Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

building 6: diaspora

A preliminary note before I get down to work. First, though these posts on biblical building are among the least-read in the history of Text Patterns, they've been getting some good comments, and at least two of those comments are causing me to reconsider, or at least to nuance, some of my argument: see Chaka's comment here and Scott's comment here. I'll have to make my simple story less simple!

I'm going to tell a familiar story here — familiar to students of the Bible, anyway. But I hope it will take on an interesting coloration in light of my last few posts.

In my first post on this matter of Biblical building I cited Gabriel Josipovici's list of complex built objects in the Hebrew Bible: starting with the Tabernacle, he goes on to list the Golden Calf, Solomon's Temple, Solomon's royal palace, Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel, and of course the cosmos itself. It's time to take note of the prominent construction project that is missing from this list: the re-construction of the Temple, as described in the book of Ezra.

Or rather, as not described in the book of Ezra. For there we learn very few details of the reconstruction. We are told that the leaders who had returned from their Babylonian captivity set up the altar, and began to hold sacrifices there, before they laid the foundation, and that when the foundation finally was laid the returned exiles shouted with joy. But that was not the only sound heard:

And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.

A remarkable moment in the long and extraordinary history of the children of Israel.

We do not learn much else about the rebuilding project for a curious reason: the chronicler of the events is much more concerned to record the various legal disputes that interfered with the project. The returned exiles, mostly from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, refuse to allow those from the northern tribes — the Israelites known in Ezra as “people of the land,” who had remained in Palestine and in many cases intermarried with the various peoples of the region — to cooperate in the reconstruction. This refusal leads to legal challenges, appeals to the King of Persia and the like, which our chronicler faithfully reproduces: they are the documents in the case. It is these recriminations, these squabblings over inheritance, that dominate the book of Ezra, not anything concerning the Temple.

The significance of this emphasis becomes more clear, I think, when we consider the key event in the book of Nehemiah (known in ancient times as the second part of Ezra). That event is the public reading, by Ezra, of the Law.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

And so is marked the transition, in the history of Israel, from a people whose connection to their God is marked primarily by architecture, material design, and liturgy to a people whose connection to their God is marked primarily by the use of and response to textual technologies.

Why did the old men weep when the foundation of the Temple was laid? Surely because, even if by some miracle the new Temple could be made as magnificent as its predecessor, it would never contain the Tabernacle which the Lord had promised to make his dwelling place. That had been lost, presumably destroyed by the Babylonians. There was therefore a great emptiness at the very heart of the new temple (and its later renovation). The Lord does not speak to Ezra as he had earlier spoken to Samuel and Nathan and Solomon. He speaks now through His Word. The Temple, though beautiful and beloved, will never again be what it once was; and even the greatness it once had possessed was guaranteed not by Solomon's architecture but by that smaller, more fragile, portable curiosity that had sat within it.

Just as the story of the rebuilding of the Temple is a familiar story, this is a familiar theme: the relationship between the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle and the presence of the Lord in his Word. The Tabernacle is called, among other things, the “tent of meeting,” for Moses meets the Lord there and the Lord speaks to him — speaks words which become the Torah. Essential to the furniture of the Tabernacle is the great menorah), the lampstand fashioned from pure gold, and perhaps we are meant to remember it when the Psalmist says,

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

(I just have to use the KJV for Psalm 19.) Valuable and beautiful though the menorah may be, and all the furniture of the Tabernacle, more beautiful still are the judgments of the Lord — as enacted, yes, and also as recorded in Torah. This does not constitute a dismissal of worship through material design, but I do think it constitutes a de-centering of it. It is as though the Lord is preparing Israel for a future of rootless wandering. What can always accompany the children of Israel, even in a great diaspora?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

a further word of exhortation: RSS

Some of you will have discovered my previous post exhorting you to abandon Twitter by finding a link to it on Twitter (possibly a link posted by me). I have scripts set up to send various things I do online to Twitter because by using such scripts (a) I don't have to visit Twitter to announce what I've posted and (b) I acknowledge that many of you now get your news, and more generally your sense of what is worth reading online, from Twitter.

May I suggest that you try an RSS service instead? RSS is the great neglected technology of the internet. It has never been super-popular, and such popularity as it had largely dissipated when Google shut down Google Reader, a much-loved service it cost them nearly nothing to maintain. (That was when I stopped trusting Google.) 

But there were then and are now a number of really good RSS services. I use NewsBlur, but Feedly is also very good, and you can see a long list of RSS aggregators here. Many of these come in both free and paid versions. If you don't want to trust your reading practices to such a service, there are some excellent stand-alone aggregator apps, one of the oldest and best-known of which is NetNewsWire. Around fourteen years ago (!) NetNewsWire was my gateway drug to RSS; I still remember those early versions with great fondness. 

Every now and then I come across an interesting site that doesn't have an RSS feed, but that's a rare experience. An RSS feed is just a URL, slightly different than the URL of a website, but all modern aggregators can find the RSS feed from the main site URL: you can just paste http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com into the aggregator's Add Site box to subscribe to this blog, for instance. Big sites — the New York Times, CNN, ESPN, the Guardian, and the like — will have many feeds, and most of them have a page where all those feeds are listed. (It might take a little googling to find it.) 

Over time you can build up a roster of sites that you keep regular track of, sites where you can find substantive news and ideas and a minimum of crap, and then you'll have a far better and more consistent source for what you want to know than social media can give you. Also, every aggregator and app I know of allows you to export that list as an OPML file, which you can then import into another service if you find one you like better than your original choice. 

Try RSS. You'll love it. 

a word of exhortation

This morning, for the first time in a few weeks, I checked Twitter. I thought I should see if anyone had sent me a direct message, or if there was some reply I should be aware of. No and no, thanks be to God. But I took a look around while I was there, and saw that a friend of mine had written a post that was getting a good deal of comment, almost all of it hostile. What struck me about the commentary was how plainly and evidently off-base it was: almost every critic had accused the writer of saying things that he didn't say, didn't even hint.

Some of the commenters were stupid people, of course, but a number of them weren't. However, they were trying to be. That is, they couldn't possibly have been dumb enough, or sufficiently incompetent at reading, to believe that the post's author had said the things they were claiming he said. But making those ridiculous and insupportable claims gave them the opportunity to score political points. Or, at least, they believed, and rightly, that people who shared their politics would think points had been scored.

I left Twitter and picked up a book — P. D. James's Death in Holy Orders, which I had read (and loved) when it first appeared but which has receded far enough in the rear-view mirror of memory that I can now enjoy it a second time. And what struck me about the book, as I immersed myself in it, was simply this: that it was written by a very intelligent person who valued intelligence, not least in her readers. Imagine that, I thought; believing that intelligence matters, that the exercise of it is good, that it is good for us all if we pursue it together.

I think I have been away from Twitter long enough now to see what it has become: a venue for people who don't just preen themselves on their righteous anger, but who also work diligently to suppress their intelligence so that that that righteous anger may be put before the world in a condition of laboratory purity. Let not mind thwart spleen — that is the unofficial motto, now, of Twitter.

Let me exhort you, people: close Twitter and read a book. Take delight in something well-made, well-made because the author loved her task and sought to bring her best intellectual resources to bear on her work. Take delight in words crafted to increase the world's store of intelligence, to share what the author knows and bring forth knowledge in readers. It's a better way for us to live that to spend even a few minutes a day in the company of people who have made the cultivation of stupidity into a virtue.

Monday, February 20, 2017

from Disneyism to Onlyism

Yuval Harari:

Recently I went with my nephew to hunt Pokémon. We were walking down the street and a bunch of kids approached us. They were also hunting Pokemon. My nephew and these children got into a bit of a fight because they were trying to capture the same invisible creatures. It seemed strange to me. But these Pokémon were very real to the children.

And then it hit me: This is just like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! You have two sides fighting over something that I cannot see. I look at the stones of buildings in Jerusalem and I just see stones. But Christians, Jews, and Muslims who look at the same stones see a holy city. It’s their imagination, but they are willing to kill for it.

Now this is a revelation: Just stones! No history, no labor, no culture, no generations of living people. Just stones. Everything is so simple now that Harari has punctured our ideological balloon. A city in which people have lived for thousands and thousands of years, and then some digital Pokemon: same diff.

Harari is a practitioner of Onlyism, which he seems to think is a new religion but in fact is rather venerable, going back at least as far as some of the less sophisticated Epicureans. A twentieth-century devotee was the young Joy Davidman, who wrote in a letter, “In 1929 I believed in nothing but American prosperity; in 1930 I believed in nothing.”

Men, I said, are only apes. Virtue is only custom. Life is only an electrochemical reaction. Love, art, and altruism are only sex. The universe is only matter. Matter is only energy. I forget what I said energy is only.

Similarly, Harari thinks that contemporary neuroscience and Pixar have disproved the existence of the self:

It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.

Have you seen Inside Out? For me this was the tipping point in popular culture’s understanding of the mind. For decades Disney sold us the liberal individualistic fantasy: Don’t listen to your neighbors or government, just follow your own heart. But then in Inside Out, you go inside this little girl Riley, and you don’t encounter a self or a core identity. What the movie shows to children and their parents is that Riley is a robot being manipulated by chemical processes inside her brain.

I’m pretty sure that the notion that Inside Out “shows” that people are robots would occur only to an Onlyist.

Now, I don't want to take Harari too seriously here. He is clearly a huckster in the Jonah Lehrer mode, a P. T. Barnum of the book trade, and the “robot” line is clearly meant to rattle the cages of the trousered apes whose money he hopes to snatch. (He borrowed it from another idea hustler, though one with considerably more smarts, Richard Dawkins, who in The Selfish Gene wrote, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”) But it might be worth taking a moment to consider a couple of important points that Harari seems not to be aware of.

Note the concepts that he treats as synonyms: “true self,” “core,” “authentic voice.” It may well be that there is a modern, popular, Disneyfied, largely American model of selfhood for which this is true. But to critique that — talk about low-hanging fruit — and then claim to have demolished the very notion of the self is just silly.

For there are older, more rigorous, more deeply engaged models of selfhood that strenuously deny that selves are unified and authentic — that see the human self as real but constituted by its divisions.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.... So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

And it is not religious believers alone who see things this way. I’m going to cite myself here describing Rebecca West’s visit to the small town of Struga, where she visited a curious little “biological museum” that contained, among other things, a stuffed two-headed calf in a glass case, an animal “strangely lovely in form,” so that “it was a shock to find that of the two heads which branched like candelabra one was lovely, but one was hideous, like that other seen in a distorting glass.” The museum’s custodian affirmed that the calf lived for two days, “and should be alive today had it not been for its nature.” West’s husband expressed puzzlement at this statement, and the custodian explained that when they fed milk to the calf through its beautiful head, its ugly head spat the milk out, so no food got into its stomach, and it died. This account prompted West to meditation.

To have two heads, one that looks to the right and another that looks to the left, on that is carved by grace and another that is not, the one that wishes to live and the other that does not; this was an experience not wholly unknown to human beings. As we pressed our faces against the case, peering through the green dusk, our reflections were superimposed on the calf, and it would not have been surprising if it had moved nearer the glass to see us better.

In the model of personhood that West shares with St. Paul and St. Augustine, there are selves, but they are never simply unitary, they have no obvious “core,” their territories are always and strongly contested.

One might think also of the ancestor of the theory of mind at work in Inside Out, the theory of humors. People held to this theory for many centuries, believing that our temperaments and thoughts are largely the products of the proportion within our bodies of phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile — and yet also believed in personhood and perhaps even in selfhood. How was this possible? If you really want to know, there are books that can help you.

The moral of this story: When you set yourself the task of refuting simplistic ideas that no serious thinker has ever held, it becomes tempting to replace those ideas with their mirror images — notions just as simplistic, but in the opposite way. The replacement of Disneyism by Onlyism is not intellectual progress. Take that route and you can end up looking upon Jerusalem and seeing nothing but stones.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Baudelaire in three dimensions

Details here, and more by Pauline Rafal here.

Building 5: cunning works

Let us reflect further on the call and assignment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur in Exodus 31: We are told that he will “devise artistic designs,” “devise plans,” or, in the irresistible formulation of King James’s translators, “devise cunning works.”

Josipovici again:

The Hebrew phrase for ‘to devise cunning works’ is lachshov machashavot, and the word chosev can have both a good and a bad meaning depending on the person involved…. Joseph says to his brothers ve’atem chashavtem ‘alai ra‘ah, ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me’ (Gen.50:30). However, where craftsmanship is concerned the word clearly has positive overtones. ‘To make makings’ or ‘to encunning cunningnesses’ might catch the sense of ancient craftsmanship, so often conveyed in Greek by the Homeric word poikilos, which means both ‘dappled’ and ‘cunningly wrought’, and in Latin by the Lucretian word daedulus, which means ‘artificial’, ‘adorned’, but also ‘variegated’. (p. 105)

Josipovici wants the verb and object doubled because the same root (look for the ch) appears in both: thus his suggested “to make makings” or, I might say, “to design designs” — preferable, I think, because the word so often denotes planning or devising.

In any event, the really interesting thing here is the strongly opposing valences of such devising. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible where lachshov appears is Proverbs 16:30, where we are told that “One who winks the eyes plans perverse things,” or — and here again is the greater liveliness, though possibly also the lesser accuracy, of the KJV — “He shutteth his eyes to devise froward things.” Things need to be planned out, carefully devised, because they are complicated, and complication suggests, at one and the same time, deviousness and creativity. Thus the widespread feeling that highly elaborated works, baroque or rococo styles, are somehow less honest and trustworthy than simpler, more direct, less meticulously crafted design or utterance (a sense that the current American political situation ought to call into question).

Thus also the gradual pejoration of “cunning,” a word that, being ancestrally related to the German kennen, meaning simply to know, used to have a far wider range of shades and tones. (“Ken” is common in Scots English — Ken ye not that? — and has a bare survival elsewhere in “beyond our ken,” beyond our knowledge.) Bezalel’s commission to “devise cunning works” is not the only example of that earlier range: in his rendering of 1 Corinthians 2:13, Tyndale has Paul refer to “thinges also we speake, not in the connynge wordes of mannes wysdome, but with the connynge wordes of the holy goost.” King James’s translators ditched that phraseology for something that sounds to us more modern — “things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth” — but not because the word “cunning” had by then completely altered. Indeed, in Shakespeare it is largely used simply to describe those who possess a certain body of knowledge — in Taming of the Shrew we hear of men “cunning in music and the mathematics” and “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” — but occasionally in a strongly positive sense, as in a lovely moment in Twelfth Night when Viola speaks of Olivia’s face, “whose red and white / Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on.” (Mercy, what a line that is.) And when Prince Hal, playing the role of his father, asks of Falstaff “Wherein [art thou] cunning, but in craft?” the implication is that “cunning” is a more positive, or at least more neutral, term than “craft,” which seems here to mean something like deviousness — and this in turn brings us back to devising. The whole constellation of terms gradually but inexorably falls under darker and darker clouds.

(This would be an excellent moment to tear off on a long digression about the “cunning folk” — Shakespeare’s characters refer to cunning men and cunning women — that would probably lead to an even more fanciful improvised cadenza on Robertson Davies’s last novel, The Cunning Man, which constitutes a partial and ambiguous rehabilitation of the term … but I am going to restrain myself. For now.)

What I want to suggest here is that Jews and Christians may have good theological reasons to suspect such devices. Here again Josipovici comes to our aid, via his clever linkage of choshev and daedulus, the latter of which, of course, provides the name for the legendary first artist, the deviser of, among other things, the labyrinth of the Minotaur on Crete. One could spend some time listing the cunning works attributed to Daedalus, but I am especially interested in the kind of object named for him, the daidala, and especially one subset of the daidalai, the agalmata, statues of the gods with moving limbs and eyes that opened and closed. Socrates refers to these in at least two of Plato’s dialogues, the Meno and the Euthyphro, and while he jokes about them, they seem to have freaked many people out — as did, a couple of millennia later, the automata that so fascinated Europeans from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment. (As I have mentioned earlier, in a post with strong thematic links to this one, Jessica Riskin writes about those automata in her brilliant book The Restless Clock.)

“Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth,” says Sir Philip Sidney, but there is the suspicion that Daedalus makes things that lie, for instance, mechanical gods who actually might be gods — you can never tell, given the Olympians’ habit of assuming disguises. And in general the more cleverly designed automata occupy that uncanny valley wherein we lose our ability to navigate the world of appearances so as to distinguish true from false, original from copy. (Cue Platonic concerns about mimesis, which will always haunt discussions of artful making.) Consider also, in this light, the most disturbing of Daedalus’s daidalai, the enormous cow he makes for Pasiphaë to climb into so she can present her vagina to the bull for whom she lusts. Not being a god, Daedalus cannot transform Pasiphaë into a cow — but he can, through cunning, do the next best thing. Surely this is “devising a froward thing.”

What results from this art-enabled union is the Minotaur, which Daedalus then must use yet more cunning to contain, by making the great labyrinth from which even he barely escapes. I am perhaps getting carried away with this whole linguistic/etymological thing — I’ve been spending too much time around Adam Roberts — but I can't help noting that the Minotaur is a monster, from the Latin monstrum, which means a sign or revelation, something revealed — usually something terrible. And among the revelations here is that of devising/cunning/designing gone awry, gone awry because it has lost sight of legitimate human ends, and of legitimate means to ends.

Thinking of the cow made by Daedalus we should also remember the Golden Calf made by Aaron: each is a human-imagined, human-designed, human-made artifact that when deployed produces monsters. Those who worship and make sacrifices to objects they have made are as bereft of reason as a woman who offers herself sexually to a bull. Pasiphaë's madness is imposed on her, whereas that of the Israelites seems to be self-imposed, though no adequate explanation is provided: they simply decide to make and worship some new “gods to go before us” when Moses doesn't come down from the mountain when they think he should. But in any case, Pasiphaë and the Israelites alike have become the helpless thralls of disordered desires. They have in a sense become the mere instruments of their desires, they are what Ruskin called “animate tools.” And what they crave is made objects, technologies, cunningly designed to fulfill those desires, thereby extending and strengthening the chain of instrumentality. Whatever enables the fulfillment of those desires they (either implicitly or explicitly) worship.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

building 4: creative fidelity

In Exodus 31 there’s a curious passage in which the Lord describes to Moses the artist, or artisan, or craftsman, whom He has chosen to oversee the building of the Tabernacle: “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” That’s the NRSV. The ESV has something very similar: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Here’s Robert Alter: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in every task, to devise plans, to work in gold and in silver and an bronze, and in stone cutting for settings and in wood carving, to do every task."

And finally, the good old KJV: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.”

I want here to note two points about this passage, and save a third point for another post.

First, as Alter comments, throughout the Pentateuch “‘wisdom’ and its synonyms suggest both mastery of a craft and something like insight” — we might say, both techne and phronesis.

Second, the words translated as “work,” “craft,” “task,” “worksmanship,” and so on are almost always variants of mela’khah, which, says Alter, is one of the two most common Biblical words for work, the other being ‘avodah. Alter says that the latter “usually implies subservience – in political contexts, it means to be subject or vassal to a superior power, in cultic contexts, divine service — and it also often suggests strenuous physical labor.” He notes that after the Fall Adam is cursed to work (‘avodah) the soil, and the same word is used to describe the labor of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. By contrast, mela’khah typically connotes craft and manual skill. Interestingly, and I think importantly, the closely related noun mala’kh is a messenger or agent — an angel is one kind of mala’kh. But isn't this also “divine service”? It seems that the words mela’khah and ‘avodah are meant to distinguish levels of personal freedom in the exercise of a responsibility: the one who performs ‘avodah has virtually no such freedom, is instead forced to carry out duties mechanically and without initiative or imagination, whereas the one who performs mela’khah can put more of himself or herself into the work. The mala’kh is granted the boon of what we might call creative fidelity in carrying out his or her tasks.

I find myself thinking here of a justly famous passage in Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice about imperfection in work. I’m going to quote a big chunk of it, because it’s profound and wonderful:

But the modern English mind has this much in common with that of the Greek, that it intensely desires, in all things, the utmost completion or perfection compatible with their nature. This is a noble character in the abstract, but becomes ignoble when it causes us to forget the relative dignities of that nature itself, and to prefer the perfectness of the lower nature to the imperfection of the higher; not considering that as, judged by such a rule, all the brute animals would be preferable to man, because more perfect in their functions and kind, and yet are always held inferior to him, so also in the works of man, those which are more perfect in their kind are always inferior to those which are, in their nature, liable to more faults and shortcomings.... And therefore, while in all things that we see, or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success. But, above all, in our dealings with the souls of other men, we are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults. Now, in the make and nature of every man, however rude or simple, whom we employ in manual labour, there are some powers for better things: some tardy imagination, torpid capacity of emotion, tottering steps of thought, there are, even at the worst; and in most cases it is all our own fault that they are tardy or torpid. But they cannot be strengthened, unless we are content to take them in their feebleness, and unless we prize and honour them in their imperfection above the best and most perfect manual skill. And this is what we have to do with all our labourers; to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it. For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error. Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it ; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.

Thus Ruskin rejoices when he sees the various small (and sometimes large) flaws in the execution of old Venetian ornament, and grieves when he sees the flawlessness of modern factory work. For the former are the products of mela’khah, the latter products of mere ‘avodah, the work of human beings reduced to the status of “animated tool.”

Equipped with this distinction, I remembered Josipovici’s point about Solomon’s forced labor that I cited in my previous post: “This massive deployment of a labor force to hew and cut stone is more reminiscent of the Israelites in Egypt than of the willing makers of the Tabernacle.” Surely this work is described by the narrator as a kind of ‘avodah?

But no, it turns out; no, it isn’t. What some translations call “forced labor” is hammas, “levy” or “tribute”; and when the actual labor of the workers is mentioned, the words employed are indeed versions of mela’khah, or a third word for work, ha‘ōsim, which is clearly used to refer to skilled labor or craft. The KJV speaks of these people as “those who wrought,” like wheelwrights or cartwrights: highly trained artisans. Which perhaps suggests that even those who were “levied” to work on the Temple were still granted a kind of dignity that differentiates them from those among their ancestors who had been slaves in Egypt: though required by the King to build, they had dignity in their work. They used tools, but they were not themselves mere “animated tools.” There are both kinds and degrees of independence in labor.

One might conclude from this little excursus an important point: what Wendell Berry calls “good work” is often possible in conditions of limited political freedom, perhaps even in certain forms of bondage. Berry:

Good human work honors God's work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors Nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. And such blasphemy is not possible so long as the entire Creation is understood as holy, and so long as the works of God are understood as embodying and so revealing God's spirit.

(If you know the amazing story of William and Ellen Craft — and if you don't you should — you'll remember that his skill as a carpenter, his good work, earned him a degree of personal freedom which in turn enabled his escape from slavery. And his name is Craft, for heaven's sake.) It is often possible to work this way in conditions of bondage, but not always: when the human person is but an “animated tool” in the hands of those who dishonor Creation and its Creator, then good work may be out of reach. This is ‘avodah and conditions still worse. In our work we may count our selves blessed when we have the status of the mala’kh, the one privileged, in carrying out an assigned task, to be creative and free in faithfulness.

We might even say that technology is redeemed when, and only when, it enables this status. We should assess our technologies not only by what they do to the world — whatever it is they explicitly direct their powers towards — but also by what they do to those who employ them: Do they force us into the condition of animated tools, or extend and amplify our proper creativity? And what they do to us they will also and necessarily do to our relations with one another. This is a good deal of what Ivan Illich means when he speaks of "tools for conviviality."

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

building 3: practices of making

In reflecting further on the story of how and why Solomon built the Temple, I want to cite Gabriel Josipovici again, because without being cynical he is very skilled at teasing out some of the oddities of this narrative.

Like most modern readers, including myself, Josipovici is interested in human motives; but as Erich Auerbach famously taught us, this is just the sort of thing about which the narrators of the Hebrew Bible are notoriously reticent. This does not necessarily mean that they are uninterested in motive; they could, perhaps, be very interested in motive and yet aware that, as Rebecca West is said to have commented, there's no such thing as an unmixed one.

In any case, Josipovici is quite alert to the possible distance between how Solomon describes his actions and what those actions, taken as a whole, actually amount to. I got into some of that in my previous post, when I spoke of the ways in which Solomon seems almost to be manipulating or even coercing the Lord into blessing Israel (and of course its new king).

Well, there's another variety of coercion here. Let's return to 1 Kings 5:

King Solomon drafted forced labor out of all Israel, and the draft numbered 30,000 men. And he sent them to Lebanon, 10,000 a month in shifts. They would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the draft. Solomon also had 70,000 burden-bearers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon's 3,300 chief officers who were over the work, who had charge of the people who carried on the work. At the king's command they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. So Solomon's builders and Hiram's builders and the men of Gebal did the cutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house.

As Josipovici notes, "This massive deployment of a labor force to hew and cut stone is more reminiscent of the Israelites in Egypt than of the willing makers of the Tabernacle" (p. 100).

It seems to me that this point relates to one that Josipovici makes a little later:

It is important to note that the [Tabernacle] is a tent and not a stone building. It is made of poles and curtains and is only itself when in action, so to speak, as an animal cannot be adequately understood in terms of bones and skin, but needs to be studied in movement, as a living whole. So the tent is always going to be more than the kit that makes up its parts. Each time it is erected, therefore, the process of making is renewed. (p.104)

That’s a brilliant point, I think: the Tabernacle is always being made, it is new every morning. It is therefore something like the cosmos, which in a sense was constructed in six days after which its Maker rested, but in another sense is constantly undergoing making: as Chesterton famously said, “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.”

In any case, if we put those two passages from Josipovici together, we get a fairly comprehensive contrast between the Temple and the Tabernacle: the former made on the initiative of the king, built of stone, built by conscripted labor, built once, fixed and permanent; the former made at the commandment of the Lord, built of woven cloth and carved wood and a bit of metalwork, built by the artisans of the children of Israel, erected repeatedly and moved when the people moved — the people whose relationship to the Lord is repeatedly figured as walking. (Thus, as noted in my previous post, the Lord to Solomon: "If you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever.")

It is as though in making the Temple Solomon has reversed, if not actively repudiated, the practices of making that God had commanded Moses to pursue. Whether he meant to or not, Solomon in building the Temple has encouraged the people of Israel to place their trust in technological power — technological power as a manifestation of political power. A straight line runs from the demand for a king in 1 Samuel 8 to the construction of this mighty and gorgeous edifice, a building that, God warns Solomon, may well be destroyed, thus making Israel "a proverb and byword among all peoples." A Tabernacle is a technology that curbs idolatry; a Temple, however well-intentioned its maker and however devout the priests who serve in it, runs the risk of encouraging idolatry.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

building 2

The reign of King David of Israel was highly successful, but also ceaselessly beset by conflicts. Whenever he had a break from fighting the surrounding nations, David had to reckon with internal conflict among members of his family and his court. He seems to have lurched from one crisis to another throughout the whole of his forty-year reign.

But the account in the Bible of this eventful period is interrupted, in 2 Samuel 7, by what Robert Alter calls “a major cesura in the David story.” The cesura occurs because David stops to reflect on the (to him) uncomfortable irony that he dwells in a cedar house — cedar being a luxurious import from Lebanon — while the Lord himself has but a small, portable tent. Surely the King should build a more lasting habitation for the Lord? The prophet Nathan, to whom David says this, instantly replies, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

And indeed Nathan has good reason to believe that the Lord is with David — but then he receives a surprising visitation. It seems that the Lord is not at all happy with David’s plan.

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

Basically: I’ll let you know when I want a house. In the meantime, as Alter notes, “God will grant David a house — that is, a continuing dynasty, and then will have David’s son build Him a house — that is, a temple.” But very uncharacteristically, Alter does not have this quite right. The Lord does not say that He will have Solomon build him a house, he merely says, “He shall build a house for my name.”

I think this point deserves to be stressed. When we first hear about the plans for the Temple, in 1 Kings 5, here’s what Solomon says to Hiram, King of Tyre:

“You know that David my father could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune. And so I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to David my father, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’”

This is noteworthy in several ways. First, the idea that David was unable to build a Temple because of constant warfare may have been David own’s view of the matter, but that’s not what the Lord said to him — indeed, just the opposite: “I have cut off all your enemies from before you…. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.” Second, Solomon clearly believes that the Lord wants him to build the Temple, perhaps because that’s what David told him; but, again, God’s declaration in 2 Samuel 7 says nothing about a commandment to build, and here in 1 Kings 5 he has still not said to Solomon, or to anyone, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” The whole idea is Solomon’s.

And if we keep that in mind we might notice what the Lord says when, in 1 Kings 6, in the midst of the great construction project, he finally gets around to commenting on the whole endeavor:

Now the word of the Lord came to Solomon, “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel.”

Maybe I should have said that we might notice what the Lord does not say, because though he introduces his statement by saying that it concerns the house Solomon is building, he doesn't congratulate Solomon on the achievement or praise the beauty of the building or even express thanks. The force of the statement is to remind Solomon that that house does not matter at all. What matters is Solomon’s obedience.

On one level, Solomon seems to get this. When the Temple is completed and he utters his great prayer of dedication, he indeed emphasizes the necessity of obedience. But he also repeatedly suggests that now that the Temple is built it is time for the Lord to fulfill all his promises to David’s “house” — as though by building the Temple Solomon has asserted some kind of claim upon the God who made the whole cosmos and raised up Israel and put him, Solomon, on his throne.

If so, that claim is not acknowledged. After all the celebratory hoo-ha is over, “the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon.” And while he says, “I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time,” he then continues, at far greater length, on a different theme:

And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.

So, again: the greatness and the beauty and the glory of the Temple are irrelevant — and indeed, when they come to an end, may even be a mark of shame to Israel. (The exchange between Solomon and the Lord is somewhat reminiscent of the moment when the children of Israel cry out for a king. Okay, says the Lord; but you’re not going to like it.)

And if Solomon were to cry out that he had spent seven years building that Temple (1 Kings 6:38), the Lord might with some justification note that the great and wise king devoted to the building of his own palace thirteen years (1 Kings 7:1). That's a shrewd point that Gabriel Josipovici makes.

So the building of the Temple is an interesting event, in terms of the typology I laid out in my last post. Clearly Solomon does not build the Temple “in defiance of and rivalry with God,” but neither is its construction commanded by God, and God seems to view it as, at best, something neutral, neither here nor there, and Solomon's great devotion to it looks like a case of misplaced priorities. Perhaps he should have been focusing on an altogether different project.

It seems likely to me that the Lord consents to dwell in the Temple simply because that is where the Tabernacle — the mishkan or “dwelling-place” which He had commanded to be made — now rests. When He says “My eyes and my heart will be there for all time,” this may have nothing at all to do with what Solomon has made: it could merely be a reaffirmation of the Mosaic covenant. And in that light it may be worthwhile to note that Solomon devotes a good bit of his prayer of consecration of the Temple to what sounds like instruction, not of the children of Israel but of the Lord himself:

when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name's sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.

I don't mean to bring too much of a hermeneutics of suspicion to this party, but this looks suspiciously like an inversion of the Mosaic law: rather than God giving the law to Israel, Solomon gives the law to God. And the leverage that he hopes to bring is the promise that the Lord will be honored by the nations as God through the magnificence of “this house that I have built.” Look at what I have done for you! Aren't you grateful?“ The Temple is a magnificent technological achievement, and Solomon insists that its purpose is to glorify God, since "this house … is called by your name”; but it certainly seems that Solomon is hardly indifferent to his own power and glory.

Monday, February 13, 2017


A book that I have returned to often over the years is Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God. Josipovici is an English (though born in France) novelist and critic who, at some point in the 1980s, learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible, and The Book of God is an account of what he discovered when he worked his way through that strange text.

The Book of God is a readerly book, a book about the experience of encountering Scripture by someone who did not grow up thinking of the Bible as "the book of God," and Josipovici is especially interested in exploring those moments when the Bible seems to want to thwart readers, or at least the kind of reader that most people today tend to be. Consider, for instance, the mind-numbing detail of the account of building the Tabernacle (and associated objects) that the book of Exodus provides — twice. First the Lord tells Moses about all the parts of the Tabernacle and what they should be made of, along with similar instructions for the garments of the priests and other related matters. Then — after Moses brings this information down from the mountain only to discover that Aaron has built a golden calf for the people to worship, and after that little disaster has been dealt with — we have described for us the process by which the workmen of Israel did, quite precisely and obediently, just what the Lord instructed them to do.

It's almost impossible, Josipovici says, to read all this; it cuts against the grain of everything we think reading is. And there's something else odd about it: several commentators have noticed that, as long and detailed as the instructions recounted in Exodus are, you couldn't actually build a Tabernacle from them — too much is omitted, so later attempts at reconstruction have necessarily involved a great deal of guesswork. So the whole episode, or set of episodes, is rather odd.

Josipovici therefore wonders if there isn't some other way to make sense of it, and he decides to approach the interpretative problem in a different way. He notes that in the Tabernacle episode we have detailed accounts of the building or fabricating of complex objects. Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we see the building or fabrication of complex objects?

The answer is: in at least six other places.

  • The building of the Golden Calf itself (Exodus 32), a kind of interpolated scene in the midst of the account of building the Tabernacle;
  • The construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11);
  • The construction of the Ark by Noah (Genesis 6);
  • The building of the great Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 6);
  • Solomon's building of his own palace (1 Kings 7);
  • The creation of the cosmos and the world by the Lord (Genesis 1-2).

As I read this section of Josipovici’s illuminating book, it occurs to me that one way to subdivide these descriptions is:

  • what the Lord himself builds,
  • what the Lord specifically instructs humans to build,
  • what the Lord does not instruct but permits humans to build, and
  • what humans build in defiance of and rivalry with the Lord.

To see these acts of making in this light is to see that each act of making is an act of glorification: something or someone is glorified, celebrated and raised up, through the making.

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while know that I am interested in thinking theologically about technology, or, to put the task in another way, incorporating reflections on technology into theological accounts of human thought and action. I might describe the recent Pynchon read-through as a subset of my larger inquiry into the technological history of modernity, which is itself a subset of a theology of technology, which is in turn a subset of a general theological anthropology. I keep thinking about these matters, and reading everything I can find that seems related to them, in the hopes that at some point I will figure out the level at which I can make an appropriate contribution. A book just on Pynchon might be a little too narrow; a theological anthropology is almost certainly too broad a project for me and beyond my scholarly competence (I am not, after all, a theologian).

But as I’m feeling my way blindly around this elephant, it occurs to me that pausing to reflect on the implications of these descriptions of building in the Hebrew Bible might be a useful way to isolate some coordinates for a theology of technology. So more on that in subsequent posts.

Friday, February 10, 2017

the fragility of platforms

In a comment on my previous post, Adam Roberts writes:

In terms of human intermediation, facebook and twitter are radically, fundamentally ‘thin’ platforms, where things like the church or the family are deep-rooted and ‘thick’. FB/Twitter-etc are also transient—both relatively recent and already showing signs of obsolescence. The sorts of institutions we’re talking about need to endure if they’re to do any good at all. Doesn’t this very temporariness magnify the volume of the reaction? People have been living with quite profound changes to social and cultural mores for decades, much longer than there has been such a thing as social media. When they take to Twitter they are trying to express deep-seated and profoundly-contextualised beliefs in 140 characters. It’s not surprising that what emerges is often just a barbaric yawp.

I think this is a very powerful point, because it reminds us that when we replace institutions with platforms, especially now that those platforms are uniformly digital, we’re moving from structures that, if not altogether antifragile, are relatively robust to structures that are either palpably fragile or untested.

Thought experiment: What if Twitter actually does as many have suggested and bans Donald Trump? They would be perfectly within their rights to do so — he would have no one to appeal to — so what would he do? The very platform he uses to howl his anger and outrage would be denied him, so where would he go? Facebook? But the architecture of Facebook doesn't lend itself quite as well to his preferred tactics of engagement (for reasons I wish I had time to explore but do not). Trump’s ability to disseminate his messages in unedited form, and more particularly to change the subject when things aren’t going his way, would be dramatically curtailed. He would be dependent on others to share his message, others whose voices don't reach as far as his now does. Could his Presidency survive his being exiled from this platform that he has made his own?

platforms and institutions

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

I'm usually allergic to generalizations in these matters, but let me risk a big generalization: I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.

Let’s take education as an example: for much of American history people were educated in a wide range of (often highly eccentric) ways. This was generally perceived as a problem, and efforts at standardization kicked in, reaching their peak in the Sixties. Since then we have seen increasing fragmentation, with ordinary public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, various kinds of private schools, homeschooling, unschooling ... but all of these work on the same platforms, that is, they rely on the same communications technologies, using either the open web or walled gardens like Facebook in order to promote interaction and accomplish goals (e.g., the completion of projects and other assignments, remedial tutoring, etc.). We will more and more be asking technological platforms to do the kind of unifying work that educational institutions can clearly no longer do, which, I believe, is asking platforms to do things that by their nature they're unsuited to do.

They’re unsuited to do it becasuse platforms are unresponsive to their users, and unresponsive by design (design that emerges from their desire to be universal in scope). It is virtually impossible to contact anyone at Google or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and that is so that those platforms can train us to do what they want us to do, rather than be accountable to our desires and needs. A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance.

I for one don't welcome our new algorithmic overlords.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

the fool on the hill

Is this a stunt? Of course it's a stunt, as it was when James Sturm did it a few years ago, though that was less Walden-esque, since Sturm has a family. Also, Thoreau's life at Walden Pond was kind of a stunt too, since, despite the impression of absolute solitude he tried to give, he would regularly walk into town to visit friends and family.

Still, the fact that it's a stunt doesn't mean that it's not a socially useful act. I think of those lines from Dylan's “Property of Jesus”: “Go ahead and talk about him because he makes you doubt / Because he has denied himself the things that you can't live without....” Of course I could live without the internet if I had to! Mmm-hmmm. But it's not possible right now, not with the job I have ... and it's not like there are even any jobs out there that don't require the use of the internet.... Mmm-hmmm. Please do go on.

It's interesting to find out what we tell ourselves when confronted with the possibility that we could live Otherwise. And being forced into those consoling narratives is probably useful to us, in much the same way that it was spiritually and morally useful to kings to have jesters who reminded them of their mortality and fallibility.

In fact, maybe every town should hire someone to live in their midst without any connection to the internet. (In Tim Richardson's wonderful book The Arcadian Friends he describes eighteenth-century aristocrats who, with sometimes comic results, hired hermits to live in the picturesque little hermitages they had built on their massive properties.) We would pass by them every day and perhaps be moved to genuine reflection on our choices, especially the choices that we constantly tell ourselves aren't really choices at all.

And now, as we begin our day, as each of us prays to an image of his image of himself, let's sing — softly now, softly —

Day after day
Alone on a hill
The man with no internet
Is keeping perfectly still
But nobody ever texts him
They can see that he's just a fool
And he never goes on Twitter
But the fool on the hill
Sees the web going down
And the eyes in his head
See see us all spinning round...

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

rising up and rising down

Richard J. Evans summarizes Pankaj Mishra’s argument:

“After a long, uneasy equipoise since 1945,” Mishra says, “the old west-dominated world order is giving way to an apparent global disorder.” We have entered an “age of anger”, in which established forms of authority and legitimacy, already seriously weakened by the forces of globalisation, have been challenged by history’s losers. We are experiencing “endemic and uncontrollable” violence, fuelled by a range of hatreds – of “immigrants, minorities and various designated ‘others’” – that have now become part of the political mainstream. In response, there is “a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism”. Societies organised for the interplay of individual self-interest mediated by the state have plunged into tribalism and nihilistic violence. To Fukuyama’s Panglossian vision of the future, Mishra opposes a nightmare.

And yet Steven Pinker continues to argue that we are simply not “experiencing ‘endemic and uncontrollable’ violence,” that, globally, violence continues to decrease. The notion that violence is on the rise may well be one of those illusions I discussed the other day.

I don’t know, of course, but I’m inclined to suspect that physical violence is on the decline while verbal violence, especially on social media, is on the rise. It is indeed an age of anger, but perhaps people are largely content to express that anger online. Almost infinitely more people cheer the punching of Richard Spencer than would actually punch Richard Spencer. One or two acts of mild violence — videoed on smartphones and watched on loop — might be enough to slake most people’s bloodlust.

And so the anger dissipates, and “enterprises of great pitch and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action.” Twitter is the opiate of the masses.

P.S. My post title.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tolkien's riddles

The Riddles of the Hobbit is a riddling book about a riddling writer, a philological exercise concerning the works of a philologist. I wish there were more books like this. Literary critics tend to stick firmly (ruthlessly) with the standard critical idiom even when the texts they’re writing about are fundamentally incompatible with that idiom. I admire Adam for letting Tolkien’s habits of mind pull his (Adam’s) prose into an eccentric orbit. There’s a very funny imaginary dialogue between the Sphinx and Oedipus in which Oedipus refuses the Sphinx’s interpretation of its own riddle (“your riddle mixes metaphor and literal application in an inconsistent manner”); and an especially nice turn near the end where Adam comments that “the early medieval romance Ringe describes its hero as ’ane hubbity-duppety fellowe yclepit Fraodo, þat wiþ greete heorte did þe Ringe of powre destrowe” — to which he adds, in a helpful footnote, the information that “There is, of course, no actual medieval romance entitled Ringe.”

But these are not mere jokes, though they’re good jokes: they’re also ways of reflecting on riddling and the pursuit of riddles (including the kind of riddle-pursuit that in humanistic scholarship we call “source-hunting”). The book offers much more sober insights into Tolkien’s tale-telling and language-playing habits, too, but it always wears its critical hat at a rakish angle. I loved it and felt that it did more to get me thinking tolkienially (to coin a term) than almost anything I’ve read about old JRRT, Tom Shippey’s wonderful work alone excepted.

Here I just want to take up one of the secondary themes in the book, which is the relation between Tolkien’s preference for riddles and his deep commitment to a religion, Catholic Christianity, which has at its heart certain mysteries. Adam is quite clear that riddles and mysteries are not the same, but he doesn’t say what I’m going to say here, which is that each is the mirror image of the other. The proper relation between riddle and mystery is absolute opposition.

We can start with two points. First, Adam quotes Robin Chapman Stacey’s claim that “riddles function, in almost every culture in which they appear, as a means by which one person lays claim to power over another”; and second, at one point he pauses to comment that “one of the things this book is trying to do is … to engage imaginative ingenuity as the proper idiom of riddles.” Putting these two points together we see that in contests of riddles ingenuity is the form that power takes: especially since, as Adam also points out, the stakes of riddle-games are so often life and death, to pose a riddle to someone — and equally to accept a riddle-challenge — is to bet your life than you are more ingenious than the other person.

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

Paul returns to this theme in the very last verses of the letter to the Romans, where he looks forward again to the apokalypsin mystēriou — the unveiling of the mystery, the sacramentum. And when will this happen? In 1 Timothy 6 we learn that God the Father will bring the “manifestation” or “revealing” of Jesus Christ, kairois idiois, in his own good time, at the opportune moment. And that cannot be forced or hurried or even known by anyone else.

It sounds like I’m preaching a sermon here, but I’m actually trying to lay out a semantic field, one part of which is occupied by riddles, enigmas, which human beings can at least in principle solve, and the other part of which is occupied by mysteries that are not even in principle soluble, by obscurity that we cannot dissipate: rather we must wait for God to unveil those mysteries in his own time. This is the sense in which I claim that riddles and mysteries oppose one another.

I said in my previous post that Pynchon is a riddling writer, but he is also concerned with those insoluble obscurities that cannot be fought but must simply be waited out. Thus in the last paragraph of Inherent Vice Doc Sportello is simply waiting out a thick California coastal fog — and hoping that when it clears there will be something else there, something other and better than the world he knows. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa Maas — Oedipa! — simply takes a deep breath and awaits what the “crying of Lot 49” will reveal. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction, the passage that I think will give my book on Pynchon its title, we hear a (relatively minor) character say:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible.

Waiting — waiting “for some affirmation from the far invisible” — not striving. No ingenuity here; just patient hope.

After all this it is interesting to return to The Hobbit, and especially the conclusion of the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. Bilbo wins “more by luck (as it seemed) than by wits,” Tolkien says in his Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, and in more than one way. First of all, he can only even get his last chance to stump Gollum because, in trying to ask for more Time to think, he stumbles on the answer to the game’s penultimate riddle. (He finds the answer but never knows the answer.) And then, of course, “What have I got in my pocket?” is even more problematic, within the rules of the game, than the Sphinx’s inconsistencies. Again from the Prologue to LOTR: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ according to the strict rules of the Game; but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise.” And by so accepting Gollum put himself in a position where his power over Bilbo — his superior physical strength and shrewdness of riddling — are trumped by … well, by something else.

If what Bilbo has is luck it is extraordinary luck — too extraordinary for Gandalf to accept that explanation, as he says to Frodo: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it." In fact, then, the riddle-game is resolved not by ingenuity (which Bilbo lacks), and not even by luck, but by some unnamed force who has decided that the kairos moment, the Appointed Time, has come. What we have in Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring is not cleverness or skill or bravery or any other human virtue, but an apokalypsin mystēriou, the unveiling of a mystery. The riddle-game marks the end, in this tale, of the sovereignty of riddling.

Pynchon's riddles

In the opening chapters of Against the Day Pynchon hints at certain oddities in the space/time continuum of the book. Consider this:

The Chums of Chance could have been granted no more appropriate form of “ground-leave” than the Chicago Fair, as the great national celebration possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency. The harsh nonfictional world waited outside the White City’s limits, held off for this brief summer, making the entire commemorative season beside Lake Michigan at once dream-like and real.

As though the Chums come from some other world, some (to us) fictional world, and cam only have "access and agency" in a place as fanciful and make-believe as the White City of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.

Just a couple of pages later we are introduced to the detective Lew Basnight:

Lew looked around. Was it still Chicago? As he began again to walk, the first thing he noticed was how few of the streets here followed the familiar grid pattern of the rest of town— everything was on the skew, narrow lanes radiating starwise from small plazas, tramlines with hairpin turns that carried passengers abruptly back the way they’d been coming, increasing chances for traffic collisions, and not a name he could recognize on any of the street-signs, even those of better-traveled thoroughfares … foreign languages, it seemed. Not for the first time, he experienced a kind of waking swoon, which not so much propelled as allowed him entry into an urban setting, like the world he had left but differing in particulars which were not slow to reveal themselves.

“Like the world he had left” but somehow not that world. It is a theme which recurs throughout the novel, which seems particularly interested in thin places conceived not on the model of Celtic spirituality but arising from the creation of modern physics, from the theories of relativity to the multiverse hypothesis. And as he had done in Mason & Dixon Pynchon seems to be suggesting that the work of science does not reveal the world we live in but actually brings it into being — with somewhat different worlds being brought into being in the universes next door, into which and out of which his characters sometimes slip.

The language I’m using here — “suggest,” “seem,” “hint” — indicate that this is a riddling sort of book, and indeed Pynchon is a riddling sort of writer. I think of a verse from Auden: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” Pynchon seems always to prefer “going round” because “where we are” is also where we might not be. Perhaps more apt still would be the great conclusion of Wallace Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”:

                                             A more severe, 

More harassing master would extemporize 
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory 
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, 
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, 
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

The intricate evasions of as — evasions which are also revelatory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

And then as I was reflecting on Pynchon as the great Riddler what should turn up in my mailbox but a copy of Adam Roberts’s The Riddles of the Hobbit? I shall comment on that in my next post.

Monday, January 23, 2017

recency illusions

In his book Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough writes,

Imagine if this happened today: Hundreds of young Americans — white, black, and Hispanic — disappear from their everyday lives and secretly form urban guerrilla groups. Dedicated to confronting the government and righting society’s wrongs, they smuggle bombs into skyscrapers and federal buildings and detonate them from coast to coast. They strike inside the Pentagon, inside the U.S. Capitol, at a courthouse in Boston, at dozens of multinational corporations, at a Wall Street restaurant packed with lunchtime diners. People die. They rob banks, dozens of them, launch raids on National Guard arsenals, and assassinate policemen, in New York, in San Francisco, in Atlanta. There are deadly shoot-outs and daring jailbreaks, illegal government break-ins and a scandal in Washington.... 

In fact, the most startling thing about the 1970s-era underground is how thoroughly it has been forgotten. “People always ask why I did what I did, and I tell them I was a soldier in a war,” recalls a heralded black militant named Sekou Odinga, who remained underground from 1969 until his capture in 1981. “And they always say, ‘What war?’”...

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States,” notes a retired FBI agent, Max Noel. “People don’t want to listen to that. They can’t believe it. One bombing now and everyone gets excited. In 1972? It was every day. Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.”

Why do so many people today — including the newly elected President — believe that the social fabric is more seriously frayed now than at any point since the Civil War? To some extent we must blame the historical ignorance with which Americans are congenitally afflicted. But I lived through the period that Burrough describes, though I was young, and while I remember many of the events he describes I also remember not being alarmed by them; nor did I know anyone who was. People were concerned, to be sure, and saddened, and puzzled, but not alarmed.

And yet on social media today everyone is in a state of high alarm all the time. Which leads me to something I didn’t mention explicitly in my year in technology post: my efforts to get onto a longer news frequency.

Those who are interested in history will remember events like the Battle of New Orleans, fought weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812 because word of the treaty hadn’t reached the armies. Since then, thanks to a series of well-known technological changes, the news cycle has grown shorter and shorter until now many people get their news minute-by-minute.

If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended ... I can live with that.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

reconstituting the Republic of Letters (or not)

Here I want to follow up on my previous post on academic publishing and the patronage system.

First, just a note that the article by Stanley Fish that I cited in that post created an interesting conversation that can be found here, at least for those with JSTOR access.

Now, back to the main issues raised by Wellmon and Piper: As I mentioned in my earlier response, their work brings a welcome historical dimension to the issues they raise, identifying the ways in which the rise of the modern research university, starting in the late 18th century in Germany, sought to avoid or transcend the limitations of a patronage regime but ended up (largely, though not wholly) reinscribing such a regime in a disguised and more systematic form.

It was what we might call a Weberian development: a community or network of scholarship — the old Republic of Letters about which Anthony Grafton, more than anyone else, has written so eloquently — that depended a good deal on the charisma of individual figures, from Petrarch to Erasmus to Voltaire, was gradually rationalized and systematized. Wellmon and Piper and I are the heirs of that rationalized system, and for better or worse have to function within it. But as a professor at a private Christian university, as opposed to the public institutions that Chad and Andrew work at, my ties to that system are slightly looser. The epistemic world of Christian scholarship in the humanities overlaps with the larger scholarly world but has various regions that lie well off that map. At Wheaton, where I taught for 29 years, an English or philosophy professor could (might not, but could) get tenure while writing only for specifically Christian journals and presses; at Baylor, where I now teach, that would not be possible, but some publication with Christian scholarly outlets is usually acceptable.

So from where I sit the rise of the modern research university, with its national and often international standards of accreditation and prestige, is a mixed blessing, and I am tempted to wonder whether, in the university as it is currently constituted and likely to be constituted for the imaginable future, any serious alternative to the current epistemic regime can be achieved.

If such an alternative regime is ever to be realized, then it might well need to involve reflection on what elements of that Republic of Letters could be reconstituted. In contrast to the research university the Old Republic was characterized by

  • locally variable interests and approaches
  • dependence (as noted above) on individual charisma
  • loose and variable social ties among its members
  • loose and variable relations to intellectual institutions
  • a common language (Latin) for much of its history
  • private and locally variable publication technologies
  • dependence on postal service for most of its exchanges of ideas

For a time it seemed to me that the internet might allow for the formation of structurally similar networks of scholars, more-or-less loosely related to but not confined by academic institutions. I remember, ten or fifteen years ago, hearing fairly regularly from people who didn’t hold academic positions but who nevertheless — or perhaps not nevertheless but rather consequently — offered interesting ideas that I did not come across in my regular academic reading. (These people often held advanced degrees but did not have academic jobs, for a variety of reasons.)

The success of these networks depended on a reliable means of exchanging ideas, something that, early in internet’s history, was enabled by various technologies: the BBS, the newsgroup, the listserv. But when we moved from those technologies to the World Wide Web, and thus to comment-enabled blogs, things started to go seriously wrong, largely because ignorant and/or malicious people, who didn't even have to sign up for a listserv in order to share their opinions, drove the more measured and thoughtful people out of comment threads. Then, at about the time that everyone started to figure out the necessity of comment moderation, Twitter arose, and suddenly commenting on blogs seemed burdensome to people.

For instance, the number of comments on this blog has steadily declined, though for a while, until I began emphasizing that I don't read Twitter replies, people would respond there — inevitably more briefly, and therefore less clearly and cogently, than they would have if they had chosen instead to comment on the blog itself. Now I get very few responses at all to what I write here. I think the rise of social media, and especially Twitter, has done great damage to any hopes for an online Republic of Letters that could provide a kind of epistemic counterpoise to the Academy. Perhaps when Twitter burns itself out — which I believe it will do, and fairly soon, thanks to the crass indifference of its leadership to the abuse that goes on there — some new possibilities will arise, or old ones come back into view.

But without some such counterpoise — some intellectual ferment going on outside the disciplinary powers of the research university (and I mean “disciplinary” primarily in a Foucauldian sense) — then I doubt whether we’ll see a significant alteration in how the university works.

Let me return now to the question that Wellmon and Piper ask: “What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” I want to suggest one possible answer to that question: If we want the university to become a more intellectually diverse space, then maybe we need to find ways to strengthen and vivify intellectual discourse outside the university. Because it is only when serious alternatives to the epistemic practices of the university are being cultivated elsewhere that the university is likely to reconsider how it does its business. In this way a major investment of academic intellectual resources in the world outside the academy could constitute, at one and the same time, a public service and a means of self-invigoration.