The Virtual Iconostasis

Fifteen years into the 21st century, the once definitive line between screen and world, both topographically and ontologically, is rapidly diffusing. Legitimate virtual reality—something out of the set of the 1983 film Brainstorm—has arrived, blurring the line between our private imaginings and our lived experience. The advent and practical application of augmented reality now means that the threshold of the cyber and physical worlds has been permanently breached. The aesthetics of drone warfare has quickly become part of our everyday visual vernacular, expanding the scope of total war in the West to now rob us of an experience once reserved for the lucid flying dream. The ubiquity of the phone camera now means that we are quickly beginning to both remember the past and experience the present as movies and pictures. Welcome to the age of the screen.

More than mere technologies and commodities, however, an age of the screen also brings with it systems of power and control. French philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze remind us that power in societies of control is panoptic, and the nature of control in this new age is visual. This certainly poses more than epistemological dilemmas, and the ethical concerns extend far beyond a simple morality of use value. A new age of the screen demands ontological resistance—a new mode of being in the world that is capable of both resisting (visual) power while at the same time making sense of the rapidly diffusing line between screen and world. Following the work that has been done over the last ten years in film philosophy, what is required is a film theology, or more radically, a theology of cinematic biopolitics.

I caught a glimpse of what this film (or visual) theology might look like early last year when I saw the stark image of effulgent priests and monks—aglow in the golden light of smoke and street lamps—standing in the cold breech between protesters and riot police in Kiev during the Euromaidan protests of 2014 (see above).

More pictures surfaced and the stories emerged of them standing, with cross and icon, in the line of fire, singing the Paschal Troparion that all Orthodox Christians proudly proclaim from Pascha to Pentecost: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” What I saw in those images was neither rote tradition nor a naïve attempt at martyrdom by a religion imprisoned by indolent quietude. Rather, in life and in image, this was the undisclosing of living icons and what we might call a virtual iconostasis that runs endlessly and continuously through our experience of the world. To bring some clarity to the strangeness of this statement we might look to Fr. Pavel Florensky’s elusive work Iconostasis (1922).

Iconostasis is a strange text. It begins with a journey into dreamscapes and concludes with a discussion of Egyptian burial masks. This is hardly the discussion about icons and the “iconographic” that many Protestant writers who try to incorporate Orthodox theology into their theology of art are used to. No, in Iconostasis the mystical—and foundational—theology of iconography does not begin with the imago dei but with the nature of the membrane between the visible and invisible, between the knowable and unknowable. As with the liturgical iconostasis, which is literally a wall of icons between the nave and the altar of the church, the boundary both separates and joins.

The iconostasis and icon are rooted in the Chalcedonian confession of the Fourth Ecumenical Council from the 5th century, in which the doctrine of the two natures of Christ was affirmed: truly God and truly human, without confusion or change, undivided and inseparable, two natures, one hypostasis. This should be of significance to us because the iconostasis and icon are not aesthetic principles to be mined, foraged, or even emulated in a Western post-Renaissance sense, but an ontological reality—they are statements about the way things really are. It’s an ethical mode of being that isn’t based on theological and philosophical principles but is theology and philosophy in its truest sense. As an Orthodox Christian I am ever reminded that the icons and iconostasis are not limited to the liturgical space but are works of witness and true reality that encompass our daily lives.

First, there is a virtual iconostasis that is the membrane, the boundary, of what is visible and invisible in our world. “[O]ur consciousness hugs the boundary of the crossing”, says Florensky, when we dream, when we create art, and when we walk as children of the light—as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:8.[1] This moves directly to the second point. We are living icons. In the tradition of St. Athanasius and Gregory of Palamas this is called theosis—our transformation into the likeness of God because of God’s assumption of finite humanity. This is why on the first Sunday of Great Lent we celebrate the decision, of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea 787), to return icons to the liturgical life of the church by marching with our icons. This is not a learned ethic but an ever-manifesting ontological reality for us as we endeavor to more and more reflect the uncreated light of God.

And here is our troubling yet hopeful starting point: beyond consumption, use value, and moralism, in an age of the screen, our struggle is not knowing (epistemological) but being (ontological). Whether it be a mobile phone, computer, cinema screen, or gaming interface that pretends to be reality or augments reality, screens are membranes that both keep us from and join us to unseen worlds. They shape the way we move and live and have our being. All screens in our world are interfaces that vie for our attention and often try to distract us. Some of them can even be used to draw us close to the boundary of the crossing and bear witness to the true screen—the virtual iconostasis that runs between the unseen reality of God and ourselves in the world. Drawing on the inextricable relationship between the iconostasis (the screen), icon (witness), and living icons (us) we have a model on which to base a discussion of the true nature of interface in the 21st century. With that in mind our next question might be, what are the questions the Church Fathers would ask about an age of the screen?

[1] Florensky, Pavel, Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1996), 44, 154–157.

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