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Hearts and Minds: Lockdowns, Common Sense and Being Sensible

Graeme Flett —

At the beginning of September, I was relieved as an Aucklander to learn of the government’s announcement that they would relax the city’s level 3 restrictions.

While carving a smile on the letterbox of most homes, the new health order quickly became a muddled affair. I mean, what defines an outdoor picnic? Families and friends could gather in groups of no more than ten people but with one stipulation they must meet outside. While the intent of the message was seemingly straightforward, the media’s response was quick—what about our creaturely need for amenities? On my way home from the supermarket, I stumbled across a conversation on the radio where Heather du Plessis-Allan was discussing the furore with Barry Soper. As Soper put it, the government’s messy messaging left no option for the general public but to opt for good old common sense—a fair appraisal of the situation and a logical outcome when left to our own devices.

Soper’s use of the idiom “common sense,” while not unfamiliar, did, however, evoke in me a sense of irony. Why? If I was to gamble on common sense as a public virtue, would my neighbours share the same sensibilities as me? I am not as confident as Soper. Moreover, I would suggest that the assumption that we commonly share the same sensibilities is paper-thin given the prevailing ecosystem of new media and its impact on the senses.

Generally, when using the term “common sense,” we are asking recipients to use their sturdy judgment when deciding a certain course of action. This type of response isn’t measured conscious thought. On the contrary, common sense is pre-reflective and intuitive—that is, our inner and outer sensibilities comfortably align to the world we inhabit and we instinctively know what to do. The Cambridge dictionary similarly defines common sense to be “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.”[1] Why then is this common idiom an important point of discussion? Is it possible our senses are out of balance? That new media has amplified our sensitivities to such an extent, our inner and outer worlds are fractured?

Since the notion of common sense features prominently in the study of communication and media, and because it is so significant for church life, it might be prudent to pause and step back from the abyss of social media and consider carefully how digital communication, in general, is shifting our sensibilities. Walter Ong in The Presence of the Word recognises the significance of the human senses and how they are bound with culture. He applies the term sensorium to our sensory faculties and refers to it as an organised and integrated entity; a hub that shapes and is shaped by culture.[2] The sensorium as a whole entity is thus integral to culture, technology, and communication.

Granted, the term sensorium is unfamiliar. Yet, I would argue the idea of the mind as a sensory hub in which the body’s receptors, aided by technology, function as a complete entity and interpret our experience of the world is not entirely unfamiliar.[3] Moreover, common sense might be not just a sturdy kind of practical judgement, but might involve all the senses. Imagine living in a world where one or more of our sensory organs were disabled?[4] Our capacity to navigate the complexities of this present lockdown would become extraordinarily difficult as everyone with a sensory disability knows. As a faculty of the mind, the sensorium plays an important role in how humans process meaning and interact with their environment. In pushing this point a bit further, we seldom consider the technological tools and communicative practices we inhabit in making sense of our lived experience. Magazines, books, social media, and all forms of media orientate the senses. When embedded within culture as haptic practices, these properties leverage the sensorium in favour of one sense in ratio to others. This alters the balance of each playing into the other that may naturally occur between the senses.

Howes and Classen in Ways of Sensing illustrate the significance of culture and media forms. They argue that, “[i]n the West, as a result of widespread literacy and the importance of visual imagery, we are all given extensive eye training.”[5] Of course, they are referring to the legacy of Western modes of knowing, in which the eye prefigures as the dominant sense, and through which the datum of common sense is what I see—a kind of, “I see therefore I know.” However, over the twentieth century, with phones, radio, television, and then the internet, the visual sense of knowing now includes the ear. The growing popularity of audio books is one example. These media have radically changed the spatial environment of communication in ways that most haven’t noticed. The dominance of the eye remains, however, the properties that gave certainty to the eye have altered. The eye, with the ear, now extends into a non-linear sphere of digital forms where information moves so fast it is like living in a massive echo chamber. Communication is ubiquitous and fluid. In this flux, the eye is unable to see clearly and must navigate with the ear the resonances of light speed reproducible forms. This makes our engagement with each other chaotic because it feels like our whole nervous system is hardwired to cyberspace.

A fair assessment of the situation would be to suggest our senses are in overdrive. I mean, what don’t we look at? What don’t we listen to? That there is too much information to get a reasonable grasp of what is real and trustworthy. What appears true becomes just another opinion. If the properties of communication have moved away from the visual certainty of the print and into a digital infosphere of instant connection, what does such a change mean? Could it be that the digital screen in its many forms transports you and me back into an acoustic world of tribalism where it is not just the eye that is alive to meaning but every sense? Here, our perceptual faculties are extroverted out and heightened by vivid and animated textures of own our self-made creations. Our bodies are carried forward by the digital impulses of what we see and feel. If indeed this is the case, how does this environment affect those inner sensitivities of faith, hope, and love and those values and practices which speak to our faith?

St Augustine, in Confessions, when discussing the physical senses noted that, “[w]hat is inward is superior.”[6] His emphasis points to an inner world of moral sensibility in which Scripture brings the inner and outer worlds of lived experience together. Media and communication specialist, Eric McLuhan, in The Sensus Communis, Synesthesia and the Soul, when reflecting on Henri de Lubac’s discussion of Scripture, argues, “it is essential to bear in mind that there are not two human souls, one inward and one outward, but one human soul with two sensitivities.”[7] Arguably, new media like the common smartphone acts upon our outer sensibilities in ways that amplify the external world of created things. This wonderful device allows you and me to be anywhere at any time. We can send a message or live-stream, be in multiple places at once, and feel instantly connected. The possibilities are infinite, even though our interactions with others are increasingly manic and chaotic. Perceptions of time, distance, and even space may even become muddled as we oscillate seamlessly between the virtual and material spheres of our everyday existence. And while vaguely conscious of our inattentive practices—our watching, touching, taping, texting, and liking— these embodied activities sidestep closer inspection as to how they are making and reshaping our perception of reality.[8] Moreover, those substructures of sensibility that have grounded good old common sense may be in remission. If the outer senses are unnaturally amplified, weighted so intensely toward an outer world of things, where does that leave the inner senses? Is our modern version of common sense a betrayal of both working together?

I am reminded through Scripture that the inner and outer sensibilities of the soul are not opposed to each other; they are complementary. Both are needed in discerning our place in God’s good world. Through the Hebrew Bible, God’s faithfulness and human fragility are understood through the interplay of both the theological and perceptual. In Psalm 34:8, the Psalmist uses the metaphor of taste and sight to express the embodiment of knowing God’s goodness. In an extensive study of the Hebrew Bible, Yael Avrahami in The Senses of Scripture poignantly demonstrates the primacy of the senses in Scripture. He argues that, “[a]wareness is a trans-body phenomenon, not something separate from the body and controlling it.”[9] This is food for thought as we navigate lockdowns and the noise of social media. To presume a public common sense is alive and well overlooks the spatial environment of the new media and the world we now live in.

Soper’s throwaway line to Heather du Plessis-Allan (that “good old public common sense” might need to prevail in face of some unclear messaging from government) is on shaky ground. To assume that the public has a balanced infrastructure of common sensibilities overlooks the effects of new media and its properties. I argue that communicative properties of the digital environment distort our sense of being in the world and our attunement to it. In retrospect, I would respond to Soper and du Plessis-Allan by suggesting that common sense might be better served by sifting our consumption of online media, weighing the significance of context in relation to our physical place in time, and cultivating faith practices which mutually embody both theological and perceptual sensibilities.

Graeme Flett is a faculty member of the School of Theology at Laidlaw and specialises in pastoral and practical theology. He is the current director for the Centre for Church Leadership. Graeme recently completed his PhD thesis where he focussed on media ecology and the influence of new media on congregational life, specifically looking at Christian identity and embodied practices.

[1] Cambridge Dictionary, "Common Sense "Cambridge University Press, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/common-sense (2021).

[2] Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New York: Sunny Press, 2000), 6.

[3] Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 37. “The term sensus communis [common sense] in Cicero’s time meant that all the senses, such as seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touch were translated equally into each other.” Within this Latin context, a healthy natural state was when physical and psychic energy were constant and distributed in a balanced way to all sense areas.

[4] Indeed, the experience of those who are deaf or blind, or moreover suffer from anosmia or ageusia

[5] David Howes and Constance Classen, Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (New York: Routledge, 2014), 9.

[6] St Augustine, Saint Augustine Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 184.

[7] Eric McLuhan, The Sensus Communis, Synesthesia and the Soul: An Odyssey (Toronto: BPS Books, 2015), 11.

[8] Paul Frosh, The Poetics of Digital Media (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2019), 5.

[9] Yael Avahmai, The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Bloombury T & T Clark, 2012), 51.