Suffering, Joy, and Incarnate Presence

“I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” With this, John closed the third New Testament epistle that bears his name. The letter is nearly 1,900 years old, yet the sentiment is entirely recognizable. In fact, many of us have likely expressed similar sentiments; only for us it was more likely an electronic medium that we preferred to forego in favor of face to face communication. There are things better said in person; and, clearly, this is not an insight stumbled upon by digital-weary interlocutors of the 21st century.

Yet, John did pen his letter. There were things the medium would not convey well, but he said all that could be said with pen and ink. He recognized the limits of the medium and used it accordingly, but he did not disparage the medium for its limits. Pen and ink were no less authentic, no less real, nor were they deemed unnatural. They were simply inadequate given whatever it was that John wanted to communicate. For that, the fullness of embodied presence was deemed necessary. It was, I think, a practical application of a theological conviction which John had elsewhere memorably articulated.

In the first chapter of his Gospel, John wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” It is a succinct statement of the doctrine of the incarnation, what Christians around the world celebrate at Christmas time. The work of God required the embodiment of divine presence. Words were not enough, and so the Word became flesh. He wept with those who mourned, he took the hand of those no others would touch, he broke bread and ate with outcasts, and he suffered. All of this required the fullness of embodied presence. John understood this, and it became a salient feature of his theology.

For my part, these thoughts have been passing in and out of mind inchoately and inarticulately since the Newtown shooting, and specifically as I thought about the responses to the shooting throughout our media environment. I was troubled by the urge to post some reaction to the shooting, but, initially, I don’t think I fully understood what troubled me. At first, it was the sense that I should say something, but I’ve come to believe that it was rather that I should say something.

Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something struck me as an unjustifiably self-indulgent. I still believe this to be part of the larger picture, but there was more. Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something pointed to the limitations of the media through which we have been accustomed to interacting with the world. As large as images loom on digital media, the word is still prominent. For the most part, if we are to interact with the world through digital media, we must use our words.

We know, however, that our words often fail us and prove inadequate in the face of the most profound human experiences, whether tragic, ecstatic, or sublime. And yet it is in those moments, perhaps especially in those moments, that we feel the need to exist (for lack of a better word), either to comfort or to share or to participate. But the medium best suited for doing so is the body, and it is the body that is, of necessity, abstracted from so much of our digital interaction with the world. With our bodies we may communicate without speaking. It is a communication by being and perhaps also doing, rather than by speaking.

Of course, embodied presence may seem, by comparison to its more disembodied counterparts, both less effectual and more fraught with risk. Embodied presence enjoys none of the amplification that technologies of communication afford. It cannot, after all, reach beyond the immediate place and time.  And it is vulnerable presence. Embodied presence involves us with others, often in unmanageable, messy ways that are uncomfortable and awkward. But that awkwardness is also a measure of the power latent in embodied presence.

Embodied presence also liberates us from the need to prematurely reach for rational explanation and solutions — for an answer. If I can only speak, then the use of words will require me to search for sense. Silence can contemplate the mysterious, the absurd, and the act of grace, but words must search for reasons and fixes. This is, in its proper time, not an entirely futile endeavor; but its time is usually not in the aftermath. In the aftermath of the tragic, when silence and “being with” and touch may be the only appropriate responses, then only embodied presence will do. Its consolations are irreducible. This, I think, is part of the meaning of the Incarnation: the embrace of the fullness of our humanity.

Words and the media that convey them, of course, have their place, and they are necessary and sometimes good and beautiful besides. But words are often incomplete, insufficient. We cannot content ourselves with being the “disincarnate users” of electronic media that McLuhan worried about, nor can we allow the assumptions and priorities of disincarnate media to constrain our understanding of what it means to be human in this world.

At the close of the second epistle that bears his name, John also wrote, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” But in this case, he added one further clause. “Instead,” he continued, “I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Joy completed. Whatever it might mean for our joy to be completed, it is a function of embodied presence with all of its attendant risks and limitations.

May your joy be complete.

The Path A Decent Person Inevitably Takes

Identity and authenticity have been recent topics of discussion here, and they probably will be again. I am especially interested in technology’s role in shaping our identity and rendering authenticity elusive. I don’t think these are insignificant concerns, but today I was reminded that theoretical explorations of identity and authenticity are something of a luxury afforded those who enjoy relative peace and affluence.

I came by this reminder as I read Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern’s moving essay in The New York Review of Books on the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi. Their story is summed up in the opening paragraphs:

“We are concerned here with two exceptional men who from the start of the Third Reich opposed the Nazi outrages: the scarcely known lawyer Hans von Dohnanyi and his brother-in-law, the well-known pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dohnanyi recorded Nazi crimes, helped victims, did his best to sabotage Nazi policies, and eventually helped plot Hitler’s removal; Bonhoeffer fought the Nazis’ efforts to control the German Protestant churches. For both men the regime’s treatment of Jews was of singular importance. Holocaust literature is vast and the literature on German resistance scant, yet the lives and deaths of the two men show us important links between them.

Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer became close friends, especially after Dohnanyi drew his brother-in-law into active resistance against the regime. And their remarkable family deserves recognition, too, since its principled support was indispensable to their efforts. But Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer ended in defeat: they were arrested in April 1943 and then murdered, on Hitler’s express orders, just weeks before Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender.”

I encourage you read the whole thing. I trust you will find it a needed antidote to the scourge of cynicism, irony, and despair that often seems to plague us. It reminded me that even where darkness threatens to snuff out hope and goodness, not all lights flicker and fade. It also brought to mind something C. S. Lewis wrote that has stuck with me ever since I first read it years ago:

“In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely “First Servant.” All the characters around him-Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund-have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.”

When the Nazi’s came to power, Bonhoeffer was encouraged to leave Germany and he came to America for a time. But while safe and comfortable in New York, he was not at peace:

“I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany…. Christians in Germany are going to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.”

You need not share Bonhoeffer’s faith to recognize the measure of courage that was involved in such a choice. And, it seems to me, that whatever we come to think of identity and authenticity, it must reckon with such a choice.

Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern concluded:

“One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men and those closest to them deserve to be remembered and honored. Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said that they were ‘on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.’ So few traveled that path—anywhere.”

“The path that a decent person inevitably takes” — may we all strive for such decency.

Low-tech Practices and Identity

Hipsters, low tech, and the quest for authenticity — what do we make of the interplay among these three phenomena? In two recent posts at Cyborgology, P. J. Rey and Nathan Jurgenson addressed this question in an exchange of overlapping perspectives with competing points of emphasis. I encourage you to read each piece, but here is how I would characterize their respective arguments.

Rey, for his part, advanced the thesis that hipster fixation on lo-tech gear is mostly about achieving a sense of mastery over technology, a mastery that is mostly unattainable over more complex contemporary technology. This mastery also affirms a sense of individuality and independence. Rey concludes:

“The hipster low-tech fantasy–”the dream of the 1890s“–is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out.”

In his response, Jurgenson argues that Rey is focusing on the wrong thing. To put in Aristotelian terms, the retro-tech is accidental, identity construction is the essence. The really important dynamic is  not the hipster fixation on low-tech, but rather the imperative to construct an authentic, individual identity. Of course, shifting to Hegel-ese, the contradiction that constructs the desire is the inherent inauthenticity of constructed identities; the goal, under the conditions it is pursued, is unattainable.

Reading these two posts, particularly Rey’s initial offering, I was reminded of categories employed by the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann. Borgmann, whose thinking about technology arises from his engagement with Martin Heidegger, distinguishes between devices and focal things. Here’s the difference as I explained it in an earlier post:

Writing about technological culture, Borgmann distinguished between devices characterized by a “commodious,” accessible surface and a hidden, opaque machinery below the surface on the one hand and what he calls focal things on the other.  Devices are in turn coupled with consumption and focal things are paired with focal practices.  Focal things and practices, according to Borgmann, “gather our world and radiate significance in ways that contrast with the diversion and distraction afforded by commodities.”  In short, we merely use devices while we engage with focal things.

With those distinctions in mind, Borgmann continues, “Generally, a focal thing is concrete and of commanding presence.”   A commanding presence or reality is later opposed to “a pliable or disposable reality.”  Further on still, Borgmann writes, “Material culture in the advanced industrial democracies spans a spectrum from commanding to disposable reality.  The former reality calls forth a life of engagement that is oriented within the physical and social world.  The latter induces a life of distraction that is isolated from the environment and from other people.”  On that last point, bear in mind that Borgmann is writing in the early 2000s before the onset of social media.

Borgmann’s categories enjoy some interesting points of contact with Rey’s analysis. The notion of a  commodious device, for example, that presents what we might call a user-friendly surface while hiding an inaccessible complexity below that surface tracks with Rey’s sense that hipsters have turned to low-tech in order to engage with technologies over which a certain degree of mastery can be achieved.

The objects in themselves are not, therefore, mere signifiers in a what is essentially the work of identity construction as I take Jurgenson to argue. Not too long ago I offered a few disorganized reflections on the sources of the modern imperative to construct one’s identity. This imperative arises, in part, from the erosion of traditional social structures that functioned as anchors for the self. It is a by-product of the solidity of the premodern world dissolving into the liquidity of the postmodern, to borrow Bauman’s metaphor. That said, it would be a mistake to conclude that we are always involved in the work of identity construction in equal measure. In fact, I think this is where Borgmann’s phenomenological analysis of the commanding presence of focal things may prove most useful.

Borgmann, if I understand him correctly, distinguishes between focal things and devices mostly on the basis of the sort of engagement they require. Simply put, a focal thing demands more of one’s self than a device. We are mere users of devices, focal things invite us to become practitioners. The paradigmatic focal thing for Borgmann is a musical instrument, and this example is particularly instructive.

It is possible for a musician to have the experience of losing themselves in the act of playing a musical instrument. In other words, in such focal practices the imperative to construct one’s identity is counteracted by the very nature of the focal thing and its attendant practice. It is, of course, possible to argue, and in fact very likely, that the pursuit of musical skill is itself an instance of identity creation. But the nature of the practice itself, if the testimony of practitioners may be trusted, finally resists that impulse. We might imagine the same to be true for a wide range of practices, particularly as one approaches a level of expertise in the practice and find themselves “in the flow,” which is to say in a state of almost non-conscious action. This state, phenomenologically, would appear to be the polar opposite of the hyper-self-consciousness that the performance of identity assumes.

I should add that such practices are not necessarily limited to the low-tech or the analog. I imagine that for the expert coder or computer programmer, for example, may find themselves similarly taken in by their work.

I am reminded once again of a passage in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

“It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

Conrad’s Marlow captures neatly the dynamic of Borgmann’s focal things and practices. They are not finally about the performance of an identity, and they may even allow for an entirely different approach to the matter of identity. As Marlow puts it, he values what is in the work, namely “the chance to find yourself.”

It is the desire expressed by the lyrics of what might possibly be a rather hipster-ish band, The Head and the Heart:

“I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade.
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days.”

My interest in these matters, however, is not tied to an exploration of the hipster psyche. In the limited case of the hipster, Jurgenson may very well be right, it is all performance all the way down. But I believe that Rey is also right in focusing on the low-tech objects that are the paraphernalia of hipster culture. They are not insignificant in themselves even if the hipsters have stumbled upon this reality accidentally.

Happily, the world is populated by more than hipsters and it includes those who find in their analog and low-tech practices something more than an opportunity to perform a particular identity, they find a respite, momentary perhaps, from the imperative to perform. Moreover, it is not mastery that they are after, but rather a certain form of engagement with the world that is its own reward.


Update: Some further thoughts on authenticity here.

Curiosity and Wonder

I was up during the wee hours of Monday morning to watch NASA’s live feed of mission control as Curiosity made its way to the surface of Mars. I’d been turned on to the whole affair by the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video that made the rounds in the weeks leading up to the landing. The video described all that had to go just right for Curiosity to land safely. If it worked, it would be a marvel. And, as we all know, it did and it was.

Watching the whole affair unfold, I was struck by the drama of it all — the suspense, the elation, the tears, the euphoria. It was fascinating on multiple levels: On its own terms as a triumph of engineering and ingenuity, as a media event generating memes as it unfolded (notably the Mohawk guy), as a rekindler of awe and wonder, and as a skirmish in the war of science and religion some are determined to wage.

I found the last of these particularly interesting, and perhaps a bit misguided. Take, for example, this tweet which appears to have brought its author a burst of Twitter-fame:

Just after the landing, I added my own tweet to the explosion of commentary: “Interplanetary Technological Sublime.” Needless, to say it was not retweeted 16,000+ times. I was alluding to what historian of technology David Nye has termed the American technological sublime. It is the sense of quasi-religious (and quite often not so quasi-) awe that has attended the life of technology in the United States.

One might also have drawn a connection to the religion of technology as it was chronicled by the late David Noble. Whatever we might conclude philosophically about their relationship, historically technology and religion have been entangled with one another. And the entanglement has quite often been anything but adversarial.

In a recent post at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen noted this entanglement in the arena of space exploration. Noble, in his chapter on the technology of religion as exemplified by the American space program, provides a multitude of further instances in addition to those related by Rosen. The chapter would surprise, and perhaps scandalize readers who were not already aware of the history. One example: When NASA recently confirmed that five of the six flags left by American astronauts on the moon still stood, they might also have checked to see if the Bible left sitting on the Apollo 15 lunar rover was still intact. See photo below:

At the conclusion of her post, Rosen wrote, “There is perhaps nothing more human than the curiosity that compels exploration. But paired with that curiosity is a search for meaning — we don’t want to know just what is out there, we want to turn it into something with a story, something with sense.”

Curiosity — it gets us back to where we started. Curiosity, the quest to understand, the search for life, wonder at the mind’s apprehension of the universe — whatever else we conclude about these things, it would be mistaken to draw too sharp a distinction between the techno-scientific and the religious impulses. Historically, at least, the line has not been as sharp as we may suppose.

Wonder and awe lie near the heart of both pursuits — or else, why would we cry.

The New New (Actually Old, Pascalian) Atheists

So I thought this was interesting. In a discussion of the New New Atheists (no, that wasn’t a typo) in Harper’s, Christopher Beha cites Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher at Duke, who “insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will.”

Now, is it just me or wasn’t that kind of Nietzsche’s whole point some hundred and twenty or so years ago? So at least one of the New New Atheists is actually just like the Old Atheists. In any case, I appreciate the consistency.

Of course, this is a gloomy picture and Rosenberg acknowledges that it can create a certain angst in some:  “There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.”

So Beha asks Rosenberg what can be done about this. Response:

“Rosenberg’s answer in his book is basically to ignore it. The modern world offers lots of help in this effort. To begin with, there are pharmaceuticals; Rosenberg strongly encourages those depressed by the emptiness of the Godless world to avail themselves of mood-altering drugs. Then there are the pleasures of acquisitive consumer culture—the making of money and the getting of things.”

Well, at least this is honest — and oddly Pascalian in an inverted sort of way.