Religion Is A Language of New Media (Lev Manovich)

I’ve been thinking for a while now that “religion” is or acts like a “medium.” In Shape of Revelation, I defined religion as a sensory-conceptual surface or interface, across whose surface is distributed shifting compositions of “natural” and “supernatural” elements (p.xxi). So if religion is or acts like a medium, then today one could look at it as or through the prism of The Language of New Media. In particular, how can we learn to distinguish the old media form of modern (liberal, critical) religion with more new media formatting of contemporary (post-liberal, post-critical) religion? What might it mean to consider religion as a new media object? These are among the many reasons I’ve taken so hard to this book by Lev Manovich.

Reconsidering the main chapters of the book with our eye out for religion allows us to consider the following:

To consider religion in terms of “Interface” means looking at religion as a system of screens. Viewed most broadly, religious “objects” such as gods, God, social forms, texts, rituals, spaces, sancta) are both screens and screened. Synagogues and churches are screens. Texts are screens. Rituals are screens. “God” might even be a screen. Modern religion, in particular,  is screen-like, “a three-dimensional world enclosed by a grame and situated inside our normal space” (p.95). The modern religion-screen is “classical,” “intended for frontal viewing,” acting as a “window into another [sacred] space” (p.95). Classical screens can tend towards the dull. The same goes for modern, liberal religion. In new media environments the screens take on more and more framed, aggregate, and prefabricated quality. The screening is more “dynamic,” windows and systems can multiply and overlap. That’s why contemporary religion looks so “plastic.” Like the “simulations” recommended by Manovich, simulations  in religion might blend physical and virtual spaces, the best kind of which operate without imprisoning the user into the framing machinery of the religion-screen. In what way have religions always resembled virtual reality systems, in which the entire screen dominates the human sensory condition.

Religions are constituted by a set of Operations. Particular religions select their objects and composite them into single, integrated systems.  Modern liberal religion in the 19th and 20th centuries was built on a montage system of discrete historical periods –ancient, medieval, and modern. The periodization was marked in terms of evolution or rupture. Contemporary religion tends to be post-critical in regard to its operations. Instead of the modern montage of separable image-forms, what we have now is an internally continuous image-object in which religious elements are added onto and co-exist without any sense of contrast, complimentarity or dissonance. Insofar as a religious system can’t operate like this, it won’t really survive today’s digital environment. Perhaps today, this increasingly demands the capacity to “tele-access” religion across distant spaces.

Religions are based on Illusion.  For all the critical force brought to bear in its “operations” there was something uncritical about the way in which modern religion, like all modern political ideologies, conceived of the truth of its own system viewed as a total system. Either modern liberal religion was teleological, assured of progress; or convinced of the magical power of its own charismatic expression. Modern religion tended not to doubt itself. In contrast, Manovich’s remarks about metarealism, the oscillation between illusion and the intense self-awareness of the underlying mechanisms that create the illusion, makes a lot of sense of contemporary religion as it works in the west. (About this, I’ve posted below, also in conversation with The Language of New Media.)

What is the Form of religion in the language of new media? New media religion would be based more on the information-database form, in which information is lined up along a horizontal frame without any organizing narrative grid. The critical point here is how to merge algorithm and datastructure of a religion into new, aesthetically persuasive forms. But one might note how the narrative form in new religion actually gets simpler and simpler, and only as such is it possible to merge narrative into algorithm and visual database. Manovich is interested in how the navigation of space becomes the cultural form of the New Media age, how we use New Media Religions to navigate space and a sense of place in the world. I think religion works in the same way, navigating user and users through space.

A caveat: It could and should be argued that conservative forms of religion are especially invested in the language of new media. Conservative religious actors today pay lots of very savvy attention to technological mechanisms and media. This might mean that rather than undercut claims to truth, new media augment the power of illusion. It might even be argued that they have proven themselves to be more adept than liberal religionists in the new media enviornment, selecting and compositing, reaching across space, creating datastructures, simplifying narrative lines, etc.. Precisely because they are neither critical nor post-critical, their turn to new media is almost automatic in ways that contemporary technologies tend to be in their function.

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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