Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bonhoeffer and Technopoly

As the year 1942 drew to close, Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just months away from being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo — sat down to write out ein Rückblick — a look back, a review, a reckoning — of the previous ten years of German experience, that is, of the Nazi years.

This look back is also a look forward: it is a document that asks, “Given what has happened, what shall we now do?” And a very subtle and important section, early in the “reckoning,” raises the questions entailed by political and social success. How are our moral obligations affected when the forces we most strenuously resist come to power anyway?

Although it is certainly not true that success justifies an evil deed and shady means, it is impossible to regard success as something that is ethically quite neutral. The fact is that historical success creates a basis for the continuance of life, and it is still a moot point whether it is ethically more responsible to take the field like a Don Quixote against a new age, or to admit one’s defeat, accept the new age, and agree to serve it. In the last resort success makes history; and the ruler of history [i.e., God] repeatedly brings good out of evil over the heads of the history-makers. Simply to ignore the ethical significance of success is a short-circuit created by dogmatists who think unhistorically and irresponsibly; and it is good for us sometimes to be compelled to grapple seriously with the ethical problem of success. As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding it as having no ethical significance; it is when success is achieved by evil means that the problem arises.

It seems to me that the question that Bonhoeffer raises here applies in important ways to those of us who struggle against a rising technocracy or Technopoly, even if we don't think those powers actually evil — certainly not evil in the ways the Nazis were. But well-intentioned people with great power can do great harm.

Suppose, then, that we do not want Technopoly to win, to gain widespread social dominance — but it wins anyway (or has already won). What then? Bonhoeffer:

In the face of such a situation we find that it cannot be adequately dealt with, either by theoretical dogmatic arm-chair criticism, which means a refusal to face the facts, or by opportunism, which means giving up the struggle and surrendering to success. We will not and must not be either outraged critics or opportunists, but must take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished.

So the opportunism of the Borg Complex is ruled out, but so too is huffing and puffing and demanding that the kids get off my lawn. Bonhoeffer’s reasons for rejecting the latter course are interesting: he thinks denunciation-from-a-distance is a failure to “take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history.” The cultural conditions are not what we would have them be; nevertheless, they are what they are, and we may not excuse ourselves from our obligations to our neighbors by pointing out that we have fought and lost and now will go home and shut the door. We remain responsible to the public world even when that world is not at all what it would be if we had our way. We have work to do. (Cue “Superman’s Song”, please.)

Bonhoeffer presses his point:

One who will not allow any occurrence whatever to deprive him of his responsibility for the course of history — because he knows that it has been laid on him by God — will thereafter achieve a more fruitful relation to the events of history than that of barren criticism and equally barren opportunism. To talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future.

But why? Why may I not wash my hands of the whole mess?

The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating. In short, it is much easier to see a thing through from the point of view of abstract principle than from that of concrete responsibility. The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of these we make the basis of our actions, for it is their own future that is at stake.

In short: it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about how the coming generation is to live. To “wash my hands of the whole mess” is to wash my hands of them, to leave them to navigate the storms of history without assistance. And even if the assistance I can give is slight and weak, I owe them that.

In his brilliant new biography of Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh points out that “After Ten Years,” though addressed immediately to family and friends, is more deeply addressed to the German social elite from which Bonhoeffer came. And, Marsh suggests, what Bonhoeffer is calling for here is the rise of an “aristocracy of conscience.” Now that, it seems to me, is an elite worthy of anyone’s aspiration.

It is with these obligations to the coming generation in mind, I think, that we are to consider how to respond to the powers that reign in our world. It may be the case that those powers turn out to be less wicked than the ones Bonhoeffer had to confront; there are worse things than Technopoly, and many millions of people in this world have to face them. But if we are spared those, then so much the better for us — and so much less convincing are any excuses we might want to make for inaction.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Christian humanism and the Twitter tsunamis

Trigger warning: specifically Christian reflections ahead. 


The reason I want to say something about the two recent Twitter tsunamis is that they seem to have some significant, but little-noted, elements in common.

I’m going to start with something that I’ve hesitated whether to say, but here goes: I think my lack of enthusiasm for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on reparations is largely a function of, ahem, age. The people in my Twitter feed who were most enthusiastic about Coates’s essay — and the enthusiasm got pretty extreme — tended to be much younger than I am, which is to say, tended to be people who don't remember the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. Or, to put it yet another and more precisely relevant way, people who don't remember when a regular topic of American journalism was the crushing poverty imposed on black Americans by a history of pervasive racism.

Conversely, I spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood trying to understand what was going on in my home state (Alabama) and home town (Birmingham) by reading Marshall Frady and Howell Raines and, a little later, Stanley Crouch and Brent Staples, and above all — far above all — James Baldwin, whose “A Stranger in the Village” and The Fire Next Time tore holes in my mental and emotional world. There’s nothing in Coates’s essay that, in my view, wasn’t done far earlier and far better by these writers.

Which doesn't mean, I’ve come to see, that anyone who loved Coates’s essay was wrong to do so. It seemed like old news to me, but that’s because I’m old. Samuel Johnson said that people need to be reminded far more often than they need to be instructed, and it is perhaps time for a widely-read reminder of the ongoing and grievous consequences of racism in America.

But I do think the strong response to Coates’s essay indicates that the American left has to a considerable extent lost the thread when it comes to race and poverty. (I do not mention the American right in this context because my fellow conservatives have been lastingly and culpably blind to the ongoing cruelty of racism, and have often thoughtlessly participated in that cruelty.) For that left, perhaps Coates’s essay can be a salutary reminder that there are millions of people in America whose problems are far worse than websites’ or public restrooms’ failures to recognize their preferred gender identity — which is the sort of thing I’m more likely to see blog posts and tweets about these days.

Which leads me to the second tsumani, the response to the shootings in Santa Barbara. I was interested in how this extremely rare event — of a kind that’s probably not getting more common — led to the more useful and meaningful discussion of common dangers for women, as exemplified by the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Even though I think “hashtag activism” is an absurd parody of the real thing, I thought the rise of that particular hashtag marked a welcome shift from the internet’s typical hyperattentiveness to the Big Rare Event towards the genuine problems of everyday life.

But even as some good things were happening, I also saw the all-too-typical — in social media and in life more generally — lining up into familiar camps. It’s as true as ever that These Tragic Events Only Prove My Politics — even though that site hasn’t been updated in a long time — so I was treated to a whole bunch of tweets casually affirming that mass murder is the natural and inevitable result of “heteronormativity” and “traditional masculinity.” And I saw far more comments from people attacking the #YesAllWomen hashtag as “typical feminist BS” and ... well, and a lot worse.

No surprises there. But I was both somewhat surprised and deeply disappointed to see how many of the men attacking users of the #YesAllWomen hashtag — users that in every single case I saw the attackers were not following, which means that they were going out of their way to look for women who were hurt and upset by the shootings so they could belittle those concerns — used their Twitter bios to identify themselves as Christians. (One of the most self-righteously sneering guys I saw has a bio saying he wants to “code like Jesus.”)

And if you don't see the problem with that, I would suggest that you read some of the “one another” verses in the Bible, like Romans 12:16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” Or this passage from Ephesians 4: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And if you’re a Christian and think those rules only apply to your interactions with your fellow Christians, well, maybe there’s something in the Bible about how you should treat your enemies. As Russell Moore has just written, “Rage itself is no sign of authority, prophetic or otherwise.”

There are women all over the world who live in daily fear of verbal harassment at best, and often much, much worse. They are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our wives — or just our friends. How can we fail to be compassionate towards them, or to sympathize with their fear and hurt? How can we see their fear as a cause for our self-righteous self-defense? To think of some supposed insult to our dignity in such circumstances seems to me to drift very far indeed from the spirit, as well as the commandments, of Christ.

I began this post by saying that the two recent tsunamis have something in common, and this, I think, is it: hurt and anger at the failure of powerful human beings to treat other and less powerful people as fully human. This has been a theme in my writing for a long time, but is the heart and soul of my history of the doctrine of original sin, which I’m going to quote now. This is a passage about the revulsion towards black people the great nineteenth-century Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz felt when he came to America for the first time:

Agassiz’s reaction to the black servants at his Philadelphia hotel provides us the opportunity to discuss an issue which has been floating just beneath the surface of this narrative for a long time. One of the arguments that I have been keen to make throughout this book is that a belief in original sin serves as a kind of binding agent, a mark of “the confraternity of the human type,” an enlistment of us all in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the “universal democracy of sinners.” But why should original sin alone, among core Christian doctrines, have the power to do that? What about that other powerful idea in Genesis, that we are all made in the image of God? Doesn’t that serve equally well, or even better, to bind us as members of a single family?

The answer is that it should do so, but usually does not. Working against the force of that doctrine is the force of familiarity, of prevalent cultural norms of behavior and even appearance. A genuine commitment to the belief the we are all created equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination — imagination which Agassiz, try as he might, could not summon: “it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.” Instinctive revulsion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments almost every time. Black people did not feel human to him, and this feeling he had no power to resist; eventually (as we shall see) his scientific writings fell into line with his feelings.

By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though he is not all he might be, neither am I. It is true that not everyone can do this: the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t. (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word — to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others — than to lift up people whom our culturally-formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow-feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.

So you can see that my own response to the problems I’ve been seeing discussed on Twitter is a Christian one, more specifically one grounded in a theological anthropology that sees all of us as creatures made in the image of God who have (again, all of us) defaced that image. And it is in the recognition of our shared humanity — both in its glories and its failings but often starting with its failings — that we build our case against abuse and exploitation.

But to have a politics grounded in this Christian humanism is also to be at odds with most of the rhetoric I see on Twitter about the recent controversies. I mentioned earlier the “lining up into familiar camps,” and those camps are always exclusive and oppositional. The message of identity politics, as practiced in America anyway, is not only that “my experience is unlike yours” — which is often true — but “my experience can never be like yours, between us there will always be a great gulf fixed” — which is a tragic mistake. That way of thinking leads to absurdities like the claim that men like Elliot Rodger are the victims of feminism, and, from other camps, the complete failure to acknowledge that five of the seven people Rodger killed were men. It also leads, I think, and here I want to tread softly, that it’s going to be relatively simple to figure out who should receive reparations and who should pay them.

It’s not wrong to have camps, to belong to certain groups, but it’s disastrous to be unable to see beyond them, and impossible to build healthy communities if we can’t see ourselves as belonging to one another.

So why does identity politics so frequently, and so completely, trump a belief in our shared humanity? I’m not sure, but the book I’m currently writing takes up this question. It deals with a group of Christian intellectuals who suspect, as many others in the middle of the twentieth century also suspected, that democracy is not philosophically self-sustaining — that it needs some deeper moral or metaphysical commitments to make it plausible. And for T. S. Eliot and Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac and Simone Weil and C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden, only the Christian account of “the confraternity of the human type” was sufficiently strong to bind us together. Otherwise, why should I treat someone as equal to me simply because he or she belongs to the same species?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Twitter tsunamis

I often have to remind myself not to think in terms of what’s happening on Twitter, but rather what’s happening in my Twitter feed. I only follow around 200 people — more than that and I get disoriented — and those people are scarcely representative of Twitter users as a whole. So take the thoughts that follow for what they’re worth, remembering that they’re based on a small sample size.

The past ten days saw two tsunamis sweep through my Twitter feed. The first was occasioned by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s massive essay “The Case for Reparations”; the second by the murders in Santa Barbara. At moments like these, moments of intensified attention, people tweet more than usual and they retweet a lot more than usual, so the activity level in my feed was at least three times, and maybe five times, more than I’m used to. (I haven’t found a way to track this: Twitter Analytics assumes that you’re only interested in what people are doing with your own tweets, which is telling.)

This kind of thing always makes me want to flee Twitter, even when I am deeply sympathetic to the positions people are taking. It’s a test of my charity, and a test I usually fail. To me these tsunamis feel like desperate signaling, people trying to make sure that everyone knows where they stand on the issue du jour. I can almost see the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads as they try to craft retweetable tweets, the kind to which others will append that most wholehearted of endorsements: “THIS.” I find myself thinking, People, you never tweeted about [topic x] before and after 48 hours or so you’ll never tweet about it again, so please stop signaling to all of us how near and dear to your heart [topic X] is.

So, you know: charity FAIL. I know that most — well, anyway, many — of the people tweeting about what everyone else was tweeting about were sincere and expressing genuine interest. It’s just hard for me to handle such exaggerated and repeated unanimity. When those waves sweep over Twitter, it’s probably best for me just to step away for a few days.

But they seem to happen more and more often, which makes me wonder how much longer I can sustain a presence on Twitter.

In any event, I’ve learned that when the tsunamis happen, adding to their volume is always — always — a mistake, for me anyway. I inevitably regret it later. Better if I take time to think. So I have taken some time to think about these two recent waves, and I’m going to try to say something coherent about them in my next post.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

traffic patterns

Metafilter is in financial trouble, largely because it can’t stay in good favor with Google. Here’s more on the current internet:

Metafilter came from two or three internets ago, when a website's core audience — people showing up there every day or every week, directly — was its main source of visitors. Google might bless a site with new visitors or take them away. Either way, it was still possible for a site's fundamentals to be strong, independent of extremely large outside referrers. What's so disconcerting now is that the new sources of readership, the apps and sites people check every day and which lead people to new posts and stories, make up a majority of total readership, and they're utterly unpredictable (they're also bigger, always bigger, every new internet is bigger). People still visit sites directly, but less. Sites still link to one another, but with diminishing results. A site that doesn't care about Facebook will nonetheless come to depend on Facebook, and if Facebook changes how Newsfeed works, or how its app works, a large fraction of total traffic could appear or disappear very quickly.

The same variability afflicts a little blog like this one. For instance, here are the views for a series of posts from earlier this month:

  • 297
  • 904
  • 3810
  • 298
  • 822
  • 8498
  • 913

The variation depends on whether the posts are linked to by more popular venues, which can include blogs — I get traffic from Andrew Sullivan and Rod Dreher, for instance — but are more likely to be sites that people don't even visit directly, but access via Facebook pages or Twitter accounts. It’s a weird world we’re writing and reading in. I liked some of the older internets better. And I wish Metafilter well.

muting

Via Roberto Greco’s wonderful Pinboard collection, some interesting thoughts from a person whose name I can’t seem to discover:

this is probably stupid, but: given Twitter’s new mute functionality, which follows Facebook’s addition of the same, it seems clear that
  • individual user control over feed content is now more important to networks than maintaining the integrity of metaphors like “friends” and “following”; you can now follow someone without seeing anything they post, and be friends with someone whose life is never in your feed
  • "following" in particular seems to have no meaning at all, indicating only that "one time I pressed ‘Follow’ but may or may not see your tweets," while being "friends" can actually include "I hate you so much that if I see your face ever again I will hate Facebook and engage with it less"
  • our feelings are sensitive enough that services want to prevent, at any cost, the “bad experience” of being unfollowed or defriended, and now provide the consequences of doing those things but by a harmless proxy.
my question for the smarties out there is this: why not just make whom you follow invisible to everyone but you? if it no longer means anything, why not make it invisible? then you don’t need these additional abstraction layers to hide your effective unfollowing/defriending; it just never comes up at all.

I’m not a smartie, but I’d suggest that most users of Twitter have no idea that muting works this way, have no idea that there even is such a thing as muting, and will still be overly interested in their follower counts.

But for the rest of us, I think this is development is wholly good, not just because it provides an easy way to get some noise out of our feeds, but because it reduces the temptation to think of Twitter as a place where we can succeed or fail according to our number of followers. Maybe we can draw slightly closer to the understanding that Twitter is valuable, if it is valuable, because of what we learn there and the quality of the conversations we have there.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

trigger warnings and trust

So, to continue my earlier post:

Last semester I taught a course called “Confession and Autobiography,” which covered some of the many types of self-writing from Augustine to ... Well, where should you conclude a course on that topic? After considerable reflection, I decided that I would choose Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I knew that some of the subject matter of the book might be a bit challenging for some of my students — this is Texas, after all, and Baylor is a Christian school, drawing on a more socially and culturally conservative pool of students than many schools do — but Fun Home is a remarkable book, rich and complex and resistant to simplistic readings (not least those that tend to come from the cultural left). I also knew the students were juniors and seniors and would likely have the maturity to handle those challenges, as long as I gave them the proper context.

That last clause is key. If you want to be a good teacher, in any environment, you have be willing to prepare your students for what you assign them. As I have commented before, the decision of what books to assign is morally fraught, and the more seriously you think at that stage the better prepared you’ll be when the time comes for reading and discussion. So, having thought and prayed when I was ordering books, I was ready to spend some time on the first day of class explaining why I wanted them to read Fun Home.

But here’s the thing: there’s only so much you can do in advance. You can offer some kind of abstract description of what’s in a book, but such descriptions are necessarily inadequate at best and at worst profoundly distorting. So I wasn’t altogether surprised when, as the time for discussing Fun Home drew closer, that I had a couple of students expressing some anxiety about whether it was the kind of thing they wanted to read. (I might add that this was a course in Baylor’s Great Texts program, which students sign up for because they want to study the lastingly great, not the trend du jour.) And while I tried to reassure them, I knew that, in the end, the proof could only be in the pudding: it would only be after they had read the book and discussed it, under my leadership, in class that they could know whether the book was worthy of their time, and any discomfort it might cost them.

So really what I was saying to these students was: Please trust me. And even as I was saying that (though not exactly in those words) I was aware that Baylor students don't know me. I had been at Wheaton College for 29 years, and therefore was a thoroughly known entity. Any first-year student there taking a course from me could talk to dozens of other students who had taken classes from me and could say — I hope! — “He’s a good guy, you can trust him.” But at Baylor I’m the new guy.

Now, as it turns out, there were three students in that class who had had a class from me last fall. And maybe — I don't know — maybe they reassured the concerned students. All I know for sure is that I took half-an-hour out from one class meeting just to hear my students’ thoughts about reading the book, and got a lot of great feedback on the culture of the Great Texts program at Baylor. Then, when we actually got into Fun Home, we had some of our best discussions of the semester. The pieces of the puzzle, or so it seemed to me from the head of the table, seemed to fall beautifully into place. And I got two really outstanding term papers on Fun Home.

All of which — and here’s where I’m heading with both of these posts — shows how hopelessly misbegotten the whole idea of “trigger warnings” is. Even aside from the widespread failure, in discussions of this topic, to distinguish between (a) triggers experienced by people who have undergone severe trauma and (b) the discomfort experienced by anyone who’s encountering new and challenging ideas, there is a still deeper problem: a failure to realize that just as important as what you read is whom you read it with — the social and personal context in which you experience and discuss and reflect on a book.

A list of troublesome "topics" — basically, tagging books with simplistic descriptions — is an utter trivialization of all these matters. Any teachers who think that they have met their moral responsibilities to students by loading their syllabuses with such tags — and any institutions who  find such tags adequate — have grossly misunderstood what education is. And that would be true even if such tags could adequately capture the ways in which a given theme (sexual violence, say) is treated in a given work of art, which they can't.

If you trust your teacher and your fellow students, then you can risk intellectual encounters that might be more daunting if you were wholly on your own. That trust, when it exists, is grounded in the awareness that your teacher desires your flourishing, and that that teacher and your fellow students share at least some general ideas about what that flourishing consists in. Which is why, as I pointed out in my previous post and as Damon Linker has also just acknowledged, colleges and universities with distinctive religious commitments can be more open to many kinds of challenging ideas — including those from the past! — than their secular counterparts. Shared commitments build mutual trust, and there are few things more needful for those of us seeking knowledge and wisdom in academic communities.

Monday, May 19, 2014

on academic helicopters

David Graeber comments, in a brief follow-up to this essay,

If you look at the lives and personalities of almost any of the Great Thinkers currently lionized in the American academy, certainly anyone like Deleuze, or Foucault, Wittgenstein, Freud, Einstein, or even Max Weber, none of them would have lasted ten minutes in our current system. These were some seriously odd people. They probably would never have finished grad school, and if they somehow did discipline themselves to appear sufficiently “professional,” “collegial,” conformist and compliant to make it through adjunct hell or pre-tenure, it would be at the expense of leaving them incapable of producing any of the works for which they have become famous.

I really think this is true. In the great majority of American universities every detail of a professor’s work is monitored by a horde — a pride? a school? a murder? — of administrative entities who relentlessly enforce conformity to minutely described standards and practices.

Try to imagine Foucault obediently inserting trigger warnings in a syllabus.

I have a suspicion — and it’s only a suspicion: I cannot think of a way to confirm it — that certain current habits of the undergraduate mind are connected, in a perverse way, to the upbringing of today’s students. Young people who have had very little experience of unsupervised play, whose parents have hovered over them their whole lives, may easily come to believe that the core function of adults is to protect them from dangers. They may not discern the same dangers that their parents do, but the structure of their expectations remains shaped by those parental attitudes. So some of them — by no means all, probably not even most, but enough to create a stir — will lift their voices in outrage when potentially offensive books are assigned, or potentially offensive commencement speakers invited to campus.

And in a litigious society, people who feel offended are more likely to file lawsuits meant to inflict punishment and extract compensation — or so a university’s attorneys will whisper in the ears of trustees and administrators, with the result that more mandates come down to the professors, who find their freedom of pedagogical movement increasingly restricted. And if David Graeber is right, these administrative intrusions may have a cost not just in morale but in substantive intellectual achievement. It’s hard to think freely when you’re constantly being watched over by helicopter administrators.

Curiously, Christian institutions like the ones I have worked for (Wheaton and now Baylor) tend to be less rigorous in policing such details than most secular institutions, I think because they only hire people with explicit ethical and religious commitments. If you take some care to know the kind of person you’re hiring — with the caveat, of course, that every institution can be fooled into making bad hires — you need be less diligent about demanding conformity in the little details of academic life.

As Stanley Fish once pointed out in an essay that I never tire of quoting, we get to choose “not between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.” There may be intellectual, and not just intellectual, rewards to be reaped by institutions that set their boundaries wisely and police them appropriately.

Throughout much of my time at Wheaton College I was regularly asked why I stayed there: It’s so narrowly Christian! So sectarian! I always replied, “I’m here for the academic freedom.” And I meant it. The same is true for me here at Baylor, and I have a story that I’ll tell about that in another post.

on Bleak House

I was recently telling a friend on Twitter who had just read Bleak House that when I first read it and got to the end I thought, “Is it over already?” Bleak House is 900 pages long. Why do I love it so much? This is hard to say.

It’s a book with a deep passion for social reform, and especially cries out against the condition of London’s slums. As Dickens wrote while working on Bleak House,

I have always been convinced that this reform must precede all other Social Reforms; that it must prepare the way for Education, even for Religion; and that, without it, those classes of the people which increase the fastest must become so desperate, and be made so miserable, as to bear within themselves the certain seeds of ruin to the whole community.

But a novel dedicated to such reform is a tricky thing to write, and will, as Dickens knew perfectly well, always be in danger of descending into preachiness or sentimentality. (A danger that Dickens often succumbed to, of course.) Dickens addressed this problem by a truly remarkable formal innovation, the division of the storytelling between two voices. The first narrator, who has no name and doesn’t participate in the story, offers a world-weary, cynical, sometimes embittered voice. Here he is from the book’s first chapter, describing Chancery Court:

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here — as here he is — with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be — as here they are — mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be — as are they not? — ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give — who does not often give — the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

To this voice Dickens offers the strongest possible contrast, the unworldly, innocent, utterly (pathologically?) self-effacing Esther Summerson, who speaks like this:

I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. I can remember, when I was a very little girl indeed, I used to say to my doll when we were alone together, “Now, Dolly, I am not clever, you know very well, and you must be patient with me, like a dear!” And so she used to sit propped up in a great arm-chair, with her beautiful complexion and rosy lips, staring at me — or not so much at me, I think, as at nothing — while I busily stitched away and told her every one of my secrets.

My dear old doll! I was such a shy little thing that I seldom dared to open my lips, and never dared to open my heart, to anybody else. It almost makes me cry to think what a relief it used to be to me when I came home from school of a day to run upstairs to my room and say, “Oh, you dear faithful Dolly, I knew you would be expecting me!” and then to sit down on the floor, leaning on the elbow of her great chair, and tell her all I had noticed since we parted. I had always rather a noticing way — not a quick way, oh, no! — a silent way of noticing what passed before me and thinking I should like to understand it better. I have not by any means a quick understanding. When I love a person very tenderly indeed, it seems to brighten. But even that may be my vanity.

The truth of the story Dickens wants to tell is found not in either of these voices but between them, or at their intersection. Neither is adequate alone. There’s a kind of implicit dialogue going on throughout the book between these two characters, a contest of outlooks, a fundamental disagreement about how to perceive and interpret the world. I think this is the single most remarkable thing about Bleak House.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

to Spritz or not to Spritz


This reflection by Virginia Heffernan defies quick summary, but let me give it a try: Proponents and critics of new reading technologies alike defend their positions by appealing to Science, but usually in sloppy and superficial ways.

At least that's where the essay seems to be going, for a while, but by the end it seems to have turned into a straightforward attack on critics of new technologies, who are painted as ... well, let's look at these passages from the concluding paragraphs:

Exposure to Michel Foucault and historians of science at a tender age left me with no doubt that the language and apparatus of science are regularly deployed in a power play.... Worse still, for those of us interested in phenomenology, the claims of neuroscience rarely enrich the human experience they set out to elucidate. In fact, they flatten it and make it unrecognizable.

They turn, that is, the rapture of reading and the Internet into confounding sophistry and grandstanding — and then merely assert, over and over, and with mounting hysteria, that it’s a “cause of depravity.”

Those last words are from an eighteenth-century attack on novel-reading, and here Heffernan's argument seems to be that humanists who decry speed-reading apps like Spritz — responses to this app are the take-off point for Heffernan’s post — sound just like those people who decried novel-reading. And since we know that those earlier critics of their new media were wrong, it therefore follows necessarily that critics of today's new media are wrong. The logic there is not sound.

Heffernan's chief point, then, as best I can discern it from what is frankly a confusing essay, is that people who criticize new reading technologies in the name of neuroscience are, "with mounting hysteria,” “flattening” our reading experience and snatching from us “the rapture of reading and the Internet” — a claim that I just can’t make any sense of. How does criticism of Spritz — well-founded or ill-founded — compromise my reading practices?

And what has happened, by the end of this essay, to Heffernan’s earlier recognition that the makers of Spritz employ a very similar science-based rhetoric, just from the other end of the technological see-saw? “The Spritz inventors spoke of their product as if it were revealed religion. Spritz, the materials claim, ‘reimagines’ and ‘reinvents’ reading — no less than the defining act of history, the humanities and, some say, humanness itself.” Why has all the blame shifted to the critics?

So: I’m confused.

I might also add that, pace Heffernan’s insistence that criticism of Spritz is universally uninformed, there are some thoughtful and knowledgable critics out there. I think the Ian Bogost essay she quotes and about which she seems to have mixed feelings is outstanding, but I would also and especially recommend this post by Julie Sedivy, which calls some of the Spritz claims into serious question:

Especially dubious is the claim made by the company that a mere 20% of reading time is typically spent “processing content” as opposed to moving the eyes around the page. The company’s website provides no references for this claim, nor does it precisely explain what it means by “processing content.” Under a very generous interpretation of the claim, perhaps what is meant is that individual words can be recognized in a fraction of the time that people normally spend gazing at them in a sentence. For example, people show behavioral evidence of having recognized a word even if it’s presented subliminally at a rate faster than 50 milliseconds (though they’re not usually consciously aware of having recognized the word at this speed). This might give the impression that it’s the sluggishness of eye movements that creates a bottleneck for reading speed. But reading involves a great deal more than recognizing the individual words that are strung together in a sentence: readers have to integrate each word into a meaningful structure; build a mental model of the events it describes, and generate inferences about meaning that may not even be linguistically encoded. Some of these processes can take considerable time, and there’s some evidence that when readers slow down in order to generate richer inferences and more detailed mental representations, they may retain more information. It seems more than a stretch to assert that the time it takes to program eye movements is what limits the speed of reading.

In fact, far from representing a wasteful activity, eye movements provide readers with a tremendously useful tool for language comprehension. Reading allows us to do something that’s impossible during the comprehension of live spoken language: slow down or speed up the flow of information, and even backtrack to revisit earlier information in a sentence. About 10-15% of eye movements during reading go backwards, and these regressive eye movements, as they’re called, can play an important role in reading comprehension, especially in recovering from processing glitches. For example, a bounty of regressive eye movements can be found in any study of garden path sentences, in which readers have to switch from a more-preferred interpretation of an ambiguous structure to a less preferred one, as in the sentence The woman drowned in the river was found the following spring. (You may have been aware of your own regressive eye movements just then.)

Sedivy’s conclusion is particularly compelling:

So it’s likely that some form of RSVP may well turn out to be a viable way to read through certain kinds of texts—in particular, texts with simpler sentences, sentences in which the complexity of information is evenly distributed, sentences that avoid unexpected twists or turns, and sentences which explicitly lay out their intended meanings, without requiring readers to mentally fill in the blanks through inference. But a Spritz-style app is unlikely to provide a satisfying method for reading texts that involve complex or unfamiliar ideas, that require deep processing, or that use language in innovative ways. Some might argue that this app is especially unsuitable for many of the texts that are actually worth reading.

It’s all too easy to imagine people who are taken with Spritz making decisions about what to read based on what’s amenable to “spritzing.” But that’s inevitable as long as there are think of reading as something to have done, something to get through. But that’s not the only way to think of readings. Let me conclude by (ahem) quoting myself, from The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

We are free readers. And for us, the attempt to read non-instrumental texts in an instrumental way — to read fiction or poetry or history or theology or even what the bookstores call “current events” as quickly as possible and with the goal of accurate transference of data — is not a good idea. It is in fact a perfect recipe for boredom, because, though few people realize it, many books become more boring the faster you read them.

This really shouldn't be surprising. Especially if a book is artfully written — if its language is unusually vivid or lovely, or if its presentation of ideas or images is subtle and surprising — its best features may be easily passed over by the rapid reader. And this is true not just of fiction or poetry or drama, but of many works of nonfiction as well. Careful writers of narrative, whether that narrative is fictional or historical or journalistic, will, like composers, work with themes and variations on those themes.

So don’t be afraid to slow down, is all I’m saying.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

my response to Adam Kirsch

In an essay that’s received a lot of critical response from my digital-humanist friends, Adam Kirsch writes,

The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.

I completely agree — at least, if I’m allowed to add a paragraph of my own.

The other best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the reflexive distrust of the digital, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not technological triumphalism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading on paper is intellectually superior to reading online? If not, perhaps we should be devoting as much attention to digitizing our books, and exploring them more imaginatively in their digital forms, as to the immensely valuable work of preserving and circulating our paper books, periodicals, and ephemera. Is reasoning irreducibly linguistic? (Moreover, is reasoning the only form of thinking? Also, are humanists concerned only with reasoning and thinking? Aesthetic experience is not, after all, fully and simply rational.) If not, and images are able to do the work of complex discourse — especially when they are created, as so often they are, in conjunction with words — then it would be a grave mistake not to complement our practices of reading and writing with an equally rigorous pursuit of visual modes of understanding and creation.

As Kirsch continues, “These are the kinds of questions that humanists ought to be well equipped to answer.” Damn right.

Monday, May 5, 2014

vandalism and value



I can’t count the number of times over the years I have shaken my fist — usually metaphorically — at people who write in library books. But in this matter as in so many others time alters one’s perspective. Book Traces is a fascinating project devoted to collecting the writing people have done in old books — especially writing that tells a story, like the image above, from a copy of Longfellow’s poems. In this case the book was first privately owned and ultimately acquired by the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library, but the project is open to submissions of all kinds of annotations.

As I look at the images on the Book Traces site, I find myself thinking of one of the greatest books of the early Middle Ages, or indeed of any other time, the Lindisfarne Gospels. This book was made around the end of the seventh century, and features, in addition to its famously beautiful illuminations, a skillfully-copied and -presented Vulgate text of all four Gospels. But in the 10th century, someone decided to write in the book:




The small red words you see between the lines of the Latin text are an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Vulgate text made by Aldred the Scribe. “An act of vandalism!” you might say. Well, perhaps; but as Janet Backhouse points out in her fine account of the book’s origin and history, this is the “earliest version of the gospels in any form of the English language.” Moreover, she continues, when the book was seized from Durham Cathedral during Henry VIII’s despoiling of English monasteries in the sixteenth century, the antiquarian interest of the Anglo-Saxon text may well have saved this great masterpiece from destruction.

Books are immensely complex objects, then, and there are a thousand reasons to be interested in them. One of the most beautiful pigments used in the illuminations of the Lindisfarne Gospels is an ultramarine blue derived from lapis lazuli, which in the early Middle Ages had a single point of origin: Badakshan. How that pigment made its way to Northumbria no one has the first idea, but its presence tells us something about the intricacy of international trading routes even in the so-called Dark Ages. (Compare the Helgö Buddha.)

As layers of history accrete, meanings and values do too. And this is especially true with all textual objects. So those books “vandalized” by people writing in them, those crumpled sheets of newspaper used as makeshift insulation in a wall, even those old cans of motor oil with their curious labels — be careful before you throw them away. Someone is sure to find them fascinating.

real-life science heroes!

I recently stopped reading the much-acclaimed comic The Manhattan Projects largely because of its mindless violence — and I really do mean mindless: a ceaselessly repetitive proliferation of amputations, decapitations, and (especially!) acts of cannibalism that do nothing to advance the story or contribute to characterization but rather profoundly retard both. I do not like violence in art but can accept it when it has a purpose; in this case the mindlessness results from writers and artists having decapitated their own critical faculties, leaving them subject to the residual twitchings of their nervous systems. Page after page, the doltishness piles up and piles on.

But before I rescued my own brain from further neuronal degradation, I couldn't help noticing that The Manhattan Projects exemplifies a weird cultural archetype: a version of the comic-book science hero that demonstrates its respect for real-life scientists by turning them into action figures.

The term “science hero” is associated with Alan Moore, but while there are countless instances in the comics literature, the figure that has done the most to fix the archetype in our minds is Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Richards is a scientific super-genius who happens to acquire superpowers but is also incredibly rich — an almost universal theme in the science-hero genre, one picked up in an especially dramatic way in Nowhere Men, another story-in-progress from Image Comics, whose tagline is “Science is the new rock-and-roll.” Its Fab Four protagonists, research scientists who created the biggest company in the world, are basically the Beatles crossed with Steve Jobs.

But though the science hero typically enjoys fabulous wealth, what makes him — of course it’s almost always “him” — a true science hero is that he acquires it, as the British were said to have acquired their Empire, in a fit of absent-mindedness: it just kinda happens. Which perhaps explains why the paradigmatic real-life science hero is Nikola Tesla, who made money only intermittently and died poor, as opposed to Thomas Edison, whose sharp and occasionally unethical business practices made him almost as rich as Reed Richards. (This very contrast is at the heart of the well-known — and highly inaccurateTesla-as-über-geek post at The Oatmeal.) In one of the most enjoyable current comics series, Atomic Robo, Tesla gets his fortune posthumously, as it were, through his creation of the series' titular sentient robot; and many other entertainments work similar territory, as a brief look at the “Tesla in popular culture” Wikipedia page reveals. It’s noteworthy, in light of the portrayal of scientists as rock stars in Nowhere Men, that in the film The Prestige Tesla is played by, yes, an actual rock star, David Bowie.

In The Manhattan Projects most of the famous scientists are skilled — or maybe natural-born — killers. (Pro tip: don't mess with Einstein or Robert Oppenheimer. They’ll take you out.) And they have access to an unlimited supply of money. Sure, this is a comic book, and much of this is being played for (sick, perverted) laughs, but it suggests what consumers of this genre really admire. Who really cares about Indiana Jones’s anthropological research? — well, except for his tenure committee, of course.

In some ways this kind of thing is unavoidable, especially in a society that has for many decades now — at least since the height of the Cold War, when popular magazines regularly praised our scientific leaders, like Werner von Braun and John von Neumann, for protecting us against commie nukes — wanted to think of itself as Believing in Science without actually knowing any science. So we make our scientists into the kinds of people we already admire on wholly other grounds — thus creating a new caricature that’s not any closer to reality than the older caricature of the absent-minded professor.

Not that closer-to-reality is everything, but.... A few years ago my wife and I were on a hiking vacation in British Columbia and happened to eat breakfast with the same couple, the only other guests, three mornings in a row, which naturally led to some chatting. The woman was friendly and talkative, the man friendly and quiet, shrugging apologetically at the kinds of vacations he had been subjecting his wife to over the years. (“I like to sleep in tents.”) Only on the third day did I learn that he was Peter Goldreich, a very distinguished astrophysicist. He didn’t say much about his work, but I remember his commenting that he could do it anywhere, since he only needed a pencil and a legal pad. It just might be worth our while to exercise our imaginations in an unfamiliar way, so as to entertain the thought that exceptional works of science are getting done all the time, even in this digital age, by unassuming, ordinary-looking people who kill no aliens, who lack fabulous wealth, and who do their best work with a pencil and a legal pad.

Friday, May 2, 2014

holes in the fabric


One of the oddest moments of my youth came soon after I bought the LP pictured above. I ran out to get it after I heard on the radio a song from it, called "Vincent," which struck my fourteen-year-old self as the most profound and artful and insightful and poetic thing I had ever encountered. And then, listening to the whole record, I was blown away by the title song and wanted to tell everyone about it ... only to discover that everyone already knew about it and had been listening to it on every pop radio station in town over and over and over again so that they had been sick of it for some months already. But I had never heard it until I put the LP on my turntable.

I could not account for this then and cannot now. I listened to the radio as much as any kid my age: I pleaded with my grandmother to let me control the car radio whenever we were out and about; I had a small transistor radio I kept by my bed to listen to every night; I even strapped that transistor to the handlebars of my bike so I could listen as I rode around the neighborhood. And yet, somehow, in utter defiance of probability, I had never managed to have the radio on when "American Pie" was playing.

I experienced something slightly similar today when someone on Twitter linked to this post on a sportswriter named Gary Smith, who is evidently Kind of a Big Deal. I mean, just read the post. The guy has won every journalistic award a person could win. He's every sportswriter's writerly hero (well, almost). But I have never heard his name and as far as I know have never read a word he's written. And yet I'm a reasonably serious sports fan and read a good deal about sports. How could I have altogether missed Gary Smith?

I find these gaps in experience, holes in the fabric of knowledge and cultural connection, oddly fascinating. The other big one I can think of involves Joni Mitchell's song "River," which, despite its being one of her most-covered songs, and despite my having owned several Joni Mitchell albums when I was young, I had never heard until about five years ago — almost forty years after its release. But of course, these gaps I have mentioned here I can mention only because they've been closed. Who knows how many other songs or writers or poems or whatever I've missed, what essential elements of the experience of my generation have passed me by and left me unwittingly denied some bond, some link?

And what about you, my friend? What about you?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

enough about us

Recently, I’ve been reading a number of thoughtful posts and articles that explore what’s becoming of the self under our current technocracy. This Judith Donath piece on pseudonymity is smart, as is this more expansive meditation by Rob Horning. And then there’s a new series by Josh Glenn on codes:

Each post in this series will identify one code: a single node in the vast meaningfulness-matrix structuring our perception of the everyday world....

Many of the codes analyzed in this series may seem banal, quotidian, obvious. Why? Because that’s how semiotic [i.e., meaningfulness-producing] codes function in our daily lives; they operate at the that’s-just-how-things-are level of “primary ‘obviousness’.”

I hope the Code-x series will shed some light — no matter how dim or fitful — onto the enduring structuralist question: What are the implicit assumptions (or “mythologies”) we’ve absorbed without consciously evaluating them?

The first code Glenn explores is one he calls “Wired Self-Potentiation”: “Multitasking re-imagined as existential branching-out. Breaking the mold. Demonstrating vitality, multiplicity, and proactive refusal to conform to stereotyped expectations. All thanks to networked technology.”

This is all really, really good stuff — vital stuff — and yet I find that reading it makes me tired. More about me? More about us? More about the endless performative dance of selfhood? Even if the analysis is critical rather than consumerist or celebratory, it keeps turning us inward. This kind of semiotic/cultural analysis is my thing, in a very serious way, but there’s so much of it now I just want to go for a walk with my dog or sit under a tree and listen to birds or practice some form of kenotic meditation.

Anyone who has ever tried to think knows the value of escaping, from time to time, the gravitational pull of even those topics that most fascinate you and seeing them in new and vivid ways after re-entry. (“The Eureka Phenomenon,” Isaac Asimov called it in an essay that used to be a staple of freshman composition courses.) This is not to say that taking a break from thinking about the technologically-assisted self is an escape from the self. But it reorients you; it reminds you that the world is bigger than your habitual, everyday experience of it. That’s a good thing.