on resembling the Angel of History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klee paul angelus novus 1920

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus