Sunday, 22 February 2015

Lonergan and Media History: Dialectics

Okay. So a couple weeks back I wrote what was supposed to be the first of a two part discussion of media history as situated within a Lonerganian context. I suggested there that discussions of media culture within New Testament studies have tended to cluster within two of the four functional specialties most relevant to biblical studies proper, namely interpretation and dialectic. That first post dealt with interpretation, concluding that in point of fact media history yielded little to the work of this functional specialty. I never got around to writing that second because, infuriated by recent attacks on Muslim persons (because, you know, I have something resembling empathy and compassion), I felt that blogging on media history seemed a little trivial. In this post I return to the matter, addressing media history within the work of dialectic.

The single most extensive engagement with Lonergan’s notion of the dialectic comes from Robert Doran, most notably in his magisterial work, Theology and the Dialectics of History. This work however was published in 1990, by which time Lonergan had passed on and Meyer was ill sick with his ultimately terminal illness; as such in their respective corpuses neither Lonergan nor Meyer engages with THD. This is unfortunate, as the book is a treasure trove of insight that greatly advances the Lonerganian tradition. What follows in this blog constitutes my effort at a Lonerganian dialectical engagement with media history, enriched by the work of Robert Doran.

Lonergan approaches dialectic by what we might broadly define as a systems approach. In the system there are basically two poles. One of these, the integrator, is the principle of limitation, i.e. that which ensures that the system remains a system, with an integrity (hence, integrator) that allows it to continue. The operator is the principle of transcendence, i.e. that which allow the system to move towards a higher level of integration. The operator typically results from some sort of deficiency in the integrator, such that the movement towards a higher level of integration is internal to the system itself. Note that there is also what we might call a negative dialectic, one that causes breakdown in systems, such that movement is towards a lower level of integration; this comes about when there is bias towards either pole. I will not deal with that here, other than to note that of course Lonergan is well aware that it is not the case that every day, in every way, things are getting better.

One of Doran’s great achievements is to more fully explicate what is merely suggestive in Lonergan’s work, namely that what the latter describes as the scale of values needs to be considered dialectically. More specifically Lonergan identifies five values—vital, social, cultural, personal, and religious—in this scale, and Doran focuses upon the dialectical reality of social, cultural, and personal values. I will not spend time here enumerating the integrator and operator of each of these. This is where we can begin to think profitably about media history in dialectical terms. Each of these values require media to function, and more to the point so do the integrator and operator within each one. A society, culture, or person incapable of communication within itself or her or his self would be capable of neither integration nor of operations that facilitate movement towards higher levels of integration.

Let us use an example, one drawn from our contemporary world. For social integration we rely greatly upon paperwork. Our cultural integration relies upon providing warrant for the significance of such paperwork, such that it is seen as just the way that things are. No doubt our historic emphasis upon sacred texts developed in part out of a need to provide precisely such warrant. Our personal integration is the means by which we learn to exist within our particular culture. Yet in a fully globalized world such reliance upon physical papers becomes tedious in a variety of ways. Thus we have developed ways to transmit the information contained within our paperwork instantaneously. The need for such instantaneous transmission, or more precisely the solutions found to meet that need, is, in Lonerganian terms, a social operator; yet it requires a cultural operator that is capable of adjusting our cultural values to the reality of an electronic, post-paper age, and in turn personal operators capable of adjusting our personal values so that we can function within this transformed cultural reality.

The above paragraph contains an insight of paramount importance for thinking early Christian media: the development of the idea of sacred texts was a cultural innovation aimed at providing warrant for the increasing social reliance upon written material. By the late Second Temple Jewish society, culture, and persons overall had been profoundly affected, and indeed effected, by the impact of written. This is the case even for those who were utterly illiterate. This is because illiterate persons yet lived in a society and culture wherein text mattered; the very existence of Torah and the exegetical tradition surrounding Torah as well as scribes makes that evident. Consequent to these social and cultural realities, by the late Second Temple there was on the personal level a marked libidinal investment in the notion of sacred texts.

This has potential consequences for thinking about the origins of the gospels and other Christian literature. The operative supposition, often unspoken, was that the early Christians had no idea that any of their texts would constitute sacred writings. Yet this is not self-evident. The history of religions has more than a few examples of texts that evince a self-consciousness regarding their own sacrality; the Lotus Sutra and the Qur'an come to mind immediately, the latter being of particular interest as it evinces significant engagement with the Jewish and Christian scriptural traditions. It is altogether conceivable that the early Christians thought much those responsible for the Lotus Sutra and the Qur'an as they produced certain of their texts; of the New Testament documents the gospels would seem to be the sort of material that more likely would have been conceived from the off as sacred literature than, say, the various epistolary material. This can also help account for such otherwise strange occurrences as the quotation in 1 Timothy 5:18 of material found extant only in Luke 10:7, which is referred to as coming from a graphnē that apparently could be situated in the same category as Deuteronomy; if Luke's Gospel was from the off understood to be sacred literature than this would not be strange at all. The upshot of the above is that nothing seems to remove early Christianity from the world of Second Temple Judaism and indeed the ancient Mediterranean and Near East more resolutely than presuming it to ever have been other-than-heavily-invested socially in textuality and culturally and then on the personal level in the notion of sacred texts.

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