No, I do not have insider information from the Vatican that Pope Francis’s anticipated encyclical on the environment (reportedly entitled Laudato Sii) has been scrapped. Indeed, the Vatican has announced the document will be released on June 18. Rather, my title is an allusion to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1991 essay on the Persian Gulf War, “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place,” which was published as part of the 1995 book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Although often misinterpreted, Baudrillard’s point was not to deny that, factually speaking, fighting had taken place in Kuwait and Iraq. Instead, his argument was that the public’s experience was one of hyperreality—that is, not of war, but of a media event—and that the armed forces of both sides in the conflict acted in ways meant to fulfill the media representation. Likewise, my point is that perhaps at no point in history has our perception of a church teaching been so mediated by anticipatory representations of it, and the formulation of that teaching been so shaped in response to those representations, as is the case with the upcoming environment encyclical.
In his book Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard describes how in our postmodern condition, we are enmeshed in a world of signs. The barrage of television, mass print media, and the internet creates a sort of virtual reality that then inescapably mediates our experience of the “real world,” in a sense becoming more real than the real—hyperreal. A well-known example is feminist Naomi Wolf’s claim that, “Today, real naked women are just bad porn.” Commodities are increasingly valued for the sense of identity and status they bring, fostered through advertising, rather than their usefulness. Drawing on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which an empire drafts a map as large and detailed as its territory itself, Baudrillard claims that today we live in the map, rather than the territory it originally represented.
Now I think that Baudrillard is mistaken that this condition is completely new to our present time; humankind’s experience of reality has always been conditioned by our representations of it. But there certainly has been what we could call an intensification in the production of representations of reality; Baudrillard is correct to point us toward the way that technology and the flow of information shapes our perception of reality, even apart from the content being conveyed. But he also misses how, aside from technology, another reason for the intensification of representations of reality is what we could call modern reflexivity, that is, modern people’s awareness that “reality” is something we in part create, and therefore something we can constantly study, analyze, and re-imagine. Our constant commentaries, critiques, and visions for the future, conveyed through the omnipresent mass media, contribute to the intensification of the representational mediation of reality. But humankind’s awareness of our role in creating reality does not always translate into an awareness of how our own creation shapes our perceptions of the world, and therefore Baudrillard’s analysis of the dream- or trance-like nature of contemporary life retains some value.
This tension between our constant need to comment on and attempt to shape the world in which we live on the one hand, and on the other the inescapable and largely unrecognized ways in which we are shaped by our representations of the world, is exactly the lens through which I want to view Francis’s upcoming encyclical.
In the past several months, an unprecedented amount of digital ink has been spilled in anticipating the contents of the encyclical. As early as January of last year, my fellow Political Theology Today blogger Dan DiLeo wrote at Millennial Journal on his “expectations and hopes” for the then recently-announced document. Since then there have been a steady stream of articles along similar lines (such as here, here, and here). Likewise, others have written articles trying to minimize the impact of the encyclical (such as here, here and here). Not surprisingly, others, including DiLeo, have written rebuttals in response (here, here, and here). Reading these articles, it becomes clear that the idea here is what one should make of the encyclical, once it is publicly available.
The point is not to lament this abundance of anticipatory commentary, but rather to state that as such commentary becomes the norm, we must become more aware of how our reading and interpretation of church teaching is mediated by such commentary (even our own commentary!). And the purpose of this awareness is not to somehow get behind all the commentary to discover the “real” encyclical. For example, Rebecca Hamilton writes that many of the analysts of the encyclical are political partisans who “are not dealing with the actual encyclical, and they never will. What they are doing now is rehearsing and readying. They are softening us up for the tsunami of propaganda that will be unleashed when the encyclical is published.” Although she is certainly right that some are attempting to spin the encyclical for political purposes, what I find misleading is her claim that we can approach the “actual encyclical” in some unmediated way, that Pope Francis can “speak directly to the conscience of billions of Christians by telling them the plain facts of what Christ meant,” if only we can see past the spin of the ideologues. In reality, those billions of Christians will not hear the pope “directly”, but rather will bring to their interpretation of the encyclical their own pre-conceptions about its contents, as well as their pre-conceptions of Francis, the papacy, etc.
As I mentioned earlier, I think it is important to point out that, not only will our reading of the encyclical be shaped by the commentary surrounding it, but also that the writing of the document has been done with self-conscious awareness of what is being said about it. As Baudrillard notes, “the map precedes the territory.” The Associated Press has reported, “The Vatican has helped fuel interest by mounting an unprecedented roll-out, featuring conferences, speeches, and book launches tied to it,” but these efforts have aimed not only at “fueling interest” in the encyclical, but also learning from and shaping the ongoing analysis of its anticipated contents. So again, we are not faced with the “plain facts of what Christ meant,” but a teaching document mediated by expectations and representations. We will probably see more and more of this self-consciousness on the part of the church, perhaps explaining the church’s recent use of public relations firms.
By saying that our reading of Pope Francis’s encyclical will be mediated is not the same thing as saying it is pre-determined. Even if we cannot set aside our frame of reference to digest the document raw and unmediated, we can, as Hamilton herself suggests, encounter it open to conversion. While we cannot escape the “sign systems” that help us make sense of reality, we do have some say over whether that system will be closed in on itself, unable to grow and develop when confronted with the different and unexpected, or open, capable of assimilating insights gained through encounters with other people and ideas. The Gospel calls us to be open, faithful to what has been revealed to us but also knowing that the God of Mystery is revealed in unexpected places. In the Middle Ages, cartographers marked the unexplored territories on maps with “Here be dragons.” As we read Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment (Yes, it has already been written), we should keep a section of our maps marked, “Here be the Holy Spirit.”