Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 5, 2017

restocking the toolbox

Maybe the coolest thing about my current project is that I get to read — I am obliged to read — theology, the history of technology, and science fiction, in a sort of rotation. These very different genres rub against one another in fascinating ways.

But I am finding that the theology I’m reading isn’t helping me much, at least not so far, and I’m somewhat troubled by that. In this post I’m going to try to explain my frustrations. I’ll be recording impressions more than formulating firm judgments, as a means, I hope, of clarifying those impressions. But because I don’t want to be unfair I won’t be naming names of authors or books. This may make the post less useful to others; if so, my apologies.

Here’s my first impression: professional theologians have acquired in the course of their training a conceptual toolbox which they believe to contain the tools necessary to evaluate and critique cultural developments. Now, that conceptual toolbox was developed and acquired in an era previous to the emergence of our current technopoly, of what I’m calling the Anthropocene — see my first post on the subject for a definition. Yet the structures and practices of the Anthropocene are precisely what require theological interpretation. So in my judgment the existing toolbox is inadequate; but it does not appear that way to the theologians.

Imagine a complex locking mechanism — the kind of thing one might see in Myst — you know, like this:


The theologians’ toolbox contains instruments that enable them to manipulate the mechanism — click this and turn that — which is enough to make them believe that they are making real progress. What they don’t notice is that the locks aren’t opening.

Is that a useful metaphor? Hmmm, I’m not sure. Let’s try a different one: they’re typing the instructions they know into a command-line shell and are pleased that they’re getting responses in return. What they don’t realize is that those responses are error messages. They don’t know the right commands to get their requests executed; they may not even, probably don’t, know the language in which the program was written or to which it will respond.


I’m groping for metaphors here — but that’s telling, because whenever we’re trying to understand some new phenomenon we do so by employing metaphors as bridges between the known and the unknown. Our transition to the Anthropocene era is therefore popping with metaphors: to take just one common example, increasing attention to research on the workings of the human brain has ben accompanied by increasing reliance on the notion than the brain is a kind of computer. It isn’t, and the more dominant that metaphor is the less we are likely to understand our brains; but that just makes the repeated invocation of that metaphor all the more telling and all the more worthy of exploration.

The tools in the theologians’ toolbox don’t work very well with metaphors. They are, rather, almost all designed to work on explicit concepts and propositions, which may then be juxtaposed to the explicit concepts and propositions of theology. Metaphors contain or allude to concepts and propositions but also embody desires, orientations of the will, impulses, attractions and repulsions, bodily practices….

I would like to see, and not just in theology but in all the other humanistic disciplines, a renewed attention to metaphor and myth – matters so thoroughly and relentlessly explored in the 1950s and 1960s sixties that scholars and artists alike became exhausted with those topics and turned to other matters: first the linguistic turn of deconstruction and allied movements and then the material turn of the New Historicism, cultural studies, eco-criticism, body criticism, and the like.

Meanwhile the powerful cultural work of metaphor and myth continues unnoticed by scholars and rarely even acknowledged by writers and artists. It is not that scholars today are unaware of metaphor, or wholly inattentive to it, but they are chiefly interested in the extent to which it is reflective of ideology. For instance, in one of the better-known passages of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By we see the various ways in which argument is conceptualized as war — which is a useful point (I draw on it in my forthcoming How to Think) but this kind of analysis, which draws a straight line between a particular metaphor and some common element from elsewhere in our cultural lives, ideally one with a clearly political character, marks only one of the ways that metaphor works. It’s interpretatively limited because it’s unaware of the ways that metaphors do affective and aspirational work that is not reducible to, or even identifiable with, any particular spot on our ideological maps.

In Walkaway, about which I posted recently, it’s interesting to see how Cory Doctorow places almost all his hopes for the future in the development of 3D printing, without, I think, realizing that the 3D printer has taken on for him a radiating metaphorical significance that places it somewhere along a continuum between Vaucanson’s defecating duck and a deus ex machina. There’s an interpretation of this ready-to-hand: the 3D printers in this novel are a synecdoche for capitalism, which fulfills our desires while hiding from our sight the preconditions and the raw materials from which our wish-fulfillments are concocted. And that’s true, but there is far more going on here, including, I think, another example of the power of universal machines, which, as I commented the other day, makes the idolorum fabricam into the idol itself. The smartphone and the 3D printer are the two smiling faces of the god of this world.

This is the kind of ongoing metaphorical meaning-making that theologians need to understand but that they don’t have the tools to explore. I think we desperately need now is a recovery of interest in metaphor and myth – not a simple return to the days of Northrop Frye and Mircea Eliade and Suzanne Langer, but a redirecting of attention to those fields of inquiry in light of what we have learned since that half-century ago heyday of mythology and mythopoesis.

Moreover, Christian approaches to contemporary culture needs to get more creative in the making of metaphors, not just the interpreting of them. And if that seems too risky to people than they might remember that one of the ways to do this is by recovering the lost imaginative worlds of our predecessors in the faith. In this light we might take as our models the leaders of the mid–20th century nouvelle theologie, whose theology was nouvelle because it was based in ressourcement, in the recovery of ideas and metaphors that had been forgotten in the development of scholastic theology and the intellectual war with Protestantism.

I’ll end today's incoherent rambling with a passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s early book The Presence of Myth, a passage that I think hints provocatively at the Powers that I’m trying to bring together in this project:

Metaphysical questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs, namely, that aspect that refers intentionally to nonempirical unconditioned reality. The presence of this intention does not guarantee the existence of the referents. It is only evidence of a need, alive in culture, that that to which the intention refers should be present. But this presence cannot in principle be the object of proof, because the proof-making ability is itself a power of the analytical mind, technologically oriented, which does not extend beyond its tasks. The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical.


  • Have you interacted with Brian Brock's Christian Ethics in a Technological Age? Or Albert Borgmann's Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life? I have a great interest in the issues you are addressing and have found both of these books quite helpful. Borgmann's Power Failure is also a good, though uneven collection of essays written as a result of interaction and consultation with Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, David Wood and others. Andy Crouch is drawing on many of Borgmann's insights in his new book. There is also a helpful interview with Borgmann here: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2901—Kenny Benge, Nashville TN

  • Kind of beside the point, but I thought it was funny that the article directly above this one in my email was: http://nautil.us/blog/stop-saying-the-brain-learns-by-rewiring-itself (about how brains are more like computers than we thought)

  • Between your first paragraphs and the closing Kolakowski quote, I'm reminded of not just the modernist fiasco of fundamentalism (I say fiasco because, you know, literalist interpretations of scripture don't work), but also of some of its possibly more respectable contemporary descendants, like The Case For Christ. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like a large part of your project here might be to reveal as incoherent the "lawyerly" or scientific approach to faith—whether that approach is from the professional academic theologians or the people who write trade paperbacks about Why Christianity Is True.

  • If I understand the Kolakowski passage (or its deployment here) correctly, is he saying that metaphysical questions, containing not only concepts but also deeply felt-yearnings and experiences, are not fully answered by today's philosophical/theological systems? That is, that said systems, being abstract and dealing with issues of causality, etc.,, do not engage the aspirational, the inchoate, and the ineffable? (Akin to Wordsworth's "we murder to dissect"?) (Also, I assume Kolakowski's use of "proof" here is in the sense of "scientific proof/method" and not necessarily in the sense of "reasoned conclusion"?) If I'm misunderstanding, please let me know.

    Otherwise, this is a wonderful, provacative post. I look forward to seeing these thoughts fleshed out in the Anthropocene book!

  • Kenny, if you look at the tag cloud on the right of this post you might see some names you recognize.

    Andrew, you and I would probably agree about many of the problems with evidence-that-demands-a-verdict style apologetics, but that's really not my project here. I'm looking for better theological instruments with which to understand the particular point in late modernity where many of us have landed.

    Sam, that's not bad as a paraphrase of Kolakowski, but I'll wait and say more in a later post.

  • I'm not sure if it'll be helpful, but you might try Adam Miller's "Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology" as a type of theology trying to work with a different toolbox, one that might be more suited your Anthropocene question.

  • I used Miller in this course. I hope this doesn't sound terrible, friends, but if there’s one thing I don't need it’s reading recommendations.

    That probably does sound terrible. I just get a little tired of saying “Yes, I’ve read it” over and over. I read a lot — I mean, a lot — and there’s at least a 98% chance that I’ve already read whatever you recommend. And much of the reading I’m doing now is actually re-reading.

    Now, if you were to say “Here’s something I’ve found helpful and here’s why” — that would be quite welcome indeed.

  • ...increasing attention to research on the workings of the human brain has been accompanied by increasing reliance on the notion than the brain is a kind of computer

    I'm a k-12 teacher, not a researcher, so I have no idea if this is widespread in cognitive science, but it feels as if I'm seeing more and more things that use ecological and evolutionary metaphors for the mind (and learning) than computational metaphors (whose usage, I thought, peaked a few decades ago).

    Here is an interesting passage from Richard Lesh (mathematics edu researcher):

    [Researchers on children's learning] have challenged us to shift toward wetware-based metaphors where organize neurochemical interactions may involve 'logics' that are fuzzy, partly redundant, partly inconsistent and unstable. So developing knowledge is thought of as being similar to developing communities of complex, dynamic, continually adapting biological systems.

    This evolutionary metaphor, it seems to me, is the central idea guiding the recent AI breakthroughs (e.g. here).

    (This line of thought reminds me both of the Southern Reach Trilogy as well as your review of it.)

    Perhaps there is some godly myth-making to do with ecological metaphors. Could we see God as mutating and evolving to adapt to current historical conditions? Or the relation between genetic and epigenetic phenotypes to understand the relationship of sacred texts to changing readers?

  • I have found the work of John Dyer, a graduate of and web developer at Dallas Theological Seminary, to be very helpful in understanding the interplay between technology, culture, and theology. He's guided me away from an instrumentalist view of technology to the "Social Shaping of Technology" model. He had a good lecture series last October:


    As for metaphor, a missionary friend who was establishing a theological seminary for pastors in southwestern Ethiopia was explaining to us the other year how completely Western-style propositional, systematic theology does not pass "Go" with his students. Instead, they relate to theology through stories and metaphor. I wonder if that hasn't always been true, both in Ethiopia and the West, and we've just been fooling ourselves. Not to say that logical thought is misguided, but that divorced from story and metaphor, it lacks life and vigor, like a bodiless ghost.

  • I should add that John relates a wonderful metaphor comparing God setting Adam loose in the garden to a father setting his children loose with a box of legos, delighting in the things they come up with.

  • Fai enough. My sense was that Miller's book hadn't gotten a lot of traction, so I wasn't certain if people were aware of it.

    I think Miller might be worth visiting because: 1) he uses metaphors extensively, and I think effectively, to explain Latour and his resonance with theology. So it might be useful in that regard. 2) My sense, though I'm not sure, is that you're looking for a theology that is more "post-human" in its orientation, and Miller articulates a flattened (and, in a sense, a very Mormon) theology of grace as acting between all sorts of entities, which would be more applicable to your Anthropocene project.

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