An Autoethnography of Collegium – Day Two

Day 2: Sunday, June 22nd

On the topic of mass…

I am still uncomfortable joining in on the spiritual sessions and Catholic Eucharist ceremonies that are scheduled for this colloquium.  I feel like an intruder, an interloper, a negative presence.  There is nothing that anyone here has said or done that has made me feel this way.  In fact, I appreciate their willingness and desire to offer a blessing to those who beseech it, such as those other other religious affiliations who would like to experience the ritual.  And they offer many different spiritual discussions that I am sure can be seen as less denomination than the sacramental rituals.  But I would feel disingenuous in being blessed, as it would have no impact on me.  I do not believe, that is the simple truth of it all.  Perhaps before the end of this week, I will venture into one session, just to listen, which appears to be my main goal here, as I cannot partake in conversations about religion.

So, instead of going to prayer or participating in ceremony, I go for walks, and I take pictures of my surroundings, of the natural environment with which I have always felt more at ease than with anything overly religious. You can see the pictures here.  The college is situated at the top of a hill — and when you have been in flatland for long enough, it feels like a really big hill!  I wonder if Jesuits like to set things on hills.  But I do appreciate how it is surrounded by forest, and that I can walk near the forest — although I would like to walk more in the forest, the hilly nature would make that venture a little dangerous.  But, the flowers — they are so pretty.

I wish I knew what these star-bud flowers are.
I wish I knew what these star-bud flowers are.

As I was walking this morning, I reflected on why forests and nature have always been so important to me.  As I mentioned in my tweet whilst on this walk, “the “sacred” is in the improbability of all reality happening by chance and evolution – nature is the “sacred” science seeks to understand.”  Or, as I later better explained it to someone: For me I do not need to see any signs of divinity in nature because the remarkable thing about nature  is how the complexity came from such simplicity without any design.  But this is not sacred as in the sense that we discussed later in the morning, which I reflect upon below, and thus I indicated the idea with the conditional quotes.  I do not see the divine hand of God in my surroundings; I see the amazing coincidences, the improbability of life, where if just one variable was slightly different, the causal chain would have resulted in a reality that is completely different.  That all I see and hear and taste and smell and feel can be due to this improbable causal chain of events is awe-inspiring to me, and it drives me to understand it all, through science, as I reflected on yesterday.

So overall I see my walks around campus and my attempts to merge with nature as own personal reflection space and time.  This morning’s sojourn led to new consideration of my research interest, alternatively called media reception studies, audience studies, or fan studies.  I think I prefer the term “interaction studies” and here is why:

There is always something there.  Unless one has a strong, willful imagination or is suffering from a hallucinatory psychosis, there is always something there to receive, perceive, interpret and (mis)understand.  That something can prompt, permit, and promote various readings, but there will always be a limit to those readings if one wants to remain true, honest, faithful to that something’s existence.  In a sense, saying reception analysis is a misnomer.  It assumes more of a transmission model of communication — I am source and you receive my message — when what actually occurs is more of an interaction as the person goes back and forth with the message to make sense of it, whether that sense is cognitive or affective.  This is not to say that the message or text is interactive — only that the experience or situation of engaging is.  Thus, it may be better to address this field of inquiry as “interaction studies” to fully appreciate what is involved.

I like this idea.  It needs development, as I hastily scratched it down while watching squirrels and robins vie for supremacy in trees.  But I think it encapsulates my thoughts on this topic, and it could potentially help me structure my research from here on out.  And, to be honest, I might not have been thinking this way were it not for the reading I did at 6am this morning in order to prepare for the day’s work.  This reading on something I had never fully considered before — which is ironic, since this something is beholding.

On the topic of beholding…

For today, one of our assigned readings was an essay discussing a study of by an art history professor who wanted to find a new way to have her students truly understand the works they were studying.  She gave them an assignment to engage with the same piece of art for thirteen straight weeks.  Each week they were instructed to write about what they saw in the piece.  In the beginning, their responses ranged from reactions such as anger, frustration, uncertainty — their own selves and thoughts mediating how they perceived the art.  As time went on, the professor reported that their writings showed increased intimacy and understanding of the art, being able to go into depth of detail to describe what they saw — what the art revealed to them.

According to the professor, by the end of the thirteen weeks, they were truly able to behold the art for what it is.  This concept of beholding was new to me.  Essentially, as I currently understand it, the beholder is to understand the nature of the object on its own terms.  The importance in seeing the object and knowing the object is in the observation of it, not the interpretation, which will always be influenced by our interpretation — which itself can vary depending on context.  The beholder is called upon to attend, to see/listen deeply to the other, in order to understand it.  And according to this study, such beholding can be taught through practice and discipline.  Just as any artist learns his or her craft and perfects it through practice and discipline, so can we all be taught to remove our inner voice from the conversation we have with some object, until we are able to hear what the object has to tell us about itself.

Right away, as a communication researcher, I could see numerous overlaps between this religious concept and our communication concepts.  First, in terms of interaction studies, we could potentially utilize this idea of repeatedly returning to the same media text in order to understand the many different layers and contextualization of interpretation that the person brings into their engaging with the text.  Eventually, we could also have the person recognizing the structures of the text (content and technology) that prompt, promote, permit those interpretations.  Doing this could potentially help our media production studies understand the interaction between the text’s features and the audiences’ interpretations — to understand the interplay between the polysemic text and the polyvalent audience.

Another utility of focusing on achieving beholding could be in dialogue.  If the goal of dialogue is to come to understand and respect the perspectives of those with whom  you are communicating, then having the participants pursue a beholding of each other could help them understand how to achieve such goals.  With goal of beholding being to understand the object, the other, on its own terms, then this nicely aligns with dialogue which seeks to help people understand the perspectives of those with whom they are communicating.  And since we already know that such perspective taking requires discipline and practice so as to quiet the voices in one’s own head — to listen without interjecting — this alignment with the concept of beholding could help to strengthen the argument for how to teach and conduct dialogue.

Indeed, the focus on practice and discipline as the means by which to quiet the inner voice could be useful for teaching a number of skills, such as dealing with the frustration of learning a new technology or how to engage in an ethnography that is purely observational.  Indeed, for teaching ethnography, I could have my students repeatedly enter the same field, but each time work on further quieting their inner voice of interpretation until all they are doing is observing what they see, hear, smell, etc.  Being able to be solely in a descriptive mode would then be the base on which we could add on interpretive skills, such as being critical or applying a variety of theoretical lenses.

Interestingly, this notion of repeatedly returning to the same object in order to behold it also got me to thinking about fandom and fan studies.  In a sense, the most basic description of what is a fan is that it is someone who returns repeatedly to an object of affection and thus develops a deeper understanding of it.  Could fans then be considered beholders?  True, they often will bring their own interpretation into their engagement with the object, but fans with extended engagement will have more knowledge of the object, which could be considered as knowing it own its terms.  This is an application I will have to ponder further, to work through the dark into the light, as is the application coming next.

20140621_194540

On the topic of sacraments…

Another big aspect of the day was in defining what a sacrament is in Catholic faith.  I have a long way to go to truly behold what is meant by a sacrament or the sacramental principle or a sacramental imagination.  As I understand it now, what we are dealing with is the sensation of being loved by God, of being able to see the divine in an object or more appropriately an act.  There are seven major sacraments in the Catholic tradition that constitute the basis of the major rituals of the religion: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing the Sick.

However, as we discussed today, it may be possible to see sacraments as these “visible signs of invisible love” in any everyday situation.  We discussed examples from relationships that lead to acts of awe and momentousness for how they could be seen as sacraments.  Since, the argument goes, everything comes from God, and thus everything is of God’s love, then engaging with anything could produce a sacrament.  A sacrament could be seen as a dialectic, where the encounter with the other produces this sensation.

Which, again, got me thinking about fandom and fan studies.

Now, granted, I am not saying that when a fan engages with a media or pop culture text that the fan is experiencing the love of God.  In that sense, there is probably no divinity in Twilight or Star Wars or Pokemon — except the discussion today does kind of say that.  If everything comes from God, then that would also mean that all of these texts do to — that His will and love was working through the producers of the texts as the texts were created.  In this sense, then, there could be the argument that a person can experience the divine and the sacred whilst repeatedly returning to — whilst beholding — these texts.

However, if we also consider the experience of the divine as a feeling of oneness with everything, then a fan experience could be this, especially if fandom is defined by centering the community of individuals who all experience a similar intellectual and affectual response to the text.  It was discussed today how being part of a community, of a communal experience, can help an individual behold an object and even experience a relationship with that object that is sacramental.  Well, a large part of fandom, it could be argued, is in the importance of the interpretive community who share the love of the object of affection.  Their experience in the fandom, then, is a communal one, empowering their beholding of the object and the possibility of that object being a sacrament to them.  After all, a fan may be a fan due to how much the object affects or moves them, which may be in significant, profound, even life-changing ways.

The rise of fandom within the past several decades in the United States does correspond with a drop in religious affiliation and attendance of religious rituals such as those seven sacraments of the Catholic tradition.  This correlation may not be a coincidence.  It may be that the experience of the sacred has shifted from the religious context into the fandom context.  After all, the fractured fandom observations align with the denominational differences in all major religions, as people have different interpretations that produce factions and as institutions develop hierarchies that determine superiority and thus legitimacy. In fact, the phenomenon of fractured fandom may have first occurred within the religious context, leading to all of the different spiritualities, religions and mythologies of the world.

Because, after all, what are Christians if not devout fans of Jesus of Nazareth?  How different are their cognitive and affective behaviors in comparison to the Twihards, the Whovians, the Trekkies?  Does not the rise of religions based on recent media and pop culture texts (from The Big Lebowski to Seinfeld to Star Wars) indicate an overlap between what we consider as religious and what we consider as fandom?

Or is God just going to strike me down for even suggesting such a thing?

I do not know.  Which is okay.  Because I am willing to practice and discipline myself to better behold the world around me.  I can be as was suggested today: a researcher who is open to finding what I wished was not there.  At least, I will practice and discipline myself to be such.

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Day 1 is here.

Day 3 is here.

Day 4 is here.

Day 5 is here.

Final Day is here.

6 thoughts on “An Autoethnography of Collegium – Day Two

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