time

I want to connect a post of mine from five years ago — 

There are always questions. Which ones arise — that’s not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the questions that are presented to us. My one consistent position in all these matters is to resist taking the nuclear option of excommunication. It is the strongest censure we have, and therefore one not to be invoked except with the greatest reluctance. Further, I don’t think the patience that St. Paul commands is to be exhausted in a few years, or even a few decades. We need to learn to think in larger chunks of time, and to consider the worldwide, not just the local American and Western European, context. Many of us tend to think that, if we haven’t convinced someone after a few tweets and blog posts, we can be done with them and the questions they bring. But the time-frame of social media is not the time-frame of Christ’s Church.

— with a post of mine from ten days ago

So it turns out that “the economic way of looking at life” – which is pretty much the American way of looking at life, and certainly the Silicon Valley way – means that you think of time as a scarce consumable resource. Which is indeed how most of us, it seems, think about time, and that, in turn, is why we might experience the idea of traveling at the speed of God as not just wrong but, more, offensive – a failure to maximize consumption.

Breaking that habit of thought, and imagining how to move at the speed of God – these are real and vital challenges. Maybe the first thing we need to learn how to repair is our disordered sense of time — time is not a scarce resource but rather a gift. 

Increasingly I am convinced that we can’t make the changes we need to make — and I’m thinking not just of Christians, but also of all members of our current social order — until we reset our understanding and experience of time.

I even wonder whether the problem I posted about earlier today — what seems to me our increasing reluctance to pursue common rules for the social order, our disdain for proceduralism — is an outgrowth of a diseased experience of time. If we knew, if we really knew, that the people we despise are going to be our neighbors for the rest of our lives, then maybe we’d see the value in coming to some sort of procedural agreement with them before the shooting begins

But then the shooting has already begun, hasn’t it? 

points that don’t need to be belabored

We know — we all know

  • That people impose standards on their Outgroup that they never impose on their Ingroup.
  • That politicians do 180º turns on any and every issue, depending on which party controls Congress or the Presidency, or on what direction the Supreme Court seems to be leaning. (A quarter-century ago, when SCOTUS was left-dominated, the right complained about “the judicial usurpation of politics”; now that the composition of the court has changed, it’s the left making precisely the same complaint.) 
  • That people forgive politicians or actors or writers they approve of for sins that they vociferously condemn when committed by their cultural enemies.
  • That people denounce “cancel culture” when someone they approve of is being hounded but call precisely the same behavior “accountability culture” when they’re hounding someone they hate. 
  • That the most inconsistent people in earth will furiously denounce their political enemies for inconsistency. 

We know all that now, we don’t need to keep pointing it out. We also know that pointing it out won’t change anyone’s behavior. So what’s next? What’s the next step, socially and politically, if a common standard for all is no longer on the table? 

Ross Douthat is a brilliant writer and an old friend, but I wish he wouldn’t participate — as he does in this essay — in the fiction that intra-Catholic disputes constitute the whole of Christian thought. 

The coming food catastrophe | The Economist:

By invading ukraine, Vladimir Putin will destroy the lives of people far from the battlefield — and on a scale even he may regret. The war is battering a global food system weakened by covid-19, climate change and an energy shock. Ukraine’s exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia’s are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories. Wheat prices, up 53% since the start of the year, jumped a further 6% on May 16th, after India said it would suspend exports because of an alarming heatwave.

The widely accepted idea of a cost-of-living crisis does not begin to capture the gravity of what may lie ahead. António Guterres, the un secretary general, warned on May 18th that the coming months threaten “the spectre of a global food shortage” that could last for years. The high cost of staple foods has already raised the number of people who cannot be sure of getting enough to eat by 440m, to 1.6bn. Nearly 250m are on the brink of famine. If, as is likely, the war drags on and supplies from Russia and Ukraine are limited, hundreds of millions more people could fall into poverty. Political unrest will spread, children will be stunted and people will starve.

Mr Putin must not use food as a weapon. Shortages are not the inevitable outcome of war. World leaders should see hunger as a global problem urgently requiring a global solution. 

It’s hard to imagine anything more important for the world’s governments to focus on. I doubt that they will; I pray that they will. 

Kent Russell:

By accident of birth I am a modern, which means I will never know a charmed world. A world of consecrated hosts and faerie-haunted forests, where the line between individual agency and impersonal force is blurred at best. Gone is the idea of a porous human self, vulnerable to immaterial forces beyond his control. Significance has retreated from the outer world into our respective skulls, where, over time, it has stiffened, bloated, and finally decomposed into nothing, into dust.

This decay of faith — in institutions, in other people — is practically audible to me. I exist within a purely immanent culture in which the value of human life has been reduced to the parameters of the marketplace, where little is sacred and even less is profane. And I cannot take this shit much longer, I said. 

So he started getting to know a man who says he can summon demons. An extraordinary essay. For context, I would — with all due humility — suggest that you read two pieces by me:  

The Incapable States of America? – Helen Dale:

State capacity is a term drawn from economic history and development economics. It refers to a government’s ability to achieve policy goals in reference to specific aims, collect taxes, uphold law and order, and provide public goods. Its absence at the extremes is terrifying, and often used to illustrate things like “fragile states” or “failed states.” However, denoting calamitous governance in the developing world is not its only value. State capacity allows one to draw distinctions at varying levels of granularity between developed countries, and is especially salient when it comes to healthcare, policing, and immigration. It has a knock-on effect in the private sector, too, as business responds to government in administrative kind.

Think, for example, of Covid-19. The most reliable metric — if you wish to compare different countries’ responses to the pandemic — is excess deaths per 100,000 people over the relevant period. […] 

The US has the worst excess death rate in the developed world (140 per 100,000). Australia has the best: -28 per 100,000. Yes, you read that right. Australia increased its life expectancy and general population health during the pandemic. So did Japan, albeit less dramatically. The rest of the developed world falls in between those two extremes: Italy and Germany are on 133 and 116 per 100,000 respectively, with the UK (109 per 100,000) doing a bit better. France and Sweden knocked it out of the park (63 and 56 per 100,000 excess deaths). 

Dale’s takeaway: “Americans are individually charming and pleasant people who deploy their wits to get around a state that doesn’t work.” 

pandemic and biopower

“Permanent Pandemic,” by Justin E. H. Smith:

When I say the regime, I do not mean the French government or the U.S. government or any particular government or organization. I mean the global order that has emerged over the past, say, fifteen years, for which COVID-19 served more as the great leap forward than as the revolution itself. The new regime is as much a technological regime as it is a pandemic regime. It has as much to do with apps and trackers, and governmental and corporate interests in controlling them, as it does with viruses and aerosols and nasal swabs. Fluids and microbes combined with touchscreens and lithium batteries to form a vast apparatus of control, which will almost certainly survive beyond the end date of any epidemiological rationale for the state of exception that began in early 2020.

The last great regime change happened after September 11, 2001, when terrorism and the pretext of its prevention began to reshape the contours of our public life. Of course, terrorism really does happen, yet the complex system of shoe removal, carry-on liquid rules, and all the other practices of twenty-first-century air travel long ago took on a reality of its own, sustaining itself quite apart from its efficacy in deterring attacks in the form of a massive jobs program for TSA agents and a gold mine of new entrepreneurial opportunities for vendors of travel-size toothpaste and antacids. The new regime might appropriately be imagined as an echo of the state of emergency that became permanent after 9/11, but now extended to the entirety of our social lives, rather than simply airports and other targets of potential terrorist interest. 

An absolutely brilliant, disturbing, essential essay — to be considered in light of certain reflections by Giorgio Agamben. From later in the essay: 

There is no question that changes of norms in Western countries since the beginning of the pandemic have given rise to a form of life plainly convergent with the Chinese model. Again, it might take more time to get there, and when we arrive, we might find that a subset of people are still enjoying themselves in a way they take to be an expression of freedom. But all this is spin, and what is occurring in both cases, the liberal-democratic and the overtly authoritarian alike, is the same: a transition to digitally and al- gorithmically calculated social credit, and the demise of most forms of community life outside the lens of the state and its corporate subcontractors.

I’m annotating this in detail — and by the by, there ought to be a better way for me to share my annotations. You can do some cool stuff with Hypothesis, but not all the things I want and need. Maybe more on those wants and needs in another post, but for now, back to my PDF of Smith’s terrific essay. 

Cory Doctorow:

Writing for a notional audience — particularly an audience of strangers — demands a comprehensive account that I rarely muster when I’m taking notes for myself. I am much better at kidding myself my ability to interpret my notes at a later date than I am at convincing myself that anyone else will be able to make heads or tails of them. […]

Blogging isn’t just a way to organize your research — it’s a way to do research for a book or essay or story or speech you don’t even know you want to write yet. It’s a way to discover what your future books and essays and stories and speeches will be about.

I like this post very much — and especially Doctorow’s idea of a blog as a place to make your commonplace book public. I hesitate to go all-in with this approach simply because I don’t want to overwhelm my readers with stuff.

I’m trying it out, but this is my fifth post today, which seems massively self-indulgent. On the other hand, it is rather odd for me to have two separate collections of notes, one on my computer and one on my blog.

notes

Interesting convo at micro.blog about what people use to take notes. Me? 

  • Handwriting in notebooks (usually Leuchtturm) 
  • Marginal commentary and sticky notes in books 
  • Voice notes in .mp3 format (the plain text of audio) 
  • Plain text notes on the computer 

I want my notes to be future-proof and platform-agnostic. 

For what it may be worth: As the years go by my opinion of OK Computer ascends and my opinion of Kid A descends. 

welp

More than twenty years ago Malcolm Gladwell published a fascinating essay about two different modes of failure in sports: panicking and choking. “Panic … is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.” Over the past decade, Arsenal have become masters of both modes of failure. When a player flies into a late tackle or drags down an attacker, he’s panicking (hello Xhaka, hello Rob Holding), but what happened to the side yesterday was a unanimous collective choke: when they needed a solid performance, everyone became paralyzed. 

Arsenal are like the Ship of Theseus: All the players change, all the front office people change, nothing is what it was a decade ago … except the panicking and choking. Those endure. It’s a mystery to me, but if you’re going to be an Arsenal supporter you have to learn to live with it, because it’s hard to imagine it changing — it’s part of the DNA of the club now. 

I’d prefer to be a supporter of any other kind of club, but it’s difficult (I’m inclined to say impossible) to choose these things. You end up emotionally attached to a team for reasons unknown and probably unknowable. So I would drop Arsenal in a second if I could, and turn, not to a better club, but a less neurotic one. But I don’t think I can. 

this is your brain on shuffle

Every morning — and I mean every single morning — when I awaken from slumbers, my brain serves up a song. A different song each day, as a rule. Never merely a chune, as the Scots fiddlers would say, but always a song with words, and usually a pop song from any time in the past fifty years. Rarely it’s a hymn, and even more rarely a pre-Sixties pop song; but from within that fifty-year window it can be pretty much anything, including songs I haven’t thought of in years or even decades. A few times it’s been a theme song from an old TV show. 

The only exceptions to the Random Shuffle Rule come when I’ve had a song on heavy playing rotation. For instance, last year when I was obsessed with Big Red Machine’s gorgeous “Phoenix” it became my morning song on several occasions. But typically what turns up as I lift my head from the pillow is a surprise and I love that. 

This morning it was “Gates of the West” (a neglected little gem, that one); yesterday it was “Mykonos”; and that’s all I’m going to say. I’ve never actually written or (except to my family) spoken about this oddity of mine, and I’ve never made a record of the songs — I’m superstitiously afraid that any such documentation will put an end to the service. So this post is as far as I’m willing to go in self-revelation. 

But I mention it because I wonder how many other people have something like it — a central element of daily experience that no one else (or hardly anyone) knows about. Some quirk, some habit, whatever; but something that for you is a major feature of life even though no one would have any way of knowing it. 

reification and metaphysical capitalism

I’ve written occasionally here about what I call “metaphysical capitalism” — see the relevant tag at the bottom of this post — but one thing I have neglected to note is that one of the most powerful elements of the Marxist critique of capitalism has been the argument that it is the nature of modern capitalism to extend its understanding of the world into the personal, the emotional, the spiritual — in general the metaphysical realm. 

A key text here is George Lukács’s famous essay on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” where he writes of “the split between the worker’s labour-power and his personality, its metamorphosis into a thing, an object that he sells on the market.” This happens in varying ways in the varying professions of the capitalism world; for instance, in any bureaucracy: 

The specific type of bureaucratic ‘conscientiousness’ and impartiality, the individual bureaucrat’s inevitable total subjection to a system of relations between the things to which he is exposed, the idea that it is precisely his ‘honour’ and his ‘sense of responsibility’ that exact this total submission all this points to the fact that the division of labour which in the case of Taylorism invaded the psyche, here invades the realm of ethics. 

And when Taylorism conquers both the psyche and ethics, we get self-Taylorizing — the complete internalization of metaphysical capitalism and the consequent redescription of a condition of enslavement as a condition of self-making. People come to believe that they’re expressing themselves on social media when in fact they’re doing Mark Zuckerberg’s bidding for free. They’re like Eloi thinking that they’re the masters of the Morlocks when in fact they’re merely food. 

What I found especially interesting in my re-read of Lukács (for the first time in many years) is his demonstration that this commodification of the human person goes back a long way, much longer than we might typically think. For instance, he notes that in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797) Kant defines sex and marriage in the most commodified way imaginable: “Sexual community is the reciprocal use made by one person of the sexual organs and faculties of another,” while marriage “is the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other’s sexual attributes for the duration of their lives.” Lukács comments, “This rationalisation of the world appears to be complete, it seems to penetrate the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature.” It’s capitalism all the way down. 

I am anything but a Marxist, but it’s important for me to realize (however belatedly) that some of my own recent arguments were anticipated by Marxist thinkers a hundred years ago. I should probably be making better use of that critique — if not of their suggestions for what should replace capitalism. 

I was very interested in this Jonathan Malesic essay on how college students are or are not coping with the stresses of Covidtide. For what it’s worth — all such reports are anecdotal, but, despite what people say, the plural of anecdote is data, when there are enough anecdotes and they’re read with sufficient intelligence — my Honors College students have been much more like those at the University of Dallas than the ones at SMU, where Malesic teaches. I have been consistently surprised and gratified by how cheerfully and competently my students have navigated the various complexities of this era. Indeed, they’ve handled it all with considerably more grace than I have. I can’t be sure why they’ve managed so well, but I think it has something to do (in many cases anyway) with Christian formation and something also to do with the sense of community and common purpose fostered by Doug Henry, the Dean of the Honors College, and those support staff who work regularly with the students.

on resembling the Angel of History

Okay, so, first we have Andy Crouch’s book The Life We’re Looking For.

Then we have Brad East’s essay-review on Andy’s book in The New Atlantis.

Then we have three follow-up posts by Brad: one, two, and three.

Got all that? Trust me, it’s all worth reading. Okay, then let’s proceed. (Oh, also: I know both Andy and Brad so I will be using first names.)

Those follow-up posts concern Brad’s reservations about Andy’s book, but as he rightly points out, his review is a positive one, and we shouldn’t forget that. The reservations can be summed up in this passage from the review:

[Crouch’s] counsel is wise. But I worry that it understates the problem we face, particularly the extent to which it has infiltrated, and is already integrated with, each of our households. For Crouch agrees that the evils of Mammon and Digital and Acedia amount to something like a globalized conglomerate or racket. Before such an overwhelming power, how could my household be in a position to “choose a different vision,” even for its own members? We are too beholden to the economic and digital realities of modern life — too dependent on credit, too anxious about paying the rent, too distracted by Twitter, too reliant on Amazon, too deadened by Pornhub — to be in a position to opt for an alternative vision, much less to realize that one exists. We’ve got ends to meet. And at the end of the day, binging Netflix numbs the stress with far fewer consequences than opioids.

This is the burnout society, as Han calls it; or the Machine, in the label of Kingsnorth, who learned it from R. S. Thomas. We are sick. It would be unfair to fault Crouch for lacking the cure. The terrifying fact may be that there is none. Moreover, Crouch insists as a matter of principle that the life he commends to us is a life worth living for its own sake, not because it will Change The World. He is right about that. He is right as well to warn against the temptation to look for a magical elixir in the manner of the alchemist. That way lies danger: the quest for power to match the might of Mammon. As he writes, most people who want to influence the culture want to be a force, whereas “Jesus calls us to be a taste.” The book succeeds in offering us a taste, and it is unquestionably a taste of the good life. Whether that life is truly available to most of us, and how, is another matter.

My chief response to this is that I don’t read Andy’s book the way that Brad does, at least in the sense that I don’t see Andy making heroic demands upon us. There’s a point near the end of The Life We’re Looking For where Andy is talking about his use of his iPhone:

It would not be quite right to say that it is entirely up to me whether my iPhone, or future computational technology yet to be developed, becomes an instrument or a device – although it is true enough that every day I can choose which way to use it, within the limits of the programs and interfaces that others have designed it to provide.

But it is certainly true that in the long run that choice is up to us: what we ask our technology to do, what we ask its designers to optimize, what we believe is the good life that we are pursuing together.

That last sentence is the real key. I see the core purpose of Andy’s book to be not a denunciation of even a critique of technology but rather an attempt to orient us towards a vision of the kind of life that we want, individually and collectively, with the emphasis that if we really understand “the life we are looking for” we will be able to alter our technological environment, albeit in incremental ways. That doesn’t seem to me to require heroism; in fact, I would say that it’s pretty sober: our choices will not bring down the power of what Brad calls the Digital and what Andy (I think more accurately) calls Mammon – the Digital is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mammon – but I think that those choices can create a subtle and over time significant redirection of our energies.

So I’m inclined to think that Brad’s question of whether “the good life … is truly available to most of us” is not the best one to ask. A better question – I think Andy pushes us towards this one, though maybe it’s just me who’s doing the pushing – is Augustinian in that it’s about orientation. Orientation is one of the most fundamental Augustinian concepts. He believed that caritas is “the motion of the soul towards God”; by contrast, cupiditas is the motion of the soul towards itself, which makes one incurvatus in se, curved in on oneself. For Augustine the initial question to be asked of anyone is: Which way are you facing? And I think what Andy is trying to do in his book is get people facing in the right direction – towards the life they really desire, as opposed to the life that Mammon wants to sell them – so that they may begin their pilgrimage, become true wayfarers. Wayfarers often have a long road ahead of them, but one of the best reasons to read Augustine, and to think along with that great saint, is to be reminded that what matters most is not the distance from our goal but whether we are facing it. Even if we never achieve “the good life” — in the Christian sense or even in a Stoic sense — surely we can today orient ourselves a little more accurately towards it than we did yesterday. (Maybe start by reading some Dickens?) 

It’s true, as Brad suggests, that mighty Powers are arrayed against the wayfarer, such that we may end up looking more like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History than Gandalf plodding towards the Shire; but better to be the Angel of History than one who strolls smilingly into Mammon’s glamorous emporium. 

Klee paul angelus novus 1920

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus

nerves

Well, the North London Derby will be kicking off in a few minutes, and my nerves are tingling. I won’t be watching the match — I’m gonna practice meditation or something. But I have some thoughts. 

I don’t expect Arsenal to win — Spurs are playing at home and they need the points more than Arsenal do — but that doesn’t mean anything because I never expect Arsenal to win. My son asks me before every Arsenal match how I think it’ll go, and I always explain, patiently and rationally, why they can’t possibly take all three points.  

It may therefore come as no surprise that I would’ve been absolutely shocked at the beginning of the season — and even more after the first three matches of the season — to learn that the Gunners would be in the top four in May. But then everyone else would’ve been shocked also.

So, whatever happens from here on out, the lads have been great, and they deserve plaudits.

You might therefore expect that I am fully supportive of the decision to extend Arteta’s contract. In fact I am not —I am seriously doubtful about the decision. The achievements of this year are mainly due to the excellent construction of the squad, which has enabled a degree of success even in the face of many injuries. And that’s down to the front office. They’re the ones who deserve the same applause we give the players. (That said, with European football coming next season, they need to do some major reinforcement work in the offseason.)

Arteta, I think, has been the weak link. The problem is that he’s very poor at one aspect of the manager’s job: making in-game adjustments. He’s good at general strategy — though there he has a lot of help from the front office — and good at setting up his tactics for any given match. But when things go wrong (and in soccer you must expect that things will regularly go wrong) he seems befuddled. Several of Arsenal’s losses could have become wins if Arteta had acted more swiftly, decisively, and intelligently to make changes, whether in formation or personnel or both. But making the necessary adjustments just doesn’t seem to be in his skill set.

But I’m only doubtful that his contract should have been extended, not certain that it shouldn’t have. He may get better; and there aren’t many clearly superior candidates out there. (Though that Emery guy at Villarreal — he’s impressive! I wonder if he could be talked into moving to London….) And in any case the deal is done. But while I always worry about Arsenal, a good deal of that worry centers on whether Arteta will be able to handle the demands of a tough match. Arteta is my second-biggest concern; the first, as always, is whether Xhaka will decide that he needs to get himself sent off.  


UPDATE: For “Xhaka” read “Holding.” Arteta’s complete inability to teach his players on-pitch discipline — very few of their many red cards in recent years have been undeserved — is another mark against him. 

bloggy

A friend of mine wrote the other day to commend some of my recent posts for being “bloggy.” There can be no higher praise. I love blogging bloggily, but it’s not easy to do.

I’ve spent decades practicing the craft of writing for book publishers and periodicals, and that craft requires me to seek claritycoherence, and completeness. But those aren’t the virtues of blog writing: the Blog Imperatives are exploration, experimentation, and iteration. You’ve got to be willing to try out ideas that you’re not wholly comfortable with, ideas you don’t yet have a firm grasp on; and then you need to circle back later to revisit and reconsider. 

In fact, one of my writerly tasks in the coming weeks is to read through old posts here and see if I can find some dots to connect; if I do, I will connect them through linkage and tagging. Keep an eye peeled for these Posts of Revisitation. 

If you think my bloggy work here is valuable, you may support it through my Buy Me a Coffee page — see the link at the top of this page. I wrote an update for my supporters today: you may read it here

ascending

In many of my courses I ask my students to explicate certain key passages from the texts we read — to dig in to the details, to see how the passages do their work. Here’s a selection from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago — the chapter called “The Ascent” — that some of my students are writing about: 

You are ascending…. 

Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness — and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astonished at another’s strength. And wish to possess it yourself. 

The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending…. 

With the years, armor-plated restraint covers your heart and all your skin. You do not hasten to question and you do not hasten to answer. Your tongue has lost its flexible capacity for easy oscillation. Your eyes do not flash with gladness over good tidings nor do they darken with grief.

For you still have to verify whether that’s how it is going to be. And you also have to work out — what is gladness and what is grief. 

And now the rule of your life is this: Do not rejoice when you have found, do not weep when you have lost. 

Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering. And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbors in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you.

Those close to you in spirit who surround you in slavery. And how many of us come to realize: It is particularly in slavery that for the first time we have learned to recognize genuine friendship!

And also those close to you in blood, who surrounded you in your former life, who loved you — while you played the tyrant over them….  

Here is a rewarding and inexhaustible direction for your thoughts: Reconsider all your previous life. Remember everything you did that was bad and shameful and take thought — can’t you possibly correct it now? 

Yes, you have been imprisoned for nothing. You have nothing to repent of before the state and its laws. 

But … before your own conscience? But … in relation to other individuals?

From a 1999 interview with the members of The Police:  

Sting: People thrashing out three chords didn’t really interest us musically. Reggae was accepted in punk circles and musically more sophisticated, and we could play it, so we veered off in that direction. I mean let’s be honest here, “So Lonely” was unabashedly culled from “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley. Same chorus. What we invented was this thing of going back and forth between thrash punk and reggae. That was the little niche we created for ourselves.

Stewart Copeland: It was also the first time Sting said ‘screw the punk formula’. Sting started playing the song and I distinctly remember Andy and I making farting noises and going, ‘Yeah, right’. But then he got to that steaming chorus, we looked at each other and realised that maybe we should give it a try. In spite of our kerfuffling, Sting persevered and made us create something new.

Sting: The other nice thing about playing a reggae groove in the verses was that you could leave holes in the music. I needed those holes because, initially, I had a hard time singing and playing at the same time. So if we had a signature in the band it was…

Andy Summers: Big holes?

some thoughts on Tim Keller

If you read Tim Keller’s books or listen to his sermons, some things will (or should) become quite clear to you:

  1. He thinks of himself first and foremost and always as a pastor.
  2. His job as a pastor, as he understands it, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and then form and strengthen and encourage those disciples.
  3. When trying to understand how to do that, Keller – as a conservative Protestant with a high regard for Scripture – turns to the Bible.
  4. There he sees Paul on the Areopagus reasoning patiently with the intellectuals of Athens; there he sees Paul counsel the followers of Jesus at Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience”; there he sees Paul tell the church in Galatia that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”; there he hears Jesus bless the meek and the poor in spirit.
  5. He draws the conclusion – again, as someone with a high view of Scripture – that this counsel is counsel for us as much as it was for its original audience.
  6. So he teaches his congregation and his readers accordingly.

If he is wrong so to teach now, then he was also wrong thirty years ago. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; in him there is no shadow of turning; therefore the lives of His faithful disciples, while they may vary in details according to circumstance or personality type, will always take the same essential form.

Those who say that Keller’s message is not suited to this political moment, that it is not an effective political strategy, are therefore, I believe, laboring under a category error. Keller’s pastoral role has not been to articulate a political strategy, but to make disciples. If he is correct in thinking that the counsel of Scripture is indeed counsel for all of us, and if the passages I cite above are indeed in the Bible, then it doesn’t matter whether obeying them is politically effectual (according to whatever calculus of effectiveness you happen to employ) or not. The task of serious Christians is to become Jesus’s disciples, to become formed in the image of Christ – including Christ in His suffering – whether that “works” or not.

That’s never easy, but it has the merit of being simple. So there’s no need for me, as a Christ-follower, to raise my wetted finger to test the prevailing cultural winds. I know what I’m supposed to do and to be. And woe unto me if I don’t.


UPDATE: It occurs to me that I should call back to this post from last year. Like Diogenes with his lantern, I’m looking for one critic of Tim Keller who shows some awareness that Christians are commanded by their Lord to act in certain ways and to refrain from acting in others. To think only in terms of what is effective or strategic is to fight on the Devil’s home ground. As Screwtape said to Wormwood about the junior tempter’s patient: “He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” Christians who evaluate Keller not by asking whether his message is faithful to Jesus’s message but rather by asking whether it’s suited for this moment are inadvertently following Screwtape’s advice.

zine!

Julia Evans makes really cool zines for people who want to know more about computer programming, or, more generally, about being a power user of computers. Her most recent zine is called How DNS Works, and it’s excellent — plus, there are some leftover pages about registering and maintaining your own domain. For example:

Buying domain

Other images with more detail here.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of owning your online turf — or coming as close to it as you can get — for reasons I explain in detail in this essay. Evans’s zine-within-a-zine about domain registration and maintenance does a great job of explaining exactly how it works — and in the process, I hope, makes it seem less intimidating than it otherwise might.

In David Thomson’s The Big Screen, largely a history of movies, there’s a chapter on television that contains a sentence, a simple and straightforward sentence that’s nonetheless worthy of serious and extended reflection: “This book is not interrupted every sixteen pages by a cluster of advertisements.”

the speed of God

Many of the key ideas in Andy Crouch’s new book The Life We Are Looking For emerge from his definition of the human person, which he derives from the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, as adapted by Jesus in Mark 12 (keywords emphasized):

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Thus Andy: “Every human person is a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love.” Simple and direct; but the more you think about it the more complex and generative a definition it is.

Early in his book, Andy talks about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who want to give us “superpowers.” And he says:

Here is the problem: you cannot take advantage of a superpower and fully remain a person, in the sense of a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love. This is not an unfortunate side effect of superpowers or a flaw that could be overcome with future improvements. It is the essence of their design because superpowers are power without effort. And power without effort, it turns out, diminishes us as much as it delights us.

Elsewhere in that same chapter he quotes the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama saying that “the speed of God” is three miles an hour because that was the speed at which Jesus moved through his world. So maybe, and I think this is one of the chief burdens of Andy’s book, what makes the most sense for us is to try whenever possible to move at the speed of God – and in that way refuse the offer of superpowers.

Of course, this dovetails with a lot of things people have been writing lately about slowness, but what I like about Andy’s book is that it specifies why we can find ourselves responding so warmly to the possibility of slowness. What happens when we seek superpowers, and especially super-speed, is the sacrifice of what I want to call our proper powers – the powers through the exercise of which we (heart-soul-mind-strength) flourish in love.

Let’s take a peek into Koyama’s Three Mile an Hour God:

Jesus Christ came. He walked towards the ‘full stop’. He lost his mobility. He was nailed down! He is not even at three miles an hour as we walk. He is not moving. ‘Full stop’! What can be slower than ‘full stop’ ‘nailed down’? At this point of ‘full stop’, the apostolic church proclaims that the love of God to man is ultimately and fully revealed. God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, whether we are currently hit by storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.

Thus: “I find that God goes ‘slowly’ in his educational process of man. ‘Forty years in the wilderness’ points to his basic educational philosophy.”

When the economist Gary Becker delivered his Nobel Lecture in 1992, he titled it “The Economic Way of Looking at Life.” Here’s a key quote:

Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not.

So it turns out that “the economic way of looking at life” – which is pretty much the American way of looking at life, and certainly the Silicon Valley way – means that you think of time as a scarce consumable resource. Which is indeed how most of us, it seems, think about time, and that, in turn, is why we might experience the idea of traveling at the speed of God as not just wrong but, more, offensive – a failure to maximize consumption.

Breaking that habit of thought, and imagining how to move at the speed of God – these are real and vital challenges. Maybe the first thing we need to learn how to repair is our disordered sense of time — time is not a scarce resource but rather a gift.

mid-century modernity

Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about the remarkable cultural transition that took place, especially in the West but really all over the world, in the middle third of the twentieth century. Think about it: as that era opened we had the music of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times; as it closed we had Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those latter works come from something that most of us recognize as in some general sense our current world; the earlier ones seem so distant as to be alien. (Fascinating, yes, but alien.)

As I say, I’ve been thinking a lot about this transition, because I believe that we can’t understand where we are, culturally speaking, without understanding where we come from. And it’s not simply a matter of waving a hand and saying “The Sixties” — the transformation is more complex and gradual than that. Even a story like The Lord of the Rings seems to be ours in a way that nothing before the Thirties is. I’m trying to figure this out, and will continue to do so.

So note the tag on this post. It’ll be turning up often. And I have gone back to tag some earlier posts that are relevant to this inquiry, though I’m only beginning that task. Keep your eyes peeled for regular updates!

Nick Russo:

To wrap up his rowhomes project, Hytha’s planning to sell a collage of all 100 images that comprise it, and he expects the collage to sell for as much as $40,000. In the meantime, Hytha has been meeting with local organizations that specialize in home repair and tangled titles in an effort to figure out how to put the money to the best possible use. Whether it ultimately helps Philadelphians with rowhome repairs, tangled title resolutions, or both, Hytha’s donation will help protect the historical legacy and architectural vibrancy of the city’s oft-neglected neighborhoods. In so doing, what started for Hytha as an art project celebrating the tragic beauty of urban decay in Philadelphia’s built environment will have become a force counteracting that very decay.

Hytha shows us, then, that it’s possible to use NFTs without severing economic action from morality, and further, that the new technology actually opens up new frontiers for local civic engagement. With sufficient skill, hard work, and good fortune, struggling artists now have a realistic chance at becoming powerful community pillars—all while doing what they love. Moreover, while NFTs are often criticized for being detached from the world and devoid of real value, Hytha shows us that it’s possible to ground them in one’s environment and use them to help people appreciate the physical world instead of escape from it into cyberspace. 

An argument worthy of serious reflection. 

envelope please

Tom Stafford:

A slow day at the museum, and the receptionist is sitting at their desk as a stranger approaches, perhaps a tourist.

‘Hi’, the stranger begins, ‘I found this on the street just around the corner.’ He puts a wallet on the desk and pushes it over to the receptionist. ‘Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?’. Without waiting for a response, the stranger turns and leaves.

The wallet is a clear plastic envelope, which the receptionist picks up and turns over. Inside they can clearly see a key, a shopping list, some business cards and a couple of bank notes. 

So what happens to the envelope? That’s the question asked by Alain Cohn, a researcher at the University of Michigan, and his team — who have dropped off similar envelopes all over the world. Stafford continues: 

For me, the most interesting finding is not whether most wallets were returned (they were), or whether the wallets with more money in were more likely to be returned (also true), but the differences around the world in the rates at which the wallets were returned. These differences were huge, varying from 4 out of every 5 wallets being returned (in Scandinavia, of course, and Switzerland), to fewer than 1 in 5 being returned (in places including China, Peru and Kazakhstan).

Trying to understand this range led Cohn and his team to the World Values Survey, an international research effort that polls citizens around the globe about their beliefs and attitudes. One question, in particular, asks about faith in other people: ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?’. In Sweden, for example, most people agree with this statement. In Peru, fewer than 10 per cent do. Cohn’s analysis suggests that it is this generalised trust in other people that drives the cross-cultural differences seen with the lost wallets. 

Stafford, following Cohn, thinks that the key variable here is “views of human nature,” but that’s not obviously correct. What if the key variable is “views of social responsibility”? I wonder if Cohn et al. asked any questions about that

Edward Heathcote, with a piece that provides an interesting counterpoint to my recent post on a 1950s skyscraper:

Sennett refers to the difference between Billionaires’ Row and the Rockefeller Center, a place of constant public and civic activity. In Rem Koolhaas’s 1978 book Delirious New York, written as the city was mired in bankruptcy but while its cultural scene was, arguably, at its apex, the Dutch architect argued that the skyscraper contained all the potential of a self-contained city. A “social condenser” is what he called it: “A machine to generate and intensify desirable forms of human intercourse.” 

The slender profile of 111 W 57th represents the proud nail in the coffin of that potential. It transforms an archetype which was, since its birth at the end of the 19th century, a container built to accommodate the complex needs of the contemporary metropolis. 

The skyscrapers of the golden era, the 1920s and 1930s, aspired to the condition of the vertical city, connecting the street to the sky via a labyrinth of corridors and arcades, shops, hotels, restaurants, subways, studios, theatres and, of course, offices with their own set of stratifications from secretaries to executives. This skinny tower aspires to something very different, the exclusion of the 99.99 per cent.

Ultimately, this is a skyscraper that has been built because it was possible, physically, economically and politically, to build it. Finance and engineering collide in the refinement of a new, very contemporary type of tower. It is, in its way, just as emblematic of its time as the buildings of the 1920s were of theirs. The economies of global cities are built on real estate, that is how they maintain growth. These towers may look insubstantial, but this is not a glitch. It is the new reality in which unimaginable wealth towers over the city uncontained, not by accident but by design.

“Another Green World,” by Jessica Camille Aguirre:

NASA has also dabbled in space agriculture. In the late Nineties, it conducted experiments at the Johnson Space Center in Houston called the Early Human Testing Initiative, enclosing volunteers in sealed chambers for up to three months at a time. In one experiment, the oxygen for a single crew member was supplied by 22,000 wheat plants. A more ambitious project to enclose four people, named BIO-plex, was planned for the early Aughts, but was ultimately shelved because of budget concerns. Still, NASA researchers have continued work on space agriculture, albeit on a more modest scale. A few years ago, astronauts succeeded in growing lettuce aboard the International Space Station in a miniature garden called Veggie.

Most recently, the China National Space Administration has collaborated with Beihang University to build Yuegong-1, or Lunar Palace 1, a sealed structure with small apartments and two growing chambers for plants. Beginning in 2018, eight student volunteers lived in the capsule, rotating in groups of four for over a year. Their diet consisted of crops they grew, including strawberries, along with packets of mealworms fed with biological waste. Like the ESA’s loop, carbon dioxide was cycled through plants, which were enriched with nitrogen from processed urine. Yet even Lunar Palace 1 fell short of being a truly closed system. While it managed to recycle 100 percent of its water and oxygen, it managed to do so for only 80 percent of its food supply.

A fascinating story about biospheres and other strategies for living in places other than the Earth.

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly – by Adam Mastroianni:

We haven’t fully reckoned with what the cultural oligopoly might be doing to us. How much does it stunt our imaginations to play the same video games we were playing 30 years ago? What message does it send that one of the most popular songs in the 2010s was about how a 1970s rock star was really cool? How much does it dull our ambitions to watch 2021’s The Matrix: Resurrections, where the most interesting scene is just Neo watching the original Matrix from 1999? How inspiring is it to watch tiny variations on the same police procedurals and reality shows year after year? My parents grew up with the first Star Wars movie, which had the audacity to create an entire universe. My niece and nephews are growing up with the ninth Star Wars movie, which aspires to move merchandise. Subsisting entirely on cultural comfort food cannot make us thoughtful, creative, or courageous.

Fortunately, there’s a cure for our cultural anemia. While the top of the charts has been oligopolized, the bottom remains a vibrant anarchy. There are weird books and funky movies and bangers from across the sea. Two of the most interesting video games of the past decade put you in the role of an immigration officer and an insurance claims adjuster. Every strange thing, wonderful and terrible, is available to you, but they’ll die out if you don’t nourish them with your attention. Finding them takes some foraging and digging, and then you’ll have to stomach some very odd, unfamiliar flavors. That’s good. Learning to like unfamiliar things is one of the noblest human pursuits; it builds our empathy for unfamiliar people. And it kindles that delicate, precious fire inside us — without it, we might as well be algorithms. Humankind does not live on bread alone, nor can our spirits long survive on a diet of reruns. 

This is good, but notice that there’s no reference here to the possibility of searching the past for worthwhile art. 

the old women of Nishapur

Talal Asad:

My point is simply that when a capability is acquired there is no longer a temporal interval between judging according to a universal rule and acting in a particular situation in the way Kant conceptualizes ethics—they are morally the same instant. Of course, the fact that a capability is embodied does not guarantee that you will act morally any more than acting according to conscience guarantees it. The act of recognizing a rule, judging how it can be applied in a particular context, and then applying it, reflects a different temporality from one where one acts according to a capability that is dependent on a collective form of life that sustains a transcendent vision. This, I think, is what Ghazali meant when he reputedly said: Oh! if only I had the implicit faith of the old women of Nishapur! Meaning: To live without having to go through the process of verification and application of moral rules, to live at once in the time of this world and the time of eternity. 

Picking up on this point, Katherine Lemons argues — in a post that’s part of a series on this trope — that the three key elements of the faith of the old women of Nishapur are: 

  • Time: “They live in a temporality of simultaneity where the eternal is ever-present in everyday life. Such simultaneity enables ethical action (that is, action oriented toward the Hereafter) without the need to weigh, to calculate, or to reason. Ethical action, that is, whose telos is immanent to it.” 
  • Indifference: “The temporality of the old women’s knowledge emerges from a faith for which doubt is an irrelevant category. It also gives rise to indifference in the face of scholarly knowledge…. Thus, [one] old woman was reportedly unimpressed by Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi’s one thousand proofs of God’s existence, inciting envy in the scholar. Asad’s mother was likewise [uninterested] in defending Islam or extolling its virtues and her ‘embodied religion did not offer itself to hermeneutic methods.’” 
  • Obstinacy: One old woman “lives with the hereafter and it informs her decisions, even when everything in worldly life hangs in the balance. Her certainty … allows her to exhibit obstinacy in the face of temporal power.” 

All this is reminiscent of what Rebecca West calls “idiocy” — something I have commended. It may also be related to another strategy I have commended, that of practicing silence, exile, and cunning. But I think I like these interlocking practices even more. I will have things to say about them in the future. I am always looking for resources to keep me committed to restoration and renewal while also protecting be from the always-present temptation of building fascist architecture of my own design

Barbara Graziosi:

Strong readings of the Iliad tend to focus on the final encounter between Achilles and Priam, and Achilles’ return of the body of Hector, Priam’s son, whom he has killed. To [Jasper] Griffin, that scene affirms the value of a human life in the face of death. To [James] Porter, it makes the Iliad a poem of war, not death: Homer, “however we understand the name,” reveals the inexplicable, violent loss of life, not just the finality of death. I agree with Porter, as it happens. But while Porter and Griffin engage in critical single combat, we may want to listen to how the Iliad actually ends. The last word does not belong to Priam or Achilles, but to the women of Troy. At the funeral of Hector, their ritual laments insist on one theme: their dependence on the deceased. He meant different things to each, we learn, but they all relied on him. This is a theme that Achilles, in his great wrath, has difficulty grasping. It is also a theme that, from the position of combative criticism, can escape attention. From the perspective of the women of Troy, however, it is painfully obvious that people can only flourish when they look after each other and, in shared ritual, take care of the dead.

making a difference

This is one of those I-want-to-think-further-about-this posts. 

A couple of years ago, Shoshana Zuboff wrote an essay for the NYT in which she summarized the major themes of her enormous book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Thus:

Our digital century was to have been democracy’s Golden Age. Instead, we enter its third decade marked by a stark new form of social inequality best understood as “epistemic inequality.” It recalls a pre-Gutenberg era of extreme asymmetries of knowledge and the power that accrues to such knowledge, as the tech giants seize control of information and learning itself. The delusion of “privacy as private” was crafted to breed and feed this unanticipated social divide. Surveillance capitalists exploit the widening inequity of knowledge for the sake of profits. They manipulate the economy, our society and even our lives with impunity, endangering not just individual privacy but democracy itself. Distracted by our delusions, we failed to notice this bloodless coup from above.

Later in the essay she shifted to a more hopeful tone: “Still, the winds appear to have finally shifted. A fragile new awareness is dawning as we claw our way back up the rabbit hole toward home.” Maybe. But it seems clear now that that awareness proved to be too fragile.

In the intervening two years nothing has changed, and most people seem to have moved on to other, newer outrages. The big tech companies made the bet that they could know everything about us – that they could conscript us as foot-soldiers in their information-harvesting army by flattering us as “creators” – and that (a) we would be too enamored of convenience, or too distracted, to care and (b) our political representatives would be too feckless and incompetent to take action. It seems to me that they won that bet. Congress dragged a few of the Tech Bosses into their chambers, grandstanded for a couple of days, and then lost interest. If there was ever a real chance for significant change, it seems to me that the moment has passed.

Recently, just after revisiting Zuboff’s essay, I read Dorothy Wickenden’s profile of Wendell Berry in the New Yorker, and as I did a question formed in my mind: Who has made more of a difference, Shoshana Zuboff or Wendell Berry? The Harvard Business School professor or the farmer-poet from Kentucky?

Neither of them has been able to achieve what they would most want: to constrain, if not eliminate, certain large-scale forces they (rightly) believe to be diseases attacking the common weal — surveillance capitalism for Zuboff, industrial agriculture for Berry — but which of them has managed to make the greater contribution to their goals?

I am inclined to think that, despite Zuboff’s superior social location — as a longtime professor at one of our most elite institutions, and a person capable of leveraging that status to get attention in rooms of powerful people who have never heard of Wendell Berry — it is Berry who has achieved more, because in addition to critique he has commended and modeled a set of healthy practices — a kind of habitus.

I think of Eno’s famous line that the Velvet Underground’s first record only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years, but everyone who bought it started a band. Wendell Berry isn’t a best-selling writer, but his work — combined with his example — has caused a a number of his readers to change their lives, and not many writers can say that.

Andrey Mir (note Mir’s definition: “Postjournalism is journalism that is economically forced to take a political side and produce polarization and anger in order to trigger the audience’s loyalty and donations in the form of subscription”):

There are two parallel and intertwining processes defining the conditions of agenda-setting. First, journalism is mutating into postjournalism, and the largest news media orgs are turning into the crowdfunded ‘Ministries of post-truth’. Second, old media in general are becoming a part of the digital media environment dominated by social media with their own intrinsic polarization bias. As a result, old and new media are conjointly and interdependently contributing to polarization. The mechanisms and motives, however, are different. Social media polarization is a side effect of better user engagement for better ad targeting. Old media polarize the audience for better soliciting of support. But both produce polarization because of the very design of their business models.

Fake news is not the principal problem in this new media environment. The impact of fake news is already mitigated by the users’ growing immunity and also by the growing noise that diminishes the potency of fake news’ impact. The critical issue of the new media environment is polarization. It is systemic and profound; no ecosystem factor is seen on the horizon that might limit or counteract the polarizing effect of new and old media. Even the ongoing decline of old media will not solve the problem, as they will remain the discursive platform for the public sphere for another 5–10 years. This is sufficiently long enough to cause significant damage in the area where the affective and agenda-setting polarization of social media gets articulated and transferred into political discourses that shape the public sphere, politics, policies and electoral outcomes.

the glazing of eyes

The older I get, the more common this experience becomes: finding that I am simply unable to read essays and articles on certain topics. I may, out of a sense of duty, begin to read something on these topics, but almost immediately my eyes begin to wander, or to glaze over. I strive to refocus; I re-read the same few sentences; but before long my mind has wandered elsewhere. Eventually I give up.

I used to be able to read about some of these things, but the way The Discourse asymptotically approaches the point of absolute stupidity — a stupidity than which no stupider can be conceived — has now rendered my brain dysfunctional w/r/t the following:

  • Critical race theory
  • Trans issues
  • Productivity
  • Burnout
  • The New Right
  • Denominational break-ups and church splits
  • Elon Musk
  • And, now of course, abortion (The Discourse around which has always been brain-dead, but was usually avoidable)

That is of course only a partial list, but it seems to cover about 90% of what I’m seeing in news periodicals these days.

One nice feature of Feedbin is the ability to create actions based on filters. So, for instance, I have just created an action to set any new article that contains the word “abortion” as read; that way it won’t show up in my “unread” feed, which is the only feed I look at. A couple of weeks ago I created a similar action for the term “Elon Musk”; I had already targeted posts that have “Burnout” or “Productivity” in their titles — if the Bad Words are not in the actual title then maybe their use in the text is innocuous. We’ll see how it goes; I’ll adjust as necessary. Keeping my sanity requires constant vigilance — unless I want to go offline altogether, which, believe me, I often consider.

On the other side, things I find that I want to read more about these days:

  • China, present and past, especially religion in China
  • Daoism
  • Anarchism
  • Infrastructure
  • Materials science
  • Scientific innovation, especially regarding climate-change mitigation
  • Water, and places where it is (a) scarce or (b) overabundant
  • Late antiquity in the West
  • … and one more topic I’ll talk about in a future post.

Mainly, though, I want to read more novels.

[I thought I had this post scheduled to go out tomorrow, but obviously I messed up. Consider this, then, a proleptic disclosure of the eschaton.]

Andy Crouch on invitation and repair

From Andy Crouch’s new book:

To rebuild households would begin to undermine Mammon itself. If we lived this way together, we would begin to fundamentally change our economy in the most literal sense and eventually change the structure of economic life more broadly — what we value, measure, and reward. To begin this kind of economic restoration does not require us to change the practices of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank — or even to know, exactly, what ought to replace them. We just (just!) have to redirect our energies away from Mammon’s domain and turn toward a realm where Mammon has nothing to offer. And then we need to invite others to join us under that new shelter. 

Well, there’s Invitation & Repair right there. (Also a rhyming with my recent stuff on principalities, powers, and demons.) 

One name for “a realm where Mammon has nothing to offer,” as Wendell Berry noted in his 1984 essay “Two Economies,” is the Kingdom of God: 

For the thing that so troubles us about the industrial economy is exactly that it is not comprehensive enough, that, moreover, it tends to destroy what it does not comprehend, and that it is dependent upon much that it does not comprehend. In attempting to criticize such an economy, it is probably natural to pose against it an economy that does not leave anything out. And we can say without presuming too much, that the first principle of the kingdom of God is that it includes everything; in it the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it, we may say, whether we know it or not, and whether we wish to be or not. Another principle, both ecological and traditional, is that everything in the kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it. That is to say that the kingdom of God is orderly. 

Andy and Mr. Berry between them have said much of what I would want to say about Invitation and Repair! (But there may be a few elements of what Berry calls the Great Economy still remaining to be explored.) 

Brad East has an outstanding essay-review on Andy’s book at The New Atlantis. Please read it — and The Life We’re Looking For!

The Economist:

Migration into the state has remained steady for a decade (it is the number leaving that has changed). California continues to attract the same share of foreign immigrants as ever, roughly a quarter, even though the total fell. And, remarkably, demographic decline has gone hand in hand with higher educational and living standards. In the 2010s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a research group, more college graduates moved to the state than left, at a time when people with only high-school education were flooding out. Incomers tended to be wealthier, too. Perhaps you have to be rich and educated to move to California.

Mr Newsom may be right. California is still where the future happens first: a future of ageing, declining populations, ethnic diversity and educational advance.

a memory

Inside alderman ss header full bleed

At UVA, they’re stripping Alderman Library pretty much down to the frame, which may mean that this room won’t be long for the world. (I don’t know the details of the plan for renovation, but the photos on the linked page look pretty stark.) I still have a vivid memory of an afternoon forty-two years when I heard a talk there by Jean LeClercq, the Dominican monk and scholar. We sat in an intimate semicircle and he spoke quietly of monastic life in the Middle Ages. When it was over I headed for Heartwood Books to buy a copy of The Love of Learning and the Desire for God — which I still have: 

IMG 3299

It’s a great book. Maybe time for a re-read? 

Also, UVA’s photographer Sanjay Suchak has used the rebuilding of the library as a chance to get up high for an unusual view of the Rotunda and its corner of the Grounds: 

Header Bigger Picture Spring SS

DNA

B. D. McClay:

It’s natural to find the thought that what we build in our life will die with us disturbing. (Though forms of its lasting can also be distressing; in his poem “Posterity,” Philip Larkin imagines being summed up by an irritated, unenthusiastic future biographer with “Oh, you know the thing / That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych.”) No one wants to die. To ourselves, we matter, and we want what we do to matter to somebody else. We want our sacrifices to be worth it in a transcendent sense, our pain to have a purpose, our achievements to be permanent. A handful of life paths — intellectual and artistic work in particular — are about trying to create, as Horace wrote, “a monument more lasting than bronze.” They are a calculated gamble that a life dedicated to the difficult and narrow path will continue after our death, however unrewarding it might have been to experience. […] 

Most scholarship is also not going to live forever. Is it therefore not worth doing? I wouldn’t say so. It’s worth it to maintain gardens and repair buildings and restore artworks. No one’s work lives forever on its own. It stays alive because someone keeps it so. Here again, greatness requires humility: other people’s. The task of thinking is worthwhile even if your thoughts prove to be of limited usefulness. The tasks of reading, of appreciation, of interpretation, are worthwhile, even if next year there is a new essay that supersedes yours, or a new book. If we have chosen to live our lives this way, it is because something about it strikes us as the best way we can spend our time. 

When I was in graduate school I read a book by a scholar named Michael O’Loughlin with the unwieldy title The Garlands of Repose: The Literary Celebration of Civic and Retired Leisure: The Traditions of Homer and Vergil, Horace and Montaigne. I was greatly taken with it. Before I read that book, it had never occurred to me that there could be different kinds of leisure, with different purposes, different characters; nor had I thought about just how essential leisure is to human culture. (Maybe O’Loughlin hadn’t thought about that either, before reading Josef Pieper.) I also loved the way O’Loughlin identified thematic harmonies that linked works written over a period of 2000 years. It seemed to me a model of what my own literary criticism could be. 

When I read the book, I was expecting to become a specialist in seventeenth-century literature, but my path veered in a different direction, so I have rarely had the opportunity, over the years, to cite it. But it has had a lasting effect on my thinking. For instance, it has deeply informed the way I read W. H. Auden, that most Horatian of modern poets. My critiques of technocracy and my interest in “repairing the world” stem from a belief that one of the best things we can do for our culture, and for those who join it after us, is to create a space for healthy leisure. Even my recent thinking about Taoism is influenced by what I read in The Garlands of Repose all those years ago. 

Another way to put that is to say that O’Loughlin’s book — I believe the only one he ever published — became a part of my intellectual DNA. And maybe something I write will spark something for a reader — a scholar or a writer or a pastor or teacher or who knows what — and become part of her DNA. Maybe she’ll never quote me — maybe she’ll never even realize that she wouldn’t have had that idea if she hadn’t read my essay — but in that way my thought will become part of someone else’s intellectual genome, and through her will make some difference in the world. If so, then her thought will be indebted to a scholar she probably has never have heard of: Michael O’Loughlin. 

As with my writing, so with my teaching. Maybe some word of mine will become a part of a student’s intellectual or moral or spiritual inheritance, and in that way play a role in his life, and then, through his influence, in the lives of others. Just as my own voice is shaped and formed by the voices of others — Bakhtin taught me this — so others will appropriate for themselves and their purposes ideas they first heard in my voice.  

I don’t expect that anyone will be reading my stuff after I die — I expect that I’ll be wholly forgotten before I die, if I live to a good age — but I almost never think about that. At the end of Middlemarch George Eliot says of Dorothea that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” and that captures better than I can my convictions on this point. Diffusive is the key word: an influence that subtly spreads, perhaps without anyone noticing. I find that model of influence more encouraging and comforting than any hopes for fame could ever be.  

uniqueness

Ernst Cassirer’s An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture is essentially (more so than I realized when I began it) a simplification and condensation of his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. And therefore it’s a good introduction to his work. But I want to talk just about one theme in it.

Much of the first third of Cassirer’s book is devoted to distinguishing Man from the other animals. He says that all other animals have a “receptor system” for registering stimuli and an “effector system” for acting in response to those stimuli. (He’s borrowing these terms from a biologist.) But, Cassirer claims, human beings are unique in that we have in addition to those two systems a “symbolic system” – we are the symbol-making animal. But why shouldn’t we say that our making of symbols is just part of our effector system? It seems very important to Cassirer to insist that it is a different thing altogether, and that’s a reminder that “the age of the crisis of man” is not just about understanding “the nature and destiny of man” but also requires the conceptualizing of that nature and destiny in ways that strictly distinguish us from all other creatures – and by those means resolve the “crisis.”

That human beings are unique in the scheme of creation is of course a point present and important in Jewish and Christian traditions – indeed perhaps only in Jewish and Christian traditions, though the point is debatable. In the Hebrew Bible the context of the claim that humans are made in God’s image is very clearly that none of the other creatures is made in God’s image – but there are many other passages in Scripture that remind us that the rest of creation has its own stake in the outcome of our story, that when God comes the trees of the forest shout for joy, that until He comes the whole of creation groans in its labors. And it’s an interesting thing that so many people our own time, including I think many Christians, have grown weary of and perhaps annoyed by all these attempts to establish and define human uniqueness, and prefer instead to emphasize all the ways in which we and the rest of creation share a history, share a story, share a destiny. To some degree, of course, this is the result of more careful study of the kinds of things that animals are capable of, but I don’t think that’s the only cause, and maybe not even the chief one.

(Here let me pause to give a plug to Frans de Waal’s extraordinary book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I have to write about it at some point….)

I think many of us, and I count myself in this number, feel that all the discourse about human uniqueness hasn’t been good for us or for the rest of Creation. It’s not (this is what I would say anyway) that we need to deny human uniqueness – we are by any measure a very strange animal indeed, and with a distinctive role in God’s economy – but rather that we don’t seem to be able to talk about our uniqueness in ways that help us to live more wisely with one another or with the rest of Creation. And that’s a reminder that some things can be true and yet not always edifying to dwell on.