Monday, July 25, 2011

The World Must Be Peopled

"The World Must Be Peopled." Such was my favorite line from William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which I witnessed for the second consecutive night this evening in Clark Park.

"Shakespeare in Clark Park," having now for a sixth consecutive year provided free performances of the works of he who commanded English like no other man has, is becoming an institution in these parts. It is positively delightful to sit out on the grass in the lovely July sunset with the whole community, being challenged by art which is higher than our faculties rather than being sedated by entertainment that indulges our baser cravings, being shown a portrait of the good life entirely different from that which bombards us in most of our lives.

The experience could be a springboard for several themes with which I have been occupied, but I would like to return to the question of Community v. Network as discussed in my previous blog post, more specifically the related question of Past v. Present.

As is a constant delight to me, dear brothers Jonathan and Ben responded with thoughtful challenges to my views. I hope that we may continue to pursue the truth together, even over this great network and on this ethereal forum, not simply for conversation as an end in itself, but for the discovery of an idea of the good life (that is, the life worth aspiring to and fighting for) greater than either Shakespeare or we have known.

In order to return to this question, let us pause a moment and examine exactly what Shakespeare presents to us in this play. Much Ado is a comedy, and therefore presents something like life in the ideal: life in which the designs of evil may cast a dark shadow, but a shadow that ultimately flees before the light. At the end all is well.

As Shakespeare presents, "all" being "well" is characterized chiefly by a right ordering of human relationships. For him to say so requires saying first off that there is a right ordering, and consequently that there are wrong orderings as well. Contrary to Benedict and Beatrice's early avowals, it is right that they marry, and it would have been wrong if they did not. The estate of Beatrice's father must be carried forward after he dies; Benedict cannot happily remain a bachelor forever, nor Beatrice a maid; the world must be peopled.

Moreover, it was right that Hero should have known no man when she married Claudio. Had the accusation against her not been false, it would have been right that she should be ashamed; in such a situation her father went so far as to say:
O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand.
Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wish'd for.
If we take Shakespeare seriously, we are presented with a double offense. The obvious offense is the content of the moral order here presented, which in our day has been rejected in nearly every respect. But before we arrive at the content of that order, we are first offended that there should even be such an order, objective and received, rather than subjective and created.

That I am in favor of an objective and received order over a subjective and created one, and that the order I believe would better make for peace, happiness, truth, and meaning resembles in many respects the one I have described here, is somewhat beside the point I wish to make. Rather, I would like to ask that we engage the question of the good life critically, rationally, and earnestly, with humility toward the past.

I want to emphasize humility toward the past. It is common to hear easy dismissals of past social orders. But I do not think that most who do so have done the intellectual heavy lifting required to make such statements. In essence, I do not believe they make the effort to understand that which they reject, nor do I believe they claim to.

I can think of two reasons why not. First, doing so is work, and there are many pursuits worthy of work. Second, doing so is unnecessary, because we are fundamentally different than those who lived in the past.

I will address the latter impulse before the former. C.S. Lewis called it chronological snobbery. I believe it stems in part from an idea of social progress that comes from the demonstrated reality of technological progress. The story goes something like this: People twenty years ago did not have the Internet, people seventy years ago did not have television, and people a hundred twenty years ago did not have electricity. Likewise, a hundred years ago women were not allowed to vote and what we now call racism was entrenched and accepted.

It is easy and natural to look at such a picture, which is stark and obvious, and to conclude that just as our technological advances have built on all of the best from our predecessors, so too have our social ideas advanced. We even have an idea of an abstract concept of a "civil rights movement," in which a society slowly becomes aware of a grave injustice in its order due to a minority courageously standing for the truth. I do not know how many times I have heard that such and such issue is "the Civil Rights issue of our time." Such an idea is an analog to the scientific method. It is an idea about how to make progress at a faster rate than it has been made in the past.

While the position that social progress is inevitable and self-advancing is completely natural given a naive presentation of contemporary life, it is overly simplistic. Unlike scientific knowledge, social knowledge does not automatically distill itself over time; that which is wrong is not naturally and inevitably corrected by that which is right. Rather, societies may regress as well as progress. Different ages may be peculiarly prescient, and they may also be peculiarly blind. That statement goes for the past, and it also goes for the present.

If true, we are brought more concretely back to the first objection to thinking about the past: it is hard work. If our age does not have a privileged moral position in the social realm, then the legitimacy of the claims of all other ages might seem to leave us in the midst of an indecipherable cacophany.

While I believe we may receive guidance from the past on how to make sense of the past, I will not dispute that we are left with a very difficult task. But I will assert that doing that work is not as hard as collectively going it alone, of soldiering into the terrifying future with nothing about us but our own wits. I will also assert that buried not so deeply in the sands of time are treasures of such richness that were we to possess them we would not think of questioning whether the manual work of digging was worth the opportunity cost. Luke Skywalker was better able to meet the foe with his father's lightsaber, and Frodo Baggins could not have faced Shelob without the light of an ancient star. We do well to carry with us the wisdom of our forebears.

Finally, I would like to respond to Jonathan's comment by acknolwedging the nonexistence of the kind of ideal past presented in Shakespeare's play. No people has ever built the just society or realized the rightness of all human relationships. But we in our time have considerably better heuristics available to us than "change is good" or "change is bad." In fact, thanks to technological advances, we may be better suited than any people has been to intelligently evaluate the past.

Let us set about the good work together. The future needs the past, and if we do not uncover it I do not know who will.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Communities and Networks

I wonder if the word "community" has become abused.

I am no etymologist, but I believe the original notion of the word refers both to a place and to the people who live in that place. My hometown of Phoenixville and those who live there constitute a community.

People in a community have in common that which pertains to their place, including a particular history and particular ways of life foisted upon them by their shared circumstance. Beyond that commonality, people in a community differ in many ways, but in the traditional sense they are more or less stuck with each other, and they must learn to get along. Healthy community life is a story of unity and diversity, running in both directions.

I fear this concept is more or less antiquated. One reason is that people are not tied as much to one place as they used to be. To give a simple example, my father was born in and died in Phoenixville Hospital. Rest assured, I will not be caught dead in my birthplace of Silver Spring, MD.

Along with this increased mobility, in many places there is no there to begin with, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. In large swaths of the country (including Silver Spring, MD) people are to get where they are going quickly in hermetically sealed containers, with destinations more or less indistinguishable from one another. People in such places are not forced into life with one another, and there are few distinguishing features around which they could build a distinct local identity anyway.

That it is very difficult in the midst of such social forces to keep from becoming alienated from one another and from nature, few will dispute. Indeed, a proliferation of technologies have stepped into the void. Such technologies promise to help us stay connected to those whom we love but who are far off, as well as to forge new and enriching connections.

Whatever the worth of these substitutes, it is important to main the distinction between them and this same idea of a community. They are not communities but networks; not agglomerations of disparate people in a particular place, but organizations of unified people in no particular place. To confuse them as such is to overlook fundamental truths about how human beings are meant to live.

Networks are suitable for organizing people for collective action, for communication about the mission of the group, and to some extent for the exchange of ideas. But they fail utterly at providing meaningful human connection. To take the most basic human relationship, friendship cannot be sustained across a mere network. Through a network it may be kept in stasis for a time, but if a connection is meaningful it will always converge toward life shared in person.

I doubt that these points about networks are very controversial, and yet as the exponentially advancing tide of technological growth drives us into ever more atomized existence, I do not see many making the hard life choices that could make for healthy life in a community. To be honest, I am not even sure how people could do so, short of dropping off of the grid and moving into an agricultural commune. I am by no means exempt from this criticism. I spend in excess of forty hours per week in front of a computer with people with whom I have no stake outside of the workplace, and I spend scarecly four hours per week collectively with those with whom I ostensibly have the closest connections.

Networks are not bad things. In general, I would say they are very good. But they are not communities, nor can they substitute for them. If we intend to preserve a civilization in which people can have meaningful life together, we will have to work very hard, and I suspect we will not receive much help from technology or from the voices of the world.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Trinity, as a JSON object

{What : {Who,
         Who : {What,

"The Trinity is three Whos in one What, and Jesus is two Whats in one Who." - Dr. Jan van Vliet

{God : {Father,
        Son : {God,

Note that even in this representation God would seem to "go infinite."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Weight of Futility

Cynicism, sarcasm, and a mode of detached indifference called "being ironic" have become the dominant posture through which my generation interacts with the world. This trend likely has deep roots, at least as deep as Bart Simpson, but I believe it has intensified in even the last five years. You could point to a lot of reasons, but a major one has got to be the continued emergence of electronic technologies.

These technologies are supposed to enrich our lives by making more accessible modes of expression that previously required a lot more money and expertise. My dad once told me about the painstaking work of splicing together 35mm film in the editing process when he was a teenager. A method like that required a lot more time and care than any of the free digital video editing programs out there, and professional or semiprofessional packages are not much harder to reach.

Making processes like video editing or photography or publishing easier and more accessible seems like a slam dunk, but one drawback is that the ease of producing the form of the medium can mask the absence of meaningful content. Any idiot can make a coherent movie now, but that doesn't mean that idiot has something worthwhile to say. The result is a saturation of media in which whatever is significant is buried among mountains of inanity.

I feel this malaise when I take pictures with the ridiculously affordable SLR I bought last May. Walking on the beach in Santa Cruz, California the other day I wanted to take a picture of the view looking down the coast at the reflection of sunlight off the ocean. Instantly I was awash in existential angst. First, in the world there are much more beautiful beaches at much more appealing seasons than Santa Cruz in late December. Second, I do not know how to make good use of my camera, and even if I did I am sure there is equipment which would improve the final product.

The connection of everything with everything means my photo could only be evaluated in the context of photographs of tropical beaches done by professionals the world over. Yet because everyone has seen so many of those pictures, even they elicit scarcely a neuron excitation in the brain. To even take the picture seemed a preposterous conceit, like a droplet of water aspiring to become an ocean wave and inevitably collapsing into an inconsequential eddy.

In a climate of such media ubiquity, it is easy to despair of saying anything original or meaningful. Whatever could be said has probably been said already a hundred thousand times, and probably more competently and expressively at that. At the same time, access to all of those prior expressions makes them essentially insignificant themselves.

The resulting world is one in which it seems there is nothing new to say, and in which that which has been said has demonstrably fallen short of the Ultimate. How could anyone interact with such a world, except through sarcasm, indifference, and cynicism? To do so is simply to bow to the crushing weight of futility.