The “digital sabbath” fad — staying off computers and phones one day a week — had its moment a decade ago, but there’s a persistent idea that our devices lead us from grace, that recentering ourselves requires logging off. Newer riffs on the digital detox no longer pretend that the internet isn’t part of reality but instead insist that it is too real: the site of the mundane, the world of commerce and appearances, a crass public square, and a repository of nuisances and distractions. From this point of view, online connection corrupts our sense of the sacred: it lets us transcend our corporeal limits but only so that we can marketize ourselves more thoroughly. If on social media we dissolve ourselves into collectives, it seems as though it is not for spiritual reasons but for camouflage.
Because being online has become a concrete expression of how entangled and contingent our lives inevitably are, being offline has taken on for some the ramifications of a higher plane, an analog temple in which one can more readily perceive one’s better self, in harmony with a truer, more “natural” reality. As if spirituality were a matter of escaping the claims of others, rather than orienting oneself in the midst of them.
But the internet itself, as a site of interaction, has always had a “spiritual” quality, evoking a universalist dream of spontaneous communication across great geographic divides, and seamless communion unbounded by embodied constraints. In “Paradise Regained,” Soraya King cites the example of the chat room, which in earlier days made Netscape feel a bit like the astral plane. Chat rooms then were carnivalesque; they seemed to suspend the rules of everyday life, at best enabling a blissful chaos wherein one could slip out of unwanted identities and try on new ones with apparent ease and — at least through the glaze of nostalgia — without harm or consequence, nothing to gain or lose beyond the experience. What happened in the chat room really seemed to stay there: Nothing and no one followed you out of the tab. The particularities of everyday lives were stripped away, leaving the warm, magic feeling of ambient co-presence — in essence, a spiritual transubstantiation.
As King writes, the sacred site — whether a conventional holy place or a more informal colloquial space in which to rise above the everyday — is not some fixed portal to an unchanging other zone. Rather a sacred site is the product of a collective intention to defer, alter, and rearrange the assumptions and expectations and categories that stabilize and constrict daily life, peeling away the world’s oppressive specificity. Sacred sites are not inherently sacred by virtue of where they are, but become sacred by virtue of the behavior they coordinate.
Brick and mortar can make a base for a congregation and set a mood of sanctuary; so can burning sticks; so, of course, can text windows. Vaulted ceilings and precious metals provide a sense of the sublime, but so can a scroll. As Arabelle Sicardi writes, water and its bearings have been used throughout history to situate people in a moment, or conjoin a moment with eternity. Last summer, King points out, bleary images of the solar eclipse, shared across time zones on Twitter, did the same.
Technologies of transcendence, however, are easily misused. Those same techniques of suspension and feats of collective will can be used to give a moral character to a range of rules and exclusions, and lend an air of impunity or inevitability to what might otherwise stand as unjust. Governance is not abolished, but rather placed in parentheses indefinitely, and rule by force or fiat takes hold: Black sites, Guantánamo Bay, prisons and county jails, ICE detention centers all rely on a state of exception, the same suspension of the normal rules of society that sacred spaces also evoke.
All places, sacred and profane, depend on technology to define their boundaries and functions. This week we present essays on these spaces, and how various technologies enable them, their sense of localness, specificity, exceptionality, and transcendence.
Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s upcoming installment, SOUVENIRS.