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The Screen Culture Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Friday, 16 November 2012

Last Independence Day, in the evening, I was standing on the steps of the National Gallery in Washington to watch the fireworks. People around me were watching them too – via live video feed on their iPhones.

The novelty factor may have been the reason, but inevitably the imposing spectacle of fireworks was reduced to a tiny screen in the palm of someone’s hand. It’s like looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope. Great and real phenomena are cut down to our size, converted to representations that are under our control.

In his book Let Them Eat Data Chet A. Bowers rightly says: “Computers reinforce or marginalize culturally specific patterns of thought and communication in how the technology encodes the cultural assumptions of those who design them.”

Real experience is being marginalized and at the same time the technological distance from the world – one that is lucrative for some people – is being reinforced. So authentic experience (authentic humanity) is being diminished.

This in itself is cultural decay. And in addition, the implicit message is that commercially packaged experience is the real thing – or maybe even better. 

Historian Glenn Olsen also points out in The Turn to Transcendence that theorists like Spencer, Comte, or Marx believed that human beings are “moving toward a shared global system” coming out of the bourgeois spirit.

This idea of the shared system is part of modern progressivism. It is implicit in things like the “packaging” of experience. The fireworks become little patterns of lights on a glass screen. This is progress? In our culture, apparently yes.

Evidently, the technology involved is not neutral. In fact, it is downright hostile. And yet the Church is not training people to evaluate the cultural freight of technologies even though their moral lives depend on it.

This could become a central part of teaching people what being human means. After all Christ is the perfect human being and the Church bears the face of Christ, however much we disfigure it.

Turning from this technological and emasculated “experience” to a different kind of shared experience, one that is more Christ-like, we could consider for example that:

Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other – my prayer for him – can play a small part in his purification. (Benedict XVI)

The pope invokes the sheer depth of real human life, with the emphasis on “human.” The complex of shared experience has its full palette of human elements, in our case, the shared wonder of the watchers of the fireworks, the experience of being a group enjoying something, something on a shared day that is part of our national history.

This is experience as the inescapable flow of sounds and ideas and sensations and movements that we are born into. Abstracting from it comes at great cost and a loss to our humanness.

Moreover, the fireworks also are very importantly above us, even if we know how the individual chemical mortars work. For a short time such an experience transcends our control and our individual perspectives and is a moving hint at the experience of transcendence, a vital part of being human.

Screens are used for many good purposes, from the purely convenient (airline departures) all the way to the more sublime (finding the text of a poem on the Internet). But we also interject screens, at times, between ourselves and the roots of experience. We are who we are through many thousands of little experiences – as Benedict reminds us – experiences that are uplifting and informing and also, yes, niggling.

Experiences can also be truncated or limited by technology. Nevertheless our need for fine-grained experience does not disappear even when we become so “sophisticated.” How real experiences fit together is something we will only appreciate in hindsight.

The screen culture is frequently a screened culture. Historically, it filters out certain experiences when other institutions are doing the same. Newspapers only report on certain subjects, TV channels only speak to certain demographics, churches only tackle certain subjects and so on.

The deeper human qualities get screened out, usually because they are not a matter of consumption and self-indulgence. Allowing screens to come between others and ourselves at the supermarket, in our cars, at the dinner table, during meetings, erases the chances of a real human experience and the chance passes forever.

Using screens in this way diminishes human culture. But it also interferes with our sense of the interconnectedness of all Being – which bodes none of us any good.


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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Comments (22)Add Comment
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written by Jack,CT, November 16, 2012
Father,
Beatiful Article and very provoking!
Jack
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written by Bangwell Putt, November 16, 2012
It was difficult, after the election, to see a path forward for those of us who are now clearly understand our position as a "cognitive [and spiritual] minority".

I have settled upon "ora et labora" to which I have added "love of neighbor". It is possible to return to and truly live this principle anywhere and everywhere. The "screens" we encounter, the vulgar news displays, the coarse language can be deprived of their power by an inner focus on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

Prayer, love, and every possible good work will save us - and, may God grant it, others.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 16, 2012
In the same vein, "There is no “environmental catastrophe.” The catastrophe is the environment itself. The environment is what’s left to man after he’s lost everything. Those who live in a neighbourhood, a street, a valley, a war zone, a workshop – they don’t have an “environment;” they move through a world peopled by presences, dangers, friends, enemies, moments of life and death, all kinds of beings. Such a world has its own consistency, which varies according to the intensity and quality of the ties attaching us to all of these beings, to all of these places. It’s only us, the children of the final dispossession, exiles of the final hour – the ones who come into the world in concrete cubes, pick our fruits at the supermarket, and watch for an echo of the world on television – only we get to have an environment." - L’insurrection qui vient
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 16, 2012
Answering BP, yes there is not easy answer, but you seem to be on the right track. Changing yourself is what you can really do.

Manfred we can digest it but so many words have been spent on it. Words do not do much good. I think BP has the first step. You are repeating stuff that has been said before. But until the Church in the US sees itself differently there are not going to be any large scale changes in how Catholicism functions in this society. Partly that has to be because Catholicism is bigger than this society. On the other hand it does need a different posture and that will take time - given past history it will take fifty years or more.
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written by Jacob r, November 16, 2012
Imagine if we ever have Catholic leaders who are capable of formulating an appropriate response to these challenges!

People don't love hardcore secularism, they fall into it out of a lack of other opportunities.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 16, 2012
Jacob we have to distinguish secular leadership from ecclesial leadership. But where they overlap they have the character of moving people. That is something that has to be rediscovered in the US.
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written by WSquared, November 16, 2012
Thank you for writing this, Fr. Bramwell. Funny that your article should be one of the things that greeted me today, because as an historian, I study these things and ponder them frequently, both as part of what I formally study, and also when it comes to making sense of lived experience.

This struck me, especially-- "This in itself is cultural decay. And in addition, the implicit message is that commercially packaged experience is the real thing – or maybe even better." So did the last four paragraphs.

We also get the opposite reaction, too: a hankering for authentic experience (which isn't bad in itself) but which nonetheless goes too far when it reduces authenticity to some sort of idealized and romanticized primitivism. I experience this especially from having spent some years in the Pacific-- oftentimes, I don't encounter much genuine curiosity about what it's like to actually live there, or even a willingness to understand it on its own terms. More often than not, I come across expectations that my lived experience should match somebody's packaged honeymoon holiday on an island resort.

Your response to Manfred above-- that Catholicism is bigger than the society-- is also spot on, and very important, which is why the Church will hem herself in if she sees herself merely as one denomination or culture among many. Fr. Augustine Hoa Tran, whose name has popped up at IgnatiusInsight.com, likewise said that the Catholic faith has a contribution to make and something to offer, which is something we need to appreciate again. And part of that contribution is that sense of interconnectivity and bigness as well as the ability to see it.

As for Glenn Olson, I have not yet read him. But for what it's worth, I'd just finished reading Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World yesterday.
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written by Ib, November 16, 2012
This post leans heavily towards Romanticism in its portrayal of "experience". I place it in quotes precisely because Fr. Bramwell elevates it in the same way as say Byron, Wordsworth or Coleridge did. Please note that the quote from the Holy Father does not address "experience" as does Fr. Bramwell, but human action as part of the chain of Being. The Pope takes an Aristotlean approach in distinction to the Romanticism of the post as a whole. Aristotleans rarely talk about experience the way Fr. Bramwell has; they more often reference human action and being-acted-upon (what used to be called "passion"). It was Decartes who initiated this sort of emphasis on "experience," and Kant, followed by the Romantics who made it their touchstone.

The issue of culture and technology is a very large one. I still find that Fr. Walter Ong's book _Orality and Literacy_ is among one of the best places to start. All technology can and has acted as a screen for human culture. Fr. Ong traces the development of textual culture which arose from the original human oral cultures. He speculates on the rise of the digital cultures (screen culture would be a part of that larger rise), but alas, he died before being able to see how it has developed in the past 10 years.
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written by Manfred, November 16, 2012
@Fr. Bramwell: Thank you for a reply to my comment. You are correct-much of it is redundant, but is that my fault or the fault of the Catholic leadership which control of the people within the Church as well as the sociaety at large? No excommunications with the horrific things that are being promoted and paid for by Catholic laymen, bishops and priests? Thank you also for your prognosis that no change will be effected for fifty years or more. I mentioned to three persons this week that my main worry is my grandchildren and the government oppression and merginalization which awaits them. Whatever serenity I enjoy is the knowledge that God is allowing all of this to happen, just as He allowed the gulags, concentration camps, world wars et al.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 16, 2012
lb what kind of Romanticism are you you referring to?
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written by Ib, November 16, 2012
@fr. Bramwell

I hope you don't take my remarks as negative; I thought the post had a good point and generally agreed with it. However, the raising of a vaguely defined something termed "experience" to the touchstone of what it means to be human is clearly Romanticism. What kind of Romanticism? Well, the kind of Romanticism expressed by Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc. I suppose it could be distinguished by national origin from the German Romanticism of Novalis, Schiller and the early Goethe, or the smaller movements of Leopardi, Foscolo etc., in Italy, or those in France under a variety of poets and novelists. But even if we pursue these national characters within the movement of Romanticism, one of the main propellants of every one of them was the insistence that "experience" was at the center of what it meant to be human.

Of course, this Romantic insistence on "experience" fed into Franz Brentano's work, and from there into his pupil Edmund Husserl, and from there, in a greatly modified way, into Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), and even into Blessed John Paul II's thought. So by itself, it is in no way bad -- but it can sometimes misdirect the unwary. A too easily adopted cult of "experience" has often led people into grave difficulties with sin (just read a bit about the 1960s and 70s).

I prefer a simpler Thomist approach myself, although I can appreciate the attraction that Romanticism has for youth.

I do seriously recommend the Ong book to you, though. The shift from the technology of Orality to the technology of writing was perhaps the largest shift humanity has ever negotiated. Compared to that all subsequent shifts have been to some new form of literacy.
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written by Ruth, November 16, 2012
Theologically, Christ isn't a human being. He is a human, but not a human being. Just a little mistake, the rest of the article is suburb and insightful.
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written by TomBombadil , November 16, 2012
As a nature-loving Catholic, what troubles me most about iPhone culture is it's seductive ability to distract us from the created world. A few years ago, because I go put our dog in the barn every night, I started to study the night sky. I got a $10 sky chart and over the course of 2-3 months learned to identify some 25 constellations with a naked eye. It was a rewarding, humbling experience that deepened my awe and love of the universe. Those cold, clearn nights also brought new depth to my reading of psalms, and of course, the Christmas night joy of the shepherds. Then the next summer, while on vacation in northern Michigan, my niece's fiance brought a wonderful little scope that you could aim at the stars. Within seconds, through the magic of GPS, it would identify any constellation you pointed it toward. It was fun at first, but after 10 minutes or so, everyone got bored with it. Why was that? Most likely because someone else, or something else, had done all the work. In my opinion, an amateur stargazer doesn't need no stinkin' telescope. Our God-given faculties will teach us and enrich us in ways that a screen-fed existence cannot. Well, that's all for now my brothers. It's time to go "barn" the dog and look for things eternal in the night sky. Batteries not included ...
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written by Ib, November 16, 2012
@Ruth

Good point, Ruth ... But where in the post does Fr. Bramwell assert that Christ was a human being? I don't find it myself ...
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 17, 2012
Thank you lb. I don't take your comments as critical. But I am curious why the Romantics have cornered the market on experience. It is a basic category in theology and becoming more importance as experience is being hijacked.

No Ruth Jesus Christ is a human being. But more to the point what are you hoping to achieve by distinguishing between 'human' and 'human being'?
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written by jason taylor, November 17, 2012
Enough with the denigrating of computers as "unreal". Perhaps you do not realize that some of us would not be able to connect with people at all were it not for the net. Do you say that Braile is unreal reading or Sign is unreal talking?
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written by WSquared, November 17, 2012
Jason Taylor, I think that Fr. Bramwell's concerns are with our viewing computers uncritically.

Yes, computers allow us to connect with people, but connect in what *kind* of way, exactly? When we receive Holy Communion at Mass, that is also a connection. But it's a specific kind. When we speak to someone face to face, that's a connection. But likewise a specific kind. Computers enable communication, yes. But it also has its limitations, and they also affect the way we view the world, including other people and the way we connect with them.
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written by Ib, November 17, 2012
@fr. Bramwell

No, not cornered the market, but as I wrote before, made it into a touchstone for what it means to be human. Prior to Descartes, "experience" wasn't given much of a place at the intellectual table simply because it lacked content. What was "experience" without some specific action or specific being-acted-upon (passion in the old sense)? And if you could specify the action or passion, "experience" was merely an extrinsic way of denominating the given action or passion. It was like an extra bag that you might use to put your bags in. But what would be the point of that with respect to the end of a bag, that is to carry things in?

In fact this was such a foreign way of thinking that the words for this sort of thing are very rare in Aristotle (gr. empeiria) or St. Thomas Aquinas (lat. experientia). A quick glance at Peters' _Greek Philosophical Terms_ lexicon, shows only two entries, both in Aristotle, both used briefly while discussing human action or passion. Aristotle looked at empeiria as the raw material for practical knowledge, but only after it became knowledge of causes through the mind's reflection. But even then, as Peters notes "the experienced man knows how, but not why (meta 981a)."

With another quick glance, this time at Deferrari's _Lexicon of St. Thomas Aquinas_, we find only a very compact paragraph summarizing St. Thomas' use of experientia, which refers us to another short paragraph further down the column on experimentum. According to the entries, what St. Thomas mostly meant by these terms was "becoming acquainted with a thing," which, you must admit, is not really what the Romantics meant by "experience".

But times do change as Bob Dylan reminded us a half-century ago. And so these days, yes, the topic of "experience" has become incredibly important in theology. In my day it was rolled out together with one big dollop of Rahner and another of Schillebeeckx (we got Küng too but in smaller dose; his time had run its course). From afar, since I no longer am directly involved in academic theology, the first is still read, while the second has pretty much dropped from sight. Much like cotton-candy, this stuff was sweet at first, but then turned into a sticky, rancid mess. Like Aristotle, I find "experience" to be an empty sack with hardly any purpose.

Now others have arisen to take their places. At least Von Balthasar seems to have some heft to his thought.

Coming back to a simpler Thomism after that loopy theology, has been a return to sanity. No, I am not a "fundamentalist" or "strict observance" Thomist to use Tracey Rowland's taxonomy. More Maritain, less Garrigou-Lagrange; more interested in applying, less in embalming.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 18, 2012
lb - interesting response. However Thomas for example is saturated with the notion of experience. He is concerned with the higher powers of the soul and their operations in perception and knowing and willing. So as long as you are not trapped in the linguistic analysis approach that says that he is only considering experience where the word 'experientia' occurs, he is in fact considering the elements of experience.
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written by G.K. Thursday, November 18, 2012
@Fr. Bramwell

You're right to say that St.Thomas is constantly writing about what most contemporary theologians and philosophers would term "experience". But St. Thomas himself doesn't call it that (as can be seen from his linguistic usage reflected in the lexicon). Instead he refers to it under its particular action or passion. His approach is a far cry from the enshrining of "experience" of the 19th c. Romantics or the Phenomenologists of the early 20 c.

This is an important fact. Contemporary theologians and philosophers are treating of these things in a different manner than the tradition of St.Thomas. They overlay some other philosophical "screen" (if you will) to construct their contemporary theologies. Usually it is a disguised Romanticism or phenomenology these days; rarely a wild-eyed deconstructionism pokes through, but that's mostly gone now -- that academic fad has mostly run its course. Should we then wonder much when these theologies tend to differ in details of faith and morals from the Roman Catholic Thomist tradition?

Again, these differences can be finessed up to a point. And in the mind of a talented and faithful theologian they can be helpful (again I will mention St. Teresa of the Cross and Blessed John Paul II). But most of the time they lead to self-deception and error. And by making "experience" the central factor in what makes us human, they can lead to an endless desire for more experience, and more exotic experience, to fill in what's missing in my humanity. Even Hegel, that rascal, condemned this as the "bad infinity".

My own thinking is that by focusing on human action and passion, not on an abstract, contentless, "experience", we can avoid these pitfalls.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 19, 2012
Who said experience is contentless and abstract? Just read someone like von Balthasar's phenomenology or JPII's or even Ratzinger's theory of experience. You are on the wrong track.
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written by G.K. Thursday, November 19, 2012
@fr. Bramwell

Thank you for your opinion. Unfortunately, that's essentially all you've expressed. You really have not engaged here, but that's fine. You don't need to. However, just to assure you, I have read substantial amounts of von Balthasar, JPII and Ratzinger (both before and after his election to the papacy). And yet I don't think that the contemporary emphasis on "experience" will remain important in Roman Catholic theology, anymore than have many other theological "dernières modes" of the past.

Only time will tell which of us has the better foresight about this.

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