September 7, 2020

In the third of his 2001 Stob Lectures, published as Common Objects of Love, Oliver O'Donovan explores the modern phenomenon of "publicity," the distinctly modern proliferation of images and information through advertising, news media, and entertainment.

Publicity didn't exist in the ancient world. Kings had messengers and spies, but not everyone needed to know the latest happenings. Besides, forms of "socially disciplined wisdom" were differentiated from each other. Priests, artists, philosophers, lawyers had their own specialized modes of knowledge.

Christianity introduced an "egalitarian" element, a "community in which all participated freely of the Spirit of God and had equal access to revelation through faith."

For Christians, besides, there was one ultimate Word, and thus a principle of unity among different modes of knowledge and forms of language. The Christian culture of the Western Middle Ages was thus characterized by "homogeneity . . . the interpenetration of the various branches of sacred and secular learning within an all-encompassing word."

Modernity is heir to both of these traditions. Academic specialization mimics the ancient division of labor, while publicity develops the "populism" of Christianity, as "a late fruit of the Pentecostal inspiration of Christianity."

This poses a dilemma: "what prospect can there be for a Pentecostal discourse that depends on no Holy Spirit and acknowledges no gospel? What can stand between this communication and the self-destructive dominion of rumor?" What indeed?

O'Donovan's examination of the phenomenon of publicity is brilliant. It is "a roaming spotlight, catching people unpredictably in its beam." What captures the attention of publicity isn't achievement or virtue but "pathos." Those whose attention is captured have no apparent interest in what the spotlight spotlights. Publicity creates common interest.

Publicity isn't neutral. It presents what it presents selectively, and shapes what it illumines into easily graspable forms - stereotypes, of good or evil. One always appears within publicity as something, but not as the something one chooses to be: "Publicized, one is not the master of his own appearing."

The main forms of publicity - news, advertising, and entertainment - are "closely interwoven." News includes "infomercials" and "infotainments." And the aims of publicity aren't always the ones advertised. There is no commercial rationale for advertising, he notes, but a sociological one: "Business wears advertising as Peers wear ermine, not to accomplish anything but to maintain its dignity."

Entertainment has sucked up all manner of events in order to mediate them. Once, sports events were watched only by those at the stadium, concerts by those in the hall, plays by those in the theater. Now media has "digested" these various collective experiences and homogenized them in the process. None of these cultural reforms remains the same once it's mediated.

To grasp the significance of publicity, we need to dig deeper. It is, he claims, modern society's particular form of "self-representation." In place of history, song, poetry, statues and monuments, holidays, which are the traditional ways societies have represented themselves to themselves, modern societies have publicity.

In that context, publicity looks like compensation for a loss. A loss of what? A loss of common language, objects of knowledge, objects of love. Modernity takes specialization to an extreme. The organs of publicity serve up things we can all know and share.

Publicity also substitutes for traditional mechanisms of social judgment. We can't discriminate on the basis of moral law. Instead, public judgment is formed and guided by the judgments passed by publicity. The pressure to adopt these judgments may be soft pressure, but it's real. It is "so encompassing and so persistent that it may achieve by stifling insistence something of the same oppressiveness that other forms of social imposition achieve by brutality."

Publicity also functions as a replacement for the collapse of traditional forms of legitimacy. As democracy degenerates into populism, as representatives come to be seen as mere "delegates" of the electorate, officeholders are "sustained only by unremitting legitimating exercises of publicity."

Publicity replaces public philosophy, as it "mediates certain distinctive persuasions." It instills the "conviction that the identity of any thing lies in change." It mediates a form of universalism, as images and information moves across the world at the speed of a click.

O'Donovan sets up his entire discussion of publicity against the background of the debates between iconoclasts and iconodules. He returns to that context, arguing that the church's response is alertness, patience, and worship.

These appear "quietist," but John envisions them as "means of conquest . . . because they are disciplines of attention, focusing on the one representation [the one Icon] that alone sustains a community of resistance." In worship, the church honors "the one representative image to rule all other images."

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.