Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 30, 2015

on Charlie Hebdo and courage

I don't know the source of the above image — it came from this tweet — but if it's accurate it makes nonsense of the claim, made by writers protesting PEN's award to Charlie Hebdo, that by giving the award "PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world" (emphasis mine).

If you read the rest of the letter, you'll see that the authors' chief complaint about Charlie Hebdo is in fact that the magazine is not "selectively offensive": it should have, in the view of these authors, have refrained from subjecting Muslims to the same satirical scrutiny it subjects everyone else to: "To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering."

There's a lot to question here. One might ask why France's Jews are, as far as these authors are concerned, fair game. One might ask, when the authors insist that "The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored," that logic might also apply to the inequities between the person holding the pen and the person holding a gun and pointing it at him.

But let's set all that aside. Let's grant, per argumentum, the authors' claim that Charlie Hebdo does wrong by subjecting Muslims to the same critique — though, it appears from the chart above, less frequently — that it subjects others too. Let's even grant that Muslims in France should, uniquely, never be the objects of satire. Does it follow that Charlie Hebdo should not receive this award?

I don't think it does follow. Let's remember what the award is: the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. And I don't see how you could say that the people of Charlie Hebdo are anything but courageous — exceptionally courageous. They were brave before so many of them were murdered, and those who remain and keep working are braver still.

Yes, but — someone will say — they are brave in a wicked cause! Members of the Ku Klux Klan can be brave too! This argument might have more force if Charlie Hebdo typically singled out Muslims for attack, but as we have seen, it hasn't. In the eyes of the authors who are protesting the award, the crime of Charlie Hebdo is that a magazine whose sole raison d'être is savage mockery did not choose to exempt one group and one group only from that mockery. That strikes me as a wholly inadequate reason for refusing to honor exceptional courage — especially since courage is the one virtue that simply must be exercised if freedom of expression is to survive. And freedom of expression is what PEN is all about.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Warren Ellis on Facebook

I've written before, in these digital pages, about Facebook, for which I have ... I started to say "an irrational hatred," but I think it's actually a very rational hatred. The great Warren Ellis helps us understand why Facebook is so eminently and rationally hateable.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

the story of everything

A does something to B. (Maybe A shoots B; maybe A refuses to bake a cake for B. It doesn’t signify.)

Social media pick up the story of what A did to B.

Some members of Group Y are outraged at what A did to B, and demand swift retribution.

Some other members of Group Y to are also outraged by what A did to B, but hesitate to commit themselves to a call for swift retribution. They think that perhaps they don’t know all the facts; or they wonder whether the retribution called for might be too extreme. But they stay silent because they don’t want to be called out by, or exiled from, their group.

Some members of Group Z are outraged by the calls for swift retribution. Either because they have a predisposition in favor of A or have bean agitated by the rhetoric of the more vocal members of Group Y, they come to A’s defense, and suggest that what A did isn’t that bad after all.

Some other members of Group Z are also outraged, or at least disturbed, by those calls for swift retribution, but aren’t sure that they can come to A’s defense. They think that perhaps they don’t know all the facts; or they wonder whether the justifications of A are really warranted. But they stay silent because they don’t want to be called out by, or exiled from, their group.

The vocal members of Group Y are even more outraged by the attitudes of the vocal members of Group Z than they were by the original actions of A. They double down on their condemnations of A, and demand that the members of Group Z receive their own retribution for justifying the unjustifiable, defending the indefensible.

The vocal members of Group Z ascend to the condition of righteous wrath. Those who had originally said that A’s actions were wrong but not that wrong now say that A’s actions were completely justified, and in fact could have been much more extreme and still justified. They denounce Group Y’s calls for retribution as “McCarthyite” “witch hunts.”

The vocal members of groups Y and Z make no distinction between the aggressively vocal members of the other group and the silent ones. Any attempts to suggest that the members of the other group are not monolithic and unanimous is met with a sneering hashtag: #notallmembers.

Some of those in each group who had remained silent because of uncertainty or an instinctive desire for moderation realize that they’re being targeted just as aggressively as the most extreme members of their group. They begin to suspect that those extremists were right all along about the other group. In their shock at being so condemned, they tend to forget that there are people in the other group who are feeling just as they feel, for for the same reasons. Their silence has led the rest of the world to think that they don’t exist, and that their entire group of fairly characterized by the behavior of its most extreme members. And gradually that assumption, initially false, comes to be true.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

withdrawals and commitments

I posted this on my personal blog, but on reflection I’m thinking that it has a place here, especially with our recent thoughts about attention.

My buddy Rod Dreher writes,

What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given.

David French responds,

I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”  

In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?

It strikes me that French is responding to something Rod didn't say: Rod writes of “the strategic withdrawal of Christians from mainstream of American popular culture,” and French replies that Christians “should never retreat from the public square” — but “popular culture” and “public square” are by no means the same thing.

In most of the rest of his response French emphasizes strictly political issues, for instance, current debates over the extent of free speech. But Rod doesn't say anything about withdrawing from electoral politics — he doesn't say anything about politics at all, except insofar as building and strengthening the ekklesia is political (which it is — see below).

It’s not likely that French and I could ever come to much agreement about the core issues here, since he so readily conflates Christianity and conservatism. (“The surprising box office of God’s Not Dead, the overwhelming success of American Sniper, celebrating the life of a Christian warrior” — I ... I ... — “and the consistent ratings for Bible-themed television demonstrate that there remains a large-scale appetite for works of art that advance, whether by intention or by effect, a substantially more conservative point of view.”) But his response to Rod has the effect of forcing some important questions on those of us who think that the current social and political climate calls for new strategies: What exactly do we mean by “withdraw,” and how far do we withdraw? What specifically do we withdraw from? What are the political implications of cultural withdrawal?

Rod, in the post I quoted at the outset, does a fantastic job of laying out very briefly and concisely the work that needs to be done to strengthen local religious communities. But time, energy, attention, and money are all plagued by scarcity, which is why some kind of “withdrawal” is unavoidable — if I’m going to put more money into my church, that means less money available elsewhere. And if I’m going to devote more attention to active love of God and active love of my neighbor, from what should I withdraw my attention?

All of this is going to remain excessively vague and abstract until we can see specific instances of such withdrawal. But I suspect that different groups of Christians will have widely varying ideas of what needs to be withdrawn from: cable TV, New York Times subscriptions, Hollywood movies, monetary contributions to either of the major political parties, public schools, etc.

So I wonder if a better way to think about the Benedict Option is not as a strategic withdrawal from anything in particular but a strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish. In other words, Rod’s post is the right starting place, and the language of “withdrawal” something of a distraction from what that post is all about.

My own inclination — but then I have been a teacher for thirtysomething years — is to think that our primary focus should be on the two chief modes of Bildung: paideia and catechesis. And I do not mean for either of these modes to be confined to the formation of children.

If we ask ourselves what genuine Christian Bildung is, and what is required to achieve it in our time, then we will be directed to the construction and conservation of institutions and practices that are necessary for that great task. And then the necessary withdrawals — which may indeed vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, community to community — will take care of themselves.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

things still in the saddle, still riding mankind

A few months ago Sandra Tsing Loh published an essay about the plusses and minuses of living alone — well, that’s what the essay is ostensibly about. But note the following words and phrases that I have extracted from the essay:

  • Basil-cucumber martinis
  • floaty Indian shirts
  • sundresses
  • sandals
  • Uber
  • Robyn’s cottage
  • fresh flowers, art, and pillows
  • separate studio
  • Airbnb
  • natural-wood built-ins
  • frosted-glass cabinets
  • pockets and shelves and drawers that glide
  • model wooden ships
  • guitars
  • amps
  • old Guitar Player magazines
  • Rubbermaid bins full of power cords
  • books, newspapers, and magazines
  • Sundance or IFC Channel
  • rare archival videos
  • ten-hour Ken Burns documentaries
  • medicinal marijuana
  • Sons of Anarchy
  • garage
  • sculpting studio with a kiln
  • dusty boxes of bowling shoes
  • Cassette tapes
  • Wine corks
  • Trader Joe’s single-serve Indian meals
  • microwaveable burritos
  • Kettle Chips
  • veggie bruschetta
  • cocktail
  • his personal Cessna
  • his $425 studio with a hot plate and bathroom down the hall
  • my elegant if somewhat spare (with perfect color accents) bedroom
  • my bed (in some floaty off-white or eggshell-hued peignoir)
  • a cup of perfect coffee (prepared for brewing the night before)
  • a sprawling loft in Chelsea
  • Bullshot, a Bloody Mary that substitutes those noisome 7 grams of carbs in tomato juice with zero-carb beef bouillon
  • second bowl of cereal in the day or peanut butter or yogurt
  • his 250-square-foot converted garage
  • an espresso
  • books, DVDs, appliances
  • large monitors (TV and computer, flickering)
  • an unmade futon topped with wrinkled laundry and a sleeping bag
  • a narrow landing strip of kitchen
  • a “tabletop convection oven” (big enough to bake pizza but not chicken)
  • a ten-gallon water heater
  • Syndrums
  • a poinsettia plant at Christmas and a lily at Easter
  • the bed (with the expensive mattress and hypoallergenic pillows we finally got right)
  • a quietly humming Roomba
  • rubbery vegetables
  • our computers, televisions, and even my personal girlfriend Pandora (Joni Mitchell radio! Celtic Christmas radio!)
  • Netflix
  • my tiny Apple remote (the one little bigger than a stick of chewing gum)
  • quinoa and kale
  • juice fasts

The whole piece seems to be driven by an apparently unconscious but pathologically compulsive inventorying of commodities. It turns out that the real question of the essay is not “Does Living Alone Drive You Mad?” but rather “Which Purchasable Goods Provide Adequate Substitutes for Human Beings?”

P.S. My title comes from Emerson

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

imagining Thomas More (or not)

The good folks over at First Things are unhappy with the treatment of Thomas More in Wolf Hall, the TV series based on Hilary Mantel’s novel of the same title: here is George Weigel’s response, and here is Mark Movsesian’s. I offered some thoughts on related issues when I reviewed Mantel’s novel five years ago for Books and Culture:

Much of the material culture of the past can be known. When Cromwell describes for the women of his household the clothing of Anne Boleyn — the fabric of her gown, the cut of her headdress — we believe that indeed it was so. If Mantel did not get these details right, she could have and should have. But people's inner lives are always constructed in our imaginations, and this is true whether they are our contemporaries or figures from the distant past. The story of the courtier who finds Cromwell weeping, and to whom Cromwell expresses his fear that he will fall with Wolsey, was not invented by Mantel: it's part of the historical record. Mantel's contribution is the notion that Cromwell lied about his tears and was really thinking of his beloved dead. And this could have been the case; we cannot know. But that's not because Cromwell lived half a millennium ago. When Lord Chancellor More adds to the charges against Wolsey one that Cromwell knows to have been fabricated, Cromwell tries to imagine what went through More's mind when he made that claim — but he cannot do it; More lies always beyond the reach of his imagination, even though the two men are in frequent contact.

Such deep meditations on interior lives are, we have often been told, the fruit of the Reformation. It was Luther and his heirs who taught us to look within and see the baseness there, to be clear-eyed and unwavering in discerning our sin nature, so that we can turn to God and plead only his mercy: "We do earnestly repent, and be heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burthen of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake forgive us all that is past" — so says the General Confession written by Cromwell's contemporary Thomas Cranmer. And was not Cromwell the effectual architect of the English Reformation, the man whose policies made the emergence of the Church of England possible?

The architect, yes; but — again, this is the conventional narrative — not out of conviction, rather out of mere obedience to King Henry's wish to be freed from the authority of Rome. But, again, who really knows what Cromwell's thoughts on such matters were? The Cromwell conjured by Mantel is deeply drawn to Tyndale's Bible and Tyndale's Lutheran theology — on the deaths of his wife and daughters, he reaches there for comfort rather than to the Catholic piety of his wife, to which he also publicly assents — but "to be drawn to" is not "to be committed to." Cromwell's religious convictions are elusive to us, but Mantel would have us see that they were elusive even to himself. (The same can be said for many of us.) What this Cromwell clearly does believe is that More's theological and ecclesiastical certainties, and the fierce campaign against heresy that they engendered, are bad policy and immoral besides. He — he who is kind even to dogs and cats — flinches at More's cruelties, and sympathizes with the Protestants simply because they are hunted down and persecuted. When he rises to be Henry's chief minister, he becomes a remorseless enemy of the Church's power not because he hates the Church but because he sees how thoroughly power corrupts, and wants to limit it wherever he can.

Again, in all these ways Mantel's Cromwell is a characteristically late-modern Western man who happens to be living at the beginnings of modernity. By envisioning him so, Mantel has rendered much simpler the task of making the historical novel into a psychological novel. Could she have told the story of More, or for that matter Tyndale, in this manner? I think not. Author and protagonist merge nicely at this point: the True Believer remains inaccessible to them both.

What George Weigel, in the first FT piece I linked to above, calls “upmarket anti-Catholicism” is, in my view, simply a failure of historical imagination. Hilary Mantel could only present an admirable Thomas Cromwell by assuming, or pretending, that he’s a lot like people in her social circle: tolerant, skeptical, indulgently affectionate towards children, fond of animals, shy of violence — a typical 21st-century educated Londoner who was inexplicably born half a millennium too early. Having created Cromwell in her own image, Mantel then makes him the proxy for her own inability to make sense of someone like Thomas More.

It doesn't have to be this way. I seriously doubt that Peter Ackroyd’s beliefs are any closer to Thomas More’s than Hilary Mantel’s are, but that didn't stop him from pursuing a deep and sensitive understanding of the man in his brilliant biography. Mantel simply shirked the hard labor of trying to understand people from the distant past, and because her readers, by and large, and the people who made Wolf Hall into a television series, aren't interested in that labor either, we get the cardboard caricature of More that Weigel and Movsesian rightly protest.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


This post on paper clips — and other “everyday things”: Henry Petroski really should have been mentioned in the post — should be taken as yet another reminder of some important truths:

  • Non-electronic technologies are still technologies;
  • Technologies that have been developed (in some cases perfected) over decades are even centuries are often extremely well-optimized for the work they’re put to;
  • To slightly adapt Friedrich Kittler, “New technologies do not make old technologies obsolete; they assign them other places in the system.”

I’m thinking about these matters a lot because not long ago I made a significant change in my research methods for my book in progress. This is the largest and most complex project I’ve even endeavored, and has, as Tolkien said about The Lord of the Rings, “grown in the telling”; keeping all the citations, quotes, information, and ideas straight has been ... well, I started to write “extremely difficult,” but I think I need to amend that to “impossible.”

Then, after reading Hua Hsu’s wonderful review-essay, I picked up a copy of Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, and when I got to his chapter on note cards, a light went on: That’s what I need, I said to myself. Index cards. So here’s what I did:

Firs, I bought index cards in various colors. Then I assigned a color to each of the major thinkers I’m writing about in my book: W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil — and reserved white cards for general notes (ideas, tasks, etc.). Every time I add a card to any of the colored stacks I number it, so I can cross-reference cards: e.g., the seventeenth blue card (Simone Weil) would be referred to elsewhere as B17. Finally, when the date of a publication or event is relevant, I write that date in the upper right corner. Every few days I read through the cards to discern correspondences, which I can then mark by cross-reference. And when I sit down at the computer I surround myself with these cards, which I can lay out in whatever pattern seems appropriate at the time, taking in the relevant content at a glance.

This is one of the best organizational decisions I have made in a long time, and I’m already thinking about ways to extent it to other kinds of tasks: class planning, for instance. If I learn anything more of interest as this project moves along, I’ll make a report here.

more on the Theses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mark Greif and Mrs. Turpin

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

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

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

Okay? All set?

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

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

About this passage Greif writes,

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

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

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

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

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

The book struck her directly over her left eye.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

isolation and proximity

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

rant of the day

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

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

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Carr on Piper on Jacobs

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

what buttons want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cross-posted at The Infernal Machine

Monday, April 6, 2015

on Adam Roberts's Bête

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

This is a book about the fungibility of identity

This is a book about the persistence of identity

This is a book about the relationship between identity and body

This is a book about the unforeseen consequences of technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a book about the problem of other minds

Morozov on Carr

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 3, 2015

four categories of novels

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

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

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

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

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

That is all.

a Good Friday meditation

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

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

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


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

Your Cordelia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

on the attention economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at The Infernal Machine

Intellectual Vices

straw man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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