This is a photo I took in Manchester, England last fall. It’s of a PlayStation ad built into the side of Manchester Cathedral. I thought of it again just now because I’m on my way to London today and I’ve been reading some stuff that makes this image appear even more tragicomic than it did when I took it.
It goes like this: at the Second Council of Nicaea in the year 787, Church Fathers heard arguments for and against a lifting of the prohibition on the image. The danger of having the human face represented in painting was that it would diminish the true, face-to-face human encounter. A certain John of Damascus made a convincing argument for the use of icons (those little golden paintings of Saints), saying that they served as portals to the sacred. The prohibition was lifted and the image became a teaching tool within the Church. Over the centuries, innovation in painting led to increased representation of space (perspective) and a sophisticated geometry was thereby lifted out of the concrete and into the abstract. This created the “virtual”, i.e. conceptual, homogeneous space that we see most clearly in video games. In many ways, I feel that the US is to Europe as the billboard is to Manchester Cathedral: a logical extension. Driving all around the US, the most striking thing is that it’s all the same; the chain stores are built in the image of virtual, empty space: they are essentially 3D-printed. And the freeways have made ghost towns.
So when people congratulate me on going to Europe, I thank them, because it’s an amazing opportunity, not only for my career or as a lark, but as a way of slowly gathering how we came to be mired in folly. The “old world” is preserved there, but the new one is encroaching. It was built there, prototypically, after all.
For what it’s worth, I think that the lifting of the prohibition on the image was a *fine* thing; we don’t need more dogma, that would only serve to delay our apparent need to grapple with all of our powers. We may not need external dogma but an inner imperative to look up from these little portals into the virtual 📱 and into each other’s eyes 👀, before we look like the guy in that PlayStation ad.