Kneeling Down as an Exercise of Mercy

Yves De Maeseneer

Last month I received the request to write a short article for the monthly magazine for pastors and pastoral volunteers, active in the diocese of Antwerp. For the Holy Year of Mercy they had chosen the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to illustrate the different aspects of mercy. The Samaritan is a model of what it means to stop and see what is going on, to kneel down at the other in distress, to invest out of your material and financial resources. They asked me to explain what kneeling down could mean for Christians today in the context of Antwerp. This is a revised translation of my contribution:

For this year of mercy Filipino bishops chose the following slogan: ''If we want renewal, let us learn how to kneel again." It is hard to imagine that Belgian bishops would have formulated similar advice. It would have shocked many Belgian faithful as old-fashioned. Indeed, in most parishes, the pews were removed to create room for comfortable seating.  Undoubtedly, this older furniture was reminiscent of a time when people were living on their knees, belittled by men of authority and power.  Are Christians not called to stand on their feet in the light of the Resurrection?

Indeed.  But it also true that we have become mainly a ’sitting Church’.  It is somewhat ironic that thousands of young people rediscover the power of faith precisely in those places where there are no seats.  In the chapel of Taizé, for instance, they are sitting on the ground, or kneeling on prayer stools. When I was in Cologne for World Youth Day 2005, my most intense experience was to be with a million young people in silent adoration, together with the pope, kneeling before the Eucharist.

A Complex Gesture

Kneeling is a gesture in which you make yourself smaller. It expresses an attitude of humility. Humility is not the same as being humiliated.  The word ‘humility’ is derived from the Latin word humus, which means ‘earth’.  By kneeling you deliberately increase your contact with the earth. It also implies that you give up your freedom of movement. The position renders you defenseless, incapable of flight. Curiously, it is at once a powerful gesture. In this blog post I will briefly explore what the practice and symbolism of kneeling can teach us about the way of mercy to which human beings are called.

Repentance

Kneeling is painful.  As a bodily practice it confronts us with our vulnerability. The one who kneels expresses his distress.  Not coincidentally, the only ones still kneeling in public today are beggars who petition for a gesture of mercy.  Traditionally, Catholics kneel to confess their guilt and pray for mercy.  Kneeling was also perceived as a form of penance.  It is not only a sign of repentance, but also a first step to recovery. The physical act of kneeling embodies the searching for a new relationship to God, to yourself and to others – think of Rembrandt's painting of the prodigal son who falls into the arms of his father.

 

Oh Come Let Us Adore

Part of the contemporary resistance towards kneeling is due to a tradition which considered it as an expression of servility. The model was that of the medieval vassal who submits himself to his overlord. Thus, the symbolism of kneeling was closely associated with worldly forms of hierarchy. In this light, one can read Jesus’ explicit refusal to kneel before Satan in exchange for power over the kingdoms of the world as a critical reminder. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Mt 4:10), continues to be the warning of Jesus against misplaced earthly submission.

For Christians the genuine model of kneeling is given by the three Wise Men falling down in adoration at the manger (Mt 2:11). They recognize God's glory in the lowly form of a newborn child. Their story made me aware of the fact that a child may be the only occasion for which Modern people spontaneously drop to their knees.  Kneeling down is a way to position oneself face to face with the little.  But that is not yet worship. What is needed is a radical change of perspective, which allows us to recognize God in our fellow human beings, especially in those most marginalized.  Kneeling is a practice which directs us to see the humility shared between the vulnerable child, the suffering persons we encounter, and Christ in the Eucharist. In this way, it is a practice which aids us in adoring God through our bodily postures, making us more like Him in His humility. 

Orientation

Egyptian desert father Abba Apollo once said that the devil has no knees.  The devil is not able to kneel and worship. There is a further elaboration of this thought in a tradition concerning Lucifer’s fall. It is told that the real stumbling block for Lucifer did not subsist in the recognition of God's majesty.  What the highest angel could not accept was that God commanded him and his fellow angels to serve the human creatures. In Lucifer’s view, God’s love for humanity disrupted the hierarchical order.  Lucifer's ultimate nightmare was ‘to bend the knees for an earthworm, a lump of earth and clay’ (as the Dutch playwright Vondel has it in his Lucifer).

Lucifer illustrates how power and prestige have a disorienting force. Kneeling in adoration is a counter-practice to Luciferian pride, aiding us in finding our right orientation.  It is also a form of concentration.  Personally, I experience this especially when I'm kneeling on a prayer stool that I got from Taizé. The position requires me to ground myself and at the same time to straighten my back. What happens in kneeling is that my field of view is reduced.  Paradoxically, it is precisely my choosing to refrain from physical mobility that is the condition for being moved intensely in mind and spirit.  This spiritually receptive attitude of the body is crucial for a life of mercy.

 

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from:  http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from: http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015

Service

There is a close link between kneeling and the commandment of charity.  Jesus makes this clear, not only in the parable of the Samaritan kneeling down at a human in need, but also on the last night of his life, when he gave a sign of his love by kneeling down and washing the feet of his disciples.  In kneeling, he gives us the example of how to love one anotheras he loved us.

In his meditation on the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, wrote: "The history of humankind radically changed at the moment when God was kneeling humbly before us and searched for our love."

In the story of the feet-washing we find an interesting contrast between Jesus and Judas.  "Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God" (John 13:3), Jesus dares lay down his power and kneel in radical service. About Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the text literally reads that Judas “lifted his heel against him” (John 13:18).  Kneeling down is presented here as the opposite of trampling.

In contemporary training for nurses and care-givers, one of the first lessons in ergonomics is that bending through the knees is essential if you want to raise someone. We could take that simple lifting technique figuratively. If you really want to help someone in need, you cannot do good ‘from above’.  Like Jesus, we have kneel down, literally and figuratively, leaving behind any pretense of condescension.  Christ teaches us that true service always requires an approach from below.

Learning to kneel

There are many occasions in which we can exercise ourselves in kneeling both as a bodily practice and as an inner attitude. One can think ofprayer, the encounter with children, contact with injured people, gardening. The Filipino bishops suggest the liturgy as a training school.  In Belgium the only time in the liturgical year that Catholics are still in the habit of kneeling is Good Friday. Its rich symbolism may serve as a final word on kneeling and mercy. During the veneration of the cross, we go forward one by one to kneel in silence before the cross, to touch it reverently, or even to kiss it. As such we kneel before Jesus, reciprocating his own gesture of foot-washing. In this gesture people lay down their burdens and those of others in order to take up the yoke of Christ’s humility. In the depths of our manifest sorrow, we kneel with the Crucified to rise from the dead again.

Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment

Joe Drexler-Dreis

Last month, the Centre for Liberation Theologies and Anthropos Research Group co-hosted a colloquium, “Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment.” During the colloquium, we aimed to develop responses to a fundamental question from a number of angles. Much of the motivation for this question came from the under-appreciated Jamaican decolonial intellectual, Sylvia Wynter.

Sylvia Wynter’s project is strongly shaped by an analysis of western modernity that begins with the experience of western modernity as coloniality. She responds to western modernity from the particular locus of the Caribbean (and specifically Jamaica). By turning to an analysis of the historical matrix of western modernity, Wynter describes herself as moving “beyond resentment, beyond a feeling of anger at the thought of how much the population to which you belong has been made to pay for their rise to world dominance,” and instead asking, “How did they do it?”[1] This is a key move that Frantz Fanon, an intellectual who largely shapes decolonial thought, also makes. Early in his first work—on the first pages of his first book—Fanon describes his own move from a cry or shout that emerges from anger (le crí) to discourse. In centralizing an analysis of western modernity/coloniality, Wynter introduces significant conceptual categories that can make sense of western modernity from loci in which it is experienced as coloniality.

A crucial category that Wynter brings to the analysis of colonial modernity emerges out of her concern about how the human person has been described within the perspective of western modernity and how this description creates experiences of western modernity as coloniality. Wynter refers to the overrepresentation of white, bourgeois, heterosexual males as the human that is indigenous to western modernity as “Man.” In a number of her critical articles, Wynter presents a historical argument regarding the development of Man. She describes a move from the theocentric Christian descriptive statement of the human as Man to an invention of Man as political subject (a shift occurring between the 15th and 18th centuries), and then to an invention of Man based on biological sciences and racializing discourses (beginning in the 18th century). Part of the tactics of the affirmation of Man is the “blocking out” of any “counter-voice,” and, in the contemporary context, particularly of “of a Black counter-voice.” Because the persistence of Man is “the foundational basis of modernity,” and a general problem that creates subsets of problems,[2] Wynter describes the central struggle of the contemporary context as between securing the well-being of Man or the Human. This struggle requires “unsettling” Man by re-describing the human outside of Man.

The analytic dimension of Wynter’s project leads to a constructive question, already suggested by Wynter herself, of how to re-describe the human person beyond the confines of Man, or beyond the Doctrine of Man. Wynter frames it as such: “if they did it, how can we, the non-West, the always native Other to the true human of their Man, set out to transform, in our turn, a world in which we must all remain always somewhat Other to the ‘true’ human in their terms?”[3] The goal of our colloquium was to wrestle with this question and provide constructive responses. To do this, we brought a variety of issues to the table. How do those subjects outside the domain of Man imagine and live in ways that offer different conceptions of the human? How might this challenge Man? How can academic disciplines emerging in the 1960s out of political movements—e.g., Black studies, Latina/o studies, Native studies, Women and Gender studies, Queer theory—bring out ways new modes of humanity of been imagined? What political stances emerge in sites where bodies are reduced to flesh—that is, where human persons are stripped of the protections that the recognition of embodiment offers? Might these sites where bodies are rendered flesh paradoxically allow for a movement beyond the Word/World of Man? Speakers, respondents, and participants in the colloquium developed genuinely transdisciplinary responses to these questions—that is, the problems themselves guided the discussion and ideas, rather than attempts to hold to certain principles sacred to particular disciplines.

During the colloquium, I considered the possibilities of a religious framework to respond to the types of questions Wynter’s work poses, and did so by considering how religion functioned for Nat Turner. Nat Turner led one of the most significant slave rebellions in U.S. history in 1831 in Southampton, Virginia. After he was captured, he dictated “confessions” to a local attorney, Thomas R. Gray, in which he articulated the reasons for the rebellion. In the “Confessions,” Turner described the fundamental motivation for the rebellion within a religious commitment. Despite the historical significance of the rebellion, the scholarly engagement with the religious vision Turner presents has been limited—and by and large restricted to interpretations that remain within the scope of Black Theology. Taking Nat Turner’s “Confessions,” scholarship on slave religion, and recent discussions on the flesh as its basis, I developed a way of understanding the religious vision that informed and became manifest in Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion as providing a ground and epistemology from which to contest the networks of relation forced upon him. Ultimately, Turner’s self-understanding and understanding of reality suggest an alternative understanding of the human. I argued that, with reference to the religious, Nat Turner actualizes a project of contesting Man and that his religious vision remains relevant to the contemporary praxis of contesting Man.

 

 

[1] David Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter,” Small Axe 8 (September 2000): 175.

[2] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 288.

[3] Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism,” 175.

When Mother became Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.

Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.

                  

 

 

 

Temples of the Holy Spirit: Questioning Body-Soul Dualism

By Julia Meszaros

Is Christianity tied to a dualism of body and soul? A recent Anthropos seminar with ethnologist Maria Schnitter indicated that this question gets to the heart of a whole range of theological anthropological themes, including the status of the created world, the nature of sin, and the relation between self and other.

Bathing practices and salvation of the soul

Bathing1

According to Schnitter, who spoke on the differences between Christian, Muslim and pagan attitudes towards ritual bathing, the spread of Christianity among the Southern Slavs led to the gradual disappearance of their traditional bathing practices. As Schnitter argued, Christianity’s emphasis on the care of the soul and its call for the sacrifice of the body meant that Christians viewed the weekly bodily hygiene rituals of both pagans (or ancient Romans) and Muslims either as an idolatrous pleasure detracting from salvation or as indicative of a person’s spiritual impurity. Regular bathing, so the Christian authorities maintained in response to the prevailing Slavic customs, was acceptable only so long as it was required by the body itself; it was immaterial (if not damaging) to the salvation of the soul.

Whether rightly or wrongly, the separation, or even opposition, of body and soul that is at play in such arguments is often traced back to St Paul’s negative view of the flesh, or to the inheritance of a Greek dualism between body and soul (although it must be noted that Christianity has regularly condemned a strict anti-body stance, such as found in Gnosticism and Manicheanism). Such an opposition is often seen to be indicative of a wider-reaching binary logic that has fundamentally shaped the Western imagination and that is increasingly found to be incapable of adequately capturing reality. Traditional Christian practices geared towards the ‘salvation of souls’ or the ‘mortification of the flesh’ are thus being replaced by Eastern practices of yogic mindfulness and contemplation. The pursuit of ‘inner balance and centredness’, ‘self-acceptance’, and ‘groundedness’ is typically seen to represent a more holistic spirituality, which in turn helps underpin many of postmodernity’s most pressing concerns, such as the environmentalist movement, new perspectives on diet and health, or the development of pedagogical approaches more suited to integrating body, mind and soul. In short, Christianity’s association with a dualism between body and soul appears to be one of the reasons for the contemporary backlash against Christianity.

Bathing2

Yet despite these trends, it remains far from certain that the dechristianisation of society really provides new resources for the integration of body and soul. The contemporary concern to give greater importance to the body often takes on the form both of a fetish with the body, and of a heightened puritanism about the body: we are obsessed with the sexual body but afraid of the ageing, ugly, dying body. Thus, far from seeing a new willingness to engage in anything akin to the traditional communal bathing practices as were discussed in the seminar, we live in a society which accepts only the display of the ‘fit’ (and typically photo-shopped) body, and which is increasingly skeptical towards communal locker rooms (to name but one everyday example).

Christianity as resource for body-soul integration

IMG_1219.JPG

These tensions and contradictions should give us pause. Did/does the Christian paradigm really entail a binary between body and soul and, in effect, devalue the body? The doctrine of the Incarnation and the sacraments would seem to suggest otherwise. As Schnitter moreover noted, Christian baptism is in many ways analogous to Muslim bathing practices. Here, too, an act of bodily washing has a spiritual effect and helps the soul onto the path of salvation.

How, then, can we articulate the difference between Christian and other perspectives on the relation between body and soul? It is true that Christianity does not consider the regular cleansing of the body relevant to the cleansing of the soul. In Christianity, the conditions for salvation have largely been internalised, such that baptism—though an efficacious and externally visible sign of an invisible grace—requires only a symbolic cleansing of the body, and that the internal purity effected by this ‘washing’ can only be tarnished by sin (as opposed to, say, natural bodily processes). It is the internal act of faith which is distinctive for salvation, such that bodily purity may coincide with spiritual impurity, and vice versa (cf. Jn 9).

At the same time, the suggestion that Christianity simply dismisses the body’s role in the salvific life seems inadequate. This is indicated, not only by Christian practices such as fasting, liturgical postures, etc. but also by the extent to which the Gospels view bodily healing as a sign of faith. The point here, however, is that the leper does not obtain salvation through bodily purification but obtains bodily health through his faith (Mt 8:1-4).

Bathing3

This suggests that, more than undoing it, Christianity reverses the relationship between body and soul. Salvation begins with the soul, even though its effects may become manifest also in the body. Implied in this, I would contend, is both a more humble and a more elevated vision of the human body. For, while the body’s salvific powers are limited, even the physically tainted body can serve as a ‘temple’ of the Holy Spirit.

Body Matters – A Workshop on Christianity and the Body

By Julia Meszaros

A few weeks ago, I—like other members of the Anthropos research group—had the privilege of participating in a workshop led by the dance artist and scholar of religion Carol Webster. Focusing on the theme of Body Matters: Somatic Conversations on Christianity, Love, and Justice, Webster took us on a theoretical and practical exploration of the human body’s role in Christian life and thought. Webster began with a short lecture on how St Paul, in her eyes, negotiated the emergent Christian identity in recourse to bodily images, such as that of Christ’s body being eaten (at the Eucharist) and that of the prostitute (as the antithesis of a member of Christ). With this, so Webster argued, Paul gave the body the ambiguous role of both unifying Christians and forever ‘othering’ those who do not fit the Christian understanding of social and moral norms.

Carol Webster image.jpg

Instead of choosing the conventional route of embarking on an intellectual discussion of these bold claims, Webster then let us probe Christianity’s relationship with the body more practically, performatively and experientially. She asked each participant to physically enact (with movement and sound) how he or she presently felt. Our bodily self-expressions were then ‘shared’ in various ways: we were for instance asked to re-enact as well as physically connect each other’s movements and sounds (by having everyone enact their movements together and while touching one another), and to reflect on how we experienced these—at times uneasy and physically challenging—encounters.

Webster continually related these exercises to the relationship between our own identity and our relations with others. How and to what extent, so Webster asked, can we truly remain ourselves while being just and loving towards others—and vice versa. Her thought-provoking underlying hypothesis was that, unless we become conscious of their bodily dimension, both our self-identity and our relations with others are compromised.

While our various experiments did confront us with the fact that our human lives have a profoundly bodily dimension, Webster’s final—and impressive—exercise nonetheless made me doubt quite how central our body is both to our self-identity and our capacity to love. In this exercise, our group was asked to crowd together, such that we occupied the smallest possible amount of space in the room. Finding ourselves in one sweaty and uncomfortable pile, we were asked to reflect on whether we still felt capable of upholding our identity and of loving one another. To contrast this experience, we were then invited to spread out over the room with as great a distance from one another as possible.

As I experienced it, the first case of a crowded space certainly posed a challenge to my self-identity and capacity for love but did not seem to undo this. Love quickly became imperative for survival and took on the concrete meaning of solidarity, interdependence and mutual acceptance. My ability to find a positive bodily identity was nullified to the point that my bodily senses shut down, yet I managed to inhabit an internal place that still felt like ‘me’. My identity, it seemed, had become more spiritual than bodily but nonetheless felt authentic.

In the second case of physical alienation from others, by contrast, bodily self-expression and –identification may have been possible in theory, yet my spirit felt suffocated to the point of incapacitating me as a whole (i.e., also bodily). My physical alienation from others seemed to imply that I could neither be myself nor love others (or myself)—indeed that I was stifled and petrified at the very core of my being.

Ironically perhaps, the attempt to explore myself as body thus seemed to reveal the primacy of myself as embodied (!) spirit. This is not to say that the bodily dimension does not matter to our ability to be ourselves and love others. Far from it—my physical or bodily situation obviously had a deep impact on my sense of self and love insofar as I experienced physical isolation, in particular, as profoundly hazardous. Yet it was striking to me that I experienced my ability to be and to love as relatively divorced from my capacity for bodily self-expression. Indeed, even where any such freedom was taken away, that is, where our bodies were so close that we could not even more them, self-identity and love still seemed possible—possible on a spiritual plane.

Is it moral to "like" Facebook?

Jared Schumacher

The virtues of Facebook are manifest to those who frequent the social media behemoth: it allows the almost instantaneous "sharing" of information with those to whom we wish to be connected, de-limiting the ways in which information is communicated and the social pot is stirred.  This is to say that Facebook’s virtue is that it closes the distance gap by enabling immediate connection.

 But its limits as a medium are increasing becoming obvious the more it has been appropriated.  For the past decade or so, detractors have been lining up to criticize the vacuity of a virtual social bond and the way it detrimentally affects an individual user's real-life sense of self and his or her perceived community. Witness the Catfish phenomenon as a critical case in point.  But these criticisms often focus somewhat narrowly on the virtuality of relationship, its abstraction from concrete human embodiment.  Because humans are embodied beings – so the argument goes – they require concrete interaction.  And Facebook cannot de-limit this human need virtually.  

A recent article adds another, more unique, critical voice to the chorus.  In a piece for Wired magazine, Mat Honan summarizes the results of his comical-because-tragic experiment to "like" everything on his Facebook feed.  

The premise was simple:  Honan clicked the “like” button for everything that was posted on his Facebook wall.  Some of this content was posted by friends, and – because Facebook's business model is dependent upon ‘suggested content', which really means advertisements placed within one's wall as if from friends – some of it by Facebook itself.   As Honan explains:  

See, Facebook uses algorithms to decide what shows up in your feed. It isn’t just a parade of sequential updates from your friends and the things you’ve expressed an interest in. In 2014 the News Feed is a highly-curated presentation, delivered to you by a complicated formula based on the actions you take on the site, and across the web. I wanted to see how my Facebook experience would change if I constantly rewarded the robots making these decisions for me, if I continually said, “good job, robot, I like this.”

The results of the experiment were fascinating.  As he details, "[a]fter checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages." The robots used his encouragement in the form of "liking" to create a marketing echo chamber, and a radicalizing one at that.  As his friends on the political right and left posted things that he then "liked", his feed was funneled to aggregation sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, which continued to feed him ad nauseam with similar polarizing stories, products, and pages, all for him "to like", but little of which he actually did.

The cascade effect this experiment had on others is also worthy of note.  Facebook frequently posts liking activity on friends' feeds.  So, when Honan went on his liking rampage, his friends were involuntarily drawn in to his experiment.  Their feeds became colonized by his activity, limiting their exposure to articles and content they might actually otherwise have "liked." 

After two days of liking activity, and some time for reflection, Honan concludes his experiment with this piece of epigrammatic analysis:  "By liking everything, I turned Facebook into a place where there was nothing I liked. To be honest, I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I had done."  Indiscriminate liking had the ironic effect of radicalizing while banalizing everything.

Despite this unhappy ending, the experiment did help to expose one of the most obvious and yet under-recognized facts of human interaction on the web.  There seems a broad but naive assumption that, because "the internet" is a medium, it itself is unmediated.  But this is categorically untrue.  In ways we are only beginning to understand, the media we use to interrelate, however virtually, are themselves mediated by those who provide the services in the first place.  Facebook's algorithm and its extreme use in the experiment expose the prejudices of those who designed it.  Facebook exists to make money for its (now) public investors, and those investors profit from the radicalization of news and products and the filtering of information to sites which are themselves heavily monetized.  It seems that for us humans, there is no unmediated reality, virtual or otherwise.  Even if ‘the virtual’ de-limits our capacity to interact at a distance, it does so precisely by delimiting in other ways.  Which means that, while it may indeed close the distance gap, Facebook also functions as a social filter, creating different gaps in its place.  We tell Facebook who our friends are and what we “like” or don’t like , giving us the appearance of control over the information that we allow to inform us;  in actuality, Facebook controls our social network through a process of selection, limiting our exposure to information in ways that are not altogether clear. 

To some extent, there is nothing perfidious in all of this.  There is simply too much information in the world, even when filtered through our “friends”, for us to digest in any meaningful way at a given moment.  We need filters.  However, the concealment of this selective process, the veiling of the algorithm and its predilections for proprietary reasons, molds our perception of reality far more than we are aware. When this concealment is allied with the economic self-interest Facebook possesses as a publically traded company, its tendency to represent reality in its own best financial interests is compounded. 

Only by becoming aware of what exactly is happening when we like Facebook, can the morality of its use be adequately judged.  Only when we are first clear about what we like about and on Facebook, can we use it responsibly.  Otherwise, Facebook will take our liking behavior as a tacit affirmation that its robots are constructing a (view of) reality that we actually like.  And because (virtual) reality is deeply interconnected, what we "like" affects, and sometimes afflicts, those we truly care about.