excerpts from my Sent folder: angels

This is from an email conversation with my friend Adam Roberts about a recent post of his. N.B.: We’re in medias res here. 


It doesn’t take long to get into intractable difficulties, does it? I don’t know the solution to any of them, of course, but the most obvious one goes something like this, I think:

Though Milton’s God is not always identical with what I would call the Christian God, I do believe he’s in the general vicinity when he says that he made all the rational creatures “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” This suggests that obedience can only be valuable and beautiful when a creature possesses the moral imagination to consider and reject disobedience. You could even say that this is what rational freedom is: the exercise of moral imagination. A creature cannot be virtuous unless it can imagine being vicious.

And imagining sin is not the same as doing it, which is to say that there is some distinction between imagination and will; and that in turn means (as everyone who reflects on these matters ultimately realizes) is it difficult to say when the Fall actually happens, for angels or humans. It’s the crossing of this invisible line from imagining something to willing it. For Milton’s Satan it seems to have happened at the moment that he “thought himself impaired.” (Presumably something very similar happens to all the other rebel angels — if they fell only because they were tempted by Lucifer, then presumably God would extend the same grace to them that he extends to humans.)

So:

  1. All rational creatures have both the strength to stand and the freedom to fall; 
  2. Their moral imagination allows them to understand what falling might be; 
  3. Satan and the other rebel angels move on their own from imagining to willing disobedience; 
  4. Adam and Eve also make that move, but as a result of external temptation; 
  5. Therefore, God extends grace to Adam and Eve but not to the angels. 

I think that’s coherent, if not necessarily convincing; though of course it leaves a thousand other questions unanswered (e.g. Milton gets himself into an enormous amount of trouble, I think, by having Eve so openly chafe against the authority of Adam).

But to pull back from this scene for a moment: The various scenarios you outline in a previous email — your delineation of (a) kinds created (b) numbers created (c) proportions of the Obedient and the Disobedient — confine themselves to this world, and we don’t know whether this world is the only one populated by rational creatures with moral imagination. So CSL imagines a whole solar system of such creatures and suggests that our world is the only fallen one. What if we extend that to the whole galaxy, the whole universe? Setting aside Fermi’s Paradox, this could be an unimaginably vast universe absolutely full of rational creatures praising their Creator and rejoicing in their obedience to Him … while we alone are the broken ones. Earth, then, becomes the cosmic version of the tiny closet in which the one poor child suffers in Omelas.

a parable

Almost all of Tolstoy’s early stories were published by a journal called The Contemporary. Some of them focused on the miseries — and also the human dignity — of the serfs, whose emancipation Tolstoy fervently advocated. (Indeed, he freed his own serfs — he was a nobleman and a landowner — some time before universal emancipation was proclaimed by Tsar Alexander.) But The Contemporary fell under the influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who, while praising Tolstoy’s ability, chastised him for being insufficiently devoted to the most radical political positions. Tolstoy, unwilling to alter his writing to conform to Chernyshevsky’s demands for political purity, took his work elsewhere and became, along with his contemporary Dostoevsky, one of the two greatest writers of the nineteenth century. Chernyshevsky, meanwhile, took over The Contemporary and banished all writers who did not conform to his political preferences; after his death, though he was always a clunking and tub-thumping writer, he became a great influence — perhaps the greatest single influence — on V. I. Lenin. 

being Russian

A. N. Wilson, from his biography of Tolstoy (1988): 

Being Russian, unless you are preternaturally stupid or wicked, produces violent inner tensions and conflicts, reflected in nearly all the great imaginative geniuses to emerge from Russia in the last two centuries. On the one hand, you know that you have been born into a “God-bearing” nation, whose destiny is to keep burning the flame of truth while the other nations languish in decadence. (The truth may be Orthodox Christianity or the creeds of Marxist-Leninism, but the feeling is the same.) You know that the Russians are best at everything from poetry to gymnastics, and that they invented everything: ballet, bicycles, the internal combustion engine. You know that Russia has more soul than any other country — that its birch avenues, its snows, its ice, its summers are all the more glorious than the manifestations of nature in more benighted countries. There is only one drawback, which is that it is completely horrible to live there.

How can it be that the country chosen by God, or by the destiny which moves nations, or by the unseen inevitability of dialectical materialism, should have produced, in each succeeding generation, a political system which made life hell for the majority of inhabitants and which, every so often, threw up tyrants of truly horrifying stature? These are questions which have haunted in particular those few Russians who have ever been in Tolstoy’s fortunate position of being able to choose whether to stay in Russia or to take the money and run. Today, we read precisely similar tensions in the utterances and writings of Soviet dissidents, and in particular Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose hatred of his country’s Government seems almost equally balanced by a fervent patriotism, a tragic knowledge that a Russian can only be himself when he is on his native soil.

scale again

Monday November 7 2022 – by Sasha Frere-Jones

Scale serves wealth. “Scale” is a polite way of saying “love of numbers” and the numbers are there only in the hope that the money will follow them. Very few people stay on Twitter for any length of time without thinking about income. “It is the thing I must do,” the hardcore user thinks, “because this will bring me more of more and that will improve my work situation.” I’ve had 50,000 followers on Twitter and 5,000, at different points and with different accounts. My life was better with 5,000 — the more recent stretch — but I ultimately have no proof that more people read my work or listened to my music in either instance. The exposure metric indicates only that I am being exposed; it does not prove the quality of any event or even correlation, any more than a song being on the radio proves that someone is listening to it carefully or is likely to buy it. If anything good happened, it was probably me goofing with the friends I already have chats with. 

Via Austin Kleon. See my School for Scale. And me on eyeballs and audiences. Interesting that so many people are thinking about these things as they’re reconsidering Twitter. 

audiences

The Struggle With The Audience:

By 2020, [Sam] Carter was a battle-hardened veteran of the music scene. He’d been making records with this group for twelve years, and Architects had had enough success not to worry too much about negative reactions to new material. It was also quickly apparent that Creatures was going to be a big hit. Despite all this, he found the reaction to hard to deal with: “It was doing huge numbers on the streaming services, but all I could see were these horrible comments.” On YouTube and Instagram, the negative reactions become increasingly extreme as people competed to make the most negative comment. “It’s hard, when you’ve put your heart and soul into something, and someone says, ‘I’m never listening to your band again, you’ve ruined it’.”

Carter then makes a striking assertion. If social media had come along earlier, he says, “Sergeant Pepper wouldn’t exist. The most important records of our time wouldn’t exist.” 

This whole essay by Ian Leslie is great, and a useful counterpart to my post the other day about the challenges of chasing eyeballs. 

However, there’s another side to the story of artists and their audiences. My buddy Austin Kleon wrote last week

One reason I feel so lucky to be an independent writer with a great audience: I don’t answer to any shareholders but readers. I don’t have to grow my business if I don’t want to. I can do my thing the way I want to do it for the people who want it. And I can do it the way I want to do it. 

I think Austin has this attitude because he has never tried to get famous, to go viral, all that crap; he has tried (a) to do good, honest, useful, helpful work that (b) supports his family. Turns out there’s an audience for that! And Austin can call his audience “great” because he has set a tone — a tone of generosity, kindness, thoughtfulness — and they’ve picked up on that. So maybe the lessons here are: 

  1. Do your best work. 
  2. Be kind and generous to your audience. 
  3. When they want to dictate to you, listen … but then do what you have to do to maintain your integrity and your sanity. 
  4. Accept the consequences as stoically as you can, and be grateful when those consequences are more positive than negative. 

See also: this blog’s mission statement

the foundering of the therapeutic

A therapeutic church is an atheist church — Brad East:

The more … a congregation becomes therapeutic, in its language, its liturgy, its morals, its common life, the more God recedes from the picture. God becomes secondary, then tertiary, then ornamental, then metaphorical, then finally superfluous. The old-timers keep God on mostly out of muscle memory, but the younger generations know the score. They don’t quit church and stop believing in God because of a lack of catechesis, as if they weren’t listening on Sundays. They were listening all right. The catechesis didn’t fail; it worked, only too well. The twenty- and thirty-somethings were preached right out of the gospel — albeit with the best of intentions and a smile on every minister and usher’s face. They smiled right back, and headed for the exit sign. 

Therapeutic churches exchange the Good News they have been entrusted with for a cold pottage of bargain-basement bromides. If churches want to help people in their suffering, that’s wonderful — and there’s a rich 2000-year history of Christian pastoral care to draw on. But when you ignore all that and pick up your therapeutic categories from YouTube, You’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making therapy worse

IMG 0864

Life at the 30th Street Studio of Columbia Records, 1955: Glenn Gould in the morning, Rosemary Clooney in the evening. (And at another studio, an advertisement for Anacin in the afternoon.) 

eyeballs

Since so many journalists spend most of their time on Twitter, it’s unsurprising to hear the more addicted among them now saying that other people should stay on Twitter too, Musk or no Musk. One of the most common arguments that I’ve seen goes like this: Twitter, for all its flaws, has made otherwise unheard voices of the marginalized audible, and the rest of us should hang around if only to listen to them. To which I respond:

First: Twitter made the voice of Donald Trump, and still nastier figures, even more audible. If the sound level of Black women goes up by 10db but that of Orange Man goes up 50db, I don’t call that a big win for diversity.

Second: Those marginal voices can be heard in many places other than Twitter, for anyone interested, and in some of their venues (articles in newspapers, essays in magazines, books) they articulate their experiences and their understanding of the world in considerably greater depth than they can on Twitter. If you want to become better informed while avoiding doomscrolling, RSS is ready when you are.

Third: About the attention that those marginalized voices get on Twitter — how good is that for them? On Twitter, too often attention = abuse.

Which leads me to what I think is an important question: Is more visibility always good? Is having more eyeballs on your work invariably better for you than having fewer? People reluctant to leave Twitter seem to believe that whatever you have to say or show needs to be seen by as many people as possible; but I don’t agree. One reason I left Twitter is that I was tired of getting responses from people who were (a) incapable of reading, (b) angrily malicious, or (c) both.

Now, one might reply that I could make any number of adjustments to my Twitter preferences to prevent that sort of thing — but in that case, why be on Twitter at all? It’s specifically designed for the amplification of the cruder emotions, so what’s the point of being there if you prefer to avoid the cruder emotions? Wouldn’t it make more sense go find a place to write that isn’t interested in the cruder emotions?

Because here’s the tradeoff: you can have more eyeballs, but they’ll be Sauron-like eyeballs.

“And into this Tweet he poured his cruelty, his malice, and his will to dominate all life.” 

If you leave Twitter for less obvious places, fewer eyeballs will see your work; but if people have to make a bit of an effort to find what you write, they’re far more likely to be intelligent and receptive readers than the average Twitter user.

We all need to stop thinking arithmetically. For good and for ill, the people who make the most significant impact on the world are those who pursue what Milton called “fit audience though few.” Very few people have read Wang Huning’s academic writings, but he directs the ideological program of the Chinese Communist Party. A far more positive example, from Eno: “The first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet … everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Eno brings home the import of his comment in the sentence that follows that extremely famous one I just quoted: “Some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.” (Some of the most important things always do.) If you realize the truth of this, then maybe you won’t be quite so desperate for eyeballs.

Blogs don’t have the important place on the internet today that they once had; I know that perfectly well, and I don’t care. Those who are genuinely interested in what I have to say can find me here on the open web. Those who aren’t willing to leave Twitter to find good writing … well, God bless them. But I won’t be trying to flag them down.

maybe this is the least important election of my lifetime

Jonah Goldberg: “You want to know what I think will happen if Republicans have a really good night on Tuesday? Not much.” 

Jonah is correct. Even if the Republicans win both houses of Congress, they won’t have a veto-proof majority. Because the current GOP is purely performative and legislatively incompetent, they’ll put on some off-Broadway theater — e.g. an attempted impeachment of President Biden — that will be mildly entertaining to some but ineffectual. Fecklessness and gridlock will continue to rule the Nation’s Capital. People need to calm down. 

the tongues of men and angels

Milton, Angels, Mortals: a Story Idea | by Adam Roberts: This will be a very busy day, so I don’t have time to engage with this as fully as I desperately want to do, so consider this a bookmark, and these as first thoughts: 

  • In this scenario, angels are bitcoin and people are money. 
  • The angels/humans relationship looks a good bit like that of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s legendarium, except that Elves do have children (just not many of them). 
  • Maybe in light of that one element of this history would be the fallen angels trying to figure out how to have children. Would they pursue this technologically? Or would they, like the people in The Children of Men, make do with surrogates? 
  • Adam envisions the faithful angels remaining in Heaven with God, but why would they do that? If in the orthodox Christian understanding (faithful) angels are among us, why wouldn’t they be in Adam’s imagined world? 

More … eventually. 

summing up 1943

The following is the text of a talk I was supposed to give three years ago and didn’t because my back went out the day I was supposed to fly to the location of the meeting. Then I forgot about it. I just came across it the other day and decided that I may as well post it. 


The first thing to be said about the five figures I wrote my book about — oldest to youngest: Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil — is that they failed to do what they set out to do, which was to reshape the educational system of the Allied societies in a way that would both respect and form genuine persons.

The technocrats who won the war — the “engineers of victory” — reaped the spoils: that is, they got to dictate the shape of the postwar social order. As Auden put it, in “the other war” the sons of Apollo defeated the children of Hermes. The Hermetics did not altogether give up, mind you; but they became a force of guerilla resistance rather than a conquering army. So it goes.

The Christian humanists I wrote about — who formed an important sub-family of the children of Hermes — did not gain control over postwar society in large part because they were, to borrow a distinction made by Rebecca West, idiots rather than lunatics. That is a compliment, not an insult. Seriously faithful Christians tend to be on the idiot end of the idiot-lunatic spectrum, because they take seriously the task of tending the garden of faith that they have inherited. They are custodians, caretakers. It’s demanding work, and it can make one a little slow to notice the larger movements of society. That can be unfortunate at times, but it beats becoming the kind of lunatic who is always “blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

The gardener of faith knows the history of the garden she tends. This gives her temporal bandwidth, and temporal bandwidth is directly proportionate to personal density. Without that temporal bandwidth you will be blown about by every wind of doctrine, because you don’t have the personal density to give you ballast. You’re light as a mote of dust.

The characters I wrote about had that temporal bandwidth, which not only made them attentive to the moral dimensions of the social and political choices facing them — each of them, it’s worth noting, understood the profound kinship that linked German National Socialism and Soviet communism — but also could see those choices in historical perspective, which gave them enormous diagnostic power. And we today are the beneficiaries of that power.

FTTB

I could give many examples, but I will content myself with taking a brief look at Auden’s long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. As explained briefly here, this was Auden’s first major work after he returned to the Christian faith of his childhood, and he sought in it to understand the public world into which he was born — and the Christian understanding of salvation history. In a sense, the poem is an attempt to unite the insights of two books that were very important to Auden at that time: Charles Norris Cochrane’s magisterial Christianity and Classical Culture and Charles Williams’s idiosyncratic Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Auden’s great initial insight, I believe, was that we today live in what one might call the Late Roman Empire, drawing with surprising directness on a 2000-year-old political inheritance that always stands in tension with the Christian Gospel. (I have written a bit about Cochrane’s importance for our time in these posts.) As Auden wrote in a review of Cochrane’s book,

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

“Spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” is a brilliantly incisive phrase, and suggestive of Auden’s next key insight: that to think in such terms is to agree to adjudicate the competing claims of the Lordship of Caesar and the Lordship of Christ on the ground of technological power. The key characteristic of Caesarism in the Late Roman Empire is Caesar’s control over the creation and deployment of technology, which is why the union of government and the financial sector and the big technology companies is the great Power — very much in a Pauline sense — of our moment.

The amazing thing, to me, is that Auden saw all this coming in 1942, as we can see from his poem’s great “Fugal Chorus”. It should be read with care. Notice that the Seven Kingdoms that Caesar has conquered are a series of reductions: the reduction of

  • Philosophy to semantics;
  • Causation to scientistic determinism;
  • Quantity to mechanical calculation;
  • Social relations to rational-choice economics;
  • The inorganic world to mechanical engineering;
  • Organic life to biotechnology;
  • Our inner lives to manipulation by propaganda.

And all of these reductive conquests are achieved through technological means. Auden did not manage to redirect the momentum of this comprehensive achievement, but he gave us tools with which we, in our time, may understand it and articulate our own response. He has provided tools that we can, and should, use to cultivate our gardens.

Another phrase for this is “redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:16) — buying it out of its bondage to the Powers. It is hard, slow work; not the kind of work that a lunatic is likely to have patience with. We should therefore be thankful for our disposition to idiocy. And perhaps we should also meditate on these words, with their echo of that Pauline phrase I have just quoted, from the last pages of Auden’s great poem:

To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

I’m sure you’re having a rough day, but consider this: You’re not spending it trying to read Auden’s handwriting.

Screenshot 2022 11 03 at 1 38 34 PM

Ross Douthat:

One of the master keys to understanding our era is seeing all the ways in which conservatives and progressives have traded attitudes and impulses. The populist right’s attitude toward American institutions has the flavor of the 1970s — skeptical, pessimistic, paranoid — while the mainstream, MSNBC-watching left has a strange new respect for the F.B.I. and C.I.A. The online right likes transgression for its own sake, while cultural progressivism dabbles in censorship and worries that the First Amendment goes too far. Trumpian conservatism flirts with postmodernism and channels Michel Foucault; its progressive rivals are institutionalist, moralistic, confident in official narratives and establishment credentials.

I think about this all the time. It’s been so disorienting.

Sermon for All Souls by Jessica Martin

Sermon for All Souls, 2 November 2022
Ely Cathedral, 7.30 pm 
Canon Jessica Martin 
NT: 1 Peter 1.3–9
Gospel: John 5.19–25

Although you have not seen him, you love him (1 Pet.1.8)

We are joined to the invisible work of love. We are entangled in its bonds, marked by its effects, changed by its force. We steer by its sights.

The writer of the letter of Peter was thinking of the ascended Jesus, part of this invisible Godhead, when he wrote these words to his readers: ‘Although you have not seen him, you love him’. He was speaking of the way that we who are Christian walk by faith and not only by sight. But our making, our being in the visible world, has also been shaped — and shaken — by human lives, human loves, now withdrawn from bodily sight and touch, invisible to the beings we are in this space, this time. For each of us here is joined to the dead that made us, and who we honour through remembrance in this requiem mass.

There are the dead whom we name, bringing them in our naming into the circle of the present. Those beloved names reach beyond sight and touch to the deep knowledge of memory and longing. Their absence is a wound in our present time, but we speak of them believing that past and future are always ‘now’ to God; that what has been is, for our Creator, never lost, never out of reach. Good and bad together, sorrow and joy, bitterness and division, misunderstanding and reconciliation, the blunders that shake our lives, the encounters that make it – all stand within the divine sight, for judgement; and for mercy. In speaking the names of the dead we do not only speak loss; we do not even only speak recollection. We bespeak our hope that all that has ever been exists for redemption in the eyes of God, through the resurrection of his son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is what it actually means to walk by faith and not only by sight. 

Just a little out of sight of our remembered and beloved dead, lie those who are being forgotten, the names and beings slipping out of human memory. Sometimes, with the tail of our eye, we see them going. In a conversation with a nonagenarian in my last parish, he mentioned names of local villagers buried in the churchyard. Not all of them had headstones. Not all of them had been living even in his time; their resting places had been remembered by his parents, by the adults of his childhood in the early years of the twentieth century. Are their graves and names recorded, or did their memory slip away when the man I knew died, just a couple of years ago? What are the names and histories of the babies and small children buried in local graves housing members of my mother’s family? Only two or three generations have swept their short lives beyond our sight; we do not know how they felt, what they saw. Yet they live, in the eternal now; in the eye and heart of their loving Maker.

The act of remembering keeps our love in sight. And the act of remembering, the human act of remembering, stands in for everything we don’t know about our beloved dead. The most open, the most communicative of people will take much of his or her life forever away at death, across the river that divides the living from the dead. As the spirit returns to God who made it, its most private thoughts and feelings fall out of the earth and into the divine hand. My own dreams and nightmares, my own betrayals and spiritual victories, the things I saw on a particular day, at a particular hour forty years ago – many of them are no longer available to my memory, let alone anyone else’s. Much of what shaped and shook the person I have become is beyond my own knowing, now. But all this is known to God, before whom we are always and forever fully known. 

As we remember, we participate in the great act of recollection that is God’s constant work. But it is not our work, not primarily. It is God’s work. It is ‘kept in heaven for us; imperishable, undefiled, unfading’. Such a thing is hard even to imagine.  

We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed. The past is not static. It works in us. The Jesus of the past, who died and was raised, makes all the dead live. But the dead are not only raised to life and breathe again. The dead past is brought before the living eye of our Saviour, and changed: from blunder to wisdom, from incomprehension to understanding, from fear to love, from pain to recognition. We are not only meant for life, but for the redemption of our life. Not only shaped, but shaken into newness, into seeing afresh. As we hope to come home, so also do we hope to find ourselves always coming home in the sight of God’s bright homeliness. 

Remember the beloved dead. And remember the forgotten dead. And offer to God the Father all that you yourself have forgotten. For, in the end, through Jesus who lives in the love of the Father, all that is hidden shall embrace the light perpetual, and all that lies unknown shall be for ever recognised. 

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

Who going through the barren valley find there a spring; and the pools are filled with water.

They will go from strength to strength; and appear before God in Zion.

(Ps.84.4-6)

Amen.

refugees from human nature

Matthew Loftus:

Our communities and households must be active in reaching out to those whose lack of virtue, tradition, or culture is harming themselves and others, the countless refugees from human nature that technological destruction is creating. This of course includes political refugees fleeing climate change or violence, many of whom probably have a thing or two to teach us about human nature, but far more often it includes the people in our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and counties whose capacity for flourishing has been decimated by the forces conservatives love to decry but rarely have a strategy to do something about. Going from “a rearguard defense of tradition to take up the path of the guerrilla” means that we are no longer protecting “ourselves” from “them”, but trying to help the most of vulnerable of them become one of us. 

As Loftus wrote in an earlier essay

This is not simply a matter of the rich and powerful sacrificing for the sake of people in poor urban communities. It is also not a matter of poor urban communities since many rural places and even many suburban places need more good neighbours working with local churches. But we need to come to terms with the fact that exercising ourselves in service and challenging ourselves by frequent, intimate exposure to another culture’s expression of faith is a means of discipleship. It also a testimony to the watching world that Christ’s sufficiency transcends our cultural impetus to protect ourselves from “those kinds of people.” We don’t need an elite corps of radical Christians, we need faithful believers with power and privilege to simply spread out and join with brothers and sisters who don’t have the same resources we do.

Good heavenly days, this is a challenge.

I want to return to these thoughts in a couple of months, when an essay of mine appears: I’ve written for The New Atlantis about the fiftieth anniversary of Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings

Also, I’ll have more on “the path of the guerrilla” in another post. 

Vulcanology

Here’s a little offshoot of my work on Auden’s The Shield of Achilles.

Finding

This painting by Piero di Cosimo — see a larger version here — is called The Finding of Vulcan on the Island of Lemnos, but it wasn’t always called that. For a long time it was thought to represent the story of Hylas, the beautiful warrior and companion of Heracles who was abducted by nymphs. But, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky pointed out in his 1939 book Studies in Iconology, the image doesn’t really fit the story. Compare Piero’s painting with that of John William Waterhouse and you’ll see the difference: Waterhouse’s nymphs are clearly drawing Hylas into the water, in accordance with the myth, but Piero’s nymphs are doing something different: they’re helping a fallen youth get up from the ground. (Or, rather, one of them is: the others are looking on with curiosity, amusement, or concern, and talking about this odd stranger.) 

What’s going on here? To answer you have to go back to Homer: Iliad, Book I. There Hephaestus speaks to his mother Hera: 

You remember the last time I rushed to your defense? 
[Zeus] seized my foot, he hurled me off the tremendous threshold 
and all day long I dropped, I was dead weight and then, 
when the sun went down, down I plunged on Lemnos, 
little breath left in me. But the mortals there 
soon nursed a fallen immortal back to life. 

But “the mortals there” is not what Homer wrote; instead he wrote Σίντιες ἄνδρες, the “Sintian men.” The problem for later scholars is that nobody knows who the Sintian men were. Servius, a Latin grammarian and contemporary of Augustine of Hippo, wrote a learned commentary on Vergil in which he drew on that passage from Homer: Vulcano contigit, qui cum deformis esset et Iuno ei minime arrisisset, ab Iove est praecipitatus in insulam Lemnum. illic nutritus a Sintiis…. “Vulcan, because he was deformed and Juno did not smile on him, was hurled by Jove onto the island of Lemnos. There he was nurtured by the Sintii.”

This caused great confusion for scholars in the Renaissance for whom the word Sintii was meaningless. They therefore assumed, as learned philologists of that era were wont to assume, that some scribal error had occurred. Instead of nutritus a Sintiis Servius’s original text surely was nutritus absintiis, nurtured on wormwood. No, said others, it was nutritus ab simiis: He was nurtured by apes — and thus, we might say, a type of Tarzan. (Lord Greystoke, meet your ancestor Vulcan.) Boccaccio, in his enormously influential Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, accepted the Simian Hypothesis, and so evidence of it turns up in, for instance, an allegorical fresco, possibly by Cosmè Aura, in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara: 

6septem

See in the upper-left corner Vulcan’s forge, and, nearby, the apes pulling some kind of elaborate palanquin? 

But there was a third opinion — philologically the least convincing, surely, but artistically the most appealing: Servius’s text read nutritus ab nimphis — nurtured by nymphs. And that, Panofsky convincingly argued, is the reading Piero adopted. Those nymphs aren’t drawing Hylas into the water — there is no water — they’ve come running when they heard a big thump, or perhaps saw “Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” and now they’re chattering away about this remarkable event as one of them helps the stunned but unharmed god to his feet. Poor little fellow. (He looks about two-thirds their size.) Some of the nymphs seem to find the whole thing funny, but in the end they’ll take good care of him. 

UPDATE: I’ve been corresponding with Adam Roberts about this and we’ve both been searching for the mysterious Sintians. The wonderful Sententiae Antiquae blog quotes from the Homeric scholia:

“[The Sintian men}: Philokhoros says that because they were Pelasgians they were called this because after they sailed to Brauron they kidnapped the women who were carrying baskets. For they call “harming” [to blaptein] sinesthai.

But Eratosthenes says that they have this name because they are wizards who discovered deadly drugs. Porphyry says that they were the first people to make weapons, the things which bring harm to men. Or, because they were the first to discover piracy.

This story of a god being raised by PIRATE WIZARDS sounds like the best idea for a fantasy novel I have ever heard.

so let’s chill

Noah Smith:

So, Elon Musk bought Twitter. Personally, I’m pretty sanguine about this development. It’s no secret that I think that Twitter is a uniquely dystopian feature of the modern media sphere — a bad equilibrium that traps the nation’s journalists, politicians, and intellectuals in close quarters with all the nastiest and most strident anonymous bottom-feeders. There’s a nonzero chance Musk will be able to improve this situation; if not, it’s hard to see how he could make it particularly worse. If he destroys the platform, we’ll find something else — probably a number of different somethings, which I think would be good for the media ecosystem. Our entire society was not meant to be locked in a single small room together; we need more room to spread out and be ourselves. 

This is the right take, I think. For those who haven’t seen it, here is a collection of my posts on micro.blog in particular and and open web more generally. And here is a useful brief guide to getting started with blogging. 

this blog’s mission statement

Auden, from “The Garrison”:

Whoever rules, our duty to the City
is loyal opposition, never greening
for the big money, never neighing after
a public image.
 
Let us leave rebellions to the choleric
who enjoy them: to serve as a paradigm
now of what a plausible Future might be
is what we’re here for.

Manton Reece – Dear Elon Musk:

I agree that we shouldn’t be stuck in our own bubbles of misinformation. But the part Elon gets wrong is the premise that there should even be a “common digital town square” controlled by a single company. I reject that idea.

The common digital “square” should be the entire web, with a diverse set of platforms. There should be common APIs but many communities with their own rules, goals, and business models. Concentrating too much power in only a couple social media companies is what created the mess we’re in.

Adam Atheist

The other day I emailed my friend Adam Roberts and told him that I would have something to say about his despicable atheism.

Adam: “SCANDALOUS atheism! Not despicable! Scandalous!”

Me: “That’s just what a despicable atheist would say.”

Do please read Adam’s post; it’s extremely thoughtful and nuanced. Adam is responding to a claim by the late great literary critic Frank Kermode – a model of critical excellence for both Adam and me – that “From poetry and music I derive the little I know about holiness.” Adam wants to counterclaim that as much as he also is moved by poetry and music, that’s not really a religious experience.

I say so with a certain sorrow, for, like Kermode, poetry and music are very important to my life, and in them I often find the transcendence, the holiness of which he speaks here. But I don’t think his larger point is correct, actually. I cannot avoid the self-knowledge that this merely secular pseudo-faith lacks the blood, the force — lacks, the stationed and parrhesiastic surrender to absolute otherness — of religious faith in the Kierkegaardian sense I just mentioned — which is to say, in the sense that Kierkegaard understood the Christian idea of eternity as something applied to every moment of human existence.

Of course, it’s possible that speaking from experiential ignorance, as I necessarily am, leads me to over-romanticise what it is that people of faith have, and I lack. For many faith is, perhaps, a far more mundane business; it is surely, for most, a more quotidian business. Religion is a taxonomy of beliefs, yes; and it is (what I’m talking about here) an access to a transcendent otherness, an intensity of affect and apprehension, a power and glory. But more than that it is a social mode of being-in-the-world, a form of community, of belonging to a particular tribe: not just going to church, temple or mosque on high holy days, but helping-out at the church jumble sale, running the soup kitchen, reading-groups, social events, all that. It is something that serves to identify self and help it bond with others. Of seeing in other people not just strangers but brothers and sisters. Sitting at home and listening to a Bach cantata on your stereo isn’t any of that.

This is just one part of a complicated essay, but it should at least give the flavor.

All of what Adam says about religious faith – with its vertical (Godward) and horizontal (Neighborward) dimensions – seems to me correct, and useful in distinguishing such faith from whatever it is we most powerfully experience when we encounter the arts. But …

First of all, I don’t feel that I know anything about religion or religious faith in general; I only know what it means to be a Christian, or rather what it means to me to be a Christian. And to me the deepest heart of the matter is neither the ethical life of neighborliness nor an encounter with the transcendent but simply that as I read the Gospels I see in the life and words of Jesus an astonishing thing: Though I am unloveable, God loves me, and is willing to pay an enormous price to reconcile me to Himself. God loves me and hopes – “hopes” is a strange word to use with regard to the Omnipotent and Omniscient, but it’s the best word I have – God hopes that I will love Him in return.

Kierkegaard, in Philosophical Fragments:

And the cause of all this suffering is love, precisely because the God is not jealous for himself, but desires in love to be the equal of the humblest. When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when the God implants himself in human weakness, unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature! But this becoming, what labors will attend the change, how convulsed with birth-pangs! And the understanding – how precarious, and how close each moment to misunderstanding, when the anguish of guilt seeks to disturb the peace of love! And how rapt in fear; for it is indeed less terrible to fall to the ground when the mountains tremble at the voice of the God, than to sit at table with him as an equal; and yet it is the God’s concern precisely to have it so.

From my sense of this love, and its call upon my life, everything else, including the love of my neighbor, flows. Auden in “Winds,” the first of his “Bucolics”:

One bubble-brained creature said — 
   “I am loved, therefore I am” — :
And well by now might the lion
   Be lying down with the kid,
Had he stuck to that logic.

I’m trying, heaven knows I’m trying, to stick to that logic.

That when reading about Jesus I feel drawn to this life I perceive as a free gift, a gift that, I well understand, not everyone receives. (I also understand that others receive it with far greater power than I do. I am a man of vague and shaky faith.) My friend Adam may be, like Max Weber — and the metaphor is especially appropriate given the contrasts at the heart of Adam’s post — “religiously unmusical.” But I do hope that one day he will hear the now-hidden harmonies of the Christian way; and even should he not, I trust that this ever-loving God will be infinitely merciful to him. It seems to me that Adam is a man after God’s own heart, whether he feels it or not.

seed funding for the arts

The Nostalgic Turn in Music Writing – by Ted Gioia:

There are a hundred non-profit foundations in the arts that could solve this problem with a modest allocation of resources. If the Duke Foundation, for example, funded 50 people in 50 cities with $50K per year to cover their local music scene it would cost a grand total of $2.5 million. And, if they got ambitious, they could place 4 writers in each city, and still only spend around $10 million.

Did you get that? You could have in-depth arts coverage in every major city for less than the cost of a sneaker endorsement from a third-tier NBA star or the salary of the University of Alabama’s football coach. That’s chump change for those well-funded arts institutions, and it would have an immediate positive impact on culture and arts everywhere in this country.

But they don’t do it. They don’t even consider doing it, as far as I can tell. Who can say why. Maybe journalism isn’t glamorous enough for institutions that prefer to anoint geniuses. 

This is a brilliant idea by Ted, and I desperately hope some foundation leaders will read it. Throwing money at “geniuses” — the great majority of whom are already well-fixed — is like giving your money to Yale or Harvard, AKA hedge funds with universities loosely attached. It does nothing to nurture or generate a culture of creativity — and a culture is precisely what we need. 

Translation: “I’m not paying you to teach me organic chemistry, I’m paying you to tell medical schools that I know organic chemistry — and you’re not keeping your end of the bargain!” 

Bresson and the power of habit

pickpocket

Robert Bresson’s films A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959) are book-matched movies, mirror images of each other. In the first an honest and humble man is imprisoned, but eventually escapes; in the second an arrogant and dishonest man freely commits crimes for a long time, but is eventually caught and imprisoned.

The films mirror one another technically as well – and in not just the sense that almost all Bresson movies are technically similar. Bresson relied exclusively on a 50mm lens, because, he believed, that focal length most closely approximates human vision. The great Yasojiru Ozu believed this also, as did that prince of photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson. (Were they correct? Well, it’s complicated.) 

Anyway: in both A Man Escaped and Pickpocket the protagonist narrates his story in voiceover. In both films, close attention is given to the details of certain manual actions repeated almost mechanically: A Man Escaped shows us the prisoner’s methodical work to make an opening in his cell door and then his weaving of long ropes, while Pickpocket shows us the thief’s equally methodical practice of the techniques of his art.

And in each film the protagonist is played by a non-professional (though François Leterrier later became a director and Martin LaSalle an actor). Bresson’s disdain for professional actors – whom he believed could only seem – and his alternative preference for using non-actors or what he called “models” – whom he believed could genuinely be – was, in my view, a catastrophic error of judgment. Almost all of Bresson’s “models” fail in their task, I think, and his movies are much the worse for it. This is very much a minority view, I know, but I really do believe that Bresson, for all his gifts, fails to reach the highest level of filmmaking precisely because of his refusal to use adequate actors. (To be sure, Bresson’s thinking in these matters is subtle and in a way profound; I just don’t think it works.)  

The chief exception to this rule is Leterrier in A Man Escaped: he’s excellent. (Claude Laydu, who is superb in Diary of a Country Priest, had never been in a movie before but had trained as an actor.) Martin LaSalle in Pickpocket is just terrible, at least when he speaks – he and Marika Green alike seem to be merely reciting their lines throughout – and that really compromises, for me, what otherwise could have been a remarkable achievement.

Pickpocket is a simplified retelling of Crime and Punishment, though with less serious crime (Michel, our thieving protagonist, is not a violent man). We get the idea of “l’homme superieur,” the verbal sparring with an apparently meek police officer, the undeserved love of an innocent woman. But there’s an interesting little twist that Bresson, who wrote the screenplay, adds. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov, after his two murders, falls helplessly into a bipolar oscillation, full of arrogance one hour, full of self-loathing the next, and his only anchor in these psychological storms is Sonia, who urges him to confess his crimes – which ultimately he does.

In Pickpocket the Sonia figure is Jeanne, whose kindness to the needy (including Michel’s own mother, whom he is too ashamed to visit) and ready forgiveness of sin eventually touch Michel’s heart: when she becomes a single mother and is in need, he pledges her his help. He promises to go straight, to make an honest living, to help her care for her child. Love changes him – as it changes Raskolnikov.

But this is where the twist comes in – and where we see why Bresson makes Michel a pickpocket rather than a murderer. For the sake of Jeanne and her child, Michel becomes an honest worker … but the work is so long, and the rewards so few. And look, here’s this man with a wallet full of banknotes: just an artful flick of my hand would be enough to liberate that money and to provide for dear Jeanne and her child for months … what would be the harm?

So here Bresson is reflecting on a point related to the themes of Crime and Punishment but bringing those themes home to those of us who are sinners but not murderers: the overwhelming power of habit. Michel had built up over a long time the habits of a thief, and while he had justified them by his belief that he is one of those superior men, after he abandons that belief the habits remain. He has, as it were, demolished the building but left standing the scaffolding he used to construct it. True love, it turns out, is powerful, but habit is even more powerful; and so Michel finds that he cannot make a new life quite so easily. First he must lose everything.

pickpocket2

Esau McCaulley:

How do we order society in such a way that increases human flourishing and limits suffering? What is the good, the true and the beautiful? How do we make sense of the sins of the past and the way the legacies of those failures follow us to the present? What is justice? What is love and why does it hurt us so? What is the good life? Is there a God who orders the galaxies, or did we come from chaos, destined only to return to it?

The answers to those questions that I received from my teachers varied. I do not judge the worth of my former educators by whether I agreed with them. I value those who made me think and did not punish me when I diverged from them.

If there is a danger facing this generation of students, it is not the absence of information. The internet exists; politicians are fools if they think that they can hide the troubles of the world. If parents and politicians truly care about their children’s education, they should not only ask what a teacher said about a controversial issue, they should also ask how the teacher said it, and whether students were assessed based on the quality of their work rather than conformity to a particular ideological perspective.

This ability to hold fair and stirring conversation is the gift that all great teachers have. It is impossible to legislate. This is a gift that can either be honed or ground to rubble by unrelenting competing agendas. We must protect teachers who do it well and do not so overburden and underpay them that they despair of their vocation.

Stop Donating to Your Elite University – The Atlantic:

“Everything we do in academia is based on the assumption that merit can be assessed,” Son Hing said, citing Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think, a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at the peer-review process. Virtually every evaluative mechanism in the academy—peer review of scholarly articles and grant applications, grading, and tenure evaluation—purports to be objective and are supremely hierarchical.

The process culminates with the types of careers that elite colleges steer students into. The majority of Harvard graduates take a job in technology, investment banking, or management consulting—occupations that make wealthy people wealthier and, research shows, increase their support for social hierarchy. In a survey of Harvard’s class of 2020, only 4 percent of seniors entering the workforce said they planned to go into public service or work for a nonprofit organization.

So elite colleges disproportionately let in affluent applicants who are predisposed to denying inequality, surround them with similar people, teach them in a system that confirms their belief in merit, and, finally, steer them into careers that cement this worldview.

de-streaming

‘There’s endless choice, but you’re not listening’: fans quitting Spotify to save their love of music:

Meg Lethem was working at her bakery job one morning in Boston when she had an epiphany. Tasked with choosing the day’s soundtrack, she opened Spotify, then flicked and flicked, endlessly searching for something to play. Nothing was perfect for the moment. She looked some more, through playlist after playlist. An uncomfortably familiar loop, it made her realise: she hated how music was being used in her life. “That was the problem,” she says. “Using music, rather than having it be its own experience … What kind of music am I going to use to set a mood for the day? What am I going to use to enjoy my walk? I started not really liking what that meant.”

It wasn’t just passive listening, but a utilitarian approach to music that felt like a creation of the streaming environment. “I decided that having music be this tool to [create] an experience instead of an experience itself was not something I was into,” she reflects. So she cut off her Spotify service, and later, Apple Music too, to focus on making her listening more “home-based” and less of a background experience.

Hey, everybody is different and there are a thousand ways to use the streaming services other than the model outlined here, but still: Count me a big fan of this move. I have for the past few years almost completely abandoned streaming: I buy records (vinyl and CD, sometimes digital files) whenever I can, and having purchased them I tend to listen to them more often and more carefully.

If you can’t afford to stream and buy, then consider this: with the money you’d save by cancelling your streaming service, you could buy one new or two used recordings a month. Imagine that you had a much smaller collection of music, but it consisted of the most important music to you, and you came to know that music intimately. Wouldn’t that be a pretty good trade-off? It’s worth considering anyway.

forming the public self

When I read about what children should be taught at school about gender, I find myself thinking back to the scene early in Hunger of Memory in which the nuns from Richard’s parochial school come to his house to tell his parents that they should speak English, not Spanish, at home. Richard later comes to believe that the nuns did the right thing, because he needed to acquire a public self, and learning to speak English was essential to that public self’s formation. (This was one of Rodriguez’s more controversial opinions when the book appeared in 1982, near the height of the push for bilingual education — though he had first articulated his opposition to bilingual education in a 1974 essay. The whole story is fascinating, though the argument now seems to belong to a distant world.) 

Underlying this scene, and underlying our current argument about what children should be taught about gender, is the assumption that it’s the job of our schools to make public selves. Different groups specify this task in different ways; for instance, we have long heard people say that the job of school is to make citizens. The new movement is not about making citizens, but rather about making metaphysical capitalists, making people who are capable of purchasing and displaying their selves in society, with “gender” – which is, let’s be clear, a non-concept, an empty signifier – as one of the necessary components. Gender is something our health-care system will sell to you, and school is where you learn not to think of yourself as a member of a family or community but rather as an atomized and docile consumer of the Regime’s products, including the health-care sub-regime’s products.

That is to say, the primary function of schooling, for many people on the cutting edge of educationism, is to sell the available gender products. 

People who think that leftist agitators for gender fluidity are driven by ideology are correct, but it’s probably not the ideology they think it is: it’s good old capitalism — capitalism extended into the deepest recesses of personal identity. We can create that for you wholesale.  

It’s a pretty debased ideal in comparison to the ideal of citizen-making, but both of those models of what a public self should be rely on schools to be the primary locations of formation. And I just don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think schools are suited for self-making; rather, I think that’s what families are for. But man, is that a losing proposition in the current moment. 

Okay, I’ve been cursing the darkness lately, and that’s not my lane — back to lighting candles! 

unpreparation

I’ve kept the links in this important passage from a sobering piece by Ed Yong:

In 2018, I wrote an article in The Atlantic warning that the U.S. was not prepared for a pandemic. That diagnosis remains unchanged; if anything, I was too optimistic. America was ranked as the world’s most prepared country in 2019 — and, bafflingly, again in 2021   — but accounts for 16 percent of global COVID deaths despite having just 4 percent of the global population. It spends more on medical care than any other wealthy country, but its hospitals were nonetheless overwhelmed. It helped create vaccines in record time, but is 67th in the world in full vaccinations. (This trend cannot solely be attributed to political division; even the most heavily vaccinated blue state — Rhode Island — still lags behind 21 nations.) America experienced the largest life-expectancy decline of any wealthy country in 2020 and, unlike its peers, continued declining in 2021. If it had fared as well as just the average peer nation, 1.1 million people who died last year—a third of all American deaths— would still be alive .

America’s superlatively poor performance cannot solely be blamed on either the Trump or Biden administrations, although both have made egregious errors. Rather, the new coronavirus exploited the country’s many failing systems: its overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes; its chronically underfunded public-health system; its reliance on convoluted supply chains and a just-in-time economy; its for-profit health-care system, whose workers were already burned out; its decades-long project of unweaving social safety nets; and its legacy of racism and segregation that had already left Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color disproportionately burdened with health problems. Even in the pre-COVID years, the U.S. was still losing about 626,000 people more than expected for a nation of its size and resources. COVID simply toppled an edifice whose foundations were already rotten.

It would be nice to say that the pandemic revealed deep-seated problems that we had managed to avoid facing — but now we must face them! Nah. We mustn’t, and we probably won’t. It turns out that reality has limited power over an infinitely distractible and distracted society.

homelessness

Paul Kingsnorth:

When you can no longer grow your own wood or cut your own turf to heat your own parlour, you are made that little bit more dependent on the matrix of government, technology and commerce that has sought to transmute self-sufficiency into bondage since the time of the Luddites. The justification for this attack on family and community sufficiency changes with the times — in 17th-century England, the enclosures were justified by the need for agricultural efficiency; today they are justified by the need for energy efficiency — but the attack is always of the same nature. Each blow struck against local self-sufficiency, pride and love of place weaves another thread into the pattern which has been developing for centuries, and which is almost complete now in most affluent countries.

Kingsnorth quotes John Michell on “Fireside Wisdom”: the hearth as the center of the home, the family, and the stories that hold the family together. “Modern house-builders have given us high levels of convenience and hygiene while ignoring the psychological necessity of a focus; and through the absence of a cosmologically significant centre our minds have become unbalanced.” 

This reminds me of certain passages from Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, especially those on what Bprgmann calls “focal practices”: 

To focus on something or to bring it into focus is to make it central, clear, and articulate. It is in the context of these historical and living senses of “focus” that I want to speak of focal things and practices. Wilderness on this continent, it now appears, is a focal thing. It provides a center of orientation; when we bring the surrounding technology into it, our relations to technology become clarified and well-defined. But just how strong its gathering and radiating force is requires further reflection. And surely there will be other focal things and practices: music, gardening, the culture of the table, or running. […] 

We can now summarize the significance of a focal practice and say that such a practice is required to counter technology in its patterned pervasiveness and to guard focal things in their depth and integrity. Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension, i.e., the power to take in the world in its extent and significance and to respond through an enduring commitment. Practically a focal practice comes into being through resoluteness, either an explicit resolution where one vows regularly to engage in a focal activity from this day on or in a more implicit resolve that is nurtured by a focal thing in favorable circumstances and matures into a settled custom. 

In considering these practical circumstances we must acknowledge a final difference between focal practices today and their eminent pre-technological predecessors. The latter, being public and prominent, commanded elaborate social and physical settings: hierarchies, offices, ceremonies, and choirs; edifices, altars, implements, and vestments. In comparison our focal practices are humble and scattered. Sometimes they can hardly be called practices, being private and limited. Often they begin as a personal regimen and mature into a routine without ever attaining the social richness that distinguishes a practice. Given the often precarious and inchoate nature of focal practices, evidently focal things and practices, for all the splendor of their simplicity, and their fruitful opposition to technology, must be further clarified in their relation to our everyday world if they are to be seen as a foundation for the reform of technology. 

it’s all content

Josh Owens, former employee of Alex Jones:

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet when it comes to stopping Jones. As for the trial, I think it depends on your perspective. From Jones’s perspective, he’s got very deep pockets, so does this affect him? I don’t know, but I have my doubts. He’s said he’s going to try to tie this ruling up in the appeals process. So I guess it’s up to the other judgments to incur some financial penalty that hits him where it hurts. Because you’re not going to reach his conscience. Everything bad that happens to Jones is immediately spun into his version of events. It’s all content for him. 

That’s the world we live in, friends, when we’re online. There, it’s all content. Caveat lector

David French:

When the Church leads with its moral code — and elevates that moral code over even the most basic understandings of Jesus Christ himself — the effect isn’t humility and hope; it’s pride and division. When the Church chooses a particular sin as its defining apostasy (why sex more than racism, or greed, or gluttony, or cruelty?), it perversely lowers the standards of holy living by narrowing the Christian moral vision.

The result is a weaker religion, one that is less demanding for the believer while granting those who uphold the narrow moral code a sense of unjustified pride. Yet pride separates Christians from each other, and separates Christians from their neighbors. 

Millions of Christians are humble and hopeful. Millions are also prideful and divisive. Why? One answer is found in the LifeWay-Ligonier survey. In the quest for morality, they’ve lost sight of Jesus — but it is Jesus who truly defines the Christian faith. 

AMEN. 

comparisons are odorous

Don’t Fear the Artwork of the Future – The Atlantic:

What is so tiresome about the fear of AI art is that all of this has been said before—about photography. It took decades for photography to be recognized as an art form. Charles Baudelaire famously called photography the “mortal enemy” of art. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was among the first American institutions to collect photographs, didn’t start doing so until 1924. The anxiety around the camera was nearly identical to our current fear of creative AI: Photography wasn’t art, but it was also going to replace art. It was “mere mechanism,” as one critic put it in 1865. I mean, it’s not art if you’re just pushing some buttons, right? 

This is one of the laziest tropes of pseudo-thinking, but also one of the most common. If you want to try it for yourself, follow these steps:  

  1. Note that people are afraid of something; 
  2. Find something in history that people were unnecessarily afraid of; 
  3. Conclude that if people were wrongly afraid of something in the past, then, logically, people who are afraid in the present must also be wrong. 

Indubitable! (Just make sure you don’t notice any situations in the past in which the people who were afraid were right. Nobody says, “Those who worry about appeasing Putin should remember that in the late 1930s a bunch of nervous Nellies worried about appeasing Hitler too.”)  

But often there’s another element of dumbness to this kind of take: not just the inability to reason sequentially, but the ignoring of inconvenient facts. For while photography didn’t “replace art,” it largely did replace certain kinds of art, and radically changed the cultural place of drawing and painting. 

For my part, I think some of these changes were good and some were not so good. When it became clear that to most people photographs looked more “real,” more precisely representational, than paintings, painters began exploring various alternatives to straightforward representation: first Impressionism, pointillism, and later on completely non-representational painting. (Nowadays “photorealistic painting” is merely a joke or meta-artistic game, as in the works of Chuck Close.) I think these were exciting and vital developments, and I wouldn’t want to see them undone. But, that said, when I think about how Picasso could draw at the age of eleven — 

3939

— I do find myself wondering how he might have developed as an artist if he had been working in the days before photography. If much was gained when Picasso was liberated from straightforwardly representational art, we can’t know what was lost. But we lost something

The rise of photography had a broader cultural consequence too. Before photography became commonplace, an ability to draw was almost a requirement for travelers. People needed to be able to make competent sketches of the exotic places they visited, because otherwise how would they be able to remember everything, or properly describe it to others? A world in which Ruskin had simply taken photographs in Venice rather than draw its monuments would be a diminished world. 

So, did photography kill art? By no means. Did it change it radically? It certainly did. And were all those changes positive ones? Nope.  

fighting the good fight

Some initial axioms: 

  • The U.S. has some genuine conservatives and genuine liberals, but not enough — or maybe it’s just that they’re not vocal enough; 
  • Our attentional commons is dominated by a perverse so-called Right and a perverse so-called Left, people with profoundly deformed sensibilities and broken moral compasses; 
  • These people are doing terrible damage to that commons and at least some degree of damage to our polis (they are sometimes restrained in the latter endeavor by a still-functioning legal system); 
  • It’s very difficult to write or speak about what these people are doing without falling into some of their own rhetorical excesses; 
  • Therefore those who think and write and speak seriously and responsibly about the flailings of our Imps of the Perverse do the Lord’s work (whether they believe in the Lord or not). 

So if you want to understand what’s going on — rather than be subjected to endless mutual recriminations or the gentle ministrations of those low-lifes who make bank when we hate one another — then here are some of the people I believe you should pay attention to.  

If you want roughly equal attention to pathologies across the political spectrum, then I don’t think you can do much better than Andrew Sullivan. And while I am not in general a podcast guy, Andrew turns out to be a wonderful interviewer, and his conversations with his guests often take delightfully unexpected turns. 

Regular readers here will know that I have long been concerned by Christians who are willing to sacrifice obedience to Jesus if it will get them political power and/or cultural influence. Well, their gentle and equable scourge is David French, whose work you can find many places, but especially here and here

There’s an extremely vocal school of trans activism that has come to control much our our media and a large part of the academy as well. To put it bluntly, in these matters we are regularly being lied to by our media, and a troublingly large number of scientists appear quite willing to cook their books in order to satisfy the demands of this movement. Jesse Singal does yeoman work digging into the details of this pervasive mendacity and putting hard questions to the perpetrators — but he does it in a consistently measured way and is always forthright in admitting when he gets something wrong. If you’re a podcast person, then you may well enjoy Blocked and Reported, the podcast he does with Katie Herzog, AKA “the last lesbian.”  

By the way, the special report on sexuality and gender produced by The New Atlantis six years ago (!) is still very helpful. And of course, as a long-time contributor, I love that journal. A new issue came in the mail today and I leaped into it. 

On the problems that arise when academics don’t care about what’s true any more, but only about what serves their political ends — and their careers — a couple of people are key, and they’re both named Jonathan. The first is Jonathan Haidt, who is prolific and sometimes seems omnipresent; I’d start with the essays listed here. The other is Jonathan Rauch, whose work is more scattered but just as valuable. His book The Constitution of Knowledge is essential, but you might want to begin with this recent essay on politicized science.  

If Katie Herzog is the Last Lesbian, Freddie deBoer may be the Last Socialist.

Finally, here are a few newsletters on (broadly speaking) political topics that I find consistently useful — and useful because they’re not shilling for anyone or anything, a rare virtue these days: 

A lot of this stuff is on Substack, but maybe Substack is just where you have to go when you need to make a living but won’t toe the party line at one of the established media outlets. 

I’m grateful to these writers because they do the hard work that makes it possible for me to focus on arts and culture. I care about the things they care about, but I don’t have their very particular set of skills, and the skills (the knowledge, the sensibilities) I do have are best employed in other venues. 

P.S. Sometime I’ll do a list of arts/culture/technology blogs and newsletters that I like. Or maybe I’ll go totally retro and make a blogroll! 

the arts our country requires

In a famous letter, John Adams wrote from Paris to his beloved Abigail: 

To take a Walk in the Gardens of the Palace of the Tuilleries, and describe the Statues there, all in marble, in which the ancient Divinities and Heroes are represented with exquisite Art, would be a very pleasant Amusement, and instructive Entertainment, improving in History, Mythology, Poetry, as well as in Statuary. Another Walk in the Gardens of Versailles, would be usefull and agreable. But to observe these Objects with Taste and describe them so as to be understood, would require more time and thought than I can possibly Spare. It is not indeed the fine Arts, which our Country requires. The Usefull, the mechanic Arts, are those which We have occasion for in a young Country, as yet simple and not far advanced in Luxury, altho perhaps much too far for her Age and Character. 

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Studies & Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. 

Only the last two sentences of the letter are typically quoted, but I think it’s useful to see the larger context, especially Adams’s regret at the matters of great interest to him that he doesn’t fully understand and simply cannot take the time to understand. He had recently been engaged in complicated and tense negotiations with the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, which around this time resulted in the Frenchman declaring that he wouldn’t deal with Adams any more but only with the less astringent Benjamin Franklin. (Perhaps Adams should have been working harder at the study of the Art of Negotiation.) 

It’s interesting to note the change of mind he undergoes between the penultimate and final sentence: in the former he thinks his sons may well study Painting and Poetry, but then he reconsiders and thinks, well, perhaps it would be better for them to pursue “Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture” and the like so that their sons can study Painting and Poetry. His was, after all, “a young Country, as yet simple and not far advanced in Luxury” — and not likely to be much further advanced in a single generation. 

Well, right now we seem to be regressing towards Adams’s state of affairs. Everyone in power, or aspiring to power, in this country seems to be studying Politics and War, though they will sometimes cover that study with a flimsy disguise.

On the so-called Left we see surveillance moralism (and often enough the sexualization of children and early teens) masquerading as science.  

On the so-called Right? It’s wrathful trolling masquerading as political philosophy. 

None of these folks, God bless their earnest if shriveled hearts, have any room inside for the arts. Everything has to serve their political purposes, and works of art are rarely sufficiently blunt instruments. Thus Michael Lind writes — in an otherwise useful essay — that the goal of the public intellectual is to “influence voters,” because what other reason could an intellectual possibly have for writing? (Michael Lind is a very intelligent and often illuminating writer, but he really does seem to think that nothing exists in the human world except electoral politics.) The one arguably-artistic preference these would-be elites of Left and Right share is a liking for Game of Thrones (and now House of the Dragon) but only because that world is a wish-fulfillment dream for aspiring tyrants. 

Well, here at the Homebound Symphony I’ll be focusing on the arts more and more, and if sometimes connecting their wisdom to the social and political concerns that trouble our minds and dreams, I’ll try never to do it in a way that blunts those sharp instruments that pierce soul and spirit. And I’ll do this in honor of John Adams, so that his sacrifice was not in vain. 

(I also think there are every good reasons for Christians to be especially attentive to the arts — even those Christians who don’t think of themselves as arty. That may be a topic for future posts, because my reasons for so thinking are not common ones.)  

But I can do all this because of others who are doing some necessary but ugly work. The internet’s own John Adamses … sort of. I’ll write a follow-up post on some of these helpful people. 

defeaters

Ukraine Can Win This War – by Liam Collins and John Spencer: Two or three times a day I see an article like this one: a confident prediction that Ukraine is in a winning position that never once considers the possibility that Russia will use nukes. I don’t see how this is anything other than the purest wishful thinking. The Ukrainian politician who says that Russia is like a monkey with a hand grenade is reckoning more seriously with the real conditions of this war. 

Here’s my thesis about our current political discourse: The more controversial the topic, the more likely that writers on it will simply ignore any perspective other than their own. They won’t consider it even to refute it; they’ll just pretend it doesn’t exist.

My secondary thesis is that such people try really hard not to think of alternatives because they know they can’t deal with the objections. A. E. Housman used to say that many textual critics simply ignore possibilities for establishing a reading of a text other than the one they prefer because they’re like a donkey poised equidistant between two bales of hay who thinks that if one of the bales of hay disappears he will cease to be a donkey. 

Epistemologists like to talk about defeaters of a particular proposition: it’s SOP, for them, when making an argument to ask: What eventuality would defeat my proposition? People writing enthusiastically that Ukraine will win this war never ask that question because the answer is both obvious and terrifying: Ukraine won’t win this war if Russia uses nuclear weapons against them. 

monarchy

Having written recently about the death of Queen Elizabeth, I’d like to call attention to some of the things I’ve written in the past about what I believe to be the essentially monarchical character of the human imagination: 

Short version of all this: Every distinction we make between our “modern” selves and our “primitive” ancestors is wrong. We’re exactly like them in all the ways that really matter for our own self-understanding. 

Sigal Samuel at Vox:

The world has no real plan to stop the genocide underway in China. Some Uyghurs are at the point where they wish the world would just cop to that harsh fact, rather than paying lip service and raising their hopes over and over.

“We had an illusion that the world would do its best to stop China from this genocide,” said Tahir Imin, a US-based Uyghur academic who believes many of his relatives are in the camps. “But the world has no plan to stop this genocide. It’s not happening. The governments should clearly say that. Either stop the genocide — or admit you will not.” 

 Have been trying got the past couple of years to avoid buying anything made in China, because much of it is made by slave labor — but it seems that everything I might want to buy is made there. So I just have to redouble my efforts. 

I keep thinking about what the late great Paul Farmer said: “I love WL’s [White Liberals], love ’em to death. They’re on our side. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.” 

name change

I decided to change the name of this blog, for reasons that should be clear from recent and future posts. But ICYMI, the namesake post of the blog is here

The newsletter will continue to be called Snakes & Ladders. I like the idea of the two endeavors having different names. 

two versions of covid skepticism

From a long, intricate, subtle, and necessary essay by Ari Schulman:

The skeptical type I have targeted here is not the one who believes merely that prolonged school closures were a travesty (which is true), that natural immunity should have counted as equivalent to vaccination (true), that an egalitarian view of the virus meant that too little was done to protect people in nursing homes (true), that with different choices, restrictions could have ended far sooner than they did (true again).

No, he was the one who gave himself over wholly to Unmasking the Machine. Starting from entirely reasonable frustrations, the skeptical project took its followers to dark places. The unmasker insisted a million of his countrymen would not die and then when they did felt no reckoning. He at one moment cast himself as Churchill waiting to lead us out of our cowering fear of the Blitz (Death is a part of life) and in the next said that actually the Luftwaffe is a hoax (Those death certificates are fake anyway). He feels no reckoning because he has been taken in by a force as totalizing as the Technium’s; he is so given over to it that he too no longer accepts his own agency.

This skeptic is no aberration. An entire intellectual ecosystem is fueled by his takes. He owns, if not the whole movement of the Right, then certainly its vanguard.

Yet still, still one can hear the reply: Corrupt powers lied and demanded ritual pieties and put their boot on our necks and tore the country apart, and you want a reckoning from us?

An understandable reply — but the answer is, Yeah, we’d like a reckoning from you skeptics, because in a well-functioning society people don’t demand accountability and responsibility only from their political opponents. 

At the heart of Ari’s essay is a simple yet essential distinction between two phenomena: (a) skepticism about the competence and integrity of our technocratic public health regime and (b) skepticism about the seriousness of the coronavirus. Those who were right about the former all too often allowed themselves to be drawn into the latter. And very few of those who were most dismissive of the dangers posed by Covid have admitted their error — they’re too busy taking a “victory lap” because they think — with, as Ari shows, a good deal of justification — that they were right about the self-serving turf-protecting rigidity of the regime. 

(And if you don’t think National Review can be trusted with regard to the profound shortcomings of that regime, then by all means read Katherine Eban’s many illuminating and distressing reports in Vanity Fair.) 

As I look back on my own scattered writings on this topic, I think I often made the opposite error: because I rightly took seriously the dangers of the coronavirus, I was often too trusting of the regime. 

secret ambivalence

Paul Newman Melvyn Douglas Hud

In an earlier post I talked about how good Pauline Kael’s early film criticism — her pre-New Yorker writing — is, and another fine example comes from a long essay she wrote in 1964 for Film Quarterly about Hud. Well, about Hud, yes, but even more about the critical response to Hud

For instance, she noted this take by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times

The human elements are simply Hud, the focal character, with his aging father, a firm and high-principled cattleman, on one hand, and Hud’s 17-year-old nephew, a still-growing and impressionable boy, on the other. The conflict is simply a matter of determining which older man will inspire the boy. Will it be the grandfather with his fine traditions or the uncle with his crudities and greed? It would not be proper to tell which influence prevails. Nor is that answer essential to the clarification of this film. The striking, important thing about it is the clarity with which it unreels. 

The moral clarity is key to Crowther, and to several other reviewers quoted by Kael. What they like is how unambiguously the movie affirms the archaic moral standards upheld by Hud’s father Homer, and consequently rejects Hud’s selfishness and immaturity.  

Dwight Macdonald, writing in Esquire, hated the film for the very reasons that the much larger crowd represented by Crowther loved it:

The giveaway is Hud’s father, the stern patriarch who loves The Good Earth, the stiff-necked anachronism in a degenerate age of pleasure-seeking, corner-cutting, greed for money, etc. — in short, these present United States. How often has Hollywood (where these traits are perhaps even more pronounced than in the rest of the nation) preached this sermon, which combines maximum moral fervor with minimum practical damage; no one really wants to return to the soil and give up all those Caddies, TV sets and smart angles, so we can all agree to his vague jeremiad with a pious, “True, true, what a pity!” In Mr. Ritt’s morality play, it is poor Hud who is forced by the script to openly practice the actual as against the mythical American Way of Life and it is he who must bear all our shame and guilt. 

Kael’s view — and does she ever delight in proclaiming it — is that everyone is wrong. They’re wrong because Hud is “one of the few entertaining American movies released in 1963 and just possibly the most completely schizoid movie produced anywhere anytime.” Indeed, it is entertaining because it’s schizoid. It is internally divided because it both hates Hud and loves him, repudiates him and affirms him; and the audience shares in this complex of emotions, because the audience is America, and this tension between the upholding of “traditional values” and the relentless pursuit of self-gratification is maybe the single most essential element of the American character. 

I think this reading is compelling. But I also want to set it … not against, but rather alongside a slightly different one: If the audience loves and affirms Hud, might that be not so much because it identifies with Hud’s selfishness but rather because Hud is played by Paul Newman? Men-want-to-be-him-and-women-want-to-be-with-him Paul Newman? There is something about the charisma of a real movie star that shapes our responses in ways that we can’t altogether control. 

MV5BMDMzMzFiNDUtODgxZC00NzJjLTlhNmItMTgxYTg2YTdhMTE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjk3NTUyOTc V1

I wonder if Kael doesn’t fall for this charisma, to some extent. Now, to be sure, Kael believed in the sexual liberation of women long before it was cool to do so, and we were in 1964 on the cusp of a culture-wide sexual revolution; but even so, it’s strange to hear her question whether Hud’s attempt to force Alma to have sex with him should really be called “rape.” Kael’s logic is that Alma is sexually attracted to Hud and is only resisting him because she wants an “emotional commitment,” so if he forced himself on her he would be giving her something she actually wants — ergo, not rape. (So No means Yes, here as in the minds of thousands of frat boys who think that if any woman is drunk that makes them Paul Newman.) I wonder if Kael would have made this particular argument if Hud had been played by a less gorgeous actor.

Whether or not the movie has the universal clarity that Crowther attributes to it, it seems pretty clear about this business. In his last conversation with Alma, Hud calls his attempt to rape her a “little ruckus,” and declares, “I don’t usually get rough with my women. I generally don’t have to.” Well, we learned what he does when he thinks he has to, didn’t we? 

But charisma and beauty may not be the only forces at work in shaping our response to someone like Hud — there’s also the simple power of putting someone at the center of our attention, especially if that person can act well. Think of how Breaking Bad did everything it could possibly do to reveal Walter White’s transformation into an utter monster, yet, nevertheless, #TeamWalt was a huge thing on social media. And not because Bryan Cranston was presented to us as sexually alluring. 

Another example: when Bertolt Brecht wrote Mother Courage and her Children, a play about a camp follower in the Thirty Years War who through her limitless greed endangers and ultimately destroys her children, he was shocked by the response of the first audiences of the play. Mother Courage is a kind of exemplar of capitalism, and her story is meant to demonstrate the ways that capitalism feeds on war. But of course capitalism doesn’t consciously and intentionally set out to destroy human beings; Brecht was too honest an artist to suggest that, so he certainly wasn’t going to make Mother Courage a slavering child-murderer. She is shocked and genuinely grieved when her children die, and doesn’t realize her complicity in their deaths. So when Therese Giehse, in playing the part of Mother Courage, cried out in her grief at the death of her sons, the audience was so moved that all they felt at the end of the play was was pity for the poor woman who had been deprived of her children. This both surprised and infuriated Brecht, who thought that it was perfectly apparent that her insatiable greed and consequent thoughtlessness towards everything else had led to the children’s deaths, so he rewrote the play to make an already obvious message even more obvious. Unmistakable, unmissable. And when the audience saw this new version of the play, they thought: Poor woman, her children are dead! 

Russell Moore

Today’s American evangelical Christianity seems to be more focused on hunting heretics internally than perhaps in any other generation. The difference, however, is that excommunications are happening not over theological views but over partisan politics or the latest social media debates.

I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to see fellow evangelicals embrace Christian leaders who teach heretical views of the Trinity or embrace the prosperity gospel but seek exile for those who don’t vote the same way or fail to feign outrage over clickbait controversies.

But something more seems to be going on here — something involving an overall stealth secularization of conservative evangelicalism. What worries me isn’t so much that evangelical Christians can’t articulate Christian orthodoxy in a survey. It’s that, to many of them, Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes. 

A strong and sad Amen to this. It is perfectly clear that there is a movement in America of people who call themselves evangelicals but have no properly theological commitments at all. But what’s not clear, to me anyway, is how many of them there are. Donald Trump can draw some big crowds, and those crowds often have a quasi-religious focus on him or anyway on what they believe he stands for — but those crowds are not large in the context of the entire American population. They’re very visible, because both Left and Right have reasons for wanting them to be visible, but how demographically significant are they really?  

I have similar questions about, for instance, the “national conservatism” movement. Is this actually a movement? Or is it just a few guys who follow one another on Twitter and subscribe to one another’s Substacks? 

Questions to be pursued at the School for Scale, if I can get it started. 

an allegory of American political life, especially online

Dante, Inferno, Canto XXX (Hollander translation): 

And I to him: ‘Who are these two wretches
who steam as wet hands do in winter
and lie so very near you on your right?’

‘I found them when I rained into this trough,’
he said, ‘and even then they did not move about,
nor do I think they will for all eternity.

‘One is the woman who lied accusing Joseph,
the other is false Sinon, the lying Greek from Troy.
Putrid fever makes them reek with such a stench.’

And one of them, who took offense, perhaps
at being named so vilely, hit him
with a fist right on his rigid paunch.

It boomed out like a drum. Then Master Adam,
whose arm seemed just as sturdy,
used it, striking Sinon in the face,

saying: ‘Although I cannot move about
because my legs are heavy,
my arm is loose enough for such a task.’

To which the other answered: ‘When they put you
to the fire, your arm was not so nimble,
though it was quick enough when you were coining.’

And the dropsied one: ‘Well, that is true,
but you were hardly such a truthful witness
when you were asked to tell the truth at Troy.’

‘If I spoke falsely, you falsified the coin,’
said Sinon, ‘and I am here for one offense alone,
but you for more than any other devil!’

‘You perjurer, keep the horse in mind,’
replied the sinner with the swollen paunch,
‘and may it pain you that the whole world knows.’

‘And may you suffer from the thirst,’ the Greek replied,
‘that cracks your tongue, and from the fetid humor
that turns your belly to a hedge before your eyes!’

Then the forger: ‘And so, as usual,
your mouth gapes open from your fever.
If I am thirsty, and swollen by this humor,

‘you have your hot spells and your aching head.
For you to lick the mirror of Narcissus
would not take much by way of invitation.’

I was all intent in listening to them,
when the master said: ‘Go right on looking
and it is I who’ll quarrel with you.’ […]

‘Do not forget I’m always at your side
should it fall out again that fortune take you
where people are in wrangles such as this.
For the wish to hear such things is base.’ 

Ché voler ciò udire è bassa voglia — to will to listen to such contemptible trash, to desire it, is base, low, self-degrading. Let me be Virgil to your Dante: When people online or on TV are going at each other, when they’re engaged in their spittle-flecked mutual recriminations — avoid it, flee it. Find something, almost anything, else to do with your time. 

forking paths

Deepfake audio has a tell and researchers can spot it — yes, there’s a tell now, but will there always be? Deepfake audio, deepfake video, DALL-E image generation — all of this will be getting better and better, and it’s difficult to imagine that tools to identify and expose fakes will keep up, much less stay ahead. 

I think we’re looking at not one but two futures — a fork in the road for humans in Technopoly. (In many parts of the world it will be a long time before people are faced by this choice.)

A few will get frustrated by the fakery, minimize their time on the internet, and move back towards the real. They’ll be buying codex books, learning to throw pots or grow flowers, and meeting one another in person. 

The greater number will gradually be absorbed into some kind of Metaverse in which they really see Joe Biden transformed into Dark Brandon or hear Q whisper sweet nothings into their ears. In the movies the Matrix arises when machines wage war on humans, but I think what we’ll be seeing is something rather different: war won’t be necessary because people will readily volunteer to participate in a fictional but consoling virtual world. 

I know which group will have more freedom, and more flourishing; but I wonder which will have more power? Not everyone who stays in the real world will do so for decency’s sake. 

Games, Mysteries, and the Lure of QAnon | WIRED:

There’s a parallel between the seemingly unmoderated theorists of r/findbostonbombers and the Citizen app and those in QAnon: None feel any responsibility for spreading unsupported speculation as fact. What they do feel is that anything should be solvable. As Laura Hall, immersive environment and narrative designer, describes: “There’s a general sense of, ‘This should be solveable/findable/etc’ that you see in lots of reddit communities for unsolved mysteries and so on. The feeling that all information is available online, that reality and truth must be captured/in evidence somewhere.” 

I would amend to “somewhere on the internet.” The assumption here is not simply that “the truth is out there” but “the truth is out there and I can find it without ever having to get off my ass.”