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Eroding the internal self

The front line of simplicity right now is technological simplicity. How do we think well about technology? Because what I’m seeing is that our technical devices are causing an erosion of an internal self, an internal life. Ten years ago if my kid said something funny, I might have told my husband. Now I put it on Facebook. Anything that happens to us, we now externalize, which, I think, erodes an internal self.

Tish Harrison Warren, “Liturgies of Less and More”

A tapestry of acts of knowing

I do not believe that skepticism is the default mode for humans. For one thing, we are bothered by the inconsistency of saying that we know that nothing can be known, or that it is true that there is no truth.

But I believe also that we all feel within ourselves the misfit of skepticism, as Cinderella’s stepsisters did the glass slipper. (And you might say that for centuries we have been cutting off our big toe to make the slipper fit.) For knowing nothing at all, you and I seem to know quite a lot. Or at least we seem to live like it—that is, when it isn’t more personally advantageous to be skeptics. Vast portions of our lives and jobs and society are devoted to information, learning, and discovery. What’s more, we continually make advances from unknowing to knowing, whether in the classroom or the science lab or in the ordinary affairs of life. This is the story of our lives. This belies skepticism. We’ve felt compelled to call ourselves skeptics in the name of integrity. But all along we felt the inauthenticity of such a label, since our human lives, just because they are human lives, are a tapestry of acts of knowing.

— Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know 

Your third-grade teacher no doubt taught you that you should write well-formed English sentences, employing proper punctuation. If you don’t learn to write with sentences and proper punctuation, she warned, you’ll never get anywhere in life, because everything you said and wrote would be unintelligible. Unless you learn to write well-formed sentences and use punctuation properly, you’ll end up in prison or holding a sign scrawled with “Please help” at highway exits.

Yet even in our day, when the well-formed sentence is officially promoted as the key to sensible prose writing, there are many intelligible uses of language that do not employ well-formed sentences—lists, lecture notes, genealogies, stories told by children. Listen to a sports announcer for a half-hour, and I defy you to locate a single well-formed sentence.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

[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

Technical failures contribute to postmodern unmasking. Early in the nineteenth century, Germany undertook one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects ever attempted in central Europe—the “rectification” of the Rhine River in an effort to prevent flooding along the Rhine Valley and “to create a faster, deeper, shorter river whose formerly marshy plain could be turned over to agriculture.” This was only one of many water management projects that played a role in the creation of modern Germany—draining the floodplains of the Oder River, redirecting the Upper Rhine, monumental dam projects. It is an archetypal modern plan involving the management of the one of the most unmanageable of natural substances, water. It was a massive project to shepherd the wind and sculpt the mist. Despite many successes, floods continue to occur, though recent floods along the Oder have devastated portions of Poland and the Czech Republic rather than Germany—perhaps that was the plan all along.

The German water management project stands as a parable of modernity, and of postmodern disillusionment with modernity’s efforts to control the world. Moderns tried to instill shock and awe through smoke, pumping pistons, a loud voice; postmoderns pull back the curtain to find a little old man running the show, and not all that effectively. Postmodernism arises in part from the recognition that technology has never achieved the control it promised and claimed, that science—marked as it is by debate, uncertainty, contested evidence—has never been as unified and stable as the textbooks make it appear.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

Consider the array of profound and moving insights that the self-imposed constraints of a sonnet’s fourteen lines of iambic pentameter allow. Or how many small and large acts of love are made possible within the self-imposed constraints of a lifelong marriage or committed friendship. Just think of the potential resources in timber, fresh water, fish, poultry, and even crude oil if we produced and consumed within self-imposed constraints on our appetites and our use of resources we hope to pass on to the thousandth generation.

Doug Sikkema, “Minimalism for the Sake of the World”

The success of Deep Blue would seem not to shed much light on how expert chess players do what they do. It might well be objected, “ of course it doesn’t; it’s a computer!” This objection strikes me as just the right response, but sometimes common sense needs to be defended by an elaborate argument. We are constantly tempted to regard ourselves in the distorting mirror of technology, and in fact the “computational theory of mind” prevails in cognitive psychology (though it is becoming quite embattled). An entire academic field has its origin in the idea that we are computers. Further, the computer comes to represent an ideal, in light of which real thinking perversely begins to look deficient. Thus, when the postindustrial visionary reasons from the fact that complex systems involve “the interaction of too many variables for the mind to hold in correct order simultaneously” to the conclusion that “one has to use algorithms, rather than intuitive judgments, in making decisions,” he argues from the fact that the mind does not do what a computer does to an assertion about the incompetence of the mind. This seems to express an irrational prejudice against people. For, in fact, highly cultivated human minds can get to be pretty good at sussing out a burning building, playing chess, chasing down intermittent gremlins in a car’s electrical system, and who knows what else.

The fact that a firefighter’s knowledge is tacit rather than explicit, and therefore not capable of articulation, means that he is not able to give an account of himself to the larger society. He is not able to make a claim for the value of his mind in the terms that prevail, and may come to doubt it himself. But his own experience provides grounds for a radical critique of the view that theoretical knowledge is the only true knowledge.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft