Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 28, 2018

John Ruskin: Fit the Third and Last

Years ago I had an argument with a biblically-minded friend who claimed that there could have been no tools of any kind, no technology whatsoever, in the Garden of Eden. So did Adam and Eve do all their “tending of the garden” (Gen. 2:15) with their hands? Pruning branches by breaking them off, sowing seeds only by kneeling and pawing the ground? No, he replied, there would have been none of that -- there could be no labor in Eden, so the garden would have taken care of itself and all the man and woman had to do was eat what it produced. I pointed out that what distinguishes a garden from a wilderness is that labor is put into the shaping of it and the caring for it, and that the Hebrew words used to describe what Adam did there clearly denote work, but he was immovable. Labor and technology are post-lapsarian phenomena, period. End of story.

Well, my friend was wrong, and the question we theologically-minded critics of technology need to ask goes something like this: Given that the use of tools is co-extensive with humanity itself, how might we distinguish between technology that is consistent with obedience to God and technology that manifestly isn’t? Something like this question is common to almost every serious thinker about technology, even when God isn’t involved. Perhaps the guiding concepts involve purely human flourishing. 

Take Heidegger, for instance. Here’s a summary from George Steiner’s excellent overview of Heidegger’s thought:

Once, says Heidegger, nature was phusis, the archaic designation of natural reality which he reads as containing within itself the Greek sense for “coming into radiant being” (as it is still faintly discernible in our word “phenomenon”). Phusis proclaimed the same process of creation that generates a work of art. It was, in the best sense, poiesis – a making, a bringing forth. The blossom breaking from the bud and unfolding into its proper being (en eautō) is, at once, the realization of phusis and of poiesis, of organic drive – Dylan Thomas’s “green fuse” – and of the formal creative-conservative dynamism which we experience in art. Originally, technē had its pivotal place in this complex of meanings and perceptions. It also sprang from an understanding of the primacy of natural forms and from the cardinal Greek insight that all “shaping,” all construction of artifacts, is a focused knowing. A “technique” is a mode of knowledge which generates this or that object, it is a re-cognition towards truthful ends. (Something of the Heideggerian reticulation can be made out in the cognate range, in English, of “craft” and of “cunning,” with their respective derivation from Germanic roots for “knowing” and “forming.”) No less than art, technē signified a bringing into true being, a making palpable and luminous, of that which is already inherent in phusis. Heidegger’s word for authentic technology is entbergen.

Steiner goes on to point out that zu entbergen can mean either “to reveal” or “to guard in hiddenness.” So healthy technology both reveals something true and guards something valuable.

Consider all this a prequel to a post I wrote last year, which quotes Ruskin on this point. Ruskin’s distinction between the rough but richly human imperfections of Gothic stonework and the rigid regularity of modern industrial stonework is immensely relevant here. Ruskin is articulating in very specific and practical terms what Heidegger is articulating theoretically.

Note that in that post I also cite Ivan Illich’s notion of “tools for conviviality,” which is another way of pursuing the same general ideas. I could also cite Ursula Franklin’s distinction between holistic and prescriptive technologies. Franklin on the former category: 

Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft. Artisans, be they potters, weavers, metal-smiths, or cooks, control the process of their own work from beginning to end. Their hands and minds make situational decisions as the work proceeds, be it on the thickness of the pot, or the shape of the knife edge, or the doneness of the roast. These are decisions that only they can make while they are working. And they draw on their own experience, each time applying it to a unique situation….Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.

And the latter: 

Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing it.

So we see the same essential point being made over and over again, since the middle of the nineteenth century at least. Ruskin, Illich, and and Franklin all see that there are technologies that liberate human creativity, that enable human power, and, by contrast, technologies that enslave us, that force our very being into conformity with their codes and structures. 

Some version or another of this essential distinction has been central to this blog over the decade or so that I’ve been writing it, and I have come to believe that I have unpacked the relevant questions as thoroughly as I know how. At this point I am merely repeating myself, or playing tiny scraps of variations on the Great Theme. I still want to think about the matters that this blog has been concerned with — and to think more about John Ruskin! — but I need to find new ways to do it. So this will be the last Text Patterns post. Look for me later on in the pages of The New Atlantis, and at my own site, but I’m wrapping this blog up. 

Gentle readers: Thanks for coming along for the ride. It’s been real. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

updates on various tools

Micro.blog: A couple of days ago I posted this: "I really do think this is a great service, and I’d like to be here regularly, but I wonder how much longer I’ll do this if no one I know (or almost no one I know) is here. I’m keeping fingers crossed that friends will show up!” And immediately I started getting a flood — well, honestly, it was just a trickle, but given how small the place is overall it felt like a flood — of dudes advising me how find new people, how to get more followers, and I thought: Ah. Here we go again. I’m a pretty intense introvert: I don’t want to meet new people, in an ideal world I would have no followers I don’t already know and like, and nothing will ever convince me that giving unsolicited advice to strangers isn’t extremely rude. (Acknowledgment: I know those guys were “just trying to help.” I get that. Nevertheless.) It’s the old problem of intimacy gradients all over again, but on a platform that actually has fewer controls on what you’re open to than Twitter does.

In theory I’m totally supportive of the simplicity of micro.blog, but … what all this demonstrates to me is that with social media I have two choices: far more unsolicited human interaction than I’m comfortable with, or no social media at all. So I just need to make my call and live with the consequences. 

AirPods: I went back and forth about these for several months I wrote about them last year. I’m pretty sure I would be using them regularly if they worked regularly for me — but they don’t. Apple promises that if you flip open the AirPod case a sheet will slide up showing the charge percentage of the AirPods and the case; this happens for me maybe on-third of the time. When you put the AirPods in your ears they’re supposed to pair automatically with your iPhone; this happens for me maybe half the time. And one time in five the phone tells me the AirPods are connected, but sound is coming through the phone’s speaker instead. By contrast, my wired buds always work precisely as expected, so I rely on those. (Everyone else I know who uses the AirPods simply raves about them, so either they don’t have these problems — which wouldn’t surprise me, because I’m digitally cursed: no computing device ever does for me what it’s advertised to do — or they overlook them because of the convenience of going wireless.) 

Notebooks: For several years now I’ve been using the Leuchtturm1917 A5 notebooks, which are just marvelous. But they are fairly narrowly ruled, and I find that writing a little smaller than comes naturally to me tends to make my hand cramp. So when I finished my last Leuchtturm I decided to try the slight-more-widely-ruled Conceptum in the same size, and it’s great. The thicker paper is also very nice to write on. For around the same price it has fewer pages, and of course I’ll write fewer words per page, so I’ll go through this more quickly than I would a Leuchtturm, but that’s a relatively small price to pay for more comfort. Plus, it’s sort of fun coming to the end of a notebook and putting it on the shelf with its predecessors. 

Pens: I have a few fountain pens (nothing fancy, mostly Pilots) that I like, but it seems that when I write my grip slides down the barrel of the pen in such a way that I always end up with ink on my fingers. I don’t mind being metaphorically an ink-stained wretch, but I’d rather not make that literal. I tried a Tombow rollerball but I find it a scratchy experience. I don’t like using throwaway pens but I have found that the smoothest, most enjoyable writing experience I can get for a reasonable price and no inky fingers is the Pentel Energel. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

living in the past

In later posts I’ll strive for a substantive engagement with Ruskin, but I want to make a general preliminary comment here. Ruskin was one of those figures who lived through a massive social transition and who never forgot what the world was like before its change. “It has been my fate,” he wrote in a late work, “to live and work in direct antagonism to the instincts, and yet more to the interests, of the age; since I wrote that chapter [in the first volume of Modern Painters] on the pure traceries of the vault of morning, the fury of useless traffic has shut the sight, whether of morning or evening, from more than the third part of England; and the foulness of sensual fantasy has infected the bright beneficence of the life-giving sky with the dull horrors of disease, and the feeble falsehoods of insanity.”

That sounds like the ranting of an angry old man, and yet ... Ruskin not only watched the sky and noted the weather every day but also kept a detailed record of what he saw — for decades. And in a pair of lectures called “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” he described in great detail the alterations in the sky and the weather, not just of England but of Europe as a whole, that he had observed. It turns out that everything he said in this seemingly most crazily extreme of his writings was precisely correct: the emissions of factories, and other side-effects of the Industrial Revolution, really were changing European weather. As Wolfgang Kemp records in his excellent biography of Ruskin,

The 1870s and 1880s form a unique period in the history of environmental and weather study. The skies darkened, the air became thicker and unhealthier, the climate damper and colder. One result was a progressive increase in the numbers of people dying from respiratory ailments. Trees and animals died too, not only in foggy England but also on the Continent. For example, starting in the 1880s, there were widespread reports of damage to forests in Germany. Rosenberg tells us that “From 1869 through 1889 the temperature in London was below average for eighteen of the twenty-one years … reliable figures for sunshine are available only after 1879, but sixteen of the twenty autumns and winters from 1880 through 1889 were below average, and the total sunshine was below average for more than sixty per cent of the decade.”

So old men may complain about the condition of their times simply because they’re old men and (therefore?) grumpy; but they may also complain because things really have changed and they’ve seen it. And the people who live on both sides of a cultural or political (or even meteorological) divide may be very useful observers of their scene.

Jacques Ellul is another such figure, who lived through a massive transformation in French society; and I might also cite Lesslie Newbigin, who left England as a young man to serve as a pastor in South India and returned forty years later to find a very different culture, which he sought to address theologically and pastorally in a brilliant book called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. People who have experienced massive social changes and do not merely react against them, but rather strive to comprehend them analytically, tend to be very valuable thinkers indeed. And their habits of critique can be enormously helpful to those of us who are living through our own period of change. That is why when I try to understand our current technopolic moment I find that the thinkers who help me the most are not the ones fully immersed in our own time, but those who remember an earlier time, or those from the past who underwent similar social transformations. It is very hard from within this technologically oversaturated moment of ours to discern its outlines clearly. I’m therefore drawn to thinkers whose vocabularies are tilted or skewed in relation what I see and hear every day. This is one of the many uses of reading old books.

More details about Ruskin soonish.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

John Ruskin: Fit the Second

So what interests me about Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera? Several things:

  • a lively interchange of ideas about political economy with ideas about art and aesthetics;
  • a conviction that our tools, our technologies, interact ceaselessly and complexly with art, politics, and economics;
  • an understanding of writing as one way to contribute to the knitting up of a frayed social fabric;
  • a willingness to take up certain traits of one’s age (in Ruskin’s case, the manic energy of a society determined to transform and rule most of the known world) in order to critique them;
  • a persistence in seeking constructive means to engage in conversation when so many of the usual channels are anything but constructive;
  • an embrace of open-endedness, with a resulting willingness to tolerate intellectual and professional risk.

All of those elements are exciting and worthy of emulation, and I can’t help thinking that it would be really exciting if I could, here on this little blog, follow in Ruskin’s footsteps. But there is something missing from Fors Clavigera that I’d like to add to my reflections here.

Ruskin was raised as an evangelical Christian, and his early writings on art and architecture are saturated in biblical language and characterized by deep theological reflection. Indeed, I think that in those early works, especially The Seven Lamps of Architecture, there are profound resources for a theological aesthetics that to this day have not been fully tapped.

But in 1858, when visiting Turin, and having been depressed by a boring and stupid sermon, Ruskin saw Veronese’s painting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and was overwhelmed by the sensual immediacy of the work -- which seemed to him far more obviously true than the spectral doctrines of Christianity. He experienced what he called his “deconversion,” and this lasted for nearly twenty years. He returned to some kind of faith only in 1876, when in the midst of writing Fors, but this was accompanied by a deterioration in his mental condition which eventually led to bouts of complete insanity, so his thinking of the time, while deeply embedded in biblical texts and images, is not fruitful for anyone else’s reflection. It wasn’t fruitful for his, either.

(All of these aesthetic and religious experiences were for Ruskin fantastically intertwined with his tormented and disastrous erotic life, first his unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray and later his unconsummated passion for Rose la Touche. But we’ll ignore all that mess.)

What intrigues me is the question of what Fors would have looked like if Ruskin’s reflections on social, political, economic, and aesthetic issues had been informed by religious commitment and theological reflection. To be sure, the letters of Fors are studded throughout biblical imagery and reference: Ruskin had known the Bible intimately from early childhood, and had a terrifyingly powerful memory. (I say “terrifyingly” in part because one of his psychological problems, as he himself sometimes commented, was that he remembered everything he had ever read or seen and therefore found it all too easy to draw correspondences between texts and images and ideas that really had nothing to do with one another. His prodigious memory made his mind too fertile.) But the absence of a theological dimension to Ruskin’s thought in this period makes the social analysis of Fors more agitated, more purely angry and often despairing, than it needed to be.

So -- in case it’s not obvious -- what I am trying to imagine is a Ruskinian approach to our own moment that uses digital technology against technopoly, that sees art and economics and politics as mutually animating (for good or for ill), and that can situate all these reflections within a serious theological framework. In the days and weeks to come I’m going to try to work through these possibilities, and that will involve reading, in a thoroughly non-systematic way, many of Ruskin’s works. So stay tuned for that, if you’d like. And if you make provocative comments I will try to engage with them in future posts!

In the meantime, check out the posts about Ruskin on my personal blog -- there are many wonderful images there. Ruskin drew beautifully.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

John Ruskin: Fit the First

Thirteen years ago, when my friend Jamie Smith launched his blog, he named it Fors Clavigera in honor of a strange and powerful project by the great Victorian sage John Ruskin. Jamie rightly notes in that first post that the original Fors Clavigera, though published as a series of monthly pamphlets, could be seen as a kind of “proto-blog.” How so?

Let’s start with some background. Ruskin thought of these pamphlets as open letters: the full title of the project was Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. After decades of work as a historian and critic of art and architecture, Ruskin had come to believe that (a) the arts of his own age were, generally speaking, far less excellent than they should be; (b) that those deficiencies were inevitable by-products of a corrupt system of political economy that promoted profit for the industrialist above all and so enforced impersonal efficiency and productivity over the flourishing of makers and craftsmen; and (c) that, therefore, a critique of political economy had to be articulated before anything else. The political economy of Britain had to be fixed so that the conditions of labor could be fixed so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more. Thus Ruskin’s first major exercise in this endeavor was a series of 1857 lectures called The Political Economy of Art.

Several of Ruskin’s books started as lectures. Nineteenth-century England was devoted to public lectures and readings – audiences were often huge – and Ruskin found it helpful to work to an inflexible deadline and then, later, flesh out certain points at greater length for print. But Fors was a new and different thing for him. By the time he began it, in 1872, he had come to believe that the condition of England, with so much and ever-increasing wealth standing side-by-side with the most appalling poverty, could not be addressed by him through the occasional lectures or books, but by an ongoing project: a continuous prophetic engagement accompanied by practical efforts to ameliorate the condition of the poor. “For my own part,” he wrote at the outset of the project,

I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer. I am not an unselfish person, nor an Evangelical one; I have no particular pleasure in doing good; neither do I dislike doing it so much as to expect to be rewarded for it in another world. But I simply cannot paint, nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I like, and the very light of the morning sky, when there is any – which is seldom, now-a-days, near London – has become hateful to me, because of the misery that I know of, and see signs of, where I know it not, which no imagination can interpret too bitterly.

So what to do?

I must clear myself from all sense of responsibility for the material distress around me, by explaining to you, once for all, in the shortest English I can, what I know of its causes; by pointing out to you some of the methods by which it might be relieved; and by setting aside regularly some small percentage of my income, to assist, as one of yourselves, in what one and all we shall have to do; each of us laying by something, according to our means, for the common service; and having amongst us, at last, be it ever so small, a national Store instead of a National Debt. Store which, once securely founded, will fast increase, provided only you take the pains to understand, and have perseverance to maintain, the elementary principles of Human Economy, which have, of late, not only been lost sight of, but wilfully and formally entombed under pyramids of falsehood.

In order to have a secure place for his financial contribution, Ruskin started a charitable organization called St. George’s Company, later (and still) the Guild of St. George; and for the teaching and explaining part of his program, he began publishing these letters.

In the end he published them monthly, mostly, for over a decade – there are 96 of them in all. And as he went along the style became more and more loose, casual, associative, even chaotic. He called this the third of his “ways of writing,” a style in which he simply wrote whatever came into his head and then later on gave it some measure of grammatical coherence. It is a style especially suited to his topic, because what he wanted to show, throughout the letters, was the complex set of ways in which the natural world, human perception, the human desire to make beautiful and useful things, and our social and political systems all interact with one another. Here is a passage that I have chosen utterly at random from the first volume of the collected letters:

In old times, under the pure baronial power, things used, as I told you, to be differently managed by us. We were, all of us, in some sense barons; and paid ourselves for fighting. We had no pocket pistols, nor Woolwich Infants – nothing but bows and spears, good horses, (I hear after two-thirds of our existing barons have ruined their youth in horse-racing, and a good many of them their fortunes also, we are now in irremediable want of horses for our cavalry), and bright armour. Its brightness, observe, was an essential matter with us. Last autumn I saw, even in modern England, something bright; low sunshine at six o’clock of an October morning, glancing down a long bank of fern covered with hoar frost, in Yewdale, at the head of Coniston Water. I noted it as more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, to my remembrance, in gladness and infinitude of light. Now, Scott uses this very image to describe the look of the chain-mail of a soldier in one of these free companies; – Le Balafre, Quentin Durward’s uncle: – “The archer’s gorget, arm-pieces, and gauntlets were of the finest steel, curiously inlaid with silver, and his hauberk, or shirt of mail, was as clear and bright as the frost-work of a winter morning upon fern or briar.” And Sir John Hawkwood’s men, of whose proceedings in Italy I have now to give you some account, were named throughout Italy, as I told you in my first letter, the White Company of English, ‘Societas alba Anglicorum,’ or generally, the Great White Company, merely from the splendour of their arms. They crossed the Alps in 1361, and immediately caused a curious change in the Italian language.

(The Woolwich Infant was a mighty cannon of which the celebrants of British power were perhaps inordinately proud.) Notice how Ruskin swerves from history to the observation of nature to his memories of his literary reading and then back to history. This kind of free association of ideas is very characteristic of Fors – as it is of many blogs. So that’s the first way in which Fors may be said to be a proto-blog.

But another way is more important: Ruskin received many letters in response to each issue of Fors, and, because of his stature in English society, received a good deal of commentary in newspapers and other periodicals as well. Ruskin simply incorporated these responses, and his reflections on them, into later issues of Fors. So gradually the series became less of a monologue and more of a rich, complex, polyphonic conversation.

Fors was a marvel in its own time, as important a literary/cultural/political project as any produced in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it is little known today. To some degree that is because of its intrinsic topicality, its sensitive responsiveness to the issues of its own day; but I think a more important reason for its neglect is is its combination of massiveness (hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words) and unexcerptability – you just can’t get the feel of it without reading each letter in full. Here are two early ones to give you a taste, though they are not as dialogical as the later ones would become: Letter 7 and Letter 10.

But why am I so interested in this project of Ruskin’s? I’ll explain that in my next post.

Monday, May 21, 2018

a little more on micro.blog

Some things I like: 

  • Markdown formatting in posts 
  • plain old RSS feeds for the blogs 
  • it’s really hard to find out how many people follow you 
  • no public faves/likes — I can see what I’ve faved, but if I want you to know that I liked your post I have to reply to you and tell you that I liked your post 
  • no retweets 
  • no quote-tweets 
  • no bots 
  • no ads 
  • chronological feeds 

You can see that much of what I like about micro.blog involves the absence of “features.” You can post thoughts and images and links, and you can converse with people. That’s it. 

I’ve already heard from several people telling me that micro.blog will fail just the way earlier Twitter alternatives failed. I think it’s got a better chance of surviving than any of the previous contenders — and I don’t think it’s best described as a “Twitter alternative” anyway — but let’s say these folks are right and micro.blog shuts its doors. In that case I’ll export my posts to my WordPress blog and keep on keeping on. 

social media their way — or my way

It’s fairly common for the local businesses I follow on Instagram to post there news of sales, or unusual opening hours, or special events. Thanks to Instagram’s refusal to enable a simple chronological feed, its insistence on inscrutable algorithmic presentations, I almost never see these until it’s too late. Sometimes I have shown up at a local food truck only to find it closed — something I would have known about in advance if my Instagram feed were chronological.

Similarly, when I was in London last week, I discovered that some dear friends of mine were also there — but only the day before we were returning to the States, when it was impossible to find time to meet. If their photos had showed up in my feed when they were posted, I would’ve known in plenty of time for us to get together.

I only follow about 150 Instagram accounts, so the algorithm has to work pretty hard to hide such news from me. But it manages. It’s rather astonishing – as is the determination on the part of Instagram (or, I suppose, its parent company Facebook) to make their service as unfriendly to its users as possible. Why in the world would I devote time and energy to a service that doesn’t allow me to see the posts I have explicitly signed up to see? (Yes, you can navigate to each person you follow, one by one, to see if they’ve posted anything lately, but come on.)

Twitter is similarly brain-dead in its preferred user experience, but it has had the advantage of a vibrant network of third-party clients who bring the appearance of Twitter closer to what it ought to be. That’s about to end. Thanks, Twitter!

So I am considering two alternatives. One is to post everything directly to my own turf, which has advantages that I have outlined here on several occasions. However, my blog runs on WordPress, and WordPress is not really designed for the kind of quick, frictionless posting that Instagram and Twitter are both designed for – and while I am a committed believer in blogging as an engine of thinking, I also believe that there’s a real place for the quicker stuff, the daily-diary stuff. So I also have acquired a micro.blog site. Manton Reece has done a fantastic job with micro.blog, whose origins he describes here – it’s very much part of the open-web movement that I have also celebrated here.

So far I have enjoyed micro.blog very much: it has some features Twitter lacks (it supports Markdown, for instance) and anything I post there I can also seamlessly cross-post to Twitter or to my own site – most of my recent tweets have originated as micro.blog posts, though you can’t tell that on Twitter. I am also quite interested in the new support for micro-podcasts.

So while I like the simplicity of keeping everything on my own turf, micro.blog offers other kinds of simplicity that are also very attractive. So I think that’s the way I’ll go. Micro.blog isn’t free – Manton won’t run ads, and hosting costs money. But my posts and photos belong to me, and I can export them to WordPress any time I want; and people are unlikely to pay for the privilege of trolling, especially when they can do that for free on Twitter. So I would encourage you thoughtful people to consider signing up for a micro.blog account.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

what rituals are and do

I want to isolate what I believe to be the key passage in this piece by Sigal Samuel on Ritual Design Lab. Here it is:

Finally, an endeavor like Ritual Design Lab has a paradox at its heart. If I contact the Ritual Design Hotline and the team solves my problem by creating a ritual for me, I am implicitly buying into the notion that I’m not capable of creating one myself. By outsourcing ritual design, I am, to use Steinlauf’s idiom, objectifying rather than subjectifying it; I’m reinscribing the old notion that we have to look to outside experts for such things. Only now, instead of turning to a rabbi or a priest or a guru, I’m turning to a designer.

Ozenc does not necessarily see this as a problem. In the Stanford classes he co-taught with Hagan, he ran two sessions. In the first, each student designed a ritual for herself. In the second, students paired up: One, the designer, was tasked with crafting a ritual for the other, the client. “The second version is more effective because you might not be seeing the opportunities in your life — maybe someone else can see better,” Ozenc told me. “There’s value in it if someone you trust comes in, and you give that other person permission to design a ritual for you.”

That, of course, is what religious people have been doing for millennia; it’s just that the “other person” might have lived in the year 218, not 2018.

Even though at this point in the piece Samuel has already quoted a rabbi who questions the legitimacy of separating ritual from religion, she returns here to a framing of the whole endeavor that is simply a mismatch with the character of ritual. (It is of course the same framing that drives Ritual Design Lab.) The assumptions of this framing are:

  • rituals are designed;
  • I can either design my own rituals or let “experts” do it for me;
  • rituals are “solutions” to “problems”;
  • rituals implicitly endorse what a founder of Ritual Design Lab says explicitly: “the whole premise of design is human-centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions somehow forget this — that at the center of any religion should be the person.”

But all of those notions may be questioned. One might argue, rather, that:

  • rituals are not designed but rather emerge from the life of a community;
  • there can be, therefore, no “experts” in ritual-making;
  • rituals do not solve problems but are rather a mode of communal expression;
  • the central focus of any genuine ritual is not the human being or even the community but rather the personage, god, or power that the ritual seeks to propitiate, plead with, or worship.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

more on disenchantment

A follow-up to this post

In the Introduction to The Myth of Disenchantment, Jason Josephson-Storm writes: 

For three years, starting in 1905, some of France’s most famous scientists had assembled in apartments and laboratories in Paris to study this particular Italian spirit medium — Eusapia Palladino. In addition to the Curies, others often in attendance were the celebrated physiologist Jacques-Arsène d’Arsonval, the eminent psychiatrist Gilbert Ballet, the aristocratic doctor Count Arnaud de Gramont, and three future Nobel Prize winners — the physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin, the physiologist Charles Richet, and the philosopher Henri Bergson. The French were not the only ones interested in Eusapia; from 1872 until her death in 1918, her powers were tested by teams of researchers in England, Italy, Poland, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The paranormal researchers who investigated Eusapia were not marginal eccentrics, but the cutting edge of the period’s academic establishment. Yet these researchers were exploring areas that were often marked out by their contemporaries as occult, if not downright magical. They did so not as a legacy of medieval “superstitions,” nor generally as a way to overturn science, but rather as a means to extend its borders….

In one of the last letters before his death (addressed to Louis Georges Gouy, April 14, 1906), Pierre Curie remarked, “We have had several more séances with the medium Eusapia Palladino (we already had sessions with her last summer). The result is that these phenomena really exist and it is no longer possible for me doubt them. It is incredible but it is so; and it is impossible to deny it after the sessions, which we performed under perfectly controlled conditions.” He added: “In my opinion, there is here a whole domain of completely new facts and physical states of space about which we have had no conception.” 

JJS, commenting on this exemplary scene, continues, 

I challenge one conventional notion of modernity and suggest that we should be less surprised than we usually are to find scientists of all stripes keeping company with magicians; that reason does not eliminate “superstition” but piggybacks upon it; that mechanism often produces vitalism; and that often, in a single room, we can find both séance and science. The single most familiar story in the history of science is the tale of disenchantment — of magic’s exit from the henceforth law-governed world. I am here to tell you that as broad cultural history, this narrative is wrong.

Now, JJS knows far more about all this than I do, so you should my quibbles with several large grains of salt, but the story of the Curies looks different to me than it does to JJS. It seems to me that the Curies — and many like them — seek to bring the manifestations of spiritualism within the disenchanted order, under the disciplinary control of what Bruno Latour calls the “modern constitution.” Thus Pierre Curie’s emphasis on observing Eusapia under “perfectly controlled conditions”: all supposedly paranormal phenomena must justify themselves at the bar of the scientific method, and if they do, then they are no longer paranormal — they’re just normal. And in that way we do see what JJS calls “extending the borders” of science, but not in a way that restores enchantment. Rather, the modern constitution, the methodological guarantee of disenchantment, remains in place. 

PSA: I’ll be traveling for the next week, so there probably won’t be any posts. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

quote tweets are the worst

Claire McNear, How Quote Tweets Helped Ruin Twitter:

When did things get so bad on Twitter? It’s hard to say, even as nostalgia for the network’s simpler, friendlier days permeates the site. Was it the runup to the 2016 election? The inevitable growth beyond the insidery club of Twitter’s earliest days? The mainstreaming of meme and troll culture? In reality, the shift in discourse from freewheeling internet lab to Room Where Everyone Screams At Everyone owes itself to many things: from the things above to the worldwide SAD plague and rickets hastened by a planet of laptop dens. But quote tweets—a nice, little feature on a nice, little site meant for us to do nice, little things—have had an outsize role in the nastiness…. 

The result is that the ugliest things on Twitter are frequently amplified. Unlike instances of ratio-ing, quote tweets beam the ugliness straight into followers’ feeds. The problem is especially insidious with Twitter’s true merchants of hate, who capitalize on just such a reaction: What more could an aspiring alt-right toad with 1,000 followers hope for than to be huffily fired into thousands upon thousands of additional feeds? 

One of the ways I’ve tried to make Twitter more manageable and less frustrating is by disabling most people’s retweets. But there’s no way, on Twitter.com or on any client I know of, to disable quote-tweets. So when people want not just to spread the bad word but comment on it, to explain why it’s bad or to mock the person who originally tweeted it — and this is far more common that simply retweeting objectionable material — there’s no way for me to avoid that

linking and the open web

Scripting News: The Internet is going the wrong way:

Click a link in a web browser, it should open a web page, not try to open an app which you may not have installed. This is what Apple does with podcasts and now news.# Facebook is taking the place of blogs, but doesn't permit linking, styles. Posts can't have titles or include podcasts. As a result these essential features are falling into disuse. We're returning to AOL. Linking, especially is essential. 

Google is forcing websites to change to support HTTPS. Sounds innocuous until you realize how many millions of historic domains won't make the switch. It's as if a library decided to burn all books written before 2000, say. The web has been used as an archival medium, it isn't up to a company to decide to change that, after the fact.

Medium, a blogging site, is gradually closing itself off to the world. People used it for years as the place-of-record. I objected when I saw them do this, because it was easy to foresee Medium pivoting, and they will pivot again. The final pivot will be when they go off the air entirely, as commercial blogging systems eventually do. 

Every major tech company — or at least every major tech company that deals in the online world — seems to think it needs to marginalize and deprecate the open web. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Infinity Bore

I’ve been mulling over The Avengers: Infinity War for the past few days, and I am ready to offer some evaluative comments.

On the plus side, Thanos is maybe the best villain the MCU has produced so far. And there was some witty banter.

On the minus side: everything else. This is the only Marvel movie I’ve seen that made me wish I could get my money back.

There are certain elementary rules of storytelling that no honest worker in the narrative arts would ever knowingly violate. Characters who are intelligent and thoughtful at one moment do not become moronic in the next. Characters who have certain abilities – to play the piano, say, or to emit powerful force fields from their hands – do not exhibit dramatic but unexplained alternations in those abilities from scene to scene. Characters with certain essential traits, traits which they pride themselves on – mercilessness, for instance – don’t occasionally and (again) for no reason exhibit the opposite traits. Characters who die by precisely the same (magical) means do not experience that death in dramatically different ways according to whether the writers want to squeeze out some extra pathos or not. Above all, no honest worker in the narrative arts would try to extract emotional impact from the deaths of characters whose inevitable resurrection in the next film is repeatedly gestured at with big broad winks.

This sheer incoherence of the movie almost put me to sleep. By the time I left the theater I had already forgotten most of what happened, because there was no meaningful sense in which it, you know, “happened.” Every movie has inconsistencies and plot holes, and this is especially true of superhero movies, we all know that; but at this point Marvel has simply stopped trying to tell stories that make sense. You’re just expected to move along from scene to scene, making the prescribed responses in the moment in complete disregard of whatever happened three minutes ago and what might happen two minutes later. But the MCU doesn’t care; why should we?

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Bleg: on account creation

MyScript has an iPad handwriting app called Nebo – I’ve been trying it out with the Apple Pencil, and it’s quite interesting. I especially like the way it allows you to create simple charts by hand and have them converted into neat images.

But if you want to backup/sync your notes to Dropbox or iCloud, you have to create a MyScript account. Now, I have many other iOS apps that connect to Dropbox and iCloud, and none of them require account creation in order to do so. So I wrote to MyScript to ask them why they require this, and they won’t answer. I got a reply, but it didn’t answer my question: someone just pasted in the policy that I am asking about.

So why do you think MyScript demands account creation for backup/sync? Is it simple that they want my email address so they can spam me with ads? Or could there be some additional reason?

(Also: remember blegs? Good times, good times.)

UPDATE: Just got another reply from MyScript: “This is a choice made to promote new features to registered users and because future updates will require registration, but I cannot communicate more on this subject at the moment.” Which confirms the spam-me-with-ads assumption but also suggests that there will be pricing tiers for the app in the future. But that can be done without making people create an account. So spam it is?

on the myth of disenchantment

I just wrapped up my course on The History of Disenchantment and one of the interesting elements of the class – well, interesting to me, anyway, but I think also to most of my students – involved the ways that Jason Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment challenges the big narrative of Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Taylor’s argument, radically condensed, is that the early modern era in the West inaugurated the construction of the Modern Moral Order: an order in which (a) spirits do not populate the world and therefore cannot be directed and need not be propitiated; (b) magic is impossible; (c) God exists but is not directly involved with the world He made, which runs along on its own power; and (d) God expects everyone to meet His moral standards. In such an environment, which is not created all at once but over a period of centuries, human beings are no longer “porous” but rather “buffered” selves who dwell within a “disciplinary society” that produces good citizens of a disenchanted order.

From this account – which is of course, in its large outlines, not unique to Taylor, though he adds some unique elements – Josephson-Storm (hereafter JJS) dissents.

The single most familiar story in the history of science is the tale of disenchantment — of magic’s exit from the henceforth law-governed world. I am here to tell you that as broad cultural history, this narrative is wrong. Attempts to suppress magic have historically failed more often than they’ve succeeded. It is unclear to me that science necessarily deanimates nature. In fact, I will argue à la Bruno Latour that we have never been disenchanted.

JJS believes, rather, that secularization, far from extinguishing enchantment, promotes and encourages and in a sense creates it. Even when the Christian God is excluded from socially acceptable belief, spirits come to take His place. Thus, “In the face of things like [Marie] Curie’s scientific séances, spiritualist revivals, and the modern resurgence of magical orders like the Golden Dawn, how did we get the idea that modernity meant disenchantment in the first place?” The Myth of Disenchantment is a fascinating and illuminating book, but I’m not sure that it successfully makes its case; I think Taylor’s argument largely survives JJS’s critique.

The first point I want to note in this context is that JJS makes a subtle and unacknowledged but important shift in the terms of his argument. Early in the book he cites a series of studies that show the persistence of beliefs in spirits, ghosts, and a wide range of paranormal phenomena. This lays the groundwork for his claim that “we have never been disenchanted.” But then the rest of the book focuses exclusively on intellectuals: philosophers, physicists, historians, social scientists, plus the odd quasi-intellectual like Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley.

One consequence of this shift of attention is that it allows JJS to ignore enchantments or re-enchantments that had no popularity among intellectuals: thus the Order of the Golden Dawn gets discussed but not Pentecostalism, which is by any sociological measure infinitely more important and influential than the Golden Dawn. More generally, the whole vast history of Christian (and for that matter Jewish) renewal movements over the past four hundred years plays no role here. It seems to me that JJS ought at least to tip his hat to them.

That said, such movements need play no major role in his story, because that story is not about Everyone, but rather primarily about those figures — from Bacon and Descartes to Madame Curie and Theodor Adorno — who are thought to be representatives of a disenchanted cosmos, or who thought themselves to be, or both. That is, the story JJS tells is of enchantment and re-enchantment appearing where they are least expected. And he tells it well.

But even so, not wholly convincingly. I do not have time or leisure to develop this argument at the length it deserves, but it seems to me that what we see in episodes like Madame Curie’s interest in séances, or Max Müller’s endorsement of mysticism, or James Frazer’s speculations about some realm of knowledge that lies beyond science as we now know it, is not the persistence of an enchanted cosmos or the renewal of one. Rather, I think what we see is a group of people dwelling day-by-day and hour-by-hour fully within Taylor’s MMO who occasionally peer over the fence at goings-on among the naive, credulous, and superstitious.

The spirit, I think, is at its strongest the “wishing it might be so” of Hardy’s “The Oxen,”, and more often appears as a kind of brief mental vacation from a disenchanted world of buffered selves, from Weber’s “iron cage of rationality” — the sort of impulse that made Darwin so delighted by sentimental novels:

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

One might also cite the great affection of so many hard-core materialists for fantasy and superhero stories. In contrast to JJS, I would contend that this kind of thing does not mean that “we have never been disenchanted,” but that we have, and sometimes we hate it.

(There is so much more to be said about this fascinating book, to which I have scarcely done justice here — maybe I can return to it later.)

Monday, May 7, 2018

technologies we don’t have an artistic language for (yet)

The super-cool Robin Sloan has a super-cool newsletter – only occasional, alas, but Robin has many irons in the fire these days. He even makes olive oil. But anyway, in the most recent edition of the newsletter, he makes in passing a fascinating point:

There's something happening in fiction now, and to a degree in film and TV too: the time in which stories are set is scootching back, with writers fleeing to the safety of 1994 or 1987 or much earlier. Why? Because we didn't have smart phones then. We didn't have social media. The world didn't have this shimmering overlay of internet which is, in a very practical way, hard to write about. Writers of novels and teleplays have well-developed tools for the depiction of drama in real space. Drama that plays out through our little pocket-sized screens is just as rich – but how do we show it? We're now seeing film and TV figure this out in real-time. Novels have been (oddly?) less successful. Because digital action relies on so many Brands™, it feels risky and/or distasteful to send your narrative too deep into that realm. Who wants to be the person who called it wrong and wrote the Great MySpace Novel? (Actually, the Great MySpace Novel would be amazing. But see, that's not now anymore! MySpace has stabilized into historical artifact. We can look at it; describe it; maybe even understand it. That's not the case with the systems we're using right now. We're lost inside of them.)

Remember the first episode of Sherlock? Came out eight – yes, eight – years ago, and one of the most-discussed elements of the first episode was its use of texting. Sherlock texted and received texts all the time, and the content of those texts was regularly displayed our TV screens. For a thoughtful take on how the series did this, see this video essay on “Visual Writing in Sherlock” – visual writing that is by no means confined to the display of texting. I believe there's general agreement that the makers of the series not only got this right but also used it to great dramatic, and sometimes comic, effect.

I don't want to take Robin's point too far, but I'm taken by the suggestion that a particular technology only becomes available for artistic representation when artists and audience are not “lost inside of it.” In this context it might be worth noting that Sherlock's representation of texting happened right after the first widespread availability of smartphones, and therefore right after people began regularly interacting with the phones in non-textual ways (especially through photos and video). Sherlock's representation of visual writing is, then, what BlackBerry use looks like when you have an iPhone.

You know what else appeared in 2010? The Social Network – a movie about Facebook that showed up just when people were dismissing Facebook as uncool and turning instead to Twitter – and then to Instagram (which was also released in 2010, though it didn't become huge right away).

One more artifact from that same year: Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story, much of which is told through emails.

So: what technologies are going to dominate the books and movies and TV shows of 2020?

Auden and Poggioli

This lovely remembrance by Sylvia Poggioli of her father, the literary scholar Renato Poggioli, features a letter to her father from W. H. Auden, and the handwritten poem he submitted for publication in the journal Professor Poggioli edited, Inventario. Sylvia Poggioli speaks of her discovery as “a true literary find,” but the letter might be better described as a biographical find, since the poem itself has not been unknown: it’s duly recorded in Bloomfield and Mendelson’s W. H. Auden: A Bibliography, 1924-1969 (1972).

Also, it’s not quite right to say, as Poggioli does, that "Auden later included these verses in a much longer piece, perhaps one of the most powerful poems of the mid-twentieth century, The Age of Anxiety”: he had already written the stanzas as part of The Age of Anxiety and was simply excerpting them for Poggioli’s journal, something he did with several other chunks of that longest of his poems. Auden truthfully told Renato Poggioli that it was an “unpublished poem,” but it would be published, along with the rest of The Age of Anxiety, just a few months later.

The thought that first comes to my mind when looking at the above image is the devout wish that Auden had always taken so much care to make his handwriting legible. Alas for my eyes, which have spent so many hours poring over his notebooks, he did not.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

the Multigraph Collective and new avenues of humanistic scholarship

Allison Miller tells The Story of the Multigraph Collective, an academic group project that eventuated in a book called Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation. I very much want to read the book, but for those interested in the economics of labor in the academy and its effects on scholarship, this part of Miller’s account is especially interesting:  

Being edited by so many other scholars, according to Paul Keen (Carleton Univ.), was unnerving but also “weirdly liberating. It gave us all a license to put our authorial sensitivities on hold and put our faith in this larger brainstorming process.”

Indeed, [Andrew] Piper too describes the endeavor as a “leap of faith,” since no one knew how the final work would be received by tenure and promotion committees or by UK Research Excellence Framework evaluators. One Multigraph Collective member, says Piper, was told that since there were 22 collaborators, the member’s work on Interacting with Print would count as 1/22 of a book—by word count, not even the equivalent of a journal article.

In the thick of it all, however, the process was thrilling. Hierarchies of academic rank and disciplinary territoriality dissolved in a shared commitment to the work. “This project fundamentally changed my ideas about what humanities scholarship could look like and what it could achieve,” says Porter. 

The whole situation is a reminder of the absurdity of the current tenure system, with its crude quantitative pseudo-metrics for assessing “productivity” — but also of the power of tenure. Those of us who have it need to be engaged in projects like Interacting with Print — projects that reconfigure and extend the character of humanistic scholarship (sometimes by renewing older scholarly modes). I’m displeased with myself for not doing more along these lines. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

the garden and the stream

I just came across this fascinating 2015 talk by Mike Caulfield and want to call attention to a couple of elements of it. 

1) the garden/stream distinction: 

The Garden is the web as topology. The web as space. It’s the integrative web, the iterative web, the web as an arrangement and rearrangement of things to one another.

Things in the Garden don’t collapse to a single set of relations or canonical sequence, and that’s part of what we mean when we say “the web as topology” or the “web as space”. Every walk through the garden creates new paths, new meanings, and when we add things to the garden we add them in a way that allows many future, unpredicted relationships….

In the stream metaphor you don’t experience the Stream by walking around it and looking at it, or following it to its end. You jump in and let it flow past. You feel the force of it hit you as things float by.

It’s not that you are passive in the Stream. You can be active. But your actions in there — your blog posts, @ mentions, forum comments — exist in a context that is collapsed down to a simple timeline of events that together form a narrative.

In other words, the Stream replaces topology with serialization. Rather than imagine a timeless world of connection and multiple paths, the Stream presents us with a single, time ordered path with our experience (and only our experience) at the center.

2) The difference between the Memex and the World Wide Web: 

So most people say this is the original vision of the web. And certainly it was the inspiration of those pioneers of hypertext.

But in reality it doesn’t predict the web at all. Not at all. The web works very little like this. It’s weird, because in our minds the web still works like this, but it’s a fiction.

Let’s look at some of the attributes of the memex.

Your machine is a library not a publication device. You have copies of documents is there that you control directly, that you can annotate, change, add links to, summarize, and this is because the memex is a tool to think with, not a tool to publish with.

And this is crucial to our talk here, because these abilities – to link, annotate, change, summarize, copy, and share — these are the verbs of gardening.

Each memex library contains your original materials and the materials of others. There’s no read-only version of the memex, because that would be silly. Anything you read you can link and annotate. Not reply to, mind you. Change. This will be important later.

Links are associative. This is a huge deal. Links are there not only as a quick way to get to source material. They aren’t a way to say, hey here’s the interesting thing of the day. They remind you of the questions you need to ask, of the connections that aren’t immediately evident.

Links are made by readers as well as writers. A stunning thing that we forget, but the link here is not part of the author’s intent, but of the reader’s analysis. The majority of links in the memex are made by readers, not writers. On the world wide web of course, only an author gets to determine links. And links inside the document say that there can only be one set of associations for the document, at least going forward.

“A tool to think with, not a tool to publish with” — this seems to me essential. I feel that I spend a lot of time trying to think with tools meant for publishing. 

is user interface design getting worse?

Hey everybody, sorry for the radio silence — I’ve been traveling, and will be traveling again soon, so I can't promise regular posting for a while. But I’m hoping to get a few thoughts up here, starting with this: 

I've read two recent posts about computer interface design that really have me thinking. The first is this reflection by Riccardo Mori about using a first-generation iPad. Mori discovers that that original Apple tablet, despite its significant limitations in processing power in comparison to today's machines, still works remarkably well. But he also, and this is the really interesting part, decides that some of the design choices made eight years ago (the first iPad came out in 2010) are actually superior to the ones being made today. This is true to a minor degree even with regard to the hardware — Mori finds the iPad 1 more pleasurable to hold than some later models, despite its greater weight and thickness — but he thinks that the design language of iOS 5, the last version of iOS that the original iPad can use, is in certain respects simply superior to the new language introduced in iOS 7 and largely persisting, though with some modifications, today.

when it comes to visuals it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste, but one thing iOS’s user interface possessed before iOS 7’s flattening treatment was consistence and more robust, coherent, stricter interface guidelines. Guidelines that were followed by third-party developers more closely, and the result was that under iOS 6 and earlier versions, third-party apps presented a user interface that was cleaner, more predictable, easier to navigate than what came afterwards, update after update. After iOS’s UI got flatter, when it came to designing apps, things got out of hand, in an ‘anything goes’ fashion.

There are apps today with poor discoverability, ambiguous controls, UI elements whose state or function isn’t immediately clear — i.e. you cannot tell whether they’re tappable or not simply by looking at them; whereas before iOS 7, a button looked like a button right away, and you didn’t have to explore an app by tapping blindly here and there. Spotify is the first example coming to mind: its early iOS and Mac clients were more usable and had a better interface.

Concluding this section of his posts, Mori writes:

During my trip down Interface Memory Lane these days with the iPad 1, I’ve stumbled on many other cases, and the result was always more or less the same: I found the old version of an app to have a more usable interface and a clearer interface language than its current counterpart. Despite all the pre-iOS 7 skeuomorphism, for many app interfaces of that time design was truly ‘how it works’. Today, more and more often (and it’s not only with iOS) I see examples where design is simply ‘how it looks’; attractive apps, but with ambiguous interface controls, poorly-designed UI architecture, and sometimes even with little to no accessibility, disregarding users with disabilities.

The second post is by Mark Wilson, who found himself using version 7 of the original Macintosh OS, issues way back in 1991 — and loving it. "Using an old Mac is pure zen." Now, Wilson doesn't suggest that that old interface could simply be implemented today; we ask too much of our computing devices today, and too many kinds of "much."

But I do believe that the old Mac makes for a timely reminder that the digital age hasn’t always felt so frantic, or urgent, or overwhelming. And maybe, even if an old Mac interface isn’t the solution, we can view it as a subtle north star for its sensibilities, and how much it was able to accomplish with so little.

Few interface designers are indifferent to the needs of the user, but I can't imagine that there are many for whom that is the first consideration. One way designers keep their jobs is by producing new designs, and in a corporate setting (like that of Apple) novelty helps get customers to update their hardware and software alike. And what kind of designer wouldn't want the challenge of making the best use of increased processing power or display resolution?

So I don't expect the desires and needs or users to be at the top of any designer's priority list. But Lordy, how I wish it were a little higher than it is. Then perhaps the best elements of the work of earlier designers, people working under far greater constraints, could be recovered and redeployed. Because, as I never tire of saying, creativity arises from constraint and resistance. And it’s not clear to me that, from the user’s perspective, UI design for computing devices hasn’t been getting worse and worse for the past few years — with Apple leading the way in this sad category. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

reasons for decline

Alex Reid

From a national perspective, the number of people earning communications degrees (which was negligible in the heyday of English majors 50-60 years ago), surpassed the number getting English degrees around 20 years ago. Since then Communications has held a fairly steady share of graduates as the college population grew, while English has lost its share and in recent years even shrank in total number, as this NCES table records. In short, students voted with their feet and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in the curricular experience English has to offer (i.e. read books, talk about books, write essays about books). 

Scott Alexander

Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.

And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” 

So maybe — just maybe — it’s not "read books, talk about books, write essays about books” that’s the problem. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"not to waver with the wavering hours"

I've just been teaching Horace's Epistles, and it strikes me that Horace ought to be the man of our social-media moment — the man who shows us another and better way.

In the first of those Epistles, Horace writes to his patron Maecenas — the one who bought him his Sabine farm that allows him to escape the noise and frenetic activity of Rome — to describe what he’s up to:

… my ambition to advance myself
In the sort of project that, if carried out
Successfully, is good for anyone,
Whether rich or poor, and its failure is bound to be
Harmful to anyone, whether he’s young or old. 

This “project” is, he says, to “devote myself entirely to the study / Of what is genuine and right for me, / Storing up what I learn for the sake of the future.” (I am quoting from David Ferry’s wonderful translation.) He needs to be on his farm to pursue this project, because life in the city, with its constant stimulation, creates too much agitation. And as he writes to another friend, Julius Florus (I.3), “if you’re able to learn to do without / Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow / The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.”

Later (I.18) he exhorts Lollius Maximus to “interrogate the writings of the wise,”

Asking them to tell you how you can
Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.
Will it be greed, that always feels poverty-stricken,
That harasses and torments you all your days?
Will it be hope and fear about trivial things,
In anxious alternation in your mind?
Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
Or is it a gift from Nature that can’t be learned?
What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
What brings tranquility? What makes you care less?
Honor? Or money? Or living your life unnoticed?
Whenever I drink from the cold refreshing waters
Of the little brook Digentia, down below
Our local hill town, what do you think I pray for?
“May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I’m self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me for another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.” 

The “wavering hours” waver because they’re charged with the nervous energy that comes from a too-busy life, a life of agitation and anxiety. As a youth Horace studied philosophy in Athens, and there he would have learned about the inestimable value of ataraxia — a peaceable and tranquil spirit. Because if you don’t have that, then you become a victim of your circumstances — and, especially in our time, a victim of propaganda.

Reading old books is a very valuable thing, because it takes you out of the maelstrom of “current events”; and it’s especially valuable to read old books like those by Horace because they will tell you quite directly how vital it is for you to learn this lesson.

Monday, April 16, 2018

propaganda and social media

Reading Ellul on the massive and pervasive consequences of propaganda in the twentieth century, I found myself over and over again thinking: This is how social media work on us. For instance, that passage I quoted in my earlier post — "to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today's events his life by obliterating yesterday's news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented” — seems even more true as a description of the person constantly on Twitter and Facebook. Many other passages gave me the same feeling:

Man, eager for self-justification, throws himself in the direction of a propaganda that justifies him and this eliminates one of the sources of his anxiety. Propaganda dissolves contradictions and restores to man a unitary world in which the demands are in accord with the facts…. For all these reasons contenporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it; in fact, he almost instigates it. (159, 160) 

Or this:

Propaganda is concerned with the most pressing and at the same time the most elementary actuality. It proposes immediate action of the most ordinary kind. It thus plunges the individual into the most immediate present, taking from him all mastery of his life and all sense of the duration or continuity of any action or thought. Thus the propagandee becomes a man without a past and without a future, a man who receives from propaganda his portion of thought and action for the day; his discontinuous personality must be given continuity from the outside, and thus makes the need for propaganda very strong. (187) 

Thus the very common type of Twitter user who expresses himself or herself almost completely in hashtags: pre-established units of affiliation and exclusion.

And yet — Russian bots and political operatives (who have turned themselves into bots) aside — social media lack the planned purposefulness intrinsic to propaganda. So they must be a different kind of thing, yes?

Yes and no. I think what social media produce is emergent propaganda — propaganda that is not directed in any specific and conscious sense by anyone but rather emerges, arises, from vast masses of people who have been catechized within and by the same power-knowledge regime. Think also about the idea I got from an Adam Roberts novel: the hivemind singularity. Conscious, intentional propaganda is so twentieth century. The principalities and powers are far more sophisticated now. I’ll be thinking more about this.

"a revisionist blizzard of alternative theories"

Tim Adams on the media in Putin’s Russia:

In this culture war, disinformation was critical. Russian TV and social media would create a climate in which news became entertainment, and nothing would quite seem factual. This surreal shift is well documented, but Snyder’s forensic examination of, for example, the news cycle that followed the shooting down of flight MH17 makes essential reading. On the first day official propaganda suggested that the Russian missile attack on the Malaysian plane had in fact been a bodged attempt by Ukrainian forces to assassinate Putin himself; by day two, Russian TV was promoting the idea that the CIA had sent a ghost plane filled with corpses overhead to provoke Russian forces.

The more outrageous the official lie was, the more it allowed people to demonstrate their faith in the Kremlin. Putin made, Snyder argues, his direct assault on “western” factuality a source of national pride. Snyder calls this policy “implausible deniability”; you hear it in the tone of the current “debate” around the Salisbury attack: Russian power is displayed in a relativist blizzard of alternative theories, delivered in a vaguely absurdist spirit, as if no truth on earth is really provable.

Social-media propaganda directed at Americans works the same way: in contrast to earlier forms of propaganda, which sought to arouse people to action by alerting them to new and previously unseen truths, this kind of propaganda is meant to be soporific: it seeks to make people indifferent to what’s true, incurious, and accepting of whatever addresses the emotions to which they are most fully enslaved.

Long ago William Golding wrote a witty little essay called “Thinking as a Hobby” in which he identifies three levels of thought. Grade-three thinking, “more properly, is feeling, rather than thought”; it is ”full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance, and hypocrisy.” Grade-two thinking — which Golding came to practice as an adolescent — “is the detection of contradictions.... Grade-two thinkers do not stampede easily, though often they fall into the other fault and lag behind. Grade-two thinking is a withdrawal, with eyes and ears open.” Grade-two thinking is shouting “FAKE NEWS” and asking people whether they always believe what they’re told by the lamestream media, or pulling out your ink pad and rubber stamp and stamping BIGOT or RACIST on people who don’t line up with you 100%. I would say that such behavior is not “lagging behind” so much as digging in your heels and refusing to move — which herds of animals do far more frequently than they stampede.

When grade-two thinking is challenged its perpetrator will typically fall back to grade-three, as David French discovered: ”The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: ’fake news’ and ’the other side is worse.’

I’m reminded of an encounter at my church. People know that I opposed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. They often ask what I think of the president’s performance. My standard response: I like some things, I dislike others, but I really wish he showed better character. I don’t want him to lie. I said this to a sweet older lady not long ago, and she responded — in all sincerity — “You mean Trump lies?” “Yes,” I replied. “All the time.” She didn’t answer with a defense. She didn’t say “fake news.” We’d known each other for years, and she trusted my words.

For a moment, she seemed troubled. I wanted to talk more — to say that we can appreciate and applaud the good things he does, but we can’t ignore his flaws, we can’t defend his sins, and we can’t let him define the future of the Republican Party. But just then, her jaw set. I saw a flare of defiance in her eyes. She took a sip of coffee, looked straight at me, and I knew exactly what was coming next: “Well, the Democrats are worse.”

Jacques Ellul argued half-a-century ago that the purpose of propaganda is to “provide immediate incentives to action.” But propaganda that encourages us to dig in our heels, or just drift with the social-media current, is propaganda all the same. What remains absolutely essential from Ellul’s book is his understanding that the person “embroiled in the conflicts of his time” (49) is most vulnerable to propaganda — and he could not have imagined a society so locked into the current instant as we denizens of Social Media World are. I’m going to close this post with a long quotation from Ellul that was incisive in relation to his own time but is devastatingly accurate about ours. I’ve put some especially important passages in bold; and I’d like you to notice how Ellul anticipates Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Here goes:

To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; be is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man's inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man's capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today's events his life by obliterating yesterday's news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.

This situation makes the "current-events man" a ready target for propaganda. Indeed, such a man is highly sensitive to the influence of present-day currents; lacking landmarks, he follows all currents. He is unstable because he runs after what happened today; he relates to the event, and therefore cannot resist any impulse coming from that event. Because he is immersed in current affairs, this man has a psychological weakness that puts him at the mercy of the propagandist. No confrontation ever occurs between the event and the truth; no relationship ever exists between the event and the person. Real information never concerns such a person. What could be more striking, more distressing, more decisive than the splitting of the atom, apart from the bomb itself? And yet this great development is kept in the background, behind the fleeting and spectacular result of some catastrophe or sports event because that is the superficial news the average man wants. Propaganda addresses itself to that man; like him, it can relate only to the most superficial aspect of a spectacular event, which alone can interest man and lead him to make a certain decision or adopt a certain attitude. (46-47)

Maybe I should blog a read-through of Propaganda.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Edmund Wilson on Marxism


I have just re-read, for the first time in decades, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station — which, it appears, NYRB Classics has allowed to go out of print, which is nearly a tragedy. It is a truly remarkable book — it is difficult to imagine anyone of our own time (least of all a journalist) handling ideas with such assurance and such verve, seeing in them the kind of drama that we typically associate with action heroes. The structure, the pacing, the style — all are superb. Perhaps the best thing about the book is how it centers itself on Karl Marx himself, bookended by predecessors (Proudhon, Robert Owen) and successors (Lenin, Trotsky). As a portrait of Marx it has not, to my knowledge, been equalled.

Wilson's Freudianism, though essentially wrong, is actually quite helpful to him in understanding the Marxists, because, as he rightly points out, the great deficiency of most Marxist analyses of society is their oversimplified picture of human motivation. There’s even a passage where Wilson seems to be anticipating the rise of modern behavioral psychology and especially the role it plays in understanding of economic behavior. ”Prices are the results of situations much more complex than any of these formulas, and complicated by psychological factors which economists seldom take into account.… Let us note the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx. It is the shortcoming of economists in general that each one understands as a rule only one or two human motivations; psychology and economics have never yet got together in such a way as really to supplement one another” (294, 295).

On the psychology of Marx himself Wilson is especially acute. After tracing Marx’s lifelong near-poverty, and his struggles to provide for his family, and his embarrassment when one of his daughters had to hire herself out as a governess, and his constant dependence on his friend Engels to keep the Marxes out of the poor house — Engels, who worked as a manager in a factory owned by his arch-capitalist father — Wilson writes:

Such is the trauma of which the anguish and the defiance reverberate through Das Kapital. To point it out is not to detract from the authority of Marx’s work. On the contrary, in history as in other fields of writing, the importance of a book depends, not merely on the breadth of the view and the amount of information that has gone into it, but on the depths from which it has been drawn. The great crucial books of human thought – outside what are called the exact sciences, and perhaps something of the sort is true even here – always render articulate the results of fundamental new experiences to which human beings have had to adjust to themselves. Das Kapital is such a book. Marx has found in his personal experience the key to the larger experience of society, and identifies himself with that society. His trauma reflects itself in Das Kapital as the trauma of mankind under industrialism; and only so sore and angry a spirit, so ill at ease in the world, could have recognized and seen into the causes of the wholesale mutilation of humanity, the grand collisions, the uncomprehended convulsions, to which that age of great profits was doomed. (311-312) 

That is an extraordinarily rich and provocative reflection.

One final point, only tangential to Wilson’s narrative: he is also very good on the ways in which a conviction that one is on “the right side of history” compromises one’s ethics:

History, then, is a being with a definite point of view in any given period. It has a morality which admits of no appeal and which decrees that the exterminators of the Commune shall be regarded as wrong forever. Knowing best – knowing, that is, that we are right – we may allow ourselves to exaggerate and simplify. At such a moment the Marxism of Marx himself — and how much more often and more widely in the case of his less scrupulous disciples — departs from the rigorous method proposed by “scientific socialism.” (283)

Yep. I see it every day.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

r beny

I think I first came across the music of Austin Cairns (AKA r beny) on Soundcloud, where he has a page you should check out, but he also posts some things just to YouTube, of which the piece above is a superb example. It has a quality that I especially prize in ambient music, which is that it rewards just as little or as much attention as you choose to give it. You can play this in the background as you work, but if you choose to focus on it there’s enough going on to fully occupy your musical neurons. (This cannot be said of much ambient music.) And there’s something oddly fascinating about watching his hands show up from time to time to make their delicate adjustments to the machine — it almost seems a living thing. 

And of course I really really want a Digitone now.