“Say what I sign”: The Languages of Love in “The Shape of Water”

(There be spoilers below.)

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be inhuman? These are two questions that Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, “The Shape of Water,” explores like, well, like the great sea itself. And as with the sea, there are many forms, both frightening and beautiful, that the film has found in its plummet-sounding of the monstrous and less common deeps.

If there were one all-encompassing theme that could sum up (but never label) “The Shape’s” answer to what makes a human human, I think it would be language. To borrow a scientific definition, human beings are language-making animals. As Dr. Hoffstetler points out at the beginning of the film, it is the creature’s capability for language that renders him “intelligent,” and therefore worthy of careful study and consideration. But film’s focus goes even deeper and wider than these terms. It presents a wide array of vessels designed to hold and convey the human shape. But just how truly these vessels hold, and to what end they actually convey, the fuller figure of the human being—this, I think, is what the film most wants to fathom.


The film is full of languages, some of them shallow, and some of them deep. Some of them are confining, restrictive, and denigrating, and some are validating, enlivening, and liberating.

Occupying a kind of middle level are the neutral mechanics of verbal and non-verbal language: the American English of most characters and the Russian of Dr. Hoffstetler (whose real name is Dimitri); the sign language of Elisa and her closest friends; the many meanings of body language, which can be inscrutable or threatening, happily perspicuous (as in a smile, or a certain stare) or clearly perilous (as in a sneer, or another kind of stare); and the simple potency of touch, which can be used for brutality or tenderness. Also in this middle ground, I would say, is the language of science, which can in its testing find realities deeper than sentience or else dissect bodies down to their raw materials, as well as the language of food, which can be a vehicle for connection (Elisa’s “egg” to the creature; what Giles’ “pie” hopes and appears to be) or an instrument for suppression and estrangement (the purported anaphrodisiac properties of Cornflakes; what the “Pie Guy’s” supposed service really means for the marginalized).

Toward the shallower end is the language of cliché and catchphrase, which tends to maintain the hunky-dory façade of Cold War hegemony, from the false and derivative affectations of the “Pie Guy” (his “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” from the Beverly Hillbillies—false and derivative itself) to the advertisements lining the highways that feature the artificial flavor of families beaming over green gelatin parfait.

There is also the cheap language of labeling, which comes out of the currency of assumption: for instance, Giles’ dismissal of the Amphibian Man as “inhuman,” or the frequent perfunctory references to Elisa as “mute” and the implicit treatment of her as sub-intelligent, when she is, in fact, far from speechless and dumb.

Even shallower is the language of authority, which for all its big bold all-caps mandates says very little: “IT’S EVERYONE’S REPSONSIBILITY TO KEEP THIS AREA SAFE AND CLEAN.” A subset of this is the language of prohibition, the morally rigid restriction of certain acts, including those of speech, as in the swearing and “blasphemy” decried by the ever-nervous Fleming. And still shallower, but also more unsettled by covert violence, is the language of bigotry, such as the “Pie Guy’s” homophobic use of the term “family” to ban Giles from the restaurant after his hapless self-outing, or Strickland’s backhanded comment to Zelda that she is unusual for being one of two children, as “your people” usually come from crowded families.

And finally, at the roughest end of this language spectrum, there is the language of coercion, of oppressive power, which regards the Amphibian Man merely to be an “Asset” for its uses in the Cold War and considers true “decency” to be winning wars over other peoples no matter the cost—the common kind being a mere “export” for lesser beings to grow weak off of. In short, this language goes beyond those of the subtly suppressive status quo—it goes further by making being in any form less than it is. It is the negative pole to possibility. It is the slightly more sophisticated expression of brute contest.

The language of coercion forms the great antagonistic force in “The Shape of Water,” and it is most fully manifest in the character of Strickland. Indeed, what makes his character so imposing is not just his violent action, but also the violent rhetoric with which he compounds it. (His cherished cattle prod is his swinging exclamation point.) Arguably, his words take on the hardest shape in the movie, colder and crueler and more absolutely implacable even than his touch.

He turns pop-psychological platitudes of The Power of Positive Thinking toward the service of negative power. He bends and sharpens the rod of moralizing into a scythe to cut down the dispensable identities around him, giving an aggressively sententious lesson to Zelda and Elisa about the meaning of the word “affront,” and claiming with categorical certainty that the creature he has caught fits squarely in this metaphysical caste. He twists the language of scripture into a cord to bind others to his limited literal idea of what the image of God looks like: himself.[1] Like his mentor in coercion, General Hoyt, Strickland ends up manipulating the more neutral, functional language in the process of manipulating others to do his will. In abusing the Amphibian Man both physically and verbally, he has “tamed” him. In intimidating and hypothetically (and therefore rhetorically) assaulting Elisa, he has attempted to make her “squawk.”

In these instances, Strickland’s language quite strikingly represents a form of thought that might be called the grotesque of playing God. He is superior to all—Zelda is less of a likeness to the divine than he, and the “Asset” is damned to deviant dissimilarity. He is the sole owner of scriptural interpretation. He is the nightmare version of Adam, subduing creation down to next to nothing. He is the idol of God’s ossified masculinity, a creator in his self-asserted sovereign right over the feminine, inspiring a voice where there was (supposedly) no voice through the throttling of his words.

But even deeper than this, and almost unbeknownst to him but clearly seen in the film, is Strickland’s state of himself being coerced. In the process of the film, we witness the immense pressure of the force behind his forcefulness, the hand pressing his hand. His admired mentor masters him maybe even more ruthlessly than he himself does his subordinates—for Hoyt promises a Strickland-shaped hole in the universe should he fail. Within this conversation, we see, for a moment, the face and words of the implacable Strickland turn to placating. This is one of the film’s great depths, that it sees in the figures of power the master will that most makes slaves of those who most closely identify with it. Though his language, like all language, represents his own personal thought and will, Strickland’s thought and will in turn are possessed by the impersonal force that he serves. Even his penchant for stupefying obscenity represents a pure, unsublimated drive in his society—put one way, it is the survival instinct now risen to the spiritual level, the hunger urge convinced that only total control is the truest food. Thus, Strickland stuns his victims with swearing not merely because he is an asshole, but because he desperately needs to eat.

It soon becomes clear just how infelicitous this devilish logos is inside the human form. The self-asserted God always dies in demonic utterances. Strickland harangues himself with his own blunt, repetitive language, as if the parlance of his position has possessed him. He gives himself a demented pep-talk about his one bare purpose, to “deliver”—a cliché twisted by a society’s frenzied urge for control, powered by an impossible and therefore monstrous manliness. For Strickland, in seeking to apprehend the supposed weapon insanely purported to win the war, strives like a mad father to provide an impossible permanent prosperity not only for his own family, but for the national nuclear family as well. Within this unforgiving grip, he loses his sometime iron grip on the situation, now literally tearing his own hand apart to grasp himself again. Even his name is evocative of the constricting country that he comes from—a strict land, strict coming from the Latin strictus for “to tighten.” He is the gnarled shape come out of an overly fixed ontology.


So far I have only gone from what I have metaphorically termed the “middle level” to the “shallow” end of the “language spectrum,” from the kind that performs basic functions to that which diminishes and dominates. In more mathematical terms, these language types range from the median to the lowest value in “The Shape of Water.” But the film’s moral gauge is not a circular meter—the dial does not spin closest to the highest value when it reaches its farthest opposite. It is not a flat gauge but instead a deep sense—namely, of desire, which is an instinctual surging toward something vast and pulling, a flowing out and a drawing in to some largely unknown and perhaps ultimately unlimited space. The film’s potentially infinite qualitative difference is the language of love, in all its dialects, both realized and not quite.

This language, unlike that of power, is entirely positive. Where the other negates, this affirms. Where the other restricts, this unleashes, and even enlarges.

The most common type of love in the film is platonic—that is, love as friendship, love as acceptance and appreciation. However, this is not to say that acceptance and appreciation are widespread. Rather, in “The Shape of Water,” friendship forms a close and often hidden community within the alienating society at large, and its languages present a more effective if covert communication between private personalities and experiences. Giles can safely confide his deepest desires unashamedly to Elisa. Zelda can voice her grievances and tell her stories and find an open ear—a silence no longer enforced on her, but rather given to her by a content listener. And with both Giles and Zelda, Elisa can speak her own sign language, and find ready interpreters of her socially muted self. These friends are to each other the rarest things in their respective worlds: partners fluent in each other’s particular languages.

(Similarly, Elisa bears a kind of receptive fluency for hearing the Amphibian Man’s songs as more than mere sound, more than the accident of an animal nature.)

But there are other shared signs besides signing, stories, and confession. For the film’s friends, food is a sign of intentional community. Between Elisa and Giles, there is a greater significance behind sandwiches—namely, the kind of daily care that makes Elisa a Ruth to Giles’ Naomi, a kinsman redeemer of the family for him who has no family. (Sadly, Dr. Hoffstetler/Dimitri’s butter cake stands as a tragically ironic instance of this.) Between Elisa and the Amphibian man, there is something far more fecund inside a hardboiled egg than sustenance—it is the hatching of an extravagant romance with otherness, and the birth of a form of communication that reaches further than words.

These languages are all expressive of found love—happy satisfactions of the basic human need for connection; but they do not articulate the profounder yearning of Elisa for the erotic—that state of love that is scarily ecstatic, that dangerous change that destroys the sad safety of separation to make wild new unions.

The language of color begins to express this yearning. Living cloistered in a world of overbearing green—classically symbolic of envy and lust—Elisa gradually acquires vivid red clothing—classically symbolic of romantic love generally and sexually desire particularly.[2] Through her shoes, coat, handbag and headband, she begins to stand out against her sickly, power-jealous backdrop. Contrary to Strickland’s only relationship to red—that of wrung blood—Elisa’s color represents the vital selfhood she has found in finding the Amphibian Man.

(Not coincidentally, it is after she has crowned herself in her red headband that Elisa takes up swearing in sign language—at Strickland, who is none the wiser, and furious at knowing so—and practically swims in the private power of her subversive love.)

The language of color spreads out into the language of visual art. Indeed, as many have noticed, the film is on a certain level a “love letter to old Hollywood,” to cinema generally, to creativity itself—and to the peculiar creativity of monsters.[3]

Throughout the film pictures, both still and moving, pop up as vivacious portals through which the characters can escape their dispiriting surroundings. Giles’ paintings are windows into a classic if confounded ideal of American happiness—and a compensatory way for him to relate to the society in which he has to hide. Likewise, his apartment is also filled with historical black and white photography, and his television plays movies from old Hollywood. The pictorial and filmic arts have given Giles a vicarious way to belong to a nonexistent golden age. And yet, these arts have a more purely positive power, for they are capable of gathering widely dissimilar people into a shared experience: the theater below Elisa’s apartment sits as an ample, if under-attended, venue for diverse ethnicities (and even a gill-man) to witness grand story and spectacle; sitting on a couch watching a Shirley Temple tap dance number, Giles and Elisa communicate fleeter than speech with only their feet; by the end of the movie, Giles has gone from the clean and safe commercial illustrations of the cheery all-white American family to a series of vigorous chiaroscuro portraits of the wild Amphibian man—his pictures in form and content now holding an actual, personal relevance for him, a passionate, fantastic reality to which he truly belongs. Even more so, Elisa’s donning of red, serves both to connect her with fairy tale and cinematic mythos and to compound these troubled traditions with her individual story of happy love. Through her red shoes alone, she rewrites a previous narrative of the tragic pursuit of impossible perfection with a quiet posture of actualized enjoyment.

Of course, visual art is not the only form that desire for common life takes. There is also that quickening art, music. The film shows that special strength of song to insinuate itself into the tightest environments, creating a swooning, swimming atmosphere even in a stifling bunker.

Elisa in particular uses music as a means for expanding her private longings for happy romance. In the middle of her menial and sometimes gruesome tasks—such as mopping up blood and other bodily fluids, or just generally cleaning up after boyishly hideous men—she smoothly slips into dance, turning her tool into a partner. After indulging her curiosity about the creature—that he may not in fact be a savage beast at all—and finding it true, she begins her first communications with the Amphibian Man by sneaking her records and turntable into the restricted area and playing titles like Glenn Miller’s “I know Why (And So Do you).” In this song in particular, the film, through the marriage of melody and lyric, conveys the still-submerged, not-yet-surfaced status of the erotic in life, and the special understanding of this that can occur between two people: “Why do robins sing in December? / Long before the springtime is due? / And even though it’s snowing the violets are growing. / I know why and so do you.” Indeed, music makes for much of the implicit bond that becomes the private world between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. When the threat of the outside world proves imminent to this privacy, Elisa still indulges in music as a kind of consolation, imagining a movie scene in which she and the creature can share one last dance, and in which she can finally have the voice to sing what can never fully be said.

And at last it is love’s communicable indescribability, its fluid shapelessness, that powers so much of “The Shape of Water.” This is the meaning that moves beneath the forms of character and reference, of politics and art, and rises up to crest resplendently in the figures of Elisa and the Amphibian Man.

How do these two convey this shapeable shapelessness? On a more surface level, but with profound effect, they do so through that seemingly primitive vessel, the body. When Elisa touches the purported monster, gently and affectionately, as if he were no monster, the creature’s skin begins to glow with blue bioluminescence. His skin shows the trails of her tenderness—a wondrous image for how one being can become a new creation because of another. And when the Amphibian Man touches Elisa, she awakens in more senses than one—she is not only healed and whole, but augmented. By giving her gills where there were once scars, the monster redeems the human, the Amphibian Man creates the Amphibian Woman—a being finally able to live where she feels most at home, not in the harsh dry air of the earth, but in the free-flowing boundlessness of the deep.

Indeed, it is in the image of the monster as a figure of romance that the film lifts up a symbol for human love. For it is in loving that human beings can best expand their realities. It is in loving that human beings can become one with otherness.[4]

The reckless love-making of Elisa and the Amphibian Man explodes and floods the lonely norm (literally speaking, her bathroom and apartment building). Indeed, it is in the nature of love to spread and reshape. Giles himself learns to communicate with the creature on his own terms—each holding the other’s bowed head in a kind of primordial communion, a strange, beautiful bond of trust. The cause of love rushes further outward than the original couple, encircling characters across rock hard identities of race and gender, across even warring nationalities and embattled species. The union of love creates communion for others, a common life where once only estrangement lived.

“Say what I sign,” Elisa tells Giles, and her friend listens. “When he looks at me, the way he look at me . . . He does not know, what I lack . . . Or—how—I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I—am, as I am.” Perhaps it is no accident that the creature’s initials spell “AM.” It is certainly no accident that it is Giles who confesses Elisa’s love, or that it is her friend who tells her story. It is not in the nature of love to be alone.

It is in the nature of love to do more than inhabit: in merely speaking, in merely appearing, it creates new worlds. It is a meaning too deep and wide to relate fully, or even closely. You have to resort to grand, outlandish gestures to try and touch on it.[5] At the end of the film, Giles resorts to the language of poetry: “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, it humbles my heart, for You are everywhere.” The film itself, through its fulsome logos of word and image, of sight and sound, of scale and sea, seeks to incarnate a wonderful, if all too often fantastic claim: that human beings, for all their monstrousness, can be most like the image of God when they love.

(All photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures)


[1] Not to mention his close but anxious identification with the figure of Samson, and his thrusting of the ignominious character of Delilah onto Zelda.

[2] For discussions of the cinematic significance of green and red in “Vertigo” and “The Red Shoes” and del Toro’s intentional use of this, see: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/the-shape-of-water-production-design; https://filmschoolrejects.com/vertigo-color-and-identity-32a2f013616c/

[3]http://collider.com/the-shape-of-water-interview-sally-hawkins-octavia-spencer/; http://www.horror-movies.ca/2017/12/review-shape-water-mesmerizing-love-letter-monsters/


[5] Perhaps it is the deepest and widest meaning of all—a reality so thoroughly below us and around us, and perhaps already so largely in us, that we forget that we would not exist in the first place without it. Perhaps, as water is to the earth, as water is to the body, so is love the preconditioned majority of our being. (If only we did not ignore ourselves to thirst. If only we knew how to fill ourselves—but then what would such a flood look like.)


The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone

America has never been an Eden—unless you’ve found an alternative history or Bible. At least as far as I understand the past 200+ years, this nation has never been too long without some form of conflict. We’ve waged a revolution to gain our independence. We’ve suffered a Civil War to save our union, as well as our claim to anything approaching actual equality. We’ve entered—and in some cases initiated—many contests overseas, and we’ve sustained many disputes at home. In every case we’ve never fully agreed on the right and proper course of action, or even why we should act in the first place. Indeed, at times our concerns are so disparate, and so diametrically opposed, and so asymmetrically proportioned, that in some very real sense it is absurd for me even to use the word “we.”

Still, by many countries’ standards, I think that the United States does excel at having a high volume of public opinion, and that volume may be said to represent a kind of consistency. “We” have tended to speak as if we were all directly involved in our country’s many doings. And this is good, and this is true, if we take our democratic ideals seriously. In some generic sense, at least, we have often communicated to each other with urgency and utmost concern, as if something deeper than our lives depended on it. This is also good and true. It is absolutely necessary: the moment we stop speaking to each other will inaugurate a kind of death not even the Civil War could accomplish.

And yet, lately I am finding, inside of myself and around me, a new sense of urgency and a new form of involvement—which is to say, a new form of communication. (By “lately” I actually mean the past decade or so, which is relatively “new” even in the American scheme of things.) As I’ve already mentioned, this past election season threw our new forms of democratic participation into stark relief for me, and I’ve spent many an idle moment and post mulling over what it means to be an American on 21st century social media. One commonality has stood out significantly to me. Now, I am aware of the dangers of neutralizing through generalization; and I don’t think equivocation is a productive way to solve a plurality of detailed problems. But by my lights, to be an American at this moment means (among multitudinous other things) to have a sense of urgency, and this urgency, as I see it, is to react—as quickly and clearly and absolutely as possible. It seems to me that we have a virtual sense of duty to a socially mediated nation.

Now, I want to make it clear from the get-go that I am not gainsaying the reality of our problems themselves. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the most bedeviling problems our national discourse faces is unfortunately the persistent debate about the veracity of many of our “issues” instead of any thorough discussion about possible strategies for approaching and ameliorating them. However, I believe that the habits of thinking that we have acquired through the employment and maintenance of social media as our major—perhaps our primary—venue for communication are novel, untested, and sometimes troubling, and therefore all the more in need of consideration. In myself in particular, I have noticed these habits influence my cognition and my decision-making with such an immediacy that they might as well be reflexes. And so, at the very least, I write in the hopes of seeing just how much of me has changed, and whether those changes reflect, enhance, or shatter that person I would like to call “myself.”


My Country, ’Tis of Me—Virtually

We have always had things we care about deeply, but now we have things we care about quickly, hastily, and flagrantly. We have had fervor before, but now we carry it in our pockets. I myself have felt the wriggling anger in my muscles at a person or post that flies in the face of my morals. Sometimes I truly believe that someone has broken with my understanding of our democratic code, and that person henceforth stands out in my mind as a real and present threat to my America—even though, being represented in their tiny picture and limited text, they are at most an icon of a threat. Now, there may be a real point to the notion that anyone who speaks an unconstitutional word stands in danger of representing a rhetorical threat, which we should oppose and resist rhetorically in order to protect the rights of ourselves and future others; but nowadays I find that the sense of duty, the sense obligation, to rebut any such speech has been intensified to the point of necessity. I don’t just want to rebut them—I want to rebuff them, completely, and within the panting seconds. Such a reply would be an immediate defeat of them—whoever they are. Such a defeat necessitates a more brazen language.

We wage a war of opposing reports all the time. We keep an uncountable tally of strident headlines everyday, sometimes by the hour. “Such-and-Such Politician CRUSHES Some-Other-Politician.” Or, in the place of “CRUSHES,” we’re just as liable to see “DEFEATS,” “BLASTS,” “HUMILIATES,” or “SLAMS.” (Or, in the case of today, “SCREWS.”) I confess that I have enjoyed a sense of smug satisfaction at seeing some individual or group called a name—and in our 2017 currency, many of our labels have the same value as epithets—even though my tradition and resources, not to mention my experience of myself, tell me this can’t sum up the full complexity they face (or choose not to face). No matter how aptly the term at this time may circumscribe their faults, and no matter how they in their faults may insist on reducing themselves, in the inalienable processes that they indisputably are, individually and circumstantially, they always retain the possibility of changing their minds.

With this unceasing reportage and this inveterate sense of embroilment, I have come to realize that I have my own virtual nation inside of myself, and I have a sense that others contain their own virtual nations as well. Really, mine takes the form of many versions, depending on how I feel and who I talk to, what I’ve read and what day of the week it might be. This virtual nation of mine materializes most on my screens, but it continues on in particular forms, colors, and textures (or lack thereof) inside my mind, and often behind my foremost thought-life. It has primed me to witness and respond to virtual national conflicts. It has even trained me to search for them.

Of course, we all have different narratives with which we veil the world. Sometimes the pattern will match some portion of the phenomena we come to face—perhaps we have woven it from carefully observed experience—but other times the images we’ve rendered and reinforced for ourselves prove all too turbid not to blind us to the facts, whatever they are, leaving us to wander disappointed and perplexed in search of the story we thought we were in. Often—too often—we become frustrated and grope after easy answers. These narratives can be temporary, like the anticipation of how a birthday party will go, or the fear of speaking to one’s in-laws or boss. Or they can be long-lasting, like the jagged figure a person cuts when they hold beliefs sharply opposed to one’s own.

But through this virtual national narrative—at least in my experience—reality roils with how I think or believe things should be and how they seem to be on social media. It is steady, turbulent type of cognition, an oil-and-water stream of consciousness. The shapes of my ideas may be constantly changing, flowing into new forms, but the pattern of the media is disruptive, yet statically so. I see too many people only as explosions of propriety or, perhaps more commonly, as furtive suspects of injustice. Either way, according to my socially mediated instinct, the people around me are probably complicit of something they should be abashed about. But most peculiar of all is that this newly born virtual nation of mine calls me to enact it, and react for it, constantly. I am duty-bound to do something about all these ideological fires people are setting; I have to rush out this instant to my finger tips and with a fervid tapping correct the erroneous-to-the-point-of-harmful opinions I will almost never hear in the waving tones of a human voice. I may be at a patio table, drinking an iced coffee, reclining with the sun on my outstretched feet, but I am living in an eveningland of strife.


Streamed Consciousness: The Not-So-Silent, Not-So-Private Reader

Social media has become a very personal concern for me, not just because it proposes to be news, but in large part because it has become such a pervasive form of reading. Like any reading practice, it can’t but influence the way we think and write, think and speak, think and see, think and behave. Thus, even as social media informs me of the world, it inevitably forms me like itself.

On emotional, epistemological, and relational levels, I struggle with the “information” delivered to me and with my handling of it. The things I want to click on and post and repost only serve to reinforce my hardening patterns. The people I want to affirm are a semi-conscious select society, and hardly a surprise to prejudicial thinking. I worry that I am in danger of depriving myself of the personal enlargement that can only happen when the self encounters and absorbs novel difference, whether through literature or through first-hand contact. In person, I have seen myself watch the stream of someone else’s speech for any resemblance to those unsayable infractions I have read about so often. I search the screen of their face already reading incorrectness or opposition. It is now an incipient habit of mine sometimes to regard family and friends as potential strangers to my uninhabited sphere of moral purity and to see strangers of certain seeming as known adversaries in an ongoing exchange we have never personally started.

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of this is actually the “reality”—really the realities—that these social mediations point to. The “content” of the reading, at the most basic level, is often indeed a real-world problem, and therefore right and proper cause for concern. However, the ways in which the problem is mediated is itself problematic. Each event is made a tiny object in the flowing stream of myriads. Upsets, scandals, and catastrophes rush alongside each other until they are replaced by the next hour’s surge. This is what we have now grown accustomed to calling “information overload.” But just how this reality affects our relationship to ourselves individually and collectively, both near and far, and to our devices, now closer to us than ever, should give us pause.

For me, the crisis has often been normalized. The situation, whatever it is, has been shrunk down to a story, which I in my haste often shorten to a headline, and the issue has been turned into a sensation. In other words, in this fast and furious war of images and text, far ranging but far from first-hand, the media is marching on.

To what degree does social media more often inform me of itself, of its unslakable thirst for attention, than it does about the world’s many goings-on? If I can hazard an overarching estimation, I suspect that the media is winning more than anyone else, certainly much more than “the people,” and that necessarily includes the executives who benefit so astronomically from the business of mediating everyone. Insofar as I can safely speak of “the media” as a monolith, I think this is true—and, really, we do entrust our synapses to some pretty big names behind the wires. Perhaps this is why ours is an increasingly singularizing culture. Single issues play the role of household names, until another issue comes to replace them a day or week or hour later; scandals unite people in chatter just like the new Coke. Single people often play the hero-villain to our sense of the many-storied world, setting verbal fires like Iago. When one person seems to charge across our screens, it is because the media has gladly followed the trail of misdeeds and the piles of ill-repute; for its food is pure attention, and it is by nature a scavenger. To what degree do we ourselves—we human beings who supposedly run or at least uphold the media—become scavengers of stories, regurgitating them for each other in some mash of vague verbatim?

Certainly the media is not merely a runaway juggernaut raging inside of a vacuum—there do remain real human beings behind it, who have created it and continue to run it. There remain the people like you and me who perpetuate its work. Theoretically, I think, the media could serve other incentives, should we ever show a corporate desire for depth and dialectic. We could readjust our systems to support further consideration and keener connection, if only we were not so geared toward fracture and estrangement. And so, yes, the media has run away with itself. But we are doing the chasing.

And I believe we are becoming more like it everyday. I can see the image of my screen reflected in myself. Take, for instance, my use of language to attempt to respond to some awful event or action. Back in the days before my smart phone ever possessed more than my pocket, a news story would loom in my thoughtlife for much longer a duration before I ever responded to it. Or, if I did respond to it, it was through that original “face time” with real people talking together in-person (look at all those qualifiers to point to basic conversation). Perhaps most striking of all, back then the thought never once crossed my mind to make some official statement to some personal public. I had none back then. Instead, I would store the story up inside my brain alongside other likewise tragic or frustrating or confounding memories. Consternation could make connections to King Lear; fear, if it was fear, could have a network through extended contemplation that would stretch out to Isaiah and the Psalms.

Now, I’m not saying that this doesn’t or can’t happen nowadays. But at least for me-myself it’s happening less often and, when it does, with much more time and effort. When I see something that I would find truly morally outraging if only I were to sit with it to think and feel it through—to honor it like the throbbing thing it is—my first instinct is to click, and post, and leave a two-word caption—an adverb and an adjective intended to denote real outrage that end up devoid of any impact through the oft-repeated formula. How deeply disturbing is “Deeply disturbing!” to a reader when they have seen it at repeatedly pedestrian times—while eating cereal, and also while waiting for a bus, and also while sitting on the toilet—and while doing other everyday mental tasks—while looking at movie times, and also while texting someone back, and also while thinking about a work thing? In my better moments, I have a passion enough for a will to actually refuse to let this sophisticated handful of sand reduce my language to mundanity. In my off-times, when my hands are busy and my eyes are free to open thinking, I contemplate being someday better able to pray and work and work and pray to keep the floods of social media from washing away the images of living people and their troubles in its anonymizing froth.


The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone—Sometimes

It should be clear by now that I have major qualms about participating in social media, even if only as an on-looker. Indeed, I sincerely believe that it has a pernicious potential, both morally and cognitively, which is also to say relationally. If this present period is any indication, social media has the power only to exacerbate the more negative tendencies of human beings residing close to conflict. Within political disputes, this form of communication often seems best suited for divisive, retaliatory language, for the spreading of speedy comment about minimal information or thought. I personally have taken many a “social media sabbath” and considered myself far better off. I can often say to others with full impunity, “You could do worse than drop your phone in the toilet.”

And yet I hold inside of myself an abiding belief in “democracy,” and a firm conviction that this term requires discourse to be anything approaching a reality. Beside, behind, and below the many disembodied pundits I give internal ear to, I also hear the voices of certain principles I was taught to believe I shared with others. More ingrained than my American original sin of an Eden affronted, a lapse into pre-democratic hostility, even more inherent than the image of my virtual America, is the far older Image that I bear and share whether I know it or not. Both of these sources teach me to do more than watch and judge. Both teach me to speak and act when injustice, rhetorical or otherwise, is being done to the people and the Person. How then could I do nothing?

My internal dispute in a very small way resembles to me a much greater and much more public one that occurred last century between two famous brothers. They too subscribed to foundational American principles of democracy and freedom, union and independence; and these two men were already at this time figures of sterling theological reputation. Both were considered major authorities on matters of personal faith and the just society, and the relation between the two; neither one of them agreed with the other on the proper way to react to a major international conflict.

The two brothers were H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. The conflict was the mounting war between China and Japan in the early thirties. The dilemma was the published debate in The Christian Century between the two brothers over intervention: should the US step in and put a stop to the enormities of the Japanese empire? What did it mean to be an American and a Christian reading a newspaper constantly reporting real atrocities?

In his piece, “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” H. Richard Niebuhr viewed the fighting across the Pacific as a quagmire untenable for foreign aid. He fully empathized with the heated desire to go and act in a real, effectual way—but what could an average citizen, or even a church congregation, or even a whole denomination, do? How could the proponents of human freedom and human salvation possibly do their work in the middle of literally dehumanizing contests? Thus, writing to a socially conscious, ethically motivated readership, and as a social ethicist himself, H. Richard gave voice to a prevailing sense of moral consternation.

“[W]e are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do. We pass resolution, aware that we are doing nothing; we summon up righteous indignation and still do nothing; we write letters to congressmen and secretaries, asking others to act while we do nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing? . . . When we do nothing we are also affecting the course of history.”[1]

For H. Richard, there was nothing potentially liberative, either politically or religiously, that could come from spreading wider the violence of war. “The problem we face is [thus] between various kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction.” To H. Richard’s lights, there were ways in which the church, both individually and collectively, could still embody the kingdom of God as Christ does in the Gospels. This was through faith in God. As H. Richard himself admitted, the option was not an attractive one for a modern American Christian. “It appears to be impracticable because it rests on the well-nigh-obsolete faith that there is a God—a real God.” How could one sit still when the press was running with the furies of the world? But for H. Richard, and for anyone who took the theology proper of Protestantism seriously (and really for anyone who took the claims about the total freedom of God in scripture—the God of the prophets and Jesus—seriously), there was always a living God working with or without human participation. Grace—that freest, fullest reality—could and would continue to create a very real connection between the life of the soul and the life of the world.

And so for H. Richard the duty of the Christian, American or otherwise, was at such a time as this to take up the cross of helpless inaction. From there the faithful could leave behind the often all-too-worldly impulse toward doing something and work quietly inside of the faith that something was “being done.” Such a faith opened up a worldview of “the total divine process” in human history, in which the tumultuous flow of events could hold a reciprocal communication with “human thoughts and prayers.”

For Reinhold Niebuhr, however, inaction was not the only possible option—and it was not, in fact, the most appropriate or crucial one. While he admired and largely agreed with the “pure love ethic” at the heart of his brother’s position, Reinhold nevertheless did not believe that such an ideal “can ever be made the basis of a civilization.”[2] No nation, no individual could realistically accomplish the impossible standard of a literal, Christlike “ethical perfectionism”:

“All this does not prove . . . that we ought to apply the words Jesus, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ literally. If we do we will never be able to act. There will never be a wholly disinterested nation. Pure disinterestedness is an ideal which even individuals cannot fully achieve, and human groups are bound always to express themselves in lower ethical forms than individuals. It follows that no nation can ever be good enough to save another nation purely by the power of love. . . . [T]he ethical and spiritual note of love and repentance can do no more than qualify the social struggle in history. It will never abolish it.”

For Reinhold, God did indeed move and work through the lived processes of history; but God did not surprise history out of its undeniable logic—or, at the very least, God did not participate in history without calling into it other participants. “[A]s long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal.” It was up to God to reveal the ideal of perfect love; it was up to human beings to perceive it, to adjust their failings in the hopes of coming a little closer to it, and to hope for the day when grace would finally achieve it. To Reinhold’s lights, the only option for the person hoping to avoid any actual fault or failing led to “asceticism or apocalypticism.”

In truth, the two theologian brothers agreed on a fair number of fundamentals. In their estimation of the situation, and their analyses of the divine and human places within it, they were thoroughly protestant. But where H. Richard emphasized divine sovereignty apart from human agency, Reinhold stressed immanent grace within and despite human endeavors.

I find that both positions are instructive for a consideration of how to act on social media. While there are obvious limits to comparing the grand-scale quandaries surrounding one nation’s potential military intervention in the Pacific theater with the more pedestrian issues arising from a casual-to-constant participation in socially mediated disputes, both circumstances yield the question of the benefits and detriments of involvement—to act or not to act (virtually or otherwise); and, indeed, in my mind at least, the sense on social media has been one of intervention—the confrontation with a somewhat threatful piece of news or rhetoric. To my mind, we very definitely do consider virtual things actionable, if only in a virtual sense.

This means, to me, that we must cultivate a virtual form of social ethics. We have long kept a skeptical eye on the Internet—and it has arisen to the forefront somewhat recently—but the question (or, for some, crisis) of our socially mediated morals should always be in our minds. I would like to submit—at least at this point in my life and thinking about the subject, and in my most current participation in the national, public moment—that we strive toward a more dialectical understanding of social media.

This means having a more critical awareness of the many ways in which we participate in social media and how it continues to influence our thinking and decision-making. I find the Niebuhr brothers, taken together, can illustrate a helpful balance of human possibilities on social media—perhaps some of them largely untried—and of human limits in any digital action, individually or collectively.

Already there are ways in which our social media has shown that “life in history,” even digital history, “must be recognized as filled with indeterminate possibilities.”[3] Some of the positive possibilities of this technology have long been documented—from its very beginning, for instance, it has been a place of rapidly successful connectivity. Without the collaborative formation of a “Broad Community,” the further sharing of information between disparate peoples across enormous distances would never have occurred. To take perhaps one of the most realistic (read: non-virtual) and positive applications social media has had recently (and maybe ever), the successful passage and settling of many refugee families have been thanks to the rapid spread of information between other newly displaced families. Refugee teens, who are facing an even greater threat to their whole selves at a time of already fragile identity, have been able to build a special kind of resiliency through social connections, many of which have been aided and enhanced through online communities.[4] And, not unrelated, the free spread of and access to information from across the globe has helped to “lift the veil” of stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed or been kept covered up, giving rise to “new ways of understanding.”[5] Indeed, in these examples alone, social media appears to be a “place” of seemingly innumerable and potentially ameliorating possibilities.

And I do really believe it can be. I still believe we can turn our weapons back into tools, our screens back into lenses. In this glass we can find a peculiar kind of mirror. Its images can change if we do. On a national, public level, this could mean challenging ourselves to try heretofore unexplored ways of communicating with each other. We have shown ourselves plenty of what we can do with the speed and efficiency of the internet; but I wonder at how much further we could fill it with thought. Our technology has encouraged us to be clear and concise—about as perspicuous as caution tape, and about as thoughtful. Now we might encourage ourselves to be assiduous and self-examining. From the presses came both scandal sheets and Leaves of Grass. Thus, to speak on a very practical level, perhaps we could show ourselves more just, by affirming more than negating (when the time is right), by reminding more than renouncing, by asking, and listening, before we choose to react. Social media really could be a place where we connect with other selves, and find our own selves growing larger.

But this will have its limits, and I believe there are real dangers if we ever invest social media with anything like a salvific potency. As Reinhold, looking back on the failures and catastrophes of the twentieth century, recognized, “[E]very effort and pretension to complete life, whether in collective or individual terms . . . every desire to stand beyond the contradictions of history, or to eliminate the final corruptions of history must be disavowed.”[6] Just as we enjoy and can further explore the myriad possibilities of social media, we also increasingly risk ironic limitations to any thoroughgoing digital lifestyle. Our enhancement can become entrenchment. Our human powers can become post-human bugs.

I have already covered a number of ways in which this already has been true for me. But I would like to highlight some issues that I believe pose a problem for our very natures, and for our future being.

The first of these is obviously the baneful nature of our political discourse. Just a cursory Google search of “social media and political discourse” will bring up headlines like “The Toxicity of Online Political Discourse: How Platforms Are Poisoning Our Conversations” and “How Social Media is Ruining Politics” show just how rancorous and besetting our exercises in communication have been of late. The good news is that we are conscious of our failings. The bad news is that the consciousness of them will become banal to us—we may make the threat to online discourse anodyne by posting so much and doing so little about it.

Indeed, I worry that our hatred of each other has become too much like entertainment. There are real reasons to worry about this. Inherent in the operation of the media are the drives of curiosity and excitement, fear and scandal; more deeply inherent in all of these is a strong self-interest—we watch that news segment at the airport because it interests us, because knowing more about it will give us something to talk about, sound smart about, or feel threatened and therefore, by a more animal logic, feel provisionally safer from. Our instinct to know is not a bad thing—until it is mixed with pure spectatorship. We wouldn’t watch a movie (at least, most movies) and take it as a personal, actionable threat to our ideals or selves. But this is exactly what we do. And there are people who know this, and profit from it. They are in the business of our contempt; their success currently depends on our willingness to click on rancor.[7] They are what Reinhold called the wiser “children of darkness,” who prey on the foolish “children of light”:

“The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the power of anarchy in both the national and the international community.”[8]

I fear that we have somewhat of an “ideological taint” in us that keeps us believing in our current modes of discourse as effective, and from seeing the “moral cynicism” that often more truly propels it.

But even our ability to discourse itself and the deeper abilities behind it—of reading and thinking and expressing ourselves—are already showing signs of real change for the worse. A recent study from UCLA is but one of many waving a red flag about our self-consumption in digital culture: “As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined, while our visual skills have improved.”[9] The ability to think and imagine, that leaping of the mind beyond the eyes’ seeing, is what Calvin associated with the soul. We will have to think seriously, and work carefully, to prevent ourselves from losing it.

To speak again very practically, I believe (and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) that we could do a hell of a lot worse than to make concerted returns to good old-fashioned book-reading. Studies continue to show that reading real books is the age-old, time-tested enhancement of consciousness. Certainly, as stories like those of the recent refugees illustrate (and a many million others), information is important, sometimes crucial, to how we freely determine ourselves. The spread of digital literacy may have similar socially liberating properties as standard literacy had in manuscript and print cultures.[10] But it will also always be the classic—perhaps even canonical—mode of private self-exploration and –expansion. In books we find a reciprocal relationship between ourselves and a person far away or long gone. We may disagree with what we find, but the mental investment of having to find in the first place precludes any easy or flippant response. We have already made the opposite person’s meaning by paying our mind to the incarnate print. (John Milton happened to think that a good book so much bore the imprint of the person that made it, that it could rightly be considered “the image of God, as it were in the eye.”)[11]

On an even more personal level, the benefits of private, silent reading of real books is really immeasurable. There is the growing perspicacity it affords. There is the mental clarity—what Samuel Johnson meant when he said, “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.” There is extension of lived experience through imaginative identification. There is nothing quite like reading vivid fiction. Whether through large characters or flat shimmering types, through a vast and crowded panorama or one lonely solipsist, fiction gives us a safe unbounded space to inhabit unmet humanities. This of course has the very germane social benefit of fostering empathy in the reader. But it also has the neurological benefit of engendering “cognitive reserve,” that extra map of synapses so instrumental in staving off the effects and behaviors of Alzheimer’s disease.[12] In other words, reading in this mode nourishes our memory, which is, after all, where we do all of our thinking in this flow of time. In other words, reading may keep us from losing our souls—for at least a little longer.

Now, there are many, many other things we could be doing instead of staying on our phones—talking with our dinner companions, for one; going for walks and finding new birds, for another; taking a bath, learning guitar, even writing our name might be better, at times. But I hope it is clear that what I am looking for—first and foremost in myself—is a dialectic, a balance, in this technology to often going overboard. There is a grace to doing nothing on your phone—sometimes.

I would like to hold a more chastened view of social media, even when I affirm the viewpoints articulated in it. Both Reinhold and Richard hold a chastened appreciation for all human agency, and their writings help inform my thoughts on possible virtual actions. Certainly, neither one of them would deny that there resides a mysterious reality pointed to in the biblical phrase “the image and likeness of God,” a resemblance which should never be reduced and only all the more seen and portrayed. Both would second Calvin’s observation—really his proclamation—that “[m]anifold indeed is the nimbleness of the soul which surveys heaven and earth . . . Manifold also is the skill with which it devises things incredible, and which is the mother of so many marvelous devices.”[13] And yet both would aver that no matter how high humanity’s achievements may rise, now matter how far or much our devices may reach, there remains an unavoidable base “self-interest” behind even apparently high-minded endeavors. There can be an inescapable element of self-centeredness in every democratic program, virtual or otherwise, an inherent trait of fallenness in all religious works—again, virtual or otherwise. But beyond this arrogating self, there is also a vast, pluralistic universe whose multiplicity and complexity create conflicts that often thwart and dwarf any human enterprise. We will only continue to find limit at the end of our abilities. We will find that irony is, in Marilynne Robinson’s memorable phrase, only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon.”

At his more pessimistic, Niebuhr believed that it was only after a real ironic experience of our limits had occurred that real productive change could happen. This change would originate in what he called “creative despair,” the real chastening. I hate to think of “the inducement of the ‘Godly sorrow’ which worketh repentance”[14] for the Internet—I cannot and do not want to imagine how that might happen. But my sources tell me that such points are unavoidable, and indeed history shows them to be fairly imminent. My sources also tell me that this is when hope and faith are most likely to be born into the world. We may only continue to hack ourselves to pieces of text, but we may be made new in our lowest points, by a Body and Breath and Word that we barely recognize.

My sources tell me that America, yours or mine, virtual or actual, is but another nation among many, that democracy is but another device of human making, and that actual freedom will one day be put to rest in the realest Freedom.

He rests wars to the end of the earth.

He breaks the bow and splinters the spear.

“Let go and know

that I am God.

I will be lifted in the nations,

I will be lifted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:9-10)

The word that I have rendered “rests” more technically means “causes to rest” or “makes rest,” and comes from the very same root as the word “Sabbath”; thus, the verse could in fact read: “He sabbaths wars to the end of the earth.” The verb famously translated as “be still” (from the Hebrew raphah) more literally means to “let go” or “let drop,” to relax one’s hold of something. It is often used in reference to the resting from work, the relinquishing of anger, or the weakening of might. Similarly, the verb often translated as “exalt” (from the Hebrew rum) more actually means to “be lifted” or “high,” to “rise” because of someone else’s doing.

My sources tell me of an end to conflict beyond human duty, but open to our participation. It is a time of letting go and raising up of a Peace surpassing all our devices.

(Photo credits: William Klein and Lisette Model.)


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Grace of Doing Nothing”: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_theology_the-grace-of-doing-nothing; originally published in The Christian Century (March 23, 1932). All subsequent H. Richard quotes are from this article.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Must We Do Nothing?”: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_theology_must-we-do-nothing; originally published in The Christian Century (March 30, 1932). All subsequent Reinhold quotes, unless otherwise cited, are from this article.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 2, p. 207.

[4] See: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/07/30/540002667/how-do-refugee-teens-build-resilience; and also: http://www.teenvogue.com/story/im-16-years-old-and-im-a-syrian-refugee.

[5] From Crisis, Exposure, Imagination: Lifting the Veils, eds. Jordan E. Miller, Craig Condella, and Fred Abong, p. 1. A sample is available here.

[6] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 207.

[7] At least with certain “news” outlets, I am in no way exaggerating. I will not point any fingers, but I hope you know what I mean. There are other ways to write of the world, even when people are making themselves scandals. The times I have hazarded a comparison of different platforms this has proven true—as true as the verifiable difference between television news and a documentary.

[8] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, pp. 10-11.

[9] http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/is-technology-producing-a-decline-79127

[10] To give one more recent example: as Toni Morrison points out, “literacy was power” to the newly emancipated but still culturally sub-human slaves, “a way of assuming and proving the ‘humanity’ that the Constitution denied them.” Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” from Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser, p. 189.

[11] John Milton, Aeropagitica.

[12] http://www.npr.org/2017/07/21/537016132/lisa-genova-can-alzheimers-disease-be-prevented

[13] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Ch. V, paragraph v.

[14] The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 206.

Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings

Christ and the People Mosaic(Photo thanks to Picture Mosaics.)

Nowadays, we see people wherever we go–you might even say more than wherever we go. They follow us, and we follow them. They are virtually always with us, even in our most private moments. Oftentimes, without any personal connection, without ever hearing the sound of their voice, we watch their behavior, and scrutinize it, and display our own views on their persons to the rest of the “public.” We see what they’re up to while we sit in the bathroom. There was a time when we never would have thought of doing this. We have already seen them so often, so inveterately, that we no longer see just how we are seeing them. I myself have been as blind to this “seeing” as I am to the nose on my face.

I personally see them only as “them” and never as “we.” They are strangers I know everything about.

We live in an age of personally but digitally mediated people. This is the genesis of the “technoself.”[1] We have instant, individual alerts and updates of live events, brought about by people made into headlines made into capital letters. This is the viral-but-virtual, public-in-private complex of twenty-first century media. This is the current “BREAKING” on our 3.5-inch screens. Of course, picture and video more fully relate what has happened in real-time situations. But even then it is a clipped reality, a tiny square of our many quilted and rippling dimensions, narrowed to a focus, frozen out of time, and flattened for our screens.

We live in an age of platformed people. Continue reading “Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings”