural consequence of the typical Western mentality of reducing everything to potentially exchangeable goods and services. 'Intersubjective communication is replaced with the interaction of humans, goods and whole systems that surround the manipulation of these goods.' The types of communication contained in stories gets reduced to half-hour sitcoms, hour-long dramas or two-hour films, whose critical reviews often talk as much about the quality of acting and the fees paid for product placement as they do the actual story and meaning of the production – '…the division between symbolic and commercial has all but disappeared in contemporary society, in favour of the dominance of the latter.'
Ironically, in the present world, we are surrounded by more stories than ever. Hundreds of television channels show story after story, using different characters in different situations. The average person in the medieval times might be exposed to a thousand different stories over the course of his or her lifetime at most – these would often be derived from the Bible, from history, and from classic literature as well as folk tales. The modern person watching a several hours of television per day will be exposed to thousands of different stories each year, and often these stories are done with the kind of technical precision that makes them more real than the real.
Mass media and the culture industries, informatics and cybernetics, virtual reality and an obsession with ‘image’ – postmodernists and their detractors map the changes in an increasingly synthetic fabric of social life in very similar ways.
Regardless of the interpretative framework one takes sociologically or theologically, the underlying reality speaks of the difficulty of communication in the face of such media onslaught; however, it also speaks of the irresistible yearning people have for being told a story, any story, in a well-done fashion. In the days prior to radio and television, the story-teller was highly prized. In a very real sense, the story-teller still is.
A Christian postliberal consensus on the primarily cultural-linguistic character of religions would not by itself overcome substantive disagreements between conservatives and progressives, feminists and antifeminists, Catholics and Protestants. The debates would turn more on conceptual or grammatical considerations than on experiential or propositional ones, but they would also involve disagreements on where proper grammar is to be found, on who are competent speakers of a religious language. The progressives would appeal to rebels, the conservatives to establishments, and Catholics and Protestants would continue to differ in their understanding of the relation of Scripture and tradition.
Regardless of the direction, regardless of the purpose, it becomes increasingly apparent in the modern-to-postmodern world that the primary issue for communication does not lie in the details about the message, but ultimately in the vehicle of communication itself. Understanding this will not solve the differences of substance, but will serve to provide common ground for communication, and ensure that the message is not rendered irrelevant.
Supersize it? (Narrative vs. Metanarrative)
Modern society has been obsessed for a time with making things bigger and better. Even those things that have become smaller with improvement (such as computers) have boasted ‘more power’ as the primary quality. One can recall perhaps the quintessential Western ideal, the Six-Million Dollar Man, whose promotional tag-line was ‘we can rebuild him – make him better, stronger, faster.’ McDonalds and other fast-food restaurants introduced ‘value meals’, which in essence convince the customer that it is better to spend more money on more food rather than spending yet more money again on yet more food again. However, having committed to the ‘value meal’, one can supersize it, and not just once, but by several levels.
In many ways, this is how narrative graduates to metanarrative. This is not exclusively nor even predominantly a theological concept. The greatest metanarratives for society today are most likely the supremacy of science and the ‘self-evident truths’ of Western-style democracy with its attendant capitalist economic framework. Much in the way at Hegelian/Marxist theory talks of dialectic, modern thinkers on communication theory and critical analysis see the modern metanarratives as sewing the seeds of their own demise. 'Baudrillard critiques the grand narratives of technological progression and apocalypse, preferring instead to map out in minute detail the impact of technological objects.' This leads to difficulty in processing information, even in the digital age where all things are reducible to ones and zeros.
Contemporary Jews and Christians face similar textual crises. Modernity's univocal and dichotomously true -or-false interpretative strategies leave only two options. One option is fundamental slavery to the supposedly unchangeable "literal" sense (which is in fact a historically conditioned modern claimant to the title). The other option is emancipation from that slavery through liberalism's efforts, first, to reject the authority of the text as vehicle of God's word to the believing community and, second, to replace the authority of text with the authority of experience or reason. Religious thinkers have by now spent more than two centuries searching for mediating positions that would, at once, preserve the sacred writings as sources of communal identity-formation while, at the same time, showing how religious traditions reinterpret the meaning of these writings in different historical settings. In our present, polarised ages, these searches remain as unfulfilled as ever.
Many more options beyond the simple yes-or-no arise when we escape the metanarrative. Despite the grandiose ideal of the metanarrative, there simply is no supersizing a particular framework to encompass satisfactorily all of the communication needs – nothing can serve today as all things to all people.
There is one difficulty in this, however, and that is that postmodernism threatens to become its own metanarrative, just as inclusive policies often become exclusive and tolerance policies often become intolerant.
But more than simply positing a transition from an old to a new stage in history, postmodernists typically think this is a good thing and so frame this transition in terms of what we might call soteriological enplotment. That is, they typically tell us a large-scale story in which modernity, with its totalising metanarrative, functions as the complication or problem that is to be historically/narratively resolved by transcending the need for metanarratives. But isn't this itself a tall tale, a metanarrative of universal scope which is simply unacknowledged?
Even as society changes from modern to postmodern, as historians come to realise that the theories of historical telos aren’t necessarily correct and the ‘progress’, technological or otherwise, isn’t necessarily the way things have to be, small events such as the elimination of the supersize option from McDonalds communicate a shift in the pattern of thought and value in society, in far more effective ways than mere words might ever do.
‘Words are deeds.’ -- E.M. Forster, Maurice
Even in a society so dominated by stories and oral communication (including television, radio, audio-internet, person-to-person, telephone, lecture, sermon, etc.), we are in fact the most written-word oriented society in history. The number of books produced and consumed each year is staggering; barely a few hundred years ago, a personal library of a few hundred books was an exceedingly rare luxury; now it is fairly commonplace. Magazines and newspapers abound, not just in homes but in offices, public spaces and even as litter in the streets. Shops even a hundred years ago would be filled with produce in unmarked bags and packages – now present-day shoppers are bombarded with messages of ingredient content, name, origin, and any value-claims the producer can make; literally thousands of words scream from the shelves of the average supermarket (whose very name, supermarket, communicates a claim). Even those who watch television will be confronted with the written word in advertising and in various places in the programming. The casual stroll or drive will make the traveler encounter billboards, street signs, warning signs, shop signs, and other written indicators.
However, most of this writing misses the mark. As any advertising executive will attest, it takes an ever-increasing number of impressions to make a lasting mark; students often re-read sections again and again to ‘cram’ the information inside. One thing we find frustrating quite often, in speech from the political to the commercial to the interpersonal, is that there is sometimes little correspondence between what is said and what is meant. This is compounded when put down in written words. Heidegger: 'A first point, strange and then evident, is that language is not identical with what is said (or written).' Take, for example, the object of higher education. One thinks (and hopes) it is about the dissemination of knowledge from experts to willing students. However, it often transforms into a system of power-relationships and assessments, where the students ‘work to the test’ and the lecturers closely guard their authority and right to speak – is it any wonder that students, who have been taught for so long that they haven’t the ‘right’ to speak in class (for such is the lecturer’s right, by virtue of the institutional dynamic), are therefore often reluctant or hesitant to speak in class when called upon? 'Higher education will be dominated by performativity: skills needed to increase the "performativity of the social system" will be prioritised.' (Lyotard, p. 122)
When things are set down on paper, from elementary school most are taught that there is a natural correspondence between the letters on the page and the sounds that are made with the mouth, and that combinations of sounds form words that correspond to the combinations of letters. Anyone who has studied pictographic languages (from ancient forms such as Egyptian Hieroglyphs to modern Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese) knows the difficulty of universalising the alphabetic correspondence. Some of the earliest cultural clashes in the Near East, between the then-superpower Egypt and the rival superpower-empires of Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, etc. could possibly be in part due to the pictographic/alphabetic split – given the hieroglyph nature of Egyptian communication and the alphabetic (through cuneiform, largely, but also other scripts) communication of the other cultures. This divergence of communication through writing sets up an interesting dynamic.
Writing (and the mark in general) must be able to function in the absence of the sender, the receiver, the context of production, etc., that implies that this power, this being able, this possibility is always inscribed, hence necessarily inscribed as possibility in the functioning or the functional structure of the mark.
Part of the problem with this kind of communication, and it continues to this day in various venues (diplomatic, academic, legal, religious) is that too much is left unspoken, unexpressed, and the selectivity that goes into the communication may differ between author and readers. Indeed, it is not only what is left unsaid and unwritten, but what is unthought of that matters. 'What is unthought in a thinker's thought is not a lack inherent in his thought. What is un-thought is there in each case only as the un-thought. The more original the thinking, the richer will be what is unthought in it.'
Particularly with the advent of computer communication and the internet, virtual communication versus ‘real’ communication becomes an issue. At stake is the disappearance of the person in the communication transaction. Computers share details of military, diplomatic and financial affairs without scrutiny of human eyes. Virtual communication also threatens the creation of a person – as highlighted in yet another New Yorker cartoon, depicting a dog sitting at a computer terminal, the caption read ‘on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.’ How do we know who we are? It is almost magical. The typical responses from creative and artistic kinds of words, from poetic and spiritual writing, while made more available, are perhaps somehow watered down. On the other hand, we run the risk of imbuing the words themselves (through the media of transmission) with power.
Wherever there is a society of any kind, there will be certain established forms of corporate magic, whereby certain standard stimuli evoke certain standard emotional responses from all its members. If these stimuli are called ‘works of art,’ they are conceived as possessing a ‘goodness’ or ‘beauty’ which in fact is merely their power to evoke these responses.
Words are power. Neil Simon realised very early in his writing career, when fellow soldiers at boot camp broke into his locker to read his journal, that the mere fact that words had been written down gave them power and validity beyond his authorial intent. The same is true for religious words, through scripture, which become an example par excellance. ‘The religious phenomenon, or the phenomenon of religious experience, is something of a limit case or exemplary instance of the incommensurability of conceptual thought and pretheoretical experience.’
One picture is worth a thousand words…
Despite the heavy and increasing reliance on the written word, it is still the case that pictures and images speak very strongly. Advertising without pictures pales by comparison, and is not very effective against, advertising that has even simple imagery. The corporate giant Nike had a one-word advertising campaign, with this word situated against a backdrop of exciting and dramatic sports imagery; their sales doubled in the two years of the campaign. The word? Swoosh! It wasn’t just the word, but the images that sold the product, and the word, in many ways a nonsensical word, merely added to the psychological communication of the images.
The same concept holds true for people who use artistic imagery in spiritual practices, such as praying with icons. In non-literate societies, pictures tell the story. Even in literate societies, there is a communication through art that transcends the merely verbal, written or oral. It is somehow ‘more real’, perhaps even hyper-real.
The traditional icon of the Eastern Christian world is never meant to be a reproduction of the realities you see around you; it is not even meant to show what these realities will ever look like. It shows some part of this world – a scene from history, from the Bible, a particular person or group of persons – within a structure that puts them in a distinctive light.
The problem, of course, comes from the difficulty of gauging experience. Even in the most controlled of scientific experiments, there is a difficulty with discerning meaning beyond the original observer and the original object of communication. This is particularly pronounced on communication outside the physical sciences. Husserl understood this, and set out on the search for certainty:
Phenomenology as description has had a salutary effect on the social sciences. But description, however accurate, can never establish the certainty of what is described. Though it can turn up experiences of certainty, whose structure can be explored, it never makes it certain that these experiences of certainty are certainly what they claim to be. This might not disturb psychologists or sociologists, especially those with instrumentalist leanings, but it was a fatal limitation for a philosopher in search of an absolutely valid science.
This is partly why the difficulty of history arises for religion, and many theologians and critical thinkers turn to mythological frameworks for gathering meaning. For Ricouer, ‘myths – particularly religious myths – have, then, as well as an archaeological meaning, a teleological one: their meaning is not only of the origin of man, but also of where he is going.’ Once again, seeing that the purpose of history is not necessarily that of progress, but rather one in which communication can take place in a number of ways, ‘for Foucault, the past is not seen as inevitably leading up to the present, a view of history which renders the past banal; it is the very strangeness of the past which makes us able to see clearly the strangeness of the present.' (Mills, p. 24) The project of modernity in theology in the nineteenth century gave way to the lack of certainty in theology and ministry in the twentieth; many of the religious institutions that experienced growth did so at the expense of the ambiguity of the modern and postmodern world, choosing to refuse discourse with those influences, and when there is communication, it is often merely acknowledgement.
Is it live, or is it Memorex?
So, what is missing in communication? Heidegger (among others) speaks of the missing element in communication, something of which we are often keenly aware after the fact, although not always. When confronted with a text like the Bible, we cannot address the unthought element with any absolute certainty; we cannot even address the part present with such absolutes. Derrida talks of the missing element in such situations as the supplement – ‘the supplement is neither a presence nor an absence. No ontology can think its operation.’ We are faced with this absence and supplement every day, particularly in the media. Consider the planning that goes into what ‘makes the news’ – in a world full of events, how does this get compressed into 22 minutes (half a hour minus the ubiquitous commercials)? ‘What is wrong with the media disseminating knowledge of the events? The answer is that what should have a “natural” rhythm – the unfolding of a complex number of actions as people make their own decision to join the students – is vastly accelerated by the media.’ The media communicates a world distorted, not necessarily through intention, but through its very structure, and it is possible that no amount of reform in the media can change this. ‘Baudrillard rejects the notion that the media can be reformed or revolutionised because it already partakes of an economy of the sign, where so-called “symbolic” action is reproduced with ease: the media constructs signs of revolution from a pre-existing model.’
Of course, it is not merely the media that is the problem here. The way we communicate our most cherished truths in any setting is dependent upon our use and understanding of language, the way it is manipulated and made meaningful. Our entire language is built of analogy and metaphor – at the root of it, there is nothing ‘literally’ real at all.
If it is true that one of the most important features of any metaphor is that we must deny its literal truth if we are to understand its metaphorical significance, and hence perceive the truth which metaphor expresses, then it is perhaps not fanciful to suggest that the dialectic of affirmation and denial, which is so striking a feature of the history of Christian spirituality, amounts to a practical recognition of the metaphorical status of those narrative forms which [are] paradigmatic for Christian religious discourse.
The narrative returns! But in what way? The world today is not the world of the narrative’s origin. Once upon a time, as the narrator might begin, the silver chalice of the church liturgy, the central receptacle of the sacred sacrament, is now an antique, not without value, but with a very different nature, and the grand cathedral, once thought to be the physical representation of the courts of heaven, now becomes a tourist destination, to be seen in a matter of hours along with a host of other sites, reduced to placing signs in conspicuous places begging for alms to keep the lights on. Is this what was meant by the word made flesh?
The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…
That God came down to earth and took upon Godself the physical form of humanity shows the importance of incarnation to our thinking; those who have a sacramentality that is more real-presence oriented see the incarnational aspect in the sacrament, but often miss the presence in themselves, their neighbours, and the rest of humanity. Such embodiment also takes place in non-sacred types of writing; for example, the author Angela Carter, in her final novel Wise Children, gives an embodiment of aging and long life well spent. The current crop of ‘reality’ television attempts to bring this kind of incarnate communication through the media to the masses of people viewing, but falls short when it is realised that reality is not what is being offered.
In the biblical texts, read aloud in churches every Sunday, even as people now by and large have the ability to read for themselves, the incarnation seems similarly distant at times. How can the communication of God to humanity take place in a media-saturated world, where ‘embedded’ journalists ‘report’ the news (heavily censored) and the most real things on television turn out to be fake? Can the texts of the Bible stand up to this kind of competition? A movement called textual reasoning seeks to find ways to reconnect the modern-to-postmodern reader/listener with the spirit of the text. ‘Even more, the particular texts to which attention is given in textual reasoning implicate both God and humanity: they are not clearly one or the other, but both in mutual implication.’ The reader/listener cannot be a passive partner in this – just as reality television strives to bring ‘real’ people into the event, and not just actors, so too do the biblical texts call for participation, not simple listening. This is the heart of the meaning of the word communication.
Hearing one’s own accent…
Even in the liturgy and the biblical text, there is ambiguity and tension of meaning. The written texts correspond only somewhat to the orality of tradition behind them, which correspond only partially to the truth they try to express, given that there can be little chance of completeness given the natural limitations of language. Communication relies on more than words – if this were not so, why wouldn’t God have seen it sufficient to send a scroll, or a codex, or a videotape, rather than a human being? Still, we are given multiple means of communication and participation.
The liturgy reflects the oral character of the New Testament itself, for the Institution Narrative in particular is perforce derived from three gospel and one Pauline accounts: none of these is more original or authentic, and therefore from the beginning, this tale – which is the tale of the Mass itself – is told necessarily in many versions, to whose number, every celebration of the Mass adds, with equal ‘originality’.
This originality must be tempered, so that no particular experience becomes normative without acceptance. ‘Every instance of production of knowledge, every instance when someone seems to be speaking on behalf of someone else, no matter how good their intentions are, needs to be interrogated.’ Given that it is often the clergy who do the most verbal communicating (written and oral) in church settings, it is vital that they have an understanding of the general principles and pitfalls in communication theory.
One must be impressed by the almost paradoxical fact that, undergirding the verbosity of the Augustinian corpus, there is a deep and persistent concern regarding the insufficiency of language…. The ‘battle for words’ does not attend only theological or philosophical discourse, but even the non-theoretical discourse of the preacher.
It was Foucault, for all of his high-philosophical theorising on communication, who realised the fundamental importance of more common types of communication such as ritualised small-talk. From simple telephone calls to diplomatic and legislative meetings, the opening is usually a communication in words that is fairly devoid of meaning, but which in communication of intent and sincerity, stands for much. The means of communication are ultimately not merely words, and perhaps not mostly words, but rather are incarnate in the physical world, waiting for our discourse of meaning to communicate their presence and their power. Angela Carter, in her novel Wise Children, gives the lead character an experience of this incarnate yet open character to communication, through the flower that fell from the lapel of the jacket of her first love the night before: ‘The lilac started to rot the morning after, went brown at the edges, reeked of bad breath. Irish, who taught me about metaphor, would have made a meal, if you follow me, out of that lilac.’
Some communication is so much a part of us, that we cannot comprehend what is being said, or the way it is being communicated. Rather like trying to listen to one’s own accent as a foreigner would hear it, it is a near impossible quest. However, we do have the ability to communicate in so many ways, verbal and non-verbal, through pictures, through dance, through things like Carter’s lilac. So too can we make a meal of most any type of communication, including the Eucharistic feast, in which we communicate in multiple ways, and at the crucial moment, the verbal method seems furthest from importance.
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