Archive for the ‘Cultural Criticism’ Category

I’ve read several articles and posts recently featuring the same conceit: that COVID–19 and police violence are the “twin plagues” or “parallel plagues” of black America.  …

What we need here, if we’re going to continue to speak the language of plague, that is, the language of disease, is the distinction between acute and chronic affliction. I’m speaking metaphorically here, in terms of how whole populations are affected by some invasive, destructive force, whether it’s a literal biological disease or not. I’m thinking of the black population of America as a single body. And in relation to that body COVID–19 is an acute disorder. It has sprung up quickly, out of nowhere, and afflicted people intensely. It just might go away. (From my keyboard to God’s ears.)

Police violence, by contrast, is a chronic disorder. It goes on year after year after year, decade after decade after decade. …

If you think of the black population of this country as a body, then COVID–19 is indeed a terrible plague ravaging it. The fear, the expectation, of police violence isn’t like that: it’s instead a misery that the body (the whole body of black Americans) must suffer and suffer and suffer, with no end in sight. People who have chronic diseases know that what’s attacking them probably won’t kill them — but even if it doesn’t, it might make them wish they were dead. It frays their nerves. It disrupts their sleep. It damages their relationships and weakens their judgment. It makes them vulnerable to other afflictions that really could kill them.

If you’re a black person in America, walking down the streets of a city, the cops probably won’t stop you. But they might. If a cop stops you, he probably won’t kill you. But he might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. The constant awareness of that possibility is itself an affliction. …

We shouldn’t conflate the sudden onset of COVID–19 and the endless tension that arises from walking, or doing anything else, while black. But keeping them conceptually distinct, we can still see them as have this essential thing in common: they attack the bodies of black Americans, they attack the social body that is Black America.

Those of us who are white don’t know much, firsthand, about that chronic affliction. But you know, while the coronavirus itself might be acute, For all of us concern about it has become chronic. Buying groceries probably won’t make us ill. But it might. And if we get ill, we probably won’t die. But we might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. We’re learning how to live at tiptoe stance. Our nerves are fraying after just a few months. Imagine what it would be like to live this way all our lives long.

Alan Jacobs

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The third, and most important, reason why appeals to expertise are futile is that the term “expert” functions as a kind of class marker. An expert is One Who Knows, a member of the noocracy or epistocracy — and you are not. “Experts say” is a phrase that often carries a strong implication: “So shut up and heed your betters.” This is not the sort of message that Americans like, even when maybe they ought to.

My suggestion to journalists, then, is simple: Never use the word “expert.” If you are tempted to say “We talked to an expert,” say instead that you talked to an immunologist, or an epidemiologist — and then take a moment to explain what an immunologist or epidemiologist actually is. Tell us that you talked to someone who has spent twenty years studying the ways that diseases are transmitted, especially from one person to another. Yes, that takes longer than saying “expert,” but it’s worth it. To describe the person you’re interviewing or quoting in that more detailed way tells a little story, a story not about someone standing on a pedestal labeled “EXPERT,” but rather a person who is continually working to learn more. A person who has thought hard, and tested her ideas, and worked with colleagues who care about the same things. A person whom we should listen to not because she belongs to a certain class that’s higher than ours, but rather because she‘s dedicated to gaining knowledge — and knowledge directly relevant to the questions we’re all asking right now.

It should be obvious that this discipline will also ensure that journalists rely on people with the appropriate knowledge. When you’re scrambling to find someone to interview or cite and can only find someone whose field is but tangentially related to the question at hand, he word “expert” can neatly obscure your problem.

All this takes more time and effort. But the word “expert” has been poisoned now for millions of people, and not always for bad reasons. I know that in journalism time is often short and word-count limited, but journalists have a responsibility to educate as well as inform their public, and this is a way to do that better. After all, you want to be an expert communicator, don’t you?

Alan Jacobs

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Augustine would give a name to this kind of disordered relationship to wisdom and learning: curiositas. Curiosity for Augustine is not the spirit of inquiry we prize and encourage; rather, it is a kind of quest for knowledge that doesn’t know what it’s for—a knowing for knowing’s sake, we might say, or perhaps more to the point, knowing for the sake of being known as someone who knows. For Augustine, the reason I want to know is an indicator of the sort of love that motivates my learning. Am I learning in order to grow, learning in order to know who and how to love? Or am I learning in order to wield power, get noticed, be seen as smart, be “in the know”? The disordered love of learning makes you a mere technician of information for some end other than wisdom, and the irony is that philosophy could devolve into just another way of idolizing. Indeed, Augustine could still see this in himself by the time he was a teacher: “I was seeking to use my education to please other people—not to teach them, but just to please them.”

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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The point of discussing ambition in terms of idolatry isn’t denunciation; it’s diagnostic. Our idolatries are less like conscious decisions to believe a falsehood and more like learned dispositions to hope in what will disappoint. Our idolatries are not intellectual; they are affective—instances of disordered love and devotion. Idolatry is caught more than it is taught. We practice our way into idolatries, absorb them from the water in which we swim. Hence our idolatries often reflect the ethos of our environments. To consider ambition through the lens of idolatry is not to wag our finger in judgment but to specify the theological and spiritual nature of disorder. Augustine wants you to consider: What if, buried in your ambition, is a desire for something more, someone else? Might that explain the persistent disappointment?

For Augustine, we are made for joy. Joy is another name for the rest we find when we give ourselves over to the One who, for the joy that was set before him, gave himself for us. We find joy when we look for the satisfaction of our hungers in the Triune God who will never leave us or forsake us, when we find our enjoyment in an immortal God whose love is unfailing. That is rightly ordered love, and it is rightly ordered worship.

What, then, is idolatry? Idolatry, on this account, isn’t just a problem because it’s “false” worship, on the register of truth, or merely a transgression of a commandment (though it is both of those). Existentially, the problem with idolatry is that it is an exercise in futility, a penchant that ends in profound dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Idolatry, we might say, doesn’t “work”—which is why it creates restless hearts. In idolatry we are enjoying what we’re supposed to be using. We are treating as ultimate what is only penultimate; we are heaping infinite, immortal expectations on created things that will pass away; we are settling on some aspect of the creation rather than being referred through it to its Creator. Augustine describes this by using the metaphor of a journey: disordered love is like falling in love with the boat rather than the destination. The problem is that the boat won’t last forever and is going to start to feel claustrophobic. Your heart is built for another shore.

When our ambition settles, as it were, for attention or domination—when we imagine that our goal is to be noticed or to win, or both—we are actually lowering our sights. We are aiming low. The arc of our ambition hugs the earth, and we expect to find fulfillment from people looking at us, from beating everybody else in this competition for attention.

But what happens when their attention turns away, fleeting as it is? What happens after you get the grass garland, the medal, the scholarship, the promotion? How many “likes” is enough? How many followers will make you feel valued?

What if you’re wired not to be “liked” but to be loved, and not by many but by One? Could that explain why all the attention is never enough? Or why a kind of postpartum depression sets in after every “win,” every time you make it to the top of what you thought was the mountain of achievement? Why does winning leave you feeling so restless?

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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What are we looking for in our ambition? What do we hope to find at the end of our aspirations? In Augustine’s experience—like our own—the answer is complicated. There is a bundle of hopes and hungers bound up with our ambitions, but so often they boil down to the twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention—to win the crown and be seen doing it.

Augustine’s map of this particular terrain of the hungry heart is as useful as ever because so little has changed. When Augustine reflects on ambition, he’s really delving into the dynamics of fame. Could anything be more contemporary? We live in an age where everybody’s famous. We’ve traded the hope of immortality for a shot at going viral. What is Instagram if not a platform for attention? Arcade Fire’s song “Creature Comfort” is a chilling assessment of the extent to which the quest for attention has almost become synonymous with the conatus essendi, our reason to be. And if we can’t have it, we’d rather not be. We

Stand in the mirror
and wait for the feedback
Saying God, make me famous
If you can’t, just make it painless.

But naming the symptoms is easy. The challenge is diagnosing the disease. The question is: What do we want when we want attention? What are we hoping for when we aspire to win this game of being noticed?

For Augustine, the only way to get to the root of this desire is to understand it as a spiritual craving. That’s why we can only truly understand disordered ambition if we read it as a kind of idolatry. If our ambition becomes a roadblock to peace, an inhibitor that robs us of the rest and joy we’re looking for, it’s because we’ve substituted something in place of the end for which we were made.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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This experience of the refugee, the tenuous existence of one forced to flee and wander, is movingly captured in Stefan Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday. Zweig was a Jewish émigré formed by fin-de-siècle Vienna but uprooted by tensions and monstrosities that befell Europe in the early twentieth century: World War I, the Russian Revolution, and eventually the specter of Hitler’s Nazism (Zweig died in 1942). The memoir is very much an account of his uprooted life on the road, roaming the continent, migrating to London and eventually Brazil. Zweig captures what it feels like to be an émigré.

Every form of emigration inevitably, of its nature, tends to upset your equilibrium. You lose—and this too has to be experienced to be understood—you lose something of your upright bearing if you no longer have the soil of your own land beneath your feet; you feel less confident, more distrustful of yourself. And I do not hesitate to confess that since the day when I first had to live with papers or passports essentially foreign to me, I have not felt that I entirely belong to myself anymore. Something of my natural identity has been destroyed forever with my original, real self. I have become less outgoing than really suits me, and today I—the former cosmopolitan—keep feeling as if I had to offer special thanks for every breath of air that I take in a foreign country.

There is more than one way to be on the road. There is, of course, a vulnerability to this experience—an exposure, what Zweig describes as a kind of dependence that he resents, a sense that his existence is a favor granted by others, that even the air he breathes is something for which he is obligated to give thanks. But what would it mean to “entirely belong to myself”? Is self-possession the way I find security? Or could even this experience be a door to a different way of being where my dependence is not something I resent but something that I learn is the condition of creaturehood? While this might be an affront to my autonomy, perhaps it is my autonomy that is the source of my dis-ease, not its solution. What if dependence is a gift because it means I’m not alone? What if the welcome I experience elsewhere is how I learn to be human.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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In a 2013 blog post about whether or not she coined the term “context collapse,” boyd points to her indebtedness to a book by Joshua Meyrowitz called No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Written in 1985 and mostly concerning electronic media like TV and radio, Meyrowitz’s work reads now as eerily prescient, ripe for translation by boyd into online terms. At its very outset, No Sense of Place presents a thought experiment that sounds like the analog Version of modern-day Twitter.

Meyrowitz Writes that when he was in college in the 1950s, he’d gone on an exciting three-month summer vacation, and when he got home, he was eager to share his experiences with his friends, family, and other acquaintances. Obviously, he says, he varied the stories and the telling based on the audience: his parents got the clean version, his friends got the adventurous version, and his professors got the cultured version. Meyrowitz asks us to consider what would happen to his trip narrative if, on his return, his parents had thrown him a surprise homecoming party where all of those groups were present together. He ventures that he would have either 1) offended one or more of the groups, or 2) created a “synthesized” account that was “bland enough to offend no one.” But no matter which one, he writes, “the situation would have been profoundly different from the interactions I had with isolated audiences.” Meyrowitz’s imagined options are analogous to boyd and Marwick’s observations in their paper on Twitter users and personal brands. Option 1 (offending an unintended audience) is what happens with those whose old tweets are dug up; Option 2 (“bland enough to offend no one”) is the professional social media star, a person reverse-engineered from a formula of what is most palatable to everyone all the time. Taken to its logical conclusion, Option 2 would eventually create a race to the mediocre bottom that has been repeatedly decried by cultural critics like Jaron Lanier.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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