Taking Stock of Our Technological Liturgies
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 15
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. In this installment, I explore a somewhat eccentric frame by which to consider how we relate to our technologies, particularly those we hold close to our bodies. You’ll have to bear through a few paragraphs setting up that frame, but I hope you find it to be a useful exercise. And I welcome your comments below. Ordinarily only paid subscribers can leave comments, but this time around I’m leaving the comments open for all readers. Feel free to chime in. I will say, though, that I may not be able to respond directly to each one. Cheers!
Pardon what to some of you will seem like a rather arcane opening to this installment. We’ll be back on more familiar ground soon enough, but I will start us off with a few observations about liturgical practices in religious traditions.
A liturgy, incidentally, is a formal and relatively stable set of rites, rituals, and forms that order the public worship of a religious community. There are, for example, many ways to distinguish among the varieties of Christianity in the United States (or globally, for that matter). One might distinguish by region, by doctrine, by ecclesial structure, by the socioeconomic status its members, etc. But one might also place the various strands of the tradition along a liturgical spectrum, a spectrum whose poles are sometimes labeled low church and high church.
High church congregations, generally speaking, are characterized by their adherence to formal patterns and rituals. At high church services you would be more likely to observe ritual gestures, such as kneeling, bowing, or crossing oneself as well as ritual speech, such as set prayers, invocations, and responses. High church congregations are also more likely to observe a traditional church calendar and employ traditional vestments and ornamentation. Rituals and formalities of this sort would be mostly absent in low church congregations, which tend to place a higher premium on informality, emotion, and spontaneity of expression. I am painting with a broad brush, but it will serve well enough to set up the point I’m driving at.
But one more thing before we get there. What strikes me about certain low church communities is that they sometimes imagine themselves to have no liturgy at all. In some cases, they might even be overtly hostile to the very idea of a liturgy. This is interesting to me because, in practice, it is not that they have no liturgy at all as they imagine—they simply end up with an unacknowledged liturgy of a different sort. Their services also feature predictable patterns and rhythms, as well as common cadences and formulations, even if they are not formally expressed or delineated and although they differ from the patterns and rhythms of high church congregations. It’s not that you get no church calendar, for example, it’s that you end up trading the old ecclesial calendar of holy days and seasons, such as Advent, Epiphany, and Lent, for a more contemporary calendar of national and sentimental holidays, which is to say those that have been most thoroughly commercialized.1
Now that you’ve borne with this eccentric opening, let me get us to what I hope will be the payoff. In the ecclesial context, this matters because the regular patterns and rhythms of worship, whether recognized as a liturgy or not, are at least as formative (if not more so) as the overt messages presented in a homily, sermon, or lesson, which is where most people assume the real action is. This is so because, as you may have heard it said, the medium is the message. In this case, I take the relevant media to be the embodied ritual forms, the habitual practices, and the material layers of the service of worship. These liturgical forms, acknowledged or unacknowledged, exert a powerful formative influence over time as they write themselves not only upon the mind of the worshipper but upon their bodies and, some might say, hearts.
With all of this in mind, then, I would propose that we take a liturgical perspective on our use of technology.2 (You can imagine the word “liturgical” in quotation marks, if you like.) The point of taking such a perspective is to perceive the formative power of the practices, habits, and rhythms that emerge from our use of certain technologies, hour by hour, day by day, month after month, year in and year out. The underlying idea here is relatively simple but perhaps for that reason easy to forget. We all have certain aspirations about the kind of person we want to be, the kind of relationships we want to enjoy, how we would like our days to be ordered, the sort of society we want to inhabit. These aspirations can be thwarted in any number of ways, of course, and often by forces outside of our control. But I suspect that on occasion our aspirations might also be thwarted by the unnoticed patterns of thought, perception, and action that arise from our technologically mediated liturgies. I don’t call them liturgies as a gimmick, but rather to cast a different, hopefully revealing light on the mundane and commonplace. The image to bear in mind is that of the person who finds themselves handling their smartphone as others might their rosary beads.
To properly inventory our technologically mediated liturgies we need to become especially attentive to what our bodies want. After all, the power of a liturgy is that it inscribes itself not only on the mind, but also on the body.3 In that liminal moment before we have thought about what we are doing but find our bodies already in motion, we can begin to discern the shape of our liturgies. In my waking moments, do I find myself reaching for a device before my eyes have had a chance to open? When I sit down to work, what routines do I find myself engaging? In the company of others, to what is my attention directed? When I as a writer, for example, notice that my hands have moved to open Twitter the very moment I begin to feel my sentence getting stuck, I am under the sway of a technological liturgy. In such moments, I might be tempted to think that my will power has failed me. But from the liturgical perspective I’m exploring here, the problem is not a failure of willpower. Rather, it’s that I’ve trained my will—or, more to the point, I have allowed my will to be trained—to want something contrary to my expressed desire in the moment. One might even argue that this is, in fact, a testament to the power of the will, which is acting in keeping with its training. By what we unthinkingly do, we undermine what we say we want.
Say, for example, that I desire to be a more patient person. This is a fine and noble desire. I suspect some of you have desired the same for yourselves at various points. But patience is hard to come by. I find myself lacking patience in the crucial moments regardless of how ardently I have desired it. Why might this be the case? I’m sure there’s more than one answer to this question, but we should at least consider the possibility that my failure to cultivate patience stems from the nature of the technological liturgies that structure my experience. Because speed and efficiency are so often the very reason why I turn to technologies of various sorts, I have been conditioning myself to expect something approaching instantaneity in the way the world responds to my demands. If at every possible point I have adopted tools and devices which promise to make things faster and more efficient, I should not be surprised that I have come to be the sort of person who cannot abide delay and frustration.
“The cunning of pedagogic reason,” sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once observed, “lies precisely in the fact that it manages to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant.”4 Bourdieu had in mind “the respect for forms and forms of respect which are the most visible and most ‘natural’ manifestation of respect for the established order, or the concessions of politeness, which always contain political concessions.”
What I am suggesting is that our technological liturgies function similarly. They, too, manage to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant. Our technological micro-practices, the movements of our fingers, the gestures of our hands, the posture of our bodies—these seem insignificant until we realize that we are in fact etching the grooves along which our future actions will tend to habitually flow.
The point of the exercise is not to divest ourselves of such liturgies altogether. Like certain low church congregations that claim they have no liturgies, we would only deepen the power of the unnoticed patterns shaping our thought and actions. And, more to the point, we would be ceding this power not to the liturgies themselves, but to the interests served by those who have crafted and designed those liturgies. My loneliness is not assuaged by my habitual use of social media. My anxiety is not meaningfully relieved by the habit of consumption engendered by the liturgies crafted for me by Amazon. My health is not necessarily improved by compulsive use of health tracking apps. Indeed, in the latter case, the relevant liturgies will tempt me to reduce health and flourishing to what the apps can measure and quantify.
Hannah Arendt once argued that totalitarian regimes succeed, in part, by dislodging or disemedding individuals from their traditional and customary milieus. Individuals who have been so “liberated” are more malleable and subject to new forms of management and control. The consequences of many modern technologies can play out in much the same way. They promise some form of liberation—from the constraints of place, time, community, or even the body itself. Such liberation is often framed as a matter of greater efficiency, convenience, or flexibility. But, to take one example, when someone is freed to work from home, they may find that they can now be expected to work anywhere and at anytime. When older patterns and rhythms are overthrown, new patterns and rhythms are imposed and these are often far less humane because they are not designed to serve human ends.
So I leave you with a set of questions and a comment section open to all readers. I’ve given you a few examples of what I have in mind, but what technological liturgies do you find shaping your days? What are their sources or whose interests do they serve? How much power do you have to resist these liturgies or subvert them if you find that they do, in fact, undermine your own aims and goals? Finally, what liturgies do you seek to implement for yourselves (these may be explicitly religious or not)? After all, as the philosopher Albert Borgmann once put it, we must “meet the rule of technology with a deliberate and regular counterpractice.”
While that line about the commercialized holidays may appear to betray some kind of judgement in favor of high church congregations, I think it is possible to find genuine piety all along the spectrum. And, all along the spectrum, congregations are beset by varying temptations.
At least one scholar has suggested that we examine religious liturgies as technologies: Susan White in Christian Worship and Technological Change.
If the liturgical frame is not doing it for you, consider any of the various spheres in which one might cultivate a set of embodied habits through practice and repetition: dancing, playing a sport, playing a musical instrument. A few years back, long since I had last touched a soccer ball, my wife tossed something at me which didn't quite make it all the way to my upper body. As it fell to the ground, without thinking (which is the point here), I used my foot to trap the thrown item as if it were a soccer ball. The habits inscribed on the body turn out to be remarkably durable.
In The Logic of Practice.