Sunday, 22 June 2014

Of miracles

When I first encountered my smart phone, the first thing I noticed was that it was unlike anything else I had known or experienced before. And when that realization struck me I also became aware of the affective possibilities suddenly made available to me. I grew fond of the piece of technology in my hand, and this fondness took over my other reactions, my other possible representations of it. I was, in a way, emotionally invaded by the encounter with my smart phone.

The encounter, in itself, appeared to me in the form of an affective avalanche, something in relation to which I was powerless; powerless because it suggested to me a possible loss of rationality. So powerless, I was intimidated. That piece of technology, right there, was showing me how little I meant, how little I could achieve without it. How could that not be terrifying?

The new

What I’m describing here is novelty: the newness of all technological encounters; of all encounters in fact.
The technology in my hand was new to me – and because it was new, I had no previous experience to compare it to. As a consequence, at that moment of the first encounter I perceived it as a miracle.
Miracles are like this: they come to us by ways that are unknown to us; unprecedented, uncalled-for, unjustified, and unnecessary (insofar as no necessity has called for them to take place).

Transfiguration, by Ludovico Carracci
Source: Wikipedia
Faced with miracles, we are utterly hopeless because we have no point of reference to help us penetrate their meaning (if meaning is what they are endowed with). This stands to show that miracles are not miraculous in themselves. They become so when they come in contact with us. A miracle can only be miraculous to a human being. An earthquake shattering an entire city comes as a shock to its population, but not to the ground underneath. The earth contains the earthquake. The earthquake has always already existed there, as a potentiality, within the logic of the earth (which is, needless to point out, non-human). When the earthquake ‘shakes’ the earth it is really, truly, us who are shaken. It is us who are traumatized, not the ground. The ground doesn’t suffer. It has no affective reaction to the earthquake.

Miracle and premeditation

Miracles, like catastrophes, are surprising – to put it briefly. And so are technologies. To go back to my smart phone, my first encounter with it had, like I said, the attributes of a miracle. I was prostrate in front of it. I was having a mystical experience of the desired unknown, in front of which my reason surrendered.
What’s even more important, I wanted the experience to be repeated. And this is another thing characteristic to miracles: once experienced, we want them repeated; we want more of them. It’s either because we have not understood them and want clarifications, or because the experience was so powerful, so drug-like, we need another fix.
But what happens when this experience is re-lived is this: it simply loses the shine. It is eroded by repeated use, like a shirt that doesn’t look the same the second time we put it on. The more we wear that shirt, the worse it is going to look. And this goes on and on, until the shirt becomes a rug. That’s when we can say we’ve worn the miracle out.
The first impulse we have then is to say that miracles are not written: they happen in a territory where writing has no standing. We are tempted to say this because, unlike miracles, writing is premeditated. Writing exists on the presumption of its material support: from the letters of the alphabet to the pen and paper required to jot words down, everything in writing is predetermined. Miracles, on the other hand, appear from nowhere. They are striking in the sense of a hit-and-run accident. Like lightning bolts, like landslides and avalanches, like the wrath of gods. Indeed, we often associate miracles with the divine. Not because of their make-up, but because of the force with which they become apparent to us. And that, it seems to me, is the force of revelation.

“Behold, I make all things new!”

Revelation and prophecy are the two major ways whereby truth is made apparent to us. This is not only in religion, but in any manifestations of our relationship to Being (the totality of existence, human and non-human together, which is often, but not always, associated with God).

Midtown Manhattan, 1944, by Andreas Feininger
Source: Simotron
The truth about Being is that it is overwhelmingly more complex than we can imagine; that it can only appear to us in fragments, through separated events, and never as a whole. A prophecy is one such fragmented representation insofar as it provides a hint as to the complexity of Being. A prophecy is a forecast of our desired command of Being (a desire never truly fulfilled, since all we can perceive, if anything, is a fragment of the Whole). And while prophecies are forward-moving, revelations takes backward steps towards the same aspect: the truth of the complexity of Being. Through revelation we acquire confirmation of what, in prophecy, was only a guess. As Georges Florovsky made clear, though,
“In sacred history, ‘the past’ does not mean simply ‘passed’ or ‘what had been,’ but primarily that which had been accomplished and fulfilled. 'Fulfilment' is the basic category of revelation. That which has become sacred remains consecrated and holy forever.”
It only makes sense to call something revelation if it’s accompanied by novelty. Old things are not revealed. They are known in advance. They cannot surprise. But this is a kind of novelty that we are always prepared for, insofar as we already expect to be surprised by it. The prophecy, of which revelation is a fulfilment, has made us aware of everything.
If I find out that bungee-jumping adventurers have died before, even if this happened only once, the possibility of death from bungee jumping imposes itself with the force of the thing already revealed. What was required to make the plane of potentialities apparent to me was that one occurrence alone. Now I know that it is possible to die from bungee jumping, and that’s the reason I’ll never do it. Never, as in that ‘forever’ found in Florovsky’s quote given above.

Terrible revelations

Simple logic of revelation: once something has been revealed, nothing can un-reveal it. Once a particular technology was invented, we can never say it has never existed. Insofar as Being is concerned, once we have understood that it is the repository of truths that come to surprise us, it will always present itself as capable of surprises. And so, we always expect to come out surprised from the encounter with Being. And that’s why we fear it: because surprises often hurt. In the texts of Christian mystics, revelations are always terrifying, painful realizations of a truth that cannot be named or spoken. They speak of joy and enlightenment, but this is a painful enlightenment, one that requires the deep wounding of the humanness in the mystic.

Life of Francis of Assisi, by José Benlliure y Gil
Source: Wikipedia
Freud’s Uncanny is the occurrence of something familiar in an unfamiliar environment: of something we knew from a prior experience but never expected to encounter again; not here, not now. The uncanny is a miracle we want to reject, because it is too terrifying. Just like above. To Freud, it is through ‘miracles’ that we relate back to the Unconscious. To Florovsky, it is through ‘miracles’ that we relate back to the Divine. To Heidegger, it is through ‘miracles’ we relate back to Being. Of course, they use different words to designate these miracles: Uncanny, Revelation, Event. But do they sound similar, the three of them? Maybe not overlappingly so, since they are situated differently, treated by different means. But the Unconscious, the Divine, and Being do have things in common; the most prominent of which is the reference to something that we perceive as an overwhelming complexity, as an entity we strive to attain but never succeed. And that gives us food for thought when it comes to writing. Because writing is, in spite of everything we suspect, capable of enacting miracles.