Leonardo On-Line: Artist's Rant

Veni Redemptor: The Metallic Masks of God

Carmen Hermosillo


There are four key points covered in this paper: redemption, information, mass-mindedness and the suggestion of posthumanism. The paper was inspired by a study of Western European iconography and literature. This study led to a consideration of the visible effects of technological changes in information broadcasting since 1300 AD. There seem to be just a few persistent messages in Western culture, and of these messages one of the most nagging concerns redemption. The form in which the redemption message occurs seems to morph to suit the media through which the message is transmitted and the cultural theories underpinning those media.

this text is dedicated
to James Joyce, who, in Ulysses, wrote the kind of footnotes
that I would have written if I were not a coward.
from yr pal,

Whenever humanity comes to an intersection between the values of humanness and the values of machinery or technology, it appears that the human, when possible, will adapt itself to the needs of technology rather than modifying technology to suit the needs of humanity. Howard Rheingold's book Virtual Reality, for example, states the problem as it pertains to intelligence and computers. Rheingold suggests that of two paths to intelligent machinery, intelligence amplification is most humanistic. Intelligence amplification is more humanistic because it enables human intelligence to do the things it does best while freeing it from repetitive tasks. It says that the human is prime. Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, places primacy on the machine and bends the human to the machine model.

History suggests that the machine will win the struggle between humanity and the objects that humanity creates. The struggle exists because humanity is looking for a Redeemer. Humanity wants to be redeemed from its own humanness and will not hesitate to do whatever is required to create this condition of release for itself. One of the ways that humanity makes provision for these adaptations and creates redeemers is through theory: theory being those packages and wrappers that give humanity permission to change the terms of its redemption and the masks of its redeemers. Each technological innovation is accompanied by a theory, and each innovation in Western Europe has been met with a swift and definite rejection of the value systems that carefully held up previous cultural constructs and forms. The West, for most of its history, has had a heavy subtext surrounding the Divine. Bear with me, therefore, if I exploit a little bit of that subtext for a moment. Have patience with me; I am going to talk about angels.

A Metaphor

I began to dream of angels. I began to dream of them as ambassadors, as messengers. I found a word: theor. It was a Greek word. I began to see theory differently; the word theory having that Greek root word, theor. I began to see theory as a host of angels, messengers sent to perform a particular duty or rite: this is one of the meanings of the word theory. I asked myself, why did they come? I was not thinking about scientific, empirical theory, you understand. I was thinking of the kinds of theory that the humanities cares about: those statements of fact upon which practice depends: Postmodern Theory. Literary Theory. Theories of Cultural Formation. Those are the angels that populated my dreams. I wondered if I was the only person having this dream; I wondered if it was the kind of dream that Henry Miller wrote about, the kind where we dreamed while we were still awake. I watch too much television. I noticed that there was talk about angels on television, I saw books in the stores; I read little cards called "angel cards." Why do I dream of angels? It appears that an angel is a message, an ambassador of aura . Wires and microwaves are also ambassadors of aura. In the time when there were such creatures as artists, artists were also theors, angels, ambassadors. When the university and monastery were the TV and radio of their culture, angels were hot. People in universities and monasteries at that time were talking heads who were narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. They still are. The tension between narrowcast and broadcast is behind the development of print technology and is the germ of the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation is about the triumph of broadcasting. Aldus and Martin Luther were broadcasters. Aldus, and especially Luther, had an ideology to sell. The institutional church's answer to Luther's broadcast was clever, I thought. It re-created itself as theater.

I see Luther in the tradition of Giotto, the Italian avant-garde artist of the 1300s. Giotto's people may appear superficially individual, as they do in the Lamentation, but careful examination reveals that Mary and Jesus and all the observers have the same noses, the same mouths, the same eyes. People in this picture, gathered around the dead Christ, are still primarily differentiated by their clothing, which at this time was even more of a social status emblem than it is now. In this picture, Giotto is trying to express the individual terror of the human individual confronting the death of a loved one. Christ, in this picture, is not a triumphant King attended by battalions of richly attired, gold- leafed angels. Here, in this picture, he is dead man and his Mother is sad. The church, I suspect, was horrified at this intensely personal, emotionally accessible statement of human sorrow because it was a statement of individual personality.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Jan van Eyck, is a representation of the cosmogony under which Christopher Columbus set out to find and exploit the New World. It is perhaps one of the most eloquent expressions of faith that the Divine, the Human and the Natural could exist together with a unified purpose, as a divinely directed vision. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was created in Northern Europe, the geographical seat of revolutions in print technology, banking, and theology during the Renaissance. It is another visual representation of a shift in consciousness and it is an ambassador of impending modernity.

Angels are messengers of the Divine Redeemer. In the late Middle Ages, they were represented as powerful, wealthy ambassadors in the service of an even wealthier and more powerful king. Angels painted in the late Middle Ages, for example, often have magnificent, huge and multicolored wings. Color was even more expensive in the middle ages than it is now. As the specifically self-responsible individual is more and more integrated into the predominant social system of Western Europe, the power and majesty of the theory of angels begins to wane until at last, in the mid to late nineteenth century, a painting such as the Annunciation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrays an angel as a small, wingless person of indeterminate status and gender bringing a small white flower to a melancholy woman who appears to be shrinkin g away from his message.

I began to dream of angels: they were messages about two tensions expressive of the force that, as Dylan Thomas said, "through the green tube drive the flower." One part of Europe was broadcasting and preparing a stage production. The other part was narrowcasting and trying to reconcile the ways of God to man. It has not changed much: "There is more poetry on heaven and earth," said William Shakespeare, almost, "than is dreamt of in your philosophies, Horatio."

Who are the angels now?

Redemption Through The Printing Press

European civilization before the advent of print technology was essentially a mass-mind operation with most structure imposed from above through the institutional church and the Papacy. When the Pope spoke "ex cathedra" on matters of dogma, the Pope spoke with the voice of Christ. Papal authority was the authority of the Divine. The Divine Voice was to be heard and obeyed without question by the faithful.

In some rather chilling ways, our society does not operate very differently. One has only to substitute the television set for the Pope, the shopping mall for the cathedral, the advertisement for the sermon, and the purchase of consumer goods for the sacraments of penance and communion.

When the Church lost credibility in Europe after the Black Plague, the reconstruction of consensual reality in Western Europe became the project of the renegade publisher. The printing press became a vehicle through which anonymous political opinion could be transmitted. It was, like the growing practice of personal privacy, a protection from the intrusion of the state into the life of the individual. The printer's shop also became a gathering place for those individuals, intellectuals, and artists concerned with matters of social change and consensus reality. The role of the renegade publisher-entrepreneur as a broadcaster of social change persists into the present day. In addition, by freeing cultural memory from the need to continuously re-create itself, by reason of the press's ability to store information reliably, print technology began a string of changes that led to changes in ideas about originality and creativity that culminated in the cult of talent and genius in nineteenth-century romanticism. These ideas and values persist into the present day, but somewhat distorted into an aesthetic of self- exploitation and display.

The Struggle and Transition

One of the most interesting conflicts between the institutional church and the Reformation concerned the way that information was presented. The Reformation was invested in print, in the Word of God. The institutional church was invested in the senses, and continued to present what was essentially a visual spectacle. This is still visible in church architecture.

Protestant churches are buildings that still, to some extent, resemble lecture halls and schoolrooms. They are plain. The graphic information available in a Protestant church is sparse. Attention is focused towards the front of the church where the minister will speak and the minister refers to texts from the Bible often. In the Protestant tradition, many people can still be found bringing their own Bibles to church services, so that they may have a text before them to refer to. People come, to some extent, to worship the Word of God as it is revealed in the Text of God.

Roman churches are not plain. They are full of graphic information in stained glass windows, statues, paintings, frescoes, altarpieces and decorative sculpture. Until about 30 years ago, the services were conducted in Latin, a language that the average person was not expected to speak or understand. The traditional Roman church service is a service where the Text is irrelevant.

One of the great tragedies of the Reformation is rooted in this tension between the graphic and the verbal. There are cases recorded where zealot Reformers broke into Catholic churches in the sixteenth century and smashed all of the statuary in the mistaken belief that the statues were being worshipped as idols. Three hundred years later, Victor Hugo summed up this tension eloquently in a passage from his novel Les Miserables,which begins: " 'This will kill that;' he said. 'The printing press will kill the cathedral.' "

The technology of television has created a world where the graphic is again becoming more important than the text. Illiteracy, it appears, is being displaced by aliteracy. That is to say that there are people who have the ability to read, but they choose not to do so, preferring the image to the text, in the form of the graphic novel and the comic book. In order for a mass-mind operation to work, people must be willing to suspend belief in their own observations. Literacy works against this.

Redemption Through the Word and Sign

In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, the first verses make reference to the logos. In the Greek, the word has a meaning that is more dense than the English "word" suggests. So when Christ descends to earth and becomes flesh, he is not just Word made flesh. When Christ lives on earth he is Creative Principle, Idea and Sign. The meaning of Word, in Western culture, is encapsulated in the opening verses of the Gospel of John, and not the least of these meanings is that which suggests that somehow Word and Meaning both will be redeemers. With the advent of Modernism, the categories of Word and Sign became confused, and that confusion has been manipulated. For example, in Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph Of The Will, we see the opening lines of the Gospel of John come to life in twentieth- century Germany. This Germany is descended from the Germany of Martin Luther's Reformation, and Reifenstahl manipulated the Word to serve the aestheticization of politics which was part of the Modernist impulse to aestheticize everything. In Triumph Of The Will, the Word arrives in an airplane, looking a lot like Adolf Hitler, to redeem the pride of the German Empire.

Hermosillo continues . . .

copyright 1997 ISAST

created 1 July 1997

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