Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Driving a lovely, simple melody right into the ground....

To the great bloggy interweb morass of "Oh, whatever...," add this: I went to a wedding this weekend.

I don't bring it up to trumpet who got married, or how, or that I have friends and/or family who still care enough about me to invite me to leave the confines of the casa in something other than blue jeans, but to raise a point made by Kierkegaard:

"What rules the world," Kierkegaard writes, "is... the fear of humanity. Therefore this fear of being an individual and this proneness to hide under one abstraction or another.... Ultimately an abstraction is related to fantasy, and fantasy becomes an enormous power... [T]he human race became afraid of itself, fosters the fantastic, and then trembles before it."
Although my starting point is actually here:

The great discoveries to which Kierkegaard is referring are made possible by the use of technology, and part of his concern is that the use of technology often results in human beings having "destitute" relations to one another.
Consider the modern wedding: it is entirely a creature of technology, and of the reality mediated to us by technology. The modern "wedding party," with its near army of bridesmaids and groomsmen (this wedding had both a maid and matron of honor, and fix other attendants on either side, aside from the obligatory "best man") is modeled on a royal wedding in the early 20th century. Every young girl, American consumer culture tells us, wants to be the "princess" of her wedding fantasy. Contrary to popular belief, this practice does not extend back into the mists of time. My parents were married in my aunt's living room, and this (despite the fact both grew up in Christian churches), was the norm, not the exception. Even in medieval Europe the public ceremony of the wedding was performed on the church steps, and involved the landed gentry exchanging deeds publicly (so everyone would know who owned what now). The religious portion of the ceremony was conducted privately, with the priest and any necessary witnesses.

But I digress. Weddings now are almost entirely mediated by technology. We expect a fabulous white dress that is very expensive (several thousand dollars for the dress alone seems to be the norm, at least according to reality TV shows. No, that doesn't mean it's the "average," but according to the technology bringing it to our living rooms, it's normative). The "event" is meant to be as splendid and memorable as a royal wedding, with all eyes on the bride and the whole world stopping to take note. Or at least as much of the world as the bride and groom can invite and get inside the church. And to this end, large spaces are usually preferred (or imagined). The intimate wedding, the private wedding, even the wedding in a setting other than an ornate church, is all but banished (yes, it still occurs; but no one sells weddings as events in a pasture or on a beach, unless the beach is at a very expensive hotel or resort). We even expect a certain set of words and order of vows, modeled not on our experience, but on the representations of weddings that have turned the Anglican form of the service into a cliche. Again, it is technology that has made us think this must be so.

Also, the wedding must be recorded, for posterity. Hundreds of photographs must be snapped. The entire wedding party must be held hostage immediately after the ceremony, not for tedious paperwork like signing the license, but for the purpose of posing every member of the party with the bride, groom, in groups, with all manner of parents and family members, until the entire affair begins to resemble a photo shoot for a clothing line catalog. And it must be done so technology can mediate our memories and preserve them for us.

In 35 years of marriage, I've looked at our wedding album probably 3 times. I'm glad we have it, but as a pastor and survivor of some wedding wars, what I remember most are the battles with the photographers, both to keep them from snapping photos during the ceremony, and the tedium of waiting for them to finish taking photographs after the ceremony before we can all go to the reception. Technology makes demands on us we all acquiesce to, whether we quite think about why, or not.

This wedding was no different. Technology, in fact, mediated the very sound of the voices. It was a cavernous brick structure, striking and beautiful, but the only soft surfaces were the people in the pews or on the chancel. The amplified voices of the singer and the pastor blasted out of the speakers and bounced and echoed off the hard walls. It was audible, but not entirely discernible, and yet without the technology we all expect now in public places, people would have complained. We sit passively before the onslaught of our technology, convinced that its slavery is to our benefit, its function is only to improve our experience. It's an odd quirk of our modern world, but one Kierkegaard was diagnosing over 150 years ago, long before it had gotten this bad or become this ubiquitous.

The wedding, like all modern and "big" weddings, was an event, a spectacle, something meant to be seen and heard, but the expectations of it were built by television, not by personal experience. We were meant to be an audience to the splendor, because that is what our technology has taught us to expect from special occasions. I once performed a wedding where I persuaded the bride and groom to serve the eucharist and make it a truly religious ceremony, rather than a secular one with the patina of religion applied to is (I've done a few of those in my time, where I was clearly the hired hand meant to say the words, not the pastor joining two souls in the eyes of God). The attendants (guests? invitees? family and friends?) were non-plussed by this. Having no idea how to react to the bride and groom passing out the plates (it was a very Protestant eucharist; even if we had had a kneeling rail available, no one would have gotten up to come to it), most of them sat politely on their hands and looked uncomfortable. The bride and groom enjoyed it, and appreciated how special it made the ceremony for them.

My best approach in weddings was to tell the couple on the night of the rehearsal that no matter what happened the next day, they would be married at the end of it; that it was a celebration, not a performance. This always visibly relaxed people who too clearly thought of the entire matter as something that must be pleasing to someone besides the two of them, or it would mar their happiness forever (or bring down the wrath and displeasure of some family members). When I say our weddings are now mediated through technology, and we think of them as spectacles to be viewed, rather than celebrations to enjoy, this is what I mean. Why is it our receptions are where we have fun, but the marriage ceremony is where we are supposed to be staid, rigid, and almost entirely impersonal? Where did we get the idea we get married in order to be the center of the world's attention, rather than to happily pledge publicly to our friends and family our love and commitment to another?

"Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction 'the public', consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organisation.... The real moment in time and the real situation being simultaneous with real people... that is what helps to sustain the individual. But the existence of a public produces neither a situation nor simultaneity." [Kierkegaard (1962b), pp.60-1]

The problem is the problem of abstraction. We draw out from the world an image of weddings, and put it on screen: first from royal weddings (the official imprimatur from which all social structure flows. Most of manners and courtesy are faint echoes of obligations and orders followed by royalty and those most closely associated with royalty, and it trickles down through the "lower orders" as each tries, in its own way, to mimic those in the strata above). What is drawn out from that association is put on screen: in movies, soap operas, sitcoms; and it reinforces expectations of being the star of our own movie, except this time in real life. And so we abstract ourselves from our own lives, try to "rise above" our "mundane" existence by taking on the imaginary trappings of being the camera's focus of attention (the camera which ever and always focuses our attention). But the characters in movies or on TV are "unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organisation," and what we draw from their example "produces neither a situation nor simultaneity." It produces an abstract idea that we try to live into, a castle in the air where we try to take up residence, if only for a moment. And it is not, ultimately, disastrous and destructive. But it is, finally, a little pointless; and a little sad.

Every wedding I attend or hear about prompts discussions of the expense involved, and stories of fathers offering the bride and groom a home in lieu of an expensive wedding, because it's a better investment. My wedding was a simple affair by contemporary standards, and I was anxious enough about such an important event that I remember little about it, and I'm glad it wasn't more elaborate than it was. Weddings are a cause for celebration, but they've become a cause for self-aggrandizement, which seems to be another kettle of fish altogether. How many people, a few years later, remember all the minor details of their wedding at all, and yet some are conducted by wedding planners and carried off as if they were military strikes. Does it make your marriage stronger, happier, more loving? Even wedding photos are a cheat; they aid memory, but they remind you, too, of what has been lost, what will never come again. Technology can save things for us, but it can also remove things from us. Photos are flat; static; and dead. "The real moment in time and the real situation [is] simultaneous with real people...." Photographs do not capture that moment and hold it; at best, they remind us that moment is gone forever. It isn't that photographs are bad, or even good: but they are technology, and again they mediate our memories, our experiences. And there is a cost in that.

Not a cost that makes photographs evil, but a cost that makes photographs an example. Who is that person? You may well forget, and someday soon the photos will be in the hands of family to whom that person is a stranger (I have such a photo on my desk, right now. What is preserved is an image. Who is the person who made that image, is lost.)

I really didn't intend to make this a screed about marriage and weddings, except as a more concrete example of the concept Kierkegaard is getting at. I have certainly encountered couples and families for whom the fantasy of a wedding had gained tremendous power, and they trembled before it. It's not that weddings are inherently bad, but we have, and within my lifetime, made them into something massive and complicated and daunting. One of the first weddings I remember attending was my cousin's, held in the groom's backyard. I played the piano for them, the family upright wheeled onto the patio. This weekend I attended a rehearsal dinner, not because I was in the wedding party or had anything to do with the wedding, but because I'm a family member (by marriage) who lives in town. Rehearsal dinners have now become the groom's counterpoint to the wedding reception, only with slightly fewer people. It's a mad kind of escalation that is nothing more than a propitiation of an fantasy which has come to scare us to death lest we do it wrong. It is a public event meant, not for friends and family, but some anonymous public and some observing humanity which we fear will be disappointed, or at least some future in which we will look back and shake our heads sadly that we didn't get it "right" when we had the chance, as if it were the ceremony, and not the marriage itself, which was most important. The problem of the abstraction is that it is the ceremony itself which is most important, even though we couldn't say why. Perhaps we fear being individual, and we create the abstraction to hide under. Perhaps its just that we prefer to replace the fact of living with fantasies mediated to us by our technology, the slave which is our true master.

That seems a little large to hang on something as small as a wedding, doesn't it? But a wedding ceremony is the ultimate public ceremony of relationship, and yet it is mediated into a fantasy through technologies both indirect (television, the "media" of print and advertising and movies) and direct (the technologies that make the modern wedding possible, and often the more elaborately the better). Technologies which replace, for us and through us, as much human connection as we can get away with avoiding.

On the other hand, a wedding is one social function that can never be mediated on the internet. And what can be run through this system of disconnected connection is the subject that concerns Messrs. Prosser and Ward. But to follow their argument, we have to shift gears a moment, and give ear to the rhetoric of Aristotle.

And why Aristotle? Because Kiekegaard's argument, as developed by Messrs. Prosser and Ward, starts with Aristotle's ethos, then jumps to the importance of the kairos, before pointing out technology eliminates pathos, and the result of all these affect, fundamentally (although it seems logically it shouldn't) the logos.

It's really kind of interesting, if you follow it out.

Consider, for example, the feelings of helplessness, disconnection, futility, powerlessness, expressed on any political blog, where the complaints about any one politician are often quite personal, but the attitude toward the voting public is quite abstract and conditional. It's often blamed on the media, but maybe the media is a mirror, not a creator:

"Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction 'the public', consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organisation.... The real moment in time and the real situation being simultaneous with real people... that is what helps to sustain the individual. But the existence of a public produces neither a situation nor simultaneity." [Kierkegaard (1962b), pp.60-1]
Why are the people always so stupid, so slow, so ignorant, such sheeple? Perhaps because they don't even exist, except as a concept with no real referent, a symbol with no real object. Rather like a bride and groom, if you think about it, who become mere participants in a ceremony that isn't about them, but about the appearance they make on the stage of their own lives. I've honestly seen more anxiety in weddings about the performance of the task than about the commitment being made, which can make you wonder: what has gathered us here?

... in our age what is an author? An author is often only an x, even when his name is signed, something quite impersonal, which addresses itself abstractly, by the aid of printing, to thousands and thousands, while remaining itself unseen and unknown, living a life as hidden, as anonymous, as it is possible for a life to be, in order, presumably, not to reveal the too obvious and striking contradiction between the prodigious means of communication employed and the fact that the author is only a single individual - perhaps also for fear of the control which in practical life must always be exercised over everyone who wishes to teach others, to see whether his personal existence comports with his communication....
This, of course, is the first desire of authorship: to put your name on thousands of objects. But your existence doesn't comport with the form of communication, and you address yourself only abstractly to an audience equally as abstract as the "author" is. I've seen this, too. Never work in a bookstore if you have illusions of putting your words onto printed pages bound between hard covers. Books are anonymous, the real person behind them not even an abstraction, but a cipher. If you are "known," the crowds flock to hear you; but, of course, they come to hear the author of the work, who may not be you at all. If you are "unknown," your name on the cover is meaningless, your words silent and stifled, and the customers in the store simply look around the anonymous person sitting alone at the table with a stack of books they are not interested in. Such is the power of communication. And how many books move onto the shelves, only to move off again, unnoticed, unseen, unattractive? There is a striking difference between the prodigious means of communication employed and the fact that the author is only a single individual, especially if that author stays a single individual.

Which brings us, finally, to Aristotle. The first order of business for Aristotle's concept of rhetoric is to establish the ethos of the speaker. It's always struck me as the most ironic of the elements, because it is a logical fallacy to attack the messenger in order to critique the message. But Aristotle (the father of logic) is right: the character of the speaker affects the reception of the words. If rhetoric is about effective speech, then the character of the speaker determines whether or not the audience listens. And if the speaker has no character, is simply, by dint of technology ("the prodigious means of communication"), a voice or a set of words, then there is, first and foremost, nothing to listen to. And afterwards, when the speaker is a character, she is a public figure, a person who may not be the one constructed from those words, but who still has to live up (or down) to them, someone preferably anonymous enough not to upset the audience which is a market for all those words, valued by all the persons, from the writer's agent to the bookseller, who make money off of them.

After ethos comes logos, but first for Kierkegaard's purposes there is the issue of pathos, of, almost, sympathy. The speaker must connect with the audience, must, in Bill Clinton's signature phrase, "feel their pain." The audience must, at least, empathize. That moment comes in even the most "perfect" wedding when the bride and groom kiss; it is the first thing that must be sincere, that cannot be staged although it is hotly anticipated; it cannot be false, although it may be uncomfortable and even awkward. It is the sign of common humanity, sometimes the only one allowed (or expected) in the entire ceremony.

Tied to all of this, now, and tied up so tightly I can't bring myself to raise it in a separate post, is my strong feeling that Mitt Romney marked "Paid" to the Tea Party last night in New Hampshire, and that little uprising that was supposed to change the world is as dead as yesterday's headlines. It's tied up with this discussion because I watched "Network" last night and realized that 1976 wasn't all that different from 2012, and while Howard Beale's popular show as the mad prophet of the airwaves presaged the entire Fox News network (watch the movie again and tell me I'm wrong), the kairos of the story could as easily have been today as 35 years ago.

Did you know there was a depression in 1976? According to Beale's famous raging speech, where he comes in out of the rain to tell America to shout "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!", there was. Times were bad, and Beale, according to Faye Dunaway's character, was tapping into the rage Americans felt. Starting to sound familiar? Starting to think we've seen this movie, and it was just a few years ago? Except Beale's rage and rantings lead nowhere beyond improved ratings which finally fall off and give the movie its tragicomic ending. And yes, the comparison has been made before between the on-air rant on CNBC and the start of the "Tea Party," but it supposedly went somewhere; all that rage supposedly changed government in 2010, and OWS was supposed to be the counterpoint in 2012. Except all that's left of the Tea Party now are the US Representatives who will soon be swept from office or made irrelevant, next November. Scott Brown, Senator from Massachusetts, once a Tea Party darling, is running as fast as he can to catch up to Elizabeth Warren, going so far as to endorse President Obama for making his recent, and controversial, recess appointment. Sen. Brown knows which way the wind is blowing, and it's not in the direction of the Tea Party. And while the GOP toyed with the possibility of every radical candidate the party could provide, when it comes to voting for them, the party can't quite seem to gin up enough rage to do that. So the rage Howard Beale tapped into, and the rage the Tea Party tapped into, has run out; the party's over, the ratings are flat, it's time to call in the terrorists for a spectacular on-camera assassination.

What does this have to do with Kierkegaard? Howard Beale and the Tea Party were entirely a construct of television. They lived and died according to the popular perception of them, a perception shaped by abstraction and a complete lack of authenticity. Both were completely composed phenomena based on a perception of "the public" that was itself as false and incomplete as the response supposedly generated by it. Howard Beale's rage was supposed to be clarifying and salvific; in the end, it was simply marketing, and marketing campaigns make nothing happen except to sell people something the already want to buy, and when they no longer want to buy it, the campaign is done. All marketing is based on the same abstraction Kierkegaard criticized: mass appeal to a mass that only exists insofar as it is running from being an individual, a flight which creates destitute relationships (the only person in "Network" who seems even faintly to understand this is Howard's friend, and he is powerless to do anything about it. Everyone else around Howard merrily guides him to his demise, unable as they are to see a human being before them; and, of course, Howard has abandoned his individuality in favor of his madness and his visions, which he mistakes for authenticity, just as he mistakes television for a communications medium.). Television, you see, is not a communications medium. It does not deliver to us a better sense of the world, or even a worse sense of it; a true sense or a false one. It is a megaphone, or a mirror, but it is a neutral object; it is the result of modern society, not the cause of it:

"Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction 'the public', consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organisation.... The real moment in time and the real situation being simultaneous with real people... that is what helps to sustain the individual. But the existence of a public produces neither a situation nor simultaneity."
I repeat that because now it should take on a clearer meaning. "Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give live to concrete realities...." In "Network" the "sense of association" exists only between Howard Beale and his best friend, and then it runs only one way, as Howard has suffered so many losses before the story begins that he's lost his sense of association, too. The medium is not the cause, it is only the medium. We don't expect miracles and fairy tales from weddings because of television, we expect them because we've lost the sense of association, and even attending a real-life event like a wedding doesn't restore it for us. To the extent we've learned to associate real-life with a TV screen we may even be disappointed with real life, which doesn't afford us the monocular view of the TV camera, but places us in a setting where several things are going on at once. We live less in real situations simultaneous with real people, but among a "public" which feels rage and shouts out of windows on command, or which rises up to "throw the bums out!", then settles back to let TV tell us what we just did, or didn't do, and we expect something, somewhere, to save us from ourselves. So if we can just control the media, or a cable channel, or a political party, or a Super Pac, or get people to read the right book, or think the right thoughts, then "the public" will finally see things as we do, and do things as we would, and we can settle back to our comfortable existence, and perhaps they will at last leave us alone in our living rooms and let us have our toasters and our TV's and our steel-belted radials, and we finally won't have to say anything. Or we can get impotently mad as hell, and shout that we aren't gonna take it anymore!

And then just settle back and take it some more.

That kairos, you see, is supposed to be the situation the speaker addresses, with logos and pathos. Howard Beale is short on logos, but he's long on pathos and ethos. He is first mad because he's so confessional about his woes; he starts his downward spiral by confessing he's going to commit suicide on the air, because he's lost his wife and his job and his reason to live. He starts his "mad as hell" speech by saying he was awakened in the night with a vision about how he was supposed to use TV to propagandize his audience. He lays his ethos before his audience, makes it the basis of his rhetoric, and his pathos is his earnestness. But it is a destitute relationship, an incomplete connection, and he dies a freak, a clownish figure presaging both Fox News and the confessional TV shows which still fill the morning airwaves (go to any waiting room where there's a TV and try to avoid those shows). And what has Fox News or those morning shows made happen? Nothing that wasn't already going to happen, that isn't already a spent force. By the same token Americans poured their hopes and wishes into the vessel of Barack Obama; and by the same token, they were mightily disappointed. We may not want to take it anymore, but what choice do we have? We live by the public; we die by the public. Blessed be the name of the public.

Rhetoric is supposed to be effective speech, but how much effectiveness can it really have in an age of dissociation? Aristotle put ethos first in his list of rhetorical requirements, and Kierkegaard criticized the age (which has not fundamentally changed since he wrote) as one "which reckons as wisdom that which is truly the mystery of unrighteousness, viz. that one need not inquire about the communicator, but only about the communication, the objective only". An age, in other words, in which ethos doesn't matter; or can't, really, because we cannot know the character of the speaker "when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities." In a land of abstractions, of "the public" and "politicians" and "the government" or "the church," what is real? Where does logos attach, except to abstractions, and of what value are those? But it is the abstraction which has become the most valuable. What can we discuss on the internets, what relationships can we maintain, if we cannot discuss abstractions like the state of the Church, or of our politics, or of our public figures?

Put that way, the questions are still to abstract to be anything but absurd, and Kierkegaard's sound point is lost again. His critique is not, ultimately, with "the public" or even "the Press," nor finally, with technology: it is with us. "How should we then live?", was Tolstoy's great question coming out of the changes technology wrought on society in the 19th century. Kierkegaard's equally profound question was: "How should we then be human?" It is a question that takes a great deal of attention to society to answer, but the answer is not ultimately in society, nor in critiques of society, as correcting society will not solve the problem.


  1. These days, I rarely attend weddings, because the spectacle aspect has gone out of control. I've seen far too many families or couples of moderate means spend many thousands of dollars on a one-day show that is just barely, if at all, a religious ceremony even if the wedding is in church. Couldn't the money be better spent on, you know, the couple starting their lives together?

    Only if I am a close relative or close friend of the couple who is marrying, or their parents, and if the family will be offended if I'm not present, do I go.

    As for the clergy's part in the ceremony, I believe they should cease being agents of the civil authorities and get out of the marriage business. After the civil ceremony has taken place in the presence of a justice of the peace or other delegated civil agent, if the couple wishes to have a blessing ceremony, then that can be done in a church with clergy presiding.

  2. Yeah, pretty much how I feel about it. My favorite memory of conducting a wedding was the one where the couple shared the eucharist with a non-plussed set of friends and family.

    Some of my worst memories of parish life are the mothers of the bride from hell.

  3. Anonymous6:35 AM

    I'm convinced that a percentage of the opposition to gay marriage were from people who were aghast at the prospect of having more weddings to go to.

    Anthony McCarthy

  4. Anthony, you may be right. And don't get me started on wedding gift registries.

  5. And don't get me started on wedding gift registries.

    Me, either.