Ghostly Occupants of the Net

Gabriel Marcel once characterized his philosophy as “a persistent, unceasing fight against the spirit of abstraction.” A Catholic convert, Marcel gave central place to the notion that man is an incarnate being (être incarné). Human beings do not have bodies; they are bodies. “Incarnation,” he proclaimed in Being and Having, “is the central ‘given’ of metaphysics.”

The modern world of electronic communications has, in effect, disembodied us. Many of us spend a great deal of time living neither in a culture nor in a civilization, exactly, but in that amorphous region of cyberspace called the World Wide Web. There are no bodies in cyberspace and, as a consequence, people are not present to each other as fully real, bodied persons. There is no meeting of persons in cyberspace. We cease to be citizens as we are metamorphosed into “netizens” — ghostly occupants of the 'net. There is no intersubjectivity, no meeting between the I and the Thou, merely the mingling of discarnate messages.

Marcel's philosophy, which centers on incarnation and intersubjectivity, had an immense influence on the American novelist Walker Percy. Like Marcel, Percy was a convert to Catholicism, and utterly intrigued by how modern man disintegrates himself into two entirely disparate parts, neither of which bears the slightest resemblance to a human being. “For the world is broken,” he wrote in Love in the Ruins, “sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man.” This curious process of personal disintegration, disembodiment or alienation from self had been anticipated by another important American thinker, Lewis Mumford, when he expressed the fear that “we may not be spared the last act of disintegration: handcuffed together, the Automaton and the Id may march to their common doom.”

Mumford would not have been surprised at the realization of his fear in the form of the Melissa Virus, the most virulent computer virus ever unleashed. Melissa is a prolific electronic pathogen that shut down tens of thousands of government and business computers around the world. It touched off an FBI manhunt culminating in the arrest, on March 26, of a man named David L. Smith. A 30-year-old resident of Aberdeen, N.J., Smith named his virus after a topless dancer of his acquaintance. Thus, we find “handcuffed together” the peculiar hybrid of brawn and brain, body and mind, sex and cyberspace. Descartes' “extended thing” (matter) and “thinking thing” (mind) are united, not by nature, but by handcuffs. Nor would Erich Fromm have been surprised by the arrival of Melissa, for he had stated that “[t]he dream of many people seems to be to combine the emotions of a primate with a computerlike brain.”

We attain the Web through processes of disincarnation: from landscape to netscape, from outerspace to cyberspace, from text to hypertext, from etiquette to netiquette, from actual to virtual, from citizen to netizen. We suddenly discover that we are, to borrow the title of Gene I. Rochlin's book, Trapped in the Net. We may be developing a new variant of arachnophobia — fear of a web that has nothing to do with spiders.

Catholicism has always celebrated the tangible and encouraged the tactile. The Mass and the sacraments center on blood, body, wine, bread, water, eyes and hands. It teaches that marriage is consummated only when conjugal intimacy has been achieved. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body underscores the importance the Church attaches to the body. “The mark of the Christian,” wrote Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, “is the willingness to look for the Divine in the flesh of a babe in a crib, the continuing Christ under the appearance of bread on the altar, and a meditation and prayer on a string of beads.”

James Joyce paid St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church's pre-eminent theologian, a well-founded tribute when he referred to him as “Toucher Tom.” Norman Mailer once stated that if he ever met Aquinas in the next world, he would first commend him for “that most excellent phrase, ‘the authority of the senses.’”

Aquinas dealt with the question of why Christ did not commit any of his teachings to the written word. We might ask the question, “If Christ entered the contemporary world, would he have his own Web site or communicate to others by e-mail?” Aquinas' answer is valid for all times. He stated that it was in keeping with Christ's excellence as a teacher to teach in the most excellent manner possible. This manner consists in imprinting his doctrines on the hearts of his hearers. Christ, like Socrates before him, taught as a person, which is to say, bodily, tangibly, communally. He was, as both Marcel and Percy would say, present to his disciples. He would not have allowed himself to be trapped in the Web.

And Mary? The Catholic Church has ceaseless praise for the incarnate reality of motherhood. Coventry Patmore has remarked that Mary, the Mother of God, is “Our only Saviour from an abstract Christ.” The Protestant tradition of sola Scriptura, by separating the Word of God from a living, communal, tangible context, tends to alienate rather than spiritualize and is consistent with Ralph Waldo Emerson's rejection of the Eucharist in favor of what he termed “a more vaporized form of Christianity.”

A person is a flesh and blood, body and soul entity. How does he deal with the World Wide Web without becoming debodied and depersonalized? The computer, of course, is a tool to serve people, not a place to live. It is inevitable that people overestimate the significance of their creations. We should not turn our inventions into idols. When shopping malls became fashionable, it became trendy to get married in them. Couples are now rushing to get “married” through their computers in cyberspace. We have difficulty in remaining temperate about our new technologies.

Nonetheless, the Web bears interesting analogies with two worlds that are very much part of Catholic teaching, namely, the Mystical Body of Christ and the communion of saints. These worlds are unified — not electronically, but by love, prayer and grace. These three factors act as a kind of “electricity of the heart.” Man is communal, but he should not be content with a community that requires the exclusion of his body.

The Web demonstrates, in a spectacular way, how limitless pieces of information can be brought together from far-flung sources at the speed of light. But this is only a small step toward the kind of interpersonal community that is embodied in the communion of saints and the Mystical Body of Christ.

It is a small, but significant step. The Web presents the danger of depersonalization. At the same time, it conveys hope for a more unified and informed society. It is not technology's finest possible accomplishment. It is merely a foretaste of something far better.

Perhaps the best use of the Web is to make both the Mystical Body and the communion of saints more believable. But it must not tempt us to de-emphasize the indispensable importance of the many “communities of persons” we need in order to remain whole: friendship, marriage, the family, the neighborhood, the parish and the nation.

Donald DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, Ontario.