“Culture:” A Definition

Culture is the practice of full temporality, an institution that connects the present to the past and the future. As the Greeks understood, the mother of culture–of the Nine Muses–was Mnemosyne, whose name means “memory.” Culture educates us about our generational debts and obligations. At its best, it is a tangible inheritance of the past, one that each of us is obligated to regard with the responsibilities of trusteeship. It is itself an education in the full dimension of human temporality, meant to abridge our temptation to live within the present, with the attendant dispositions of ingratitude and irresponsibility that such a narrowing of temporality encourages. Preserved in discrete human inheritances–arts, literature, music, architecture, history, law, religion–culture expands the human experience of time, making both the past and the future present to creatures who otherwise experience only the present moment.

–Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed

Brad East is on point here:

In positive terms, what I want is for American Christians today to learn, or relearn, to be catholic: to belong to the one great tradition, the one apostolic faith, the one universal church. To reimagine faith not as something they create or manufacture or curate or judge for themselves, but that to which they submit, in joy, the way one simply receives an unexpected gift, a beloved friend’s return, the birth of a child. The faith as a given, and the real matter before us one of how to live that faith today, in the midst of so many challenges.

via DIY Christianity — Resident Theologian

Fear and the BenOp

Wise words from Leah Libresco this week in First Things:

Christians taking up the BenOp project need to be ready to recognize this kind of fear and to seek deliverance from it. Seeking the perfect love that casts out fear might involve praying the St. Michael prayer for deliverance from temptations. It might involve reading authors outside the pattern of your present concerns (that’s why two friends and I had a Baldwin bookclub). It might involve setting up a prayer schedule to pray for whomever you feel frightened or threatened by. In order to pray for the people the Devil wants us to see as enemies, we need to see them as people.

Tech Utopia

Finally got around to reading this piece from The New Atlantis. It’s a disconcerting read, especially if, like me, you’re also reading 1984 with a group of high school students. Needless to say, I’m a little concerned about the parallels between what Jon Askonas identifies as the unintended but unavoidable consequences of Big Tech/Social Media, and Orwell’s description of Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.

We can see the shift from “access to tools” to algorithmic utopianism in the unheralded, inexorable replacement of the “page” by the “feed.” The web in its earliest days was “surfed.” Users actively explored what was interesting to them, shifting from page to page via links and URLs. While certain homepages — such as AOL or Yahoo! — were important, they were curated by actual people and communities. Most devoted “webizens” spent comparatively little time on them, instead exploring the web based on memory, bookmarks, and interests. Each blog, news source, store, and forum had its own site. Where life on the Internet didn’t follow traditional editorial curation, it was mostly a do-it-yourself affair: Creating tools that might show you what your friends were up to, gathering all the information you cared about in one place, or finding new sites were rudimentary and tedious activities.

The feed was the solution to the tedium of surfing the web, of always having to decide for yourself what to do next. Information would now come to you. Gradually, the number of sites involved in one’s life online dwindled, and the “platform” emerged, characterized by an infinite display of relevant information — the feed. The first feeds used fairly simple algorithms, but the algorithms have grown vastly more complex and personalized over time. These satisfaction-fulfillment machines are designed to bring you the most “relevant” content, where relevancy is ultimately based on an elaborate and opaque model of who you are and what you want. But the opacity of these models, indeed the very personalization of them, means that a strong element of faith is required. By consuming what the algorithm says I want, I trust the algorithm to make me ever more who it thinks I already am.

In this process, users have gone from active surfers to sheep feeding at the algorithmic trough. Over time, platforms have come up with ever more sophisticated means of inducing behavior, both online and in real life, using AI-fueled notifications, messages, and default choices to nudge you in the right direction, ostensibly toward your own maximum satisfaction. Yet now, in order to rein in the bad behaviors the feeds themselves have encouraged — fake news, trolling, and so on — these algorithms have increasingly become the sites of stealthy intervention, using tweaks like “shadowbanning,” “down-ranking,” and simple erasure or blocking of users to help determine what information people do and don’t access, and thereby to subtly shape their minds.


While the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins of the world claim to be shocked by the “abuse” of their platforms, the softly progressive ambitions of Silicon Valley and the more expansive visions of would-be dictators exist on the same spectrum of invasiveness and manipulation. There’s a sense in which the authoritarians have a better idea of what this technology is for.

Disenchanting Disenchantment

Clare Coffey has a book review published in The New Atlantis about notions of enchantment/disenchantment in a secular age. She discusses the idea in relation to the history and phenomenon of mesmerism–which I learned has its origins in the work of an 18th century German physician Franz Mesmer (hence, “mesmerism”). The history of mesmerism is fascinating: as a method of medical research, it began as an accepted scientific practice and then transformed into a fringe belief akin to a belief in magic.

I wonder if most forms of scientific research can’t be traced along the same trajectory. And if so, how much of our currently accepted scientific knowledge will slip into the ever widening category of “belief in magic.” One of the things Coffey points out is that distinguishing between an enchanted past and a disenchanted present is like trying to chart two different countries without borders.

She never mentions Charles Taylor, but she does mention Talal Asad’s book Formations of the Secular, which I’ve not read. I’ll be adding it to my list of “Someday-I’ll-read-that-because-I-know-it’s-good-but-God-only-knows-when-I’ll-get-around-to-it.”

Here is a sampling of some of the passages I’m still thinking about:

“Ogden describes the process by which the debunking of mesmerism produced successor generations in terms of the “idol function” played by false beliefs. The destruction of an idol, the thinking goes, is not a closed and final process. When you destroy an idol, you must supply some account of the undeniable effect the idol had on the lives of its followers.”

“For the second generation of mesmerists, what was important about credulity was not simply that it, unlike animal magnetism, was real. Rather, credulity was both a resource to be exploited and a problem to be dealt with. On both counts, mesmerists styled themselves, quite literally, as an epistemic-managerial class.”

“Ogden adopts Talal Asad’s definition of secular agency, from his Formations of the Secular (2003), as the idea of a person “having both the capacity and the desire to move in a singular historical direction: that of increasing self-empowerment and decreasing pain.” The final goal of those who aim at secularity is total autonomy and self-realization, not simply freedom from taboo and magic. “This agent’s fundamental question,” Ogden writes, “is ‘what should human beings do to realize their freedom, empower themselves, and choose pleasure?’”

“But secular agency does not correspond well to a world in which we are often sick, ignorant, poor, or incapable in ways large and small; in which we can neither bring about our own births nor choose the hour of our deaths. It is more of an asymptote than a lived condition, an always imperfectly grasped ideal to which some come closer than others. Because, on this reading, secular agency is always an aim rather than an established fact, narratives of one’s own disenchantment are aspirations rather than triumphal hymns. Inevitable anxiety about whether you have been sufficiently disenchanted is especially urgent when the dividing line between the modern and the unenlightened is credulity. Since credulity, by nature, is not a trait easily self-diagnosed, its threat engenders a constant search for more credulous rubes against which to measure yourself. Secularism proves to be a pyramid scheme.”

“Ogden’s work suggests that the enchanted and disenchanted are two countries that lack a border, ­forever one dissolving into and reconstituting the other. And insofar as this binary reflects an opposition between mystical awe and technical power, this is nothing new. Spiritual forces can be both objects and tools of management: A canny huckster may hug himself to think of all the indulgences by which he has cheated God out of purgatory; workers can be kept in line by sermons on the Almighty’s pleasure in ­working-class thrift and industry, or by a self-help guru preaching myopic focus on individual wellbeing (after all, look at how well it’s worked for the guru). Everyone now, on some level, acknowledges a world beyond what the average Joe can immediately perceive, whether it’s quantum physics or celestial order or merely the limitless possibilities of human potential. There is no periodizing movement, forward or back, which will settle for us the question of which account of the invisible is most true — nor, equally important, what it demands of us.”

Dryads and Trees

It turns out that I’ve been wrongly attributing a quotation to C. S. Lewis for the past few years. I was reading G. K. Chesteron’s book Orthodoxy with my senior high school students when I ran across this sentence:

Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads. (“Ethics of Elfland”)

In my defense, I’m sure Lewis has said something like this somewhere. I originally thought it came from The Discarded Image where he addresses the changing human experience of the cosmos over the course of history. It’s a fascinating idea, one that’s received a fair amount of attention from people like Lewis’ good friend Owen Barfield to the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor. I hope to write more about it in the future. But for now, I’m happy to correct an error and to bookmark the Chesterton quotation for later use.