GIGO

Freddie deBoer:

Elite American colleges are already more racially diverse than the country writ large, but the perpetual cry is for more people of colour on campus. This is the source of the most persistent criticisms of the SAT. The broad claim about the SAT is that, since there are race and class disparities in SAT scores — white and Asian pupils score better than Hispanic and black, and rich better than poor — then the test must be discriminatory and should be abolished.

This is a bit like blaming seismographs for earthquakes. The SAT does not create inequality; the SAT reveals inequality.

Not a bit like blaming seismographs for earthquakes, almost exactly like that. (Also very much like trying to keep cases of Covid down by limiting testing.) 

I’ve said this before, but anyway: Administrators at elite American universities say they want to reduce race and class disparities in America, and let’s take them at their word (even though, as Freddie shows in that essay and elsewhere on his blog, there are actually good reasons for not taking them at their word). Adjusting their admissions policies won’t do that. It will help only a handful of people who are, for the most part, already ahead of the game. 

What they should do instead is devote a fraction of their enormous financial and intellectual resources to helping younger people out of poverty. The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools are not now what John Dewey intended them to be, and even Dewey’s original vision was far too politicized, but a more genuinely pedagogical version of that endeavor ought to be a model. Our elite universities ought to be asking themselves what they can do to help educate kids so that those kids can eventually do much better than they now do on the SAT and other standardized tests. Instead they want to toss out the tests that reveal the problems we face. 

In general — this is a broad statement, but I really do believe it’s true — all of our major social problems remain intractable largely because we we think we can somehow, magically, achieve “equality of outcomes” without finding out why the existing outcomes are so unequal, and therefore without considering how existing injustices might be ameliorated and future ones headed off. Denouncing unwelcome outcomes is cheap and easy; but there is no law more universally applicable than GIGO

Lebenswelt

Adam Roberts (yes, again):

My problem is not that [Miles Cameron’s Against All Gods] gets this or that specific historical detail or mood wrong; it’s that it doesn’t really engage with ‘history’ at all, despite pretending to do so. Its characters’ sensibilities are modern, its gods agents in the imagined world much as its mortals are — the gods are more powerful, though ‘power’ is rendered here only in terms of the ability to overbear, with violence or words — all potestas, nothing of auctoritas. There’s nothing in these gods of the numinous, the transcendent, nothing of the strange, the awe-inspiring, tarrying or resplendent. This is not a dimension that Cameron reproduces in his imagined Bronze Age; although for ‘actual’ Bronze Age human beings, in their porosity of subjectivity, it was a crucial and wondrous and terrifying aspect of existence. The characters go about their various plot-driven actions, and the storylines are punctuated by interludes of purely somatic intensity (the violence, the fighting, the sex) that do nothing to estrange, to capture or embody the wonder and strangeness of the past as such. 

Great post by Adam. I would just add that precisely the same problem afflicts most SF, which cosplays an imagined future as fantasy cosplays an imagined past (or past-like secondary world). As someone who has toyed with the idea of writing both fantasy and SF, I have always believed that this is the greatest challenge: How to avoid writing characters who are people exactly like me, only placed in a different natural, cultural, and technological environment? But people who are situated in radically different environments develop in wholly different ways: each Lebenswelt generates its own distinctive range of cultural and personal possibilities. Trying to imagine my way from (a) the possibilities, the options of mind and action, available to me in my Lebenswelt to (b) what someone formed in a radically different environment might experience … well, that’s astonishingly difficult. (Indeed, I have felt this challenge so strongly that I’ve never completed anything in either genre. The problem defeats me.) 

One writer who has attempted to think through these problems, though primarily in one novel and with one character, is C. S. Lewis. (He attempts a similar act of historical imagination in Till We Have Faces but without the explicit contrast to our own world.) The novel is That Hideous Strength and the character is Merlinus Ambrosius, who is awakened from 1500 years of sleep into mid-twentieth-century England and is puzzled by everything he sees. For instance: 

“Sir,” said Merlin in answer to the question which the Director had just asked him. “I give you great thanks. I cannot indeed understand the way you live and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it; a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone with no more honor than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there are warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.”  

The novel I think is flawed, but this is quite brilliant, and I wish the world of fiction had more like it. One reason there isn’t: Merlinus is to his modern interlocutors a thoroughly appalling character, who quite readily suggests that a woman who has not behaved in the way he thinks right should be beheaded, and then is befuddled by the response this opinion receives. (“The Pendragon tells me … that you accuse me for a fierce and cruel man. It is a charge I never heard before. A third part of my substance I gave to widows and poor men. I never sought the death of any but felons and heathen Saxons.”) And to create a character so alien to our readerly sensibilities is a risky thing for a storyteller to do; perhaps Lewis was wise to do this only with a minor character. 

After all — and here the imperatives of historical imagination may run contrary to the imperatives of good storytelling, readers do typically want to … well, we have different words for it: people used to say that they like to identify with characters, but now they’re more likely to say that they find characters relatable (or not). This is an impulse that I don’t wish to discourage: as Edward Mendelson says in his excellent book The Things That Matter, “A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.” But, I fear, the more seriously a writer takes this reaction the more constrained that writer will be in historical imagination. 

Jahan Ganesh

The controversies of the day expose a problem with the right and it isn’t corruption. It isn’t “sleaze”. It is the impossibility of chasing money and fighting the culture wars. [Nadhim] Zahawi is one person, but stands for millions of a conservative temper in each generation. They are entitled to choose lucrative work over a life in the institutions that set the cultural weather. They are entitled to deplore the success of the left in bending those institutions to their dogma. What is neither honest nor becoming is to do both: to forfeit terrain and then seethe at its capture by hostile elements. […] 

Some conservatives have rationalised this discrepancy between electoral triumph and cultural retreat as a kind of leftwing swindle. Or, worse, as proof of democracy’s futility. Their own complicity is lost on them. There are Republicans who can’t believe how leftwing universities are and also can’t believe that anyone would ever choose the unlucrative life of an academic. At some point, you’d hope, the irony will dawn on them. 

(Via Andrew Wilson) 

inertia

Peter Gray:

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many people became concerned about the ill effects of child labor on children’s development and wellbeing, and laws were passed to ban it. But now we have school, expanded to such a degree that is it equivalent to a full-time job—a psychologically stressful, sedentary full-time job, for which the child is not paid and does not gain the sense of independence and pride that can come from a real job.

Elsewhere … I have presented evidence that children, especially teenagers, are less happy in school than in any other setting where they regularly find themselves and that increased schooling, coupled with decreased freedom outside of school, correlates, over decades, with sharply increased rates of psychiatric disorders in young people, including major depression and anxiety disorders. 

I came across this 2014 piece via Ed West, and it really does make me think — as it has made others think — that Covidtide has given us a great opportunity to rethink what school is for and who should be in it. But the entrenched assumptions are so strong that I don’t think we’re taking that opportunity. 

Doesn’t it seem to be true — and obviously true — that this kind of inertia is a function of a massively bureaucratic and administrative social order? An anarchist, or at least relatively-more-anarchistic, society would be more agile, more adaptive. I’m becoming more of an anarchist by the day

weapons and separations

Adam Roberts:

But the thing that struck me is the way Gandalf comes back invulnerable. The last we see of Gandalf the Grey he is complaining that he is tired (‘what an evil fortune! And I am already weary’ [348]). Now he has almost limitless energy — when the four of them ride all day and all night across Rohan, Gandalf permits them only ‘a few hours rest’…. Not only does he not need sleep, he cannot be harmed by weapons: ‘Indeed, my friends,’ he tells his companions: ‘none of you have any weapon that could hurt me’ [516]. This carries with it the suggestion that all Gandalf’s subsequent battlefield galivanting with Glamdring is a kind of play-acting: for he can no more be slain than could Milton’s Satan. 

Adam is rarely wrong, as I’m sure he will confirm, but I think he’s wrong here. There’s a big difference between “none of you have any weapon that could hurt me” and “no weapon of any kind can hurt me.” Later he is openly uncertain whether he is a match for the Lord of the Nazgul — why couldn’t that encounter at least potentially end in his death again? I suspect that Adam thinks (confirm this for me, friend) that Gandalf could himself be transformed into a wraith, but if that’s what he’s in danger of, I suspect that Tolkien would have him say so.

But that’s just a suspicion — I’m not sure what could befall Gandalf. I just don’t believe we can say that he is “invulnerable” in any sense of that word I know. 

(By the way, in the movie of RotK, when Gandalf finally does confront that antagonist, Peter Jackson makes one of his very worst mistakes by having the Boss Wraith instantly destroy Gandalf’s staff, thus demonstrating absolute dominance over the wizard. It’s impossible to imagine that Gandalf, who has returned from death to fulfill his role as the Enemy of Sauron, could be utterly helpless before one of Sauron’s servants. Jackson then compounds the error by having the Wraith distracted from Gandalf by events on the battlefield: he immediately flies away rather than pausing for the four seconds it would clearly take him to destroy the staffless wizard whom he knows to be the leader of the rebels against the Dark Lord. It’s such a dumb scene.) 

I’m ignoring the main topics of Adam’s post, but I cherish that as my right. One further thing though: At the end Adam discusses Eomer’s complete ignorance of the existence of Lothlorien, though it’s almost on his borders. I wonder if this is meant to be an illustration in small of a more general phenomenon: the separation of the various peoples of Middle Earth, their withdrawal into “gated communities” with a consequent xenophobia. The leaders of Gondor are largely ignorant, and when not ignorant suspicious, of natural allies like the people of Rivendell; the boundaries of Lothlorien are closely guarded; the people of Bree rarely see travelers from the Shire; the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain don’t even know what has become of their kinsman Balin — and don’t seem especially interested, though they are curious. (How far is it from the Lonely Mountain to Moria? Maybe 600 miles? A goodly distance, but people in these books make such journeys fairly regularly.) We are often reminded that what’s called the Last Alliance of Men and Elves occurred thousands of years before the events of this book. The whole world seems to be afflicted by a mistrust of everyone except those who are definitively One’s Own People. There can be good reasons for mistrust, mind you, but not all of these folks act on good reasons. 

more, please

Ah, here it is: the musical equivalent of ChatGPT. Cool. I want to see more of this. I’ve written before — see the links here — about the ways that musicians have been forced into more inflexibly formulaic compositions and performances. Given the way that the music industry thinks today, who needs musicians? If you want the inflexibly formulaic, computers do that better than humans.

My advice to the big music labels: Cut out the middleman (i.e. the musicians). 

My advice to musicians and people who love actual music: Check out Bandcamp

The Media Very Rarely Lies – by Scott Alexander:

Suppose Infowars claimed that police shootings in the US cannot be racially motivated, because police shoot slightly more white people each year than black people (this is true). This is missing important context: there are ~5x as many white people in the US as black people, so police shooting only slightly more white people suggests that police are shooting black people at ~5x higher rates. But I claim it’s also a failure of contextualization when NYT claims police shootings must be racially motivated because they happen to black people at a 5x higher rate, without adding the context that police are called to black neighborhoods at about a 5x higher rate and so have no more likelihood per encounter of shooting a black person than a white person. Perhaps the failure to add context is an honest mistake, perhaps a devious plot to manipulate the populace — but the two cases stand or fall together with each other, and with other failures of contextualization like Infowars’ vaccine adverse response data.

But lots of people seem to think that Infowars deserves to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse vaccine data claim, but NYT doesn’t deserve to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse police shooting claim. I don’t see a huge difference in the level of deceptiveness here. Maybe you disagree and do think that one is worse than the other. But I would argue this is honest disagreement — exactly the sort of disagreement that needs to be resolved by the marketplace of ideas, rather than by there being some easy objective definition of “enough context” which a censor can interpret mechanically in some fair, value-neutral way. 

I think the difference between Infowars and The New York Times is fairly clear. Because Infowars only covers issues that its editors and readers are exercised about, its stories are reliably dishonest. By contrast, the Times covers a much broader range of stories. When those stories don’t touch on the deep prejudices of the newspaper’s staff and readers, then they can usually be trusted; but on the hot-button issues, the Times is no more trustworthy than Infowars. 

schooled

In his brilliant book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey spends a good deal of time trying to account for the depth and intensity of the hatred of Tolkien among the literati. Many of his points are worthy, but I am especially drawn to something he writes near the end of the book, which he is comparing Tolkien to James Joyce — and there are indeed some interesting points of comparison, for instance in the generic forms their great ambitions take and their fascination with language. But of course there are huge differences as well, and Shippey focuses on one of the most important when he notes their radically different attitudes towards the classical tradition. 

Shippey points out that much Modernist writing depends heavily on literary allusion, and especially allusion to the literary inheritance of Greece and Rome. Ulysses is the obvious example here, followed closely by Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Joyce refers occasionally to Irish myth and legend, and Eliot quotes the Upanishads, but those references are not central; if you really want to get to the heart of those texts, you must know Odysseus and Tiresias. (Shakespeare too.) Even Yeats, for all of his invocations of Irish legend, expects his readers to know about Leda and the swan and to grasp the significance of the death of Agamemnon. The essential works of the classical tradition are the lingua franca for the most ambitious and demanding writers in English-language Modernism. (As they were for Milton, who effectively defines ambition for so many writers that follow him.) 

Tolkien doesn’t care about any of this.

He alludes frequently to works of what he regarded as his own tradition, the ‘Shire tradition’ of native English poetry…. Tolkien’s heroes and his major debts came from the native and Northern tradition which Milton never knew and Eliot ignored: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Sigurd, the Eddic gods — a tradition seen by most modernists as literally barbarous (the possession of people who speak incomprehensible languages). 

In brief, “Tolkien was as educated as [the literati] were, but in a different school.” 

Educated in a different school. And the key point here — Shippey hints at this, but is not quite as explicit as he might have been — is that Tolkien never expects his readers to know any of what he knows. To fully appreciate Ulysses you need to know the Odyssey, but the reader of The Hobbit need not be aware of Snorri Sturluson’s “Tally of the Dwarves” in his Skaldskaparmál:

Nár, Nainn, Nipingr, Dainn,

Bifur, Báfur, Bömbur, Nóri,

Órinn, Onarr, inn, Miöð̠vitnir,

Vigr og Gandálfr, Vindálfr, Þorinn,

Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Váli … 

Indeed, perhaps it is better if we don’t know, at least not until after we’ve read and enjoyed the story. Similarly, it is certainly interesting to note that the exchange between Gandalf & Co. and Háma, the Doorward of Théoden, in The Two Towers is nearly identical to an early scene in Beowulf — but Tolkien doesn’t expect you to know that and your appreciation of the scene isn’t diminished if you don’t. 

The great Modernist writers have a tendency to flatter their learned readers and disdain the others; they are in many respects principially elitist. (As has often been noted, Leopold Bloom is Joyce’s hero but he couldn’t have read Joyce’s book about him.) There’s none of this in Tolkien; the astonishing range of allusions to medieval writing in The Lord of the Rings is certainly meant to provide a kind of felt (not directly perceived) coherence to the reader — Shippey is great on this — but its primary purpose is to satisfy Tolkien’s own imaginative needs. There was, I think, something creatively liberating about having been educated in a school — Germanic and Anglo-Saxon philology — that virtually none of his readers ever attended. 

I’m not crazy about David French’s going to the NYT, because I think we need more excellent writers — and David is an excellent writer — outside the orbit of the Big Media. I guess the upside is that he’ll find some new readers. Still, no real credit to the NYT here. Over the past few years they’ve hired a fairly wide range of opinion columnists, but they suffer from a lamentable shortage of reporters who will discover and report truths that the Times’s audience doesn’t want to hear. Hiring David French is nothing; hiring Matt Taibbi or Chris Arnade would be something. 

the end of the timeline era

Glenn Fleishman:

With Mastodon, you’re not dealing with a giant, faceless company — or a constantly in-your-face CEO — making arbitrary decisions that are often impossible to understand or appeal. Instead, you join a Mastodon server — called an

instance

— run by an individual, company, or organization.

An individual, company, or organization equally free to make arbitrary decisions that are often impossible to understand or appeal. In a related article Fleishman writes,

Each Fediverse instance is its own Little Prince world that can choose to engage with other servers through federation, the interchange of information stored locally with other servers remotely. There’s no one in charge and no single place to go for definitive truth about the network.

“There’s no one in charge” on Mastodon-as-such, because Mastodon-as-such is just some open-source software, but there is very definitely someone in charge on any instance you join, and whoever that is can ban you any time for any reason or none. You can only escape that by creating your own instance of Mastodon, which possibly 0.01% of its users have the chops and resources to do.

Mastodon has certain virtues, at least for some, but let’s not attribute to it powers it does not have. In almost every respect Mastodon functions precisely as Twitter did, with, as I have said before, every single one of Twitter’s perverse incentives. And if you’re not running your own instance you’re not one whit less vulnerable than you were in Elon World.

People who are tempted by Mastodon should at least consider this from Luke: “I’m on Mastodon, but I’m bored of what I call ‘the timeline era.’ Scanning an unending stream of disconnected posts for topics of interest is no longer fun, I prefer deciding what to read based on titles, or topic-based discussion.” There are more things on the internet, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your timeline. And off the internet: far, far more.

note to self

Repair begins with redirection. Commencing the repair of our cultural ecosphere by shifting attention to neglected things. 

Focal practiceshypomene ➡ the good work of repair

Or: shun the smooth things, get back to the rough ground. But rough ground must be thoroughly prepared for the seeds you want to sow. Only then can roots grow deep. We want food; we’re hungry; our temptation is to scatter the seed blindly and hope for the best. But that’s a recipe for failure. 

What are the focal practices of the wise sower, the responsible gardener? 

Wendell Berry, from “Standing by Words”: 

As industrial technology advances and enlarges, and in the process assumes greater social, economic, and political force, it carries people away from where they belong by history, culture, deeds, association, and affection. And it destroys the landmarks by which they might return. Often it destroys the nature or the character of the places they have left. The very possibility of a practical connection between thought, and the world is thus destroyed. Culture is driven into the mind, where it cannot be preserved. 

Dunsany’s games

In the class I’m currently teaching on fantasy, we are moving from George MacDonald’s Phantastes to Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Phantastes is a classic quest romance, with the added dimension, as Harold Bloom pointed out in a justly famous early essay, that in Romantic and post-Romantic narrative any quest will be primarily an internal one, a psychological or spiritual searching.  

More critics than I can readily count have said that Dunsany is the father of modern fantasy, but it’s very interesting in light of that claim to see how frequently he subverts the expectations of fantasy in all of its forms. For instance … well, why don’t you take just a few minutes now and read a very short story of his called “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”? I’ll wait.

See what he did there? One of the things that we always hear in quest romances, and in other forms of fantasy, is that the protagonist of our story is striving to succeed in an endeavor which many before him have unsuccessfully attempted. Our interest, then, in this protagonist is closely related to our belief that he will indeed succeed in his quest. But the protagonist of “The Hoard of the Gibbelins” does not succeed. It’s very shrewdly and wittily done.  

Interestingly enough, the protagonist of that story has almost exactly the same name (Alderic) as the protagonist of The King of Elfland’s Daughter (Alveric). And that might suggest to us that Dunsany wants to play with the conventions and expectations of his chosen genre in that novel as well. Let’s take a look.

In the first chapter, the prince Alveric is given a task, a great Quest to pursue, and … he completes the quest by the end of chapter 3. The story has barely started, and it seems to be over. What that tells us is that Dunsany isn’t actually interested in Quest, at least not in any conventional way, and perhaps, at this point, we should remember that the name of this novel is not The Quest of Prince Alveric but rather The King of Elfland’s Daughter and revise our expectations in light of that title.   

Some of you will know that long ago a scholar named A. J. Greimas – the OG Ayjay, as it were – declared that all stories are comprised of what he called actants. There were six of these, in three pairs: subject/object, sender/receiver, helper/opponent. In a standard quest romance, the Quester, however odd or ambiguous his quest, is always the subject. Thus our interest in Phantastes is always what happens to Anodos; we see the world through his eyes. 

But in Dunsany’s novel things are different. One could say that in the first three chapters of the story, Alveric is the subject, the persons and things of Elfland as the objects, and various figures are helpers or opponents. The primary opponent seems to be the King of Elfland, the primary helper the witch Ziroonderel. But after the completion of his quest, Alveric recedes from the novel for quite some time and the focus moves elsewhere, primarily to the denizens of Elfland. At this point, we would do better to think of the subject of the story as Lirazel and the objects of the story as the things of our world – what Dunsany typically calls “the fields we know” –; and then we might see her husband, her son, and her father as helpers or opponents of hers. In MacDonald’s work women are almost always the helpers or opponents of men; but Lirazel is much more than that even if we can’t quite see her as in any simple sense the protagonist of the story.

It’s a very curious novel with shifting perspectives, and continual reminders that the understanding of one world is never to be given priority over the understanding of another, nor is the understanding of one character to be definitive for the readers. It’s full of sly subversions of the tropes of fantasy, often presented en passant. For instance, there’s a delightful little moment when a troll from Elfland comes to our world on his own Quest, happens to encounter a child, and suggests that perhaps the child would want to go to Elfland — from which, as we know from our fairy tales, she would never return. The child mulls the offer for a moment and then declines, because her mother has made her a jam roll and she wants to eat it. So nothing happens. The troll goes on about his business. 

But we haven’t yet talked about senders and receivers. Here too Dunsany complicates things. At the outset the King of Erl sends his son Alveric to Elfland, and Elfland quite reluctantly receives him. But from that point on we are treated to a series of sendings and receivings, characters moving back and forth between Elfland and the fields we know, Elfland itself contracting and expanding — but hovering over it all are the three great runes of the King of Elfland: the magic he can send forth in power that no one can contest or deflect. The whole story builds to a final sending, a conclusive receiving. 

It is a very strange book — it gets stranger the more you think about it — and is, I believe, a genuine masterpiece. 

focal practices for pilgrim people: intervals

In one sense the question I posed in an earlier post — What are the proper focal practices for a pilgrim people? — has an obvious answer. In a sermon John Wesley wrote that the “chief … means” of God’s grace to us 

are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men. 

Surely it is true, and has been true as long as Christians have walked the earth, and will always be true, that these three practices are permanently and non-negotiably focal for Christians. If we’re not doing these, then we’re going to be distracted, diffracted, “blown about by every wind of doctrine.” 

But if these are the “ordinary channels” by which God conveys grace to us, might there be, in certain times and places, extraordinary channels — channels especially appropriate to a given context? I think so, and in this and future posts will be drawing on Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society to identify some. 

In this post I want to talk about intervals. In an especially provocative passage — and in another, later post I’ll discuss its context — Han writes, 

Only by the negative means of making-pause can the subject of action thoroughly measure the sphere of contingency (which is unavailable when one is simply active). Although delaying does not represent a positive deed, it proves necessary if action is not to sink to the level of laboring. Today we live in a world that is very poor in interruption; “betweens” and “between-times” are lacking. Acceleration is abolishing all intervals. In the aphorism, “Principal deficiency of active men,” Nietzsche writes: “Active men are generally wanting in the higher activity … in this regard they are lazy…. The active roll as the stone rolls, in obedience to the stupidity of the laws of mechanics.” Different kinds of action and activity exist. Activity that follows an unthinking, mechanical course is poor in interruption. Machines cannot pause. Despite its enormous capacity for calculation, the computer is stupid insofar as it lacks the ability to delay. 

Almost everyone at times has the sense that we are not using our technologies but are being used by them. Which is why, in the long run, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, “the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?” We therefore come to imitate the distinctive stupidity of machines. If we are to be stupid, at least let our stupidity be human.  

So maybe the first focal practice, the one that enables all the others, is simply this: to pause. To create intervals in our busyness. Maybe we will later fill those intervals with prayer, for instance, but just to create them is the first desideratum. Pause, and breathe — that alone declares our humanity and distinguishes us from our machines. The pilgrim pauses along the Way, and in that manner combats the laziness peculiar to a technologically accelerated age.  

burn after reading

Dear colleagues, 

I must congratulate you all on what is, so far, a perfect execution of our Plan. You will recall that when we first met, more than a decade ago, we found ourselves confronted with a dramatic decline in enrollment in university humanities courses — throughout the Western world, but especially in the U.S.A. The self-declared radicals who dominated teaching in the humanistic disciplines seemed determined to alienate students as thoroughly as possible from literature, philosophy, and the arts; meanwhile, parents were frantically pushing their offspring towards courses in business and computer science. Very few young readers and thinkers could resist this double discouragement, especially since the forces doing the discouraging seemed in other respects to stand for opposing visions of what the world should be.

We quickly came to agreement on two points: first, that our chances of restoring the university humanities to their proper calling were so small that we could scarcely justify extending any efforts in that direction; and second, that in any case what matters in the long term is not the university disciplines but rather the cultural achievements that those disciplines once cared for: the novels and plays and poems, the treatises and dialogues, the sonatas and symphonies, the paintings and sculptures and beautifully designed buildings.

The key moment in our deliberations, as I recall, came when one of you reminded us of a (probably apocryphal) statement by the novelist Stendhal, who upon eating ice cream for the first time declared, “This is perfectly delicious. What a pity it isn’t forbidden.” 

What a pity it isn’t forbidden. With that thought our Plan was born. The key, we realized, was to transform the works we love from objects of praise to objects of suspicion: things that required “trigger warnings”  and deserved skeptical critique — perhaps utter denunciation for racism or homophobia or racism or ableism or … anything else we could think of. 

Of course, we had to be careful — we had to work by suggestion and implication. We thought that if we made these accusations directly and explicitly we would be laughed at. Looking back, we can see that our caution was in one sense unnecessary: in this environment, no charge against great works of art could possibly be too outrageous. Still, our caution has served us well: We whispered the quiet part, and our colleagues eagerly said the quiet part out loud. Soon enough they were pronouncing their fatwas day in and day out. 

What a pity it isn’t forbidden — the universal human desire for what we are told to hate and despise is our greatest ally. If we persist in our efforts, perhaps one day even Bach will be wholly excluded from concerts, even Shakespeare from theaters, even Homer and Dante from literature classes … and then the Renewal can at last begin. 

Yours in the Great Cause, 

Comrade Gamma 

reflections

Phantastes is all about doubling: reflections in mirrors, a cave of making juxtaposed to a grotto of destruction, a loving womanly beech-tree versus a malicious Maiden of the Ash, a bedroom in an ordinary Victorian home and the twin of that bedroom in Fairy Castle. All of these doublings are most fully embodied in the contrast between our world — where the waters reflect but the sky does not — and Fairy Land — where just the opposite is true.

On the day after his 21st birthday, a man named Anodos enters Fairy Land, undergoes many adventures and trials, and returns to his home twenty-one days later — though the period feels to him like twenty-one years, that is, the equivalent of the time he had previously spent in our world. (The one life mirrors the other.) His parents both being dead, he has now, at reaching his majority, become the head of his household:

My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet. But I fear.

These concerns about the effects of such doubling (such “parallel” experiences) are, it seems clear, George MacDonald’s own concerns about the writing of fantasy. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination” MacDonald confesses quite directly a complication in the writing of what we would now call fantasy but when he called (as he himself said, for lack of a better term) fairy tale:

  1. On the one hand, among the literary genres the fairy tale has a unique power to “wake a meaning” in its readers — and this is a great thing. “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” In seeking this effect the writer of a fairy tale is imitating Nature: “The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise.”
  2. On the other hand, there is nothing the writer of the fairy tale could or should do to determine what meaning is awakened in its readers. He says this repeatedly. “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.” To determine that a single meaning be extracted from the tale is to write an allegory, and “a fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit.” No, “the greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended,” and therefore the fairy-tale writer must be willing to accept, and indeed must (by opening his mind and spirit) court the uncomprehended. Otherwise, why bother writing a fairy tale?

MacDonald knows that this will not be pleasant news to the didactically inclined. But the didactically inclined are free to work in (and to read) genres other than the fairy tale.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

A work of fantasy, then — in addition to being a firefly, and a wind —, may be described as a mirror, but as with the Mirror of Galadriel, what one sees in it is largely determined by who one is. (And anyway, if G. C. Lichtenberg was right, that’s true of all books without exception: “A book is like a mirror,” he said; “If a jackass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”)

But if this mirror will provide any kind of reflection at all in what Lord Dunsany liked to call “the fields we know,” what’s necessary, MacDonald believes, is a kind of consistency in the imagined world one offers to the reader.

Man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms — which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. […] His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it.

This is obviously an adumbration of Tolkien’s more famous concept of “secondary worlds” — but it is clear (see my previous post on mythopoeic promiscuity) that when MacDonald talks about the “laws” of an imagined world he cannot possibly mean the kind of consistency in world-building that Tolkien so prized, and so lamented the absence of in Lewis’s fiction.

I think the laws that MacDonald refers to are mystical and spiritual, and unconnected altogether to the material furniture of the fictional environment. But I need to think about that further — and about the specific ways that MacDonald’s crazy-quilt fictional world just might possess a consistency that allows it to serve as a useful mirror of our own.

R. I. P. Lin Brehmer

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I’m a Texas guy now and proud of it, but Chicago is deep in my heart and always will be — and an essential part of my Chicagoland experience for three decades was WXRT, one of the handful of truly great American radio stations. What made WXRT so wonderful could be summed up by pointing to Lin Brehmer, who came to Chicago a couple of months after I arrived in the area and who hand-crafted amazing musical sequences, year after year after year, until shortly before his death yesterday. (XRT was one of the last big stations to trust its DJs to program their own music — I don’t know whether they still do.) 

For much of his time at XRT Lin featured little audio essays under the general title “Lin’s Bin,” and they were reliably entertaining. I particularly remember two of them. 

One came soon after the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1990, when Lin was tasked with trying to get comments on SRV from various musicians. He described his comical attempts to get in touch with Keith Richards, attempts that ended when he was hung up on by the assistant to Keef’s assistant. Discouraged, he turned to the next person on his list: the great blues singer Koko Taylor. He dialed the number he had, and a male voice answered:

Voice: “Hello?” 

Lin: “Um, yeah, I’m trying to get in touch with Koko Taylor.” 

Voice: “Hang on [hand over receiver to muffle voice] … HEY MOM!!!”

The second story involved Lin’s remembrance of growing up in New York City and getting his first opportunity, as a teenager, to go to a show at the now-legendary Fillmore East. Did he decide to see Jimi Hendrix? Led Zeppelin? The Allman Brothers? Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? No, Lin didn’t choose any of those. He decided, he said, to see … and here he paused, only to resume with sonorous sobriety: Grand Funk Railroad

Lin, you were one of the greats. R.I.P. 

UPDATE: A really nice Twitter-thread tribute to Lin by the legendary producer Steve Albini

enshittification

The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok | Cory Doctorow

Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two-sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them. 

A scathing and utterly compelling treatise, dedicated chiefly to pointing out the comprehensively obvious fact — which hundreds of millions of people seem determined not to face — that TikTok obeys the same enshittifying logic as every other social media platform: “TikTok … is just another paperclip-maximizing artificial colony organism that treats human beings as inconvenient gut flora. TikTok is only going to funnel free attention to the people it wants to entrap until they are entrapped, then it will withdraw that attention and begin to monetize it.” Ergo: “It’s too late to save TikTok. Now that it has been infected by enshittifcation, the only thing left is to kill it with fire.” Q.E.D. 

the buffered self in Fairy Land

A number of years ago I wrote an essay called “Fantasy and the Buffered Self” in which I applied Charles Taylor’s distinction between “porous” and “buffered selves” to the question of why fantasy is such a popular genre in our putatively disenchanted age. There’s a wonderful illustration of this distinction in Chapter VIII of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. Wandering in the woods of what he believes to be Fairy Land, our protagonist Anodos comes across a farmhouse into which he is welcomed by a kindly woman. Anodos tells her is his frightening experiences in the mysterious forest, and she replies, 

“It is just as I feared, … but you are now for the night beyond the reach of any of these dreadful creatures. It is no wonder they could delude a child like you. But I must beg you, when my husband comes in, not to say a word about these things; for he thinks me even half crazy for believing anything of the sort. But I must believe my senses, as he cannot believe beyond his, which give him no intimations of this kind. I think he could spend the whole of Midsummer-eve in the wood and come back with the report that he saw nothing worse than himself. Indeed, good man, he would hardly find anything better than himself, if he had seven more senses given him.” 

Anodos meets this (as it were) well-buffered farmer, who is openly skeptical of any hint that there are strange creatures in the forest — “It is only trees and trees, till one is sick of them” — and then is put to bed in a room that looks not into the forest but across a plain open field. 

I was somewhat sorry not to gather any experience that I might have, of the inhabitants of Fairy Land; but the effect of the farmer’s company, and of my own later adventures, was such, that I chose rather an undisturbed night in my more human quarters; which, with their clean white curtains and white linen, were very inviting to my weariness.

In the morning I awoke refreshed, after a profound and dreamless sleep. The sun was high, when I looked out of the window, shining over a wide, undulating, cultivated country. Various garden-vegetables were growing beneath my window. Everything was radiant with clear sunlight. The dew-drops were sparkling their busiest; the cows in a near-by field were eating as if they had not been at it all day yesterday; the maids were singing at their work as they passed to and fro between the out-houses: I did not believe in Fairy Land. 

Exhausted by his own porosity, Anodos seeks some protective buffers, some “more human quarters,” to shield him from his “own later [i.e. recent] adventures.” Seek and you shall find — even deep in the heart of Fairy Land.   

moderation in consistency: fantasy edition

Adam Roberts:

I have, I think, a rough model of the broader discursive-etymology of Middle Earth/Narnia — their strange hybrid of medieval/Anglo-Saxon and bourgeois 19th/20th century worldbuilding, their Arthurianism (once-and-future kingishness, merlin-y wizards, battles of good against evil), their complex relationship to allegory — and also their relationship to the tradition of Scottian historical fiction and literary antiquarianism. 

This comes from the first post in Adam’s re-read of LOTR, which I am pleased to see, first because I am always glad to hear from Adam on fantasy, second because I am excited that he’s writing a book on fantasy, and third because I am currently teaching a class on fantasy which includes LOTR and I want to learn from him. 

So there will be commentary! — on Adam’s posts but also on what I’m teaching. In fact I have a post on George MacDonald’s Phantastes that’s queued up for Monday. And speaking of … 

Adam is right about the features that link the work of Lewis and Tolkien, but here let me just flag a major difference: they disagreed about as strongly as two writers could on the value of what we might call mythopoeic promiscuity. As I wrote in my biography of Lewis, explaining Lewis’s debt to the early-modern writers in whom Tolkien had no interest: 

The consistency and integrity that Tolkien believed necessary to all “sub-creation” demanded that the “real” world and the imaginary world of Faery be kept completely separate. But such was not the view of Spenser and Sidney and other “romancers” of their time. That Christian theology should “break in” to Arcadia, or to Faery, was in that era a “convention … well understood, and very useful. In such works the gods are God incognito and everyone is in on the secret. Paganism is the religion of poetry through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.” This is a very precise account of what Lewis himself does in Till We Have Faces and, in a different way, in Narnia. It is wrong, therefore, to suppose that the difference on this matter between Tolkien and Lewis can be described in terms of a careful, scrupulous Tolkien and a thoughtless, inattentive Lewis. Tolkien may have been a greater writer of fiction than Lewis — indeed, I feel sure that he was — but not because he had a sound theory of subcreation while Lewis was just playing with his toys. The approach Lewis took has deeper historical roots than Tolkien’s, and in following it Lewis was walking in the footsteps of great predecessors indeed. 

It’s the model of Spenser and (especially) Sidney that Lewis draws on when, for instance, he brings Father Christmas into Narnia — about as flagrant a violation of consistency in world-building as could be imagined. Tolkien was horrified and attributed such jarring juxtapositions to incompetence; but Lewis knew what he was doing. 

What I didn’t say in that passage was that in embracing mythopoeic promiscuity, Lewis was also following in the footsteps of his “master” MacDonald. In the fifth chapter of Phantastes we get the myth of Pygmalion, and in the sixth Anodos encounters Sir Percival; MacDonald is perfectly happy to have a wide range of mythological, legendary, and literary worlds knocking against one another. And if I were to make a defense of this procedure, I’d begin by noting that a great many myths and tales and legends are always knocking against one another in our own heads.

Not for nothing does he choose this passage about “true fairy tales” [echten Märchen] from Novalis as the epigraph to his tale:

Die ganze Natur muss wunderlich mit der ganzen Geisterwelt gemischt sein; hier tritt die Zeit der Anarchie, der Gesetzlosigkeit, Freiheit, der Naturstand der Natur, die Zeit von der Welt ein… 

All of nature must be wonderfully mixed with the whole of the spirit world; here comes the time of anarchy, lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of nature, the time of the world…. 

Anyway, go read Adam’s post now — there is much insight in it.

P.S. The title of this post comes from this

the post-literate academy and this blog

The Post-Literate Academy – by Mary Harrington:

When it’s so difficult to imagine the academy as we know it surviving the demise of ‘deep literacy’, the prospect of a post-literate academy leaves me wondering: what will be the character of the ‘knowledge’ such an institution produces?

It’s too early to be sure, but my bet is that such ‘knowledge’ will be (indeed, already is) much more directly moral in character than the abstract, analytical, and (aspirationally at least) objectively factual ideal of ‘knowledge’ produced by the print-era university. I also think we can connect this to the profoundly religious flavour of the ‘no debate’ activism now commonplace on universities. In [an essay since paywalled], Eliza Mondegreen describes being on the receiving end of such ‘knowledge’ at a heavily protested at McGill University talk by human rights professer Robert Wintemute — a talk eventually shut down, seemingly with if not the support at least zero objection from university administrators. And it’s my contention that we should get used to it. [Here is a description of the event.] 

That is: I don’t wish to add to the usual chorus of tutting at student activist mobs here, as though these could be fixed with more ‘free speech’. On the contrary: it is my gloomy contention that the more post-literate academia becomes, the more such aggressive and intransigent mob morality will become not the exception but the norm. And there will be no fixing it, because ‘free speech’ was a print-era ideal, and that’s indisputably not where we are any more. 

I think this is right — it rhymes with my argument about the resurgence of what Kołakowski calls the “mythical core” of the social order. 

In some ways the trend Harrington describes here, however otherwise regrettable, is a corrective to a pinched, narrow, and wholly inadequate understanding of “rational” inquiry based on principles thought by such advocates to arise from the Enlightenment. (There were several Enlightenments, no one of which is wholly reconcilable with the others.) Consider this recent essay by Steven Pinker — or, for now, just one brief passage from it: 

Though each of us is blind to the flaws in our own thinking, we tend to be better at spotting the flaws in other people’s thinking, and that is a talent that institutions can put to use. An arena in which one person broaches a hypothesis and others can evaluate it makes us more rational collectively than any of us is individually. 

Examples of these rationality-promoting institutions include science, with its demands for empirical testing and peer review; democratic governance, with its checks and balances and freedom of speech and the press; journalism, with its demands for editing and fact-checking; and the judiciary, with its adversarial proceedings. 

This all sounds lovely, but the peer-review system is fundamentally broken; the only thing that any journalistic outlet does reliably well is to point to the ways that other journalistic outlets don’t edit or fact-check; many institutions of representative democracy (the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Parliament) have effectively abandoned their responsibilities; and the Federal judiciary is widely believed to be made up of politicians in robes.

Whether things are quite as bad as the linked stories indicate may be debated, but that the public doesn’t trust any of these institutions is unquestionable. That’s at least in part because the public knows the truth one of the great maxims of the Enlightenment (that movement that Pinker claims to be a spokesman for): “Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” You don’t have to be a fully-paid-up member of the Critical Theory Brigade to suspect that appeals to disinterested rational inquiry are often thinly disguised schemes by certain people to retain institutional and cultural power. 

But then, so also are the campaigns of what I call Left Purity Culture. I don’t know how you would decide whether our institutions — and especially our academic institutions, which I’m especially concerned with in this post and elsewhere — are worse when they adopt (a) a simplistic model of rational truth-seeking or (b) a simplistic model of myth-driven advocacy for supposed social justice. I certainly can’t decide. But my task here, on this blog, seems to me the same either way. If you don’t know what that is, I’ve described it in the following posts: 

And these posts also explain why this blog’s motto is “More lighting of candles, less cursing the darkness”: While some self-appointed instruments of Justice are hard at work extinguishing the candles of culture and art, while self-appointed custodians of Reason are screaming their denunciations of the destroyers, it often seems to be that there aren’t enough people cupping their hands around the candles that remain to keep them lit. So that’s my job here. 

And it’s worth remembering another point. In two of those posts I quote a passage from one of Tom Stoppard’s plays commending a certain kind of trust: trust that those who come after us will pick up and carry further what we have left behind. Most of our institutions, and above all the great majority of our academic institutions, have rejected the very idea of cultural preservation and transmission. They are occupied and dominated by consumers and destroyers; and precisely the same is true of the shouting, slavering haters who call themselves conservatives. They conserve nothing; none of these people, putatively Left or putatively Right, preserve anything, nor do they build and repair.

But we have so, so many artists — writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, architects — who have left us a wonderful inheritance; and many who even today are adding to that inheritance. At the very least we have to be sure that that inheritance doesn’t stop with us. Perhaps our circumstances militate against greatness in art; but we can do our part to make greatness possible again when the times are less craven.  

two views of Iain McGilchrist

Andrew Louth:

Although McGilchrist is clearly arguing a case (a case that he feels needs to be accepted, if there is to be any future), his mind is profoundly capacious, capable of entertaining ideas coming from elsewhere than he is coming from. The case he is making, however, is not unheard of: it coincides with all-too-common laments about modernity, pointing to the reign of quantity, the rise of individualism, the abandonment of tradition — opinions easily dismissed by those who pride themselves on the achievements of modernity. Perhaps it is to these “cultured despisers” that McGilchrist’s case is directed — a LH case against the hegemony of the LH.

Whether that is so or not, this book is almost unique in combining extensive scientific expertise with learning characteristic of the humanities, a sensitivity to language, and an appeal to poetry as the ultimate language of truth. McGilchrist sounds like someone who knows of what he speaks. RH, he tells us, is disposed to pessimism, but this book gives grounds for at least a cautious optimism, amounting to “good thoughts in bad times.”

Rowan Williams:

And so, unsurprisingly, the second volume of The Matter with Things leads us into considerations about “the sacred.” The chapter on this subject is as long as a short book in itself. It is both the natural conclusion to the argument up to this point and a springboard for further refinement of the themes of the whole project. McGilchrist has no difficulty in seeing off the high-school-debating-society arguments of fashionable atheists (and has some pertinent things to say about the imagined tension between science and religion in another appendix). He quotes with malicious relish from one or two famous names in this field, to demonstrate the intolerant and philosophically crude way in which some polemicists have foreclosed the question of what counts as knowledge or as truthful speech, and draws extensively on the traditions of “negative” theology in the Christian tradition (Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa), as well as ideas from Taoist and Buddhist cosmology, Indigenous American lore, some strands of Jewish Kabbala, and (not least) William Blake.

Whitehead is an important presence in this section of the book, chiefly because of his conviction that “process” is a fundamental category for thinking not only about the finite but also about the infinite; there is an argument for the relation between God and creation being seen as a sort of feedback loop, through which the divine is “enhanced” in some way. McGilchrist also distances himself both from the classical Christian argument about evil as “privation” (that is, as something that has no inherent substantiality but is simply the negation or erosion of what is desired as good) and from the Buddhist affirmation of nonduality (which he sees as compromising the reality of moral choice). He holds back from any identification with a particular religious tradition but is skeptical of the assimilation of spirituality to generalized well-being that seems to pervade so much contemporary talk about religiousness.

Ultimately, as he says in a forceful and eloquent epilogue, we either acknowledge God or we invent a God for ourselves. If we invent a God for ourselves, we are bound to invent that God out of ourselves, out of our own psychic resources, and so sacralize our own ambitions and anxieties, projecting on to the universe our passion for analysis of and control over every aspect of what surrounds us. This is the idolatry that is literally killing us as a species. That is why it is so urgent to rethink how we understand thinking.

Kierkegaard, from his Journals

Christianly the emphasis does not fall so much upon to what extent or how far a person succeeds in meeting or fulfilling the requirement, if he actually is striving, as it is upon his getting an impression of the requirement in all its infinitude so that he rightly learns to be humbled and to rely upon grace. 

To pare down the requirement in order to fulfill it better (as if this were earnestness, that now it can all the more easily appear that one is earnest about wanting to fulfill the requirement) — to this Christianity in its deepest essence is opposed.

No, infinite humiliation and grace, and then a striving born of gratitude — this is Christianity. 

Matthew Loftus:

The option to kill always punishes the most vulnerable. Those who are wealthy and currently fly to a jurisdiction where the killing is legal will find options for themselves, while laws that prevent killing are there to protect those who would otherwise want to live if not for the system that tells them they are or would be a burden. Laws that allow killing entrench and reinforce a culture that values the intelligent and able-bodied while making the disabled and infirm disappear. 

Those who have struggled with severe depression will tell you that one of the worst thoughts to haunt their minds is the one that says they would have been better off having never been born. When I treat patients with depression, it is my duty as their doctor to assure them, no matter what they may have done (and some of them have done very bad things), that the demonic voice in their head is not speaking the truth. They, like every other human being, are better off alive than dead. To make the opposite judgment on behalf of another person — most of whom, if they were allowed to grow up, would be able to have some opinion on whether they prefer being alive or dead — is taking the side of the suicidal voices against the God who created us all. 

trouble

IMG 1267

I’ve got a few posts queued up, but I am expecting serious disruption in service next week — like, a Southwest-Airlines-over-the-holidays level of disruption — thanks to the creature pictured above. His name is Angus. My one quiet time of the day, in the early morning with my coffee and my RSS feed, is quiet no longer. It will take us all a while to adjust. 

I’m just stating, not complaining. He is pretty darn adorable. 

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comping

Brad Mehldau

I began to learn that instrumentalists and singers often didn’t want or need … validation from the accompanist. Actually, most of the time, they preferred that you supply your steady support by staying clear of their path, not answering their every idea, but rather laying something down more locked into the bass and drums, even grid-like. If you are constantly trying to interact with every idea they present, you are not really accompanying, properly speaking — you are hijacking their ideas in a sense, and putting the focus on what you’re doing instead. It becomes more, “Look at me everyone, I’m so hip and adept at catching the soloist/singer’s ideas!” But what it’s really saying to the soloist/singer (and the audience) is: “Please like me!” It’s overbearing. It feels like one of those people you know who, when in a conversation with you, is constantly affirming what you’re saying — “Yeah … totally … exactly!” — before you’ve even finished your thought.

Mehldau started thinking back to his teenage years when he worked in a pizza joint in West Hartford, Connecticut:  

I remembered the guy Jeremy at Papa Gino’s who was flipping pies within a few short months while I struggled at the grill. He didn’t give a shit — it was 5:45 evening rush hour, the place was packed and customers were eyeing him impatiently. But he was as cool as a cucumber, getting the pizzas in and out of the big oven. Maybe the thing was to just not give a shit with comping as well — not to throw away your taste and sensibility, mind you, but to bring a little of that cavalier pie-flipping thing into it. I started watching this less sensitive kind of comping going on at jam sessions or on gigs, and I didn’t always dig it. But I also noticed that other people often did — most importantly, the soloists they were comping behind. So what did it matter what I thought? 

What a great analogy.

“Comping” is a universal term in jazz. It probably derives from “accompaniment,” maybe also from “complement,” but it has a distinctive valence: the good comper is the musician who can support the soloist in meaningful ways without becoming a rival for the audience’s attention. The best comper improves and strengthens the audience’s response to the soloist without anyone ever noticing

Albert Murray, whom I’ve been thinking about a lot — see this post, and I’ll have an essay on him in the next issue of Comment, which I will no doubt call your attention to when it appears — used to say that his role was to comp for other artists: his friend Ralph Ellison (who was a music major in college and played the trumpet) was a great soloist, but Murray’s job was so support that kind of high-flying virtuosity with an imaginative but also reliable groove. 

I love this idea of critical and essayistic writing as a kind of comping for the artists and thinkers I admire and learn from. I’d like to think that my best work exhibits some of the virtues of the quiet, cool, comping jazz pianist. 

the ed-tech business model

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NYT

The misuse of A.I. tools will most likely not end, so some professors and universities said they planned to use detectors to root out that activity. The plagiarism detection service Turnitin said it would incorporate more features for identifying A.I., including ChatGPT, this year.

More than 6,000 teachers from Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Rhode Island and others have also signed up to use GPTZero, a program that promises to quickly detect A.I.-generated text, said Edward Tian, its creator and a senior at Princeton University.

Joel Coen:

As writers … long-form was never something we could get our heads around. It’s a different paradigm. Not to be shitty about it, but you can look at stories that they have a beginning, middle, and end. But so much of television has a beginning, a middle, a middle, a middle, a middle, until the whole thing dies of exhaustion. 

He’s not wrong. 

Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose:

Study, in effect, is per se interminable. Those who are acquainted with long hours spent roaming among books, when every fragment, every codex, every initial encountered seems to open a new path, immediately left aside at the next encounter, or who have experienced the labyrinthine allusiveness of that “law of good neighbors” whereby Warburg arranged his library, know that not only can study have no rightful end, but does not even desire one.

Here the etymology of the word studium becomes clear. It goes back to a st- or sp- root indicating a crash, the shock of impact. Studying and stupefying are in this sense akin: those who study are in the situation of people who have received a shock and are stupefied by what has struck them, unable to grasp it and at the same time powerless to leave hold. The scholar, that is, is always “stupid.” But if on the one hand he is astonished and absorbed, if study is thus essentially a suffering and an undergoing, the messianic legacy it contains drives him, on the other hand, incessantly toward closure. This festina lente, this shuttling between bewilderment and lucidity, discovery and loss, between agent and patient, is the rhythm of study. 

peeved

This should not annoy me as much as it does, but … here’s a sentence that I see sometimes in books or articles: “I tried unsuccessfully to reach him by email.” I always think, What, you couldn’t find the send button? Or you didn’t know how to get an email account? Of course, that’s never what they mean. But what do they mean? It seems to me that there are two possibilities: either they couldn’t find an email address for the person, or they emailed the person and didn’t get a reply. So why not just say which of those it was?

Richard Hanania:

I don’t like inconveniencing others, and for many parents the possibility that one day they could be a burden on their children scares them much more than death. I think this is a noble sentiment, and would gladly sacrifice myself when I’m old so that those I care about can live better and more fulfilling lives. If we’re going to talk about human dignity, I could think of nothing less dignified than ending a proud and successful life in diapers and with your brain rotting away, making your children miserable and preventing them from reaching their full potential. 

Just want to flag the planted axioms (unstated governing assumptions) here: 

  1. A “proud and successful life” is an independent life; 
  2. Conversely, dependence on others is shameful; 
  3. To care for a person who is dependent on you is only a source of misery

Paging Leah Libresco!

What if human dignity isn’t to be found in being proudly independent, but in loving and being loved, in caring-for and being-cared-for? 

Ross Douthat:

Liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.

the Christian and the hearth

In traditional Roman culture, the focus, the hearth, is all about holding the family together: the family is the essential, immutable, and foundational unit of civilization. What the Romans called the dignitas marriage — as opposed to the concubinatus union, which was merely a formalizing of a sexual relationship. — was meant to ground all the larger elements of the social order. (The young Augustine, as he explains in his Confessions, had a concubinatus relationship while he was waiting for his parents to organize a dignitas marriage for him, and he and his concubine were alike heartbroken when told that their union had to be broken.) Thus the legal, and not just the social, dominance of the paterfamilias — his patria potestas

As Carle Zimmerman shows in his seminal Family and Civilization, the Christian church, when it emerged as a force in Roman society, complicated the simple duality of the Roman system. Bishops and priests denounced the concubitanus marriage: legally, it had to be dignitas or nothing. But even dignitas marriage was insufficient, in that it was merely personal and social: true Christian marriage is sacramental, and an image of the relationship between Christ and his church. What the marital family was in secular legal terms came to matter less than what it was in the eyes of God — and the eyes of canon law. (As Zimmerman explains, when in the late-antique and early-medieval world political order grew more fractured and tenuous, this only intensified the power and authority of the Church over the family.) Thus was inaugurated the close connection between the family and the Church that persists in various ways even today. 

There’s absolutely no question, as I have said many times on this blog and elsewhere, that if Western society is going to be restored and renewed, such restoration and renewal will need to begin in the family. Everything about our system of metaphysical capitalism is built around detaching people from both the comforts and the obligations of family. If you have sustained a healthy family in our current environment you have done something pretty special, and achieved it against heavy odds.

All that said, and I’m not taking any of it back, Christians really can’t have a straightforward relationship to family. We can’t simply be Romans, even Christianized Romans. There’s this countervailing force in Christian tradition and practice that has to be accounted for. Jesus says that unless you hate your own mother and father, you cannot be a follower of his (Luke 14:26). Jesus says that foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20). Jesus left his home and his family in order to proclaim the kingdom of God, and then to suffer and die; most if not all of his apostles did the same. Saul of Tarsus did not remain in Tarsus, nor did he even remain in Jerusalem, the place that he came to be educated. In the service of the Gospel, he traveled all over the Mediterranean, and died, we believe, in Rome. It was said of Christian missionaries back in the day that they went to the mission field carrying their coffins on their backs – that is, they planned never to return to what had been their home, but to live out their lives in strange lands, so that they could tell people about Jesus. 

And of course Jesus never married; not did Paul, whose attitudes towards marriage were notoriously complex. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25); but the celibate life is superior (I Cor. 7:7). Neither Jesus nor his last apostle were hearth-and-home types, it seems. 

This is why I’ve always slightly hesitant about the project of the Front Porch Republic folks. What they are doing is admirable in so many ways, and yet I worry that they could inadvertently foster a kind of idolatry of place. However wonderful and essential home and family are for almost all of us, the Christian has to be willing to give both of those up in order to follow Jesus. We won’t necessarily be able to do that following in our home towns, though perhaps most Christians will be granted that privilege.

There is then something inevitably cosmopolitan about Christianity, not in the sense that the Christian is at home everywhere but in the sense that the Christian can’t be fully at home at home anywhere, given that our citizenship is not of this world (Phil. 3:20). Our primary loyalty must be to the City of God, and not to the City of Man.

I don’t know how to sort all of this out, but I do know that it makes the business of cultivating focal practices complicated for the Christian. What do the practices of the hearth have to do with the Christian life? And how can a Christian pursue focal practices if she doesn’t have a hearth to return to at the end of the day? No, the essential focal practices of the Christian will have to be something more, and maybe other, than the Roman ones. What are the necessary focal practices for a pilgrim people? 

Richard Gunderman:

Thanks to [Lillian] Gilbreth, workers would be treated not as cogs in a machine, but as people. So great was her compassion for workers that she devoted much of her career to improving the work and home life of persons with disabilities, a population that had exploded as a result of World War I injuries. This required, for example, studying special challenges faced by the blind in performing routine tasks, developing curriculum for teachers of the blind, teaching the blind themselves, and finding opportunities for the employment of the blind in industry. Taylor might have branded such workers inherently inferior, but Gilbreth concentrated on enhancing their capabilities to contribute.

This concern for the worker as a human being instead of an economic tool expressed itself in many practical forms. With Frank, she improved lighting conditions for workers, thus reducing eye strain, and introduced regular breaks throughout the workday. She installed suggestion boxes in the workplace, so the voices of workers would be heard. She required employment contracts to be signed by representatives of both management and organized labor. And when she became the first woman engineering professor (1935) and later the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Purdue University (1940), she focused her considerable energy on opening up careers for women. 

This is a fascinating essay — until reading it I knew nothing about Gilbreth, whereas I know a good bit about her demonic opposite, Frederick Winslow Taylor. That may say something about me, but it also says something about the culture of labor in this country over the past century. 

John Warner:

Many are wailing that this technology spells “the end of high school English,” meaning those classes where you read some books and then write some pro forma essays that show you sort of read the books, or at least the Spark Notes, or at least took the time to go to Chegg or Course Hero and grab someone else’s essay, where you changed a few words to dodge the plagiarism detector, or that you hired someone to write the essay for you.

I sincerely hope that this is the end of the high school English courses that the lamentations are describing because these courses deserve to die, because we can do better than these courses if the actual objective of the courses is to help students learn to write.

one more word on Kael

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That’s my copy of Pauline Kael’s For Keeps, the enormous collection of the essays on and reviews of movies that she most wanted to preserve. It’s pretty marked up, because Kael, more than any other film critics, helps me to understand what I think about movies. Re: my three categories of thinker, Kael is neither a good Explainer nor a reliable Illuminator — nothing in Renata Adler’s notorious takedown of Kael is wrong, exactly, even if it relies far too heavily on strategic omission — but she’s one hell of a Provoker. 

You’ll notice how much how many more markers there are in the early pages then there are in the later ones. This has something to do with my own interests, but I think it has a lot more to do with how Kael’s relationship to the movies changed over the decades. This first occurred to me as I was reading her review of Blade Runner, which is a largely hostile one … but the hostility really wasn’t, for me, the problem (especially since that initial theatrical release of the movie is indeed badly flawed). Rather, while reading I just felt that Pauline Kael was not made to be reviewing movies like Blade Runner, that by this point the movies had a traveled down a path that was simply alien to her sensibility.

She was still capable of having intense responses to movies, positive ones as well as negative. For instance, there’s a scene in My Left Foot that — in one of her last reviews — she says might be the most emotionally wrenching she had ever seen in movies. (Any of you who have seen My Left Foot will know precisely the scene that she’s talking about.) So it’s not as though she had come to hate new movies; she thought that some were good and most were not so good, and that was no different in the Eighties than it had been in earlier decades. But it is pretty obvious that her intellectual and aesthetic formation is not really suited to the direction that movies take from the Eighties onward. 

She retired in 1991, largely because of the onset of Parkinson’s disease, which some people think may have affected her mind. I don’t know about that, but certainly many of the reviews that she wrote in the Eighties were indistinguishable from the work of other critics. That was never true of her earlier work, which was sometimes right and sometimes wrong, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes exasperating, but it was all very obviously written by Pauline Kael and could not have been written by anyone else. 

I think maybe she might’ve retired a decade too late; but she certainly should have gotten started a decade earlier. She only began publishing regularly in her forties, and didn’t commence her regular column for the New Yorker until she was fifty. If her talents had been recognized earlier she could have taken over for James Agee, who was only a decade older than her, as the most important American writer about film. It would’ve been wonderful to get Kael’s real-time takes on the films that emerged from the late Forties to the late Fifties. 

In 1969 Kael wrote a long essay for Harper’s called “Trash, Art, and the Movies” that I’m going to return to in another post — it helps me think about what I was talking about in yesterday’s post — but I’ll leave you with a passage from it that’s classic Kael, and that shows you what we’ve been missing in writing about movies since she left the scene:  

A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies. 

greatness in film

Winter Jeanne Dielman

The 2022 Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time featured a surprising Number One: Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I had never watched it, and it’s on the Criterion Channel, which I subscribe to, so I had to watch, didn’t I? I did, and here are my thoughts: 

It’s a tract. It’s a powerful tract, but it is purely polemical. It has one message and one mood. The one mood is used to drive home the one message with relentless force; there is no possibility of dissent or even ambivalence. It is not a melodrama, but it is like melodrama in the sense that it allows but a single emotional response. I think that the film is a powerful statement, but is not a great work of art; maybe not a work of art at all. 

Now, being a great work of art is not the only thing that a movie, or even a novel or a poem, might aspire to. There are many other worthwhile goals to pursue. But I think that one of the vital contributions that truly major works of art make to our common life is their depiction of situations to which equally intelligent and equally reasonable people might have different responses. In our moment — in which social media have conspired to promote and celebrate the unambiguous taking of sides about everything, this contribution is not recognized as having any value. So of course our critics have chosen as their top film one that disdains such complexity. (Also: Vertigo almost repeating its 2012 top finish? Sigh.) 

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When Jean Renoir’s film The Rules of the Game appeared in 1939, the opening audience hated it. Renoir was shocked and troubled by this response, and took the movie back to the editing room, where he cut out 23 minutes. As Christopher Faulkner explains in a short video on the Criterion Channel, one of the chief effects of the cuts was to make the character he himself played, Octave, a much less complex one – far more straightforwardly craven and selfish than he is in the original film. Renoir inexplicably axed a key scene in which Octave’s struggle between self-gratification and generosity is resolved in favor of generosity.  

But when the film was restored to its original length — or possibly something a little longer — in 1959, the complexities of Octave were restored. And that is when The Rules of the Game became a truly great movie. Its greatness lies in the richness of its portrayal of this morally compromised world of the French aristocracy. Morally compromised, yes, but not completely without self-knowledge, not completely without standards. (Most of the “rules of the game” are meant to enable hypocrisy … but not all of them.) When you watch the film in its full version, you have a conflicted response to Octave, in very much the same way that you have conflicted responses to many people you know. For one thing, it is Octave’s generosity that results in the death of his friend — had he given in to his selfish impulses he himself would have died. The ironies are multiple and profound. But in the shorter version, we see merely the corruption of the aristocracy — we receive a single message and a single permissible viewpoint. And that is why the shorter version is a dramatically inferior film to the longer one.

In his book about Shakespearean comedy — still, I think, the best thing yet written about those plays — Northrop Frye talks about Shakespeare’s habit of creating characters who are excluded, or perhaps exclude themselves, from the festive reconciliation which the other characters at the end of the play enjoy.

The sense of festivity, which corresponds to pity in tragedy, is always present at the end of a romantic comedy. This takes the part of a party, usually a wedding, in which we feel, to some degree, participants. We are invited to the festivity and we put the best face we can on whatever feelings we may still have about the recent behavior of some of the characters, often including the bridegroom. In Shakespeare the new society is remarkably catholic in its tolerance; but there is always a part of us that remains a spectator, detached and observant, aware of other nuances and values. This sense of alienation, which in tragedy is terror, is almost bound to be represented by somebody or something in the play, and even if, like Shylock, he disappears in the fourth act, we never quite forget him. We seldom consciously feel identified with him, for he himself wants no such identification: we may even hate or despise him, but he is there, the eternal questioning Satan who is still not quite silenced by the vindication of Job….

Think for instance of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who is exposed as a strutting, delusionally self-satisfied fool … and yet even the characters who so expose him can seem uncomfortable with what they have done; and we the spectators can’t help but be aware, if only subliminally, that some of those included in that festive circle at the end are not necessarily any better than Malvolio the mocked. 

I think this kind of character is absolutely essential to the greatness of Shakespearean comedy, in much the same way that in his best tragedies we see comical characters who are detached from the terrible events that we see unfolding. Think for instance of the gravedigger in Hamlet, who goes about his business regardless of what happens to the prince and the other members of the royal family of Denmark. He is a living embodiment of the point Auden makes in “Musée des Beaux Arts.” 

In my view, this complication of our responses, this questioning of our priorities, this reminder that we could see the world in rather different colors than those perceived by the most important characters in the story, is one of the essential gifts great art offers to us. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for the tract, the polemic — the story that gives us a single unambiguous message. It just means that excellence in polemic is different than greatness in art. 

Whenever anyone says what I’ve just said, what comes back is a mocking Yes, but is it art? — with the assumption that trying to distinguish between what is and what isn’t is a mug’s game. And maybe it is. But it seems to be one that we mugs can’t stop playing: som elf us have a sense that the term art is not a useless one. 

I’m going to pause here, with a note for future reference that the question of what makes a movie great is a more difficult one than I have acknowledged here: see, for instance, this post by Adam Roberts on the unrelenting seriousness of the critics’ choices in the S&S poll. More on all these matters soon. Or eventually.  

one of the classic blunders

A while back I quoted Amna Khalid’s thoughtful response to the Hamline University kerfuffle; now we have a strong statement from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. It’s not often that you get a big public dispute in which every party on one side of the issue is thoughtful, measured, and well-informed, while every party on the other side gives every indication of being an ignoramus. But here we are. 

The Hamline administration has committed one of the classic blunders — right up there with getting involved in a land war in Asia and going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line — and the mistake is not deciding that certain groups on campus are to be protected from perceived insult while others are left to fend for themselves. No, that’s bad academic practice, but it’s not one of the classic blunders. The classic blunder here is assuming that the protected group is intellectually unanimous. The leaders of Hamline obviously believed that if one Muslim is offended by something then that thing is ipso facto “offensive to Muslims.” It’s the kind of error you make when you’re a well-meaning lefty who doesn’t know anyone who isn’t also a well-meaning lefty. 

Escaping the Malthusian Trap: What an amazing graph-in-motion by Kieran Healy. Malthus believed that as population in a given locale rises, a point is reached at which food supply can’t keep up, which then leads to a decline in population. And if you look at the early moments of this visualization, you see what the Trap looks like (with the added complication of a severe drop in population as a result of the Black Death). But then things start to change. 

projects and methods

Perhaps because I write different sorts of books, one of the most important writerly skills I have developed is the ability to adapt my working methods to the project at hand. Not every project calls for the same approach, the same model of organization, or the same tools.

For instance, when I was writing The Year of Our Lord 1943, with its five protagonists, the two most essential tools for me were (a) a color-coded timeline in Excel, so that I could see what each character was doing at any given time, and (b) a set of index cards. I had five protagonists so I got cards in five colors, and gradually accumulated information. Then, laying the cards out on a table or pinning them onto a cork board, I was able to understand the relations among those different pieces of information.

However, when I was writing How to Think I didn’t need that kind of system — I needed something very different. In that book, I had a sequential argument to make, one in which each chapter or section built upon the previous one. So I used OmniOutliner to lay out the whole argument in outline format, and then fill in the details.

When I was writing Breaking Bread with the Dead neither of those two methods would work for me. I was trying to create a kind of mosaic of ways in which we can encounter the past — a task that did not require and indeed did not admit a rigid argumentative or historical sequence. I had rather a set of portraits of people engaged in the complex activity that I call breaking bread with the dead, and each of those portraits needed to be coherent, vivid and, to some extent, self-contained. So in writing that book I just kept a set of text files open on my computer. I could go back and forth among them, but I didn’t need to do that very often, because each chapter had its own integrity. And on any given day, getting whatever chapter I was working on properly shaped was my primary task. 

But now I’m starting a new book. I’m not yet ready to talk about what it is, though I’ll get to that point before too much longer. For now, I’ll just say this: After fumbling around for a while to figure out how I could organize my thoughts in for this project, I realized that once again, the good old multicolored index cards were my best friends. And it’s actually been very pleasurable to go back and, for the first time in several years, build up a collection of cards and figure out how to relate them to one another. I use my own version of the Zettelkasten system, and maybe one day I’ll write a post about what that looks like.

But for now I just want to say that I think writers make a mistake when they try to use the same method, the same organizational system, for every book. The character of the project — its structure, its form, the demands it makes upon you as a writer — should determine the way you write the book. If you’re writing the same kind of book every time — like Robert Caro, for instance — then by all means use the same system. But if not, exercise your imagination! 

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