This is a post from the Blogger site, written this spring.


In the article to which I referred in the previous post, Berger rightly notes that sacramental grace is always mediated. Mediation, she also notes, is never passive: it involves our participation, a complex act involving the whole person. She suggests that cyberspace, as a new form of mediation, raises questions about the ways in which this form of mediation might constrain and enable our participation.

Orthodox theological traditions in particular seem to me to offer many avenues for engagement with questions involving cyberspace, mediation, grace, participation, and representation. To name but one area: iconography. What follows doesn’t pretend to be a discussion; I’m merely throwing initial thoughts out there.

Is it possible to create a genuine icon in cyberspace? Is it possible to create a genuine icon out of the materia of cyberspace? Is there a fundamental difference between pixels and paint? Between gesso and a computer screen, whether LED, LCD, plasma, or AMOLED? Between paint and the 1s and 0s that make up the graphics program that allows one to paint an icon on a computer? By “genuine” I mean an icon that could be blessed and used in a liturgical context. Whether such an icon would actually be used in an Orthodox liturgical context is a question for another post.

Other religious traditions have raised similar questions. For example, Orthodox rabbis have issued rulings on the possibility of writing the Name of G-d on a computer screen. One such discussion concluded that the Name written on a computer screen was impermanent due to the nature of the CRT itself (that is, the refresh rate of the screen), so the rabbinic injunctions against the destruction of something on which the Name had been written did not apply. Does an LCD, plasma, or AMOLED screen have a refresh rate? From what I read, they do have refresh rates, but much faster rates than an old-fashioned CRT display. Therefore if I read the argument correctly, the issue for at least this particular Orthodox Jewish conversation revolves around the question of permanence.

I do not know if there has been research done on the question of permanence in Orthodox iconography. Although we may think of icons as paintings on gesso applied on a wood subsurface, I know of no Orthodox theologian who limits the material of which an icon can be composed, or for that matter that they must be two-dimensional. Are pixels therefore merely another medium?

I wonder though if focusing on the computer screen itself fully gets to the heart of the issue. One issue that the rabbinic discussion I mentioned above did not discuss is the question of digital storage. In the case of a two-dimensional icon, if I understand right the gesso ground is itself the storage medium. (I don’t write icons, so please correct me if I’m wrong here.) For a digital image, the medium is a file stored in some more- or less-durable format. That is, the icon is preserved even though the screen itself is turned off. Storage media are not indestructible, of course, and they all degrade over time. However, icons written with paint on a ground are also susceptible to degradation over time.

Last thought for now. One might object to writing icons on computer screens because ultimately the bits that make up the file composing the icon are not material – they are “just” 0s and 1s. Is this really the case, though? In the course of a fascinating discussion following a lecture I gave this past March at the Titanik gallery in Turku on ethics and encountering religious art, the subject of the materiality of computer programs came up. One student from the University of the Arts in Helsinki vigorously argued (and was supported by other students in the audience) that software is also physical. She argued that bits are material, in that they are composed of electrons. At the very least, her view challenges the objection that icons in digital form are somehow less material than those written in the traditional way with the traditional materials.