Walter Ong, Human Transformation, Catholicism and The Aesthetics of Technofuturism

I was reading this article about Walter Ong, who I knew only a little about, and I found this fascinating quotation at the end:

The spoken word, as we have seen, is primary, and yet from the start it was destinedor, in another way, doomedto be supplemented with all the devices and even gadgetry which have reduced it more and more to space. The predicament of the human word is the predicament of man himself. Its very flowering bears within itself evidence of its own limitations and eventual transmutation. The evolution of the media of communication, with the continuous psychological reorganization which this evolution entails, was implied from the very beginning by the structure of actuality.

(Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word)

Now that I know Ong was a Catholic, I see his idea of “transmutation” possibly in a different light; originally, I would have assumed he was just being prescient and forecasting genetic engineering which, I am certain, will be at least partial for humans during my lifetime and eventually will be total. But now I wonder if he didn’t just mean the standard “spiritual” transformation that is expected of man in Christian theology. This, in turn, raises the question of whether the Christian notions of Original Sin and human imperfection lay the basic groundwork for the way we now imagine futuristic self-modification and genengineering.

Do the older theological concepts lay the groundwork for a kind of receptivity to changing ourselves, by convincing us, at the outset, that we are imperfect and in need of deep, fundamental change? I don’t know. Some of the Christians I know are among the strongest objectors to any kind fo genetic modification or even advanced tech implants (like a tooth phone, an idea I mentioned at the office to a certain degree of ridicule by people who, having been born long before the portable cell phone was even an idea, really ought to know better). Still, it seems to me that if someone can either reconcile being technologically or scientifically progressive (something I find Catholics tend to be better at than Protestants in general), or if one’s aesthetics are determined by exposure to these ideas despite that person professing no theological faith, then I think, perhaps, yes, there could be a connection.

And, because it’s a Christian online magazine, in the sidebar, I found a link to this very curious thing: an advertisement for a Lord of the Rings bible study document. Quite odd, that; while I appreciate it at least not being one of those Bible-Belt kneejerk screeds against the trilogy, citing the literary use of magic and resurrection and so on as proof of it being a Satanic text (which it obviously isn’t), I don’t understand why people can’t just accept the novels or movies on their own merit. Do people do Bible Study on the theme of, say, episodes of Friends or on the structure of grocery stores, or, hell, Jane Austen novels? Why there should be an attempt to view Lord of the Rings through a specifically Christian outlook is beyond me, when it’s clearly a work of literature.

Oh, wait, it costs $7.95 to download, or $12.95 with the combo Lord of the Rings/The Matrix Bible Study documents. Well, praise the Lord! That’s hilarious! Now I understand the motivation: it’s just profit.

3 thoughts on “Walter Ong, Human Transformation, Catholicism and The Aesthetics of Technofuturism

  1. When I discussed getting laser surgery with my very Christian eye doctor, he told me he was uncomfortable with things that messed with God’s work, aka the human body. Firm agnostic that I am, it was difficult for me to get past this and hear what he was really saying: that the operation assumes that there’s a bunch of tissue in the eye which doesn’t serve any purpose, and even though there’s no scientific evidence to back him, he’s not comfortable with the assumption.

    Which is a good point. He didn’t talk me out of surgery, but I’m still thinking about the whole thing.

    I think Christians – the ones I know anyway – are very conservative about their bodies… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we’re moving towards teeth-phones and such, we may really need the Voice Of Irrational Caution in the back of our society-head.

  2. Kat,

    What you say, all of it, makes sense. But I think there’s a difference between being conservative and losing your imagination to ideology.

    The difference between questioning the validity of a scientific assumption and assuming something is impossible is that the former can make sense regardless of your beliefs, while the latter not only doesn’t make sense according to a whole array of beliefs, but also cuts one off from possibilities that certainly do exist.

    From my example,I’d say that the scientists who assume that tissue X in your eye is useless (though they may be correct) are closer to the people I described as ridiculing the idea of tooth-phones. They’re cutting themselves off from a very real possibility for reasons that are far from established. Which means I have more in common with your doctor than you may imagine.

    In any case, the mode of ridiculing the idea of a tooth phone was what got my dander up. “Ha ha, I’ve known people who thought their teeth were talking to them, but they were all in the psych ward!” got me somehow. I’ve never mocked anyone’s beliefs that way; when confronted with the claim that prayer has demonstrable, concrete results that “prove” the existence of God (a far more questionable and shoddy thought, really, philosophically speaking), I discussed it logically and politely. I didn’t cackle in amusement. I wasn’t snorting when I said, “If you’re judging which religion is true by mere global popularity, then of course Islam wins, hands down.”

    As for the danger of tooth phones, I think the step from cell phone (or, as they say in Asia, hand-phones) to tooth phones is a much smaller one than from landline phones to mobile. The big cultural jump has already been made, at least in Asia, and the reduction and relocation of the phone is a minor detail, in my opinion. That’s why laughing at the idea at all seems so bizarre and kind of sad to me.

  3. Of course, the hands-down thing about Islam is disputable… this web page says I’m wrong, sort of. It depends on how accepting you are of the notion of self-identification. As you must know, I am very skeptical of it, and suspect there are likely far more practicing Muslims than Christians in the world. In terms of setting up theocracies Islam is also more “successful” (for whatever that is worth). I think there is a lot more pressure to practice Islam in “Muslim societies”, of course, but then again enforced practice is practice. In Christian societies I think there’s little pressure to practice, but a great deal of pressure to self-identify as a practicing Christian. Besides, Islam is, apparently, growing while Christianity’s numbers are dropping. So who knows which stats are worth what?

    But I was wrong strictly thinking that Muslims outnumber Christians on the common scale of measurement.

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