Q&A

Q: Why are you reading all this stuff, anyway? It seems pretty obvious that you don’t have much sympathy for it.

A: That’s a good question. I could give several answers. For one thing, I’m not as lacking in sympathy as you think. I have respect for any good-faith attempts to reckon with the immensely vexed question of what it means to be human, and the corollary questions about how we are most healthily related to the nonhuman, and I think Morton and Haraway are really trying to figure these things out. There’s a moral urgency to their writing that I admire.

Q: Is that so? Sure doesn’t sound like it.

A: Well, yeah, I guess that last post was kind of negative. As I was reading Morton I realized that some pretty important intellectual decisions had been made before he even began his argument, and I wanted to register that protest.

Q: But if you feel that a particular philosophical project has gone astray from the start, why not just move along to thinkers and lines of thought you find more fruitful, more resonant with potential?

A: Remember that this is a work in progress: as I said in that post, I’m currently reading Morton, I’m not done. (And in a sense I’m still reading Haraway, even though I put her book aside months ago.) When you’re blogging your way through a reading project, any one post is sure to give an incomplete picture of your response and likely to give a misleading one.

Q: Fair enough, I guess, but there does seem to be a pattern to your writing about a lot of recent work. You read it, think about it, and then declare that there are resources in the history of Christian thought that address these questions — whatever the questions are — better than the stuff you’ve been reading does. So why not just read and think about those Christian figures who always seem to do it better?

A: Because often those non-Christian (or non-religious, or anti-Christian, or anti-religion) thinkers often raise important questions that Christians tend to neglect, and I have to see whether there are in fact such adequate resources from within Christianity to address the questions raised by others. So far I have found that my tradition is indeed up for those challenges, buts its resources are augmented and strengthened by having to address what it never would have asked on its own. I truly believe that Christianity will emerge stronger from a genuinely dialogical encounter with rival traditions, in part because it will (as it has so often in the past) adopt and adapt what is best in those traditions for its own purposes. It doesn’t always work out that way; Hank Hill was right when he said to the praise band leader “You’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock-and-roll worse!” But most of the time the genuinely dialogical encounter more than pays for itself.

Q: Maybe. But you often seem out of your depth with the kind of thing —the kind of stuff you’re reading theses days — and often in the mood to kick over the traces. Wouldn’t you be better off sticking with the stuff you actually have a professional level of knowledge of? Auden? Other twentieth century religiously-inclined literary figures?

A: Honestly, you may be right. I often wonder about that very point. And that’s one of the reasons — that’s the main reason, I guess — why I talk about writing books of the technological history of modernity and the Anthropocene condition but end up writing them about the stuff I have spent most of my career teaching.

Q: So why are you even here, man? Why not drop this blog and get back to work in your own field?

A: Because this is a place where I can exercise my habitual curiosity about things I don’t know much about. Because this is a kind of Pensieve for me, a way to clear away thoughts that otherwise would clog up my brain. Because every once in a while something of value coalesces out of all this randomness. I have very few readers and still fewer commenters, so I’m not getting the thrill of regular feedback, but hitting the “Publish” button offers an acceptable simulacrum of accomplishment. Those are probably not very good reasons, but they’re the reasons I have.

But I’m not gonna lie: spending so much time reading stuff with which at a deep level I’m at odds is wearing, it really is. Especially since I know that the people I’m reading — and working so hard to read fairly — are highly unlikely to treat serious Christian thinkers with comparable respect. With any respect. They don’t know that Christian theology that’s deeply and resourcefully engaged with the modern world exists, and if they knew they wouldn’t care. What’s I’m doing when I read thinkers like Morton and Haraway is an engagement on my part, but it’s not a conversation. That’s just what it’s like if you want to bring Christian thought to bear on modern academic discourse. You only do it if you believe you’re called to do it.

accelerationism and myth-making

I’ve been reading a good bit lately about accelerationism — the belief that to solve our social problems and reach the full potential of humanity we need to accelerate the speed of technological innovation and achievement. Accelerationism is generally associated with techno-libertarians, but there is a left accelerationism also, and you can get a decent idea of the common roots of those movements by reading this fine essay in the Guardian by Andy Beckett. Some other interesting summary accounts include this left-accelerationism manifesto and Sam Frank’s anthropological account of life among the “apocalyptic libertarians.” Accelerationism is mixed up with AI research and new-reactionary thought and life-extension technologies and transhumanist philosophy — basically, all the elements of the Californian ideology poured into a pressure cooker and heat-bombed for a few decades.

There’s a great deal to mull over there, but one of the chief thoughts I take away from my reading is this: the influence of fiction, cinema, and music over all these developments is truly remarkable — or, to put it another way, I’m struck by the extent to which extremely smart and learned people find themselves imaginatively stimulated primarily by their encounters with popular culture. All these interrelated movements seem to be examples of trickle-up rather than trickle-down thinking: from storytellers and mythmakers to formally-credentialed intellectuals. This just gives further impetus to my effort to restock my intellectual toolbox for (especially) theological reflection.

One might take as a summary of what I’m thinking about these days a recent reflection by Warren Ellis, the author of, among many other things, my favorite comic:

Speculative fiction and new forms of art and storytelling and innovations in technology and computing are engaged in the work of mad scientists: testing future ways of living and seeing before they actually arrive. We are the early warning system for the culture. We see the future as a weatherfront, a vast mass of possibilities across the horizon, and since we’re not idiots and therefore will not claim to be able to predict exactly where lightning will strike – we take one or more of those possibilities and play them out in our work, to see what might happen. Imagining them as real things and testing them in the laboratory of our practice — informed by our careful cross-contamination by many and various fields other than our own — to see what these things do.

To work with the nature of the future, in media and in tech and in language, is to embrace being mad scientists, and we might as well get good at it.

We are the early warning system for the culture. Cultural critics, read and heed.

Anthropocene update

I promised a kind of summary or overview of my current project on Anthropocene theology, but that will need to wait a while. This post will explain why.

I understand the Anthropocene as an era in which some human beings are effectively the gods of this world but also are profoundly disoriented by their godlike status, while other human beings languish in the kinds of misery long familiar to residents of this vale of tears. That is, I think of the Anthropocene not only in terms of the power some humans have over the animate and inanimate worlds, but also in experiential and affective terms: what it feels like to be so empowered or, equally important, to be powerless in the face of other humans’ power.

The idea of articulating a theological anthropology adequate to the Anthropocene era occurred to me when I realized that my interest in writing a technological history of modernity and my interest in writing a book about the theological implications of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction were one and the same interest. And all of these topics are explored on this blog, but of course in no particular sequence. I therefore needed some way to find a thread through the labyrinth, to put these random explorations in some kind of order. So what tools did I need to make this happen? As long-time readers know, I am deeply committed to living in plain text: all of my instruments for writing and organizing are plain-text or enhanced-plain-text apps. So my first thought was: Emacs org-mode.

Org-mode is an exceptionally complex and powerful organizational system, one that I have fooled around with a good bit over the years — but I have never managed to commit fully to it, and it’s the kind of thing that really does require full commitment: you just can’t make it work to its fullest extent without embedding those keystroke sequences in your muscle memory. And further, it requires me to commit to the Mac (or Linux) as opposed to iOS, and I have been wondering whether for the long haul iOS will be the more stable and usable platform.

Enter OmniOutliner. Yesterday I went through all my posts tagged antheo, THM, and Thomas Pynchon and copied them into one large OmniOutliner document. This was a very slow and painstaking task, since I needed to turn every paragraph of every post into a discrete row, and along the way I needed to think about what order made the most sense.

Those decisions about order were rough-and-ready, not definitive, because the whole point of the exercise was to get my ideas into a format that would allow me easily to alter sequences and hierarchies — something that OmniOutliner makes very easy, especially since the keyboard shortcuts for moving a given row up or down, in or out, are the same on both MacOS and iOS. Once I had everything in the document, and had decided on a provisional structure, I went through and color-coded the different levels so that that structure would be immediately visible to me.

So now I have an outline of about 70,000 words — goodness, I’ve blogged a lot — and will need to take some time to figure out what its ideal organization will be, where the holes in the argument are, and so on. But even with just the one day’s work, I am pleased at how the thing seems to be coming together. I think this really could be a book, and perhaps even a useful one. There will be a lot more reading and thinking to do, but as I do that reading and thinking, I have a strong outline into which I can place new ideas.

So I’m not ready, right now, to give an overview of the project. I need to meditate longer on the structure that I have and on what its deficiencies are. But I’m going to keep on exploring these issues, and some of that exploration will happen right here on this blog.

the idols and the true God

As I argued in two earlier posts, here and here, the smartphone is an idolorum fabricam, a perpetual idol-making factory. I want now to juxtapose that argument with something that might seem unrelated, the thesis articulated by the sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues that the de facto religion of Americans, especially young Americans, is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD. I want to call attention here to one of the key (though often unarticulated) principles of MTD, as described in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs — especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved…. For many teens, as with adults, God sometimes does get involved in people’s lives, but usually only when they call on him, mostly when they have some trouble of problem or bad feeling that they want resolved. In this sense, the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs. (Chapter 4)

Here’s the chief point I want to make is that the combination of idol-worship and belief in a selectively-available Creator is an ancient one, and indeed is generally characteristic of non-Abrahamic religions. Consider this passage from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane:

The phenomenon of the remoteness of the supreme god is already documented on the archaic levels of culture. [There follow two pages of examples.] It is useless to multiply examples. Everywhere in these primitive religions the celestial supreme being appears to have lost religious currency: he has no place in the cult, and in the myths he draws farther and farther away from man until he becomes a deus otiosus. Yet he is remembered and entreated as a last resort, when all ways of appealing to other gods and goddesses, and ancestors, and the demons, have failed. As the Oreons express it: “Now we have tried everything, but we still have you to help us.” And they sacrifice a white cock to him, crying, “God, thou art our creator, have mercy on us.” (122, 125)

A few interesting and (I think) important points emerge from these juxtapositions.

  • The worship of idols in preference to the Creator is deeply embedded in the human mind: idol-worship is as it were the default religious position of homo sapiens sapiens;
  • Such worship is the default because for most people religion is in essence a practice of solutionism;
  • Since digital technologies are also primarily solutionist in orientation, they quite readily step in as substitute (new and improved!) idols;
  • If it is true, as Eliade says elsewhere in The Sacred and the Profane, that “To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in doing away with with religious behavior” (23), then it makes sense to consider at least some of our technological behavior as fundamentally religious in character;
  • The primary goal of the makers of the idols, or New Gods (in their software and hardware avatars), is to ensure that we continue to turn to the idols for solutions to our problems, and never to suspect that there are problems they cannot solve — or, what would be far worse, that there are matters of value and meaning in human life that cannot be described in solutionist terms.

I might also add that the only strong alternative to this whole complex of fears, hopes and aspirations is the quite different model of religion that arises in Judaism and is then continued in Christianity, the model that bypasses intermediary Powers in favor of a direct encounter with the Creator, and on grounds that are not strictly solutionist in character. “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.”

the tragedy of angelism

Consider this the mirror-image of my previous post.

In Lost in the Cosmos — about which I wrote an enthusiastic length here — Walker Percy offers a “semiotic primer of the self” which takes as one of its chief concerns the problem of alienation and re-entry: experiences that throw us out of our familiar patterns, in ways both good and bad, and thereby generate the challenge of finding our way back into our lifeworld. For instance, this is a pattern generated by both the making and the experiencing of art:

reentry

But the problem of re-entry can also be created by suffering of any kind, what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”; and this alienation, this being-cast-out, can be either the worst or the best thing that happens to us. Percy’s contemporary and coreligionist Flannery O’Connor writes of a character who has been so cast out receiving “some abysmal and life-giving knowledge”; but more commonly the knowledge is just abysmal.

Percy first used his space-age metaphor in his 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, whose protagonist, Dr. Tom More, invents the More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, a device capable of measuring a person’s alienation from his or her own life. For instance, here’s his description of the reading he gets when a troubled graduate student comes to him for help:

He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman. (34)

More comes to believe that humans who are so orbiting their own lives may eventually decide that theirs is a superior way, a higher calling — that they are somehow meant to live in orbit (like the “citizens” of Egan’s Diaspora who shake their digital heads at “bacteria with spaceships”). This is, More thinks, an understandable but catastrophic affliction. Recall that for space capsules the problem of re-entry is twofold: if the capsule approaches the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, it will bounce back out into orbit; if at too steep an angle, it will be consumed by fire. That’s why the the condition of orbital exile is so prone to a Rortyan redescription as a Better Way. But we weren’t made to live in orbit, and Percy calls the belief that we can flourish out there “angelism”: trying to live like angels, disembodied creatures, we who are made to be embodied. An understandable catastrophe, but a catastrophe all the same.

It happened, he thinks, to his first wife, Doris, who

was ruined by books, by books and a heathen Englishman, not by dirty boooks but by clean books, not by depraved books but by spiritual books. God, if you recall, did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places. My wife, who began life as a cheerful Episcopalian from Virginia, became a priestess of the high places.… A certain type of Episcopal girl has a weakness that comes on them just past youth … They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine. (64)

When they were still married, Doris was puzzled that her Catholic husband would always want to make love when he returned from Mass:

What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates [Ariadne’s thread, that leads him out of the maze of the cloverleaf intersections and to a church] and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning. (254)

Eating Christ is how More finds the safe and right angle of re-entry, how he avoids both bouncing and burning. In Christ and not otherwise may be be brought back to his life. But Doris could not join him there, at the Altar or in daily life: her “clean books” had taken her to “high places” from which she would not, could not, come down. And so they were parted.

Angelism is not just personally catastrophic; it is socially so, one might say planetarily so. This becomes clear in a scene in which Tom More — whose medical speciality, not incidentally, is psychiatry — is confined to a psychiatric hospital and finds himself joined by a new patient: his priest, Father Rinaldo Smith, who had unexpectedly fallen silent at Mass when he was supposed to be preaching a sermon, then left the church, muttering that “the channels are jammed and the word is not getting through.”

Father Smith ends up at the hospital in the bed next to Tom More, who thus hears the questioning of the priest by a team of psychiatrists, led by one named Max.

“What seems to be the trouble, Father?” asks Max, pens and flashlight and reflex hammer glittering like diamonds in his vest pocket.

“They’re jamming the airwaves,” says Father Smith, looking straight ahead.… They’ve put a gremlin in the circuit.”

“They?” asks Max. “Who are they?”

“They’ve won and we’ve lost,” says father Smith.

“Who are they, Father?

“The principalities and powers.”

“Principalities and powers,” says Max, cocking his head attentively. Light glances from the planes of his temple. “You are speaking of two of the hierarchies of devils, are you not?”

The eyes of the psychiatrists and behaviorists sparkle with sympathetic interest.

“Yes,” says Father Smith. “Their tactic has prevailed.”

“You are speaking of devils now, Father?” asks Max.

“That is correct.”

“Now what tactic, as you call it, has prevailed?”

“Death…. I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

And — I believe this is the key theme of this brilliant if flawed novel — it is the voluntary self-exile of human beings, our acceptance of life in orbit, our defection from our proper role in the cosmos to a bogus angelism — that makes room for the principalities and powers. Thus near the end of the book, in a ruined but not destroyed world, as More reflects on the possible restorative uses of his Ontological Lapsometer, he offers, among other things, a wonderful repurposing of the favored populist slogan of Huey Long.

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man. Even now I can diagnose and shall one day cure: cure the new plague, the modern Black Death, the current hermaphroditism of the spirit, namely: More’s syndrome, or: chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.

If you want and work and wait, you can have. Every man a king. What I want is no longer the Nobel, screw prizes, but just to figure out what I’ve hit on. Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.
(382–83)

Sovereign wanderer, lordly exile: dominion not as a simple possession but as a calling to which we may be at any given point more or less worthy, towards the fulfillment of which we should be moving as pilgrims, here and now, not afflicted by “the new plague, the modern Black Death” that flings us into orbit and keeps us there and teaches us to prefer the airless void to the things of this world.

fleshers and stoics

I’m going to be traveling for the next few days, by automobile, and will therefore be mostly away from the internet. I have queued up a few posts that will show up during that period, but I will probably be slow in approving comments.

Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora came out twenty years ago, and it anticipates in really interesting ways conversations that are going on right now. We have the uploading and downloading (and digital generation) of consciousness, explored in more detail than is usual in novels pursuing that theme, and in far more detail than Cory Doctorow gives in Walkaway. But Egan also provides some interesting, though not to my mind very satisfying, reflections on sexuality, gender, and embodiment.

In this far-future universe, we find a comparatively small number of fully, permanently embodied people. These “fleshers” have undergone profound genetic enhancement and modification — some of them, the “dream apes,” have even chosen to eliminate speech and certain high-level cerebral functioning in order to draw closer to Nature, or something like that — but despite their astonishing variety fleshers are perceived as a distinct group because of their permanent and stable embodiment. In this sense they differ from “gleisner robots,” who take on bodies of various kinds and live in the same time-frame as the fleshers, but are fundamentally digital intelligences. The third group are the “citizens,” who are generated digitally and exist in purely digital environments they call “scapes” — though citizens can take gleisner-robot form when they want. They don’t often want, though, and can be scathing in their contempt for embodied intelligences, whom some of them call “bacteria with spaceships.”

The citizens appear to one another as avatars, and typically these avatars have no determinate gender, so they refer to one another, and Egan refers to them, as “ve”, “vis”, and “ver.” (I was surprised in reading the book at how quickly I got used to this.) Some citizens, though, take on distinctively male or female form and assume the associated pronouns, though this appears to be one of the few things you can do in this world that generates widespread revulsion.

Here come the spoilers. Insofar as the story has a protagonist, that protagonist is a citizen called Yatima, and ve has a friend named Paolo (a gleisner/citizen) who decides to die. Yatima considers dying verself, but then says “I’m not ready to stop. Not yet.” However, ve is concerned for Paolo. “Are you afraid to die alone?”

“It won’t be death.” Paolo seemed calm now, perfectly resolved. “The Transmuters didn’t die; they played out every possibility within themselves. And I believe I’ve done the same, back in U-double-star … or maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere. But I’ve found what I came to find, here. There’s nothing more for me. That’s not death. It’s completion.”

“Maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere” refers to the possibility of clones of Paolo that are doing their own thing. Yatima thinks this really matetrs: “Paolo was right; other versions had lived for him, nothing had been lost.” I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether this is a compelling point of view.

The most interesting thing here, though, I think, is Paolo’s assumption — which, for reasons just noted, among others, Yatima doesn’t question — that there are no longer any reasons to live once you have “played out every possibility.” That is, the value of life depends wholly on novelty. In a provocative digression in his book Early Auden, Edward Mendelson writes,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

Many, many centuries from now, Paolo’s self-understanding is still governed by the valuation of repetition given us by the Industrial Revolution — or rather by Romanticism’s reading of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. If it really works out that way, if the love for repetition cannot be recovered and neophilia reigns forever, then the Industrial Revolution will ipso facto turn out to be the most consequential event in the history of humanity. And post-humanity.

I wouldn’t mind reading a science-fiction novel that assumes the opposite. (I don’t know of one.)

There is one more illuminating moment in the scene I have been describing:

Paolo took ancestral form, and immediately started trembling and perspiring. “Ah. Flesher instincts. Bad idea.” He changed back, then laughed with relief. “That’s better.”

Paolo’s mind isn’t afraid of dying — but his body is. A good thing, then, that, since he has purposed to die, his body is dispensable, is merely an “ancestral form” that can be donned and doffed at will. For if the mind craves novelty and can’t think of reasons to live when the possibilities for novelty have been exhausted, the body takes the opposite view: it craves repetition, delights in repetition, and shakes in fear when it’s about to be deprived of the simple pleasure of “bearing witness / To what each morning brings again to light.”

People will call Paolo’s mind’s viewpoint Gnostic, but that’s a word that is used far too loosely these days. Paolo doesn’t hate embodiment, or think embodiment a curse: it is because he values embodiment that at this crucial moment he wishes to “take ancestral form.” But he believes that the body’s verdicts are not wholly trustworthy, and that at times they need to be overridden by the intellectual powers he believes to be higher. This is not Gnosticism; it is Stoicism.

In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, when the Fox, the Greek tutor of the book’s protagonist, falls out of favor with the King, he decides that his best remaining course is to take his own life:

Down by the river; you know the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk. It’s the roots of it I need.”

“The poison?”

“Why, yes. (Child, child, don’t cry so.) Have I not told you often that to depart from life of a man’s own will when there’s good reason is one of the things that are according to nature? We are to look on life as — ”

“They say that those who go that way lie wallowing in filth — down there in the land of the dead.”

“Hush, hush. Are you also still a barbarian? At death we are resolved into our elements. Shall I accept birth and cavil at — ”

“Oh, I know, I know. But, Grandfather, do you really in your heart believe nothing of what is said about the gods and Those Below? But you do, you do. You are trembling.”

“That’s my disgrace. The body is shaking. I needn’t let it shake the god within me. Have I not already carried this body too long if it makes such a fool of me at the end?”

That the Fox is a Stoic is clearly marked throughout the novel, not least by his repeated reference to what is or is not “according to nature.” What we see in Diaspora and Till We Have Faces alike is not Gnosticism — the idea that some evil demon has imprisoned us in bodies and delights in our imprisonment — but rather the characteristically Stoic attempt to reckon with the unquestionable truth of “nature” that bodies are vulnerable and bodies know that they are vulnerable.

The root of what I am calling our Anthropocene moment is the desperate hope that the very technological prowess that has put our natural world, and therefore the bodies of those who live in it, in such dreadful danger may also be turned, pivoted — as it were converted — to safeguard Life; that we may overcome by technical means the vulnerability of those bodies. It’s really the most sophisticated (and potentially insidious) version I know of Stockholm Syndrome.

Look for a rather different fictional perspective on these matters in tomorrow’s post.

revisiting myth and myth-making

In a recent post, I wrote, “I think we desperately need now a recovery of interest in metaphor and myth – not a simple return to the days of Northrop Frye and Mircea Eliade and Suzanne Langer, but a redirecting of attention to those fields of inquiry in light of what we have learned since that half-century ago heyday of mythology and mythopoesis.”

I took an interest in this kind of thing as an undergraduate and in my first year of graduate school; I read something (can’t remember now what it was) that recommended Suzanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, which led me to Ernst Cassirer’s Language and Myth; and in one of my graduate courses we read Paul Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil. There were a great army of scholars in those days exploring the relations among myth, ritual, symbol, metaphor. But I soon learned that it was not really appropriate to invoke this kind of scholarship in my papers. Nobody said anything explicit, of course — that’s rarely how it works — but it became clear to me that what we might call, borrowing a turn of phrase from Mark Greif, the “discourse of myth” was simply not part of the current critical conversation. It was the kind of thing that people used to talk about back in the day, but no longer revelant. And being a relatively bright young man, I got the message and adjusted my interests accordingly.

But now, in my extreme old age, I am wondering whether I missed something important by setting aside those early interests of mine. Some of those long-neglected figures (LNFs) now strike me as making valuable contributions to topics that we just don’t discuss any more, or discuss only superficially. And, tellingly, I started thinking about those LNFs again when I realized that they had had a major influence on writers and scholars whom I think especially provocative and insightful — Thomas Pynchon, Walker Percy, Ursula LeGuin, Walter Ong — and on many others whom I may not admire as unreservedly but who have made a major contribution to our current intellectual culture: Marshall McLuhan, for instance.

So I’m going to be spending some time in the next few months with those LDFs. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to read them as their first readers did — the linguistic turn and the historicist turn of later Theory have shaped my thinking too deeply for that — but I think if we add their insights to those of later thinkers we could come up with a stronger understanding of certain phenomena that few scholars seem to be thinking about these days. Let me return, then, to the passage from Kolakowski’s The Presence of Myth that I quoted without comment in that previous post:

Metaphysical questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs, namely, that aspect that refers intentionally to nonempirical unconditioned reality. The presence of this intention does not guarantee the existence of the referents. It is only evidence of a need, alive in culture, that that to which the intention refers should be present. But this presence cannot in principle be the object of proof, because the proof-making ability is itself a power of the analytical mind, technologically oriented, which does not extend beyond its tasks. The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical.

Recent humanistic scholarship has been generally skeptical of any claims for the existence of any “nonempirical unconditioned reality” — indeed, so skeptical that it has been largely unable to comprehend what those claims even are, as David Bentley Hart has lucidly explained in his best book, The Experience of God. When you can only see such claims as the thinnest of coverings for the libido dominandi, you disable yourself from investigating their logic, their metaphorical structure, the way they go about their business of interpreting the world. Your understanding will be confined not just to instrumental accounting, but to highly limited forms of instrumental accounting. Any genuinely useful interpretation of “man’s conscious relation to the world” will take full account of both the technological and the mythical, in all their complex interanimations, and not merely reduce the latter to the former.

mobility, bicycles, cyborgs

I’ve mentioned that Adam Roberts is blogging his way through the voluminous works of H. G. Wells, and I’ve found myself thinking often about this post, on Wells’s early book The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1896). At one point in the post Adam engages in helpful ways with Paul Smethurst’s recent book The Bicycle: Towards a Global History (2015):

Smethurst’s account of the rise of the bike argues for speed as the salient, something he equates with a new mode of mastery that is both spatial and sexual. ‘Pedestrian travel is more embodied and place-bound than bicycle mobility, but mastery of space is more limited,’ he suggests. ‘Ground gained step-by-step can be less expansive: there is little sense of speed and motion is absorbed into the surrounding space. … Bicycle mobility has a greater potential for transgression than walking because the cyclist can more readily breach the boundaries of social space.’ [Smethurst, 64] He concedes that the motor car ‘has displaced the bicycle as a figure of speed’ nowadays, but maintains that bicycling involves the actual penetration of space in a way that the spectator-like experience of driving does not.

Then Adam quotes Smethurst:

As modernity advanced in the West in the late 19th century, the idea of existential spatiality was beginning to supersede attachment to traditional place-bound community, in both theory and practice. … Humans are said to be able to cope with severing ties to traditional place-bound communities through a capacity to objectify the world by setting themselves apart, by creating a gap. While this is sometimes represented in modernism as a negative sense of alienation, bicycle mobility re-engages the subject through narcissistic projection and a mastery of space en passant.

And comments:

It’s a particular kind of machine, in other words. Wells pitches the narcissistic projection (as it were) as comic, and his take on the mastery of space is tied, I am going to argue, as I freewheel down the hill of this post, with a sensibility we would nowadays call cyborg. Not just the fusion of man and machine in the context of modernity, the fusion of male and female, and their respective modes of sexual desiring.

You should read the whole post. It’s really good.

I think both Roberts and Smethurst are onto something quite important here. Reading them together you discern that the bicycle as a technology occupies a distinctive point where embodiment and crossing meet. (I say “crossing” rather than “transgression” because I don’t want to confine myself to morally or politically freighted uses, and though the root of “transgress” means simply to “step across,” we now use it exclusively to describe bold, risky crossings that defy something or someone, either for good or ill. That’s too freighted a set of connotations for my purposes. Smethurst often uses the term “crossing” for similar reasons.) The appeal of the bicycle lies in its power to enable crossings of space, including politicized social space, that would be frustratingly time-consuming on foot, but to do so in a way that requires your embodiment, that demands your full physical engagement. And if Adam is right, this particular nexus of possibility is powerful enough that people can become in a sense fused with their bicycles and thereby become proto-cyborgs.

As Adam notes in another post, this one on the 1905 book A Modern Utopia, the question of mobility is an essential one for Wells:

Not for the first time in Wells’s career, the ability to move freely about is the real index of utopian desire. His alt-world, with its globe-spanning networks of rapid electric trams and trains, and its happily nomadic population, is one vision of that possibility. Where Thomas More sequestered his utopia on an island against the hostility of the larger world, Wells inverts that model: his whole world is perfect except for ‘the Island of Incurable Cheats‘’, ‘Islands of Drink’ and so on. But this larger logic of inversion reveals itself as, actually, an ideological shift. For just as Wells’s Utopians zoom here and there with ideal and total mobility, so they are surveilled with an ideal and total surveillance. Every Utopian is assigned ‘a distinct formula, a number or “scientific name,” under which he or she could be docketed’, and every single citizen is included in this database: ‘the record of their movement hither and thither, the entry of various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like’.

This, provocatively, suggests a proportional relationship between a given person’s mobility and his or her legibility (to borrow a term from James Scott You are free to move about insofar as the state can “read” you, can know who you are no matter where you are. As mobility goes up, privacy goes down; one freedom comes at the expense of the other.

In this context we might note that in the (benevolently?) panoptic world described by Iain M. Banks in his stories of the Culture, those who commit crimes are not imprisoned but rather are followed everywhere they go by a drone, which in turn leads to social ostracism. Mobility is not restricted because the prerogative of the state of punish does not, in circumstances of unlimited surveillance, require the restriction of mobility. But for the person who gets “slap-droned,” freedom of movement may not have much point.

But in our imperfectly surveilled world, one of the primary ways that citizens become legible to the government is through having homes, domiciles, permanent addresses. A legal system like the Schengen Agreement is meant to apply to people whose governments are sure to know where they live; when it’s made to deal with refugees and others who are homeless, confusion ensues. For those who make, and most completely benefit from, the rules by which the state sees us, mobility might seem to be an unalloyed good, which is why Emmanuel Macron’s campaign slogan was En Marche! — On the Move! On the way! To where, one might ask, but it doesn’t matter, the point is simply that we picture ourselves as mobile people, unconstricted by place.

But if you’re a Syrian refugee, being en marche can become a curse. It is good, indeed, to reduce one’s chances of being bombed or gassed or shot, but it is also harrowing to have no idea when one can stop being on the move, can rest — can, maybe, even have a home. We might here offer a thesis: The value of mobility is relative to the option of stability.

In this recent essay on displaced persons, past and present, Peggy Kamuf writes,

What, then, of the right to move, the right to migrate? Is it not the most fundamental human right, presumed by every other right that can be claimed as a human right? … Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized in 1948 that everyone has “the right to leave any country, including his own,” none of its 30 articles says anything of the right to migrate to elsewhere. As for freedom of movement, the Declaration envisions it solely “within the borders of each state” (Article 13, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”). As conceived by the UN, then, freedom of movement is a right limited by the sovereignty of the nation state. Writing in the same year, Hannah Arendt pointed to just this limitation of the “best-intentioned humanitarian attempts to obtain new declarations of human rights from international organizations.”

Freedom to depart means very little if there is not also the freedom to arrive.

In a few days I’ll be going to Wheaton, Illinois — a thousand miles from where I now live, in Texas — to visit my old friends, and I’ve decided to drive. I’ll not try to do it in one day; I’ll have to stop overnight; it’s not exactly a scenic drive; and yet I’d rather put up with those inconveniences than with the multiple indignities of commercial air travel. That is, in this particular case, I would rather accept restricted mobility than accept the multiple ways that the TSA and the airlines demand that I become what Michel Foucault calls a “docile body.” (I might feel different about all this if I could afford business- or first-class travel, but I can’t.)

All of which should serve as a reminder that it is not only mobility that we are discussing here. Flying does not give me more mobility, it gives me greater speed: that is to say, it uses less time. If I were wholly unconcerned about time I could ride a bicycle or walk to Illinois. But if I were more concerned about time than I am — if, for instance, I were in the middle of a school term and could only spare a couple of days — then I’d simply have to accept the indignities of being the airline’s docile body. Or stay home. But I’m not in school right now, I have no pressing deadlines, and my wife and son are happy to share his car for a few days; so I’ll be driving.

Publicists and salespeople speak of “the romance of travel,” but not all travel is romantic, and among the kinds that could plausibly be so described, there are multiple sources of appeal. Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, or Europe on the Orient Express, or Route 66 in an old Mustang, may all be romantic, but in radically different ways. (Is flying first-class to Europe also romantic, or just luxurious? I’m not sure.) We might experience the romance of being served, the romance of novelty, or the romance of … well, what is the driving-cross-country romance, the On the Road romance? It has a good deal to do with making your own decisions, driving as long as you want to drive and stopping when you want to stop. The romance of novelty can still be had in an automobile, but can be more readily had if you stay off the interstate highway system, which promises (and delivers) the complete absence of novelty.

Because you drive the automobile yourself — a situation that will last for the next few years at least — a fairly high level of physical as well as mental engagement in the act is possible, especially if (a) your car has a manual transmission and (b) you’re not on the interstate. As Nick Carr points out in his book on the powers and limits of automation, The Glass Cage, it’s even possible when driving a car to enter into the state of flow celebrated by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi — and that sense is what enables the cyborg-feeling that Adam talks about in his post on bicycles.

So any serious understanding of mobility will require that we map our experiences on a complex set of axes:

  • slow/fast
  • embodied/disembodied
  • independent/docile
  • impoverished/luxurious
  • rooted/rootless (or secure/insecure, or sameness/novelty)

Typically, people emplaced in the world as I am — i.e., wealthy people in safe and stable societies — have control over at least some of these dimensions, while the further you descend the social scale the fewer options will be available. And those who can choose will choose rather differently, because they will have different “sweet spots”: for some the conservation of time will be paramount and will therefore fly whenever flying takes less time than driving; others will prefer to stay local so they can be on their bicycle, or on their feet, as much as possible; and so on. We’ll have different preferences in different circumstances, of course; but each of us, I think, has an “all things being equal” default preference when it comes to being en marche.

Please look again at the binaries listed above. In general, I think we’ve seen over the past century or so a dramatic shift of preference towards the right-side options: willing to be more docile and disembodied in exchange for speed, luxury, and rootlessness. Which is why, even if the most important thing an individual can do for the environment is to stop flying, that’s simply unthinkable even to the most bien-pensant among us.

But I wonder if that could change, given (a) the increasing unpleasantness of air travel, (b) increasing reports of the unpleasantness of air travel, or (c) both. I have always hated long-distance driving, but the more time I spend in airports the better driving looks to me, thus my decision about this week’s trip. And next month, when Teri and I head to Biola University in Los Angeles for me to lead a faculty seminar there, we’ll also be automobiling there — certainly a more interesting drive than the one from Waco to Chicagoland, but also a longer one. And then maybe those who now drive can recover the pleasure of bicycling … Well, it’s something to hope for.

Though I don’t think the trajectory can be reversed: speed and neophilia (the love of novelty) are, I think, sufficiently desirable to most people who have choices that they’ll gladly accept docility and disembodiment in exchange for them. And that exchange is one of the key paths to the posthuman.

restocking the toolbox

Maybe the coolest thing about my current project is that I get to read — I am obliged to read — theology, the history of technology, and science fiction, in a sort of rotation. These very different genres rub against one another in fascinating ways.

But I am finding that the theology I’m reading isn’t helping me much, at least not so far, and I’m somewhat troubled by that. In this post I’m going to try to explain my frustrations. I’ll be recording impressions more than formulating firm judgments, as a means, I hope, of clarifying those impressions. But because I don’t want to be unfair I won’t be naming names of authors or books. This may make the post less useful to others; if so, my apologies.

Here’s my first impression: professional theologians have acquired in the course of their training a conceptual toolbox which they believe to contain the tools necessary to evaluate and critique cultural developments. Now, that conceptual toolbox was developed and acquired in an era previous to the emergence of our current technopoly, of what I’m calling the Anthropocene — see my first post on the subject for a definition. Yet the structures and practices of the Anthropocene are precisely what require theological interpretation. So in my judgment the existing toolbox is inadequate; but it does not appear that way to the theologians.

Imagine a complex locking mechanism — the kind of thing one might see in Myst — you know, like this:

myst

The theologians’ toolbox contains instruments that enable them to manipulate the mechanism — click this and turn that — which is enough to make them believe that they are making real progress. What they don’t notice is that the locks aren’t opening.

Is that a useful metaphor? Hmmm, I’m not sure. Let’s try a different one: they’re typing the instructions they know into a command-line shell and are pleased that they’re getting responses in return. What they don’t realize is that those responses are error messages. They don’t know the right commands to get their requests executed; they may not even, probably don’t, know the language in which the program was written or to which it will respond.

screen

I’m groping for metaphors here — but that’s telling, because whenever we’re trying to understand some new phenomenon we do so by employing metaphors as bridges between the known and the unknown. Our transition to the Anthropocene era is therefore popping with metaphors: to take just one common example, increasing attention to research on the workings of the human brain has ben accompanied by increasing reliance on the notion than the brain is a kind of computer. It isn’t, and the more dominant that metaphor is the less we are likely to understand our brains; but that just makes the repeated invocation of that metaphor all the more telling and all the more worthy of exploration.

The tools in the theologians’ toolbox don’t work very well with metaphors. They are, rather, almost all designed to work on explicit concepts and propositions, which may then be juxtaposed to the explicit concepts and propositions of theology. Metaphors contain or allude to concepts and propositions but also embody desires, orientations of the will, impulses, attractions and repulsions, bodily practices….

I would like to see, and not just in theology but in all the other humanistic disciplines, a renewed attention to metaphor and myth – matters so thoroughly and relentlessly explored in the 1950s and 1960s sixties that scholars and artists alike became exhausted with those topics and turned to other matters: first the linguistic turn of deconstruction and allied movements and then the material turn of the New Historicism, cultural studies, eco-criticism, body criticism, and the like.

Meanwhile the powerful cultural work of metaphor and myth continues unnoticed by scholars and rarely even acknowledged by writers and artists. It is not that scholars today are unaware of metaphor, or wholly inattentive to it, but they are chiefly interested in the extent to which it is reflective of ideology. For instance, in one of the better-known passages of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By we see the various ways in which argument is conceptualized as war — which is a useful point (I draw on it in my forthcoming How to Think) but this kind of analysis, which draws a straight line between a particular metaphor and some common element from elsewhere in our cultural lives, ideally one with a clearly political character, marks only one of the ways that metaphor works. It’s interpretatively limited because it’s unaware of the ways that metaphors do affective and aspirational work that is not reducible to, or even identifiable with, any particular spot on our ideological maps.

In Walkaway, about which I posted recently, it’s interesting to see how Cory Doctorow places almost all his hopes for the future in the development of 3D printing, without, I think, realizing that the 3D printer has taken on for him a radiating metaphorical significance that places it somewhere along a continuum between Vaucanson’s defecating duck and a deus ex machina. There’s an interpretation of this ready-to-hand: the 3D printers in this novel are a synecdoche for capitalism, which fulfills our desires while hiding from our sight the preconditions and the raw materials from which our wish-fulfillments are concocted. And that’s true, but there is far more going on here, including, I think, another example of the power of universal machines, which, as I commented the other day, makes the idolorum fabricam into the idol itself. The smartphone and the 3D printer are the two smiling faces of the god of this world.

This is the kind of ongoing metaphorical meaning-making that theologians need to understand but that they don’t have the tools to explore. I think we desperately need now is a recovery of interest in metaphor and myth – not a simple return to the days of Northrop Frye and Mircea Eliade and Suzanne Langer, but a redirecting of attention to those fields of inquiry in light of what we have learned since that half-century ago heyday of mythology and mythopoesis.

Moreover, Christian approaches to contemporary culture needs to get more creative in the making of metaphors, not just the interpreting of them. And if that seems too risky to people than they might remember that one of the ways to do this is by recovering the lost imaginative worlds of our predecessors in the faith. In this light we might take as our models the leaders of the mid–20th century nouvelle theologie, whose theology was nouvelle because it was based in ressourcement, in the recovery of ideas and metaphors that had been forgotten in the development of scholastic theology and the intellectual war with Protestantism.

I’ll end today’s incoherent rambling with a passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s early book The Presence of Myth, a passage that I think hints provocatively at the Powers that I’m trying to bring together in this project:

Metaphysical questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs, namely, that aspect that refers intentionally to nonempirical unconditioned reality. The presence of this intention does not guarantee the existence of the referents. It is only evidence of a need, alive in culture, that that to which the intention refers should be present. But this presence cannot in principle be the object of proof, because the proof-making ability is itself a power of the analytical mind, technologically oriented, which does not extend beyond its tasks. The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical.

people and algorithms, principalities and powers

In this interview, Jill Lepore comments,

To be fair, it’s difficult not to be susceptible to technological determinism. We measure the very moments of our lives by computer-driven clocks and calendars that we keep in our pockets. I get why people think this way. Still, it’s a pernicious fallacy. To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.

I like this point, largely because I’ve made it myself — browsing this tag will give you some examples. But to say this is not to say that those humans are simply free agents, self-determining actors. It’s not as though Mark Zuckerberg is holed up here:

Zuck’s model of Facebook controlli — um, healing the world is one you should be enormously skeptical of, for reasons Nick Carr explains quite eloquently here. But even if you think Zuck is as wicked Sauron or Voldemort — which I don’t, by the way; I think he’s as well-meaning as his core assumptions allow him to be — he isn’t Sauron or Voldemort, not structurally speaking. When the Ring of Power is unmade, Sauron’s “slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired.” When Voledmort is killed, the Death Eaters slink away, fearful and powerless. But if any of the Captains of Technological Industry were to undergo some kind of moral conversion and walk away from their posts … nothing would change.

We have to keep insisting that algorithms are written by people for specific purposes in order to refute the simplistic and dangerous idea that algorithms are neutral and true and SCIENCE. But those people who write the algorithms, and those people who instruct others to write those algorithms, are implicated in the power-knowledge regime or Domination System or governmentality that I described in my previous post. The really vital long-term task is understanding how those structures work so that they may be both resisted and redeemed.