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Media/lity – Between Image Ban and Eucharist

Published onApr 13, 2021
Media/lity – Between Image Ban and Eucharist
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1. Introduction

From early 2020 on, people have reduced their “contacts” to other people to slow the spreading of SARS-Cov-2 down. During the year, bloggers, experts, the WHO and journalists started to discuss the appropriate term for this reduction of contacts: “social distancing” or “physical distancing”? One argument for the second term: Not being able to meet in person must not imply to give up solidarity with each other; physical distance must not mean social distance.1 The difference between the two terms raises a question that has been answered practically in multiple ways during 2020: What bridges our physical distance to each other so that social proximity becomes possible even while physical distancing is required? If the answer to that is not nothing – and for some organizations and people it has been “nothing”, the answer includes some kind of media-technology: from old-school landline-telephones to youtube-videos and Zoom-conferences. The importance of technical media, particularly digital media has become even more obvious during the pandemic: Media-technology functions as a bridge between physically distanced people; Media-technology somehow makes present what is physically absent.

In this paper, we want to reflect digital media’s function to bridge absent entities theologically, inspired by two discourses: the thinking about the biblical image-ban after the iconic turn on the one hand and the debates about the Lord’s Supper on the other. Of course, this will not lead to a full theory or concept of media and mediality. But it leads to the following main suggestions: We will argue, that the common dualities of “reality” vs. “virtuality” and “embodied” vs. “disembodied” are not appropriate for reflecting digital mediality. Rather, the difference between different media and different media-practices is decisive. This difference is also more decisive than the difference between seemingly unmediated presence and mediatisation. The focus on mediatisation all too often hides that seemingly unmediated practices are media practices as well. We will show how different practices – particularly the practice of Eucharist – are already media practices that partake in the dialectic between presence and absence, between making present and withdrawal.

2. Image, Image-ban and the Media

What happens, when media work? We want to draw a first bunch of impulses for reflecting this issue in a digital age from thinking about images and the biblical ban on images. It might look like a very non-lutheran move, but it is helpful to start the reflection of images and the biblical ban on images outside the theological traditions in the philosophical thinking about images, because they offer helpful terminological clarification. Particularly since the so called “iconic turn”2 the literature on images has become hardly over seeable. Hans Belting’s anthropological work on images provides the necessary terminological clarifications and first impulses (Belting 2001). Our thesis: His terms are better fit to reflect on digital mediality than the distinctions between reality and virtuality, disembodied and embodied. On this background, the debate about the biblical image-ban offers differentiated sensitivity for the religious dangers of media and mediality. Implicitly, the image ban points to the differences in mediality for the dialectic of absence and presence.

2.1 Images, Bodies and Media.

In his anthropological approach to images, Belting distinguishes between images, bodies and media, partly parallel to Mitchell’s distinction between pictures and images.3 For Belting, the term “images” refers to inner, mental images as well as to external images; “images are produced in the social sphere”, in human perception as well as in imagination.4 Hence, images are produced in bodies, they are embodied: Our body is the place in which imagination, memory and perception of images happens.5

But images are also embodied in a second way, namely in the medium that carries the image.6 In this distinction, the terms “media” and “medium” refer to the physical, material dimension of images,7 to the “techniques and programmes” that make images visible.8 While image and media belong together like “two sides of one coin” and while their distinction does not parallel the classic distinction between form and matter, Belting understands them as referring to different aspects or dimensions of one phenomenon.9 For example: If I see the painting “Mona Lisa”, I will see the image of a smirking lady on canvas and I will have the image in my head as well – this is what the term “images” refers to. If I drew my attention to the paint and the canvas, to the formed material that carries the images and is the picture, I would focus on what Belting would call “media”.

This terminological distinction is helpful, because it allows Belting to explore the relation of presence and absence in image-experiences. Two of his thoughts are decisive for our argument.

Firstly, Belting relates the power of images in an ambiguous way to the role of mediality: On the on hand, neglect of mediality gives power to the images while focus on mediality distances the observer from the image and its influence.10 On the other hand, the medium carries the images and the image couldn’t be powerful without the medium.11 I wouldn’t gaze at Mona Lisa’s smile with capturing fascination if canvas and paint weren’t arranged in this specific way, but focusing on canvas and paint can break the ban of the image and distance me from the effects of fascination. Hence, a medium works as mediation and transportation of an image only as long as its mediality is not the focus of attention. The medium works by withdrawing its work from attention.12

Secondly, the archetypical experience of images for Belting is the cult of the dead:13 absence and presence are entangled in images:

“Im Rätsel des Bildes sind Anwesenheit und Abwesenheit unauflösbar verschränkt. In seinem Medium ist es anwesend (sonst könnten wir es nicht sehen), und doch bezieht es sich auf eine Abwesenheit, von der es ein Bild ist.“14

Belting continues by elaborating on the „act of animation“, in which the perceiver “separates” medium and image,15 and discusses whether digital media can be called “media”.16 The decisive point for us is already his notion of the entanglement of presence and absence in the mediated image. He explicitly says, that this entanglement can take different forms in different media.17 His concrete story for this: When the statue of a Madonna overcomes temporal distance, presence and absence are not in the same way entangled as when television overcomes spatial distance.18

In the aftermath of Belting, it seems promising to reflect the entanglement of absence and presence for digital media, using the terminological distinction of medium and image: For example, what happens in a Zoom-conference, when one sees the images of colleagues? In what way does the digital medium make these people present in their images? In what way does the digital medium point to itself, making the absence of the depicted poignant?

2.2 Image ban, Images and the Imagined

As far as we have summarized it, Belting’s distinction between image and medium draws attention to the role of media in relation to what we see when we see an image. But what do we see? This question points to the relation between the image and that what the image shows. The innovation of the iconic turn refers to this relation in particular, as Moxter points out.19 He quotes Belting to summarize the new understanding of this relation:

“Bilder sind niemals nur das, was sie zu sein behaupten, Abbildung der Realität, es sei denn daß sie eine Idee der Realität abbilden.”20

To put it close to Moxter’s German words: Images not only depict or represent something, they show and “give to see”.21 This transcends the thinking in terms of similarity and representations. Images not only represent something, they also present something, as Stoellger has put it for the golden calf.22 On the background of this new perspective, Moxter and Hartenstein have developed a “Hermeneutik des Bilderverbots”.23 Interpreting the texts of the Hebrew Bible, Hartenstein makes three decisive points that mark the “borderlines of the visible”.24 Let’s start with his third point:

(1) Hartenstein sees a connection between the ban of images and monotheism. The world-transcendent creator God cannot be represented by anything in the world:

“Nichts Geschöpfliches (= Vergängliches) vermag den unsichtbar transzendenten und ewigen Gott […] angemessen zu repräsentieren (Dtn u.a.).“25

Understood this way, the ban of images is strictly spoken pointing to the inadequacy of the medium. All created things aren’t suitable media for carrying the image of God.

(2) Secondly. According to Hartenstein, God is experienced by God’s deeds in the Hebrew Bible, particularly by his saving deeds.26 God is narrated to be visible and present, but always in fleeting and passing ways:27

“Feuer, Finsternis, Wolken und Wolkendunkel sollen gesehen werden, sie zeigen aber eine räumlich entzogene Präsenz, sichtbar und undurchschaubar.“28

There are metaphors, mental images29 and appearances of God’s presence, which make people experience God’s presence. But they never nail God down to a specific image-medium, the dialectical tension between presence and withdrawal30 remains. God is narrated to be present in image-media like a burning bush, but always in a passing way. According to Hartenstein, one problem the image ban draws attention to is the images’ tendency to capture what they depict.31 This is the problem, the story of the golden calf illustrates.32

(3) The other problem Hartenstein points to is, that images could distract, could draw the attention away from the one God.33 We can see this in connection with what he had written about the power of images earlier: images can have the power the “capture” the spectators’ view; they can beguile the spectator.34

Taken together, this leads to an understanding of the image ban that makes it not about God’s invisibility but about God’s beeing concealed and free.35 Following from their, it is also about the human spectator’s freedom, who could easily be banished by the image.36

The interesting thing for us is that Hartenstein’s three points imply a certain connection between specific mediality on the one hand and the dialectics of presence and absence of the God who appears in image-media in a passing way. God makes God present in a passing way in the medium of fire and clouds. The image-medium of the golden calf needs to be destroyed. It’s mediality would nail down God’s presence to one image and distract attention away from the passing one God. Implicitly, the image ban points to the differences in mediality for the dialectic of absence and presence. That’s a trace it seems worth following.

3. Bread, Wine and the Internet

3.1. The Lord’s Supper as media praxis. Or: Christian Life as Augmented Reality

Another basic media practice in the Christian tradition is the Lord's Supper: Bread and wine are media used for the (re)presentation of Jesus Christ in the community of faith “making” present the body of Christ. The Lord's Supper thus is a mean of mediation – a medium – between God and humans.37 Therefore it describes as medium salutis in the tradition. Reflecting the Lord’s Supper from this point of view, raises the question of where and how God and humans encounter each other, as Teresa Berger explains:

“‘Mediation‘ is no newcomer to theology but rather a cornerstone of understanding God’s grace rendered present and efficacious under sacramental signs. This brings me to a second vital signpost, which is reflected in contemporary discussions of theology and new media. Most authors writing at the intersection of theology and new media endeavor to show that God’s self-communication has always been mediated in manifold ways. Divine self-disclosure, in other words, itself is a ‘media event’, and often a multimediated one, for that matter.”38

Thus, according to Gumbrecht, the denominational disputes on the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper can also be read as a media-theoretical debate about the question of the presence and representation of what is depicted, or of their entanglement: While the Catholic Eucharistic model emphasizes the real presence of what is depicted, the Protestant tradition, especially in its Reformed interpretation, geared towards the representation of what is remembered.39

During the last month, there has been a debate about digital celebrations of Lord's Supper – at least in the German context.40 This debate was strongly based on traditional dogmatic descriptions. And it focused on the question of a possible digital mediatization of the celebration of the Lord's Supper – mostly without reflecting on the character of the Lord's Supper as a media practice and medium itself.

In many places the debate follows a binary description of “virtual” and “real”. With Teresa Berger, we would like to contradict this separation of the “digital dualists”: This description overlooks the fact that virtual spaces also form a or many realities.41 We will discuss this question elsewhere in this workshop; therefore I would like to briefly refer to the relationship between virtuality and mediality from the question of mediality and mediatization: We want to distinguish between virtuality in a philosophical understanding and virtuality in a technical understanding. Virtuality in the philosophical understanding literally describes a field of possibilities, an imagined reality that can possibly come into being. When it comes to digital technologies, a virtual reality describes a communication space, a “world of objects that promises to be reality without having to be”.42 In the debates on digital church life, the virtual usually refers to an encounter enabled by technical means – called media. The focus here is on "mediatization" through certain technologies, and therefore on the technical understanding of virtuality.

This dual virtual character also applies to digital worship services and digital celebrations of the Lord’s Supper: Every Christian worshipping community – digital or not – is also a virtual community insofar as it hopes to participate in the community of the body of Christ, the invisible church, the community of saints. We celebrate every service, every Lord's Supper, hoping and believing that we are part of this community. This community is biblically qualified as a community in the spirit, i.e. as a pneumatic community. In this sense, every worship service has a virtual aspect in the philosophical sense of the word: It is a community that is always more than that which can be recognized our senses. According to Deeg, the tension between virtuality and physical reality describes every liturgical performance – as a connection between earthly and heavenly worship.43 As this not only applies to the worship but – following Paul’s understanding of the new life in Christ (en christo) – one could say: Christian life in itself is a form of augmented reality – hoping and believing to live not only in the world we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell, but also at the same time living in a world far beyond our understanding.

If we celebrate church services online, this pneumatic virtual character is accompanied by a certain form of mediation, which means it is mediated by digital technical structures. This technical mediation does not oppose the spiritual community described above: In the New Testament letters we read about the community of the body of Christ, which is realized by blessings, greetings or prayers over distances in the medium of the letter.

3.2. Bread, Wine, Word – and Body. Or: Argueing on mediated media

If one looks at the Lord's Supper as a media practice, the issue at stake can be specified as follows related to the overall question on the bridging function of the media: Whether and how the Lord's Supper can be celebrated digitally, focuses on the relationship between the media used in the Lord's Supper and their digital mediatization. The question then would be: What should be represented in the media – and how can it be mediated digitally? How do bread and wine as key media in the Lord’s Supper, relate to the mediatization of the community, the words of institution or the mediated presence of the liturgist? And last but not least: Which media are suitable for expressing which dimensions of shall be (re)presented? So it is an argument about the possibilities of mediating the media of the Lord's Supper. The interesting question is what exactly are the media and mediations to argue about. In the words of our introduction: What shall be bridged – between God and Humans or Humans on different places and spaces? what should actually be presented, represented or made present – and by which media?

Classically, bread and wine are named the media of God’s presence in the Lord's Supper. It is an incarnate word that leads to a bodily practice of eating and drinking, as Fechtner points out. 44 It is this material, sensual character, that forms its characteristic. Proponents of a digital celebration of the Lord's Supper emphasize that this physical dimension is also part in digital practices: Here, too, the elements are involved, one eats and drinks the material elements.45 Experiencing bread and wine is also a physical occurrence in digital communion, even alone in front of the screen. This concrete bodily devotion in bread and wine offers the decisive surplus to the devotion of God in the word.

Augustine's definition of the sacrament emphasizes this connection between word and element: accedit verbum ad elementum, et fit sacramentum. So, the sacrament is constituted by connecting the word with elements – in media-theoretical terms it is constituted by the plurality and combination of media. Amazingly little has been argued about this connection in the German debate about digital forms of the Lord's Supper. It seems to be of secondary importance whether word and element come together with or without mediatization – the medial communication of the words of institution through digital channels does not prevent word and element from coming together, just as does a hearing aid. It therefore seems unproblematic if a medial mediation takes place between word and element.

Much has been argued about another aspect: The meaning of the bodily presence of the celebrants and their community. Gordon Mikoski put this in a nutshell in 2010 already and describes it as a reversal of the classic debate on the sacrament:

„In the digital age, it may be the case that the classical debates about the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist have been inverted. The question with which we may now have to wrestle is not ‘In what way is the Lord present in the Supper?’ Instead, the question is ‘In what ways are we present in the Supper?’”46

In this turn, the ecclesiological dimension of the Lord's Supper and the community it constitutes comes into focus – and thus, in media theory, the question of the importance of the human body as a medium of community.

Firstly, the relation of virtuality and corpo-reality/embodiment must be taken into account: The virtualization of the community lacking physical co-presence means a virtualization of the body – not only of the individual, but also of the body of Christ in the congregation.47 In contrast, the image of the body of Christ, at least in its New Testament description, is closely connected with the concrete congregation and their corporeal-physical dimension (cf. 1 Cor. 11-12). Spiritual communion is not to be thought of as purely immaterial or virtual, but can be experienced in concrete bodily community: How people eat together, who eats what – for Paul, these are theological questions because in and through them one can see the body of Christ and the new being in Christ. In the New Testament, the body of the individual believer seems to be indissolubly integrated into the image, representation and presence of the body of Christ to be represented. Following Stoellger it can be described as an “event of immersion” (Immersionsgeschehen) that describes the “’transubstantiation of the celebrants’ to the body of Christ”. 48 In a nutshell: The bodies – one’s own and those of the other celebrants – are media of the presence and representation of the body of Christ, which is supposed to be represented.49

Secondly, the physical co-presence has an anthropological component: It touches questions of perception and interpretation, as Gorski points out: It is about “basic anthropological questions of the relationship between immanence and transcendence, i.e. how humans can perceive and interpret divine signs of salvation”. 50 As Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes in “Life Together”: The physical presence of other Christians can be a source of joy and strength, because the nearness of the Other can become a physical sign of God's gracious presence. 51 Conversely, the physical closeness of others can become an imposition to others. The ambivalence of physical closeness is part of this aspect of the bodily co-presence.

It becomes clear how both one's own body and the body of those who celebrate with me become part of the media complex in which and through the Lord's Supper can be understood as media practice. Berger aptly points out, that it is about pondering the spiritual community in relation to the physical and physical gathering of believers.52 Tan goes even further: Is the emphasis on embodied communion an expression of a stronger or weaker ecclesiology – to put it another way: Is the emphasis on physical community an expression of a particularly body-oriented anthropology and ecclesiology or an expression of a lack of trust in the unifying power of God's Spirit?53 We will discuss the question of the relationship between these realities elsewhere in this workshop, so we will leave this question open for now.

4. Proceedings for Understanding Media and Mediality

What follows from these impulses for the understanding of media and mediality? First, the thoughts around images and image ban point to the analogy and difference between different practices of media use. This has an impact for how to discuss digital communion (4.1).

Ssecond: If one describes the media as bridging functions and reflects on the Lord's Supper from this perspective, we see three main points (4.2). Firstly, the virtual dimension is a constitutive element of Christian life as it emerges in the relation of the physical world and the new creation. Technical mediatization processes can be integrated in this relation, but are not constitutive. Second, in the debates on digital church life the body plays in important role as a medium: How corpo-reality can be related to virtual realities is an open question here. Third, the relation between presence and absence, representability and hiddenness, bridging and a remaining gap must be redefined in new media practices – not only from the perspective of image theory and the image ban, but also from the media complex of the Lord's Supper.

4.1 Difference and Analogy

In this paper, we have sofar mentioned and discussed different phenomena of media practices: Telephone calls and Zoom conferences in the introduction, the paintings and sculptures in summary of some of Belting’s thoughts (2.1), the golden calf and burning bushes in the section on the image ban (2.2), the Eucharist with bread and wine and the internet in the chapter on the Lord’s Supper as media praxis (3). The summarized points of Belting, Hartenstein and Moxter on images and images make something important visible about these different media practices. They show the analogy between these practices as well as their difference.

The aforementioned practices are analogous insofar as they all include a material dimension that can be referred to as “medium”. The medium of a painting includes canvas and paint, a burning bush is a material medium, the media of Eucharist are bread and wine and digital communication requires screens, computers, cable and/or WiFi-connection and so an. In all the named practices those material media bridge a distance and make something present that is physically absent. But in doing so, the material media also function as reminders of absence – with different intensity and in different ways, but they all do. Bread and wine can be experienced to make the body of Christ present while they still taste and feel like bread and wine and thereby point to Christ’s temporal absence.

This analogy transcends the mentioned duality of reality and virtuality as well as the duality of embodied and disembodied. Media mediate and transmit mental images – and that holds true for real and material paintings as well as for the digital media – they just do so in different ways. Images are always somehow embodied – and that also applies for digital media: the image a screen or another interface creates in my head is an embodied image.

The aforementioned practices are also different, insofar as they make different use of different material media and lead to a different balance between presence and absence. For example: On the one hand, if someone with little liturgical practice participates in a Lord’s Supper in physical co-presence, her or his focus might be on the materiality of the media, the taste of the wine, the haptics of the bread, the oddness of the setting. Those media might still serve him or her as media of Christ’s presence but the dimension of absence will be quite strong because of the focus on the media themselves. On the other hand, if someone uses the medium of VR-glasses to explore a virtual landscape, the experience of this very landscape might be so real and present that she or he totally forgets about the mediality of his experience and hence about the absence of the reality she or he experiences. The danger of mediated images to capture one’s attention totally by making its own mediality invisibly is quite real here.

On the background of these differences and analogies, the debate about digital communication should not be about the difference between mediated and non-mediated but about different ways of mediation.

In any case, this concept of analogy and difference makes it about conversion between different practices – and less about the mediation of an otherwise less or not mediated reality.

4.2 Conversion and convertibility

If the Lord's Supper is described as a media practice that makes communion with God and with each other (re)present in and through various media, the question of the “convertibility” of this practices in the course of digital media change arises. The German media theorist Jochen Hörisch developed this notion of conversion in his media history: According to Hörisch, leading media share the possibility of “conversion” or convertibility, i.e. the possibility of embedding an information element in other contexts and cultural techniques.54 When media cultures change, the medial representations outshine the presences hoped for: The medial presentation and representation require explanation and become problematic in their use and aims. If the main media change, conversion between media is the only way to preserve the represented: One converts in order not to actually convert, in order not to get stuck in an old, non-portable system.55 Hörisch therefore concludes: “Converts are the real supporters of the systems they want to strengthen through their conversion.”56 A central query from a media-theoretical perspective therefore asks for clarification of the possible conversion and convertability of the media forms chosen.

However, there is a second thing to consider. From the reflections on the Lord's Supper it became clear that the testimony of Jesus Christ, his presence and the community he founds are constituted in plural media: In the relation of word and element, in the relation of body and word, in the relation of body and element, in the relation on Gods spirit and word,... This constitutive media plurality in the mediation and testimony of the singular media event “Christ” 57 is also preserved in the mediatization of these media – maybe even increased. The desire for a direct knowledge or vision of God is thus again rejected, as has already been made clear. The description of changing media therefore means less a change to a new main medium (Leitmedium) than an expansion of the medial forms and practices. The focus thus shifts to the question of the relationship not only between different media, but also different mediatization practices. Or, in the words of Berger: „Or do we have to think of God’s media praxis as the ongoing, multi-mediated, living self-disclosure of a Living God? In which case, might sacramental mediations today be shaped by bits and bytes?”58

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Wolfgang Sigler: There is an essay by Luckmann who differentiates between different forms of absence [Thomas Luckmann, Phänomenologische Überlegungen zu Ritual und Symbol, in: Florian Uhl u.a. (Hg.), Rituale (Düsseldorf 1999) 11-28].Punchline: Sometimes, we have to use symbols for something absent which we cannot re-create as present as a matter of principle. If you give your loved one a rose (classic), that is because you cannot give your love in a physical sense.This would lead to an argument for qualitatively different forms of absence.
Wolfgang Sigler: Only partly academical, but some intriguing ideas can be found in Nordhofen, Corpora (2020). I dislike his underlying ascent narrative from medium to medium. But there are some points raised about Christian mediality worth considering.
Wolfgang Sigler: Yes, exactly. I think that is part of the learning process Paul intended for his communities.
Selina Palm: I am also interested in how power plays out in these God-mediations - for example in South African catholic circles under COVID - male priests ‘right’ to administer the sacrament has been subverted by many women now ‘mediating’ new forms of eucharistic sacrament in ‘virtual’ ways. how can new media forms also disrupt the power of our current God-mediators
Wolfgang Sigler: As well as to the question of clericalism in general: There is no clerical exclusivity to online services (except, presumably, to livestreamed masses).From a traditional Catholic point of view, however, I would suggest that the term “Eucharistic” is generally reserved to the sacramental notion of a celebrated mass.Catholic scholars have to go some way to expand that term, e.g. pointing out that in church history we find eucharistic prayers for the (candle) light in the evening, which are not sacramental in the current sense.
Kate Ott: And, the debates focus on specific forms of technical structures. For example churches often use building structures, microphones, etc to mediate the “church service” and form a “coming together”. That is to say, digital may be one mediation, but it isn’t the only one and many technologies have been used prior.
Kate Ott: Big debate among the UMC as well - https://www.umnews.org/en/news/both-green-light-red-light-for-online-communion-2
Kate Ott: I recognize my comment above about “nailed down” was meant light heartedly. Here, I’m wondering how Hartenstein’s work (which I don’t know) relates to Christian theological claims when all his examples are from the Hebrew scriptures.
Kate Ott: Pun intended? . . . .with the Christian notion use of the cross imagery.
Florian Höhne: Yes: Very much so. Making an image of someone, nailing this someone down to a specific image-medium, can be seen as an act of lovelessness (Frisch, Brecht) — and that is one way to narrate the story of the cross, i think.
Kate Ott: This is a particular interesting concept and may have resonances with the questions Thomas Renkert raises in his paper related to the subaltern content moderation workers.
Thomas Renkert: I believe Zizek makes a similar argument about materialism in “Sex and the Failed Absolute”.
Thomas Renkert: I’d argue that it could unveil other effects of / causes for fascination: the quality of the paint, the craftsmanship of the canvas maker and so on. It could also permanently break the original fascination “hey, this is a print!”At the start of CGI movies there was a debate whether a completely computer-animated movie was worthy of any awards - because: “where is the art in that?” Well, in terms of waste of resources, time, energy consumption (rendering farms) and so on, CGI is perhaps more “art” than most other movies.
Thomas Renkert: If you want to go deeper here, from a technical point of view: there are numerous interesting problems on compilers and emulators.
Thomas Renkert: Very good!
Thomas Renkert: I would be interested in hearing more as to why the “material dimension” is the “medium”, and not, say, the “practices” in themselves. Why are bread and whine more “medium”, mediating, than the practice of regularly meeting one another?
Florian Höhne: This is due to my understanding of practice (Recktwitz) as a “nexus of doings and sayings” (Schatzki) that always entails artefacts (here: medium), bodies and embodied knowledge.
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Thomas Renkert: This is a brillant question and reminds me of Paul’s - also related to material food - problem with the food sacrificed to idols (Götzenopfefleisch) in Corinth.
Thomas Renkert: I would like to add with Foucault, that “body” is not the neutral, raw, or canvas-like category - a blank medium - we want it to be. Bodies are already the manifestations of social expectations, of norms, of convictions. Note that most bodies either too young, too old, too sick, too disabled, too incarcerated, too pregnant, too trans or queer, or too poorly clothed are often absent from the eucharistic “body of Christ”. Which is why I hesitate with charging the eucharist with strong notions of presence and representation.
Thomas Renkert: Isn’t this the question? What does “coming together” mean?
Thomas Renkert: Wunderbar!
Kate Ott: Yep, like I noted above related to microphones and walls.
Thomas Renkert: Nietzsche: “How the true world finally became a fable” 😅. But on a more serious note: is augmented reality really this much in balance between the “real” and “virtual”? What happens if one aspect takes over?
Thomas Renkert: Correct! But also - less spiritually, more practically - there is not a single congregation without members who are incarcerated, sick, frail, dying, with disabilities, pregnant or too busy with child care, too poor to afford “sunday clothes” or dentures, and so on. “The” community never actually “is fully present”. Which is why I believe that the eucharist only gains its status as sacrament with the appointment of the Seven Deacons and their distribution of the leftovers from the meal among those who couldn’t attend.
Thomas Renkert: Could it be that these are mostly and mainly proxy wars obfuscating the question of the “means of salvation” (Heilsmittel)? Is (spiritually infused) material presence salutologically more salient than memory?
Thomas Renkert: I don’t know whether this (whishful?) thinking is more neo-platonic or reformed. What about the argument that YHWH needed to be de-localized and im-materialized in order to become God not only for the tribe of Judah but for the whole of Israel? I tend to put more trust in political strategy…
Thomas Renkert: What about the temple? Or the Zion-Garizim debate? What about the torah (as a “multistable” medium: a medium-independent text, and a revered scroll used in the rituals of service)?
Florian Höhne: But in all that, God is told be sharing in a story, the God of Abraham, the God who lead out of Egypt’s land, the God who promises. All the named media entangle presence and withdrawal in a way in which God remains free.
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Thomas Renkert: I’ve come to be very sceptical of the noun form here: “the depicted”. It implies that in a physical meeting you somehow get “the whole person”. I would argue against this that a zoom call with 5 people who all are in their pajamas, where everybody can see the mess on their desk, their pets and kids crying in the background, is a much more “holistic” (and wholesome?) image of a person than the image they re/present when meeting them in an office in business attire.
Thomas Renkert: To make a different point: are love letters just manifestations of absence? Why would somebody long for a love letter from the person they see every day? We can go forward along the timeline of technological progress here: What is happening in romantic phone calls? Or why do people sext or send each other “nudes”? My point is this: depending on medium and mediality, the concept of channels is important. Depending on the set of channels availabe, different forms of presence are being negotiated - and a medium gains its appeal from the absence of (all) other functions/channels. The problem with zoom calls during a pandemic is, perhaps, not really that of absence/presence, but of us being fed a mono diet of channel combinations.
Thomas Renkert: Goes along nicely to my take on Derrida, Butler/Sontag.
Florian Höhne: Yes, it does!!!
Michael Hemenway: Lev Manovich makes a similar argument in his work on new media objects. I would love to talk more about the relative usefulness of conversion language in contrast to translation language.
Michael Hemenway: Love this and totally agree here, but I still feel like we have an operative hierarchy working where the so called “physical” embodiment is the norm or goal or something like that. How can we disrupt this?
Michael Hemenway: Is this danger a reference to a kind of alienation or a reference back to the image ban discussion?
Kate Ott: Good question.
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Michael Hemenway: Hmm. I wonder if translating embodiments might be a way to think of this mediatization/mediation rather than presencing a physical absence?
Michael Hemenway: Here, we are imaging the philosophical notion of virtual?
Michael Hemenway: What happens if we include in these bodies the “things” involved beyond human bodies?
Michael Hemenway: We need to be careful here, no? The virtual is not immaterial in any sense. I wonder if your earlier points about the ways early Christians thought about the material words of scripture (spoken and written) might provide a kind of physical co-presence across vast times and spaces?
Kate Ott: +1
Michael Hemenway: And are there encounters not enabled by technical means? In what cases are technical materialities not a part of this sacrament?
Thomas Renkert: Thank you! This is a diaconal question: the wheelchair ramp in front of the church is a technical mean enabling encounter. The difference is that during the pandemic, the abled majority experienced their own need for assistance - and the loss of autonomy that comes with it.
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Michael Hemenway: It is interesting to me that technological notions of virtual often get framed in terms of vision/sight, see the often used continuum from Milgram and Kishino - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231514051_A_Taxonomy_of_Mixed_Reality_Visual_Displays . This discussion about the Eucharist reminds me that there is a constant tension here between materialities and perception/encounter.
Michael Hemenway: This makes me wonder what the differences are between medium and interface?
Thomas Renkert: medium, interface, and: mediator/proxy/representative/surrogate (the German “Stellvertreter” captures this better).
Michael Hemenway: I am so curious about this notion of withdrawal. Is this withdrawal enacted as a combination of the design or affordances of the material medium and the dispositioned gaze of the “user?” Also, is there a dynamic going on here regarding the tension between the parts and the whole? With the image being something like a constructed narrative of the whole?
Hanna Reichel: Is it, though? One of the central points of most sacramentologies seems to be that there is in fact ONLY ONE original medium of salvation - namely Jesus Christ, and that what we consider sacraments only are insofar they participate in this original medium?
Hanna Reichel: I want to hear more about the conncetion you (or Hoerisch) are making here between “conversion” between different media and a religious understanding of conversion. On the face of things, these don’t easily seem to map onto each other quite well (e.g. media conversion operates on the assumption that content can be translated more or less (!) without loss back and forth (!) between different media. Religious conversion comes with a once-and-for all narrative, an existential conversion moment, a change of life, and is loaded with salvific pathos). Maybe a connection can be drawn out that is more than a play on words, and it might be quite an exciting and generative one, but I am just not yet sure what it consists in
Hanna Reichel: Surely, e.g., the intention is not to compare different media with different denominations, and any given content/subject can only participate in one of them at a time?
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Hanna Reichel: I am curious
Frederike van Oorschot: Me too :)
Hanna Reichel: You seem to switch here from a focus on the media/lity earlier, to media PRACTICES now. I want to hear more about that switch, and about what you mean by practices.
Frederike van Oorschot: This links with your interest in describing media as efficacious - I am looking forward to discuss this point!
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Hanna Reichel: Do Orthodox (in the denominational sense, not in the policing sense) theologies have more resources on this point? Where the whole liturgy is not understood in terms of making God present among us, but as making us present in heaven before God, drawing us as participants into the eternal liturgy of the angels?
Hanna Reichel: this is so interesting!
Michael Hemenway: +1
Hanna Reichel: Is it intentional that you pluralized Augustine’s term here? Your next conclusion seems to rely on this plurality, but I am not sure I follow where it comes from in terms of its Augustinian origin
Frederike van Oorschot: The plural is my reinterpretation - insofar I try to combine the understanding of the element with the media-theorical approach.
Hanna Reichel: “re-mediation”: a particularly curious mode of representing absent presences which represent present absences?
Frederike van Oorschot: yes!
Hanna Reichel: Since we are discussing sacramentality, I am interested in the precise meaning of this “is”. Is it literal? Metaphorical? In what sense precisely?
Frederike van Oorschot: I follow Paul’s undertsnading of being the Body of Christ. As far as I understood, this is not a mtephorical being, but an eschatological being performed literally in the life of christians. I would therefore suggest this kind of “eschatological being” - but if this really answers your question in the categories of sacramental theology/ontology?
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Hanna Reichel: And the reality of the Lord’s supper is marked by a plethora of different absences! Cf. Renkert 2020 (unpublished)
Frederike van Oorschot: I would love to read this, Thomas!
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Hanna Reichel: yes!
Hanna Reichel: Very helpful distinction.
Kate Ott: agreed.
Hanna Reichel: The denominational heuristic can tell us much more that it is indeed more complex a matter than absence/presence or even their dialectic. Romans, Lutherans and Calvinistis maintain the real presence of Christ in the eucharist - but WHAT real presence means, what the real thing is that becomes present, how it affects materiality, how permanent its effects are, how it is related to the matter that re-presents it, are conceptualized differently between them.
Hanna Reichel: I am interested in this qualification. So far, you seem to have focussed on absence and presence in mediality, but what role does the question of EFFICACY play for the perception of either?
Frederike van Oorschot: Thanks for this point. I also like it, especially because most discussion on the sacraments don’t think from this angle of the “recipient” and whether and how the mediation is efficacious. But it is a main point in media theory. I see a large interest on this point in the debates on digital communion in Germany at the moment: Whether and how digital forms of workship and/or communion are “efficacious” raises the interesting questions, what “effects” one looks for. For me, this relates to your question above regarding the ability of imaging god in different media.
Hanna Reichel: so are some media more (or at least, some less) able to image the absent God?You referred to a certain denominational distinction (“unlutheran” image ban) earlier, might these observations here also be worth spelling out in terms of denominational debates about God’s omnipresence vs. lack thereof?
Michael Hemenway: Here it seems we might be able to talk about a particular media's affordance for proximity (approach or encounter with an irreducible distance or separateness)?
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Hanna Reichel: “withdrawal”: a specific, intentional mode of absence? absenting? being-present-as-absent?
Hanna Reichel: What about the human being created in the image of God? About Christ as the image of God? How should these be mediated (pun intended) with the ban of images?
Kate Ott: +1
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Hanna Reichel: How is the semantic connection of “representing”/”presenting”'/constituting “presence” at play here??
Thomas Renkert: +1
Hanna Reichel: I’d be curious to connect the discussion of the absence/presence “dialectic” with Clifford’s work on deep fakes, too. Because arguably, “deep fakes” also make something present that is absent, but absent in a very different way than the “remoteness” of the zoom feed filmed off an actual person in front of their screen, for example.
Frederike van Oorschot: yes!
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Hanna Reichel: glitches and freezes?
Hanna Reichel: Why not? What are the concrete differences?
Thomas Renkert: If the difference is merely an affective one: I believe that standing in front of a statue or watching a video of the first moon landing cannot be affectively distinguished from each other.
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Hanna Reichel: I’d be really curious to read this sentence through theological assessments of media/lity. I.e., does this apply to Christ as well? To sacraments? -> that would be one hell of a move to discredit all life-of-Jesus movements, for example
Hanna Reichel: I am very curious about this dialectic, and also a bit skeptical whether a dialectic will be enough or more deconstruction of the binary is needed (Shocking, I know). Beyond absence and presence, and a dialectical relationship between the two, aren’t there very different kinds of presence and very different kinds of absence, and complications that preclude always drawing an easy line between them? Cf. Creamer/Hemenway 2021 ;)
Frederike van Oorschot: I would love to think about the deconstructing forces more - maybe related to thinking about different ways and forms of proximity and their “formation”
Hanna Reichel: that’s ok, there is salvation beyond lutheranism! ;)
Frederike van Oorschot: Sure? ;)
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Hanna Reichel: yes!
Hanna Reichel: Is this a kind of sacramentality of media, then?
Frederike van Oorschot: Actually, I am not quite sure at the moment. I stress this point in my thoughts in part 3, but the longer I think about it, the more I question the traditional understanding of sacramentality I work with. So this is acutually a open question for me - regarding my understanding of sacramentality as well as my understanding of mediality…
Hanna Reichel: With Michael and Debbie, I find the identification of the “person” with “shared physical/temporal presence” deeply misleading
Hanna Reichel: We are still meeting in person, we are just not in close physical proximity
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Michael Hemenway: So, does this basically suggest that the materiality of the medium affords the embodied image (perception) construction in the viewer/user? Or am i being too binary here?
Florian Höhne: Definitely not too binary: i’d be interested to discuss your concept of “afford” more before i agree. “Afford” sounds a little one-way in my ear, as in your example: the chair affords sitting. I would want to stress interrelatedness, also when it comes to medium, body and images. Meaning: If “sitting” also affords the chair, i would use “afford” here to. The image affords the medium, and the body affords the image as the image forms the body. With interrelatedness in “practices” i mean, practically spoken: no chair without sitting, but also: no sitting without chairs. Does that make sense?
Michael Hemenway: I love that you will be exploring the relationship between presence and withdrawal! Seems these two always come hand in hand, yes?
Frederike van Oorschot: Absolutely!
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Michael Hemenway: What about this binary, present/absent? You nicely call this a dialectic below with respect to the Eucharist. Does dialectic offer us something more dynamic than the typical binary? Perhaps proximity of interface :).
Hanna Reichel: yes! Also, maybe the “bridging” has more to do with establishing “co-presence” rather than merely presence. Both parties (or however many parties are involved) are and were indeed present before being technologically mediated, what “media-technology” does may just be to establish “synchronicity” (if, as Michael and Debbie so helpfully ask, that is indeed the best category) or co-presence. (Notice also how temporalities are being shaped in the process)
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Michael Hemenway: I also wonder if technology as a bridge is unique to digital connectivity between people? Are there “technologies” even media at work when we are in room together? E.g. language, cultural norms, a etc.
Michael Hemenway: Are there important distinctions between media, technology, and media-technology that matter (ha!) for our discussion of digital bridges?
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