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From Reformations to Deformations
Is the modern era begun by the printing press being brought to a close by social media?
In his 2016 book Reformations, the historian Carlos Eire writes the following about the reaction of the Catholic Church to Protestantism in the years after Martin Luther famously posted his theses in 1517:
The rise of Protestantism caught the Catholic Church by surprise. This is not to say that Catholics lacked resolve or eloquent advocates, but rather that the Catholic leadership as a whole failed to understand the nature and extent of this new ‘heretical’ threat, and therefore also failed to react quickly and effectively.
He goes on to write that ‘no matter how loudly or how eloquently they condemned him, those who opposed Luther on paper or face-to-face were unable to stop him’, and they could ‘do nothing to stop the firestorm that was already sweeping through parts of Germany’.
Eire gives the example of the efforts of Cardinal Tomasso de Vio, know as Cajetan, whose tireless efforts – beginning with debating Luther at the Diet of Augsburg in 1518 - were emblematic of this failure. Eire writes:
The eminent cardinal would never give up the fight, but all his efforts were aimed high, at the theological stratosphere rather than the man or women on the street. Catejan would compose detailed Latin refutations of Lutheran theology concerning the primacy of the Pope, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacrificial dimension of the Mass, and the cooperation between the human will and grace, but these learned treatises could not diminish Luther’s popularity.
As Eire observes:
Catholic apologists sought to undercut the integrity of Protestantism at a high intellectual level, by pointing to its most apparent fundamental flaws: novelty, inconsistency, and plurality. If the leading Protestants contradicted themselves and disagreed with one another, argued the Catholic apologists, how could they possibly lay claim to the truth? And how could these newcomers dismiss centuries of tradition as error?
Reading Eire on events in the west from exactly 500 years ago, it’s hard not to see parallels with the events of today. We can hear echoes of the Catholic Church’s bafflement, faced with such popular heresy, in the bafflement of the contemporary establishment, faced with the result of the Brexit referendum or the election of Trump in 2016, and the frustrated efforts ever since to explain to people ‘why they are wrong’, and why both will be ‘disastrous’. We can see parallels in how both Catholics and liberal internationalists have aimed ‘all their efforts high’, appealing to reason, principle, logic, but not to the feelings and passions of the man in the street, then sick of Catholic indulgences and corruption, and now sick of the hollowing out of society in the service of a rapacious market logic.
These parallels are not exclusive to what is occurring on the political right. We can also see parallels between Protestant tactics and what is happening today on the contemporary ‘woke’ left. In 1539, the Bishop of Geneva, Jacopo Sadoleto, sent a letter to those in the city who had turned Protestant under John Calvin, detailing their errors. As Eire writes:
The magistrates of Geneva read the letter carefully and passed it on to John Calvin, who wrote a blistering point-by-point response, which was then published in pamphlet form, along with Sadoleto’s letter. Confident of the superiority of Calvin’s arguments, then, the Protestants used Sadoleto’s letter to “prove” him wrong and make him look like a fool.
Quite often, might made right: ‘Protestants would win…because of their high numbers in the city councils that decided who had won’ this or that debate over religious doctrine. Here, we can see the culture of pillorying people who disagree, and the turning of previously authoritative figures into ones who are silenced, and even ‘cancelled’.
And we can even see parallels between the way that counter-reformers reacted to the Reformations, and how the opposition have reacted to the norm-shattering claims and language of the Brexit campaigners in the UK, and Trumpists in the US, being forced to adopt the idiom and ethics of the people they are against in order to compete. Thus, we have seen candidate Joe Biden sinking to the level of his opponent in the debate, telling him to ‘shut up, man’ – a phrase that would likely have sunk his candidacy against any other opponent in almost any previous cycle.
And we have seen Biden run a campaign that was remarkably free from substance, or even policy, instead adopting the figurative positioning championed by his opponent. This is not dissimilar to how, as Eire writes, that:
Catholic preaching style…tended to change in the face of Protestant competition, becoming less structured and more focused on key theological issues and biblical exegesis. A parallel change also took place in the printing of sermons, which not only increased, but also employed vernacular languages with increasing frequency.
And after four years of chicanery and intellectual dishonesty in the public sphere, notably from the populists running the British government and the Trump administration as well as the neo-puritans on the left, who can’t relate to the exhaustion evident in the words of no one less than Henry VIII, who wrote of Martin Luther:
I am so far from holding any further dispute with him that I almost repent myself of what I have already argued against him. For what avails it to dispute against one who disagrees with everyone, even with himself? Who affirms in one place what he denies in another, denying what he presently affirms? Who, if you object faith, combats by reason; if you touch him with reason, pretends faith? If you allege philosophers, he flies to scripture; if you propound scripture, he trifles with sophistry. Who is ashamed of nothing, fears none, and thinks himself under no law. Finally, he so undervalues customs, doctrine, manners, laws, decrees and faith of the church (yea, the whole church itself) that he almost denies there is any such thing as a church, except perhaps such a one as himself makes up of two or three heretics, of whom himself is chief.
But the similarities and symmetries go beyond the parallel nature of the forms of protestation at established orthodoxies, and the establishment in general, in these two eras. They also share conditions of possibility, both being facilitated by symmetrical technological developments, specifically the invention of moveable type in the mid-15th century, and the internet in the late 20th.
In talking of the flat-footedness of the Catholic response to what was happening in the early years of the reformations, Eire notes that ‘the success of Protestantism can be attributed in large measure to its popular appeal, and to the pamphlets and sermons that spread the Protestant message in the vernacular, employing humour, satire, and illustrations.’
The key variable here is ‘the pamphlets and sermons that spread the protestant message’, for the Reformations were largely facilitated by the availability of literature - that is, pamphlets, posters or books produced by various intellectuals, most notably Martin Luther. What made this possible is of course quite obvious.
In 1450, in Mainz, Germany, Johannes Gutenberg and some associates invented movable type printing. Carlos Eire describes this as a ‘quantum leap’, writing that it was:
As precise a turning point as one can find in history. Before Gutenberg, information flowed very slowly, and all knowledge had to be painstakingly preserved and transmitted by scribes through handwritten documents. After Gutenberg, the Western world was transformed. Passing on knowledge and information becomes much easier, faster, and cheaper. Thanks to the printing press, an argumentative monk in Saxony could gain an international audience overnight and change the world. No printing press, no Reformations’ It is that simple, at the most basic level.
Additionally, what was produced could be anonymous, and it could be read in private, and also smuggled easily, thereby vastly improving the range of the impact of revolutionary - and reformative - ideas.
This invention was, therefore, massively emancipatory.
We need to be careful about using the term ‘dark ages’ to refer to the world prior to the printing press, which would be too simplistic. However, it is probably fair to say, by analogy to a photograph, that prior to its invention, most people in Europe will have had a fairly underexposed view of the world. Everything they knew and thought will have been filtered through what they were being told by the monolithic authority of the Catholic Church, and its agents.
But all of a sudden, with the invention of moveable type, there was a sharpening, or perhaps enlightening, of the picture people saw: the underexposed picture became increasingly clear as the reality of the world – society’s corruption, nature’s laws - was exposed through pamphlets and books. One could argue that this is the essence of modernity - it is a period in which an underexposed picture became more exposed. Even if people did not achieve a clear picture, they at least had the tools by which to clarify and enlighten it. As Ritchie Robertson has recently argued, ‘an essential precondition for the Enlightenment was the Protestant Reformation, which changed the way people understood reality.’
What is the relevance of all this history? Simply put, there is an argument to be made that what we’re currently seeing and experiencing, 500 years on from the Reformations, is the end of the modern period, in what we might call the era of Deformations.
The effect of the internet and social media today is in some ways the opposite of that of the printing press. The printing press led to the enlightening of an underexposed picture of the world. But by contrast, the internet and social media is taking a fairly well-exposed picture, and rendering it over-exposed. What do I mean by this?
For a few hundred years, the tools we’ve needed are those by which we can generate and share knowledge. The problem now, however, is not that we lack knowledge, or the means by which we can access it. The problem now is that it is so easy to access knowledge, and there is so much of it, that the challenge we run into is one of triage: how do we work out what information is right, or relevant, and what is not? To continue the photography analogy, our problem is over not under-exposure, and as any photographer knows, both amount to the same thing: an unclear picture of what we’re looking at.
We’ve all seen this on the internet. We’ve seen how it - and especially social media - pushes up the crazed, the cranks, and the con-artists. The implication here for society is quite profound: where once we could say that knowledge is power, now it is probably more true to say that obfuscation is power. This is evident in the spread of new ideological contagions across the world via Facebook, Twitter, and the like. It is no coincidence that we have seen the explosion of mental health issues, conspiracy theories, and political partisanship in the age of social media. It is no secret that neo-nationalism has been spurred through social media, that the normalisation of ‘cancel culture’ is a function of social media, and that the wildest conspiracies – like QAnon - fester on the internet.
It is therefore, I think, quite reasonable to propose that if the printing press led to the beginning of the modern period via the reformations, and an enlightening of an under-exposed picture of the world, the internet and social media is leading to its end, via the current cultural deformations, which are leaving us with a blindingly over-exposed picture, in which no authoritative narrative can emerge at all. Where once ideological friction was a dependable source of illumination, today it leads only to conflagration.
To argue that the modern era is ending is a bold claim. Am I not being a bit pessimistic? What evidence do I have? Most people would agree that times are troubled and that our politics and society are polarised. But how can one be sure this is not simply a passing phase?
We cannot be completely sure, of course. But there is one very telling sign. To show this, I’ll first have to talk about the anthropological concept of ‘liminality’.
Social anthropologists have long identified, throughout history and across culture, ‘liminal stages’ in societies—transitional periods in which the norms and verities of an established order are, for a time, inverted, leading to ambiguity and disorientation, before a new one emerges.
In anthropology, liminal stages are mostly discussed in the context of rites of passage. In these stages, someone undergoing a ceremony ‘stands at the threshold’ between their previous identities and those that the ritual will put in place.
We can think of liminal situations in three contexts: conscious, spatial and temporal.
Conscious liminality is when people pass from one status to another, such as marriages, initiations, baptisms, and so on. This can also include graduations, and job inductions. Perhaps the most well-known is the initiation of children into the adult world, which tend to be a highly structured experience in many cultures, with three stages. First, there is the rite of separation, symbolising the ‘death’ as a child, leaving childhood behind. Second, there is a ‘test’ for adulthood. And third, if they succeed, they are reincorporated into adult life through a sort of ‘rebirth’. Bar Mitzvahs are an example of this. Spatial liminality includes moving houses, crossing borders, and so on – the airport and customs being examples of liminal spaces, between one place or the next. Temporal liminality are celebrations, from Harvest festivals to New Year, and so on.
However, liminality can also exist across large-scale and complex societies, marking the rupture in a culture, as one era comes to an end, and before another appears. At such times, the key characteristic is the ubiquity of inversion. It is this – the inversion of norms and orthodoxies – which is the sign I mentioned, the sign that we are in a liminal period, between one world and another.
When we look about the culture, it is hard to deny that one of the recurring patterns is the widespread inversion of old norms, orthodoxies and verities. Let’s take a few examples.
First, liberalism used to be about freedom of speech – and particularly freedom for those one disagrees with. Yet, today, we’re seeing this key liberal tenet increasing framed as something problematic. For example, in July 2020, Harper’s Magazine released a letter defending free speech, which was met by widespread condemnation. Perhaps more chillingly, Cambridge University recently proposed a change to its constitution, from requiring academics to tolerate views they disagree with (which would be in line with liberal principles), to requiring academics to respect views they disagree with. It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this could have ended up, if it hadn’t been voted down.
Additionally, we’ve also seen the old norm that ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ replaced by the idea that words can’t just lead to violence, but are themselves a form of violence.
We’ve also seen the left, who for many decades were sceptical of the corporate media - think of Noam Chomsky’s work on Manufacturing Consent - now defending its moral integrity, as right wing actors accuse it of ‘fake news’.
But these trends are not only coming from the left, but also from the right. Take the circumstances of the last few years as Britain endured the political, social and increasingly economic torque of Brexit. It is hard to deny that inversion was a hallmark of Britain’s Brexit moment, and a source of both disorientation and ambiguity.
First, the decision to leave was made possible by a Prime Minister who did not support it, advocated for by a man who did not believe it would win, acted upon by a new Prime Minister who did not vote for it, and ultimately briefly stymied by the MPs who had been its most vocal champions.
Second, the most widely expressed reason for leaving the EU was to return sovereignty to the British Parliament. Yet, paradoxically, this course was set in motion by a popular referendum that bypassed Parliament, and later a government that for a time sought to circumvent Parliament to ‘get Brexit done’.
Third, in the course of the whole Brexit story, the usual sources of authority and competence have been ignored, and even pilloried. The idea of economic expertise was derided as part of the populist ‘leave’ campaign; elected parliamentary representatives of the people have since found themselves facing accusations of being ‘enemies’ of those same people; and the Supreme Court, in the wake of its decision that prorogation was unlawful, has found its political neutrality questioned, by members of the Government no less.
Understood as a liminal stage, the paradoxes and inconsistencies, the very ambiguity and bewilderment of Brexit were not incidental, but intrinsic to the whole phenomenon. And similarly, the inversions and logical fallacies we’re seeing from the left in the past few years seem to be intrinsic to what is happening there, too.
The pattern of inversion doesn’t stop there. We’ve also seen fringe conspiracies, like QAnon, become mainstream. We’ve seen evangelical Christians vote repeatedly for a man who, to put it mildly, embodies few Christian virtues; we’ve seen a teenager made the de facto figurehead of a movement that is founded in advanced climate science. And we’ve seen once-adored public figures who were formerly seen as bastions of progressive thought, such as JK Rowling, suddenly re-conceived as highly divisive and contentious figures, who draw as much criticism as adoration.
In the Autumn of 1940, Edward R Murrow told his CBS radio audience, in a report from London on the war in Europe, that “you must understand that a world is dying, that old values, the old prejudices, and the old bases of power and prestige are going.” Yet this is also at least as apt as a description of our current time, in which many of our old verities are coming into question, and being inverted. It is arguable that what this is doing – in the consequential erosion of liberal and democratic norms, as well as key enlightenment tenets around evidence and logic – is marking the end of the modern era.
Presuming this argument holds, the question then is ‘why does this period of liminality matter?’ Or rather, is this ‘deformation’ good, or bad?
To answer these questions, we’ll need to discuss the consequences of these movements in large-scale societies, and particularly the role of millenarian movements.
According to the famed anthropologist Victor Turner, liminality is not only marked by inversion, but also a contrast between what he described as structure and anti-structure. That is, in a liminal stage, a previously structured and static world enters an unstructured and transitional period, before becoming structured again, albeit in a new way. In the ‘anti-structure’ liminal phase, he argued that a new type of community emerges that is a ‘relatively unstructured and undifferentiated communion of fellowship’.
These can often take the form of ‘millenarian’ movements. That is, movements that ‘encourage their followers to get rid of all signs of the old age that is soon to be destroyed and to prepare or wait for the coming of the new age’, and which essentially hold that current society is ‘corrupt, unjust or otherwise wrong’, and that they will ‘soon be destroyed by a powerful force’. The French sociologist Henri Desroche argued that millenarian movements saw change as having three stages. In the first, the members of the movement are oppressed. In the second, they confront the oppression. And in the third, they overcome the oppression, and bring about a better or even utopian world.
Taking this outline, it is easy to see how they fit not only the QAnon conspiracy theory on the far-right, but also the 2020 social justice protests from the left, as well as the climate justice and Extinction Rebellion movement. My point here is not to comment on the relative merit of these three very different movements. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the social justice and climate movements have any ethical or epistemological similarities to QAnon. My point is simply that - as movements - they share a structure. That is, all are relatively unstructured - even anti-structural – and all take the status quo to be oppressive, and aspire to overcome that oppression, be it economic oppression for climate activists, cultural oppression for social justice activists, of (perceived) political oppression for QAnon conspiracy theorists.
Far from condemning them, Turner actually saw these liminal communities in a ‘positive and creative light’. While he notes that anti-structure implies ‘anomie, angst, and the fragmentation of society into a mass of anxious and disoriented individuals’, he also saw it as ‘presenting the possibility of freedom, spontaneity and creativity and finally as a condition necessary to the continued health of the social order itself’.
In these periods, according to Turner, there is also a strong religious component. It is marked by what he terms ‘liminars’, who are considered ‘set apart’ – or sacred – and who do not have to submit to the usual societal structures. These ‘liminars’ who are set apart are charismatic persons, and typically include artists and prophets, and are seen as ‘edgemen’, ‘who strive with a passionate sincerity to rid themselves of the cliches associated with status incumbency and role-playing and enter into vital relations with other men in fact or imagination’.
As we look around the culture, it is again hard not to see the sudden emergence of precisely these sorts of characters. What is Donald Trump, if not an ‘edgeman’, in his efforts to smash norms, and ignore traditions and conventions, and overturn previous orthodoxies regarding what is true? What was Dominic Cummings, from his dress sense, to his efforts to change the terms of political engagement in the UK? What is the phenomenon of Greta Thunberg, if not a piece of powerful performance art, designed to unsettle, and challenge status incumbency? What are the cultural upheavals happening around social justice movements, and particularly around issues of racial and gender identity, if not passionately efforts by people to rid themselves of ‘cliches’ and ‘role playing’, in an effort to ‘enter into vital relations with other people in fact or imagination’?
And do not all of these movements – from the climate and social justice activism, to Trumpism and Brexit – speak in some way to real if deep problems? Polite society tends to agree this is the case for climate and social justice activism. But whatever the nature of the man himself, Trump and Trumpism, like Brexit, does seem to be symptomatic of deeper societal pathologies. Globalisation has hollowed out the middleclass; the elites have become more remote culturally and economically from most the population. The media is not objective – it may ‘fact check’, but it also editorialises – it chooses how to frame a story, or which story to run. There appears, to me, an interesting paradox with Trump: while others are superficially more truthful, they perpetuate a deeper lie, namely that the system is working. By contrast, Trump is a compulsive liar. Yet in his role as an ‘edgeman’, he is in many ways able to articulate deeper truths and challenges to the accepted stories – the deeper lies – that frame how we imagine we can react to the predicaments we find ourselves in in a globalised, late-capitalist world.
However, one of the crucial insights of anthropologists on liminal stages is that while they can, in large-scale societies, be creative, they are just as likely to be destructive, and dangerous. It is important to note that while at the individual and group level, liminal periods are often structured, with the outcome known in advance, and ‘ceremony masters’ existing to guide people through the liminal stage, with collective liminal stages at the level and scale of large scale and complex societies there is a massive difference: the outcome is not known to the participants, and there are no ‘ceremony masters’ who have done it before, in no small part because all conventional authorities lose their nimbus as a function of the process, creating opportunities for saints and scoundrels alike.
As a result, these stages can be dangerous and destructive, as they make it possible for self-proclaimed ‘ceremony masters’ to emerge, assume leadership positions, and attempt to ‘perpetuate liminality…by emptying the liminal moment of real creativity, (turning) it into a scene of mimetic rivalry’. For an example of this, we can look no further than Germany after World War I. Weimar Germany was, in a sense, a liminal period after the end of the Second Reich under the Kaiser, which collapsed due to the cataclysm of defeat in the War. In this liminal period – in which much was inverted, notably national self-esteem and the value of money – a false ceremony master did emerge in the form of Hitler, who emptied the liminal stage of creativity, and replaced it with mimetic rivalry, scapegoating the Jews for all that went wrong for Germany, and unleashing a second world war.
It is easy to look to the departing Trump and see a demagogue who did and perhaps will still do just this. Maybe that it the case to some extent, although I wonder if we sometimes overestimate his influence. He is arguably too ill-disciplined and reactive, rather than proactive, to be anything other than a symptom, rather than a cause, of what ails us. However, it is true that we live in an age in which provocateurs and cranks are gaining a following and an audience that they might not have in a more stable context. This is all possible due to the internet and social media.
For us to avoid falling for a false ceremony master in these liminal times, we must recognise that we are, in fact, or at least in my eyes, in a liminal stage in the first place. As a slight aside, I would even suggest that perhaps in our age, the ‘ceremony master’ is not a person at all, but the algorithm. But that is an entirely different thought, and one for another post.
In history, every new massive two-way communications invention has essentially created a liminal stage, which has destabilised society for a time, sometimes for centuries. This was the case for hunter-gatherers with the emergence of narrative; it was the case with the discovery of philosophy in the Axial Age, seen as a classic ‘liminal stage’, ‘an in-between period between two structured world-views and between two rounds of empire building; an age of creativity where man asked radical questions’. And of course, it was the case with the invention of the printing press, which set in train the Reformations, which overthrew a thousand years of Catholic control over all of Europe, and led to two centuries of disruption and conflict, ending with the 30 years’ war two centuries later, which in turn led to the emergence of modernity, with its system of nation-states, and core enlightenment tenets.
Each time, we have had to relearn what we knew before - how to dialogue, how to protect ourselves from manipulation, how to simply be members of society. Almost four hundred years after the Reformations, and a century before today, the pioneering sociologist, Max Weber, wrote that secularisation was, in the end, the ultimate legacy of the Reformations. What we're seeing now, I think, is a world that had slowly settled into a new secular normal now be thrown up again.
And in this liminal stage, between one era and the next, there is much creativity and opportunity, but there is also a huge amount of risk, as there was with the Reformations. We simply cannot know where this ends up, when it will end, and what our values will be. To invert Murrow’s words I mentioned earlier, once we emerge from this liminal stage, the values, prejudices, bases of power and prestige in society will, in all likelihood, be wholly new.
Whether and how we handle the current liminality will likely determine the course of the coming era. Will we enter an age that is more open, or more closed? Will it be an enhanced democracy, in which citizens are more self-possessed in the face of digital technology and whatever the future of social media holds, or will it be a society in which we enter a high-tech dark age, or an age of such overexposure to knowledge that we are blinded to any truths or realities?
We can’t really know. But in order to control our fate, it is perhaps useful to have a sense of where we are now, and what we are looking at when we survey the state of western society in January 2021, and reflect on all we have seen and experienced, in all the turbulence of the deformations of the last half decade.