Friday, June 30, 2006

Taylor on Modernity's Malaise

In The Malaise of Modernity, where the what is the 1991 Massey Lectures reprinted by the House of Anansi Press and the why is malaise /mu-LAYZ/: a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being, Charles Taylor, emeritus professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, details three "features of our contemporary culture and society that people [fear are representative of] loss or a decline" these being individualism; the primacy of instrumental reason; and the danger of "soft despotism" (1). Let me say a little more about these.

Worry Number One: Individualism

Individualism is usually understood as one of the real achievements of Western civilization.

We live in a world where people have a right to choose for themselves their own pattern of life, to decide in conscience what convictions to espouse, to determine the shape of their lives in a whole host of ways that their ancestors couldn’t control. And these rights are generally defended by our legal systems. In principle, people are no longer sacrificed to the demands of supposedly sacred orders that transcend them.” (2)

Some go so far as to say there isn’t enough individualism--social, economic, and family hierarchies still confine personal freedom--but others see it differently. They worry that we’ve won our liberty-for-self at a great price. The great chain of being which once put everything in its proper (usually sacred) place in a weighted and even moral universe is irrevocably broken. Modern freedom required it, yes, but in requiring it, the givenness of living and the meaning that came with those cultural relationships is gone. This is what has been called the disenchantment of the world. Gone is a “heroic dimension to life. People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” There is “a loss of meaning, the fading of moral horizons . . . a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” (4). Taylor invokes Friedrich Nietzche’s “last man,” who has no aspirations left but “pitiable comfort.” So when it comes to individualism, many have found its cost historically and existentially regrettable.

Worry Number Two: The Primacy of Instrumental Reason

Instrumental reason is rationality aimed always at the bottom line. Instrumental reason aims at production. “Once the creatures that surround us lose the significance that accrued to their place in the chain of being, they are open to being treated as raw materials or instruments for our projects” (5).

The fear is that “things that ought to be determined by other criteria will be decided in terms of efficiency or “cost-benefit” analysis” (Ibid.). And this is no boundless anxiety. Every area of human life and thought is commonly quantified, measured, documented, and analyzed. Technology itself has come to dominate so many spheres of human living. Taylor talks about an “aura that surrounds technology and makes us believe that we should seek technological solutions even when something very different is called for.” The sick become research subjects, problems to be solved rather than people who should be cured. Per Karl Marx’s “all that is solid melts into air” we have long passed an age where craftsmanship and quality mattered. “Lasting, often expressive objects that served us in the past are being set aside for the quick, shoddy, replaceable commodities with which we now surround ourselves.” And, as Taylor continues, “powerful mechanisms of social life press us in this direction.”

Karl Marx, Max Weber, and other sociologists have noted and explored these impersonal mechanisms, Weber going so far as to call it “the iron cage.” Change in this area is difficult, but hopeless and fatalistic ennui is wrong. “Our degrees of freedom are not zero. There is a point to deliberating what ought to be our ends, and whether instrumental reason ought to have a lesser role in our lives than it does.” But any change will be hard going. “change in this domain will have to be institutional as well [as individual]” and “it cannot be as sweeping and total as the great theorists of revolution proposed” (8).

Worry Number Three: Soft Despotism

The two worries above, it is said, produce a kind of soft despotism. In the old days, political power was seized and enforced by terror and torture, oppression and suffocation. This kind of despotism, however, is sappy and silly. It is entertaining and benign. The hum of the political machine fades into the background of the whiz bang of a technologically-entranced, self-centered populace which, with each so-called election, loses ever more of its political influence. Government “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd” (Tocqueville). The government takes care of everything, relieving its citizens of the bothersome and tiring weight of governance.

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” (Ibid.)

Soft despotism represents nothing less than a loss of freedom, or what Tocqueville called “political liberty.” “What is threatened here is our dignity as citizens” (10).

Taylor wants to tackle these problems head-on. They aren’t new problems--scholars of modernity have been talking about them for over a century--but they can be bewildering! Yet if we take the time to understand these worries, he says, we can begin to trace out a way of approaching them. “Our degrees of freedom are not zero,” he says. “The issue is not how much of a price in bad consequences you have to pay for the positive fruits [of modernity], but rather how to steer these developments towards their greatest promise and avoid the slide into their debased forms” (12).

Previous entries in this series are: Baudelaire is Melting.

; ; ; ; .

Monday, June 26, 2006

Trinitarian tidbits

Reading the latest issue of Asbury Journal, I noted some nice trinitarian bits scattered in its concluding folio. Aggregating them makes a nice refresher course in the reason why theology has blossomed under the needed reminder of its thoroughgoing trinitarianism in the last half-centuty.

  • The work and experience of salvation is the work and experience of the Holy Trinity

  • To know God in Christ is to know the Trinity

  • The fullness of the Trinity participates in Jesus' self-giving for us

  • The saving, healing presence of the Trinity means that Christians "in pure love renewed" experience the restoration of God's image and become the very dwelling place of the Trinity

  • Salvation is a trinitarian dogma, involving all of history. Through salvation in Jesus Christ by the Spirit we become experientially, communitarily involved with the God of the universe who is now effectually working to restore all creation

  • [The implicit trinitarianism underlying the book of Ephesians provides] a way of uniting new birth and sanctification with the socioeconomic and cosmic dimensions of God's work of new creation

  • The entire life of the church--in all its varied practices--is meant to embody participation in the Father's sending of the Son and the Spirit for the sake of the world

; ; ; ; .

Friday, June 23, 2006

Hütter on Trinity and church

The church is the location where we come to know God, surely not in every possible way, but in the one decisive way, namely as the One who saves us and draws us into the fullness of the divine life—all of this through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. The church itself is nothing else than the thankful creature of God's saving work, not a proud executor but a glad recipient. Yet this receiving embodied in practices is precisely the way in and through which the Holy Spirit works the saving knowledge of God. For this very reason not only the Catholics but also the Reformers could call the church the 'mother of faith.'"

Quoted from Reinhard Hütter, “The Knowledge of the Triune God: Practices, Doctrine, Theology,” 2. The Church in James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago, eds., Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 23. More to come.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Summa Theologica in a nutshell

My Way of Life (Brooklyn, NY: Cofraternity of the Precious Blood, 1952) is a "pocket edition of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. I picked it up at Moody Books in Johnson City, TN, when Aquinas was just a rumor in my mind. And, in the last few months, I've taken to reading a page or two a day--quite instructive! Its editors were top-notch Aquinas scholars in their day: Walter Ferrell, O.P., S.T.M., and Martin J. Healy, S.T.D. Saturated in the Summa, these two Roman Catholic historical theologians boiled the Q&A, point-counterpoint of the original down to its main assertions, and presented these in a simple, even beautiful little devotional of faith.

At any rate, an entry this morning on charity caught my eye. It sums up the entire project of the Summa in one, easy-to-understand paragraph. "This," I said, "must be blogged!" So here goes:

"Where then shall men find peace and joy and rest except in the love of God and men? Only a whole-hearted love of God and of men in God will bring peace to the individual and to society. Love can build a world. Hate can only destroy. Hatred sets men at odds with themselves and with God. They cannot judge correctly the value of men or nature. It is only in God that everything in the world receives it true place and its proper value. Only charity perceives everything as it is in God. Only charity therefore can enable a man to judge both the world and himself properly. And only this true judgment enables a man to find that tranquility of order which is peace" (361).

; ; ; ; ;

Thursday, June 15, 2006

NYT traces horizons of electronic theology

What follows is an entry I wrote a week or so ago for the members of jm (, an online discussion group. I'm posting it here to serve as a basis for further reflection.

Dear jm members:

If you haven't read the May 14, 2006 New York Times article "Scan This Book!" by Kevin Kelley, you should. In it, Kelley paints a picture of the possible realization of the universal library through global initiatives in digital scanning--fascinating enough. Kelley discusses how search and retrieval technology will change the equation of value in knowledge and research--certainly interesting. What I'm interested in, however--what we're all interested in--is what all this means for jm; and it means a great deal.

A Change in Priority: No Books

The truth of the matter is that we are poised between the previous age, that of the book which culminated in the creation of the sacred "critical edition," and the next, where value is discovered in the verb rather than the noun. One reaches something akin to the academic sacredness of a critical edition in the new paradigm as one achieves a point at which your project garners the attention and involvement of everyone who is interested in that same topic on a global scale. Whereas before it was a solid, where density is value; now it is becoming gas, where expandability is key.

According to Kelley, "corporations and libraries around the world are now scanning about a million books a year." Google, Yahoo, and other private companies, such as Superstar in Beijing and EBSCO Publishing Inc. in New England, all using state-of-the-art robots and increasingly-good OCR technology, are scanning millions of books. Raj Reddy of Carnegie Mellon University is already clocking 100,000 pages a day from locations in China and India as part of his Million Book Project. Analogously, Kerry writes, "Nearly 100 percent of all contemporary recorded music has already been digitized." The result will be "the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available [potentially] to all people, all the time." The technology has been in existence already for over a decade.

Since jm's inception, I have hoped that the storage capabilities of this forum (some 25 megabytes) would serve as an initial archive for hope theology in the next digital age of theological development. In a sense, jm would be a resurrection point for the dead letter of works, speeches, papers, conference materials and other ephemera only available to those who have geographic and economic access. Here is a perfect synergy between method and subject: jm pushing out into the future and the wider horizon of the next unknown paradigm. And why does it do this--largely for scholars and readers laboring in the bookless developing world, exactly those for whom so much of the theology and philosophy of hope has been written. But the above causes an adjustment in the initial vision. There is no need or ability to compete with that kind of capital where books are concerned. The focus for acquisitions should be placed elsewhere. jm can and should still pursue a mission to archive non-book materials: white-papers, theses and dissertations, articles, blog posts, URL's, and other non-book materials, but in terms of the larger task--actually collecting the important print materials from established scholars, living or dead--this project is unnecessary.

jm as curator and think-tank

Kevin Kelly spends quite a bit of time discussing the transformation of information that will occur once a majority of books in print are digitized. In a sense, they become "one gigantic text." Linking of books by bibliographies, then by words, then by user-created tags creates new relationships that could not have existed before. Users begin to annotate and then swap out "playlists" of this universal text according to their interests and changing opinions. "Some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages." Amazon already allows you to assemble your own private library, eventually, says Kelly, "users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection."

Frankly, we don't know what this means for god-talk as it is done today, but one thing is certain: the ability to sort out, to recommend, and to appropriately guide discussion in a sea of interrelated information will only become more valuable. The central value which jm will serve once this paradigm begins to become commonly available (it is already, in large part, commercially available) is as a curator of its subject. jm as a curator and guide to previous and subsequent research in Moltmannalia and in the theologies and philosophies of hope.

jm and the hegemony of the copy

The remainder of Kelley's article traces the hegemony of the copy, where "the copy" refers to the hegemonic "lock up" of copyright problems which have locked away cultural material, so that "almost everything created today will not return to the commons until the next century." By 1998's extension of copyright to seventy years beyond the life of a creator, "it was obvious to all that copyright now existed primarily to protect a threatened business model" and leaving "a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark." As he says, "the bulk of our universal library is dark."

The problem where jm is concerned is that the theologies and philosophies of hope are largely out of print and yet under copyright, and therefore are part of this dark universe. Not that it is as simple as asking publishers or authors to release or extend their copyright to us, as "the publishing company [often] doesn't know whether it even owns the work, since author contracts in the past were not as explicit as they are now." Up until now, though, it was the only thing open to us, as above. But here comes Google.

In section five of his article, entitled "The Moral Imperative to Scan," Kevin Kelley details Google Book's 2004 initiative to begin scanning the 75 percent of the dead library, the out-of-print books that no one else would touch. I won't detail the details here, but the result would be to lift back into the light so many books, as now previously unknown or unavailable titles would come to the surface by way of user search. "for authors with books in the publisher program and for authors of books abandoned by a publisher, Google unleashed a chance that more people would at least read, and perhaps buy, the creation they had sweated for years to complete." "While a few best-selling authors fear piracy, every author fears obscurity."

Now many publishers aren't happy with Google. It doesn't matter to them whether they were never going to republish some little-bought 1960's era work in the theology of hope, they just don't want Google to do it. Admittedly, this is a complex issue--but only when you look through the eyes of the still-operating-in-the-era-of-copy-corporations. Publishers are not going to reprint what won't sell, and even what sells only has a six-month shelf life. "Publishers only care about these orphans now because Google has shifted the economic equation; because of [Google's] Book Search, these dark books may now have some sparks in them, and the publishers don't want this potential revenue stream to slip away from them."

From the perspective of jm, it is a win-win. Digital technology, and, indeed, modernity itself, has made the old business models obsolete and they are changing even if slowly. From our perspective, what is important is finding a way of capitalizing on the situation at hand so that the "history of hope" as an academic subject is made available in a world where "the value of any work is increased the more it is shared." The best insurance to see thought thrive around hope, in all its manifestations, is to open it up to the future. Therefore, jm must pursue authors and publishers who hold the copyright for out-of-print and unpublishable written works in the theology and philosophy of hope in order to get them to release copyright to Google. If Google is allowed to scan a work into Google search, then that work is instantly made available to the future. It becomes a "living" contributor again, even if its status in the old, copy-based economy of publishing has declared it dead.

One of the tools we can use is to empower authors themselves. Are you aware that an author, if they determine a publisher is no longer going to republish their work or pursue its interest in any way, may request that publisher release their rights back to the author? This transfer is actually written into most standard contracts, but how many authors are aware that they still have power where their own words are concerned? If authors will begin to see the value of making their work available again, then we could see some of the theologies and philosophies of hope now buried in obscurity come out of the tomb of unpublishability and step out into the future.

; ; ; ; .

Friday, June 09, 2006

Pound's ABC's

The following is taken straight from an entry in my journal dated 14 July, 2002. I love Ezra Pound, and I love the points he makes in this little book; its spare treatment is exactly what is needed. I wish people taught theology this way; they probably should. Say, maybe that's why I'm posting this? (It could be.)

"I've been putting off writing in the stuff pulled from Ezra Pound's ABC's of Reading (New Directions, 1960). Let me say briefly that the main message of this book is that you learn best by direct encounter with masters of the craft. Rather than essays about the masters, ad fontes, a return to the source, makes the best training. Here are my culled quotes from this book (caps are authors):

  • Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man. [Pound meant poetry, but I believe Barth made the same point about theology.]

  • The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters (belles lettres) is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful, first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one 'slide' or specimen with another.

  • In the middle ages when there wasn't any material science, as we now understand it, when human knowledge could not make automobiles run, or electricity carry language through the air, etc., in short, when learning consisted in little more than splitting up of terminology, there was a good deal of care for terminology, and the general exactitude in the use of abstract terms may have been (probably was) higher.

  • Science developed more rapidly after Bacon suggested the direct examination of phenomenon.

  • Melody is the most artificial thing in music, meaning that it is furthest removed from anything the composer finds THERE, ready in nature, needing only direct imitation or copying. It is therefore the root, the test, etc.

  • Any general (re: categorical) statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there (re: empirical) to meet it.

  • A general statement is valuable only in REFERENCE to the known objects or facts. Even if the general statement of an ignorant man is "true," it leaves his mouth without any great validity. He doesn't KNOW what he is saying.

  • Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.

  • It doesn't so much matter where you begin the examination of a subject, so long as you keep on until you get round again to your starting point.

  • The critic who doesn't make personal statement, in re measurement he himself has made, is merely an unreliable critic. He is not a measurer but a repeater of other men's results. Krino: to pick out for oneself . . . to choose.

  • Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate; keep it clear.

  • The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is CAPABLE of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.

  • Different climates and different bloods have different ratios between different groups of impulse and unwillingness, different needs, different spontaneities, different reluctances, different constructions of throat, and all these leave trace in the language, and leave it more ready and more unready for certain communications and registrations.

  • Dichten = condensare / Dichten is the German verb corresponding to the noun Dichtung meaning poetry and the Italian verb meaning "to condense."

  • Until you have made your own survey and your own closer inspection, you might at least beware and avoid accepting opinions: (1) From men who haven't themselves produced notable work; (2) From men who have not themselves taken the risks of printing the results of their own personal inspection and survey, even if they are seriously making one.

  • There would seem to be almost no limit to what people can and will misunderstand when they are not doing their utmost to get at a writer's meaning.

  • It is my firm conviction that a man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many.

  • The quicker you go to the texts the less need there will be for your listening to me or to any other long-winded critic.

  • Incompetence will show in the use of too many words.

  • One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose.

  • The list of things safe to read an hour before you start writing, is distinct from the books a non-writing reader can peruse for enjoyment.

  • An attempt to set down things as they are, to find the word that corresponds to the thing.

  • The lecturer's first problem is to have enough words to fill forty or sixty minutes. The professor is paid for his time, his results are almost impossible to estimate. The man who really knows can tell all that is transmissible in a very few words. The economic problem of the teacher (of violin or of language or of anything else) is how to string it out so as to be paid for more lessons.

  • The true problem is, what is the simplest possible statement.

  • Real education must ultimately be limited to [those] who insist on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.

  • It is only after long experience that most men are able to define a thing in terms of its own genus.

  • If you want to study the novel, go READ the best you can find.

; ; ; .