Nicolete Burbach (Consultant researcher in the Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice, and Lecturer in postmodern theology at the University of Durham).
It has become a truism in Catholic circles that online forms of communion are not really communion; that the presence it offers is a false, ‘virtual’ one; and that however much closer it may seem to bring us lonely individuals, bound to our houses, the physical gulf between us is an alienation that can never be overcome in a purely digital medium.
We even find this in the Magisterium itself. For example, when Fratelli Tutti warns of the dangers of that more antisocial form of online community, the online hate mob, it does so in terms of a broader concern about forms of digital community in general:
They lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.
Here the concern is that the lack of physical presence lacks key features that are a necessary part of any true community-forming communication. A virtual presence lacks the physicality of true presence, and the instantaneous and fleeting form of contact enabled through it remove us from the slow temporal processes through which deeper relationships are formed.
You would be justified in assuming that these insights would be born out in my experiences of online teaching. However, if anything, my teaching experiences have taught me the opposite: that forms of online community can in fact be a site of real communion and encounter with others. This is not to say that the virtual, fleeting modes in which my students and I have been present to one another have been free of the problems and privations which Francis describes above. Rather, it is precisely in these limitations that I have found new ways to encounter others.
Take, for example, the (at first disconcerting) phenomenon of teaching when students’ cameras are off. During my classes, I am regularly confronted with a wall of blank screens that, save a few occasional interjections and responses from the more engaged members of the class, leaves me feeling as though I am teaching only to myself.
More than simply being isolated, however, I cannot help but contrast this to the normal experience of teaching a room full of faces. The result is therefore not just a sense of being ‘on my own’, but of absence. I feel that my students have been ‘removed’, leaving only tiny rectangles of grey, void except for a name tag that doubly marks this removal by both denoting identity of what has gone, while also indicating the fact of this absence through the necessity of this denotation. Through this, their absence is transformed from simply being the lack of presence into something in-and-of itself: I am confronted with a lack, a void; their absence and the fact of my alienation, actively presenting themselves to me.
It is tempting to simply read this void as the absolute failure of encounter: my students have been substituted for the void, which now confronts me not only in its own impersonality, but as impersonality as such. Read in this way, it embodies the very essence of Francis’ concerns about digital communication and communion: that its virtual nature means that it is founded on an impersonal absence, rather than personal presence through physicality and temporality.
However, this experience is also compounded by the fact that, once I place my students in break-out groups, the cameras come on again. That is, it is only while talking to me that they appear absent in this way. As a result I cannot help but feel slightly excluded in this removal, or even robbed: this is a removal specifically for me.
This personalising dimension draws my attention to the fact that this experience of absence more generally is not a truly impersonal one: I am experiencing it, as a disruption of my community. It is not simply a lack, but a lack for me; a void that presents itself to me. I am alienated.
In this context, my encounter with the void of my students is also an encounter with myself, specifically as someone with a need for community which is being thwarted. It presents me, in the negative, with my own social nature. Moreover, this thwarted drive to communion presupposes others into whom I can enter communion; other persons driven in a similar way to myself as the condition for this fulfilment. In this way, it confronts me with the fact that those others, from whom I am alienated, have the same social nature, which is frustrated in their case in the same ways as my own.
This realisation transforms my own sense of alienation into a sense of the mutual alienation between myself and my students, and my students from one another. In doing so, it ceases to simply be an experience of absence, or their absence. It also becomes an experience of their need, contained in the experience of my own.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis places the experience of, and involvement in, the suffering of others at the heart of communion. He writes, “Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others… Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people” (no. 270).
This concept of ‘a people’, as Chris Knowles explains in a blog article I recently had the pleasure to publish as part of a series I edited, is dispersed and resists neat definition. However, core to this concept is the idea of unity and communion – hence it is under this concept that we can understand the unity of the Church itself: “God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age. He has chosen to call them together as a people and not as isolated individuals” (no. 113).
If the experience of alienation in the virtual classroom is also an experience of the need of the other for oneself – if it is an experience of their own alienation and suffering – then might it not be an experience whereby we reach out and touch the other in their suffering? Would this not then transform our actions to address and alleviate this alienation however we can into the very involvement in that suffering to which Francis calls us? And if so, would not that alienation, seemingly paradoxically, become a site of the very communion that it disrupts?
The paradox here is not actually that great. In contrasting ‘virtual’ with ‘physical’ or ‘bodily’ communion, we risk losing site of the fact that we sit at our computers in physical space, and work with our bodies even from a place of remove. Across the gulf of cyberspace, we are still blushing and perspiring. Even if our trembling bodies cannot touch, we are nevertheless acting in relation and response to one another in a world that is essentially material.
Indeed, to act as if digital communication takes place solely in some unfulfilling, disembodied realm is to succumb to a kind of techno-dualism that renders us as bodies only in our immediate social lives, and ‘ghosts’ in the world of the internet machine; an illusion which forgets that even the seemingly ethereal online realm is just so many pulses of electricity through undersea cables, expressed through patterns of illuminated diodes, which trigger responses in a human eye that are in turn interpreted by a human brain.
The point is that, even when cloistered in distant bedrooms and studies around the world, we nevertheless share that world, and are implicated in one another within it. This alienation that we feel is great, but it is neither total nor absolute, and we should not confuse the impossibility of particular modes of relation with the impossibility of relation in general.
In situations such as ours today, the challenge is to recognise the way this world exceeds our habitual ways of being in the world, and how the scope for relation within it goes beyond any one form that relation may take. The way that even the confrontation with alienation itself in the imperfections of online teaching can serve as a site for authentic communion shows us clearly that there are opportunities even in the most unexpected, seemingly hopeless places. In this context, it is not enough to simply lament the impossibility of certain ways of relating in the face of our limitations, or to warn of the risks of others: we can, and must, go further, and work creatively to find new possibilities within the bounty that is our shared existence.