Saturday, March 08, 2014

Embodiments of the Word

True to the nomadic roots of Judaism, our community is pulling up its tents and setting up elsewhere. Unlike the richer and/or more established San Francisco congregations, we have been borrowing our space, and now will be borrowing a different one. So to ceremonialize this move, we did a ritual thing a couple of Sundays ago where we took the Torah from the old home to the new, marching down 19th Avenue in the unseasonably clear weather, with music and a chuppah like a Jewish wedding. Although I՚m a very occasional participant in the ritual life of this community, this was a unique event that I could not resist, and I even took a turn at carrying the scroll.

It was an odd experience and it engendered some unorthodox (haha) thoughts. We Jews have all these sacramental rituals that revolve around a book, a text, a set of written words – the most holy object we have. Some religions worship persons or places, we revere a document. Honestly, I am a pretty lousy Jew, and don՚t care so much about the contents of this book, but the act of reverence towards symbols is something I can get behind, something that draws me in. The words themselves – well, they are sacred to the community, and so to me insofar as I am a part of it, and certain passages are amazing as literature or otherwise culturally significant – but really, it՚s a bit too much of a stretch for my rationalist mind to treat these particular symbols as anything metaphysically special. But the fact that something so insubstantial as language can be captured in a physical object – perhaps that is not exactly holy, but it certainly seems important and mysterious, and worthy of some degree of reverence. Some foundational aspect of reality is being thus indicated. So my personal holy of holies is not the physical document, or even the ancient text that it is a physical instance of, but semantic embodiment itself.

I work in a field that deals with the technology of embodiment of symbols, in new forms made out of bits and silicon. Certainly it doesn՚t treat them in a very reverential way. We don՚t put texts up on an altar, rather the reverse: documents are treated as a mass of bits, to be pushed here and there like so many truckloads of soybeans, trivialized to mere “content”. Like any other commodity everyone is eager to make a buck off of it in some way.

It is not so much the embodiment of words that is a mystery – in a material universe, how else could we encounter them? – but the opposite, the way words apparently have the power to transcend their physical medium. Words encode thoughts, thoughts float around in thought-space, to be be caught and embodied by other people in other forms. Meaning (and ourselves) seems to exist outside of materiality yet deeply embedded in it. This is hardly a new observation, but too often the oddness of it gets trampled by simplistic philosophical debates. I don՚t have an answer to these philosophical questions, all I have is an attitude towards them that I am trying to cultivate, explore, and describe.

And because I have an advanced degree in something called Media Science that I would like to retroactively justify, one way to do this (that hasn՚t already been worked to death) is to focus on the different technologies of embodiment. Talk is different from writing, writing is different from print (and books and newspapers are different themselves) and digital social media are all different from earlier forms and subtly different from each other. The medium is not quite the whole message, but it՚s a huge chunk of it. Every technology of the word represents a kind of settlement (a Latourian term) between matter and meaning, a way in which they have managed to fit together, to cooperate with each other while dividing reality between them.

Of course, human beings are similar compositions.

So I briefly took my turn at carrying the words of God down the street, cradling it in my arms like a child. Like a child it needs to be protected, gentled, housed. Like a child, it makes demands, it wants to be and is at the center of things.

6 comments:

Sam said...

Have you read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"? It touches on a lot of the same things you discuss here, focusing on the reproducible / irreproducible dichotomy.

fsascott said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mtraven said...

New comment policy -- I'll feel free to delete anything that doesn't contribute to the discussion or that I don't want to see.

fsascott said...

I find it hard to understand how my perfectly civil comment did not "contribute to the discussion." Its point was that there are other documents that are revered as symbols by persons who do not care about their contents (or indeed honor them in the breach rather than the observance). If you "don't want to see" such a comment, then you don't want discussion - you want only the anodyne or the sycophantic.

It impresses me that the reason why Jews revere the Torah and treat it as something holy is in good part because of the Second Commandment's prohibition of graven images. Idolatry seems to be almost a sort of instinct. Forbidden to have idols, Jews have made a substitute for an idol of the Law, which some - as in your account - can manage to reverence as a symbol even though they do not necessarily observe it.

This is hardly the sole instance of such behavior. How many Christians dutifully recite the Nicene Creed on Sunday morning without actually believing most of it? And it need not even be in cases of specifically religious belief that people revere words as a symbol while ignoring their substance, as in the example given in my previous comment, which you deleted. Every post-WWII president has committed American armed forces to conflict abroad without the benefit of a Congressional declaration of war, which the Constitution requires; yet doubtless, each of these men, if suitably prompted, would profess the utmost respect for the document their actions have traduced.

If you "don't want to see" this comment made on your blog, by all means, delete away. It will serve only to tell this reader more about your mindset than about the merits of the observation.

mtraven said...

Civility has nothing to do with it, it՚s relevance. If you want to respond to the actual topic of the post, please feel free, but if you take passages out of context in order to launch irrelevant tangents that attack my character or exercise your poilitics hobbyhorses, then expect to be deleted at my whim. You are intelligent enough that I՚m sure you can tell the difference.

fsascott said...

The deleted comment was neither irrelevant, nor attacked your character, nor did it "exercise my politics hobbyhorses" - and you know it. The comment's content indeed was merely rephrased in the comment you allowed to remain. I do not see how the former failed to meet your standards and the latter did.