Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 19, 2017

Q&A

Q: Why are you reading all this stuff, anyway? It seems pretty obvious that you don’t have much sympathy for it.

A: That’s a good question. I could give several answers. For one thing, I’m not as lacking in sympathy as you think. I have respect for any good-faith attempts to reckon with the immensely vexed question of what it means to be human, and the corollary questions about how we are most healthily related to the nonhuman, and I think Morton and Haraway are really trying to figure these things out. There’s a moral urgency to their writing that I admire.

Q: Is that so? Sure doesn’t sound like it.

A: Well, yeah, I guess that last post was kind of negative. As I was reading Morton I realized that some pretty important intellectual decisions had been made before he even began his argument, and I wanted to register that protest.

Q: But if you feel that a particular philosophical project has gone astray from the start, why not just move along to thinkers and lines of thought you find more fruitful, more resonant with potential?

A: Remember that this is a work in progress: as I said in that post, I’m currently reading Morton, I’m not done. (And in a sense I’m still reading Haraway, even though I put her book aside months ago.) When you’re blogging your way through a reading project, any one post is sure to give an incomplete picture of your response and likely to give a misleading one.

Q: Fair enough, I guess, but there does seem to be a pattern to your writing about a lot of recent work. You read it, think about it, and then declare that there are resources in the history of Christian thought that address these questions — whatever the questions are — better than the stuff you’ve been reading does. So why not just read and think about those Christian figures who always seem to do it better?

A: Because often those non-Christian (or non-religious, or anti-Christian, or anti-religion) thinkers often raise important questions that Christians tend to neglect, and I have to see whether there are in fact such adequate resources from within Christianity to address the questions raised by others. So far I have found that my tradition is indeed up for those challenges, buts its resources are augmented and strengthened by having to address what it never would have asked on its own. I truly believe that Christianity will emerge stronger from a genuinely dialogical encounter with rival traditions, in part because it will (as it has so often in the past) adopt and adapt what is best in those traditions for its own purposes. It doesn’t always work out that way; Hank Hill was right when he said to the praise band leader “You’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock-and-roll worse!” But most of the time the genuinely dialogical encounter more than pays for itself.

Q: Maybe. But you often seem out of your depth with the kind of thing —the kind of stuff you’re reading theses days — and often in the mood to kick over the traces. Wouldn’t you be better off sticking with the stuff you actually have a professional level of knowledge of? Auden? Other twentieth century religiously-inclined literary figures?

A: Honestly, you may be right. I often wonder about that very point. And that’s one of the reasons — that’s the main reason, I guess — why I talk about writing books of the technological history of modernity and the Anthropocene condition but end up writing them about the stuff I have spent most of my career teaching.

Q: So why are you even here, man? Why not drop this blog and get back to work in your own field?

A: Because this is a place where I can exercise my habitual curiosity about things I don’t know much about. Because this is a kind of Pensieve for me, a way to clear away thoughts that otherwise would clog up my brain. Because every once in a while something of value coalesces out of all this randomness. I have very few readers and still fewer commenters, so I’m not getting the thrill of regular feedback, but hitting the “Publish” button offers an acceptable simulacrum of accomplishment. Those are probably not very good reasons, but they’re the reasons I have.

But I’m not gonna lie: spending so much time reading stuff with which at a deep level I’m at odds is wearing, it really is. Especially since I know that the people I’m reading — and working so hard to read fairly — are highly unlikely to treat serious Christian thinkers with comparable respect. With any respect. They don’t know that Christian theology that’s deeply and resourcefully engaged with the modern world exists, and if they knew they wouldn’t care. What’s I’m doing when I read thinkers like Morton and Haraway is an engagement on my part, but it’s not a conversation. That’s just what it’s like if you want to bring Christian thought to bear on modern academic discourse. You only do it if you believe you’re called to do it.

10 comments:

  • For what it's worth, stumbling onto your Twitter account and writings was one of the best Twitter decisions I ever made. It is the driving reason why I even check Twitter some days. The diversity, thoughtfulness, wit, and intellectual aspects of your posts keep me reading. They push me too, encouraging me to read more, keep my brain sharp, etc. Bring on whatever you decide to post about, because I sit at your feet.

  • Those are very kind words, Matt. Thank you.

  • To follow-on from Matt's comments: it was reading your online work, and finding myself increasingly engaged and fascinated by it, that led to you and I getting to know one another in real life. So, yes, I can see that for you there are substantial downsides to all this.

    (More seriously: I can only offer myself as example, but am absolutely certainly I'm not alone, that writing of such high calibre as yours does reach and influence non-Christian readers; such that maybe you are engaged in more of a dialogue than you realise).

  • I appreciate reading what is thoughtful and not always the same as my opinions. That's hard to find today. I confess to checking back here and on the blog every few days when I knew that you were gone.

  • As a non-Christian reader who often disagrees with your basic assumptions about what it is to be human, I find all of your writing (and your writing on technology in particular) to be among the most nuanced and powerful that I encounter anywhere. It has enriched my life and changed the way I think. I really hope you keep it up.

  • Thanks very much, folks. I didn't realize that I had framed my post as a plea for support and encouragement, which I suppose just goes to show how little self-awareness even an elderly man such as I can have.

  • I started reading both your blogs and Adam Roberts's at about the same time, due mostly to your enthusiasm for his The Thing Itself, which I recommend to anyone who will listen (and I so hope his Anthony Burgess project on Unbound gets fully funded), and also to a friend using your work as research for his own book, Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era. I have been richly rewarded.

  • I've often resorted to writing out dialogues with myself when perplexed about particular problems. It's comforting to see someone else use the form.

  • I may be a bit more sympathetic to this stuff than you—though I think we both seem to prefer Latour to the OOO folks or whatever Haraway is—but I think you're right that there are fundamental commitments that just diverge at a certain point. Ultimately, proponents of OOO think that the universe is (or should be) most like a democracy; Christians think it's most like a big, ancient household with the LORD as the paterfamilias. (Or something like that. I don't feel totally good about those metaphors.) Graham Harman is dismissive about the idea of God because he's committed to ontological equality of all beings. Latour, at various points, is pretty uncomfortable with any notion of transcendence. At some point that's just a basic, presuppositional level of disagreement where dialogue alone can't achieve the work that needs to be done.

    All that's just to say, I guess, that I'm also wrestling with this stuff from the perspective of a traditionalist Christian, though for me it's dissertation material rather than a blog. I have found that interacting with these folks has given me room in the academy to tackle some questions from within our tradition that I find meaningful, so I think the (admittedly one-sided) dialogue remains worth carrying on. So I hope you keep it up, if only because it helps ME pursue MY projects.

  • I made my comment because I've intended to say so for awhile and this post seemed to be in the neighborhood of Apropos. It wasn't, per se, at least for me, that this dialogue signaled a Plea to start a round of encouragement or anything. Again, for what it's worth...

    Back to the guitar I go for now. And complaining about VAR under my breath.

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