Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 27, 2017

people and algorithms, principalities and powers

In this interview, Jill Lepore comments,

To be fair, it’s difficult not to be susceptible to technological determinism. We measure the very moments of our lives by computer-driven clocks and calendars that we keep in our pockets. I get why people think this way. Still, it’s a pernicious fallacy. To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.

I like this point, largely because I’ve made it myself — browsing this tag will give you some examples. But to say this is not to say that those humans are simply free agents, self-determining actors. It’s not as though Mark Zuckerberg is holed up here:



Zuck’s model of Facebook controlli — um, healing the world is one you should be enormously skeptical of, for reasons Nick Carr explains quite eloquently here. But even if you think Zuck is as wicked Sauron or Voldemort — which I don't, by the way; I think he's as well-meaning as his core assumptions allow him to be — he isn’t Sauron or Voldemort, not structurally speaking. When the Ring of Power is unmade, Sauron’s “slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired.” When Voledmort is killed, the Death Eaters slink away, fearful and powerless. But if any of the Captains of Technological Industry were to undergo some kind of moral conversion and walk away from their posts ... nothing would change.

We have to keep insisting that algorithms are written by people for specific purposes in order to refute the simplistic and dangerous idea that algorithms are neutral and true and SCIENCE. But those people who write the algorithms, and those people who instruct others to write those algorithms, are implicated in the power-knowledge regime or Domination System or governmentality that I described in my previous post. The really vital long-term task is understanding how those structures work so that they may be both resisted and redeemed.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

principalities, powers, and the technical boy

I have a suspicion that my earlier posts on idolatry — one and two — bear a significant relation to the recommendation of Pynchon’s spectral Walter Rathenau that we should simultaneously reject “secular history” and “look into the technology of these matters.” But explaining the connection won’t be easy. I’m going to take a first shot at it in this post. Also, this will be kinda weird.


One: Gods

One of the oft-noted peculiarities of the biblical depictions of “false gods” or “idols” is their ambiguous ontological status. As Gerald McDermott points out,

The idea that there are other “gods” who exist as real supernatural beings, albeit infinitely inferior to the only Creator and Redeemer, pervades the Bible. The Psalms fairly explode with evidence. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (86:8); “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (96:4); “Our Lord is above all gods” (135:5); “Ascribe to Yahweh, [you] gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (29:1, my trans.); “He is exalted above all gods” (97:7); “For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods” (95:3, my trans.). And so on.

And yet we also hear, immediately after the passage from Psalm 96 that McDermott quotes, that “all the gods of the nations are idols; but the Lord made the heavens.” Taken out of the context that McDermott provides, this passage would seem to be saying that the gods worshipped by the nations do not exist, are made up, are nothing but pieces of carved wood or stone. But within that context we can see that they exist indeed, and have power — but power derived wholly from the one God who made the heavens.

The key to this puzzle is the extraordinary account of a cosmic council in Psalm 82:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

As Walter Wink points out in his groundbreaking book Naming the Powers — on which I rely pretty heavily, though not uncritically — there is fairly strong evidence in canonical and extracanonical books for an Israelite (and, later, Christian) belief in “angels of the nations”: angels charged with the stewardship of nations, some of whom executed that stewardship faithfully, but others of whom rebelled, seeking not stewardship but absolute rule. Thus the strong ancient tradition that Lucifer is the Angel of Rome: it is in the corruption of this role that he becomes the “ruler of this world” — the archōn tou kosmou — and the “god of this age” — the theos tou aiōnos.

(This same model of delegated authority appears at a higher level in the medieval notion of Intelligences, the governing or guardian angels of the planets who move them and thereby create the music of the spheres. This idea is, famously, central to C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, in which there is but one rebelling Intelligence, the “god of this world”: Satan there rules not just the nation of Rome but the whole planet, which alone is dark and silent and cut off from the cosmic light and music.)

The “divine council” of Psalm 82, then, narrates the decisive intervention of the One God to judge the lesser gods who have abandoned their duty and sought independent power — though, and this is surely important, the Lord does not pronounce judgment of death upon them for that rebellion as such, but rather for their “partiality to the wicked” and indifference to “the right of the lowly and the destitute.” The vision is of course an eschatological one: an event certain to occur but not yet in “this age” — in what Paul calls “this present darkness”: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers [archas], against the authorities, against the cosmic powers [kosmokratoras] of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The cosmocrats have not yet been deposed, though their ultimate ruin is sure.


Two: Ancient Unities

One of the recurrent themes in the work of that oddball genius Owen Barfield is his emphasis on linguistic — and phenomenological, and ontological — unities that have now suffered severance and consequent diminishment. So, for instance, in his first book, Poetic Diction, he notes the curious fact that in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alike the same words (respectively, ruach, pneuma, and spiritus) seem to us to mean, in different contexts, breath, wind, or spirit. But Barfield thinks we have that wrong.

We must, therefore, imagine a time when spiritus or pneuma, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified – and no doubt into others also, for which separate words had already been found by Greek and Roman times.

Not “all three of these things” because that formulation presumes distinctions that, Barfield believes, were simply not present in the minds of those who spoke ruach, or pneuma, or spiritus: those words signified something that we are tempted to call “unified,” but even that presumes that there are separate meanings to be brought together. It is in an attempt to avoid this implication that Barfield writes so vaguely of “their own old peculiar meaning.”

I mention all this because it is, I think, immensely relevant to a discussion of those biblical “principalities and powers” (archai kai exousiai). In his preface to Naming the Powers, Wink writes quite openly about how he wanted to read such passages in the Bible: “The three volumes comprising this study are themselves the record of my own pilgrimage away from a rather naive assurance that the ‘principalities and powers’ mentioned in the New Testament could be ‘demythologized,’ that is, rendered without remainder into the categories of modem sociology, depth psychology, and general systems theory. The Powers, I thought, could be understood as institutions, social systems, and political structures.” And indeed, “Much of that proved true. But always there was this remainder, something that would not reduce to physical structures — something invisible, immaterial, spiritual, and very, very real.” And only gradually did Wink come to realize that when he asked whether, in any given case, words like archai referred to human rulers or angelic/demonic beings, that was simply the wrong question: “These Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural.” One might even say, by analogy to Barfield’s analysis, that Wink’s pairings here, while perhaps necessary for the modern reader, are intrinsically deceptive, presuming the existence of distinctions that only “crystallized” later on.

Let me pause for a brief note here on a very important point which I will have to develop more fully later: Wink demonstrates, compellingly I think, that the Powers were made by God and granted stewardly authority by him and are therefore, like the rest of Creation, in need of redemption. In Colossians 1:16 we are told that in the Son “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him”; and in Ephesians 3 that Paul’s appointed task is “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities [again, the archai kai exousiai] in the heavenly places.”

Wink’s later treatment of these matters, in his book Powers That Be, emphasizes that the biblical language of “principalities and powers” limns what he calls the Domination System, which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much identical to Michel Foucault’s much more famous notion of the “power-knowledge regime”: a regime in which power is diffused with infinite subtlety, concentrated in no identifiable place — rather like the Hermetic notion of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. (Surely someone has made that analogy before?) The Powers are not God, cannot be God, but in our experience are like God in that they just omnipresently are: as Bob Marley taught us, it’s a matter of “spiritual wickedness in high and low places.”


Three: New Gods

The relevance of all this to an Anthropocene theology might become a little clearer by a look at Nail Gaiman’s American Gods. What follows is pilfered with few small changes from an essay of mine.

At one point in the story Shadow, the novel’s protagonist, is watching TV in a hotel room when Lucy (the truly archetypal figures are always mononymic) begins to speak directly to him:

“I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”...

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

And Lucy seeks to win Shadow over, to bring him into the fold of her worshippers:

“We’re shopping malls — your friends are crappy roadside attractions. Hell, we’re online malls, while your friends are sitting by the side of the highway selling homegrown produce from a garden cart. No — they aren’t even fruit sellers. Buggy-whip vendors. Whalebone-corset repairers. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends aren’t even yesterday any more.”

But Shadow has heard this kind of rhetoric before, from a rather different figure of modern power, a pudgy young man in a black coat who had said to him, “You — you’re a fucking illuminated gothic black-letter manuscript. You couldn’t be hypertext if you tried. I’m ... I’m synaptic, while, while you’re synoptic.” Shadow, remembering, asks Lucy, “Did you ever meet a fat kid in a limo?”

She spread her hands and rolled her eyes comically, funny Lucy Ricardo washing her hands of a disaster. “The technical boy? You met the technical boy? Look, he’s a good kid. He’s one of us. He’s just not good with people he doesn’t know. When you’re working for us, you’ll see how amazing he is.”

Lucy’s words are confident, assured, but the existence of “the technical boy” serves to remind us that, among the New Gods, television is old stuff. Later we see the technical boy again. To the claim that a “mighty battle” between the Old and New Gods is coming he sneers, “It’s not going to be a battle.... All we’re facing here is a fucking paradigm shift. It’s a shakedown. Modalities like battle are so fucking Lao Tzu.” Lucy thinks the technical boy is on her side; it’s not clear that the respect is mutual.

More important, though, is a key difference between Lucy’s language and that of the technical boy. Lucy seeks to persuade, to win over; the technical boy has nothing but contempt for Shadow or indeed for anyone else who’s not already on board with the inevitable “paradigm shift.” The technical boy is a god who doesn’t need worshippers, because he’s confident that he can make all the puppets he needs.

These New Gods are the archai kai exousiai, the rulers of this world and this age. Romanitas can be just glimpsed way back there, through our rear-view mirrors; it’s on the far side of a paradigm shift; what late in his life Foucault called “governmentality,” the body of techniques by which persons and societies are rendered governable, is differently constituted now. The Powers have shifted their ground, and we can’t understand that unless and until we follow Walter Rathenau’s advice and “look into the technology of these matters.” If we follow Wink’s intuition that such “Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural,” we will understand precisely why Pynchon’s Rathenau can commend technological inquiry and simultaneously declare that “secular history is a diversionary tactic.”

In the long run the One True God will judge those Powers. But before that happens, it’s the task of the church to make known to them “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things ... the wisdom of God in its rich variety.”

I told you this would be kinda weird.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Tech-Wise Family

In his previous books — Culture Making, Playing God, and Strong and WeakAndy Crouch has shown a remarkable facility for translating theological and philosophical ideas into the language of Christian practice and action. I haven't mentioned this to him, but I suspect that when Andy confronts a new idea he asks himself, What would life look like if we acted on the belief that this idea is true?

So Andy is just the right person to give us his new book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (click the link above for more details). It’s really first-rate: unashamedly practical but buttressed by theological acuity and some really interesting research from the Barna Group on the technological habits of American families. Andy writes explicitly and straightforwardly as a Christian, and some of his arguments will, I expect, have greater force for Christians, but there’s a great deal of wisdom and sound advice here for every family who wants to make reasonable and health-giving decisions about their engagements with technology.

I’m pretty occupied right now by my Anthropocene Theology project, but don't be surprised if I have a post or two or three about Andy’s book later.

the Rathenau seance

The most distinctive element of Thomas Pynchon’s account of modernity, and the element that makes it so vital, is its uniting of theological and technological reflection. Though this truth is rarely acknowledged, a properly theological account of modernity will also be a technological account; a usefully technological one will also be theological. That Pynchon seeks the union of these two typically divergent perspectives made quite explicit in one of the most important scenes in Gravity’s Rainbow, a séance in which a group of Germans from “the corporate Nazi crowd,” makers of armaments, attempt to contact the spirit of Walter Rathenau, who had been Foreign Minister in the Weimar government until his assassination by a reactionary terrorist group, Organization Consul, in 1922.

There are certain obvious reasons why these people might want to hear from Rathenau. He had been “prophet and architect of the cartelized state. From what began as a tiny bureau at the War Office in Berlin, he had coordinated Germany’s economy during the World War, controlling supplies, quotas and prices, cutting across and demolishing the barriers of secrecy and property that separated firm from firm—a corporate Bismarck, before whose power no account book was too privileged, no agreement too clandestine.” But he was not merely a wielder of great power: “he was a philosopher with a vision of the postwar State. He saw the war in progress as a world revolution, out of which would rise neither Red communism nor an unhindered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority.” A philosopher, then, of a world in which government is subordinate to commerce, in which the titans of industry are the real power behind the throne: a Hegel of Taylorism.

So the interest of the corporate Nazis in Rathenau is easily explained. And yet there is something else: “Generaldirektor Smaragd and colleagues are not here to be told what even the masses believe. It might almost — if one were paranoid enough — seem to be a collaboration here, between both sides of the Wall, matter and spirit. What is it they know that the powerless do not? What terrible structure behind the appearances of diversity and enterprise?” An obscurely portentous question, one to reflect on.

The medium succeeds in reaching Rathenau, who speaks at some length and gives explicit instructions to the group. Near the end of their conversation, he sums up his appeal to them in an especially powerful and provocative way:

“These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules — it is they after all which dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers… .

“You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control? (167)

I am tempted to say that any theology adequate to the Anthropocene era will be an extended commentary on this passage.

What Rathenau says here seems to be self-contradictory. On the one hand he speaks dismissively of “secular history” as a “diversionary tactic”; but then he counsels these titans of industry to “look into the technology of these matters.” In our typical understanding, inquiry into technology, exploration of its power, simply is secular history: to account for events in the world by reference to technology is to assume — and here we employ Max Weber’s famous phrase — the disenchantment of the world.

But this is not how Rathenau sees it (or Pynchon either). If to “look into technology” — “even into the hearts of certain molecules,” molecules that have been created by scientists, as we shall later see — is a refusal of secular history, then the clear and troubling implication is that technology is not a set of disenchanted tools or instruments but rather what the Apostle Paul would call a Power: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It is not clear whether Rathenau thinks that this Power is one for his industrialists to struggle against — perhaps he rather wishes them to harness or cooperate with it — but it is clear that for him there is nothing “secular” about the Power that is technology. If Hegel wrote the Phänomenologie des Geistes, the spirit of Walter Rathenau is asking his listeners to write the Phänomenologie des technologischen Geistes — the phenomenology of technological Spirit.

At some point in the early 1960s, Pynchon wrote a letter to his former Cornell roommate Jules Siegel, which Siegel later published, noting that “Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend”:

When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, ‘Southern California’s special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.’ …

“The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn’t prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

“Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescenses, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn’t know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself.”

Pynchon’s fiction is devoted to inventorying the many ways in which "the world” abandons our souls, and the various forces it abandons them to. That body of work is primarily, and profoundly, diagnostic in character. It is not the novelist’s job, Pynchon seems to think, to prescribe a treatment, though he suggests a few, and suggests further that the motion of our lives may not be Brownian, that is, random, the product of mere entropy. It is at this pivot from diagnosis to prescription — this point of a great V — where Pynchon’s fiction intersects with Christian theology.

Monday, April 24, 2017

idolatry revisited

Frederick Buechner’s novel Son of Laughter has a passage I think about often, a beautiful passage about idols and idolatry. Before you read it you should be aware that the novel, which is about Jacob the Patriarch, refers to God not as God, or the Lord, or YHWH, or even HaShem, but as the Fear. That said, here goes — and read it slowly, preferably aloud:

The unclean blood no longer clung to our hands, but the small gods clung still to our hearts. They clung with silver fingers, with fingerless hands of wood and baked clay. Like rats, the gods gibbered in our hearts about the rich gifts they have for giving to us. The gods give rain. The swelling udder they give and the sweet fig, the plump ear of grain, the ooze of oil. They give sons. To Laban they gave cunning. They give their names as the Fear, at the Jabbok, refused me his when I asked it, and a god named is a god summoned. The Fear comes when he comes. It is the Fear who summons. The gods give in return for your gifts to them: the strangled dove, the burnt ox, the first fruit. There are those who give them their firstborn even, the child bound to the altar for knifing as Abraham bound Isaac till the Fear of his mercy bade the urine-soaked old man unbind him. The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted, as to me from the stone stair he gave promise and blessing, and gave them also to Isaac before me, to Abraham before Isaac, all of us wanderers only, herdsmen and planters moving with the seasons as gales of dry sand move with the wind. In return it is only the heart's trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless.

These were the days of workshop-idolatry, idol-making on a human scale, idols at retail rather than wholesale. The idols, once made, stayed with us; indeed, this very passage is a kind of midrash on Rachel’s decision, when she and her husband Jacob flee her father Laban, to take the household gods with her. They are too precious, too comforting, too well-known to be left behind. We know every line in the carved hands, which the caressing of our hands has worn smooth.

But when we have access to what I have called “the universal idol-fabricating device,” then each particular idol becomes temporary, dispensable — it is the fabrica itself, the forge or workshop, that becomes the true object of our veneration. The idol-maker has become the idol. Thus my comment on that previous post: “I do think, though, that it's interesting to consider the difference between idols made by hand (as it were arithmetically) and those made by an endlessly iterated algorithmic process. The former we may be more attached to, but we can't exchange them easily for others; the latter can't earn our complete adoration, but they don't have to because there are always new ones being extruded from the pipeline. We are serial idolaters.” And yet consistently faithful to the devices that generate and transmit the temporary idols.

This is not a religious argument in the sense that my categories are relevant only to people who believe in a true God the proper worship of whom is co-opted by idolatry. People who don't believe in any god at all may be equally concerned when human beings worship what other human beings have made. That digital technologies can produce convincing, or at least adequate, simulacra of the transcendent should be a source of concern to the religious and nonreligious alike, though not always for the same reasons.

Friday, April 21, 2017

the factory of idols

Herewith a kind of thought experiment:

In a well-known passage from the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes that “we may infer that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” (I.11.8). That’s the Beveridge translation — I’m not sure what more recent translations have, but that one has entered the English-language Calvinist lexicon, and it’s a very nice phrase: “a perpetual forge of idols.”

Here’s the Latin: Unde colligere licet, hominis ingenium perpetuam, ut ita loquar, esse idolorum fabricam. The word Beveridge translated as “forge” — a synecdoche for “the place where a blacksmith does his work” — is fabrica, which actually has a more general meaning: it’s a workshop. It’s a place where things are fabricated. The human mind is, then, a workshop that perpetually cranks out idols.

But of course the workshop is the standard site of production in a pre-Industrial Revolution economy. Things have changed since Calvin wrote of the idolorum fabricam; we’re not about cottage industries any more. Now that the powers of the human mind have been extended and amplified by the development of capitalism we have an idol factory — an increasingly efficient, Taylorite factory.

And if we continue this line of thought, we might ask what to make of the computer? The computer is, as Alan Turing theorized when he first imagined it, the universal machine; it is therefore the universal idol-fabricating device. And now that almost all of us have smartphones, everywhere we go we take our idolorum fabricam with us. The work of idol-making churns away ceaselessly in our pockets.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

listening, then transmitting

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

In a comment on an earlier post someone asked me how the work of David L. Schindler and Michael Hanby relates to my project on Anthropocene theology. It’s a good question, and I’m going to answer it here by painting with a pretty broad brush.

In works like this and this, Schindler and Hanby do something quite legitimate and often valuable: as Catholic theologians, they assume that Magisterial teaching and Holy Tradition are adequate to the interpretation of this moment, as they are to every moment, in human history; and they seek to discover and then communicate the ways that that is so.

There are other projects which do something similar, though perhaps in less theologically conservative ways: see, for instance, the essays in this excellent collection on transhumanism — a phenomenon related to but largely distinct from posthumanism. Speaking quite generally, we can say that these scholars share with Schindler and Hanby share an interest in finding out out what theology has to say to, and about, technological modernity.

My project is rather different in that I am going to try to listen to both the anxieties and the hopes of the Anthropocene world and allow them to speak back to theology. In this endeavor writers like Thomas Pynchon are actually more important than the self-proclaimed priests and prophets of a New Order — the Kevin Kellys and Ray Kurzweils — because they make elaborate contrapuntal compositions that capture much of the complexity of living within a world that feels both anthropocentric and (necessarily, I argue) posthuman.

Now, I wouldn't be doing this project if I didn't think that Christianity has something to say to the Anthropocene world. But precisely what it has to say is something I want to be patient about discovering. I need to be sure I can tune fairly precisely to those frequencies before I attempt to transmit messages along them.

Not incidentally, I consider it a very good omen that this long essay on Christianity and transhumanism appeared just as I was beginning these posts. I’ll have more to say about Meghan O'Gieblyn’s essay, but for now I’d just like to note that this is not the first example I’ve seen of a strangely smooth transition from an extremely conservative (essentially fundamentalist) religious context to some kind of post-condition — the locus classicus for this kind of thing is Michael Warner’s brilliant essay “Tongues Untied,” which concerns how Warner transitioned from a “teenage fundamentalist” to a “queer atheist intellectual” — which, it turns out, spolier alert, is not nearly as great a transition as others might think.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

weird beliefs and the hermeneutics of suspicion

This probably belongs on the blog for my How to Think, but since I haven’t started blogging there yet, I’ll just go ahead and put it here.

As I’ve said many times, Tim Burke is one of the bloggers — I guess blogging isn't wholly dead, it’s just mostly dead, like Westley when he’s taken to Miracle Max — who really helps me think, so it’s sad (if understandable) to hear his tone of discouragement here. “I don’t know what to do next, nor do I have any kind of clear insight about what may come of the moment we’re in.” Sounds like something I’ve thought myself.

But then he picks himself up and makes a useful contribution to a problem that a good many people are worrying over these days, which is why so many people believe so many things that aren’t true — or, to put the problem in one form that I’ve written about before, why so many people mistrust expert judgment. Tim:

First, let’s take the deranged fake stories about a pizza restaurant in Washington DC being a center of sex trafficking. What makes it possible to believe in obvious nonsense about this particular establishment? In short, this: that the last fifty years of global cultural life has revealed that public innocence and virtue are not infrequently a mask for sexual predation by powerful men. Bill Cosby. Jimmy Savile. Numerous Catholic priests. On and on the list goes. Add to that the fact that one form of feminist critique of Freud has long since been validated: that what Freud classed as hysteria or imagination was in many cases straightforward testimony by women about what went on within domestic life as well as within the workplace lives of women. Add to that the other sins that we now know economic and political power have concealed and forgiven: financial misdoings. Murder. Violence. We may argue about how much, how often, how many. We may argue about typicality and aberration. But whether you’re working at it from memorable anecdotal testimony or systematic inquiry, it’s easy to see how people who came to adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s all over the world might feel as if we live on after the fall, even if they know in their hearts that it was always thus…. The slippery slope here is this: that at some point, people come to accept that this is what all powerful men do, and that any powerful man – or perhaps even powerful woman – who professes innocence is lying. All accusations sound credible, all power comes pre-accused, because at some point, all the Cosbys and teachers at Choate Rosemary Hall and Catholic priests have made it plausible to see rape, assault, molestation everywhere.

Tim then gives other examples to illustrate his key point, which is, if I may summarize, that people who believe things that clearly aren’t true, that seem to us just crazy, actually may have good cause to adopt, if not those particular beliefs, then a habit of suspicion that leads to such beliefs. To which I’ll add an example of my own.

Recently I was listening to an episode of the BBC’s More or Less podcast which discussed what some researchers call the “backfire effect”: the tendency that most of us have to double down on our beliefs when they’re challenged or even simply refuted. (The most influential study is this one.) An example given in the podcast is the belief that vaccinations cause autism, and Tim Harford and his guests point out that when parents are shown there there is no link whatsoever between vaccination and autism, rather than agreeing to vaccinate their children they simply fall back on other reasons for refusing to vaccinate. Harford mentions that one such reason is the belief that vaccines are promoted by a medical profession in collusion with the big international pharmaceutical companies to sell us drugs we don't need — and then they move on without comment, as though they’ve clearly demonstrated just how irrational such people are.

But hang on a minute: isn't that a legitimate worry? Don't we actually have a good deal of evidence, over the past few decades, of unhealthy alliances between the medical profession and Big Pharma leading to some drugs being favored over others that might work better, or over non-drug treatment? And haven’t these controversies often focused on the exploitation of parents’ worries in order to overmedicate children — as with the likely overuse of Ritalin?

No, I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I’m a pro-vaxxer. And the anti-vaxxers are definitely making a logical error here, which is to generalize too broadly from particulars. But those parents who think “I suspect doctor-pharma collusion and so will decline to vaccinate, while also taking advantage of herd immunity” are not ipso facto any less rational than those who think “Doc says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

The key point here is that the hermeneutics of suspicion is not a train that you can stop, even if you wish you could; nor should it stop, given what Tim Burke points out: the horrifying record of abuse of power by people who wield it. But that train needs brakes to slow it down sometimes, and one of the key topics we all should be reflecting on is this: What could the leading institutions of American life do to renew trust in their basic integrity? As Tim suggests, there's no evidence that the Democratic Party — or for that matter any other major American institution — is giving any discernible attention to this question.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

more on the Anthropocene theology project

A few months ago, when I was doing my Big Pynchon Readthrough, I wrote to a couple of editors I knew and asked them whether they would be less inclined to accept a book about Pynchon if a significant amount of it had been drafted in public, on a blog. Both of them said yes, that it would be a tougher sell to their editorial boards if much of the book — or just the core ideas of the book, even if the presentation ended up being significantly revised for publication — was available for free online. That made sense to me, so I stopped writing about Pynchon here.

But, it turns out, I also stopped writing about him privately.

Though the Blog Era appears to be permanently over, there’s something about blogging that comports well with the workings of my brain. I’m not sure precisely what it is, but I think that blogging has, for me, just the right level of accountability. The awareness that at least a few people will be reading what I write keeps me from posting stuff I haven’t reflected on, or citing people’s ideas without tracking down the source and making sure I’m not imagining things; but, on the other side, the innate casualness of the medium means I don’t hesitate to try out ideas that may eventually come to nothing, which encourages intellectual risk-taking. And the general expectation that a blogger will post at least semi-regularly has a good disciplining effect on me too.

So while I understand the response my editor friends gave me, and might very well give the same advice if I were in their shoes, I’m going to blog my way through Anthropocene Theology (the tentative title of this book) anyway — because I’m not sure it will get written otherwise. And if in the end nobody will publish it I’ll do it myself. It’s not like I need any more peer-reviewed entries on my CV.

But I bet someone will publish it.

Anyway, that’s the plan: I’m gonna write that book, or at least a first draft of that book, right here on this blog. It won’t be the only thing I do here, but it’ll be the main thing. So, dear readers, I would be most grateful if you would not only read but comment: question my argument, suggest further reading, whatever — as long as it’s meant constructively I’ll be grateful for it.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Anthropocene theology

The Anthropocene: what until recently geologists had called the Holocene — the Recent Era — they are now increasingly coming to designate as the era of humanity, the era during which the very bones and breath of the earth are being disrupted, broken, and remade by human will.

And yet others tell us that the world we inhabit is posthuman: certain longstanding understandings of what it means to be human have ceased to be relevant, or in any case seem less accurately descriptive than they once did. A human world — our ancestors lived in that, along with their God or gods: we are beyond such a place now.

Ours; not-ours.

One could describe this disjunction simply as the difference between scientific and humanistic vocabularies, or between two objects of attention: the natural world and human experience: Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

Borrowing from and extending the work of Aristotle, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has described us as “dependent rational animals,” and for my purposes here the key word in that description is dependent: when we are no longer cognizant of anything or anyone on whom we are dependent we confidently and ceaselessly remake our world, and yet feel that by so doing we have ceased to be fully human. It is an exciting thought and yet also one that troubles our ease. We may sometimes suffer from a species-wide imposter syndrome. What Bonhoeffer famously called “humanity come of age” can be uneasy, wondering whether it might not still be a child who flourishes best under the governance of its Father. (Which is why our political and economic system is so profligate in its production of substitutes for what Auden called “our lost dad, / Our colossal father.”)

In is in light of this twofold reality — the fact of the Anthropocene and the perception of the posthuman condition — that theology in our time should be done.

To this claim there may be the immediate response, especially from orthodox Christians, that theology need not be different in this age than in any other, for human nature does not change: it remains true now as it has been since the angels with their flaming swords were posted at the gates of Eden that we are made in the image of God and yet have defaced that image, and that what theologians call “the Christ event” — the incarnation, preaching, healing, death, resurrection, ascension, and ultimate return of the second person of the Trinity — is the means by which that image will be restored and the wounds we have inflicted on the Creation healed. And indeed all that does, I believe, remain true. Yet it does not follow from such foundational salvation history that “theology need not be different in this age than any other.”

We may indeed believe in some universal human nature and nevertheless believe that certain frequencies on the human spectrum of possibility become more audible at times; indeed, the dominance of certain frequencies in one era can render others unheard, and only when that era passes and a new one replaces it may we realize that there were all along transmissions that we couldn’t hear because they were drowned out, overwhelmed. The moral and spiritual soundscape of the world is in constant flux, and calls forth, if we have ears to hear and a willingness to respond, new theological reflections that do not erase the truthfulness or even significance of former theological articulations but have a responsibility to add to them. In this sense at least there must be “development of doctrine.”

It is vital — if I may continue the aural metaphor — that we not allow ourselves, even through commendable adherence to Christian tradition, to become theological monodists. I borrow that term from W. H. Auden, who used it to describe Kierkegaard.

Given his extraordinary upbringing, it is hardly surprising that Kierkegaard should have become — not intellectually but in his sensibility — a Manichee. That is to say, though he would never have denied the orthodox doctrine that God created the world, and asserted that matter was created by an Evil Spirit, one does not feel in his writings the sense that, whatever sorrows and sufferings a man may have to endure, it is nevertheless a miraculous blessing to be alive. Like all heretics, conscious or unconscious, he is a monodist, who can hear with particular acuteness one theme in the New Testament — in his case, the theme of suffering and self-sacrifice — but is deaf to its rich polyphony.

It is noteworthy that Auden contrasts Kierkegaard, in this respect, to Bonhoeffer, whom I have already mentioned, and who managed even in a period of great suffering and inevitable anxiety to retain in his spirit and figure forth in his words the Christian’s reasons for comfort and impulse to rejoice. To read those letters from prison is indeed to gain an education in the polyphony of Christian teaching and the Christian way of life. What Bonhoeffer possessed to a nearly supernatural degree was the faculty of spiritual hearing: he was the best and acutest of listeners to the frequencies at which his cultural world was transmitting its messages.

I want to emulate him in this respect, as best I can. And over the past few weeks of silent reflection it has become clear to me that much of what I’ve been chewing on for the past couple of years — especially the theological history of modernity and the fiction of Thomas Pynchon — has been pointing me towards the need for a theological anthropology adequate to the Anthropocene. (With the Anthropocene, as explained above, understood to include the experience of the posthuman — I mean something more than the many approaches to a theology of the Anthropocene already out there, all of which, as far as I can tell, confine themselves to the responding theologically to what we are doing to the planet. Which matters, to say the least, and will be a big part of my story.) That is, those earlier inquiries fit my interests best not as stand-alone projects but as necessary elements of an Anthropocene theology; and Pynchon is one of the key thinkers whose frequency I need to tune into if I’m going to do this job properly.

More thoughts about all this in my next post.

Text Patterns is back from the dead!

I’m back and probably not any better than ever!

This post is a bit of a catch-all catch-up before I write a longer one explaining what I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks.

One. My next book, How to Think, will be appearing in October from Convergent Books here in the U.S. and Profile Books in the U.K. I’m very happy with both publishers, who seem genuinely to get what I’m trying to do — and to see the value of it.

Two. I have also effectively completed The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Intellectuals and Total War, but in order to avoid competition with How to Think, it’ll come out in 2018. The book had been contracted with Harvard University Press, but over the past few months it has gradually become clear to me that that wasn’t an editorial fit, so I have moved to Oxford University Press, where I will get the chance to work again with the excellent Cynthia Read, who edited my Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Three. I’ve got an essay in the new issue of National Affairs, “When Character No Longer Counts,” on Christians and the 2016 election.

Four. My friend Adam Roberts will be writing a biography of H. G. Wells — something I am very much looking forward to — and in preparation for that he is undertaking the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of reading all of Wells’s published work and blogging about it. That blog is here, and so far it's been really fascinating.

Five. Another dear friend, John Wilson, has a new endeavor in the works that will go public in the next couple of weeks. When it does, I’ll announce it here and on Twitter. One of the early posts will be my review of Jessica Riskin’s remarkable book The Restless Clock.

Six. Now, putting those previous two items together: I’ll also be writing for John about a wonderful little event I got to experience in London two weeks ago, featuring that Adam Roberts guy again moderating a conversation between Francis Spufford — who has a new novel about 18th-century New York — and Kim Stanley Robinson — who has a new novel about 22nd-century New York. Caroline Edwards of the University of London’s Birkbeck College wrote a nice report on the convo, if you’d like an overview. Adam began the conversation by asking a very provocative question about the relationship between the historical novel and science fiction — an appropriate inquiry indeed from someone whose most recent novel has scenes set in both the past and the future — and roughly the same periods covered by Spufford and Robinson. Much more about this anon.

Seven. In preparation for that event, and for writing about it, I not only re-read Golden Hill — which is simply marvelous — and read New York 2140 for the first time, I also went back and re-read Robinson’s novel Aurora, which I wasn’t crazy about when I first read it but was encouraged by Adam to re-think. My second reading has led me to wonder what in the world I was thinking the first time around. The book is superb, one of KSR’s very best, and I am very sorry that I didn't see that before.

Eight. I haven't yet been able to escape the clutches of Apple — something I've been contemplating and even working at for some time — because I have massive investments of money and time in both its hardware and software, but if I stay with it I may have to end up a full-time iOS user: the last three releases of MacOS have been a mess, though in varying ways, and now that I'm on Sierra my Mac freezes solid at least once a day. That hasn't happened to me in years and years. I am convinced that the Mac is a dying platform. It's dying very slowly, but it's dying. Which is sad.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lenten silence

Friends, there will be no posts here until the Easter season.

for pedagogical pluralism

Most of what I’m about to say here seems to me quite obvious, and I suspect many of my readers will agree. But if so, then these ideas really ought to be more commonly put forth in debates about pedagogy, like the one I discussed in my previous post.

I believe in, and try to practice, pedagogical pluralism. When people argue about the relative value of lectures, discussions, flipped classrooms, and so on, I always want to ask: What’s the context here? Are we talking about high-school students, first-year college students, advanced college students, graduate students? What disciplines do we have in mind? There is no context-independent “best pedagogical strategy.” When people ask me what I think such a strategy might be my answer is always: It depends.

For instance: when I teach literature to first- and second-year college students we’re likely to have a good deal of discussion, but when I teach literary theory to more advanced students I will probably lecture most of the time. Why the difference? Because those younger students will probably have discussed literature in classes before, and will be comfortable with at least some of the most basic tools of literary criticism and evaluation; whereas even very smart students can be lost when they first encounter theory, because its vocabularies and discursive strategies are so alien to them. So I need to talk to them a good bit, at first, in order to orient them; then, when they know their way around, we can open more class sessions up for discussion.

Because my pedagogical strategies are context-dependent, and because contexts change over the course of the semester as students learn more (but also, sometimes, get more overwhelmed with work), I do ongoing formal and informal assessment of what my students in any given class are prepared to do. I give a great many reading quizzes, which we go over together in class, and I learn a lot from those quizzes about what my students know and don’t know. In both lecture-heavy and discussion-heavy class sessions, I will often stop and refuse to go any further until I get five questions from the class: through that practice I learn what they want to know. Equipped with such information, I can make better decisions about when to talk and when to let them talk.

Teaching is an art rather than a science, and much of the art lies in making adjustments to your strategies when things aren’t going well, or as well as you would like. But you’re only going to be aware of the need for adjustment if you’re really noticing what’s happening in front of you, and often, sad to say, teachers don't really care enough, are not sufficiently present in the room, to notice. As I’ve said in a somewhat different context, “Everything begins with attention.”

Monday, February 27, 2017

lecturing, bodily presence, neoliberalism

In general I’m in favor of the idea of defending the lecture, but this piece in Jacobin by Miya Tokumitsu blurs some useful distinctions.

Tokumitsu’s argument that the common critique of academic lecturing amounts to an unwitting prop for neoliberalism — “The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics” — is, first of all, surely the ne plus ultra of the Jacobin ethos. And it’s not on the face of it a convincing claim. But when you read through the essay you discover that Tokumitsu isn’t primarily interested in defending the lecture — her chief subject is quite other than what she says it is.

Here’s a key passage:

The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.

The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.

One common lament among university students is a sense of social isolation during the school year. While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience. This simple routine can head off lonelieness and despondency, two triggers and intensifiers of depression.

“Oh,” I thought when I got to this part of the essay, “this isn't about lectures at all, this is about going to class.” See the full paragraph that first brings neoliberalism into the story:

The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics. We must be able to cancel anything at the last minute in our desperate hustle to be employable to anyone who might ask. An economic model that chops up and parcels out every moment of our lives inevitably resists the requirement to convene regularly.

But lectures are only one of several reasons students “convene regularly”: they do so for labs and discussion-based classes too. So when Tokumitsu writes,

But lecture attendees do lots of things: they take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.

— I think, yes, indeed, but all this happens in discussion-based classes too.

So Tokumitsu consistently confuses two phenomena that are conceptually distinct, even if they sometimes are blurred in practice:

1) The critique of the residential college that advocates for its replacement by online learning;

2) The critique of the lecture that advocates for its replacement by other ways of using class time — e.g., the flipped classroom model.

The latter argument assumes that students will “convene regularly” and will be bodily present to and with one another while engaging in collective learning; it just argues that lectures are a poor use of that shared space and time. The former argument is more radical in that it dismisses the need for bodily presence and instead celebrates individual learning and, occasionally, the use of digital communications media to connect people to one another. If you’re going to get anything out of Tokumitsu’s essay, you’ll need to realize that sometimes she’s responding to the first argument and sometimes to the second; and that it’s only the first that can with any plausibility be connected to neoliberalism as Tokumitsu understands it.

More on lecturing in another post.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

thinking about thinking

As I hope my last post illustrates, in general I’m less interested in staking out positions on the issues of the day than I am in uncovering the hidden assumptions that govern many of our debates. It’s not that I don't have views — sometimes very strong views, though more often, I suppose, “extreme views weakly held” — but rather that I know there will be plenty of people out there advocating for positions I like, and not very many people looking into the terms on which the conversation is held. Sometimes debates are fruitless or even counterproductive because we’re largely unaware of the assumptions that underlie them.

So, similarly, I am less interested in staking out a position on the best ways to punish lawbreakers than I am in noting what such questions look like when one considers them from the position of power rather that the position of those on whom power will be exercised. I am less interested in evaluating the usefulness of particular algorithms than in “interrogating,” as we academics like to say, the hidden assumptions of algorithmic culture. And so on. This habit of mine, I believe, is a natural one for someone who considers himself a teacher who writes rather than a writer who teaches. I’m pedagogical through and through, I guess.

All this to explain a forthcoming project: a book called How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, which will be published this fall by Convergent Books here in the U.S. and by a publisher in the U.K. I’ll be able to name soon. As that book comes closer to publication, I’ll move a good bit of my blogging about thinking to that site. I hope you’ll join me there from time to time.

structures of presumption: case studies

One of the most disturbing books I’ve read in a long time is Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. Beck recounts the history of a time when a great many Americans became convinced that day-care workers around the country were regularly abusing and raping children and forcing them to participate in Satanic rituals. Over a period of several years, the nightly news brought forth further horrific stories, and those stories grew more and more extreme:

In North Carolina, children said that their teachers had thrown them out of a boat into a school of sharks. In Los Angeles, children said that one of their teachers had forced them to watch as he hacked a horse to pieces with a machete. In New Jersey, children said their teacher had raped them with knives, forks, and wooden spoons, and a child in Miami told investigators about homemade pills their caretakers had forced them to eat. The pills, the child said, looked like candy corn, and they made all of the children sleepy.

Many day-care workers were brought to trial, and some were convicted, even though “No pornography, no blood, no semen, no weapons, no mutilated corpses, no sharks, and no satanic altars or robes were ever found.” One trial, that of the owners of the McMartin preschool in California, became the longest and most expensive trial in American history, and ended with no convictions — because there was no evidence that the charges were true.

Prosecutors, parents, and therapists dealt with this problem by repeating what became a common refrain. Set aside the lack of corroborating evidence, they said, and consider this basic fact: children all over the country were fighting through fear and shame to come forward and say they had been abused — how could a decent society ignore these stories? Therapists pointed to their own profession’s long and inglorious history of ignoring children who tried speak out about abuse, and they said this was a mistake the country could not afford to repeat. “All children who are sexually abused anywhere,” one abuse expert said at the National Symposium on Child Molestation in 1984, “need to have their credibility recognized and to have advocates working for them. Among the things that is most damaging is the sense of being alone and having no one to talk to.”

Thus the book’s title: We Believe the Children.

We don’t hear many claims these days that day-care workers, or anyone else, are forcing children to participate in Satanic rituals. But reading Beck’s narrative, I couldn’t help reflecting on the ways in which certain structures of presumption that drove that “moral panic” thirty years ago are still in place and still having massive social effects — just in somewhat different contexts. There’s a standard sequential logic practiced primarily by therapists and counselors but widely adopted by observers. It goes like this:

1) Identify classes of people who have historically been neglected, marginalized, thought to be less competent than the dominant figures in society — classes of people whose pain has been ignored or denied.

2) Take great care to listen to them for stories of trauma, abuse, or pressure to conform to dominant social practices and expectations.

3) Believing that people who have suffered in these ways may be reluctant to talk about their pain, or have repressed knowledge of what happened to them or who they really are, suggest to them the narrative of their lives that you think likely.

4) If they are reluctant to accept this narrative, that may well be a sign of repression — the greater the reluctance, the deeper the repression — so press them harder to accept the narrative you believe to be true. (Beck, in a discussion of the debate over repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, quotes something Roseanne Barr said to Oprah: “When someone asks you, ‘Were you sexually abused as a child?’ there are only two answers. One of them is, ‘Yes,’ and one of them is, ‘I don’t know.’ You can’t say, ‘No.’”)

5) Having established to your own satisfaction, and perhaps to that of the counseled people, the disturbing truth, consistently describe them as “victims” and “survivors.”

6) Insist that those who doubt this narrative are complicit in the suffering of the innocent.

7) Recruit the family members of the victims/survivors to support the narrative.

8) If the family members of the victims/survivors question the narrative, accuse them of not just complicity but of having actively contributed to suffering.

9) If any health-care professionals doubt the narrative, condemn them as upholders of oppressive structures and, if they do not give in, try to destroy their careers. (When a high-level FBI investigator named Kenneth Lanning said that he could find no evidence of day-care workers engaged in Satanic rituals, many counselors and therapists accused him of being himself a Satanist.)

10) No matter what happens, even if those you counsel ultimately reject the narrative you pressed upon them, never apologize or admit error. You were, after all, acting in the interests of the insulted and the injured, the marginalized and the oppressed. Beck was unable to find a single apology from therapists who coerced children into telling false stories that seriously damaged, and in some cases effectively destroyed, many lives.

It’s important to note that Beck is anything but a conservative. He attributes much of the panic to a deep residual antifeminism in American life, an interpretation that Kay Hymowitz strongly challenged in her review of his book. Hymowitz rightly points out that many American feminists eagerly participated in child-abuse panic, and indeed Beck should have acknowledged that, but I do not find his explanations as implausible as Hymowitz does. His claim that the hysteria arose from a situation in which “the nuclear family was dying,” and, though there was (and is) much hand-wringing about this fact, “people mostly did not want to save it” seems exactly right to me.

Anyway, given his politics Beck might not agree with my argument here: that the precise logic I have outlined above is at work today in two prominent venues, sexual assault cases on college campuses and the increasingly widespread diagnoses of gender dysphoria among young people. Just as child abuse is real and tragic — and often in the past was diminished or ignored — so too with sexual assault and profound gender dysphoria. But as Beck’s narrative shows, attempts to correct past neglect can go wildly, destructively awry; and the “structures of presumption” I have laid out above make it virtually impossible to have a reasonable discussion of how to assess claims that have immense consequences for human lives.

And if we cannot have such a reasonable discussion, we will almost certainly end up, sooner or later, with another massively damaging crisis like the one Beck describes. How that crisis will develop I can’t predict, but I’m sure of two things: first, that when it happens no one will acknowledge their responsibility for it; and second, that when it’s over we will contrive to forget it, just as completely as we have forgotten how readily millions of Americans believed all those accusations of ritual Satanism.

Friday, February 24, 2017

AirPods: a review

In a reckless moment I bought a pair of AirPods, and after using them for a couple of weeks, here are my thoughts:

1) If the sound quality of my set of Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones is a 9, and that of the wired earbuds that came with my iPhone is a 4, then the AirPods’ sound is roughly a 5.

2) It’s really nice to be able to go to the bathroom, or to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, without removing the AirPods or taking your phone/tablet/computer. If you get far enough away to lose the Bluetooth connection, and then come back into range, the sound automatically resumes at the point where the connection had failed.

3) As everyone says, they really do stay in your ears.

4) The fact that you have to worry about charging the charger as well as the AirPods themselves is an annoyance. I keep thinking: More stuff to charge?

5) When I’m out on a walk and have my phone in my jacket pocket, the connection is reliable. But it’s not always reliable when the phone is in a trouser pocket. I haven’t yet figured out whether some garments impede the sound more than others, but in any case I don’t think that should be happening. The phone is three feet from the AirPods, for heaven’s sake! Having to carry the phone in my hands is not what I want to do.

6) When I’m listening on my old wired earbuds and want to adjust the volume, I simply reach up and click the volume button on the tiny console on the right wire of the buds. To adjust the volume on the AirPods, I double-tap on one of the pods to bring up Siri. This works most of the time, but not always; and then when I do get the beep that tells me that Siri is listening and I issue my commands, she/he/it hears and executes the command most of the time, but not always. It’s faster to fish the phone out of my pocket and use the volume buttons on the side.

7) When I want to pause the sound on the old wired earbuds, I click the central button on the console. To do the same on the AirPods, I remove one of them; when I re-insert it the sound resumes. This has worked every time I’ve tried it so far, and is a really nice feature.

8) When I’m using the old wired earbuds and want to skip to the next song, I simply double-click on the central console button. On the AirPods I double-tap on one, wait for Siri to respond, say “skip to next song,” and hope it happens. My only other option is to fish out the phone, unlock it with my fingerprint, open the app I’m listening to, tap the fast-forward button, and restore the phone to my pocket.

9) When I’m out walking I am almost always listening not to music but to podcasts on Overcast. One cool feature of Overcast-on-wired-earbuds is that when you double-click on that central console button, the podcast jumps forward 30 seconds. I use this feature all the time, and there’s no way to replicate it on the AirPods. You have to take out the phone, open Overcast, and tap the little “forward 30 seconds” icon. If Siri is supposed to recognize “forward 30 seconds” as a command, that has never worked for me. So when I’m wearing the AirPods it usually takes more than 30 seconds to skip forward 30 seconds, which basically means that that option has been eliminated from my listening experience. This is frustrating.

10) I love not having to worry about keeping cords out of my way when I’m walking or running.

11) When I’m listening to music at night in bed, it’s very nice just to remove the AirPods from my ears and set them on the bedside table: removing both of them stops the music. But clicking on a console button doesn’t cost me much more effort.

Overall, it’s a very mixed bag. I use earbuds primarily for podcast listening while walking, and I just don’t think that the convenience of wirelessness compensates for the significant inconvenience of inadequate and inflexible controls. If a future software update allows for more customizing of the gestures, then the AirPods could be, for me, a success. But given that they simply can’t be adapted to my listening habits, and given the inconsistency of the Bluetooth connection, and given the very slight improvement in sound quality (which doesn’t matter in podcast listening anyway), I think I’ll be returning to the wires.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

building 6: diaspora

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

a further word of exhortation: RSS

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

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

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

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

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

Try RSS. You'll love it. 

a word of exhortation

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

from Disneyism to Onlyism

Yuval Harari:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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