Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

In his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, de Zengotita argues that we experience our world with a hyperawareness of representation. So, for example, when we go for a walk in the woods alone, we are never merely going for a walk in the woods alone; our experience of nature is filtered through the Instagram pictures we take and our awareness of how our friends will experience those pictures, and how they will think about us in light of those pictures. Or we might mediate the walk through an outdoors hipster aesthetic that we’ve pieced together from indie folk band album covers. Or we might mediate the walk through an awareness of global warming and its effects on the environment. However we conceive of the walk, it is never simply a walk in the woods. Of course, to some extent, this has always been our human experience; we’ve always experienced life as an interconnected web. But with the tremendous growth of technology and the media, of life as public performance, our ability to resist mediation has declined. In our world, we have to fight harder to experience the present shorn of stultifying mediation.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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[H]ere is the storyline I suggest: The Renaissance saw that life was vapor, and it either rejoiced or despaired, but in the main considered vapor to be an unavoidable feature of human existence. Renaissance humanists had a high tolerance for uncertainty, probable knowledge, political tumult, social mobility. Following the Reformation, however, Europe was decimated by a century of war. Modernity began not from the Renaissance but in the wake of religious war, and modern thinkers, politicians, and scientists set out on a centuries-long project of controlling the vapor and roil of the world, so as to ensure that the world would never again be thrown into the tumult of what they described as religious conflict. Modernity’s control has been so effective that some believed it had been achieved, until mist leaked out under the laboratory door. As an economic and social system, postmodernity is a historical demonstration that modernity’s control was illusory in important respects, and postmodern theory is the intellectual reflection on this historical demonstration.

So: Modernity builds a glass and steel office box-building, a housing project that looks like and is intended to be a “machine for living”; postmodernity’s buildings are ironically decorated with symbols from a half-dozen architectural styles. Modernity zones the city into commercial, residential, educational, and other areas; postmodernity integrates life, work, and leisure in a local neighborhood. Modernity mechanizes the universe and the human person; postmodernity disperses the self and the universe in a fluid organism. Modernity is a Newtonian universe, a machine operating by mathematically expressible laws; postmodernity is an expanding universe, which is perhaps alive, and postmoderns are convinced that scientific laws are less discovered than invented. Modernity says bigger is better; postmodernity says, Not necessarily, and Who says? Modernity unifies diverse groups into a nation-state, an ethnically and culturally homogenous national community, organized by a central bureaucracy, perpetuated by universal public education; postmodernity diffuses into a multiethnic nation that threatens to fragment into a loose confederation. Modernity drums out regular rhythm, like a piston; postmodernity is syncopated. Modernity manages the economy, whether through a centralized party bureaucracy or through a central bank’s manipulation of credit; postmodernity thrives on a flexible global economy that escapes the management and control of any single government. Modernity reduces the world to hard particles; postmodernity reduces the particles until matter dissolves into energy. Modernity tracks GNP, GDP, and the trade deficit, convinced that a change in policy can improve them; postmodernity is more interested in quality of life and sustainable growth, with attention to the ecological impact of economic activity. Modernity marches; postmodernity flows. Modernity is statistical analysis; postmodernity is outcomes-based and qualitative. Modernity shops for goods in a one-stop department store; postmodernity shops for pleasure in a megamall of specialty shops. Modernity systematizes theology and declares popes infallible; postmodernity says theology is more like poetry, turns the priest around to face the congregation, and gives him a banjo. Modernity neatly divides human life into zones of activity and interest— separating home and workplace, work and leisure, business and high culture, religion and politics; postmodernity breaches those boundaries by returning work to the home, by making work fun, by selling elegantly styled cultural products, by mixing religion and politics, by displaying a urinal in an art museum. Modernity gets down to business, testing hypotheses with well-designed experiments and diligent library research; postmodernity frets aloud about whether research is even possible, grumbles about the difficulties of knowing anything about the world or the past, and hedges all conclusions with a fifty-page theoretical introduction to every book. Modernity hopes that high culture will seep down and raise the stinking masses from their slough; postmodernity destroys the boundaries of highbrow and lowbrow and swallows everything up in a mass of commercialized pop culture. Modernity wears a suit to the office and slippers at home; postmodernity works at home in a bathrobe and wears jeans to the office. Modernity is a city under smog, its buildings blackened by factory smoke; postmodernity is the green belt around London. Modernity is a clock; postmodernity is a turbulent stream, a swiftly moving weather system. Modernity is checkerboard; postmodernity is fractal.

In a word, modernity is mid-twentieth-century Detroit; post-modernity is Vegas.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns

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Descartes, generally credited with inaugurating the scientific revolution, begins from radical doubt about the very existence of an external world, and builds up the principles of scientific inquiry from the foundation of a radically self-contained subject.

Yet this solipsistic ideal doesn’t gibe perfectly with the history of science. For in fact, in areas of well-developed craft practices, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end. The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics. This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Both ideals [of “meaningful work” and “self-reliance”] are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.

Some people respond by learning to grow their own vegetables. There are even reports of people raising chickens on the rooftops of apartment buildings in New York City. These new agrarians say they get a deep satisfaction from recovering a more direct relationship to the food they eat. Others take up knitting, and find pride in wearing clothes they have made themselves. The home economics of our grandmothers is suddenly cutting-edge chic–why should this be? In hard economic times, we want to be frugal. Frugality requires some measure of self-reliance–the ability to take care of your own stuff. But the new interest in self-reliance seems to have arisen before the specter of hard times. Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: we want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Further, such squeamishness [engendered by subjectivism] creates a certain normative vacuum in our public spaces. In walking off the field of our shared moral and aesthetic life, we cede that field to corporate forces, which are not at all shy about offering up a shared experience: the emo coming out of the sound system. That’s what we end up with. The way anonymous others leap in on our behalf and install these systems, without anyone taking responsibility for them, makes the shared experience unavailable for discussion. It can’t be subject to disputation, and this is why it feels suffocating.

The taken-for-granted presence of the Muzak system spares us the exposure that comes from bringing forward one’s own taste for others to respond to…. And this process is self-reinforcing: the saturation of public space by the inevitably lame manufactured experience spurs us to plug in our earbuds, reinforcing our self-enclosure.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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There are two constants in these stories. First, churches from different denominations minister together. Second, churches cooperate with political leaders on projects that benefit the entire community. Christendom is being rebuilt on a human scale in town after town across America. It is a model of ministry suited to our historical moment. As the Yoderites and Hauerwasites have been telling us for some time, Christendom is dead. The religious right was its last, long suspiration. Though there are millions of Christians in the United States and Europe, Christian faith no longer provides the moral compass, the sacred symbolism, or the telos for Western institutions.

America’s Protestant establishment has collapsed. Neither evangelical Protestants nor Catholics nor a coalition of the two is poised to replace it. Christian America was real, but—whatever its great virtues and great flaws—it is gone, and the slightly frantic experiments have failed to revive the corpse. It is past time to issue a death certificate. That’s a sobering conclusion, and it is tempting for Christians to slink back to our churches. For innovative, visionary pastors and civic leaders, though, there are hundreds of realistic, locally based, ecumenically charged opportunities to foster experiments in Christian social and political renewal. Christendom is dead! Long live the micro-Christendoms!

— Peter Leithart, The End of Protestantism

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Spend any amount of time in the black church and you’ll soon hear someone pray: “I thank you, Lord, that I woke up this morning in my right mind, and with the use and activity of my limbs.” The first few times I heard that it seemed a little, well, rudimentary. And yet that prayer sustained a people who were continually reminded of their powerlessness by small and large humiliations, reorienting them to the gifts that no oppression could take away. It affirmed the power to think and move in the world-it was a dignity-sustaining prayer, a repudiation of powerlessness and despair.

The way to genuine cultural creativity starts with the recognition that we woke up this morning in our right mind, with the use and activity of our limbs-and that every other creative capacity we have has likewise arrived as a gift we did not earn and to which we were not entitled. And once we are awake and thankful, our most important cultural contribution will very likely come from doing whatever keeps us precisely in the center of delight and surprise.

— Culture Making, Andy Crouch

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