Tag Archives: Alan Jacobs

It is not what you wish it were.

Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.

If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.

–Brad East, Public Theology in Retreat

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To betray our nature.

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

–Alan Jacobs, Anthropocene theology


The faceless inflexibility of platforms

A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting.

–Alan Jacobs, platforms and institutions


Enigma and apocalypse

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

–Alan Jacobs, Tolkein’s riddles


The battle after the war

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended … I can live with that.

–Alan Jacobs, recency illusions


A formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity called the future

In the accounts given by philosophers like Bernard Stiegler, the human stands on the point of vanishing entirely; we become something incidental to a total technological system. As he points out, a human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society. We create tools, but technical apparatuses and their milieus advance according to their own logic, and these non-living objects have their own strange form of life. Our brains developed to control our hands; human consciousness itself was only the by-product of a technical evolution that moved from flint-knapping to the hammer to the virtual bartender; its real job isn’t to perform any particular task but to perpetuate itself.  “Robots,” he writes, are “seemingly designed no longer to free humanity from work but to consign it either to poverty or stress.” Whatever illusion of predominance we had is fading: For others, like Benjamin Bratton, the real political subject is no longer a human individual but a “user,” which can be any kind of biological or digital assemblage. With production automated according to algorithmically generated targets, with the vast majority of all written language taking the form of spam and junk code, this system has less and less use for us—even as a moving part—with every passing day.

Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.

–Sam Kriss, Watching the World Rot at the World’s Largest Tech Conference

I already wonder what Prof. Jacobs would have to say about Kriss’s provocative essay. This particular passage reeks of techno-determinism, albeit a pessimistic one. Kriss spends an entire paragraph laying out the case that “non-living objects” — our tools — “have their own strange form of life,” and that these tools have evolved (somehow) into an increasingly autonomous system with “less and less use for us–even as a moving part.” All of this suggests to me that Kriss views humanity as extraordinarily deprived of agency by its technological infrastructure.

Yet the following sentence–more of an aphorism, really–declares simply, “Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.” I emphasize those words because they suggest that we are actively moving–as opposed to being moved–toward self-annhilation.

To me, this rhetorical confusion is pretty significant. At the end of the essay, Kriss documents a meet-and-greet at a local watering hole. He laments that human sociality has been transmogrified into ever more affective labor.

A human enjoyment as basic as getting drunk together had been transformed into something else; everyone was still at work, being pulled along by the logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented. In a corner of one bar, a muted TV was showing the presidential election on CNN: state by state slowly turning red, a grinning goblin creeping closer to the brink of power. People around me were worried; they thought that a nuclear-armed Donald Trump might lead to the end of humanity. For all the tech industry’s claims to be the leading edge of tomorrow, these people were still thinking in terms of a very old world. The end of humanity had already arrived; it was everywhere around us.

But what or who, exactly, had done the transforming? The “logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented”? Kriss’s refusal to name names makes a sort of sense, given that a main theme of his essay is the way our society is increasingly a “system terrifyingly self-sustaining and utterly opaque.” This systemic opacity makes it impossible or difficult. Or perhaps, for his rhetorical purposes, it’s rhetorically undesirable to name openly and clearly. Look at that passage again. States, one by one, turn red, apparently of their own accord, as if the vote tallies themselves are “a grinning goblin.” Is Donald Trump the goblin? Or does Kriss simply fear to name the agent that is actually responsible for turning those states red: humanity? States don’t just turn red of their own accord, even on CNN election maps. Voters vote, and the color reflects their choice.

I honestly can’t tell if Kriss is being imprecise as a matter of rhetorical strategy or because he’s not carefully thinking through the implications of his premise. In a lot of ways, it seems politically easier to say, “The end of humanity had already arrived.” It lets us off the hook for having to take responsibility and a measure of control over our technosphere. It also gives people like Kriss persmission to dismiss and demean those people whose goals and purposes are opaque to him.

Kriss can’t understand why tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would choose to congregate in such a chaotic way. He doesn’t get the appeal of running a 90% chance of failure as an app innovator. The idea of using a social occasion as a milieu for professional networking appears vaguely insidious. Lurking behind it all is some Illuminati-esque entity called Technology (or maybe the Tech Industry?), whose agency and motives are obscure and sinister, possibly apocalyptic. And: surely real people could not choose to vote for Trump of their own volition. There must be something compelling them. Kriss (willfully?) ignores the fact that people and their choices remain utterly central to the maintenance of any and all tools that comprise our systems.

I’m largely sympathetic to Kriss’s critique, I think. Most of the systems that hold our social world together mystify me in many profound ways. People themselves constantly disappoint and mystify me, too. But I do think it’s a categorical error to ascribe agential vitality to “systems” or “technology” without doing at least minimal definitional work. Where does human agency end and systemic agency begin? What is the nature of this “strange form of life” posessed by non-living objects? Are all non-living objects possessed by the same, strange life-force, and do they all exert it the same way upon humanity? Is Kriss overwhelmed by The Tech Industry at the Web Summit, or is he primarily overwhelmed by the apparently chaotic society of its attendees–the people who’ve chosen to work there?

Most importantly, doesn’t Kriss fall into the ancient trap of self-fulfilling prophecy? Non-living systems built by people enervate human societies precisely to the extent that humanity cedes agential authority to its tools. When the crash happens, it’s often because people start thinking that their tools will take care of themselves. Worse, cataclysms often happen because people start confusing other people with tools. Kriss seems to lament that transformation; he also empowers and perpetuates it. Instead of trying to understand how and why people would be so gung-ho about valorizing their tools (rightly or wrongly), he speculates that the tools have simply gotten the better of their masters. And instead of trying to understand how and why people would choose to vote for a grinning goblin (rightly or wrongly), he intimates that they’ve simply already sacrificed their humanity. “Web Summit is a hyper-concentrated image of our entire world, and the panic and confusion that is to come,” Kriss says, because society’s “structure is one of increasing chaos.” Perhaps. Probably. Or there’s a pattern there that Kriss can’t see because he refuses recognize it as an extension of his own humanity.


Temporal self-exile

To be imprisoned-by-emancipation is the fate of those who define their being in terms of time. Modernity is thus temporal self-exile — though it may be other things as well.

–Alan Jacobs, modernity as temporal self-exile