I Heart Your Icon

Dave Humphrey recently wrote a post on the possibility of expressing love online. His question, essentially, was this: can humans genuinely express love (deep friendship, appreciation) to one another over the medium of digital communication?

Reflecting on his post reminded me of some statements made by Hans Urs Von Balthasar in Love Alone is Credible, written long before the days of email and Twitter:

In order to gain an insight into humanity, the individual must encounter an other. The human being exists only in relation to others; he truly is only in the reciprocity of an I and Thou. [Think: Martin Buber] The otherness of the other is a fundamental fact that he must acknowledge if there is to be any possibility of forming a harmonious community in the commonality of human nature… we must recognize that the actual individual human being is not merely the key to nature as a whole, but also the sole object of philosophy: philosophy is in the end nothing other than anthropology. It therefore follows that “the new philosophy is founded on the truth of love…Where love is lacking, there can be no truth.” Only in the love of the other as other, wherein I passes wholly beyond itself into the sphere of the Thou, can we find the way from man to mankind.

Or, in briefer synopsis, Balthasar recaps:

Man sustains himself—indeed, he first comes to himself—in an encounter. When one man meets another face to face, truth comes to pass, the depths of human existence come to light in spontaneously, in freedom and in grace.

This interplay between love and truth was recently alluded to in beautiful, poetic conciseness by my friend Luke Hill in a short piece entitled On Truth and Knowing:

Truth must be known, not as facts are known, but as lovers are known, partially, fleetingly, uncertainly, overwhelmingly, undeniably, impossibly. It can be known only with a knowing that never defines or delineates or delimits, that never assures or guarantees or promises. It can be known only so far as we are in it. This is why we can never have the truth, why we can only ever be in the truth, and even this is beyond all guarantee.

I wonder if human, face-to-face interaction is itself the greatest practice of truth in which we can engage. Not a linguistic or philosophical truth, nor a truth governed by the properties of mere human premonition (like our arguments of objectivity), but a kind of truth that is, as Luke Hill muses, something that we can only be in, but never own for ourselves.

Returning to Humphrey’s contemplation on whether love can be expressed online, I believe it is worth noting that we can never be “in” digital communion with other people. (Digital communication, yes; digital communion, no.)

Even in person — even when face-to-face with Thou — my pride, prejudice and presuppositions can tragically objectify Thou into an It. The internet paradoxically amplifies my own human insufficiency of perspective: on the internet, the Other is always an It; and it can never actually be the Thou that it merely represents. In essence, we all turn into avatars of ourselves and the only thing we can genuinely love of the other is the icon of Thou, but the icon itself is itself an It. On the internet, we can only love what images and words represent, but not the images and words themselves, for they are nothing but vectors of values.

Intuitively we would say that the greatest expressions of love occur when the masks are diminished; but the internet is itself a continual masking of pixels and language. In the real world we do the same thing, often projecting inauthentic metaphors of our own character into our conversations and ways of being with one another. However, when face-to-face, beyond the veil of pixels and the emotional firewall of written language, the self meets another self in a human way that transcends the fiber optics of the words you are reading now.

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