Religion and Religious Illusion in the Language of New Media — “Metarealism & Auto-Critique (Lev Manovich)

Manovich calls it meta-realism, and it descibes spot-on what liberal and progressive varieties of contemporary religion look like in a digitally enhanced environments, and what it means to be religious without being dogmatic or dead certain about the theological contents of one’s religious convictions. The discussion below appears in the chapter on “The Illusions.”  It is not about religion per se, but it’s my suspicion that religion is never sui generis, not completly, and that religion is part and parcel of the larger paradigm modeled by Manovich in The Language of New Media.

We can call this new realism metarealism since it incorporates its own criqtiue inside itself. It emergence can be related to a larger cultural change. The old realism corresponded to the functioning of ideology during modernity. –totalization of a semiotic field, ‘false consciousness,’ complete illusionism. But today, ideology functions differently: It continuously and skillfully deconstructs itself, presenting the subject with countless ‘scandals’ and ‘investigations.’ (p.208)

Manovich is writing about ideology and political leaders like Hitler and Stalin. But I think it applies, sort of, to religious convictions, contents, and claims about “revelation” made by charismatic religious thinkers.

Manovich continues re: the new form of ideology taking shape in the digital age:

Auto critique, scandal, and revelation of its machinery become new structural components of modern ideology…The ideology does not demand that the subject blindly believe it, as it did early in the twentieth century; rather it puts the subject in the position of the master position of someone who very well that she is being fooled, and generously lets herself be fooled. You know, for instance, that creating a unique identity through a commercial, mass-produced style is meaningless –but you buy the expensively styled clothes anyway, choosing from the menu…

The periodic shifts between illusion and its suspension in interactive media, described here, can be seen as another example of the same general phenomenon. . Like classical ideology, classical realism demands that the subject completely accept the illusion as long as it lasts. In contrast, the new metarealism is based on oscillation between illusion and destruction…The user invests in the illusion precisely because she is given control over it” (p.209).

My guess is that there are lots and lots of people who inhabit their religions in the luminal space described here by Manovich, who swing between illusion and the knowing realization as to the constructed and artificial nature of the machinery producing the religious effects. I’m also guessing that it is this meta-realism and the control it gives to the “user” is what conservative forms of contemporary religious thought struggle against. Rather than fight against this new media environment, my third guess would be that liberal and progressive religious thinkers and leaders need to figure out, quickly, how to recognize and inhabit this kind of space and the modes of being it generates. Bad things happen when religion tries to resurrect the old forms of dogmatic, ideological authority and certainty.

[The dicussion of “illusion,” by the way, is far more nuanced here by Manovich than the way it gets thrown around by bio and cognitive-psych scientists and their philosophical fellow travellers of whatever stripe out to debunk consciousness, free will, etc.]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Religion and Religious Illusion in the Language of New Media — “Metarealism & Auto-Critique (Lev Manovich)

  1. I am sure the followng connection I made is illusory, but I couldn’t help but notice a similarity in description between meta-realism as described here and ‘metamodernism’ as “an oscillation between a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness; between control and commons and craftsmanship and conceptualism and pragmatism and utopianism” at

    • zjb says:

      no, i think, as always, you’ve got it just right! i’m thinking this is precisely what Manovich is describing and that it’s pretty much common coin now in the contemporary “west.”

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