Contemplation versus the Digital Age

Digital imagery bombards us with appearances of camaraderie, driving us deeper into nihilism and distracting from spiritual awakening.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), German philosopher and literary and social critic, articulated the power of (then) mechanical reproductions in art to replace traditions such as creativity, genius, and eternal religious values, with popular culture determined by man through politics.  Benjamin's insights on the political and social implications of mechanical reproductions are more disturbing when applied to distractions of the digital age.

In his 1936 essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"

Benjamin details how mechanical reproduction of art opened doors of sense perception that would accelerate the ascendancy of culture over religion (and tradition generally) by empowering politicized mass culture.  Benjamin begins by recounting how the uniqueness of art originally had its intrinsic value in ritualistic cult tradition, and how mechanical reproduction liberated art from that dependency, transforming its sense perception from ritual value to what he terms "exhibition value."  As exhibition value increased through film and eventually digital devices of the present age, the "free floating contemplation" associated with cult value gave way to an emotional stirring from within, as the viewer no longer feels himself absorbed into the subjective image of contemplation, but rather absorbs the imagery such that specific aspects of his personality are "activated," as conditioned by the mass exhibition of the reproduced object.    

This happens because a reproduction is independent of an original in time and space and can bring out aspects of an original subject, unattainable to the naked eye, but that can be distorted, by a lens (for example), as well as omitting meaningful aspects.  Benjamin denotes those omitted qualities of a reproduction as its "aura," the "essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced."  The absence of an "aura" is particularly significant because that is the way in which "the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition."  Hence, reproductions, from early film to recent digital imagery and text messaging, are instrumental in breaking down traditions (spiritual and otherwise) through interference with cognitive contemplation.

An example is replacement of direct person-to-person discussion with text messaging and tweets.  In the former, facial expression is studied for meaning, voice inflection noted, followed by contemplation preceding a response, which involve ascribing one's interlocutor a certain "aura."  Digital communication is less personal and of limited dialogue, lacking clarification of meaning, whereby the deeper personal relationships of the former are supplanted with impersonal and generally preconditioned responses in the latter.  Friedrich Nietzsche once defined nihilism as a sentence on a page, without reference to either the chapter or the book in which it is contained.

The social causes and consequences of the decay of the "aura" relate to the "increasing significance of the masses [of people] in contemporary life," according to Benjamin.  A characteristic of mass culture is to "bring things closer spatially and humanly" and to overcome "the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction."  Uniqueness and permanence are thus replaced with the transitory and reproducible in the human consciousness.  By destroying the aura of an object, mechanical reproduction provides a mode of sense perception whereby the "sense of the universal equality of things" becomes a core value.  Digital imagery hastens this process.

Mechanical reproduction thus conditions both the critical and receptive dimensions of mass culture responses to coincide because individual reactions are determined by the mass audience reactions they are designed to produce.  In contrast, paintings, for example, are not conducive to producing an object for simultaneous mass audience experience.  A painting, by its nature, induces contemplation and imagination, as its "aura" is contemplated, the archetype of this contemplation being the sense of being alone with God.  Film, Benjamin notes, responds to the diminution of the aura with an artificial buildup of the personalities of actors, both in the film and outside the studio, as opposed to inducing an imagination of character by the viewer.  Rather, selected aspects of reality are presented in ways that elicit false understandings of the "apparent" necessities that rule our lives. 

These "apparent" necessities make it difficult to contemplate God, except in political, acceptable ways in man's image.  By creating the cultural context in which we move, digital stimuli conditions mass responses to even our deepest spiritual needs.   

A German contemporary, the historian Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) chronicled the birth of cultures and their rise to maturity as civilizations, through to their destined deterioration, in The Decline of the West (1918), of which ours may be only the latest.  While Spengler's world was existential, his morphology of history points toward both man's resurrection and his redemption.  The recurring birth, life, decline, and death of civilizations, documented through art, literature, architecture, and religion, indicate that those of strong spiritual and philosophical will may experience revelation that leads to rebirth and redemption from cultural decline. 

As digital-age novelty wears off and underlying loneliness is confronted, redemption may be found in both philosophy and theology.  The existentialist Jewish theologian, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), observed spiritual decline and argued for a "new thinking" in his opus, The Star of Redemption (1921), in which philosophy is needed to keep theology honest, while theology's contribution to philosophy is to provide a scientific basis to an inherently personal thought realm.

With a turn of philosophy toward theology, Rosenzweig believed, knowledge about ourselves comes through reflection on the temporal relations among man, world, and God, with insights that are fundamentally theological.  Rather than grounding God and world within the politically acceptable self, theology speaks of God, world, and the self as an unfolding story of the relationships among the three independent and irreducible realities of God, world, and human beings, and accounts for the actuality we experience through the relations among them.  When we awaken to experience things of the world already there, we experience what theology describes as creation, rooted in a relation between the world of things and its divine creator.  Experiences of growing and realizing our selves in the present moment are theological revelation, and our anticipation of the future with our fellow human beings is the experience of redemption, provided by our divine creator.

Revelation designates the theological insight that if one is to grasp God, man, and world as they are, and truth in its unfolding in time, then one must grasp the trajectory of the relations into which these three beings enter, from creation to redemption.  Revelation, according to Rosenzweig, provides the "orientation" after which the philosopher has long sought, in his inquiry into the essence of the world, centering on the dispute between faith and knowledge and looking at the individual unique souls, at least since Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Nietzsche.

We live in an age of skepticism and intellectual distrust, in which cognition given to man through God's grace can no longer be an end in itself, but a service to human beings as we face our destined end.  In attempting to understand the essence of the world, postmodern philosophy may go beyond contemplation of an idealistic, integrated "whole" toward translating theological problems into human terms, and human problems into the realm of theology.

Digital imagery bombards us with appearances of camaraderie, driving us deeper into nihilism and distracting from spiritual awakening.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), German philosopher and literary and social critic, articulated the power of (then) mechanical reproductions in art to replace traditions such as creativity, genius, and eternal religious values, with popular culture determined by man through politics.  Benjamin's insights on the political and social implications of mechanical reproductions are more disturbing when applied to distractions of the digital age.

In his 1936 essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"

Benjamin details how mechanical reproduction of art opened doors of sense perception that would accelerate the ascendancy of culture over religion (and tradition generally) by empowering politicized mass culture.  Benjamin begins by recounting how the uniqueness of art originally had its intrinsic value in ritualistic cult tradition, and how mechanical reproduction liberated art from that dependency, transforming its sense perception from ritual value to what he terms "exhibition value."  As exhibition value increased through film and eventually digital devices of the present age, the "free floating contemplation" associated with cult value gave way to an emotional stirring from within, as the viewer no longer feels himself absorbed into the subjective image of contemplation, but rather absorbs the imagery such that specific aspects of his personality are "activated," as conditioned by the mass exhibition of the reproduced object.    

This happens because a reproduction is independent of an original in time and space and can bring out aspects of an original subject, unattainable to the naked eye, but that can be distorted, by a lens (for example), as well as omitting meaningful aspects.  Benjamin denotes those omitted qualities of a reproduction as its "aura," the "essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced."  The absence of an "aura" is particularly significant because that is the way in which "the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition."  Hence, reproductions, from early film to recent digital imagery and text messaging, are instrumental in breaking down traditions (spiritual and otherwise) through interference with cognitive contemplation.

An example is replacement of direct person-to-person discussion with text messaging and tweets.  In the former, facial expression is studied for meaning, voice inflection noted, followed by contemplation preceding a response, which involve ascribing one's interlocutor a certain "aura."  Digital communication is less personal and of limited dialogue, lacking clarification of meaning, whereby the deeper personal relationships of the former are supplanted with impersonal and generally preconditioned responses in the latter.  Friedrich Nietzsche once defined nihilism as a sentence on a page, without reference to either the chapter or the book in which it is contained.

The social causes and consequences of the decay of the "aura" relate to the "increasing significance of the masses [of people] in contemporary life," according to Benjamin.  A characteristic of mass culture is to "bring things closer spatially and humanly" and to overcome "the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction."  Uniqueness and permanence are thus replaced with the transitory and reproducible in the human consciousness.  By destroying the aura of an object, mechanical reproduction provides a mode of sense perception whereby the "sense of the universal equality of things" becomes a core value.  Digital imagery hastens this process.

Mechanical reproduction thus conditions both the critical and receptive dimensions of mass culture responses to coincide because individual reactions are determined by the mass audience reactions they are designed to produce.  In contrast, paintings, for example, are not conducive to producing an object for simultaneous mass audience experience.  A painting, by its nature, induces contemplation and imagination, as its "aura" is contemplated, the archetype of this contemplation being the sense of being alone with God.  Film, Benjamin notes, responds to the diminution of the aura with an artificial buildup of the personalities of actors, both in the film and outside the studio, as opposed to inducing an imagination of character by the viewer.  Rather, selected aspects of reality are presented in ways that elicit false understandings of the "apparent" necessities that rule our lives. 

These "apparent" necessities make it difficult to contemplate God, except in political, acceptable ways in man's image.  By creating the cultural context in which we move, digital stimuli conditions mass responses to even our deepest spiritual needs.   

A German contemporary, the historian Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) chronicled the birth of cultures and their rise to maturity as civilizations, through to their destined deterioration, in The Decline of the West (1918), of which ours may be only the latest.  While Spengler's world was existential, his morphology of history points toward both man's resurrection and his redemption.  The recurring birth, life, decline, and death of civilizations, documented through art, literature, architecture, and religion, indicate that those of strong spiritual and philosophical will may experience revelation that leads to rebirth and redemption from cultural decline. 

As digital-age novelty wears off and underlying loneliness is confronted, redemption may be found in both philosophy and theology.  The existentialist Jewish theologian, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), observed spiritual decline and argued for a "new thinking" in his opus, The Star of Redemption (1921), in which philosophy is needed to keep theology honest, while theology's contribution to philosophy is to provide a scientific basis to an inherently personal thought realm.

With a turn of philosophy toward theology, Rosenzweig believed, knowledge about ourselves comes through reflection on the temporal relations among man, world, and God, with insights that are fundamentally theological.  Rather than grounding God and world within the politically acceptable self, theology speaks of God, world, and the self as an unfolding story of the relationships among the three independent and irreducible realities of God, world, and human beings, and accounts for the actuality we experience through the relations among them.  When we awaken to experience things of the world already there, we experience what theology describes as creation, rooted in a relation between the world of things and its divine creator.  Experiences of growing and realizing our selves in the present moment are theological revelation, and our anticipation of the future with our fellow human beings is the experience of redemption, provided by our divine creator.

Revelation designates the theological insight that if one is to grasp God, man, and world as they are, and truth in its unfolding in time, then one must grasp the trajectory of the relations into which these three beings enter, from creation to redemption.  Revelation, according to Rosenzweig, provides the "orientation" after which the philosopher has long sought, in his inquiry into the essence of the world, centering on the dispute between faith and knowledge and looking at the individual unique souls, at least since Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Nietzsche.

We live in an age of skepticism and intellectual distrust, in which cognition given to man through God's grace can no longer be an end in itself, but a service to human beings as we face our destined end.  In attempting to understand the essence of the world, postmodern philosophy may go beyond contemplation of an idealistic, integrated "whole" toward translating theological problems into human terms, and human problems into the realm of theology.

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