Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

more on the Theses

So let’s recap. Here are my original theses for disputation. Responses:

Just a wonderful conversation — I am so grateful for the responses. The past few weeks have been exceptionally busy for me, so right now I just have time to make a few brief notes, to some of which I hope I can return later.

First, Julia Ticona is exactly right to point out that my theses presume a social location without explicitly articulating what that location is. I’ve thought about these matters before, and written relatively briefly about them: see the discussion of African Christians whose Bibles are on their phones late in this essay; and a modern Orthodox Jewish take on textual technologies here; and the idea of “open-source Judaism” here. But I haven't done nearly enough along these lines, and Ticona’s response reminds me that we are in need of a more comprehensive set of technological ethnographies.

Second, I am really intrigued by Michael Sacasas’s template for thinking about attention. I wonder if we might complicate his admirably clear formulation — hey, it’s what academics do, sue me — by considering Albert Borgmann’s threefold model of information in his great book Holding on to Reality, from the Introduction of which I’ll quote at some length here:

Information can illuminate, transform, or displace reality. When failing health or a power failure deprives you of information, the world closes in on you; it becomes dark and oppressive. Without information about reality, without reports and records, the reach of experience quickly trails off into the shadows of ignorance and forgetfulness.

In addition to the information that discloses what is distant in space and remote in time, there is information that allows us to transform reality and make it richer materially and morally. As a report is the paradigm of information about reality, so a recipe is the model of information for reality, instruction for making bread or wine or French onion soup. Similarly there are plans, scores, and constitutions, information for erecting buildings, making music, and ordering society....

This picture of a world that is perspicuous through natural information and prosperous through cultural information has never been more than a norm or a dream. It is certainly unrecognizable today when the paradigmatic carrier of information is neither a natural thing nor a cultural text, but a technological device, a stream of electrons conveying bits of information. In the succession of natural, cultural, and technological information, both of the succeeding kinds heighten the function of their predecessor and introduce a new function. Cultural information through records, reports, maps, and charts discloses reality much more widely and incisively than natural signs ever could have done. But cultural signs also and characteristically provide information for the reordering and enriching of reality. Likewise technological information lifts both the illumination and the transformation of reality to another level of lucidity and power. But it also introduces a new kind of information. To information about and for reality it adds information as reality. The paradigms of report and recipe are succeeded by the paradigm of the recording. The technological information on a compact disc is so detailed and controlled that it addresses us virtually as reality. What comes from a recording of a Bach cantata on a CD is not a report about the cantata nor a recipe-the score-for performing the cantata, it is in the common understanding music itself. Information through the power of technology steps forward as a rival of reality.

Thinking about Borgmann in relation to Sacasas, I formulate a question which I can only register right now: What if different kinds of information elicit, or demand, different forms of attention?

Finally: Most of my respondents have in some way — though it’s interesting to note the variety of ways — emphasized the need to distinguish between individual decision-making and structural analysis: between (a) whatever technologies you or I might choose to employ or not employ, when we have a choice, and (b) the massive global-capitalist late-modern forces that sustain and enforce our current technopoly. Seeing these distinctions I am reminded of a very similar conversation, that surrounding climate change.

There has been an interesting recent turn in writing about climate change. Whereas advocates for the environment once placed a great emphasis on the things that individuals and families can do — reducing one’s carbon footprint, recycling, etc. — now, it seems to me, it’s becoming more common for them to say that “being green won't solve the problem”. The problems must be addressed at a higher level — at the highest possible level. Technopoly, similarly, won't be altered by boycotting Facebook or writing more by hand or taking the occasional digital detox.

But I might be. Recycling and installing solar panels and avoiding plastic water bottles — these are actions that matter only insofar as they limit destruction to our environment; they don't do anything in particular for me, except add inconvenience. But even if sending postcards to my friends instead of tweeting to them doesn't lessen the grip of the great social-media juggernauts, it can still be a good and worthwhile thing to do. We just need to be sure we don't confuse personal culture with social critique.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mark Greif and Mrs. Turpin

I’ve written a review of Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man for Books and Culture, but it won’t appear for a few months. I think Greif has written a very important, deeply researched, extremely intelligent, and greatly flawed book. I want to take a few minutes here to expand on something I say in the review about its flaws but could not develop fully there.

There I write, “Greif’s belief that religion is on its way out leads him to be less than scrupulous in his research on Christian thinkers and writers, so in dealing with Christian intellectuals, he is never on firm ground — his knowledge is spotty and skimpy, and his readings of Flannery O’Connor are quite uninformed by the necessary theological context. But unlike many academics of our time, he understands that Christian writers matter to the discourse of man, and for this he deserves commendation.”

The culmination of Greif’s chapter on O’Connor is a reading of what may be her greatest story, “Revelation.” I am going to seriously spoil that story here, so if you haven’t read it, please do so before proceeding with this blog post.

Okay? All set?

The story narrates a series of revelations to one Mrs. Ruby Turpin, but here is the culminating one:

At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

About this passage Greif writes,

Now, one can read this as the usual O’Connor moment of grace or action of mercy. Even the just will have “their virtues ... burned away” in the last judgment. I think, rather, the change here is that there are just people, unillusioned, dignified to the end. And even up to the last, order is maintained. “[A]ccountable as they had always been for good order” is simply not ironic; where other inversions obtain (“white-trash … clean,” “black niggers in white robes”), the ordinary righteous whites are straightforward and “on key.” 

From the option to turn readers away from the worry about man, O’Connor’s last major work turns back to a vision of social order that matters more in the climax of the story than the moment in which human vanity is burned away.

There’s no gentle way to put this: Greif has misunderstood this story about as badly as it is possible to misunderstand a story. And he misunderstands it because he simply doesn’t know the biblical and theological context.

Let’s start with Greif’s belief that Mrs. Turpin and people like here are “just” — that is, righteous — people. This is to accept her at her self-valuation, and the entire point of the story is to undermine, to destroy, that self-valuation. “Revelation” is straightforwardly and openly a midrash on, nearly a retelling of, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Just as the Pharisee cries out, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican,” so Mrs. Turpin cries out,

“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud. 

The book struck her directly over her left eye.

(In a stroke of comical over-explicitness, the book is thrown by a young woman named Mary Grace. Get it? Mary? Grace?) Like the Pharisee, Mrs. Turpin is utterly pleased with herself, satisfied in every respect, but justifies her self-satisfaction by casting it as gratitude towards God. Her constant mental theme, as she sits in the doctor’s waiting room, is her superiority to the “white-trash woman” who shares the writing room with her. So one of the most laugh-out-loud funny but also morally incisive moments in the whole story comes when Mary Grace has been restrained and is being taken away to a hospital: “‘I thank Gawd,’” the white-trash woman said fervently, ‘I ain’t a lunatic.’”

In the sections on hope in the Summa — Flannery O’Connor’s standard nighttime reading, as Greif knows — Thomas Aquinas sees the Pharisaical attitude as an embrace of the status comprehensor, a belief that one has spiritually arrived. The proud person therefore shares with the despairing person the trait of motionlessness. ("In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.") The properly hopeful person, on the other hand, is the homo viator, the wayfarer, the one who is still on the road, the one who knows that she has not arrived, the one who sustains herself with the simple prayer of the tax-collector: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

This is why the final vision Mrs. Turpin receives is not, as Greif declares, one of the Last Judgment but rather one of souls on pilgrimage: the pilgrimage that begins in this world and in Catholic teaching continues, for the redeemed, into Purgatory. (Mrs. Turpin can be said to receive a vision of the Last Judgment only in Kafka’s sense of the term: “It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of summary court in perpetual session.”) It is noteworthy that Greif slips up and speaks of the “moment in which human vanity is burned away,” when O’Connor says it is the virtues of Mrs. Turpin and her kind that must be burnt — or what they think of as their virtues — what they would appeal to as justifying them in the eyes of men and the eyes of God: “good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” What they must learn, and what they will learn, eventually, is that good order and common sense and respectable behavior and singing on key count for nothing in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven — in fact, less than nothing.

Greif speaks of people like Mrs. Turpin as “unillusioned,” but this gets it backwards: they are under one of the most powerful illusions of all — that God cares about respectability and will credit the respectable with righteousness. (This is the same illusion that Kierkegaard raged against for most of his career.) Note that Mrs. Turpin is not wrong to think that she is respectable and does stand for “good order”: in that sense Greif is correct to see that the description is not ironic. Her error is to believe that to God any of that matters. It is precisely because this illusion is so pernicious that Mrs. Turpin and those like her bring up the rear of the pilgrimage — far behind the “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” who understand that to sing on key in this situation is to miss the point rather spectacularly — and make it into the Kingdom by the skin of their teeth; it is precisely because this illusion is so powerful that they persist in it even as their virtues are being burned away.

You don't have to know Aquinas to understand all this; but you probably do have to know the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. As our cultural elites lose even the most elementary biblical literacy, this is going to happen more and more often: reading the Bible-saturated literature of the past and missing, not secondary and trivial illusions, but the entire point of stories and novels and plays and poems, and for that matter paintings and sculptures and musical compositions. The artistic past of the West will become incomprehensible, but — and this is the scary thing — no one will know that they’re misreading. Gross errors will be passed down from teacher to student, from scholar to reader, and it is difficult to imagine circumstances arising in which they can be corrected.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

isolation and proximity

Sobering thoughts from Matthew Loftus in response to Wesley Hill's new book Spiritual Friendship:

I think a lot of this decline in human relationships can be traced to individualism and consumer culture, and I’d argue that our uncritical use of technology and social mobility make this worse by giving us more power to isolate ourselves from the unlovable. However, it’s worth noting that architecture and economics play crucial roles here as well: if we don’t design the places that we live in order to interact with one another, we’ll self-segregate until we’re just alone with our screens all the time (while driving ourselves whatever distance we can tolerate to the school, restaurant, or church of our choosing.) Thus, if we want to promote the sort of friendship that Wesley wants, we’re going to have to push back against the forces that put each of us at a comfortable distance from one another. I think that one key way to do this (amplifying the final suggestion he gives in the book) is to increase our physical proximity to each other across the board and intentionally promote the understanding that more proximity should bring with it more responsibility to those that we are close to.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

rant of the day

Fantastic rant this morning from Maciej Ceglowski, creator of the invaluable Pinboard, about this new service:

The chief reason I keep arguing with Ned O'Gorman about whether things can want — latest installment here — is that I think the blurring of lines between the agency of animals (especially people) and the agency of made objects contributes to just this kind of thing: if we can script the Internet of Things why not script people too? Once they're scripted they want what they've been scripted to do. (Obviously O'Gorman doesn't want to see that happen any more than I do: our debate is about the tendencies of terms, not about substantive ethical and political questions.)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Carr on Piper on Jacobs

Here’s Nick Carr commenting on the recent dialogue at the Infernal Machine between me and Andrew Piper:

It’s possible to sketch out an alternative history of the net in which thoughtful reading and commentary play a bigger role. In its original form, the blog, or web log, was more a reader’s medium than a writer’s medium. And one can, without too much work, find deeply considered comment threads spinning out from online writings. But the blog turned into a writer’s medium, and readerly comments remain the exception, as both Jacobs and Piper agree. One of the dreams for the web, expressed through a computer metaphor, was that it would be a “read-write” medium rather than a “read-only” medium. In reality, the web is more of a write-only medium, with the desire for self-expression largely subsuming the act of reading. So I’m doubtful about Jacobs’s suggestion that the potential of our new textual technologies is being frustrated by our cultural tendencies. The technologies and the culture seem of a piece. We’re not resisting the tools; we’re using them as they were designed to be used.

I’d say that depends on the tools: for instance, this semester I’m having my students write with CommentPress, which I think does a really good job of preserving a read-write environment — maybe even better, in some ways, than material text, though without the powerful force of transcription that Andrew talks about. (That may be irreplaceable — typing the words of others, while in this respect better than copying and pasting them, doesn’t have the same degree of embodiment.)

In my theses I tried to acknowledge both halves of the equation: I talked about the need to choose tools wisely (26, 35), but I also said that without the cultivation of certain key attitudes and virtues (27, 29, 33) choosing the right tools won’t do us much good (36). I don’t think Nick and I — or for that matter Andrew and I — disagree very much on all this.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

what buttons want

Ned O’Gorman, in his response to my 79 theses, writes:

Of course technologies want. The button wants to be pushed; the trigger wants to be pulled; the text wants to be read — each of these want as much as I want to go to bed, get a drink, or get up out of my chair and walk around, though they may want in a different way than I want. To reserve “wanting” for will-bearing creatures is to commit oneself to the philosophical voluntarianism that undergirds technological instrumentalism.

We’re in interesting and difficult territory here, because what O’Gorman thinks obviously true I think obviously false. In fact, it seems impossible to me that O’Gorman even believes what he writes here.

Take for instance the case of the button that “wants to be pushed.” Clearly O’Gorman does not believe that the button sits there anxiously as a finger hovers over it thinking o please push me please please please. Clearly he knows that the button is merely a piece of plastic that when depressed activates an electrical current that passes through wires on its way to detonating a weapon. Clearly he knows that an identical button — buttons are, after all, to adopt a phrase from the poet Les Murray, the kind of thing that comes in kinds — might be used to start a toy car. So what can he mean when he says that the button “wants”?

I an open to correction, but I think he must mean something like this: “That button is designed in such a way — via its physical conformation and its emplacement in contexts of use — that it seems to be asking or demanding to be used in a very specific way.” If that’s what he means, then I fully agree. But to call that “wanting” does gross violence to the term, and obscures the fact that other human beings designed and built that button and placed it in that particular context. It is the desires, the wants, of those “will-bearing” human beings, that have made the button so eminently pushable.

(I will probably want to say something later about the peculiar ontological status of books and texts, but for now just this: even if I were to say that texts don’t want I wouldn't thereby be “divesting” them of “meaningfulness,” as O’Gorman claims. That’s a colossal non sequitur.)

I believe I understand why O’Gorman wants to make this argument: the phrases “philosophical voluntarism” and “technological instrumentalism” are the key ones. I assume that by invoking these phrases O’Gorman means to reject the idea that human beings stand in a position of absolute freedom, simply choosing whatever “instruments” seem useful to them for their given project. He wants to avoid the disasters we land ourselves in when we say that Facebook, or the internal combustion engine, or the personal computer, or nuclear power, is “just a tool” and that “what matters is how you use it.” And O’Gorman is right to want to critique this position as both naïve and destructive.

But he is wrong if he thinks that this position is entailed in any way by my theses; and even more wrong to think that this position can be effectively combatted by saying that technologies “want.” Once you start to think of technologies as having desires of their own you are well on the way to the Borg Complex: we all instinctively understand that it is precisely because tools don’t want anything that they cannot be reasoned with or argued with. And we can become easily intimidated by the sheer scale of technological production in our era. Eventually we can end up talking even about what algorithms do as though algorithms aren’t written by humans.

I trust O’Gorman would agree with me that neither pure voluntarism nor purely deterministic defeatism are adequate responses to the challenges posed by our current technocratic regime — or the opportunities offered by human creativity, the creativity that makes technology intrinsic to human personhood. It seems that he thinks the dangers of voluntarism are so great that they must be contested by attributing what can only be a purely fictional agency to tools, whereas I believe that the conceptual confusion this creates leads to a loss of a necessary focus on human responsibility.

cross-posted at The Infernal Machine

Monday, April 6, 2015

on Adam Roberts's Bête

This is a book about the difference between being a butcher and being a murderer, if there is a difference

This is a book about the fungibility of identity

This is a book about the persistence of identity

This is a book about the relationship between identity and body

This is a book about the unforeseen consequences of technology

This is a book about some of the ways in which slick talk about the “posthuman” is vacuous

This is a book about the uses and abuses of the concept of species

This is a book about the Smiths' song “Meat is Murder”

This is a book about all the stories that have talking animals

This is a book about Wittgenstein's claim that “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him”

This is a book about what happens to carnivores when they become reflective about being carnivores

This is a book about Oedipus and the riddle of the Sphinx

This is a book about what Animal Farm would be like if it weren't a parable

This is a book about what we think is below us and what we think might be above us in the Great Chain of Being

This is a book about what the Turing test can’t do

This is a book about the problem of other minds

Morozov on Carr

Evgeny Morozov is probably not really “Evgeny Morozov,” but he plays him on the internet and has been doing so for years. It’s a simple role — you tell everyone else writing about technology that they’re wrong — and I suspect that it gets tiring after a while, though Morozov himself has been remarkably consistent in the vigor he brings to the part. A few years ago he joked on Twitter, “Funding my next book tour entirely via Kickstarter. For $10, I promise not to tweet at you. For $1000, I won’t review your book.” Well, I say “joked,” but ...

In his recent review of Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage — a book I reviewed very positively here — Morozov takes a turn which will enable him to perpetuate and extend his all-critique-all-the-time approach indefinitely. You can see what’s coming when he chastises Carr for being insufficiently inattentive to philosophical traditions other than phenomenology. If, gentle reader, upon hearing this you wonder why a book on automation would be obliged to attend to any philosophical tradition, bear with me as Morozov moves toward his peroration:

Unsurprisingly, if one starts by assuming that every problem stems from the dominance of bad ideas about technology rather than from unjust, flawed, and exploitative modes of social organization, then every proposed solution will feature a heavy dose of better ideas. They might be embodied in better, more humane gadgets and apps, but the mode of intervention is still primarily ideational. The rallying cry of the technology critic — and I confess to shouting it more than once — is: “If only consumers and companies knew better!” One can tinker with consumers and companies, but the market itself is holy and not to be contested. This is the unstated assumption behind most popular technology criticism written today.


Even if Nicholas Carr’s project succeeds — i.e., even if he does convince users that all that growing alienation is the result of their false beliefs in automation and even if users, in turn, convince technology companies to produce new types of products — it’s not obvious why this should be counted as a success. It’s certainly not going to be a victory for progressive politics.


At best, Carr’s project might succeed in producing a different Google. But its lack of ambition is itself a testament to the sad state of politics today. It’s primarily in the marketplace of technology providers — not in the political realm — that we seek solutions to our problems. A more humane Google is not necessarily a good thing — at least, not as long as the project of humanizing it distracts us from the more fundamental political tasks at hand. Technology critics, however, do not care. Their job is to write about Google.

So on this account, if you make the mistake of writing a book about our reliance on technologies of automation and the costs and benefits to human personhood of that reliance, instead of writing about “unjust, flawed, and exploitative modes of social organization”; if your book does not strive to be “a victory for progressive politics”; if your book merely pushes for “a different Google” rather than ... I don't know, probably the dismantling of global capitalism; if your book, in short, is so lamentably without “ambition”; well, then, there’s only one thing to say.

I guess everyone other than Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Thomas Piketty, and maybe David Graeber have been wasting their (and our) time. God help the next person who writes about Bach without railing against the music industry’s role as an ideological state apparatus, or who writes a love story without protesting the commodification of sex under late capitalism. I don't think Morozov will be happy until every writer sounds like a belated member of the Frankfurt School.

But the thing is, Carr’s book could actually be defended on political grounds, should someone choose to do so. The book is primarily concerned with balancing the gains in automated efficiency and safety with the costs to human flourishing, and human flourishing is what politics is all about. People who have become so fully habituated to an automated environment that they simply can’t function without it will scarcely be in a position to offer serious resistance to our political-economic regime. Carr could be said to be laying part of the foundation for such resistance, by getting his readers to begin to think about what a less automated and more active, decisive life could look like.

But is it really necessary that every book be evaluated by these criteria?

Friday, April 3, 2015

four categories of novels

1) Those written for young people and of interest and relevance primarily, or exclusively, to young people (e.g., the Sweet Valley High books);

2) Those written for adults and of interest and relevance only to adults (e.g., Nabokov's novels);

3) Those written for adults that are also sufficiently accessible that they can be interesting to young people (e.g., several Dickens novels);

4) Those written for young people that are also sufficiently well-crafted and thoughtful that they can be interesting to adults.

I've been thinking about this again because I recently re-read Diana Wynne Jones's The Magicians of Caprona, which is simply a glorious novel by ay standard you choose to apply. If you haven't read it, please treat yourself as soon as possible.

That is all.

a Good Friday meditation

This semester I’m teaching Kierkegaard’s Either/Or for the first time in a decade or so, and I keep having these little moments of insight and recognition that remind me of just how freakishly brilliant SK is. Here’s one example.

The most famous section of Either/Or is the “Seducer’s Diary,” which appears in the first part — the papers of “A,” the aesthete — and according to A is a manuscript that he discovered. The strong hint, of course, is that A wrote it himself, whether as a faithful account of his own experience or as a clever fiction. (Note also that SK presented Either/Or to the public not as his own work but as the work of one Victor Eremita, who tells us in the preface that he found all of the various papers in an old desk. So there’s a Russian-doll effect: authors within authors within authors.)

Before A presents us with the seducer’s diary, he tells us that he happens to know the seduced girl, and moreover has come into possession of some letters from her. He reproduces a few of them, including this quite remarkable one:


There was a rich man who had many cattle, large and small; there was a poor little girl, she had only a single lamb, which ate from her hand and drank from her cup. You were the rich man, rich in all the earth’s splendour, I was the poor girl who owned only my love. You took it, you rejoiced in it; then desire beckoned to you and you sacrificed the little I owned; of your own you could sacrifice nothing. There was a rich man who owned many cattle, large and small; there was a poor little girl who had only her love.

Your Cordelia

We may note several things here. First, before we ever hear Johannes’s account of his conquest of Cordelia, which he presents as a strictly aesthetic enterprise designed to create something interesting — he calls it the task of “poeticizing oneself into a girl” — we hear Cordelia’s grief and pain, that is, we are alerted to the very ethical dimension of eros which Johannes repudiates. It is a kind of caveat lector for those with ears to hear.

Second, we discover that Cordelia is someone capable of describing her situation with eloquence and metaphorical power.

Third, we see that the primary metaphor she uses derives from Scripture, and that she employs the biblical story in an extraordinarily complex and sophisticated way. The story is that of David and Bathsheba, but Cordelia draws more specifically on the climax of that story, when the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin. Remember what David has done: in his lust for Bathsheba he has sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, out into the front lines of battle to be killed. David is therefore not just an adulterer but also a murderer.

Nathan knows that David would be unlikely to respond well to direct confrontation; so he concocts a fairy-tale-like story, one that appears to have nothing to do with David, and thereby elicits the King’s morally-charged response. Only then does Nathan reveal the real meaning of the story, whose force David cannot now escape.

Cordelia’s use of the story in her letter to Johannes is remarkable primarily because she does not cast herself in the role of Bathsheba, the seduced woman. Rather, she gives herself a twofold role. Recall that, in Nathan’s story, the rich man is David; the poor man with one ewe lamb is Uriah; the ewe lamb is Bathsheba. Therefore Cordelia identifies herself with Uriah, which is as much as to say to Johannes: You have sent me to my death, and stolen my one treasure, which is my love. Johannes in this version of the story is then not just a seducer but a kind of murderer.

But note also this line from Cordelia’s letter: “You were the rich man.” Her words echo those of Nathan, which calls to our attention that she is casting herself in a second role, that of the prophet — a word that means not “seer” but “spokesman” — who speaks the word of truth into the reluctant ears of sinners. She the victim must also be the spokesman; she must speak for herself because there is none other to speak for her.

And finally, in her retelling of — her midrash on — the biblical narrative, she adds one more element: “you sacrificed the little I owned.” The lamb that had been a beloved companion is led to the slaughter; is made a sacrifice to Johannes’s “poeticizing.”

We do not know what Johannes thought about this letter, but A’s response to it — remember, he is the one who presents it to us — is telling: “to some extent she lacked lucidity in her presentation. This is especially the case in the second letter [the one we have read], where one suspects rather than grasps her meaning, but to me it is this imperfection that makes it so touching.” One suspects rather than grasps her meaning. Yet the meaning is not so hard to grasp — again, for those with ears to hear.

The image of the sacrificed lamb, a lamb that is not merely without blemish but also beloved, thus hovers over the diary that we then read. Which leads me to one final reflection.

At a key point in his narrative Johannes writes, “There is a difference between a spiritual and a physical eroticism. Up to now it is mostly the spiritual kind I have tried to develop in Cordelia. My physical presence must now be something different , not just the accompanying mood, it must be tempting. I have been constantly preparing myself these days by reading the celebrated passage in the Phaedrus on love. It electrifies my whole being and is an excellent prelude. After all, Plato really understood love.”

In Plato’s Phaedrus Phaedrus leads Socrates out into the countryside where they discuss a speech by the logographer Lysias on love. What might Johannes have found so “electrifying” about this debate?

The key question Lysias raises is whether a person should prefer to form a relationship with a lover or a non-lover. Socrates thinks this is a fascinating speech, and gives two different speeches of his own in response to it. It is the first of these that most directly addresses the question. It is a speech which he concludes in very forcible terms: “Consider this, fair youth, and know that in the friendship of the lover there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you: As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves.” Ah.

Such a dark tale. Is there a more hopeful one? I think there is. It begins, “There was a king who loved a maiden”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

on the attention economy

Let me zero in on what I think is the key paragraph in my friend Chad Wellmon’s response to some of my theses:

But this image of a sovereign self governing an internal economy of attention is a poor description of other experiences of the world and ourselves. In addition, it levies an impossible burden of self mastery. A distributive model of attention cuts us off, as Matt Crawford puts it, from the world “beyond [our] head.” It suggests that anything other than my own mind that lays claim to my attention impinges upon my own powers to willfully distribute that attention. My son’s repeated questions about the Turing test are a distraction, but it might also be an unexpected opportunity to engage the world beyond my own head.

I want to begin by responding to that last sentence by saying: Yes, and it is an opportunity you can take only by ceding the sovereignty of self, by choosing (“willfully”) to allow someone else to occupy your attention, rather than insisting on setting your own course. This is something most of us find it hard to do, which is why Simone Weil says “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And yet it is our choice whether or not to practice that generosity.

I would further argue that, in most cases, we manage to cede the “right” to our attention to others — when we manage to do that — only because we have disciplined and habituated ourselves to such generosity. Chad’s example of St. Teresa is instructive in this regard, because by her own account her ecstatic union with God followed upon her long practice of rigorous spiritual exercises, especially those prescribed by Francisco de Osuna in his Tercer abecedario espiritual (Third Spiritual Alphabet) and by Saint Peter of Alcantara in his Tractatus de oratione et meditatione (Treatise on Prayer and Meditation). Those ecstatic experiences were a free gift of God, Teresa thought, but through an extended discipline of paying attention to God she had laid the groundwork for receptivity to them.

(I’m also reminded here of the little experiment the violinist Joshua Bell tried in 2007, when he pretended to be a busker playing in a D.C. Metro station. Hardly anyone noticed, but those who did were able to do so because of long experience in listening to challenging music played beautifully.)

In my theses I am somewhat insistent on employing economic metaphors to describe the challenges and rewards of attentiveness, and in so doing I always had in mind the root of that word, oikonomos (οἰκονόμος), meaning the steward of a household. The steward does not own his household, any more than we own our lifeworld, but rather is accountable to it and answerable for the decisions he makes within it. The resources of the household are indeed limited, and the steward does indeed have to make decisions about how to distribute them, but such matters do not mark him as a “sovereign self” but rather the opposite: a person embedded in a social and familial context within which he has serious responsibilities. But he has to decide how and when (and whether) to meet those responsibilities. So too the person embedded in an “attention economy.”

In this light I want to question Weil’s notion of attention as a form of generosity. It can be that, of course. In their recent biography Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli tell a lovely story about a memorial service for Jobs during which Bill Gates ignored the high-powered crowd and spent the entire time in a corner talking with Jobs’s daughter about horses. That, surely, is attention as generosity. But in other circumstances attention may not be a free gift but a just rendering — as can happen when my son wants my attention while I am reading or watching sports on TV. This is often a theme in the religious life, as when the Psalmist says “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” or in a liturgical exchange: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is meet and right so to do.”

There is, then, such a thing as the attention that is proper and adequate to its object. Such attention can only be paid if attention is withheld from other potential objects of our notice or contemplation: the economy of our attentional lifeworld is a strict one. But I would not agree with Chad that this model “levies an impossible burden of self mastery”; rather, it imposes the difficult burden of wisely and discerningly distributing my attention in ways that are appropriate not to myself qua self but to the “household” in which I am embedded and to which I am responsible.

Cross-posted at The Infernal Machine

Intellectual Vices

straw man

Two illustrations of a very serious, and very common, intellectual vice:

One: When Jon Monfasani write a highly critical evaluation of Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern for Reviews in History, Greenblatt responded — and this is the whole of his response —, “I plead guilty to the Burckhardtianism of which John Monfasani accuses me. That is, I am of the devil’s party that believes that something significant happened in the Renaissance. And I plead guilty as well to the conviction, regarded by my genial and learned reviewer as ‘eccentric’, that atomism – whose principal vehicle was Lucretius’ De rerum natura – was crucially important in the intellectual trajectory that led to Jefferson, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein.”

Now, if you read Monfasani’s review, you’ll discover that Greenblatt has simply ignored the detailed and careful argument that Monfasani makes in order to pretend that Monfasani has said ridiculous things. Oh yeah, Monfasani, that guy who thinks nothing significant happened in the Renaissance.

Two: Thomas Pfau, in his recent Minding the Modern, adopts a version of what I have called the neo-Thomist interpretation of history — sort of the opposite of the Whig interpretation of history — according to which a handful of late-medieval Franciscan nominalists broke down the great edifice of Thomist thought and thereby brought about the great catastrophes we call the Reformation and Modernity. Pfau has done his reading, so he knows that there are dissenting historical narratives out there, notably that of Bonnie Dorrick Kent in her 1995 book Virtues of the will: the Transformation of Ethics in the Late Thirteenth Century. Here’s how Pfau deals with Kent’s argument:

Among the most strident accounts in this regard is that by Bonnie Kent, who rejects Alasdair MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas as having achieved a synthesis of Aristotelian and Augustinian thought and — particularly in Whose Justice? and Three Rival Versions — relying excessively on Étienne Gilson’s master-narrative, which unfolds the History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages from an unabashedly Thomist perspective.... Thus Kent rejects “the tendency to describe thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thought in anticipation of developments centuries later. Knowing what will come, the modern writer easily slips into foreshadowing, dividing those masters and doctrines that were ‘properly’ medieval from those that anticipated, even helped to produce, the ultimate divorce of philosophy from theology.” Needless to say, the present argument reaffirms — albeit also seeks to demonstrate at the level of close textual interpretation — the viability, indeed the necessity, of narrative continuities in the domain of intellectual history and philosophical theology.

Two moves of note here: first, before allowing us to hear what Kent’s argument is, Pfau preemptively describes it as “strident”; second, he casts her dissent from the neo-Thomist narrative as a wholesale rejection of “narrative continuities in the domain of intellectual history and philosophical theology.” But of course absolutely nothing that Kent writes repudiates “narrative continuities.” Rather, she argues (persuasively, to my mind) that one particular claim of narrative continuity is mistaken.

So to critics of The Swerve Greenblatt says, “I guess you don't think anything significant happened in the Renaissance.” And to critics of the neo-Thomist account, Pfau says, “I guess you don't believe in narrative continuities in intellectual history.” Pure strawmannery, of course; it’s just sadly interesting to see it at work on what are supposed to be the Higher Levels of intellectual discourse.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

returning: a process

Hello everybody. I'm back from a wonderful visit to the good people at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and am now in the midst of a harrowing game of catch-up. So while regular posting will resume here soon, it won't resume immediately.

At the Institute I presented 79 Theses on Technology, for disputation, and while we didn't conduct a full-fledged disputatio, I got some wonderful responses from the group there that will make my thinking better. There will also be more detailed and formal responses on the Infernal Machine blog, and the first of them has now been posted by my friend (and kind host while I was there) Chad Wellmon.

Look for more responses there, and for my own counter-blasts, which will probably be posted both here and at the Infernal Machine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

one small step towards simplification

I sold my iPad recently, and I don’t expect to buy another one. (By the way, I love the Amazon buy-back program: I got $150 for a device I had used for more than two years. I’ve already spent most of the money on books.) In general I find navigating the iPad cumbersome, though it’s great for reading PDFs and comics. And those experiences were good enough, and frequent enough, that I’m not saying anything stronger than “I don’t expect to buy another one.” I could weaken.

But so far I am really happy with the decision, because I now spend less time asking myself, for example, whether I want to take my laptop or my iPad to the coffeeshop. I also don’t have to make software choices based on cross-platform compatibility. Indeed, this simplification of my life has been sufficiently pleasant that I’d like to extend it. I have thought a lot about Boone Gorges’ decision to ditch his smartphone and his recent re-endorsement of that decision — as I say, I have thought about it — I have given it serious consideration — and I still have an old phone around the house — but no. I don’t think I can.

And the chief reason is not that my iPhone has tons of cool apps; in fact, I’d like to get away from those apps. Rather, I’m attached to my iPhone because I think it’s an exceptionally elegant and beautiful device. I like holding it and even just looking at it. So what I’d love to see — what would take me away from the iPhone — is a really beautifully designed and engineered cellphone that does nothing but make phone calls, send texts, and take photographs.

When I first decided that I want that kind of phone, I immediately thought Why hasn’t Apple made one of those? But then two seconds later I realized that it would make absolutely no financial sense for Apple to sell us phones that are disconnected from the company’s enormous app ecosystem. And the same logic holds true for Android and Windows phones.

But surely there’s a market here for a new (or maybe an old) company to exploit? An elegant and utterly simple phone that, freed from the need to support apps, could have the bonus of greatly extended battery life. I’d buy one of those in a minute — and sell my iPhone to Amazon.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

on reading diverse books

I wasn’t going to weigh in on the #readdiversebooks thing, because, after all, I’m the read-at-whim guy so you can guess my opinion about it, but also because if you are going to reject whim and confine your reading to certain approved categories, you could do worse that this. But okay, Saladin Ahmed — you’re the one who made this not about ethics, or exposing yourself to a wider variety of points of view, but rather boredom:

Now certainly, one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland. Whether or not one agrees with ‘the SJWs’ that it’s ethically contemptible, it is, in a word, boring.

I know, right? I mean, I was reading this book by Richard Dawkins and then I put it down and picked up Dante’s Divine Comedy and I’m like How am I supposed to tell these apart? James Joyce and George Herbert, Karl Marx and Dostoevsky, Samuel Johnson and Petrarch … all this heteronormativity and white supremacy … the sameness of it, you know? SO. BORING. Just one big old heterocaucasian Disneyland.

However, I do have some questions for Ahmed and the more moralistic Reading Monitors. First, I’m intrigued by this new book by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant — can I read that? I had no idea what his sexual orientation was but Wikipedia helped me out with that — so he’s straight — but is he white? He was born in Nagasaki to Japanese parents, but moved to England as a small child and has lived there ever since, so I’m confused. But I’m thinking that since Japanese people in apartheid-ruled South Africa were classified as honorary white people, I’d best stay away.

But I’ve also been looking at Augustine’s Confessions and that’s a real puzzler. Was Augustine a white person? I know most of the people who read him are white … well, probably … maybe … anyway, can you help me with that?

You get my point — or several of my points — but the most important among them is this: the whole debate is predicated on the unconfronted assumption that people will only be reading books written in the past few years. Ahmed’s ridiculous comment stems from this: he’s addressing readers who without a kick in the pants will just go from Jonathan Franzen to Jonathan Chait to Jonathan Lethem. But the farther you go back in time the fuzzier the relevant taxonomy becomes: both “straight” and “white” are recent categories than can’t be simply retrojected into history. (Evidence: Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, Hanne Blank’s Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality — to cite just three flawed but instructive and provocative books.)

Look: white men really are over-represented on editorial pages and periodical tables-of-contents and book-awards shortlists. So I understand what lies behind #readdiversebooks; but it’s really a movement for people who were going to read Curtis Sittenfield or Reza Aslan or Alexander Chee or Denis Johnson. What’s being ruled out right from the very beginning is the possibility of discovering the kinds of challengingly alien perceptions and ideas that arise from an encounter with the distant, or even the not-so-distant, past — or for that matter from other cultures in today’s world where people tend to have fair skin.

All this reminds me of a moment early in Bill Clinton’s presidency when he proudly announced that he had assembled the most diverse cabinet in American history — when 16 of the 20 members were lawyers. Similarly, you can end up praising yourself for the diversity of writers you’re reading when every single one of them got an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

So, by all means, avoid Neil Gaiman and Shakespeare for the rest of this year; but why not keep the #readdiversebooks going next year too? My suggestion: don’t read anything written since 1500.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

designer deaths

Death is such a bummer, but you know, that’s just a design problem:

Bennett’s fixation on death began with the death of his father. He was close to his dad; in a recent talk, he likened his childhood to the plot of Billy Elliot, a story “about a little nelly gay boy who twirled in the northeast of England” and the exceedingly masculine father who dared to love him. Bennett, in fact, traces his identity as a designer to the day in 1974 when his father, Jim, a former military pilot, brought home The Golden Hands Encyclopedia of Crafts. Jim Bennett then spent the next two years sitting with his son, making macramé and knitting God’s eyes, so that sensitive little kid could explore his talent and find his confidence. In 2001, Bennett’s father wound up in a hospital bed, stricken with bone cancer. Bennett was 5,000 miles away at home in San Francisco. He told his father he’d be on the next flight, but Jim ordered him not to come. Eventually, Bennett understood why. His father had painstakingly maintained his dignity his entire life. Now “he was trying to somehow control that experience,” Bennett says. “He was designing the last granule of what he had left: his death.”

In 2013, Bennett started sharing his ideas with the other partners at Ideo, selling them on death as an overlooked area of the culture where the firm could make an impact. He had a very unspecific, simple goal: “I don’t want death to be such a downer,” he told me. And he was undaunted by all the dourness humanity has built up around the experience over the last 200,000 years. “It’s just another design challenge,” he said. His ambition bordered on hubris, but generally felt too child-like, too obliviously joyful, to be unlikable. One time I heard him complain that death wasn’t “alive and sunny.”

T. S. Eliot, 1944:

I have suggested that the cultural health of Europe, including the cultural health of its component parts, is incompatible with extreme forms of both nationalism and internationalism. But the cause of that disease, which destroys the very soil in which culture has its roots, is not so much extreme ideas, and the fanaticism which they stimulate, as the relentless pressure of modern industrialism, setting the problems which the extreme ideas attempt to solve. Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.

Ah, don't be such a downer, Possum! Everybody, come on, sing along!

Friday, March 20, 2015

while I was away...

Folks, it’s good to be back. Let me just draw your attention to a few things I posted and/or published while I was away from here:

Here’s a description of a new (online only) writing assignment I’m trying out in my classes this term. I’ll give a report on the success, or failure, of the experiment in a near-future post.

Something else worthy of further commentary is this quotation from Charles Taylor on the endless war between code fetishists and antinomians.

Here are a few words on my writing “workflow,” as the kids say today.

Why I doubt that the humanities can be defended.

My skepticism about a commonplace trope on the rate of social change.

Can the computational humanities demonstrate critical tact?

My thoughts on Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage.

It’s behind a paywall, but maybe the first few paragraphs of my review of a new edition of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics will be worthwhile.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I'm back

Hi. More to come soon.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

another note on the Southern Reach

Another note on the Southern Reach trilogy — or something that started as a note but then turned into a critique.

A couple of years ago I wrote that the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit was marred by “videogame aesthetics.” Remember the dwarves running across the bridges in the goblin caves? Classic side-scroller! It’s Super Thorin Brothers! [UPDATE: As Adam Roberts points out, this should surely be Super Moria Brothers.] But “all I could to was watch the dwarves bounce around from horror to horror. My hands felt empty and useless without the controller they so obviously needed. Video-game aesthetics are built around the assumption of manual activity: they work far better when you have something to do. I didn’t really want to sit passively and watch Peter Jackson play with his Xbox but that’s what I felt was happening to me for much of the second half of the movie.”

The narrative technique of the Southern Reach trilogy — especially in the first book — is likewise derived from videogames, though not side-scrollers: instead, first-person explorers are the model, especially (it seems to me) Myst and Riven. The explorations of Area X in Annihilation very strongly reminded me of my explorations of Myst Island, with, added-on, some of the interactive elements that emerged in Riven. (Myst and Riven could be said to have elements of “strange pastoral” also.)

The biologist walks through the forest to the lighthouse — hey, there’s a ruined village off to the side. Can you interact with anything there? Not really; keep going. The lighthouse is scary but unrewarding until you click on the rug and find the trap door! And then the return trip: can you find the path that lets you escape the moaning creature? If not, maybe you die, and the game restarts back at base camp?

And then in the second book: Explore the official Southern Reach facility! Walk through the spooky room with the gloves; see what's behind the locked door in your office — and search until you find the key that opens the one locked drawer in your desk. Then, if you're really clever, find the trap door — yes, another trap door, but this one in the ceiling of the storage closet! Some of this reminds me of the old text-based adventures games also: type “open the drawer” and you get “Opening the drawer reveals a strange plant, a dead mouse, and an old cellphone.”

Now, I don’t want to get carried away with this: text-based adventure games are a kind of interactive fiction, and interactive fiction draws on the narrative types and tropes of the novel. But there are certain kinds of actions you perform in those games, certain kinds of objects you interact with, that then make their way into videogames — and action and objects of those general kinds are what populate the Southern Reach saga.

So the story can feel at times like interactive fiction without the interaction; a point which leads me to another, one that might explain my own lack of excitement about the novel, despite its various excellences. Because so much of it seems to be translated from another medium, one perhaps better suited to the shape of the story, the Southern Reach story as a whole feels to me less like a novel than a novelization — in light of which it’s interesting to note the work VanderMeer has done in other media, including games and film.

I’m not happy about what seems to me the increasing influence of videogames on film and fiction — not because I dislike videogames, but because not every artistic medium does everything equally well. Maybe we should let videogames do what they do best; and when we make movies or write novels, we could do worse than think about what those media can do that videogames can’t.

UPDATE: corrections from Jeff VanderMeer:

I understand what VanderMeer is saying: that the books' descriptions of the natural world are based on his own love of an care for that world, based on "actual exploring." And I have no doubt that that's true! But I don't think that his explanation is in any way inconsistent with my thesis that the narrative technique of the novel is indebted to the first-person explorer videogame.

on the Southern Reach Trilogy

Having read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and thought about it for a while, I’ve decided that I don’t like it as much as I thought I would.

To be sure, some things about it are fantastic: the first volume in particular is sublimely creepy. But I am not sure whether the novel as a whole — and it is one novel broken into three parts, like Lord of the Rings — pays back the investment of time required to read 900 pages.

Mac Rogers, who likes the story very much, says this about it:

This frustration that manifests over and over throughout the trilogy — as the characters repeatedly fail not only to solve the mystery of Area X, but indeed to even meaningfully perceive it — doesn’t feel like a cheat, but rather a natural outgrowth of how these books see humanity. We’re isolated. We’re easily manipulated. We don’t cooperate. We’re poorly suited to our natural habitat, and insignificant in the face of its untamed grandeur. We care more about our image of ourselves, our identity, than about our interaction with the world around us. The colossal physical and spiritual transformation Area X represents is beyond human reference.

I think this is a very plausible read. The question is whether the book makes this point well, vividly, compellingly. The admirable Adam Roberts thinks it does. Writing particularly about the first volume, he argues that “what makes this book so remarkable is less what happens in it, and more its tense, eerie and unsettling vibe. Creating such an atmosphere is a balancing act: on the one hand, the writer must not destroy the mood with too much brute explanation; and on the other, he must not alienate the reader by being too annoyingly oblique. VanderMeer hits exactly the right balance.”

And Roberts thinks this continues to the end: “Finding a way satisfactorily to pay off so much mysteriously tense apprehension is no small challenge for a writer – and VanderMeer manages to avoid banality and opacity both, and generates some real emotional charge while he's about it.” Mac Rogers also talks about the book’s “payoffs,” and also thinks they are significant. I don’t. I’m okay with not getting standard-issue resolutions to mysteries if I get something of equal or greater value instead, but I don’t think that happens here. It seems to me that we know very little more at the conclusion of the novel than we knew at its outset, and what we do learn suffers from unnecessary “opacity” — is, indeed, “annoyingly oblique” in light of the investment of time and energy the book asks of its readers.

And I suspect that the book’s lack of resolution — so many of its major characters (all but one, I’d say) left in mid-journey, and some complications introduced in the third volume for no apparent reason — may be a set-up for a sequel. I don’t mind spending 300 pages being set up for a sequel, but 900? That’s too much to ask.

If my suspicion is correct — if we get a sequel that provides more conventional forms of resolution for the characters, and more conventional answers to the mysteries raised in these volumes — I wonder if Rogers and Roberts will need to revisit their praise for the balance between mystery and revelation they think VanderMeer achieves here. Wouldn’t more clarity be too much?

With all these complaints registered, I want to close by commending the books for their unusual and often eloquent attentiveness to the details of the natural world — and for raising the possibility that there could be massively powerful intelligences that encounter the natural world in ways totally alien to our own — in ways more like the way that animals and plants interact with one another, whether cooperatively, symbiotically, or violently. In another essay Roberts refers to the book as “strange pastoral”, and I think that’s a brilliant designation, and helps to show what the story of the Southern Reach does accomplish.

Monday, October 20, 2014

this brunch will not stand, man

This attack on brunch is worth noting because it exemplifies a couple of recent trends in opinion pieces.

First, we have strategic exaggeration. You don’t just say that you disapprove of brunch, you say that eating brunch manifests a “desire to reject adulthood.” You say it’s a rejection of “the social conventions of our parents’ generation.” You call it “the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture.” You quote someone else who says brunch is “a symptom of the soulless suburban conformity that is relentlessly colonizing our urban environments.”

In short, you make the most absurdly over-the-top claims imaginable so that when someone calls out the extremity of your language you can reply, “Dude, you need to get a sense of humor.” But of course you don’t actually take anything back, because you meant it. You really, really despise brunch, in a way that really, really is weirdly extreme. But you need not own that because you can invoke “humor” and “irony.”

Which leads to my second point of interest, which is: the panoptic reach of the pink police state. As I’ve noted before, I think James Poulos’s in-development thoughts on this topic are incisive and important, but let me just add some theses for disputation:

  • There is a Law of the Conservation of Moral Energy. That is, the amount of moral energy in a given society is constant. It just gets deployed in different ways.
  • As I have previously noted, in the pink police state there are no adiaphora: everything that is not forbidden is compulsory, and vice versa.
  • As more and more people in our society become convinced that consent is the only relevant ethical category in the domain of sex, the moral energy that once would have gone into policing sexual activity is transferred to questions about when you should eat your meals and what books you should (or should not) read in your spare time — with no diminishment of moral intensity.

Monday, October 13, 2014


Folks, things have been quiet around here for the past few days and will likely be quiet for the foreseeable future. I have a great deal on my plate, both professionally and personally. But a few bits of news and/or enlightenment:

1) I had planned to blog about Nick Carr's new book The Glass Cage here, but instead I'm going to review it for Books & Culture. So you'll see my thoughts in a more coherent form than I usually offer on this blog, but they'll be delayed. Spoiler: I like the book a lot and think you should certainly read it, though I have some reservations too.

2) I'm plugging away on my Big Book Project — which gets bigger the more I work on it, so that the more I write the farther I get from the finish line — and, inspired by some of the figures in that story, I'm working my way through some larger and more general thoughts about imagination, creativity, and theology. I lay out some of the problems in this oddball essay; and I point towards a few constructive responses to those problems in a handful of quotes I've posted to my tumblr: here, here, and here. Consider that a teaser for a book to be released in about 2024 (should I be spared).

3) Two other books I'll be reviewing in the coming months: Adam Roberts's magnificent new edition of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, and a wonderful new volume of Italo Calvino's Complete Cosmicomics.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

more on social structures and imaginative work

A couple of follow-ups on yesterday’s oddball rantish thing on the social and economic structures that enable or disable genuine imagination:

First, a really thoughtful response from my friend Bryan McGraw, who can provide a political philosopher’s take on these issues. Please read it all, but here’s an excerpt:

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer. See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty! Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held). And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way. That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

In a well-known passage, C. S. Lewis writes, “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.” I think (I hope) that later ages will see almost all of today’s political thought as wrapped up in the unquestioned and even unconfronted assumption that people are simply “calculating preference machines.”

More directly to the point of my article, while Eisenhower may have wanted us to distrust the “military-industrial complex” because of its power to involve private industry in policy-making, and while that is a very important warning indeed, when government, mega-industry, and the university system all become entangled beyond the possibility of disentanglement, the flow of influence runs in all directions, but especially from the richer to the less-rich — from the patrons to the patronized. And that puts universities in the position of being shaped far more than they shape; and that, in turn, puts the artists and writers who work for the university in an even more dependent position. This worries me.

I think I’ll have more to say about Bryan’s smart response, but for now just one note: I do think the anti-capitalist left is likely to find something to cheer in my post; they and I have a good deal in common. My politics are probably too incoherent to describe, but one might say that they are sorta kinda paleo-conservative green-communitarian, emphasizing the need to renew and strengthen the institutions (especially family and local community, and schools insofar as they grow out of family and local community) that mediate between the individual and the nation-state, for the better care of people and the created order. And since the nation-state that is growing and growing and growing in power is an international-capitalist one, I end up agreeing with the left that that nation-state’s dominance is probably our largest single political problem. When I think about politics, I have infinitely more sympathy for a left-anarchist like David Graeber than I do for any National Greatness conservatism. (Bryan, set me straight if I’m leaving the true path here.)

Second: One of the reasons I want to make an argument for regenerating genuine imagination, genuine creativity, is that “imagination” and “creativity” and today almost totally co-opted by scenes like this — the happy-clappy “super excited” artificially-generated enthusiasm of the TED world that Benjamin Bratton has called, in one of the most apt phrases of the twenty-first century, “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”. If that’s what imagination and creativity are all about, may God save us all from them.

Kathy Sierra and online abuse

Kathy Sierra has written a post about her experiences with what we (mildly) call online harassment — a post that may not stay up for long, so if you’re at all inclined, please read it while you can. I just want to say a few words.

1) Understand where I’m coming from when I talk about things like this: I wrote a book on the history of the theological doctrine of original sin that more-or-less openly endorses the claim that we are all fallen, all broken, all tempted by wickedness and all sometimes successfully tempted. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart.” So no wickedness surprises me.

2) Wickedness has to be called by its true name.

3) The people who have abused and harassed and threatened Kathy Sierra (and Lord knows how many other women with online lives) have acted wickedly. Their behavior is not trivial: it is malicious to the highest degree.

4) Psychological and emotional abuse is no less wicked than physical abuse; in some circumstances it can be worse.

5) It does no good to say that these are the acts of “a few bad apples” in the tech world. We have no way of knowing what percentage of men in the tech world act in this way — but in total numbers, there are certainly far more than “a few.” It would be impossible for a relative handful of men using multiple user names to do as much harassing of women as gets done in forums, in comment threads, on Twitter, and elsewhere online. Regardless of the percentages, there are a great many of these cruel and malicious men, and they are very active, and virtually nothing is being done to stop them.

6) What corruption is in my heart, or yours, is not something that can be determined solely by our actions. We may restrain our darkest impulses out of fear — fear of being shamed or punished. It is when we have no fear of exposure or retribution that we act according to our desires. The men who harass women online do so because they think they are protected. For the same reason, children will torment animals when they think adults can't see — they know they have power over the animals, and rejoice in exploiting that power. For the same reason, in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, people administered electrical shocks to strangers because they were protected by the authority of the scientists who assigned them that task.

7) It is impossible to overstress how outraged the mobs at Reddit were when one of their nastiest and most prominent trolls was doxxed — this threatened everything they had come to take for granted about their ability to manage their online presence. We have no way of knowing how many men started controlling their cruel impulses after this exposure; probably not very many, since it could be seen as a one-off. But if exposure were more common, we might see some changes in behavior.

8) As the Milgram experiment shows, exposure isn’t the only thing people fear: the people who administered those electrical shocks had their own willingness to inflict torture exposed, but by and large they didn’t mind: they were “happy to be of service”. Similarly, weev has been exposed as one of Kathy Sierra’s abusers, but he has paid no evident social price for being so exposed: as Sierra points out, leading figures in the tech world chat with him in a friendly manner and treat him with respect. To some he is a hero, a martyr. He doesn’t need to be protected from exposure; he is protected by the good opinion and warm bonhomie of his fellow geeks.

9) The best analogy I can think of to this cadre of misogynist trolls is the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan arose not in the era of slavery but as a response to the abolition of slavery, when white men felt that their previously undisputed social dominance was in danger of being undermined. Only a relatively small number of men participated in the the Klan’s lynchings and burnings; but almost no one spoke out against them. Though they protected their identities with masks, those identities were nonetheless widely known; yet upstanding citizens greeted them on the street every day, looked them in the eye, smiled, shook their hands. Perfunctory legal inquiries sometimes led to slaps on the wrist, but the Klansmen were willing to risk that, because they paid no social price for their actions. Indeed, they were feared, respected, and sometimes secretly admired — and they knew it.

10) This is why Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Similarly, in this situation the heart of the problem is not people like weev, but the moderate, reasonable, friendly people in the tech world who enable weev. The dedicated trolls are probably beyond correction — and are certainly beyond reasoning with: they are drunk on the power they wield. But those in positions of power in the tech world who would never abuse women online or offline and yet tolerate, even sort of admire, the trolls — they may be reachable. They must be reachable. But reason may not be the only or even the best tool. They are going to have to be exposed, and shamed into action to change the structure of the technological tools and services they control. Otherwise there is no foreseeable end to the kind of abuse that Kathy Sierra and countless other women have experienced.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Devil's Bargain, expanded

It's here.