July 15, 2009
I apologize for the light posting over the last couple days… Job search stuff occasionally winds up being amazingly time consuming, especially when it seems to be productive. Unfortunately it looks like this most recent glimmer of opportunity was for nought and so I’m back to hoop jumping for at least a few more weeks. And of course, dear readers, to blogging.
Which brings me to this essay, which Peter Lawler recommends and I am puzzled by. So far as I can tell, its central argument is that America is aging and finding less space for the kind of expansive, manly excess that characterized the world of The Right Stuff. Instead we are getting older, finding that government dependency is easy, and sopping at the consumer trough. All of this with nary a mention of women’s exclusion, the rampant alcoholism, the miserable children, the suicidal closeted homosexuals. (Or heaven forbid, the south.) What really mattered about that era was that a miniscule portion of the population went really fucking fast and could have killed themselves doing so, and they were real men for doing so.
But setting aside the historical blindness necessary to write this kind of essay, maybe the most bizarre part of Domenach’s thinking is the fact that the world he mourns did exist less than two years ago, on Wall Street, among bankers whose belief in their testicular infallibility drove the economy off a cliff. And its their failed heroics now forcing the rest of us, unwillingly I might add, to rediscover the values of dependence, whose gifts include such unmanly traits as gratitude and humility. But this could only be a signal of decline, goes Domenech’s thinking, because we weren’t being manly anymore, and dammit, manliness built ‘merica.
There’s a metaphor involving heroin withdrawl here but somehow I think my point has been made. Good riddance in any case.
Edit: As if on cue, Will finds the best Craigslist ad ever.
June 24, 2009
I’m hostile to Calvin. Always have been. Always will be. This isn’t to deny the man has his charms: I still remember how struck I was by Institutes of Christian Religion the first time I sat down with it… His argumentative style sticks with you, both because of its lucidity and its lawyerly precision. Nonetheless, that style and the outlook that underpins it is ultimately what damns him for me: thinking about the Bible as a legal document isn’t just epistemologically unsound, it ultimately leads to a very deeply poisonous mode of being in the world, one which inevitably extends the legalization of the Word into a legalization of the World, and a reconceptualization of our place in the world as a stipulation of the cosmic-judicial order than as an act (even a gift) of love. And though I hesitate to draw a straight line from that mode of thought to capitalism or to our distaste for cultural and environmental givens, it’s impossible not to see echoes between the current order and that of, say, Puritan New England, or Geneva under Calvin’s thumb. Both our world and his require a universe where mystery is dispersed, either through an unseen transcendent order or by a technological solipsism… And both deny the world as an ongoing site for revelation, whatever that might mean.
None of this, I recognize, is new. Still, I was really struck by it after reading this great post about Puritan graveyards out east. Take a looksie:
The primary ethos of their community were piety, hard work, education, and a morally upright, ascetic lifestyle, with harsh punishments for trespassers. Their religious views included bans on anything considered extravagant or “popish”, including ‘graven images’ or religious symbols. They also had strict views on who might qualify to enter to heaven, with most people doomed to merely rot. What followed was some creative solutions in tombstone design.
Carved in slate, greenstone, or occasionally marble, the most common motif in the early headstones is the winged death-head, and simple inscriptions: either just the name with birth and death dates, or the simple phrase “here lies the body of. . . ” Later, more festive arrangements of skeletons and Father Time disporting themselves, winged hourglasses, and winged cherub heads appeared. There is a lot of variation in the design details, as if each carver put his own spin on the theme. Some of the more elaborate stones have intricate carvings and rhyming poetry, usually about the inevitability of death, designed to scare visitors into piety.
I’m unable to find it at the moment but there was a great First Things article about graveyards a few years back… It’s core argument, if memory serves, was that the degree of importance funerals and graveyards carry for the culture is indicative of how seriously life/the past is taken, and that the slow removal of those rituals/places/meanings from the center of our culture indicates a severing of our commitments to the past. Viewed through that lens, the Puritan insistence on death’s sole relevance for instruction, and the concurrent belief in life as a predetermined stage for the already-damned and the already-saved can be seen as a predecessor (though perhaps not as direct ancestor) for our current denial of mortality (and hence the past) as a regular feature of life: requiring death be articulated outside the sacred order and that the bodies of the dead be treated as essentially meaningless both have parallels under scientific consumerism, albeit from quite different premises and to an ultimately different conclusion. One demands obedience and sees death solely as an aid to that end, the other demands consumption and never brings up the subject. But both, for all their differences, see death unmoored from memory and mystery, and on that point they form a continuum, however distant their other commitments may be.
June 18, 2009
Like Nathan, I’m also curious what the next encyclical will have to say… Undoubtedly it’ll make some demands for a return to a more moral economy, but I’ll be curious if the Church’s longstanding interest in subsidiarity and community translates into a more explicit localism or if the spatial side of things won’t enter into it much. My guess is not, but we’ll have to wait and see.
On that note, America has a piece up this morning about the end of consumerism and Catholic political life. Some of it’s policy prescriptions sound rather 1972 (full employment? srsly?) but at least its a start in the right direction, particularly on connecting the excesses of consumerism with environmental destruction. Nonetheless, this part gave me pause:
7. The church and subsidiarity. A principal objective of publicly proclaimed laws and regulations is to stigmatize certain types of behavior and to reward other types, thereby influencing individual values and behavior codes. Aristotle understood this: “Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating habits in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure. It is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.” While families, peer groups, churches and schools play the most important role in shaping behavior and inculcating values, public laws have a role to play as well. While civil law, for example, cannot make people stop holding racist beliefs, it can stop them from engaging in certain types of racist behavior. Over time that behavior (refusing service in a restaurant, for example) becomes delegitimized in public opinion.
Though this certainly isn’t my area of expertise, I think this does abuse to both subsidiarity and Aristotelian constitutionalism. In Aristotle’s case, the task of cultivating good behavior is directly tied to the polis‘s immediacy. To quote from Barker’s introduction to the Politics,
It [the polis] is a small and intimate society: it is a church as well as a state: it makes no distinction between the province of the state and hat of society; it is, in a word, an integrated system of social ethics, which realizes to the full the capacity of its members and therefore claims their full allegiance. A limit of size is imposed upon it by its very nature and purpose; being a church and a system of social ethics, it cannot be a Babylon.
Clearly these are not the conditions under which we live; the functions of church, state, city, and locality are divided for us along completely different lines, and so the state’s attempts to establish mores (either left or right) does not posses the intimacy necessary to shape the character of the people. It can, and should, protect the rights of individuals to be free of undue persecution, but without the support from those other pillars of civic life, the outcome will not be the better public character: it will be culture war.
Now this shouldn’t turn us away from trying to address questions of civic character; it merely means that they must be addressed at whatever level best approximates the dynamics of the polis, specifically, at the level of the town, the church, and the neighborhood. This is why the biggest flaw in Wilbur’s policy outline, and in the Vatican’s current stance, is the lack of a fully articulated localism which recognizes that the polis, and the law, requires more than the institution of the state, more even than the legal recognition of groups in abstract: it requires that our ways of life be actually intertwined with those of others, something possible only when our commitment to place and community is central to our outlook.
June 11, 2009
I think conservatives would better spend their diminished political capital figuring out how to finance the welfare state at the least cost to the economy and individual liberty, rather than fighting a losing battle to slash popular spending programs. But this will require them to accept the necessity of higher revenues.
It is simply unrealistic to think that tax cuts will continue to be a viable political strategy when the budget deficit exceeds $1 trillion, as it will this year. Nor is it realistic to think that taxes can be kept at 19 percent of GDP when spending is projected to grow by about 50 percent of GDP over the next generation, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. And that’s without any new spending programs being enacted.
In the end, the welfare state is not going away, and it will be paid for one way or another. The sooner conservatives accept that fact, the sooner they will regain political power.
This isn’t just a politically relevant point either. On principle, the first enemy for fiscal conservatives ought to be the deficit, not taxation. This is why I think there’s a strong case to be made that Norway and Canada represent far more viable models for fiscal conservatism than the United States: both have comparatively large social safety nets, but they are by and large paid for. Both regulate their banking system so as to avoid catastrophic bailouts. Perhaps most importantly, both maintain political cultures based around a right-wing aversion to debt, so the issue of a conservative government running up the deficit isn’t really an issue.
I recognize all of this should be old hat to most readers. But I continue harping on it not just because its true but also because I think it lies in the long term interests of the Right to return anti-deficit policy to the center of their thinking. Though favoring some tax increases will be unpopular with the base, to a nation who’s savings rate just jumped a good four percentage points, that kind of anti-debt policy could prove popular. Moreover, should Republicans commit to actually doing some good old fashioned deficit reduction, it would go a long way to redeeming their profligate spending during the Bush years, and to regaining the moral high ground on the issue. (Which, incidentally, they must regain in order to have any hope at all in this environment; so long as Obama can portray the Right as incapable of making the tough decisions, .)
June 5, 2009
Many social critics tend to set sail from a critique of money, believing that if only we could get rid of that, all would be well. Craigslist, by contrast, has no issue with money. The point of most classified ads, whether they involve selling your old hard drive or offering to strut around in a dominatrix outfit, is an exchange of money. But what clearly matters to Newmark is that this exchange should not be mediated by corporations or institutions. “A lesson that it was hard for [me] to learn,” Newmark told Charlie Rose, “was that people are good and trustworthy and moderate.” Craigslist is Newmark’s vote of confidence in that lesson.
When you look at it in this way, the reason to keep all those sleazy ads on Craigslist becomes clearer. The free choice of sexual partners and practices and positions and everything else sex-related is just as much a part of the “let individuals connect in their own way” mission of Craigslist as the other ads. In the galaxy of sex ads, the ones for “erotic services” that have had state attorneys general up in arms, and to which Phillip Markoff responded, occupy a special place. They are not a sideshow but the ultimate example of what Newmark seems to want to accomplish. The point of the ads is that anyone at all can post one, and they allow the sex-for-money transaction to happen without the “escort service” demanding a cut.
You can think of that as the perfect metaphor for the Newmark worldview. Bad things don’t come from what two individuals decide to do together. They come from the institutions that stand between them. The problem, in Newmark’s world, is not prostitution. The problem is only the pimp.
I’ve been pondering rights a great deal recently and this article eerily sums up the core of my admittedly half-baked thinking on the subject. In particular, it highlights how the centrality of rights to our moral discourse intersects with a society-wide acceptance of conflict as the substance or potentiality of non-contract commitments. As rights-holders, we refuse to be bound by commitments to unchosen institutions, since they carry the potential for exploitation, tyranny or the limiting of personal horizons. As an alternative model, we take personal choice and the institution of contract as the dominant mode of organizing life. However, in order for this to be a workable system (or for enough of us to believe it workable) we are bound to a second condition, namely a belief in the innate goodness of our fellow rights holders; the threat of fraud must be minimal in order for schemes of non-coercive contract to operate successfully, or at least, we must assume it even if, as we’ve seen so powerfully in the last year, our neighbors are crooks.
Craigslist embodies both the humanistic optimism and the institutional antipathy of this culture to a rare degree, and as Newmark has said on several occasions, does it in for reasons that are plainly not profit driven. Craigslist is the ultimate Lockean mission: introducing rootless individuals to each other for whatever purposes they might possibly agree upon, far away from intermediary (and ultimately bad) institutions to which they previously were bound. And the problems it causes reflect that fact: the rash of killings in the last few months should be enough to remind everyone that, yes, not everyone who says they have a free couch really has a free couch.
And of course, everyone knows this. We understand (via the first condition) that conflict is lurking behind every corner, which is why as much as Craigslist is about friendly trust, it is also about anonymity, omission, and sometimes deceit. In the absence of the daily encounter, we are driven to a create a reserve of self, a series of barriers intended to keep friendly strangers as strangers, involvements to a minimum, and exploitation (or violence) at bay. Craigslist thus creates selves which are as wrapped in mystery and intentional ambiguity as they are benevolently self-interested, more or less the reverse of the village’s close acquaintance between knowledgeable and flawed neighbors.
That the era of Craigslist should also be the era of shameful lending practices should thus come as no surprise. Both are founded on a vision of humanity whose optimisms and pessimisms are oriented in precisely the wrong direction, and as a result build systems of traders, brokers, partners, and prostitutes in which fraud (personal and financial) is both feared and practically unavoidable.
EDIT: I want to pause, acknowledge and appreciate that I’m writing this under a pen name. Yeesh.
May 22, 2009
(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)
As disturbing as cadaver-sex exhibitions may be, sometimes it strikes me that the most insidious ways in which we reject self-limitation are those that seem most innocuous. Unlike intentionally offensive activities, taking normal behavior and pressing it to the absolute boundaries of physical impossibility doesn’t shock. Indeed, it awes. And the more spectacular it becomes, the more we forget the very language of restraint.
This is nowhere more true than in the amusements of the mechanized age. I mean, seriously, what does this teach us about ourselves?
When long-time Indy revellers Scott Jasek, Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden started the company in 2001, people thought they were crazy. “How do I convince a privately run company like the [Indianapolis Motor Speedway] to put these cars with people inside and offer them high-speed rides?” Jasek asks.
“It’s a dangerous experience, but we make it safe.”
An Indy 500 car accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in less than three seconds. I’m pulling G-forces, my face flattens, cheeks flutter backward, saliva dries, my eyes are stuck wide open – and a drunken giddiness takes over.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have never understood or enjoyed auto-racing. But I can see why it amounts to a sport in so many peoples’ minds. There is a tremendous amount of technical knowledge that goes into making cars go around in circles for hours on end, and if nothing else we can stand back and appreciate the skill of the mechanics and drivers. If it isn’t an art, its at least a craft, and one which takes years to develop.
However, I have a hard time understanding how making auto-racing into a consumable experience preserves any of that value. It transforms the sport from a pursuit of mechanical efficiency to a ritual of pure bodily exhilaration, and yet it does so in a thoroughly normalizing way. One need not partake if one doesn’t wish to, and so the question of the activity’s virtue is completely obscured by the options of the consumer. Yet it simultaneously endorses a vision of humanity that says we operate best when we are at the limits, not just of our ability, but of bare physical sensation. It flattens the eudamonic foundations of our moral discourse at the same time it expands it in unlimited directions. And in this sense, auto-racing-tourism and like-minded pursuits are just as worrisome than Von Hagen’s exhibition. It’s not just that they share a threadbare moral outlook, though that’s part of what’s going on. Rather, it’s that experiential tourism’s spectacle provides a key part of the social background for the more extreme manifestations of consumer excess, and hence ensures their continued presence and intelligibility.
May 18, 2009
I am seriously bummed that I won’t be able to watch this awesome-sounding documentary on the implosion of the art bubble. Fortunately, I was able to locate this excellent essay by the film’s producer from December on what the past five years have meant for the art world. Definitely worth a read:
Even these numbers understate the incredible tulip-like increases in the value of the hottest artists. The Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang saw his work appreciate 6,000 times, from $1,000 to $6m (1999-2008); work by the American artist Richard Prince went up 60 to 80 times (2003-2008). The German painter Anselm Reyle was unknown in 2003; you could have picked up one of his stripe paintings for €14,000. Now he has a studio with 60 assistants turning them out for about €200,000 each. Any figures for the whole contemporary art market are guesswork, though Christie’s chief executive, Ed Dolman, recently estimated that it had grown in value from $4bn a year to somewhere between $20-30bn in the past eight years.
Contemporary art turned out to be an ideal vehicle for speculative euphoria. The market is almost entirely free from state interference. Governments have had little interest in regulating the trinkets and playthings of the super-rich. Art works are a uniquely portable and confidential form of wealth. Whereas all property purchases have to be publicly registered, buying art is a private activity. And unlike old masters, which are often linked by history to specific places, contemporary art knows no frontiers.
As disconcerting as this is to big city art market participants, it should be doubly troubling to anyone concerned about the future prospects of markets outside the bubble-spaces of New York and California. Though we’re definitely at the end of this bubble, the mentality of the art-as-investment has a remarkable durability amongst buyers and artists, and its likely that we’ll see a comparable situation emerge a decade or two down the road.
The persistence of this mentality is troubling for the same reasons Jeremy Beer raised last week in relation to the economic prospects of small towns: The potential value possessed by creative people, just like that possessed by the intellectually and economically gifted, makes remaining local vastly more undesirable, and the presence of a permanently speculative art culture dramatically worsens the situation. Their combination acts to upset locality, rewards a lack of genuine concern on the part of art buyers, and sucks away the cultural marrow of the rest of the country.
Here I can speak from experience: when I was younger, I had the good fortune to attend a selective, residential public high-school, the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and it is really quite depressing to consider how few of my classmates have remained in Minnesota after graduating. All but a few of the truly gifted students have migrated to the coasts, first for school and later because they are the only places where one can have success as an artist. The Twin Cities, amazingly, manages to have a vibrant art scene regardless of artistic brain drain, but I wince to imagine its effect on smaller towns.
May 16, 2009
Stumbled across this great interview with John Cage yesterday. There’s an earlier part here, but the really good stuff is below. (Be forewarned that the interview ends at around three minutes, after which there is French.)
What’s striking about this piece is how effortlessly he manages to encapsulate modernism’s internal dynamics without even breaking a sweat… Beginning from the nominalism of the different coke bottles, we are led to the irrelevance of memory, and the immediate consequences of that loss; the irrelevance of the unitary self in Cage’s wish to forget, and the irrelevance of tradition as the locus of self, which in turn terminates in a placeless, homeless self without presuppositions or preferences.
It’s pretty remarkable how deeply enmeshed this kind of thinking has become in the cultural DNA. Absent historical articulation, Cage’s aesthetics sound benevolently zen… He seems only a man committed to living and experiencing as fully as he can. And yet, to anyone who values the everyday, the latent conclusion to his thinking is terrifying: In Cage’s aesthetics, there is no home, no away. Just the tour-worthy unfamiliar.
May 6, 2009
Jeremy Beer over at Front Porch Republic has decided to tackle brain drain, and concludes the source is meritocracy:
Meritocracy, in the definition I am using here, is an ideology that maintains that one’s place in society should be determined solely by one’s “merit” — by which is meant the tangible evidence of one’s talents, capabilities, intelligence, and, of course, will. This is an essential feature of any just society, meritocrats claim…
…Meritocracy is a project that is supported and advanced in numerous ways by powerful institutions and by deeply embedded practices and beliefs in contemporary American culture. Compulsory schooling, for instance, is justified by the meritocratic ideal. The right of individuals to maximize their talents and thus the consequent social rewards is held to be more important than the right of families and/or communities to decide how they wish to raise and educate their children. Were it not for the deeply anti-meritocratic Amish, even the most benign homeschooling would probably today be illegal across the land.
This, argues Beer, paired with a pile of federal and state level initiatives, has seriously compromised the integrity of Middle America. And he concludes we ought to take steps to reverse that trend.
As much as I agree that meritocratic economic pressures drain the lifeblood of small towns, and that there is much to be said for trying to halt it via economic means, the blame does not rest solely on the national class’s policies or economic liberalism. These kind of sustained social movements always have a reciprocal element to them; that’s a big part of why they last as trends and can create a culture war given long enough.
This is especially true of small-town America. There are many reasons why people leave small towns, some economic, some personal, but the key element here that is that the parochial culture of Middle America has in recent years mutated into a form openly hostile to brain retention. Speaking as someone who has lived in a small town in the past and would like to in the future, the tremendous hostility to learning and the learned in small town America can be suffocating, and to many who would otherwise stay (read: me) this proves to be the deal breaker. Though cities are huge and anonymous, there is little outright distaste for intellectual life, and there is much less support for the fringe Right politics made possible by the palatable absence of educated opinion.
None of this is really in contradiction with Beer’s thinking, but it should highlight that this is a reciprocal process, and solutions must proceed from that understanding. If the educated culture of small towns is to be salvaged, small towns will have to give up their bias against education at the same time policies are changed to their benefit. Neither approach can succeed alone, and in all honesty I’m doubtful that there’s much hope for the localism of the small town at this point. (Cities and neighborhoods, another story.) But if there’s to be success, just as in cities, culture, policy, and economics must work in tandem.
Edit: Some further thoughts on how this hooks up with mainline decline, here.
In the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and finally reading through a good chunk of the Roman Stoics, including their more literary outings alongside the more philosophical stuff. There is something powerfully compelling about both their writing and the outlook that underpins it… They come across as being at once fully Western and yet fully foreign, and its fascinating to consider that despite our complete immersion in Christian culture, the Stoic undercurrent can still wield so much power. Going down the list of serious non-Christian thinkers of the last 500 years, it’s interesting how many of them eventually wound up espousing some form of stoic outlook. Spinoza, Neitzsche, Camus: all of these people outside the theological field eventually drew of the virtues of the Stoa, even in the face of the void, unjust laws, religious persecution, etc. The fact that its influence has persisted through a good 1500 years of apparent neglect really testifies to its power to shape us, for good and for ill.
One of the most exasperating features of the New Atheists, noted by many but especially notable in contrast to earlier atheists, is the absence of a world picture in which this part of the classical inheritance figures in a serious way. Certainly there is a utilitarian concern, humanitarian impulses, arguments about moral intuitions, and an overarching belief in science’s power, not just to comfort but to transform human life. All of these beliefs are articulated strictly against Christianity, but absent in them is the moral richness of prior atheists, a richness drawn, in large part, from the classical world, and from specifically Stoic influences.
There are two places that I think this stands out with particular force. The first is the question of limits. Stoicism developed the notion of human limitations in powerful directions, spending considerable effort on the question of how we understand appropriate behavior, and what that understanding entails for us, our way of life and the shape of the world we live in. Their constant opponents (the bogeymen of classical philosophy) were those who rejected the notions of the limit, of boundaries to proper behavior, and sought to increase their pleasure without limit. More than a few people have pointed out that these hedonists came as close as anything in the classical world to embodying the modern utilitarian outlook, the outlook which rejects restraint as the central issue in human well-being, and it is precisely this tradition, the counter-stoic, counter-christian rational hedonism of the enlightenment that the New Atheists cite as their inspiration. Even the Elder Atheists of the most modern persuasion recognized mortality and limitedness, albeit in very different ways than their predecessors, as being one of central features of the human condition, one which reason could accommodate us to, but never practically alleviate. (I want to talk more about their very conceptions of scientific reason as another expression of the modern unlimited, but that’ll have to wait till another post.)
The second area that the New Atheists fail is on the question of rituals role in human life. Most of the Stoics recognized the centrality of ritual to the stability of the polis, and later the empire. It was ritual, taugh Cicero, that inculcated virtue, and even if mythological, it could encourage morality and protect the values that made the state coherre. Many if not all of the Elder Atheists rejected ritualized religion in one form or another, but their rejection was usually accompanied by an understanding that something was lost in the process, that there were real, concrete social and moral consequences for this: consider, for example, Camus’s Meursault, who spends most of The Stranger wandering through one ritual context after another, finding each more meaningless than the last, until he kills an Arab, undergoes a final meaningless ritual of rejected confession, and is executed. Clearly there is an awareness of the consequences of God’s death here; even Nietzsche recognized that the loss of the world provided by religion was a world historic event with the potential for moral disaster. Their awareness of ritualized belief’s importance was shaped by thinkers in the classical world, and I think can plausibly be said to thus fit into their inheritance of themes from classical, including Stoic, thinking and being. This too, the New Atheists have neglected.
Now I want to hedge my argument here a bit at the end: Not all atheists with something profound to say recognize these issues, and there are a huge range of ways in which they can be dealt with. (Spinoza being a really interesting one.) But looking to polemical attacks on religious belief from the past few years, their modernity, for better or worse, emerges most powerfully at the points they turn from these themes which formed the bedrock of classical and Christian civilization.