Iconic Ontology Vol. 2 (Spring) 2018

Icon and Digital Iconicity

In the ongoing debate over online euphoria on the American scene, one of the authors warns: “As our cyber personalities grow more detailed, we see lees of one another in person.”[1] This debate sometimes leads to Hamlet’s dilemma: to be a virtual world, supported by cyber-worshipers, or not to be, as proposed by cyber-sceptics. It is easy to lean toward the opinion of those that zealously underestimate technology, but also of those who with the same devotion defend technology, or even celebrate it. There is a “religiosity” in some people’s conception of the text, cell phone, or email. However, instead of escaping from the digital culture, faced with Hamlet’s dilemma, one might consider a counter-proposal: when (or, better, before) we notice that, despite the convenience it offers, technology begins to deprive us of personal uniqueness by reducing us to numbers, then is the moment to resist.

One approach to facing these challenges is the icon. If the icons of the Church comfort us with a divine tranquility, it is because they reveal the deeper truth. Thanks to iconography, reality becomes “true” to the extent that it reflects the future, the eschatological state. But what place does the Christian Orthodox have icon in the twenty-first century? Icons are no longer exclusive to Orthodox believers and their places of worship, since they have gained celebrity among Catholics and even Protestants. One might consider it a great success to see the world’s largest museums offering their space for icon exhibitions and displaying them to a wide, non-religious audience. However, in their display, meaning and reflection is blunted by a shallow celebration of an image, much like the momentary Snapchat.

By cultivating icons, Christians celebrate the seeing and vision of life that is transfigured and changed in the Person of Jesus Christ. Every genuine art—and an icon is an obvious example—begins from nothingness[2] and mask and then reaches to being and person. Apart from the extensive theological use of the term person, this notion is very significant in dialogue with contemporary art and science. Only with the help of the term “person” can we demonstrate the dignity, uniqueness, and unrepeatability of man. With its eschatological criterion, the icon corresponds with the genuine request of art: that the reality of things be represented visually not as they have been, or as they are, but as they might be. Byzantine iconography conveys exactly this vision of life to the society and culture in which we live: it expresses the spirit of a Christianized Hellenism which depicts a person as it will be, overcoming thus the protological ontology (i.e., an ontology of death).

The great challenge that the iconic ontology conveys to our “photographic logic” is that it requires us to consider a presence without death, something entirely unthinkable in our collective experience. The icon does not postpone, rather it anticipates the future by relating it personally and ontologically. Icons are precious treasures in the Tradition, which testify to the personal relationship with God, and the viewpoint that a Christian doesn’t belong solely to himself/herself, to his/her job, or the ambitions of this world, but to God. Icons reveal that we are not alone or isolated, but that we belong to the communion of the saints, who the Lord loves with such a great capacity that this world, with all of its temptations, cannot take away. This is, truly, the basis and goal of Christian prayer and compassion as philanthropic activity. Through these efforts one is led to the essential understanding of the relationship that each of us have with God, the world, and one another, as citizens of His Kingdom that is to come.

But, you might ask, what of it? The identification of the self-sameness of Christ with his image leads to the assertion that Orthodoxy is the Church and not an ideology. It is a gathering of the people and, particularly, a eucharistic gathering of living icons. This must be emphasized today: this icon is not an Internet (or online), virtual and ephemeral illusion of communication, but the visible and true communication of the Kingdom. Such must be the future of Orthodoxy because such is the future Christ promises his Church. In the Eucharist, we are taught not only to venerate and greet the icons, but also the other members of the synaxis, not passing the living icons—people—by but greeting and embracing them. So, the icon is indeed the proper method of viewing the world. Only this iconic approach will save Orthodoxy from becoming a secular organization, conforming to the image of the world and the docetism of virtual communication. Orthodox iconography, therefore, does not deny the digital image. On the contrary, it will affirm whatever is ontologically significant in digital communications, by opening the digital image to its eternal significance by injecting it with its “future state.” With this perspective, the digital image can play an important role in announcing the arrival of eternal ever-being. Consequently, the image can become an “icon” without ceasing to be an image—but only if we who view the image look past the superficial graphic and read the written icon. Maybe it is sufficient for it to be redeemed from its association with the past (and the protology of death) while retaining its iconicity. But, we must ask, how may the image be liberated from death and retain its iconicity?

First, we must consider that the paradox of the Incarnation was addressed and resolved only in visual-iconic terms. The culture in which we live is subjugated to the representation of reality, either as an evidence-based representation of how things were or are (naturalism) or as a representation with a freedom that distorts the identity of the beings that are represented (modern art). The imminent future will force us to view the world through representations of reality that will become so convincing that our minds could become utterly deceived. “Look at me!”—the claim of the digital image, which renders itself entirely obvious—is a rejection of the iconic ontology which automatically results in a different understanding of human existence. Without its referring to the future state, every image is forgotten, becomes the “past,” and expires.

Second, an icon bridges the chasm between the three extremes (natural-modern-digital) through the intervention of the person of Christ. Yet, the radical revision of the “virtual” aesthetic can take place in a more comprehensive ecclesial context. Through a bidirectional relation established by the icon, the “object” of what I see suddenly becomes a subject, since it approaches me from outside myself and exacts its influence on me.

Third, the iconic approach presupposes that one accept a presence to which one can relate, through an “increasing” perspective. The solution of the increasing perspective does not suffer from the fragmentation of information that happens with the optical lens (which at each moment know only certain sides of an object). For iconic knowledge, there are no front and sides and back.

Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic)

[1] Lisa Lewis, “How E-Readers Destroyed My Love Life,” The New York Times, July 4, 2011, https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/04/complaint-box-how-e-readers-destroyed-my-love-life/, accessed September 26, 2015.
[2] “I transformed myself in the zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation.…” (K. Malevich, “Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism,” Guggenheim. Retrieved October 15, 2016.)

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