You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God. — Exodus 20:4-5.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity. — P.T. Barnum.
I’ve always been puzzled by idolatry. From the Greek eidos (form or shape) + latreia (worship), idolatry suggests a mindset I find almost impossible to fathom.
How could a basalt statue, or a small wooden figurine, command such power and attention that it would come to be worshipped? What kind of human would “bow down” to such an artifact, or attempt to “serve” it? And how could the practice become so common, in the early-historic Levant, as to require a special injunction against it — in no less privileged a location than the Ten Commandments?
In his mind-rending epic The Origin of Consciousness, Julian Jaynes offers an answer to all of these questions. It’s an answer that’s hard to take seriously, but worth examining — if for no other purpose than to expand our hypothesis-space.
According to Jaynes, idols were worshipped in the early Biblical period because they were hallucinogens, i.e., triggers for inducing hallucinations of the gods they represented. When a worshipper concentrated on an idol, his god would often literally appear before him — sometimes in visual form, but more often as an auditory hallucination. Moreover, if we take the theory in full, these hallucinations were the means by which the right hemisphere of the brain communicated to the left hemisphere.
Certainly, this is crazy. And my intention is not to argue that it’s true. Instead, I merely wish to point out, following Daniel Dennett, that it’s a theory worth taking seriously. It’s a legitimate explanation, put forward in earnest by a serious scholar, in full light of the archaeological record. And the fact that it’s not dismissible out-of-hand tells us something important: that the mentality of early-historic humans was profoundly different from ours — inscrutable and perhaps unknowable.
Let that be a word of caution to us, then, as we investigate echoes of idolatry in the modern world.
Last December I received a holiday card from the president of a university whose mailing list I somehow ended up on. The card was addressed not from the school but from the president himself. Having never met the man (nor his wife), I found it strange to see their faces smiling up at me, wishing me an oddly impersonal “Merry Christmas.”
We all know what it feels like to be the object of a marketing campaign, but typically the subject is some kind of institution: a school, a company, a brand. In this case, however, it was an individual. This university president — an ‘elite’ by almost any definition — was marketing himself to me. Whether I was in his target demographic is beside the point. What’s relevant is that the card was part of a campaign of projected presence.
Projected presence is the political strategy of putting one’s image or likeness in front of as many people as possible. It’s an extension of physical presence, but ‘projected’ at some remove and typically at scale.
These projections can take many forms:
- Public speaking. I.e. standing in front of a crowd and commanding attention. This is the original form of projected presence and still one of the most powerful.
- Video. The closest approximation to physical presence, and hugely influential throughout the 20th century. JFK, for example, beat Nixon in 1960 in part because he was more telegenic.
- Photography. Traditionally published and distributed in newspapers and magazines, but now proliferating on the internet, e.g. in profile pictures, the corner of blogs, etc., not to mention on traditional news sites.
- Statues, busts, and painted portraits. These forms have been almost entirely supplanted by photographs and video, but historically they were extremely important. Though they were expensive to commission, once finished they could be seen many times by many different people.
- New media. Technology has given us many new channels through which to project our presence, but the forms themselves (text, images, audio, video) remain largely the same. Still, tweeting and publishing on YouTube are genuinely new ways of projecting one’s presence, and they’re only growing in influence (see e.g. @pontifex).
Clearly some forms are more potent than others. As a rule of thumb, the higher the information content of a projection, the more effective it will be. Moving images are more potent than still images, for instance — and bigger is almost always better. But there’s often a tradeoff between the potency of a projection and the cost of getting people to see it. Navigating these tradeoffs (and optimizing for desired outcomes) is the art and the science of effective marketing, whether the subject is a brand or a person.
Members of the nobility have always understood projected presence. They know how to use portraits, statues, pageantry, and regalia; elaborate headdresses, costumes, and thrones; retinues and imposing architecture. The marketing instinct will drive even a king, after colonizing his entire kingdom with his presence, to then work on colonizing the future — angling to get his name and portrait a more prominent place in the history books.
Actors are uniquely skilled at projecting their presence. On video, their actions are compelling enough to draw in millions of viewers. On stage, their charisma reaches all the way to the nose-bleed seats.
Companies understand projected presence. It manifests in their marketing budgets, and in the instinct to plaster logos and branding on everything they produce.
Nations, too, understand projected presence. In the modern era, none have been as successful as the US, whose military is stationed in over 100 countries around the world, and whose flag flies even on the Moon.
The Roman institution of the triumph allowed a successful general to project his presence as far and wide as Roman life would allow:
In effect, the general was close to being “king for a day”, and possibly close to divinity. He wore the regalia traditionally associated both with the ancient Roman monarchy and with the statue of Jupiter Capitolinus: the purple and gold “toga picta”, laurel crown, red boots and, again possibly, the red-painted face of Rome’s supreme deity. He was drawn in procession through the city, in a four-horse chariot, under the gaze of his peers and an applauding crowd, to the temple of Capitoline Jupiter. The spoils and captives of his victory led the way; his armies followed behind….
Triumphal generals also minted and circulated high value coins which propagated their triumphal fame and generosity empire-wide.
Often we accord even the dead one final opportunity to project their physical presence, via wakes or open-coffin funerals — or (for those with political power) lying in state. Lincoln’s corpse spent two weeks touring the country by railroad, lying in state at several stops along the route from Washington to Springfield — a spectacle that served no small role in his ensuing apotheosis.
But it’s not just a likeness (or a physical body) that can be used to project presence. Any symbol can be pressed into service, as long as it has the power to call a specific person to mind. The Taj Mahal and Great Pyramids, for example, aren’t explicit representations — but everyone knew who they were built for.
Even the simple act of making one’s name more prominent is a form of presence-projection — like the person who introduces himself with full name and title: “Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration.” It’s also why people squabble over whether their names show up in the credits (to a movie or academic paper), and in what order.
Projected presence is an honest signal of power — of the right to monopolize a particular space, at least temporarily. Whether that right is taken (by force) or freely earned, its unhampered exercise is a signal that others are willing to defer.
It is, in short, to mark one’s territory. For example:
- By standing up in front of a group of people and speaking to them, you’re claiming, implicitly, the right to do so — to monopolize their attention. And when the group allows you to do this, without showing any disapproval, your power grab is complete (however marginal it might be).
- By strutting down the sidewalk with a boombox playing loudly on your shoulder, you’re claiming the right to project your presence on the whole street. If no one intervenes, you become that much more the big man on the block. Graffiti works in largely the same way.
- By hanging a huge banner of your face in a crowded area, you’re (implicitly) claiming dominion over the area and the people within it. Mao and Kim Jong Il could get away with this, but your hometown mayor surely could not.
So: monopolizing space is an honest signal of power. But why do we fight to put our symbols and (especially) our images on these spaces?
Partly it’s a competition for mindshare, for the same reasons brands compete to plaster themselves across a football stadium or subway station: familiarity, recognition, legitimacy.
But when the subject of these marketing campaigns is a person — a human creature — there are additional, biological factors at play. Specifically, we’re wired to interpret size, posture, and sustained eye contact as signals of dominance, even when they come in the form of a projection rather than a real human body.
So when a towering statue (e.g. of Saddam Hussein) is erected in the town square, or when an unblinking photo of a newspaper columnist stares us down from the sidebar of a web page, or when the President addresses us from the Oval Office (looking directly at the camera, surrounded by all the trappings of power), some part of our brain instinctively submits.
All of this, then, helps explain why we respond to idols: they’re a form of projected presence, an honest signal of power. And their specific shapes — human figures with big eyes, or fearsome human-animal hybrids, sometimes cast as huge statues — are specifically designed to work on our mammalian or reptilian instincts. Even a modern human would experience a small shiver of submission before some of these statues.
But in 1000 BC, idols were uniquely powerful. Not only were they among the first forms of ‘mass’ media, but their presence would have been far more compelling than we can appreciate from our vantage here in the 21st century — our minds having been bathed, since infancy, in an endless sea of images. Statues today have little power to arrest our attentions or strike fear in our breasts.
So to appreciate the effect an idol would have had on a Bronze-age human mind, we should look to our own experiences not with statues, but with new forms of immersive visual media — forms we haven’t yet desensitized to.
Consider, for example, one of the earliest moving pictures, which showed a railroad barreling toward the camera. At its first screening, the audience was astonished, even terrified, not knowing quite how to process the experience. Or to cite an example from only a few months ago, consider the visceral reactions to demos of the Oculus Rift (a 3D virtual reality headset) as participants are subjected to a virtual roller-coaster or a mock beheading.
Will future archaeologists puzzle at how violently our 21st century minds (and bodies) reacted to VR, the same way we now puzzle at how the ancients responded to idols — how quick they were to “bow down” and “serve” what they surely knew to be lifeless hunks of wood or rock?
Projected presence is always and everywhere an effective strategy. But exactly how effective depends on the specific forms and on the cognitive context in which they’re deployed. In the early-historic Levant, idols simply preyed too easily on a population not yet desensitized to the power of carefully-crafted political images. Maybe, in that regard, the ancients weren’t so profoundly different from us after all.