the airless room

This is an interview with Kathryn Scanlan about her very peculiar new book, which is made up of selections from a person’s diary — read the interview to learn more, it’s really fascinating.

But I want to talk about a distraction from the real subject of the interview. Here’s a passage:

Etter: Now this is a question I have coming from a journalism background: what does it mean for fiction to take a real life and remix it, scramble it, and fine tune it into something that becomes non-real? What is it like to play with that?

Scanlan: A little bit weird. From the beginning, I felt like it was a weird thing I was doing. I don’t necessarily think it’s any particular genre, I think it has elements of all genres. I think it can be called fiction and I would call it that because of the way it’s been selected. If you are only showing part of something, it’s fiction. If you’re omitting lots of things, or if you’re focusing on only something particular, it’s fiction in my mind.

Etter: I think most journalists would probably agree with that definition — maybe not our president.

I read that and thought: Is there any chance of my getting through a recent essay, an article, a story, an interview, without a reference to That Man? Is it really necessary for every member of The Cultured to signal their disdain for him in every single conversation?

I want to say: He’s not sucking the air out of the room, you are.

Yes, I know, it’s just a passing comment. But when “passing comments” of that kind show up twenty times a day, it wears on a fella.

This is why I make my newsletter. It’s a place that I can guarantee will be free from that kind of thing, that will allow me and my readers to spend time in a broader world than that of posted and tweeted and retweeted political vaporing, posturing, and rancor.

Many of you will know this famous letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail: “The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other 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 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.” Let not Adams have studied in vain.

on social acceleration

Recently I’ve read two of the most stimulating, provocative, generative books I’ve read in a long time. One of them is Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. I hope to have something to say about that in the near future.

The other, and the one I want to talk about here, is Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration. This one poses some real challenges to me, primarily because it bears so directly on the book I’m writing but is not the sort of thing — it gets deep into the weeds of social theory — that I can treat at length in a book for a general audience. So as relevant as it is to the argument of Breaking Bread with the Dead, I won’t say much about it there, though it will surely end up in the notes a few times. (One of the things I most want to do in my writing for general audiences is to translate complex work in theology, philosophy, and social, cultural, and literary theory into terms accessible to the common reader — and to do so without defacing the ideas by oversimplifying them.) 

I’ll unpack a bit of Rosa’s argument here, then. Rosa looks at the phenomenon of acceleration in three dimensions:

  1. technical acceleration, that is, the intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes”; 
  2. acceleration of social change, that is, the escalation of the rate of social change with respect to associational structures, knowledge (theoretical, practical, and moral), social practices, and action orientations”; 
  3. acceleration of the pace of life represents a reaction to the scarcity of (uncommitted) time resources. This is why, on the one hand, it is expressed in the experience of stress and a lack of time, and, on the other, it can be defined as an increase in the number of episodes of action and/or experience per unit of time.”

The relationship between these three dimensions, Rosa shows, is complex: after all, when you have technical acceleration, especially in the form of what we call “labor-saving devices,” shouldn’t our pace of life slow down? And yet it often doesn’t — or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t feel that it does.

Rosa also discusses various “decelerating” forces or institutions, and it’s the last of those that I want to focus on here. Unlike the deceleration of a technologically backward society with scant or no access to the most current technologies — and also unlike the deliberate choice, long term or short, of technological limitation (the family living “off the grid” or the techbro vacationing in a monastery) — this final kind of deceleration is “the paradoxical flip side of social acceleration.” Many people in our time have “the experience of an uneventfulness and standstill that underlies the rapidly changing surface of social conditions and events, one that accompanies the modern perception of dynamization from the very beginning as a second fundamental experience of modernization.” Rosa often uses in the book a phrase by the cultural theorist Paul Virilio: “frenetic standstill” — the widespread sense that the world around us is in constant flux and yet nothing essential is happening — nothing essential can happen. (There’s a fascinating section of the book on the ways that depression is a natural response to this and therefore the characteristic disease of late modernity.) 

This sense of “frenetic standstill” is especially common when the second dimension, acceleration of social change, crosses a certain threshold. Rosa looks at three social conditions, divided by two thresholds. In the first condition no obviously major change happens over several generations, or if it does happen it happens with imperceptible slowness, which lends to everyone in that society a feeling of stability, even permanence. Thus it was, thus it is, thus it shall ever be.

But when a major change occurs fast enough so that one generation of people can see that they’re living in a different form of life than their parents, or grandparents, did, then a threshold has been crossed. And Rosa argues that when this happens people tend to perceive that change as progressive: the world is going somewhere, it has a direction, and if I go with it my life can have a progressive direction too.

However: there’s another threshold to cross, as we have recently learned, and that’s when significant social change happens within a generation. Not only is your social world different than the one your parents experienced and came to count on, it’s different than the social world you experienced even a short time ago. When that happens, you see a couple getting a divorce because when they married they were “different people.” You get Farhad Manjoo feeling that the gender that he absolutely took for granted just a few years ago is now an “ubiquitous prison for the mind.” You get a Christian academic like David Gushee making a career of chastising people for holding views he himself held quite recently. And everyone thinks this kind of thing is normal: to look upon your very self of five years ago as a stranger, and presumably one for whose beliefs and actions your NowSelf cannot possibly be held responsible.

But, Rosa reminds us, we don’t really how what life on this side of that second threshold is going to do to us.

An intragenerational tempo of change thus undeniably raises the question of the temporally specific, so to speak, load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration. The consequences of the growing intergenerational divide in lifeworld orientations and everyday practices as well as the ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity have hardly been studied at all.

It hasn’t been studied, but the consequences are going to be interesting (and, I think, not pleasant) to see unfold. For instance, here’s one aspect of the “ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity”: a currently small but increasing number of parents live in absolute terror of “assigning” gender to their children. Some decades from now there will surely be some powerfully embittered people who will despise their parents for having forced such choices on them when they were wholly unprepared to make them.

And yet many of those same parents don’t hesitate to forbid the eating of meat or Twinkies or Doritos to those same children, and will be deeply grieved when, as is inevitable, some of those kids end up as junk-food junkies. So I don’t think there will ever be a wolesale abandonment of “the passing on of cultural knowledge,” or of a desire for “the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity.” But what, specifically, people will want to pass down to their children will change. And there’s no doubt that as long as social change happens, or is felt to, at the current rate, parents will want to give their children free choices as often as they can possibly bear to. The “load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration” will continue to decline, it seems likely. 

And yet maybe not inevitable. There’s a passage from Adorno’s Minima Moralia that I think of often — and that Rosa refers briefly to at one point: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.”

the most literary decade

Popular radio shows featured literary critics talking about recent poetry and fiction. The New Yorker’s book-review editor hosted one of the most popular radio shows in America, and his anthology, Reading I’ve Liked, ranked seventh on the bestseller list for nonfiction in 1941. At the Democratic Primary Convention in 1948, F. O. Matthiessen, a professor of American literature, delivered a nominating speech for Henry Wallace, the late FDR’s vice president. Writers were celebrities. Literature was popular. The 1940s was the most intensely literary decade in American history, perhaps in world history. Books symbolized freedom.

Posters of 1942 quoted the president: “Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.” During the Blitz, Muriel Rukeyser recalled, “newspapers in America carried full-page advertisements for The Oxford Book of English Verse, announced as ‘all that is imperishable of England.’ ” For the first and only time in history, protecting books in war zones became an official aim of armed forces.

— George Hutchinson, Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s. Compare the argument I made in my essay “The Watchmen.”

how Steve Reich discovered his own Judaism

I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.

So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.

Steve Reich

on firing Ian Buruma

Damon Linker thinks the firing of Ian Buruma is taking the #MeToo movement a step too far:

Buruma made a serious editorial misjudgment. But he became the focus of intense fury on Twitter and was fired for something else — for displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions, and for seeing value in using Ghomeshi’s personal experience as an occasion for thinking about an aspect of the subject without first and foremost engaging in scorched-earth excoriation.

That is what is fast becoming unacceptable.

Damon is, as I have said often, one of the best columnists around, so I always take his views seriously, but I’m not convinced by his argument here. First, I wonder if Damon has accurately described the reasons for Buruma’s firing. None of us were privy to the conversations between Buruma and his employers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they had asked him to apologize for his actions and words in ways he wasn’t prepared to do. Maybe the details will emerge later.

But even if he was simply summarily fired after his Slate interview I’m not sure that it’s right to say that Buruma simply “displayed insufficient outrage and indignation.” I want to look a little more closely at the details of that interview.

What is Buruma willing to say that Jian Ghomeshi did? He speaks of Ghomeshi as “being a jerk in many ways” and as belonging to a general class of people who “behaved badly sexually, abusing their power in one way or another” — people who “misbehaved.”

But his great emphasis is on the fact that Ghomeshi was not (or has not yet been) convicted of any crime: “in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted … I am not talking about people who broke the law. I am not talking about rapists … What is much murkier is when people are not found to have broken the law … All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime … My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense … All I know is that he was acquitted … People very quickly conflate cases of criminal behavior with cases that are sometimes murkier and can involve making people feel uncomfortable, verbally or physically, and that really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence.”

That last sentence seems especially troublesome. Isaac Chotiner, the interviewer, keeps reminding Buruma that several women have accused Ghomeshi of biting, choking, and punching them during sex. Buruma tries to wave this away: “Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances.” No doubt this is literally true. But to assert that such behavior “really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence” is effectively to say that the women who claimed that Ghomeshi bit and punched and choked them in violent ways were wrong. The suggestion is very strong here that maybe all Ghomeshi did was “make them feel uncomfortable.”

Buruma repeatedly says — and in itself this is certainly defensible — that he doesn’t know what Ghomeshi did. “I don’t know if what all these women are saying is true. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t…. The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

But what, then, is his concern? It is to learn what it feels like to be publicly “pilloried” as Ghomeshi has been. Again and again he characterizes Ghomeshi as someone who is the passive victim of something: Buruma claims to be interested in the experience of “finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried,” of what it’s like to “have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion…. My interest in running this piece, as I said, is the point of view of somebody who has been pilloried in public opinion and what somebody like that feels about it.”

So when we put all this together, we see that Buruma has no interest at all in what Ghomeshi did, but rather cares only about what has been done to him: the fact that he has been “pilloried,” not whether he has done anything to deserve such treatment. It’s especially telling that Buruma does not think Ghomeshi has ruined anything, but rather is “finding” his life ruined — like finding out you have cancer, or finding that your job has been eliminated. Buruma simply erases the causal links between Ghomeshi’s behavior and his experiences. And it is hard to see how this isolating of the experiences from their causes can have any effect other than to increase sympathy for Ghomeshi.

And the women who have complained about Ghomeshi’s treatment of them? Buruma says not one word about them. They too have been erased. What does it feel like to be them? That’s a question Buruma never asks. And he doesn’t ask it because, as he says, it isn’t his “concern.” It is not something that, editorially at least, he cares about.

Looking at this whole picture, I don’t think we see someone merely “displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions.” I think we see a much deeper moral blindness — an excessive interest in one person’s sufferings and an utter lack of interest in the sufferings of others — that, to me, calls Buruma’s judgment seriously into question. If I had been his boss, I don’t know that I would have fired him; but after I saw that interview in Slate, firing him would have been my first option.

unexpected moderation

Wesley Yang:

Peterson is virtually always more nuanced than the straw target his detractors have built out of his ideas. He uses the fact that the moods of both lobsters and humans are regulated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter that waxes and wanes in accordance with both creatures’ place in a dominance hierarchy to illustrate the point that the “problem of hierarchy is much deeper” than capitalism or any other set of human institutions. The claim is not that the continuity between our mental architecture and that of much older organisms does or should determine the way we organize society, but rather that it necessarily exerts a degree of influence on it, and constrains the set of viable ways of organizing our society. This modest claim should be self-evident to all but the most insistent denialist. Peterson acknowledges that inequality is a problem in that it causes society to destabilize when it moves past a certain threshold, and acknowledges the necessity of left-wing redistributive political movements — but is wary of left-wing doctrines that call for mandated equality, for the simple and very good reason that the grand experiments in mandated equality of the 20th century tended to be catastrophic. This does not mean that Peterson is a libertarian radical but a moderate conservative. He accepts nearly every facet of the status quo of 2014: he is on video explaining his acceptance of legal abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, the welfare state, and the Canadian socialistic healthcare system.

Anyone who listens to Peterson’s actual words without the intent of discovering in them the horrors they already believe that they will find there — i.e., without letting confirmation bias guide them by the nose — will discover that, in fact, his thinking on most discrete problems nearly always bends toward moderation.

the horror of homeschooling

Damon Linker has a recommendation for dealing with the enormous social problem of homeschooling:

There can and should be greater oversight. As [Jeremy] Young suggests, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse and evidence that kids are actually being educated, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the children involved. Sure, the home-school lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of the Turpins to torture their kids undetected.

Excellent idea! But why stop there? Spousal abuse is surely a greater blight on our society than child abuse by homeschoolers, so I make this proposal: In households of married people, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse by one spouse of another, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the adults involved. Sure, some pro-marriage lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of men to beat their wives undetected.

Please don’t try to tell me that children can’t choose their parents while marriage is a voluntary arrangement that can be ended by either party. We know from long experience how many people, especially women, remain in profoundly abusive relationships because they fear something worse. As in sexual relations more generally, “consent” is a vexed concept.

Though perhaps you have another objection: my plan is unworkable. There are not, and could never be, enough state government employees to visit every household of married people. If so, you have a point. It is, I admit, far easier to direct the suspicious attentions of state power on tiny minorities of people whom you despise for cultural reasons than to address truly widespread social tragedies.

And in any case, the level of intrusion is so minimal, especially from the child’s point of view. Once a year or so, a stranger comes into your home and asks you to take your clothes off so he can see whether your parents have been hurting you, because if he decides they have been, then he’ll take you away to foster care and your parents will be arrested, almost as if they had allowed you to play alone at a playground. What could possibly go wrong?

(Am I unfairly generalizing about government employees on the basis of a few bad apples? Perhaps; but that’s not an argument you can make when you’re proposing a massive expansion of state power over all homeschooling families because of what the Turpins did.)

I confess that I speak as an interested party here, because my wife and I taught our son at home — in conjunction with a homeschooling co-op — from seventh grade through high-school graduation. And we did not do it out of conviction that public schools are intrinsically evil. We are products of public schools ourselves, throughout our entire education. We did it because he was relentlessly bullied over the course of an entire year, and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee did a damned thing about it. We did it because I myself had been relentlessly bullied for several years in elementary school — I was two years younger than most of my classmates and a very easy target — and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee had done a damned thing about that either, and after what I had been through I could not stand by and watch my once-happy son descend into sheer and constant misery.

When people who cry out for mass surveillance of homeschooling families articulate some strategy for addressing the far, far larger problem of bullying in schools — I’ll even allow them to ignore spousal abuse — then I’ll believe that they care about the children. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that recommendations like Damon’s exemplify plain, straightforward bigotry against religious conservatives.

P.S. The Linker-Young argument is a classic example of what my friend Ashley Woodiwiss has called “ecclesial profiling.”

Douglas Coupland: ‘I’m actually at my happiest when I’m writing on a plane’

Douglas Coupland: ‘I’m actually at my happiest when I’m writing on a plane’

Student Activism Is Serious Business

Student Activism Is Serious Business

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell


One must not, however, imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory: it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect…. Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries: in this is its seriousness and significance; abstracted from boundaries it loses its soil, it becomes empty, arrogant, it degenerates and dies.

— Mikhail Bakhtin, from a late essay translated by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. This is one of my foundational beliefs: it governs many of my choices, especially about what I read and whom I converse with — and on social media also. Choose wisely and carefully the people you follow on Twitter and you can create a digital version of Bakhtinian/Dostoevskian polyphony.

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