Friday, 3 July 2009

Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse

Here’s an excerpt from my paper last night on “blogging as theological discourse”. I’m thinking of tidying the paper up and submitting it to a journal – I don’t suppose anyone knows of a journal that would be interested in this kind of thing? Perhaps a journal on theology and culture?

In a well-known book, we find a whole raft of arguments about the dangers of this new technology. The new technology will change the way we understand truth; it will change the way we use language; it will erode our memories and our relationships; it will take the “soul” out of language, and turn language into a mere “image”, a deceitful apparition of true understanding. In short, this new technology is not merely a useful invention: it is something that threatens the very fabric of our humanity. The text I am referring to is, of course, not a book about the internet: it is Plato’s Phaedrus, written in the fourth century BCE, warning against the transition from an oral culture to a culture of writing. Poised between two worlds, Plato perceived that literacy was not merely a convenient new technology, but it was a practice that would usher in a new way of being-in-the-world. Our very humanness would change under the impact of this technology.

Plato’s insight has been confirmed by modern historical studies of the cultural transitions from orality to literacy, from writing to print, and from print to the mass production of books. Walter Ong’s 1982 work on Orality and Literacy argued for the unique power of linguistic technologies in shaping the human self. “More than any other single invention,” he argued, “writing has transformed the human self.” Writing must be understood here as a technology, as a practice which structures the way we relate to the world and to each other. Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan famously announced that “the medium is the message”. A medium like text or television functions, he argued, not as a neutral channel through which ideas are transmitted, but as an “extension” of our humanness. The development of a new medium has the most profound and far-reaching effects on the structure of human consciousness and the organisation of human societies.

In oral cultures, the word is an occurrence in the present between one living person and another; the spoken word occurs always within a broader personal context. But writing is a solitary practice, and the written word appears simply in the context of other words. In the written word – as Plato perceived – there is no flexibility, no to and fro between speaker and listener, no dialogical process of clarification, amendment and revision. In written culture, then, literary production is a profoundly personal activity. And prior to the printing press, there was no real distinction between private and public. A work is written and the manuscript is copied by hand in order to be circulated to a small number of people, people within the writer’s own “private” world. With the invention of the printing press, however, literary production becomes a “public” act. James O’Donnell notes that it was Thomas More, early in the sixteenth century, who first used the English word “publish” to describe his literary activity. The division between private and public was introduced by the printing press; for the first time, one could now write for strangers, for an anonymous public audience. It is here that “the ‘author’ was born”. The fixity and permanence of the printed word produce ideals of “verbal perfectability, style, and the idea of ownership”.

Indeed, the modern idea of the author emerges in a clear form only in the works of the seventeenth-century writer John Milton. Milton’s poetic and prose works are pervaded by a preoccupation with authorship, with the writer’s spiritual ownership of his literary productions. He signs his title pages “The Author John Milton”; he includes frequent autobiographical digressions, narrating his own development as an author; he reflects critically on the various genres in which he writes; he is anxious about relation between his own originality and the literary citation of authorities. Here, it is clear that print culture – the capacity to write for an anonymous public – produces a new relation to oneself, to language, to society and tradition.

It’s interesting to note that in the Web 2.0 environment, the circulation of one’s writing is not usually described as “publishing”, but as “posting”. There is a curious historical reversal here: for now the private/public distinction, created by the printing press, begins again to vanish. With technologies like blogs, Facebook and Twitter, my “private” thoughts are immediately manifest, immediately “publicly” available. The word is not carefully crafted into a fixed, perfected form; it is plastic, flexible, dialogical. Here, the word is uttered not simply within the context of other authorial words, but in the lived context of an ever-changing interactive community.

Note: There are also some posts on my presentation here and here. And thanks to everyone for the reading tips last week, which were a great help!

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