Iconocrisis: Prologue and Preface

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” –Jesus, John 20:29

“I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” –Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

Eleven years ago I left society. That, at least, was what many people thought I was doing, myself included. After over a year of failing to maintain a satisfying relationship with college and California, I decided to go up to Alaska, to Spruce Island, to live in a monastery. In many ways my decision was indeed a kind of social clearing for myself—in clichéd (but true) secular terms, a chance to lose the world and find myself; in hackneyed (but true) religious terms, an opportunity to retreat and discern. And indeed, there would be times when I would find the always possible but increasingly remote reality of sacramental living, where the spirit breathes steadily through earth, and the still small voice thrums loudly in the solitary ear.

(Icon Bay, Spruce Island. Photo: John Adams/Wikipedia.)

But in another sense, my retreat away from society was just as much a sojourn into new ones. Continue reading “Iconocrisis: Prologue and Preface”


Roger Deakins: Cinematic Iconographer

“The eye comes first.” – St. Theodore of Studios

“Does the story tell without sound?” – Conrad Hall


This Sunday saw the long overdue Oscar win for one of modern cinema’s greatest cinematographers, Roger Deakins. His almost unending snubbing seemed emblematic of the director of photography’s usual plight as the unsung hero of a movie’s success. After all, without cinematography there would be no visual story, which is to say there would be no movie. We the viewing public too often take cinematographers for granted as we take cameras for granted, and yet it is thanks to their keen sight and careful positioning that we forget the latter completely and so immediately believe the story coming to live before us. But even if after Sunday night he had still not received his much-deserved recognition—that is, even if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had still not come to its senses after fourteen opportunities—Deakins’s legacy would have remained already firmly established. In Deakins, the role of cinematographer, usually “one of the most obscure members of the production team, responsible for all the visual elements of the film,”[1] has risen to an auteur status. He is the unseen author of the silent stories we see and believe and carry with us long after we have left the theater or screen. His images leave a certain special imprint in the viewer, develop memories of a vicarious experience they otherwise would not have had. Continue reading “Roger Deakins: Cinematic Iconographer”

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

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. Continue reading “The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone”

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”