Monastic Sinscapes, the Bird’s Eye View, and Manufactured Silences

While the modern photographer and filmmaker relies upon cranes and planes--products of modern technology-- for the purpose of gaining a more comprehensive and larger-than-life perspective, monastic thinkers have relied on spiritual and rhetorical strategies to create and authenticate similarly broad and objective frames of vision. Such strategies play a crucial role in the construction of the monastic sinscapes against which monks demonstrate their virtue.

Saint Antony of Egypt, for instance, attributed the veracity of the prophecies of some pagan seers to the ability of the demons who informed such seers to travel at such great speed that they could relate what had just happened to those they informed much quicker than the news would travel to everyone else. The ability to see such demons at work, in turn, verified Antony’s holiness and access to divine knowledge. John Cassian similarly demonstrated the sanctity and discernment of a certain monk by confirming that the report of another monk’s fall, which this saintly monk happened to overhear demons discussing, had indeed occurred on the very night it was being discussed. Again, the monk’s ability to see demons at work attested to the monk’s understanding of the world at large, which resulted from his freedom from the entanglements that blinded others. Cassian, by telling many such stories, in turn, appears to be omniscient in his knowledge of the goings on in both the furthest reaches of the desert and the deepest reaches of the soul. The popular medieval didactic poem, The Pilgrimage of Human Life, on the other hand, posits that the soul cannot see clearly no matter how hard it tries as long as it is trapped in the fleshly body and overwhelmed by that body’s impulses and desires. In this fourteenth-century work, the soul only experiences clear vision for the very brief time that grace frees it from its body to alleviate its despair at its own ability to embrace virtue and avoid vice.

This paper brings the modern bird’s-eye view represented by Edward Burtynsky’s depictions of the apocalyptic sublime through his large-scale aerial photos and films of environmental destruction into dialogue with monastic attempts to see beyond the limits of the situated body and the devastating sinscapes such attempts reveal. I argue that a productive tension arises when the criticisms leveled at Burtynsky for the way his bird’s eye view collapses into the background the people who live and work among the environmental disasters he frames are read in dialogue with the people and systems collapsed into monastic sinscapes. This tension allows us to ask what understanding of individuals, nature, and human environments may be gained from interviewing the inhabitants and constructs of the sincapes produced by monastic strategies for authenticating virtue and vision.