Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 21, 2017

the factory of idols

Herewith a kind of thought experiment:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

listening, then transmitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

weird beliefs and the hermeneutics of suspicion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

more on the Anthropocene theology project

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

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

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

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

But I bet someone will publish it.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Anthropocene theology

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

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

Ours; not-ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More thoughts about all this in my next post.

Text Patterns is back from the dead!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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