Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Rosary, iPod and aerobics

Diarmid MacCullough attributes the fifteenth century rise of the Rosary to two factors [1]:
  1. It was a physical object: a reassuringly concrete holy possession, a personal relic that the even the poorest person could afford.
  2. The Rosary devotion constituted a religious practice for lay people that was as structured, corporate and intense as that which might be found in a religious community.
The iPod is a contemporary reminder of the talismanic power of things. Many cyber-enthusiasts proclaim the primacy of the bit over the atom; since anything can be represented digitally, they imply, the dirt world is an inconvenient and ideally optional extra.

That's not how humans seem to be wired, though. The physical world is the armature of our dreams, not an inconvenient carapace [2]. It matters what one's MP3 player looks like, and feels like in the hand; the quality of the music it pipes into your ears is the equi-perfect, digital commodity you could get equally well from a cheapo knock-off.

I'm sure many teens today will think back nostalgically to their first mobile or iPod in the same way that I remember my first HP calculator. Sure, the fact that it used Reverse Polish had geek chic, but it was the heft and the Mercedes-like click of the keys that have remained with me ever since.

As for structured communal practice: I'm perplexed by the lack of collective ritual among secular moderns. History and anthropology would suggest that meaningful, shared activities are part of being human, and yet individuality and divergence is the norm in the Blue states. The closest we've come in the last few decades is aerobics and occasional dance crazes (remember the Macarena?). Europe and the US Coasts are probably due for another simulacrum of a communal religious activity - though if disco and tae bo are the kind of thing we're in for, I'm happy to wait.


[1] Diarmid MacCullough, The Reformation, Viking 2003, Chapter 7, p. 319

[2] Anthony Damasio argues in Descartes' Error that emotion plays a central role in being rational. In a similar way, I would guess that physical action is essential for abstract thinking. I vaguely recall reading about some studies that linked gesture to narrative: if you tied someone's arms to their chair, they couldn't remember the details of story they were being asked to retell.