Thursday 2 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!


John F. Rasmussen said...

I would think that The Other Journal which recently published Halden's review of Evangelicals and Empire would be delighted to publish your essay.

I don't want to make too much of it, but I was struck, when you noted the transition from publishing to posting that the era of publishing had been immediately preceded by a "posting", Luther's 95 theses (although the event may be apocryphal), a document, which with the arrival of the printing press was widely and quickly published all over Europe.
What had been an improvisational contribution to a church conversation, became with the possesion of the text by each individual, something about which everyone could now have their own opinion.

andy goodliff said...

You could try Paul Louis Metzger's Cultural Encounters

James K.A. Smith said...

If it's not too ironic to place such an essay in a print magazine, you might consider Cross Currents:

Anonymous said...

I like this extract a lot. Though I do think that whenever that particular section of Phaedrus is mentioned, it should come in a twin-pack with Derrida! Whilst I doubt that Derrida would have disputed the enormous cultural effect of writing, he would, as I'm sure you're well aware, be deeply critical of the presupposition that speech is somehow more 'present' or 'self-present' than writing. In other words, he would undo any opposition which attempted to attribute some sort of priority to speech over writing - and esp. to Walter Ong's conception of 'primary' and 'secondary' orality.

I must admit that the Marxist theorist in me finds it difficult to acknowledge the enormous changes in humanity itself which such technologies entail, at the same time as retaining a healthy Derridean skepticism in terms of not waxing nostalgic over some imaginary prelapsarian age. E.g. Twitter - to what extent can I celebrate what that makes possible, and to what extent must I lament that it is an extension of the dumbing down and atomisation of human intercourse so inherent to a certain type of capitalism. Maybe this is why dialectical thinking is so important...

Daniel Hartley

TW said...

Theoblogging is complicated.

tortoise said...

In written culture, then, literary production is a profoundly personal activity...

The word [in Web 2.0] is not carefully crafted into a fixed, perfected form; it is plastic, flexible, dialogical.

It'd be interesting to draw these thoughts into conversation with notions of textual meaning and authorial intent, particularly the more radical end of the reader-response school.

The particular fluidity of netiquette (and varying awareness thereof among internet users, such that brevity may be mistaken for rudeness, whilst those employing uppercase for emphasis are unwittingly shouting), the propensity for an unspotted typo to utterly transform the supposed meaning of a post... there's lots to chew over here!

Fat said...

Here is an interesting article on the ramifications of placing our thoughts "out there".

Like Luther we post to obtain feedback or create discourse (and perhaps in the ensuing kerfuffle to create change) but this may not always be from the area we expect.

Is what this girl posted free speech or racist bigotry - where is the line drawn in the Australian sand as to what is permissable and what should not be stated?

Is there a parallel here with the Chasers incident - Jobs are on the line.

Blogs and facebooks sites are being modified in light of this - are the underlying thoughts also so modified or do we no longer know with whom we are dealing.

Ben - I think your article is both timely and needed. There is more than just theology to consider. When we start to talk of immigration and Christians and Muslims tempers rise and blogs may not only fuel the rising ire but gather together those of similar view - it becomes a scarey place with little if any boundary between cyber space and reality.

I posted on a news talkback site discussing the above article that "It may well be that 'things' will come to a head before Australia actually grasps the problem and draws that line in the sand."

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben,

Like James K A Smith (several places above) I feel that it would be self-contradictory to place an article such as this in a print magazine - if it really is all about 'Blogging as Theological Discourse.' Surely the extract is already where the whole paper should be?

Except there I go again ... how could it be right to call it a 'paper'? And also, isn't the whole nature of a blog that it isn't 'tidied up', but rather, it throws out thoughts in uncensored form in order that others may critique and the synthesis may be found in collectivitiy rather than individualism? And further, surely the whole idea of 'submitting' things to some other agency for them to vet before publishing ... surely that's alien to the whole endeavour you are describing.

And finally, of course, journals are tied up with the whole business of money, whereas blogging is free creativity ... oh, I forgot, you have to earn a living somehow?

Forget I spoke!

(Lest you think I jest, may I declare my own mixed feelings at putting my songs on a public web site for the public to peruse? Where's the cash in that?)

Seriously, I'd love to read the rest of your thoughts, for you only get onto blogging in the last paragraph of your extract. But, on the other hand, I probably wouldn't pay money to read the rest! There's the eternal dilemma for the blogger.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

kim fabricius said...

It has just now struck me. The photo of the printing press - it conjured up a picture of what I imagine the instrument of punishment looks like in Kafka's great short story "In the Penal Colony". It's called "the harrow" (die Egge). "Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the harrow," the officer in the colony explains.

Any thoughts on the PC as a torture apparatus?

tortoise said...

Kim - best not to get a Mac user like Ben started on whether/why a PC might be an instrument of torture!

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