Tag: I&R

the sprawling toolbox

In one of his notebooks Wittgenstein wrote, “I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking. I have always taken one over from someone else…. — What I invent are new similes.” Maybe that’s what humanistic thought is essentially: a search for new similes, new ways of perceiving the familiar — better to appreciate it when it deserves appreciation and better to change it when it requires changing. A mode of lateral thinking. A way of restocking the toolbox

In such a project, the late great Mary Midgely once argued, religious experience is vital, because “there is a general tendency for new imaginative ways of understanding life to emerge from religious thinking – that is, from thoughts which go beyond current human horizons.” That is, one of the social functions of religious experience — wholly aside from whether any particular religion is true or not — is to create similes, to extend thinking laterally, to add to the toolbox. “The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish ‘folk-psychology’. It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose.” 

The sociologist David Martin — also late and great; he died just a few months after Midgely — thought that this proliferation of similes is indeed essential to humanistic discourse, and thought he knew why. In his late book Ruin and Restoration: On Violence, Liturgy and Reconciliation (London: Routledge, 2016) he wrote:

The cultural disciplines, theology included alongside sociology, depend on history. History involves narrative, and narrative involves contingency and subjectivity … History can only be narrated in ordinary language, in principle available to any competent language user. The same applies to the cultural disciplines. They have no concepts like ‘quasars’ in astrophysics or even ‘metabolism’ in medicine, unless metabolism is used metaphorically. The fundamental role played by contingent narrative expressed in ordinary language means that the cultural disciplines are metaphorical and rhetorical to a degree not found in the natural sciences and they proliferate taxonomies. They sprawl because attended by numerous qualifications dependent on cultural time and space. The setting out of the ceteris paribus clause can be very extended indeed. (p. 9) 

The irony here is that one invokes ceteris paribus — all things being equal — precisely because all things rarely are equal. One must continually account for cultural and social and experiential difference, make “numerous qualifications dependent on cultural time and space.” 

I have made a similar version of this point in particular relation to the need for a theological anthropology adequate to our moment: 

To this claim there may be the immediate response, especially from orthodox Christians, that theology need not be different in this age than in any other, for human nature does not change: it remains true now as it has been since the angels with their flaming swords were posted at the gates of Eden that we are made in the image of God and yet have defaced that image, and that what theologians call “the Christ event” — the incarnation, preaching, healing, death, resurrection, ascension, and ultimate return of the second person of the Trinity — is the means by which that image will be restored and the wounds we have inflicted on the Creation healed. And indeed all that does, I believe, remain true. Yet it does not follow from such foundational salvation history that “theology need not be different in this age than any other.”

We may indeed believe in some universal human nature and nevertheless believe that certain frequencies on the human spectrum of possibility become more audible at times; indeed, the dominance of certain frequencies in one era can render others unheard, and only when that era passes and a new one replaces it may we realize that there were all along transmissions that we couldn’t hear because they were drowned out, overwhelmed. The moral and spiritual soundscape of the world is in constant flux, and calls forth, if we have ears to hear and a willingness to respond, new theological reflections that do not erase the truthfulness or even significance of former theological articulations but have a responsibility to add to them. In this sense at least there must be “development of doctrine.” 

Note that the invocation of a “soundscape” is itself an attempt at coining a useful simile. It may be related to the concept of stochastic resonance in reading. It is probably not wholly compatible with the metaphor of vendoring culture. You generate the similes, you try them out, you discard some and lean on others. You hope that at some point you’re able not just to invent them but use them to aid understanding: there’s no point in having a big sprawling toolbox if you don’t put the tools to work. But right now I’m working on the development of those tools. 

Or am I sowing seeds in my blog garden? This business of simile-generation is complicated

it’s Palmer Eldritch’s world, we’re just living in it

I’m teaching Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch right now, and in my introductory comments I mentioned that one of the curious things about this book so full of fear and anxiety is the complete absence of what would have been, at the time of the book’s publication in 1965, the most common source of fear and anxiety: the Cold War, and the possibility that it would erupt into a very hot nuclear one. As Dick imagines the world of 2016, all of that has somehow been resolved or faded into insignificance. What has happened instead is a kind of unspoken and largely unacknowledged collaboration between the United Nations, which seems to be the only government that’s functioning, and what we have recently learned to call surveillance capitalism. It’s the UN that forces people to leave the overcrowded and overheated earth to live at a subsistence level on colonies elsewhere in the solar system, and it’s also the UN that turns a blind eye to the “pushers” who sell to the colonists the drugs they need to make their miserable experience tolerable. Symbiosis. 

When people talk about Dick as a prophetic writer, this is the kind of thing they have in mind: an ability to envision from 1965 not a continuation of that time’s politics but instead a tacit union between the interests of government and the interests of the world’s most powerful corporations.

But Dick takes his anticipations to another level, a level that I am especially interested in. It is of course famously difficult to say exactly what happens in this novel, because the essential question that the major characters have is always: What is actually happening? But at least one major potential timeline, perhaps the most likely timeline, tells a story like this: Palmer Eldritch is a titan of capitalism, in many respects the Jeff Bezos of this world, and he travels to Proxima Centauri on a quest that is ambiguous in character but certainly involves financial motives. Eldritch discovers on Proxima Centauri a substance that the sentient beings of that solar system use in their religious rituals — a substance he thinks he can manufacture and sell and thereby win a victory over the currently dominant corporation called PP Layouts. But on his return from the Proxima system he is — well, perhaps the word is possessed by a sentient creature from some other part of the galaxy. And this creature is at least for a time interested in distributing its consciousness, through the mediation of Palmer Eldritch and the substance he has discovered, into the consciousness of human beings.

I said in an earlier post that I am interested in demonology, and that adds to my fascination with this novel. Because Dick is imagining what might happen if an unprecedentedly powerful union of government and surveillance capitalism is taken over by what might fairly be called a demonic power. Now, you might say that what Dick describes is not a demon, but simply a creature dramatically more powerful than we are and capable of imposing its will upon us. I call that a distinction without a difference. This is, it seems to me, a sort of Foucauldian image a few years ahead of Foucault’s key works on power and domination, a picture of a world in which powers that we may be tempted to call supernatural are disseminated through the existing structures of the neoliberal order. And it doesn’t look pretty.

Of course, this is not the only possible explanation of what is happening in the book. It is certainly possible that there is no alien being possessing Palmer Eldritch; rather, Eldritch himself has, through a combination of economic leverage and biotechnology, assumed equivalent powers. That is, it may be possible for surveillance capitalism to generate its own demons. Whether this is a better or worse fate than the one I previously described I leave as an exercise for the reader.

culture and value

This book is written for those who are in sympathy with the spirit in which it is written. This is not, I believe, the spirit of the main current of European and American civilization. The spirit of this civilization makes itself manifest in the industry, architecture and music of our time, in its fascism and socialism, and it is alien and uncongenial to the author. This is not a value judgement. It is not, it is true, as though he accepted what nowadays passes for architecture as architecture or did not approach what is called modern music with the greatest suspicion (though without understanding its language), but still, the disappearance of the arts does not justify judging disparagingly the human beings who make up this civilization. For in times like these, genuine strong characters simply leave the arts aside and turn to other things and somehow the worth of the individual man finds expression. Not, to be sure, in the way it would at a time of high culture. A culture is like a big organization which assigns each of its members a place where he can work in the spirit of the whole; and it is perfectly fair for his power to be measured by the contribution he succeeds in making to the whole enterprise. In an age without culture on the other hand forces become fragmented and the power of an individual man is used up in overcoming opposing torces and frictional resistances; it does not show in the distance he travels but perhaps only in the heat he generates in overcoming friction. But energy is still energy and even if the spectacle which our age affords us is not the formation of a great cultural work, with the best men contributing to the same great end, so much as the unimpressive spectacle of a crowd whose best members work for purely private ends, still we must not forget that the spectacle is not what matters.

I realize then that the disappearance of a culture does not signify the disappearance of human value, but simply of certain means of expressing this value, yet the fact remains that I have no sympathy for the current of European civilization and do not understand its goals, if it has any. So I am really writing for friends who are scattered throughout the corners of the globe. 

— Wittgenstein’s draft of a foreword to the book that would become Philosophical Remarks; published in Culture and Value 

judging capitalism

This post by my friend Adam Roberts is precisely right about the total disappearance of anything that might plausibly be called conservatism from the Anglo-American political scene. But of course I mainly want to argue with him, focusing on two points.

First, regarding Adam’s reading of Burke. He quotes a passage from Burke’s book on the French Revolution – “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors” – and comments that “This is more like the caricature ‘conservative’, hostile to innovation not on a case-by-case basis, but on principle.” But I don’t think that’s right. Burke is not hostile to innovation but to the spirit of innovation, which (for him) is a very different thing. It is the disposition to innovate that Burke deplores, a thoughtlessness in change, choosing the Innovate setting as the default, like Times New Roman.

After all, in the very same book Burke asserts that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.” Innovation then is sometimes necessary because circumstances alter – as Adam notes, Burke thinks a lot about circumstances – but also because politics is just fiendishly difficult. “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”

Moreover, our ancestors were not perfect in wisdom. Burke never suggests otherwise! But he does insist that our ancestors “handed down” certain good things to us – else we would not be here – and that we owe them a debt for that. The past for Burke is “hallowed,” as Adam says, but in this specific sense: We are here because of it, so we ought to reflect seriously on what we have been given and not allow a “spirit of innovation” to blind us to our debts. This is really just Chesterton’s Fence avant la lettre. As Chesterton wrote in his essay “The Drift From Domesticity,”

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Note that the destruction of the fence is not forbidden – it may be, indeed, that the fence needs to be torn down – but “the more modern type of reformer,” possessed by the spirit of innovation, is not in a position to know Yea or Nay. He is the embodiment in practical action of the attitude Mill, in On Liberty, deplores in thought: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” Until the Modern Reformer knows why the fence is there, he has no grounds for either tearing it down or leaving it up.

Immediately after noting Burke’s comment on the spirit of innovation, Adam continues,

the biggest differences between most people in 2020 and most people in 1820 are the advantages innovation has bestowed: better technologies and agricultural knowledge so we’re all better and more cheaply clothed and better (more nutritously) and more cheaply fed; better medical knowledge and technology; and a panoply of labour-saving devices and machines have freed us — the last type of innovation has disproportionately freed women, a group in whom Burke seems, simply, uninterested — from gruelling and sometimes deadly bondage.

All fair, I would say. But how to reconcile this with something Adam writes earlier in the essay?

As a leftie what I sometimes hear is: ‘Communism is a fine idea in principle; but we tried it, in practice, and it doesn’t work.’ The thing is, and speaking ex cathedra as a Professor of 19th-century Literature and Culture, I can say: we also tried full capitalism and it absolutely does not work. We tried it in the UK from the middle of the 1700s (and especially from the New Poor Laws of the 1830s) through to the Liberal government’s introduction of welfare reforms in the early 1900s. It made a tiny fraction prodigiously wealthy and it impoverished or starved the majority.

The very period of unbridled capitalism that Adam so powerfully denounces is, strangely, the one in which the innovations he celebrates were either achieved or initiated or dramatically forwarded. And if Deirdre McCloskey is right, that era did not impoverish or starve the majority, but rather increased their well-being to an almost inconceivable degree, though at a much lesser degree than it enriched the captains of industry. Surely the real picture is far more complex than Adam suggests.

I am reminded here of a critic of the most recent form of capitalism: John Lanchester, in his book How to Speak Money. In the book’s first section, Lanchester describes the trade-off involved in adopting a neoliberal economic policy, as someone like McCloskey would see it:

In a free market system, the rich will always accumulate capital and income faster than the poor; it’s a law as basic as that of gravity. The promise of neoliberalism is that that doesn’t matter, as long as the poor are getting richer too. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the cliché has it. It lifts the rich boats quicker, but in the neoliberal scheme of things that’s not a problem. Inequality isn’t just the price you pay for rising prosperity; inequality is what makes rising prosperity possible. The increase in inequality therefore isn’t just some nasty accidental side effect of neoliberalism; it’s the motor driving the whole economic process.

Lanchester makes it clear, repeatedly, that he thinks this is a completely unsustainable philosophy. But then, near the end of the book, he poses a little thought experiment: “I’d like you to take a moment to think about what you think is humanity’s greatest collective achievement: the single best thing we have all done together.” His answer:

On 29 February 2012, the World Bank announced that the proportion of the planet’s population living in absolute poverty – less than $1.25 a day – had halved from 1990 to 2010. That rate of poverty reduction, driven by economic growth across the world from China to Ghana, is unprecedented in global history. Just imagine: in 20 years there are half as many absolutely poor people. And the success story of improvement in our collective living conditions doesn’t stop there. Consider child mortality, which for any parent is the most important number there is. (It’s pretty important for any child, too.) This has been the subject of a precipitate decline. In 1990, 12.4 million children were dying every year under the age of five. Today that number is 6.6 million. That’s obviously 6.6 million child deaths too many, but it is 16,438 fewer child deaths every day…. that’s 11 children’s lives being saved every minute. Does any other achievement in human history match that?

It’s important to note that this improvement has happened during precisely the period during which Lanchester says that the neoliberal order has “unraveled” and even “fallen apart.” So here’s my question for Lanchester: if the greatest achievement in human history has been accomplished under the reign of the neoliberal economic order, then why shouldn’t we be enthusiastic proponents of the neoliberal economic order?

In the last words of the book, Lanchester writes,

It may be that we have to settle for a world that is mainly getting richer, whose citizens are living longer, and whose richest countries are enjoying slower growth, but also a more equal, more satisfying, more mindful way of life. When people say, “it can’t go on like this,” what usually happens is that it does go on like that, more extendedly and more painfully than anyone could possibly imagine; it happens in relationships, in jobs, in entire countries. It goes way way past the point of bearability. And then things suddenly and abruptly change. I think that’s where we are today.

A world that is mainly getting richer and who citizens are living longer and healthier lives is also, somehow, at the same time, going on past the point of bearability? What’s unbearable about the world in which poverty is dramatically decreasing and child mortality dramatically declining? Lanchester goes from saying in one sentence that things are improving remarkably to saying in the next sentence that our condition is unbearable. You can see his confusion in how he begins that paragraph by suggesting that we “may have to settle” for a world more-or-less like the one we have now, but ends the paragraph by suggesting that we won’t settle and that therefore some abrupt change is coming. Which is it?

In any case, I think both Lanchester and Adam exhibit a similar contradiction in their account of what life has been like under capitalism.

As for me: I don’t like capitalism, just as I don’t like state socialism. All of my sympathies are with some version of anarcho-syndicalism, with endeavors like the Mondragon Corporation. But how am I supposed to ignore the astonishing increases in standards of living, health, life expectancy, and so on that have precisely coincided with the dominance of global capitalism? That’s not the whole story, but surely it is a big part of the story. How to factor that in without losing sight of the contributions of (for instance) social solidarity and intact and functioning families to human flourishing? That’s the question that I think both Adam and Lanchester let slip.

I think those of us – whether socialist or anarchist in orientation – who would like to see a social and economic order that eliminates plutocracy, that features more equality, that does not depredate families or fray the bonds of affection among fellow citizens, need to acknowledge that any structural moves in that direction will almost certainly impede innovation, including some very valuable innovation. A price will be paid, and, if we were to get our way, we would surely often wonder whether that price is too high.

This is why there’s no political thinker I admire more than Ursula K. Le Guin. In, for instance, The Dispossessed – about which I wrote a bit here – she shows an anarchist society in practice, and in addition to showing what’s beautiful about it she shows what doesn’t work, she shows the problems that anarchism doesn’t know how to solve, perhaps because they are insoluble. The people on Anarres would love to think that all of their problems are caused by the asperities of their environment and the selfishness of Urras, but Le Guin compassionately yet sternly reveals that that is not true. Yes, their environment and their powerful planetary neighbor limit their flourishing; but so too do their own decisions, and, at times, a social system which is powerless to alter those decisions. (A similar story could be told about the society of the Kesh in Always Coming Home.) Le Guin is a lefty anarchist and in no way a conservative, but in certain key respects her themes rhyme with Burke: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.”

more on invitation

So far in these posts I’ve said a good bit about repair but very little about invitation. Let me return to the passage from Michael Oakeshott’s essay “A Place of Learning” that moved me to make invitation central to my understanding of culture:

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

The use of “manifold” as a noun is uncommon and noteworthy. No single meaning recorded in the OED seems to match Oakeshott’s meaning here, but the scope of reference seems pretty clear, and I think we could fairly conclude that he means something like a gathered diversity: a box of treasures; a disorderly library; maybe even a Room of Requirement. I will also admit to being struck by the possibilities of a metaphor based on the word’s use in offshore oil drilling: “an area on which oil pipes from several wells converge,” says the OED, “and where testing, segregation, and re-routing of oil can take place.” The “manifold of invitations” is where cultural possibilities converge and can then be assessed, not just in relation to some pre-existing standard of excellence but in relation to one another.

But note that for Oakeshott the assessments we make will never be final: this “encounter” is “conversational” because so many of our “journeyings” are “unfinished” or “abandoned”; because the journeyings of one (the poet, say) may not be perfectly assimilable to the journeyings of another (the physicist); because so much that comes down to us does so in “fragments.” In response to all this we do not, or should not, make a series of definitive judgments but rather a accept a prolonged period of looking, listening, and reflecting.

This picture is closely related to the one that Robert Nozick gives us, in a passage I quoted in an earlier post: “I believe that there also is a place and a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work, containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems, leads, side connections, as well as a main line of argument. There is room for words on subjects other than last words.”

There are few notions more clichéd than that of education as exploration, learning as a journey — and yet I wonder if anyone in our educational system has heard that cliché recently? In our whole society, it seems to me, the impulse to explore, and to invite others to a common exploration, has been utterly eclipsed by a mania for policing boundaries, for marking some people and some ideas as unclean, as defiled and defiling.

“Mania” is one word; another might be demonic compulsion. But it won’t last forever; it’s burning people out, it’s a madness that exhausts. Eventually those who are weary will be ready for something better, maybe even for “light-hearted adventures” or explorations of previously unimagined possibilities. Who will be ready with an invitation?

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

powers and demons

The chief enemies of a culture based on invitation and repair are, in general terms, Powers and Demons. The Powers are, as St. Paul teaches in his letters, the vast and typically impersonal – or, more accurately, transpersonal – forces that direct the general course of this broken world. Demons are the Powers’ malicious agents that manifest themselves in the behavior of human beings. All those people obsessively jacking one another up online, filling their allies with fear and assaulting their enemies? They are driven by Demons. And I’m not sure you would believe quite how literally I mean that.

But the Demons are the agents of the Powers. As I have said in another context, white supremacy is a Power. Surveillance capitalism is a power. Most forms of nationalism, perhaps as opposed to patriotism, are Powers. They are rival sovereignties to God.

I have written a bit about Powers here, and about demons here.

At this stage of my project I am simply laying out what I think will be the major categories for developing a theory of culture, which I will later channel into a theology of culture. But I want to signal even at this point that, at some point along the way, I have to articulate the demonology. Every serious account of culture needs a demonology.


In his brief 1949 book The Enchaféd Flood, Auden writes of what happens when communities — gatherings of persons bound together (Auden does not quote Augustine here but is silently citing him) by a common love — deteriorate into societies — collections of human organisms defined by their social and economic function. One of his touchstone texts in writing about these matters is Moby Dick.

If a community so dissolves, the societies, which remain so long as human beings wish to remain alive, must, left to themselves, grow more and more mechanical. And such real individuals as are left must become Ishmael’s “isolatos, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each isolato living in a separate continent of his own.”

(I’ve adjusted the spelling from “isolatoe” to avoid annoyance.) Auden goes on to make an unexpected and profoundly illuminating connection: “The grand explanatory image of this condition is of course Dürer’s Melancholia.”

608px Melencolia I Durero


She sits unable to sleep and yet unable to work, surrounded by unfinished works and unused tools, the potential fragments of the city which she has the knowledge but not the will to build…

What is the cause of her suffering? That, surrounded by every possibility, she cannot find within herself or without the necessity to realise one rather than another. Urban society is, like the desert, a place without limits. The city walls of tradition, mythos and cultus have crumbled. There is no direction in which Ishmael is forbidden or forcibly prevented from moving. The only outside “necessities” are the random whims of fashion or the lifeless chains of a meaningless job, which, so long as he remains an individual, he can and will reject. At the same time, however, he fails to find a necessity within himself to take their place.

Earlier in his exposition Auden had drawn on Kierkegaard to describe those more common figures whose response to a lack of community is not to descend into melancholy but rather to accept their roles in a featureless “public” — Kierkegaard in The Present Age: “a public is a kind of gigantic something, an abstract and deserted void which is everything and nothing” — or to join some crowd, a crowd which might descend into a mob. These people are saved from melancholy by passively accepting the anonymity of the public or by attaching their anomie to the will of the crowd. As Auden wrote in an essay, “A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.”

On Good Friday, Auden wrote elsewhere, the crowd cried “Crucify him!” But that crucifixion was also enabled by those who shouted nothing but merely averted their eyes from the disagreeable spectacle.

The person deprived of a community who cannot, for whatever temperamental reasons, join the crowd or disappear into the public will inevitably become a melancholic “isolato.” Isolation, anonymous absorption of the self into some abstract social function, the madness of crowds — those are the three chief options for people who are deprived of genuine community.

The question then becomes: By what means might we achieve the restoration of community that will protect us from these dark fates?

It is important that Auden links both Ishmael’s condition and Dürer’s image of Melancholia with the failure of the city: For him what matters most about the unused tools scattered at the melancholiac’s feet, and perhaps also the geometric and mathematical images elsewhere in the print, are what they say about a built environment that has not been built, which indicates not only a loss of imagination and creativity but a failure to construct, which is, among other things, a failure to protect one’s community from natural and social enemies.

Hovering behind these expressed thoughts, I believe, is an ongoing meditation on the Aeneid. When Aeneas and his crew are shipwrecked on the Libyan coast and make their way to Carthage, Aeneas’s first words on seeing that city are “O fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt!” — Fortunate are those whose walls already rise — because he is impatient to raise the walls of the city he is pledged to found as a second Troy. But soon enough that impatience, coupled with love for Dido and grief for his lost city and wife, has him directing Carthaginian construction crews, something which Mercury, sent down by Jupiter, fiercely denounces: “tu nunc Karthaginis altae / fundamenta locas pulchramque uxorius urbem / exstruis?” So for love of this new wife of yours you’re building this pleasant city of Carthage? Instead of the one you’ve been commanded by the gods to build?

It looks like work that Aeneas is doing, but it’s not: Mercury says he’s wasting time, idling away the hours. The god thinks it’s love that keeps him in Carthage, but that’s not it, or not chiefly: it’s primarily a kind of structured procrastination born of melancholy.

Just three years before writing the lectures that became The Enchaféd Flood, Auden had held a temporary commission in the U. S. Army (rank: Major) and had participated in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Germany — note the initials in the background of this photo:

Think of the ruination Auden saw, and think of the great task of Aeneas, and you will grasp the import of this passage from the conclusion of those lectures:

We live in a new age … in which the heroic image is not the nomad wanderer through the desert or over the ocean, but the less exciting figure of the builder, who renews the ruined walls of the city. Our temptations are not theirs. We are less likely to be tempted by solitude into Promethean pride: we are far more likely to become cowards in the face of the tyrant who would compel us to lie in the service of the False City. It is not madness we need to flee but prostitution.

Aeneas’s melancholy — his anomie, his ennui — has led him to prostitute himself to a city other than his own: literally Carthage, but metaphorically and spiritually what Auden calls “the False City.” A city built on comforting but deadly lies; a city which might, at its very best, offer some kind of society but never genuine community. Aeneas has escaped from the dark fate of the “isolato”; but he has done so by being absorbed into a public that is not his own.

What are the virtues, what is the disposition, of the builder of the True City? How might someone be formed to possess the proper disposition? I think we know what the impediments are — That’s surely an iPad in the lap of the putto in Melancholia: he’s obviously pissed off by some jerk’s tweet — but what are the affordances?

That’s Auden in his USSBS days, in late 1945, visiting the ruins of Nuremberg (photo scanned from this book). I’ve highlighted something curious at the center-right of the image. It’s a statue that by some miracle survived the bombing which, as you can see, completely devastated the rest of the city center. The statue depicts Albrecht Dürer.

blogging and the blogosphere

Robin Sloan’s reply to my last post, which was a riff on something Robin wrote … ah, you’ll figure it out. Follow the links. Robin has been very generous to me.

Children, gather around. Grandpa has a story to tell.

A long, long time ago, there was a a network within the network we call the World Wide Web, which is of course a network within the network of networks that we call the internet … anyway, this demi-network was sometimes called the blogosphere. And once, back in the first decade of the 21st century, Grandpa wrote that “the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.” Of all the millions of words that Grandpa has published, those are the most quoted. And Grandpa is not super happy about that.

See, the blogosphere, when Grandpa wrote those words, was dominated by sites like Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, Glenn Reynolds’s Instapundit, Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. The Dish shut down; TPM morphed into something larger and more complicated, as did Instapundit – though the latter is closer to its original incarnation. When these sites were at their height, fifteen years or more ago, each was basically one person pumping out responses to the most recent news all day every day. Dozens of posts per day, in some cases, and almost all of them what we would now call tweet length.

Which explains why nobody makes that kind of site any more. If you want to post in microbursts from dawn to dusk, Twitter is a superior platform.

When Grandpa wrote against the blogosphere, that kind of site is what he had in mind: a constant stream of hot takes, some of which had to be walked back later because they were offered before, and instead of, reflective consideration. You’d therefore have a better sense of what I meant in that much-quoted line if you replaced “blogosphere” with “Twitter.”

In short: Blogosphere ≠ blogging. Blogging, at least as I try to practice it here, is a different thing. What I like about blogging, and the reason I have chosen this as the venue for my thoughts on Invitation and Repair, is summed up in Austin Kleon’s post on blogging as a forgiving medium: “Blogging feels to me like a world of endless drafting, endless revisioning.”

Exactly. I post a thought; later, I return to it with an update; someone responds and I incorporate their thoughts into a new post that links to them and to the original – basically, what I am doing right now. Note also that blogging, when done in this fashion and in this spirit, is also seriously dialogical, and I think there is a close connection between a dialogue-friendly medium and a forgiving medium. More on that another time, perhaps.

In his Preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick wrote,

One view about how to write a philosophy book holds that an author should think through all of the details of the view he presents, and its problems, polishing and refining his view to present to the world a finished, complete, and elegant whole. This is not my view. At any rate, I believe that there also is a place and a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work, containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems, leads, side connections, as well as a main line of argument. There is room for words on subjects other than last words.

This series of blog posts is one of those “less complete works.” But that doesn’t mean that, for me anyway, it’s any less serious.

UPDATE: Another way to think about blogging, in the spirit that I’ve outlined above, is to see it as a way to open oneself to stochastic resonance.

vendoring culture

Software often has dependencies, and the bigger the codebase the more dependencies the software is likely to have. A dependency is another chunk of code, written and maintained by someone else, that you incorporate into your project in order to fulfill certain functions. Your project then becomes dependent on that external code in order to run properly, which is why it’s called a dependency.

But there is an alternative to employing dependencies, and it’s called vendoring. When you vendor someone’s code, instead of writing instructions to point to the external code, you copy that code directly into your project. Even when such an action is legal — it isn’t unless the relevant code is open-sourced or otherwise explicitly made available to you — it’s not widely done because when you vendor someone else’s code you become wholly responsible for it. If you were using that code as a dependency, then maybe you could count on the person who originally wrote it to maintain it, develop it, extend it, fix it when things go wrong; but when you vendor their code you have no access to the original, and so the running of that code becomes your problem.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to take on that responsibility then you really get to know an alien codebase and may incorporate it not only into your code but also into your thinking. A programmer named Tom MacWright says that he vendors code more often that most other programmers do for just this reason:

When I’m vendoring code – copying it into the project and making it pass my basic eslint [a JavaScript analysis tool] & testing standards, I’ll do light rewrites and refactors of new code, allowing me to get a deeper understanding of how they [sic] work and where their limits lie.

Obviously, other people’s code is their code. I didn’t do 100% of the thinking that led to it – I’m probably doing 5% of it. But absorbing that bit into my mind, instead of seeing only the external API surface, pays dividends.

So: Vendoring rather than dependencies. This leads me to a comic book.



I only know about this comic, by Gene Luen Yang, because my friend Robin Sloan wrote about it. Go read Robin, please. Take your time; it’s really good, and important for what I am about to say.

Now: If you’ve been following this series of posts, you’ll have zeroed in on Robin’s key point:

For me, these are matters not primarily of judgment — who was wrong? Who continues to be wrong? Exactly how wrong are they?? — abut of repair.

And in this case, amazingly, we have an example of what repair might look like.

So Robin has already said the thing that most needs to be said, but let me just add this point: What Yang has done is moral repair through vendoring code — in this case not the code of programmers but cultural code. And note that Yang has not created a dependency: he has not simply pointed to code created and maintained by someone else. He has copied that code and pasted it into his own creation, not because he admired it but because he needed to correct it. And he could only correct it by making it his own. Like Tom MacWright, he has thereby enabled for himself a better understanding of how that code works and where its limits lie. He has “absorbed it into his mind”; but his mind is more capacious and generous than what it absorbs. And that is precisely what enables the absorption.

In this case the code doesn’t remain 95% that of the original text and 5% Yang’s; the proportions are closer to being reversed. When the original is healthier, and stronger, the relation can be more equal and more constructively reciprocal. But even when the original code is destructive, even when it’s a kind of cultural malware, it can seed the act of repair — the act of repair that goes far beyond repair. It is a seed in the same way that a irritating piece of grit trapped within the mantle folds of an oyster eventually generates a pearl.

beyond repair

In his review of Ross Douthat’s book on decadence, Patrick Deneen writes:

Classical authors accepted decay as a natural condition of the world, and certainly of human society. The last books of Plato’s Republic — usually considered a work of political utopianism — are devoted to describing an apparently inescapable process of decay, from the regime of near perfection to the most vicious form of tyranny. The course of the world is to run down. The failure of one generation to pass along its virtues is akin to the natural degradation of our genetic code and the inevitable decline and death of our bodies.

The counsel of the classical authors was to delay the decay. Preserve the virtues; slow the rot; avoid unnecessary innovation. This counsel is at the heart of the conservative disposition: the world is arrayed toward decline, not progress; and, as such, the main role of a healthy society is to stave off decay through prudent maintenance of decent and sustainable social practices. Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville were among the modern heirs of the classical tradition, albeit anomalies in an age that considered itself enlightened and sought to overthrow the old ways in favor of progress.

This is a good word of warning, because my project has to concern something more than slowing or arresting decay. Repair and maintenance are essential, but they are propadeutic to extension, development, and imaginative creation. Or ought to be, anyway.

more on invitation and repair

Rita Felski’s book The Limits of Critique primarily concerns literary criticism, but its argument has a more general application, as does Bruno Latour’s essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” Both scholars have been formed by an intellectual environment in which skill at critique is the definitive skill — almost the only one worth practicing. But they have also perceived the ways that critique, pursued in the absence of any positive vision of the good, degenerates into a series of rote and irritable gestures.

I want to follow Michael Oakeshott in thinking of culture, or any culture worth preserving and extending, as an invitation or series of invitations. To act culturally, to do culture, is, ideally, to welcome people into endeavors of thought and practice — to invite people into certain enabling and productive disciplines. A culture that does not spontaneously invite cooperation and the participation of outsiders does not deserve the name of culture.

But it is also quite obviously the case that our own culture is deteriorated and in many respects broken. One might critique those who have brought it into the state that it currently is in, but that is really a useless thing to do. It is much better, I think, to reflect on the ways in which the existing culture can be maintained where it is healthy and repaired where it is not.

And therefore the invitation which I wish to extend is not an invitation merely to observe and contemplate, or approve and disapprove. Rather, it is an invitation to participate in maintenance and repair.

Invitation and Repair

This is the first installment of a diffuse and ill-defined project I am calling Invitation and Repair: A Theology of Culture. I will be posting on it intermittently — very intermittently, I suspect. Just laying down a marker here, by way of a beginning.  

I have long felt that the standard approaches to a theology of culture — e.g., H. Richard Niebuhr’s all-too-famous Christ and Culture — are too schematic, and that the closely allied discipline of theological anthropology tends to produce work — like David Kelsey’s much-praised Eccentric Existence — that is bloodless, abstract, detached from the human lifeworld. I am not by profession a theologian, but these matters concern me deeply and I want to explore them. Thus: Invitation and Repair.

For the “repair” part, see this post on “broken world thinking”; for the “invitation” part, see this post on Michael Oakeshott’s definition of “culture.” My initial touchstones for the shaping of this project are:

On that last topic specifically, I tried to write a book — indeed, I wrote 80,000 words of a book. But I am not happy with what I wrote. I could re-write it, but I have decided that it was not framed properly. And that happened in part because I did not know enough to frame it properly.

The process of learning enough is going to be long, and I cannot foresee the path I will need to take to get where I want to be. So after much reflection, I have decided that the way to get there is by planting a new bed in my blog garden. I have resisted doing this because I would like for this to be a book someday, and I know that many publishers are reluctant to publish something that appears, in whole or even in large part, on the open web. And a part of me would like for this project to end up in book form because I want other scholars to cite it, and they are unlikely to cite a personal blog.

But you know what? Screw it. I need to take my time and develop the necessary ideas properly. If these thoughts never develop in such a way that I can turn them into a book, so be it. If they do so develop and nobody wants to publish it, so be it. (I’ll just make various digital versions.) The point, at this stage in my career, after fifteen published books, is not the publication, it’s the thinking. So let the thinking, in public, commence.

It will be slow at first and chaotic probably always. But I suspect that certain themes will, over the longue-ish durée, emerge.