Thespian, Throw Away the Mask!
From the Fathers of the Church to Benedict XVI, the Christian critique of the society of the spectacle. The new risks of the digital age. How to exalt or destroy a person by image manipulation
by Sandro Magister
ROME, February 20, 2011 – Benedict XVI’s message for the world day of communications, published on the feast day of the patron saint of journalists, Saint Francis de Sales, has called attention back to a very timely question, made even more pressing by recent national and international events.
It is the question of respect for the “truth” of facts and of persons, in the flurry of communications. A truth already difficult to grasp in direct, face-to-face relationships among men – where the authentic is often masked by the representation of himself that each tends to give – but which is in even greater danger when it is filtered by the media and even more by the internet, where the possibility for anyone to mold one or more identities to his own pleasure is expanded to the extreme.
The popular uprising that for weeks has invaded the streets of various Muslim countries of northern Africa and of the Middle East was ignited and spread to a large extent over the internet. But this very fact makes comprehension of it more difficult, and its political outcome more uncertain. In the world of the virtual, the boundary between reality and artifice is more elusive than ever.
In Italy, a vicious power struggle has been underway for months that is also marked by these ambiguities. With its epicenter the libertine private life of a prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who is at the same time a television magnate. And with blunt instruments that are in turn part of a “reality show” – not televised, but played out in society itself – in which truth and lie, reality and fiction, public and private, real persons and “personae” in the Latin sense of disguise mix together in an inextricable tangle.
In commenting authoritatively last January 24 on these events, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian episcopal conference, expressed the “dismay” that overtakes someone who amid such mayhem “looks at the actors of the public stage.”
The metaphor of the theater is more appropriate than ever. Because the dangers of a “society of the spectacle” are not only of today, much less do they belong to the virtual world alone, but they accompany the entire history of man, whose life is always theater as well.
In fact, ancient Christianity also considered the theater a theme of strong critical reflection. And many Fathers of the Church, including Augustine, wrote significant things about it, which when reread today are startling for their timeliness.
A specialist on the literature of the Fathers, Professor Leonardo Lugaresi, who teaches in Bologna and Paris, published in “L’Osservatore Romano” last February 16 a systematic summary of the criticisms that ancient Christianity made against the society of the spectacle.
Lugaresi maintains that “the fundamental question is always the same: that of the authenticity of human experience, which is ultimately that of identity.”
Benedict XVI, in his message for the world day of communications, insists on the same concept, when he urges acceptance of “the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”
A call that also applies against the diabolical temptation – of the devil as “simulator” – to fabricate false images not only of oneself but of others, whether to exalt or to destroy.
One glaring case of the destruction of a person through falsified images of him was the one that hit Dino Boffo two years ago, when he was the director of the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, “Avvenire.” He was not rehabilitated until many months later, with his appointment as program director of TV2000, the television channel owned by the CEI.
That attack was conducted by multiple actors, and on multiple terrains: media, political, ecclesiastical. Even the pope was wrongfully dragged onstage. The game of fabrication was such that even today some aspects of that episode remain obscure, while the substance was summarized by http://www.chiesa in this article:
> Italy, United States, Brazil. From the Vatican to the Conquest of the World (11.2.2010)
In recent days, in Italy but also abroad here and there, another festival of illusions were the demonstrations held in many squares “in defense of the dignity of women,” against the libertine private life of prime minister Berlusconi.
There the language reached exaggerated heights of mystification. To such an extent that the sincere and wise words that some personalities and segments of the Catholic world itself believed needed to be said in the street and to the street were also bent immediately in false directions.
“The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” as Erving Goffman entitled one of his famous books.
Benedict XVI, with his message for the world day of communications, is reminding everyone that the public “representation” of oneself and of others, real and virtual, should be faithful to the truth.
But here is the illuminating article published by Professor Lugaresi in “L’Osservatore Romano” of February 16, 2011.
THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH BETWEEN THEATER AND INTERNET
by Leonardo Lugaresi
Benedict XVI’s message for the world day of social communications, made public on January 24, draws our attention to the problems posed by certain “limits typical of digital communication: the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.” […]
It is interesting to note that the pope’s reminder, although it refers to a completely new phenomenon, presents significant similarities with an ancient question on which the critical reflection of the Fathers of the Church was exercised in a masterful way, and from which it could therefore be useful to take some cues, for a deeper understanding of this teaching of Benedict XVI.
The Fathers obviously did not know about the internet, but the “virtual world” with which they had to come to terms was for them was constituted – in a “society of the spectacle” as Greco-Roman society of the imperial age was to a large extent – by the dimension of the “ludus,” meaning scenic representation, and more broadly that theatricality which invaded so many aspects of civil life in late antiquity, even outside of the walls of the theaters, amphitheaters, and circuses, and of the numerous festivities of the calendar.
The condemnation of spectacles, so decisive and without ambiguity in the ancient Church, is not in fact motivated in the last instance by their idolatrous or immoral contents, as is so often repeated, but by deep concern about the threat that Tertullian, in his “De spectaculis,” calls the “ratio veritatis,” the criterion of truth.
The reality of spectacles, in fact, presented itself to the eyes of the Fathers as a profoundly ambivalent one, in which true and false were mixed up, to the point of bringing into crisis the very validity of such an opposition. Suffice it to think of the fact that the actor, in the act of interpreting a character, is “true” precisely in his being “false,” in that he is, and at the same time is not, the character he represents.
His ability to transform himself, surpassing all the “normal” limits posed by distinctions of age, gender, “status,” by which the same individual can be, depending on the moment, man or woman, king or slave, thus appears as a dangerous threat to the natural identity of man: as if the pluriform shadow of Proteus had risen up to obscure the face of Adam.
The theme of the critique of the ambivalence of representation is of Platonic origin, but saw a decisive development in Christianity. The identity that is threatened, in fact, is felt as a creatural identity, in that in the nature of each human being is reflected the original image that God imprinted there.
Patristic thought therefore recognizes, in this overturning of natural reality performed by the “fictio” of spectacle and in the construction of pseudorealities more capable of raising passions and emotions in the spectators the more devoid they are of ontological substance, the hand of the devil, meaning the one who by definition is the “evil imitator” of God, the “simia Dei” who, incapable of creating, can only adulterate the nature created by God. In this regard, Tertullian speaks explicitly of the devil as “aemulator” and “interpolator” of the divine work.
When the pope raises frankly the question of the authenticity of friendship in the virtual world one hears, in his words, the echo of a profound patristic reflection.
In a famous page of the “Confessions” (3,2), Augustine, recalling his youthful experience as an impassioned theatergoer, pointedly notes how the spectators like to suffer by contemplating on the stage painful and tragic events which should prompt compassion if they were encountered in real life, and asks himself, “But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions.”
This passage deserves extensive exegesis, but the essential point is very clear: for Augustine, a truly human relationship is realized only where there is responsibility. The other, in the moment in which I encounter him, makes me in some way responsible, in the sense clarified perfectly by the parable of the good Samaritan with which Jesus responds to the same question that Benedict XVI, not by accident, proposes to us again in reference to the virtual world: “Who is my neighbor?”
The relationship of neighbor, which is the only truly human one, always implies the element of responsibility, in the sense that the other makes a claim on me with his very existence, he constitutes for me a challenge to which I must respond.
Augustine denies precisely that this could happen in the pseudo-relationship between the spectator and the actor, and of course we cannot help but agree with him if we apply his analysis to television, the medium par excellence that puts us in a position of “false closeness” with reality, where we see everything, but as completely passive and exonerated spectators.
The internet, it is said, is something else, and indeed it is precisely its accessible and widespread interaction, with the possibility for each user to be an active subject in the communications network into which he is inserted, that seems to be its most innovative and seductive characteristic.
There is, however, an indispensable condition for this to take place, and it is commitment to the truth and with the truth. “The truth of Christ,” the pope reminds us, “is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks.”
But commitment with the truth demands continuity of attention, concreteness, concentration on what is essential. Here another factor of ambivalence typical of the virtual world enters into play.
The enormous multiplicity of points of interest, of opportunities, of the attractions and the extraordinary facility of the connections that can be established with the most diverse camps of human experience – in a dimension that seems to nullify the obstacles posed by time and space in the real world – is indeed a great resource, but also a very powerful stimulus to distraction, even the dispersion of the ego from “inside” to “outside” of itself (according to a psychological dynamic that is very well known to every navigator of the web, when he realizes that he has lost precious hours going from link to link, but that perhaps was never as lucidly analyzed as it was by Augustine).
It is that illness of the spirit which ancient thought had diagnosed as “polypragmosyne,” “curiositas,” and on which – in the context of the controversy over spectacles – the Fathers also said memorable things. Suffice it to remember the pregnant formula with which Tertullian, in the “De praescriptione haereticorum” (7, 12), indicates the novelty of the Christian position: “Nobis curiositate opus non est post Christum Iesum nec inquisitione post evangelium.” After the encounter with the good news that is Christ Jesus, there is no more room for “curiositas,” nor do we need Google anymore to know who we are.
The ancient Christian condemnation of the theater certainly cannot be proposed again today, much less does the Church want to distance itself from the internet, at which it looks instead with sincere appreciation.
But some of the reasons with which the Fathers, with great power of thought, upheld that judgment deserve to be the object of our reflection even today, to help us to embody that “Christian style of presence also in the digital world” that the pope desires.
The complete text of Benedict XVI’s message for the world day of communications of June 5, 2011:
In regard to the demonstrations on January 14 in Italy, the different views of the editorialist of the CEI newspaper “Avvenire,” Marina Corradi, and of the director of the same newspaper, Marco Tarquinio, placed side-by-side on the front page of the edition of the day before:
> Corradi: Io non ci andrò, e rifletto
And Tarquinio’s response to the readers, after the demonstration:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.