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Mediums and Messages - Pt II
Recognition in the Garden
This post is a continuation of the “Mediums and Messages” series. In my last post, I explored how the modern technological project has obscured and distorted the meaning of creation and creaturehood. Most of all, it has obscured a unique aspect of our human creaturehood—namely, our personhood. In this post, I discuss the dynamics of recognition and personhood, which I will connect to themes of technology in future posts.
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When we are born, our first moments are spent in “quiet alert” as we make sense of our new surroundings.We are searching for something—for a face.
But not merely a face. We are searching for recognition—to find ourselves in the loving gaze of another. Our infant selves cry and coo not simply to communicate physical needs, but ultimately so that we may be seen and met with love. Unable to understand language, we are dependent on body language, specifically facial expression, to learn this. The warm smiles and the loving gazes of our parents “tell” us that we are recognized—that we are visible as persons, as a who not just a what—made from and for love.
Of course, the need for recognition doesn’t diminish as we get older.As children and adolescents, we need sustained recognition from caretakers to develop a healthy and secure sense of self so that we can explore the world and take risks. As teens, our desire for recognition continues (though we perhaps seek it more from peers) but deepens and complexifies with new dimensions of the self like sexuality that normally develop during these years. And as adults entering broader society, we long to be seen as persons worth love and care by our coworkers, employers, neighbors, communities, etc.
The loss or lack of recognition, especially at young ages, destabilizes our sense of value as persons. Studies by psychologists like Edward Tronick have found that children who are not shown recognition or mutual attention from their caretakers for a few minutes experience dysregulation and distress.This is what happens after a short period of time. Imagine what would happen if the loss or lack of recognition were sustained. Without sustained or repeated recognition, we are no longer seen or treated as persons. Think of a poor beggar who is disregarded, an orphan child who is abandoned, or an outcast who is socially ostracized. Any sense of personal value deteriorates. Their lives become invisible. Theirs is a phantom existence.
But in order for recognition to be what it is, there must be more than a face or a loving gaze. Try holding a photograph or a video of another’s face in front of the infant. Can the ink or pixels simulate recognition? Or get her a dog, whose face can express emotion and sympathy. Can Fido’s obedient gaze recognize the infant as a person?
If COVID lockdowns taught us anything, it’s that recognition can’t be simulated or substituted. Sure, the presence of our dog or cat may comfort us, but they cannot see or meet us as persons. And sure, early on in the pandemic, Zoom and FaceTime helped us get by. But no matter how many hours we spent behind a screen with friends and loved ones, pixels were poor substitutes for actual persons.
So what is it about faces—physical, present human faces—that prove vital for this quest?
Historically, language has linked the human person and the human face. The latin derivative of “person,” persona, is known to have referred to someone with legal standing before Roman law. Before this, however, it was used in the ancient theater to refer to the masks worn by the dramatis personae, the characters of a play. Interestingly, persona also coincided with the ancient Greek word prosopon, which refers to “face” or “countenance.” For the ancients, then, a face signified a person. A person, whether an actual individual or a character in a play, is identifiable by and expressed through his or her face.
But the person isn’t just identifiable exclusively through his or her face, as if the rest of the body were irrelevant. Genesis 2 shows us that the whole body reveals a person. As the man Adam awakes from his God-given slumber and solitude, he meets the woman, built from his rib, with a song:
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2:23)
When cited, this passage is often celebrated as the first love song. But the context of the passage reveals a deeper meaning. Over the course of Genesis 2, we have learned that the human is a creature unlike the others. The human is intimately fashioned by God, who alone is given the task of stewarding creation and is brought into a covenantal relationship with God Himself. As the narrative progresses, the human learns, through the naming of the animals, that there is no “helper fit for him”—that he is alone.
Before he is divinely anesthetized, the human learns for himself his uniqueness within the creation. This uniqueness is revealed not only in his creation, vocation (cultivating, subduing the earth), and relationship with God (the commandment), but even in his very body—namely, that the human possesses a profound interiority, that he exists as an “who” not just as a “what.” And it is precisely “the structure of [his] body” that shows and permits him to be “the author of genuinely human activity” whether in tending the garden, subduing the earth, or naming the animals. This is because the body, “in all its materiality, [is thus] penetrable and transparent… to make it clear who man is.” All of this can be put simply: “the body expresses the person.”
All of this sets the scene for the creation of the woman. In order for the “helper” to be “fit for him,” that helper must be like the first human, in total. This helper must be a creature—a person, an “I”—who possesses an interiority like his own that is likewise revealed through the body.
Adam’s poem is a eureka moment of recognition. When God brings the woman to the man, the man breaks into song: bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. But note: nothing has yet taken place between the man and the woman. Before any conversation or interaction, it is precisely at the sight of the woman—not her speech, not her virtue, not her behavior, but her body—that the man identifies her as a “helper fit for him.” The woman’s body too “reveals man,” expressing not just another creature or animal, but another “human, personal ‘I’”.This is not just love at first sight—it is recognition at first sight.
Notice: unless the body manifests the person, there can be no recognition—or communion—between humanity’s first parents. The story of Adam and Eve presupposes that the body is the medium of fully personal communication, which in turn makes genuine communion of persons possible:
Through its own visibility, the body manifests man and, in manifesting him, acts as an intermediary that allows man and woman, from the beginning, to “communicate” with each other according to that communio personarum [communion of persons]...
Here in the garden, the communication of persons on which Adam’s poetic recognition, “flesh of my flesh,” (and, later, the two’s becoming “one flesh”) depends is made possible by the body’s ability to reveal a person.
Like our first parents, our own quest for recognition can only be fulfilled if, in our search for a face, we find a person, embodied and present. For recognition presupposes a truth so fundamental that it feels too obvious to say: namely, that the human body (and only the human body) reveals a person. If bodies were machines and persons were ghosts, perhaps pixels could provide a good substitute. But the fact they do not—and that we felt this so acutely during the pandemic—suggests that the body is something that cannot be replaced by even our most powerful, personalized gadgets.
In my next post, I’ll plan to explore how, compared to other “mediums,” the body is the only medium adequate for fully personal communication and communion. I’ll also try to unpack how much of our turn towards virtual life fails to meet our desire for recognition precisely because it employs mediums that cannot adequately or fully communicate the person.
I am drawing a lot from Andy Crouch’s research in The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World.
I am similarly indebted to discussion of recognition in Axel Honneth and Avishai Margalit, “Recognition,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 75 (2001), pp. 111-139. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4107035
Crouch, Ch. 1 (Kindle).
Crouch, Ch. 1 (Kindle). See also, Marias (citation below), p. 30.
Julian Marias, Metaphysical Anthropology: The Empirical Structure of Human Life. Penn State, 1971. p. 30.
Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Ed. Michael Waldstein. Pauline, 2006. p. 154 (7:2).
JPII, p. 176 (12:4).
Indeed, the word play in the final line, she shall be called Woman [isha], / because she was taken out of man [ish], underscores the likeness between the two by using terms (woman/man; isha/ish) that literally share of the same letters and sounds.]
JPII, p. 176 (12:5).