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technology and worship: learning from Benjamin

January 27th, 2009 by isaac · No Comments

(I’m still trying to figure out a way to think about technology and worship)

The best books on technology and worship offer methods for carefully appropriating devices that contribute to the unique form of a congregation’s worship. Technologies should not be imposed from above, but should arise from the communal discernment of the church.

While I appreciate these critical investigations into the liturgical use of technology, they aren’t haunted by the voices that I can’t get out of my head. They haven’t yet exorcised the histories of terror that come with each bit of technology. From their explorations, one is left assuming that devices magically appear in catalogs and electronic stores like Best Buy and Circuit City. But we know that technologies are not creatio ex nihilo. They have a history; they come from somewhere; and they materially remember what we would like to forget.

Walter Benjamin, the tormented Jewish Philosopher, teaches us to be honest about the history of oppression that produces the cultural achievements that we enjoy. In his essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (see Illuminations, pp. 253-264), Benjamin describes how the barbarism of progress delivers to our doorstep the useful fruits of civilization:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures… For without exception the cultural treasures [the observer] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

The record of civilization is also a record of barbarism. Truthfulness demands that we wrestle with the barbaric debts of our technological sophistication. Our technologies owe their existence to the losers of history, trampled underfoot as civilization marches into the future. Progress is horrific.

In his book The Lexus and The Olive Tree, Thomas L. Friedman describes the powers of violence that makes technological development possible (revised edition: New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000). The technologies of Silicon Valley can only happen “in a world stabilized by a benign superpower, with its capital in Washington, D.C.” (443). Technological production requires a flow of capital and a secure market, thus the protection of a superpower. As Friedman puts it, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist” (ibid.). He continues: “the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps” (444). Without knowing it, Friedman corroborates Benjamin’s analysis above by citing the work of the historian Robert Kagan, who writes, “Good ideas and technologies also need a strong power that promotes those ideas by example and protects those ideas by winning on the battlefield” (ibid.). Fredric Jameson argues that the link between our military might and technological advancement should be extended to all aspects of our postmodern culture: “this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military adn ecnomic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror” (Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5).

It is hard to imagine a way forward once our ears begin to pick out the cries amidst the rubble upon which rest the storehouses of accumulated knowledge and inventions. As God puts it, “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). The screams are paralyzing, if we care to listen. How can we ignore the cries of our sisters and brothers reverberating through our speakers, mediating the melodious voices of our worship teams and amplifying the preacher’s inspired sermon? Every amplified voice is haunted, no matter what the hopeful message may be. How can we redeem technological devices that are possessed with a demonic history? If there’s a way forward, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that we can ignore the dead whose life-blood fuel our technologies.

Romand Coles uses Benjamin to argue that it is “our dead ancenstors who should be the focus of our responsibility” (Coles and Hauerwas, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, p. 32). Coles goes on to say that “we care for the world as we care for the dead.” But this kind of responsiblity is not at all straightforward. He asks: “What does it mean to be responsible to the murdered…?” There is no clear answer. One thing is certain: to ignore those murdered voices of the past is to silence them again. Our task, according to Coles’ reading of Benjamin, is “To be responsible for preventing re-murder” through our stubborn remembering of what the victors of history want us to forget. For Coles, we acknowledge how the victims of the past haunt us. Therefore, if we want to be honest, we have no choice but to live in that tension. But tension-dwelling is the only place where hope may come. It’s those who wait at the tomb who witness resurrected hope. As Harvey Blume comments on Benjamin’s “Theses”, “with complete unforgetfulness goes complete expectation. [Benjamin’s] Judaism is the symbiosis of total memory and total hope” (Blume, “For Benjamin: The Theses of the Philosophy of History,” Telos, no. 41 [Fall 1979], p. 156).

So, our question: is there a way to harken unto the victims of technology that doesn’t lead to paralysis?

Tags: theology