Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

my big fat intellectual project

If there is any one general topic that has preoccupied me in the last decade, it’s ... well, it’s hard to put in a phrase. Let’s try this: The ways that technocratic modernity has changed the possibilities for religious belief, and the understanding of those changes that we get from studying the literature that has been attentive to them. But literature has not been merely an observer of these vast seismic tremors; it has been a participant, insofar as literature has been, for many, the chief means by which a disenchanted world can be re-enchanted — but not fully — and by which buffered selves can become porous again — but not wholly. There are powerful literary responses to technocratic modernity that serve simultaneously as case studies (what it’s like to be modern) and diagnostic (what's to be done about being modern).

I have not chosen to write a book about all this, but rather to explore it in a series of essays. The two key ones, the ones that form a kind of presentatonal diptych for my thoughts, are “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”, which appeared here in The New Atlantis last year, and “The Witness of Literature: A Genealogical Sketch”, which has just appeared in The Hedgehog Review.

These essays offer the fullest laying-out of the history as I understand it to date, but there are a few others in which I have elaborated some of the key ideas in more detail: see this essay on Thomas Pynchon, this one on Walker Percy, this one on Iain M. Banks, and this one on Iain Sinclair. Some of these writers are religious, some are not, some are ambivalent or ambiguous; all of them are deeply concerned with modernity and its real or imagined alternatives, especially those which seem to connect us with what used to be called the transcendent.

These recent posts of mine on what I’m calling the technological history of modernity are part of the same overarching project — a way to understand more deeply and more broadly where we are and how we got here. My reflections will on these matters will continue, probably in one form or another for the rest of my life.


  • I have found myself in the same general line of inquiry, and I am curious if you have spent much time with the poetry of R.S. Thomas.

    His use of "the Machine" as a shorthand for modernity is masterful.

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