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.

History and Temporal Bandwidth

Alan Jacobs has been arguing that the current era of social media and soundbites has contracted most people’s sense of historical context, and that we need to make a concerted effort to expand our temporal bandwidth. The related book is in the works, but it’s an idea that’s worth spreading sooner rather than later.

I’m preparing to teach Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to a class of 10th — 12th grade students next week. As I’ve been educating myself a little more on Spenser’s work, I ran across C. S. Lewis’s essays on Spenser which were characteristically The Faerie Queene - Wikipediainsightful, both of the literature itself and its reception in modern culture. I was struck by how much of what Lewis says echoes Jacobs’s current line of argument.

Lewis begins his introductory essay on Spenser by appealing to the importance of reading old books–especially books whose language and narrative style are foreign to our modern tastes. Why? Because…

“(One of the great uses of literary history is to keep on reminding us that while man is constantly acquiring new powers he is also constantly losing old ones.)” (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 134)

Lewis is one of the few writers who can make such an obvious yet profound observation in a parenthetical comment, as if it requires no more attention. I had not thought of it this way before: progress involves sacrifice. But it’s not solely the sacrifice of “unenlightened” cultural traditions or mores; it’s the sacrifice of a way of being in the world, a way of being that may be more robust and amenable to the human condition than the idea of “progress” would suggest.

Along similar lines, Lewis notes how Spenser stands as an in-between figure, bridging the divide between the medieval literary world and the European renaissance. According to Lewis, if Boethius was “The last of the Romans and the first of the scholastics,” then Spenser was the “last of the medieval poets and the first of the romantic medievalists” (“On Reading The Fairie Queene” 148). Again, his main point is to show that progress entails loss. What made Spenser exceptional–especially compared to his humanist and puritan peers–was his willingness to preserve a medieval ethos in his poetry.

On the importance of reading old works of literature, especially those works that stand at the cross roads of two different eras, Lewis writes:

“There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time. It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way. For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.” (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 138)

Into Thy Calm: Shakespeare meets Twilight: The Serious and ...Here is one of the best arguments for reading old books and educating yourself in the humanities–that most unpractical of disciplines. If you want to understand the modern world, then you need to read about the preceding eras: starting with Homer and working your way forward. Twenty-four hour news cycles and New York Times Best Sellers distort the importance of current events more than they report with accuracy. These outlets are too close to the events themselves, and so everything is blown out of proportion. Such distortion ultimately leads to the hair-on-fire rhetoric that saturates and infects modern political and social discourse.

Want to diffuse the chaos of public debates–online, on television, or in person? Read old books. As Lewis points out:

“This kind of poetry [specifically The Fairie Queene, but also great poetry in general], if receptively read, has psychotherapeutic powers” (140).

Finally, if you want to know what current events are truly significant, then you should probably read Edmund Spenser first.

 

WORKS CITED

Lewis, C. S. “Edmund Spenser, 1552-1599” & “On Reading The Fairie Queene,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. by Walter Hooper, pp. 121-148, Canto Cambridge UP, 1998.

 

History and Interpretation

Matthew J. Milliner has a great article in the most recent Comment Magazine issue on Armenian Christian art. After describing the diversity and distinctive aspects of Armenia’s Christian history through its art, he ends with this observation:

We tend to selectively read Christian history to confirm our suspicions, but a Christianity inspired by Armenia would not fit into expected “Roman Catholic,” “Eastern Orthodox,” or “evangelical” silos any more than Armenia itself can.

These kinds of arguments always make me uncomfortable: partly because I worry that I’m always making this mistake, and partly because I don’t know how to effectively avoid making that mistake. Doing history well–i.e., telling the narrative of historical events–seems to be a constant battle between opposite extremes: 1) fitting historical events into a monolithic narrative, and 2) interpreting history merely as a series of disconnected unique events. Both extremes result in a variety of symptoms–racism, ideological determinism, ignorance, naivete, partial truths, etc. etc.

Is it possible to strike a balance? Probably, but I’m not sure what it would look like. Maybe it’s just an unending act of re-interpretation and revision of the narrative…but that comes with it’s own pitfalls as well.