April 23, 2024

On truth, Said, and McLuhan

Technology and Spirituality

“The intellectual eye of man is formed to see the light, not to make it. When the power of divine truth begins to dispel the darkness, the first things we see are the geniuses, so-called, the people of strong understanding and deep learning. Know, then, that genius is divine, not when the man thinks that he is God, but when he acknowledges that his powers are from God.” – Sampson Reed

I’m reading Places of Mind, an intellectual biography of Edward Said. Said is a pioneer of post-colonial studies and is famous for his work in Palestine Studies at Columbia University and beyond.

By training, though, Said was a man of text. He received his PhD in English Literature from Harvard, becoming a professor of English at Columbia. His early work, especially in his books Beginnings and Orientalism, argued that texts should be analyzed not just for their content, but also for their form, structure, and the conditions under which they were produced. Said questioned the idea of a singular, fixed authorial intention, suggesting that an author’s intentions are shaped by their historical and cultural context.

Through a McLuhanist lens, we generally view “the medium” as a technology: TV, radio, the printing press, the internet, etc. On the other hand, Said focused on how authors’ intentions were influenced by political and cultural factors.

Both, however, believed that the meaning of a text or message was not solely determined by the author’s intent but also by the medium through which it was transmitted and the audience’s interpretation.

The Sampson Reed quote above is a spiritual grounding for these ideas. Not only has God given us truth, he has given us culture, technology, and a society in which we interact. How can we derive truth – or “genius” – when all we ever experience from each other is a refracted version of what we’re seeking, influenced by the technology, culture, and biases of our relationships.

Sampson’s conclusion, that “the geniuses are the means by which general truth are revealed to the rest of us,” reminds us that we’re but vessels for God’s truth. Once that truth hits our world, it is refracted and morphed in ways that we can no longer control. Sometimes this is good, other times it isn’t, but they key is to understand the the truth is only in the word of God.