Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, April 29, 2017

the masterful diptych of Coroger Zelaznorow

It’s been very interesting for me to re-read — for the first time in 40 years, so who am I kidding, let’s just say read — Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. It’s a wonderful book, and I am especially pleased that I got to it just after reading Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway. Doctorow’s book has some good points, but I wasn’t a big fan — I felt it left too many important questions unasked — until I realized something: Lord of Light, though written fifty years ago, is actually the sequel to Walkaway. And if you think of the two books as a diptych, the first installment gets a lot more interesting. Let me explain, with many spoilers.

Roughly in the middle of Doctorow’s novel “walkaway” scientists – that is, scientists who have gone off the standard panoptic grid of our world, the “default” world, have headed out into the wilderness to live in anarchic community — figure out how to upload human consciousness to digital form and then reconstitute that consciousness. Which means, at least according to one way of thinking, the way of thinking that Doctorow allows to dominate the book, the end of the reign of death.

The chief conflict of the book, then, pits the scientists who want to share this power with everyone against the capitalist one-percenters of “default,” who want to keep it for themselves – partly because they think that scarcity creates value and they are the Lords of Value, but also because they control the 99% by making them afraid of bodily harm and death. (As David Graeber wrote a decade or so ago, our whole social order is upheld by the threat of violence against bodies, and Walkaway is essentially Graeberian political philosophy in novelized form.)

Eventually the good guys win out, and immortality-via-upload becomes widely available – but it turns out that those minds miss being embodied, and scientists somehow find a way to grow bodies and reanimate them by injecting them with consciousness. Or something. (There aren't a lot of details.)

The story begins less than a century from now, and ends not too much later. So let’s fast-forward a few thousand years, and imagine that Earth has died or been destroyed but humanity has spread elsewhere in the galaxy. And on at least one of the planets our descendants colonize, control of immortality has been seized by a tiny few. It turns out that, for them, simply being immortal – or, if that’s the wrong word, simply having access to recurrent embodiment – isn’t enough. Welcome to the world of Lord of Light, or, as I prefer to think of it, Walkaway: The Sequel.

The attentive reader of both books will notice that one difference between the two is that in Lord of Light human minds are no longer uploaded to the cloud, stored on a networked server, but are simply transferred from one body to another. Our author, Coroger Zelaznorow, doesn't explain this, but it’s easy to understood what must have happened in the intervening centuries. Already in Walkaway we see the disturbances that arise when more than one living instance of the same, or “same,” person is around; those disturbances surely would have been magnified as downloading became more widespread, not least among megalomaniacs who wanted to see themselves as widely distributed in the world as possible. Moreover, minds uploaded to networked servers would have found themselves subject to to the experiments, relatively benign or deeply malicious, of hackers. In the end, it seems clear, the protocols of transfer were deemed safer, more reliable, and less subject to abuse than the protocols of uploading/downloading. Perhaps someday Zelaznorow will write a novel about this period of transition between the two ways of making us immortal: the Networked Way and the Way of Transference.

Now, it will immediately be seen that the Way of Transference introduces a complication: if your consciousness is not uploaded to a supposedly safe location, then if you are murdered or have a fatal accident you, as they say in Lord of Light, “die the real death.” But is this a bug or a feature? Might it not be that many who have lived a very long time, in multiple bodies, learn that death is indeed the mother of beauty? We might here compare Iain M. Banks’s Culture books, in which, as Banks himself explained, most people live a few hundred years and then accept death. Not all — some choose the Networked Way and get themselves downloaded immediately or after a period of sleep — but most. It seems likely that to the potential immortals of Lord of Light the possibility of the “real death” is another reason for preferring the Way of Transference.

Over time, the controllers of any given culture learn how technologies work, decide which potentialities are to be embraced and which resisted, tune their employment of those technologies to their larger purposes. In Walkaway the controllers, the capitalist one-percenters, want to keep immortality for themselves, but by the time of Lord of Light the strategy has become more complex.

If Walkaway offers its readers a straightforward and apparently simplistic victory for sharing — for acting on the assumption of abundance rather than scarcity — Lord of Light shrewdly and usefully complicates the situation by showing that even if sharing wins in one place and time it may not do so always and everywhere. The Lords of Karma, as they call themselves, have discovered the virtues of control that is not based on exclusive possession. They do not want to keep immortality only for themselves; they want to share it; but they want to exercise precise control over that sharing.

And it turns out that the ideal structure to enable what they want is that of traditional Hinduism. Within a social order aligned to the Hindu cosmos, they can be gods, each of whom “rules through [his or her] ruling passions,” as one of them says, achieving and enacting the apotheosis of that passion. And by controlling Transference, they can punish those they deem wicked by re-incarnating them in an inferior body, perhaps that of an animal — you can never be sure in this world that a dog is merely a dog —, and reward those whom they deem virtuous by elevating their status, incarnation by incarnation, raising them up to become demigods and then, ultimately, gods. (Of course, employing the time-honored logic of colonial powers they say that they are merely withholding blessedness from those who are not yet ready for it.) And only those who have fully internalized the ethos of the Lords of Karma will be allowed to join that pantheon. The world is governed, then, by a self-perpetuating oligarchy which must occasionally refresh itself, if only because over the centuries some will inevitably “die the real death.”

And a world so ordered is one in which the Lords of Karma are gods not just because they are (probably) immortal and (certainly) immensely powerful, but also because they can compel worship. The capitalists of Walkaway manifest a craving for mere power that would be annoyingly simplistic if the book stood alone; but when we understand that it is the first book of a diptych then we see that it describes a fairly early stage in the history of oligarchy, and that later stages make progress by a kind of ressourcement. The unspoken motto of the Lords of Karma is: Ad fontes! And the fontes to which they return are those of religion. They receive worship, and they gratify the desire of many human beings to find something or someone to worship. And by reliably granting ascent to those who satisfy their demands, they create an orderly, coherent, and logical system — a system which constitutes a powerful myth, and, as Freddie deBoer recently commented in an essay which only superficially seems to have little in common with this one, "the human animal runs on myth."

Only a great scoundrel would seek to disrupt so peacefully disciplined a world. Or a great saint. Or someone who is a bit of both.

When I read Walkaway I was disappointed by its limited exploration of the ethics of immortality, and the complete lack of interest in metaphysics. (There is no myth in Walkaway: the place of myth is taken by 3D printers.)  The book elides vital questions simply by treating the reconstituted minds as the very same characters whom we have come to know, as the other characters themselves do. There are bits of desultory conversation about the continuity of identity via digital representation, but the narrative simply doesn't allow us to take seriously the possibility that such representations could be deceptive and that the characters for whom we have come to have affection have in fact “died the real death.” It is only when reading Lord of Light that we see how Zelaznorow calls into question the narrative assumptions of Walkaway.

Similarly, in Walkaway our characters mainly want to stay alive, to enjoy one another’s company, to feel useful — they don't inquire any further into life’s possible meanings, its ultimate values, what Robert Pirsig (God bless his soul) called Quality. But all these lacunae turn out not to be oversights but rather a clever suspending of certain questions so that they can be explored more fully in the sequel. That Zelaznorow is a genius. But you can only see that if you read the sequel. Reading Walkaway alone might be an underwhelming experience.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

people and algorithms, principalities and powers

In this interview, Jill Lepore comments,

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

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



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

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

principalities, powers, and the technical boy

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


One: Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two: Ancient Unities

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three: New Gods

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

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

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

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told you this would be kinda weird.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Tech-Wise Family

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

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

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

the Rathenau seance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

idolatry revisited

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

the factory of idols

Herewith a kind of thought experiment:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

listening, then transmitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

weird beliefs and the hermeneutics of suspicion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

more on the Anthropocene theology project

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

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

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

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

But I bet someone will publish it.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Anthropocene theology

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

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

Ours; not-ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More thoughts about all this in my next post.

Text Patterns is back from the dead!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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