There are many links in what follows. I would encourage you to read this through without noticing the links, and then go back to them later if you’re so inclined.
Around a year ago I wrote a post in which I said this:
I obviously write about a good many things, but over the last decade my work has been largely devoted to a single overarching theme: what we attend to and what we fail to attend to. This started with the work on my old Text Patterns blog that fed into my 2011 book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and since then I have pursued the various connected issues and problems down several paths. My set of Theses for Disputation, “Attending to Technology,” is my most explicit articulation of these concerns, but even when I didn’t seem to be thinking about these things I really was. Even my biography of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to understand the prayer book as an instrument for the focusing of the attention of wayward Christians on that to which they should primarily attend. As the BCP almost says, “We have attended to those things we should not have attended to, and we have not attended to those things which we should have attended to, and there is no health in us.” The relevance of these questions to How to Think will be obvious to anyone who has read it, but I could say the same about the two books that I published since then, The Year of Our Lord 1943 and Breaking Bread with the Dead. In each case I am concerned with the forces in our culture that inhibit enriching attentiveness, that enforce enervating distraction, that direct our minds always towards the frivolous or the malicious.
I then went on to say that I am shifting towards a new general project, which at that time wasn’t perfectly clear in my mind. And I was fine with that, because as far back as 2014 I understood that it is important for me, as I transition to the final stage of my career, not to know where I am going. “Old men ought to be explorers.”
But matters are coming into a focus a bit. It has recently occurred to me that much of what I am writing these days circles around an imperative that Wittgenstein famously articulated in the Philosophical Investigations: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!”
The goal of the attention merchants is to keep us on the ice, to keep us sliding in the direction they choose, to keep us believing that the frictionlessness of the sliding is a sign that “the conditions are ideal.” But I want to walk — I need to walk, so I can learn to move at the speed of our three-mile-an-hour God.
Repair is harder, rougher, than discarding the replacement; invitation of others to collaborate in repair is rougher than going it alone.
So the quest for a constructive friction is what my work keeps circling around these days. It’s why I seek to practice handmind; it’s why I am interested in anarchism, because anarchism is a determination to achieve through the patient work of negotiation and voluntary association what all the forces of metaphysical capitalism would prefer to sell us. It’s why I want to distinguish between “productivity” and good work. It’s why I seek the messiness of the unfinalizable human world rather than allowing myself to be transformed into a server. To resist mechanization and its monoculture; to practice a cosmopolitanism of difference; to recover piety towards flawed and even broken institutions — these are all ways of finding and exploring the rough ground. Strategies and practices of roughness. Because the rough ground is where walking — a human life on a human scale — is possible.
The Essenes, those fearsome ascetics of the profound desert, denounced their spiritual enemies — probably the Pharisees specifically, certainly all the Jewish leaders who lived and taught others to live in frictionless comfort with the Ruling Powers — as seekers of smooth things. The phrase comes from Isaiah 30:
For they are a rebellious people,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
But if you invite your leaders to speak to you only smooth things, you will dwell in illusion; and in a state of illusion you will be vulnerable to powers far greater than yourself; and, as Isaiah goes on to say, all the vessels will be broken, and you will be unable to carry fire from your hearth or draw water from your cistern.
I’m not an Essene; I lack the requisite fierceness. I prefer to walk on that rough ground with what I have called the “peaceable irony” of the Taoist sage (or the Franciscan friar, a similar figure). Or maybe like Les Murray’s apostle of sprawl:
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.
Those with ears to hear, let them hear.