I was involved in an ESF-sponsored workshop on technology and religion this past week. While the discussion focused on communicative technologies and media, we did drift at times beyond that. Here are some scribbles and notes of mine from the various sessions.
Our first session started with Birgit Meyer and Bengt Kristensson Uggla. Conceiving of media as something external to religion makes questions regarding the intersection of the two unanswerable. However, if media is seen as being embedded within religion, these issues are transformed into understandable practices. Media, then, is able to mediate religious thoughts and beliefs. In this way, media become sacralised so that mediation is made immanent and the gap between and believer and the transcendent is significantly reduced. This immediacy, mitigated through semiotic ideology, denies media as media and leads to its being externalised. It may be a good idea to think of theology as a theory of mediation. Lastly, technology makes globalisation immediately local (again, mediation).
The second session was led by Siegfried Zielinski and Jan-Olav Henriksen (sorry, this one is in Norwegian). One important thing to keep in mind is that media as a generalised concept did not arise until the mid-20th century (i.e. the last 50-60 years). Communicative technologies existed prior to that (obviously), but these were particulars. Today’s globalisation is seeing the harmonisation and unification of media so that the different technologies appear seamless. Electricity has become the ‘soul’ of ‘new media’, animating it as a machine. Machines always reduce complexity and mediate between two objects. It used to be that we humans had to believe in machines in order for them to work (i.e. by turning a switch, etc); but now machines have returned the favour by believing in us to animate them (e.g. interactive games, television, etc). On the other hand, religion provides a chain of memory–however fragmented and disjointed it may be. This is mediated by technology. However, technology can create a sensory excess that creates a feeling of divine presence without that chain of memory. In other words, technology has made it possible for one to participate in a religious community without ‘really’ participating in that community (e.g. Yoga videos in YouTube that provide simple instruction without the ‘full Yoga experience’). As Zielinski noted, one is ‘always the same, never myself’ (his own reversal of the Calvin Klein tag line ‘Always myself, never the same’).
The third session was presented by Ola Sigurdson, Jayne Svenungsson, and Lieven Boeve. It is quite clear that religion isn’t ‘returning’ because it never left in the first place. The ‘privatisation’ of religion has led to a loss of body and particularity as religion loses its institutional form (c.f. Olivier Roy’s Globalised Islam). This ‘private religion’ turns religion into a fetish. In fact, this new ‘personalised’ religion has transformed religious pilgrimages such that the relics now go to the people instead of the people going to the relics. Technology isn’t showing us a ‘post-secular’ world (as in a ‘return of religion’) but rather a transformation of religion in the public space, particularly in the cases of extremist religious groups which have found new solidarity and strength in the techno-globalised world.
The fourth session was led by Caroline Vander Stichele, Ward Blanton, and Edmund Arens. Echoing the sentiment of the first session of technology being closely tied to religion, this session dealt with looking at religious revolutions based on technological revolutions. One example is that of Yoga in the West as a practice originally separated from its Hindu roots. However, it has become its own consumer-driven religion in which one can get meditative tranquility instantly. Another example, is Augustine’s discussion of the divine postal network (e.g. messenger angels, etc) in relation to his understanding of the Roman Empire’s postal network. Religion needs to be addressed as a communicative practice of memory and narrative. The danger of a consumer-driven religion is, as I mentioned above, the kind of (private) participation without (public) participation. Religion must occur in both the public and the private sphere.
The final session was led by Arne Grøn and Anne Kull. Subjectivity is the key notion to formulate the problems above (between religion and society) as it gets directly at the concept of identity construction both in relation to the world and the self. In expressing oneself, one exteriorises oneself and bridges the divide between the public and private spheres. Public life is only possibile if it acknowledges a private life as well. Religion, as a public activity, is a meta-sphere of visibility of publicised figures (i.e. private individuals). However, one should be wary to use the term ‘virtual’ in describing religion in the new media (e.g. online churches) because in one very real sense, all churches are ‘virtual’ as they represent the ‘real’ church in a locality. There must be a hermeneutics of subjectivity as it is implied by a phenomenological ontology (a la Heidegger).