Keeping Time, Keeping Silent

What shape does a well ordered life take and how does one achieve such a thing? I certainly don’t have a story of personal triumph on this score to share with you, but I’m fairly certain that if I did it would focus on the re-ordering of a disordered relationship to time. Time, in fact, is the theme of a commencement address delivered by Paul Ford to the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The speech, titled “10 Timeframes”, addresses the changing frames by which we measure and understand our experience of time, from the farmer whose frames are the changing season to the computer scientist who works with nanoseconds.

Commencement addresses are difficult to do well or in any kind of original fashion, but Ford managed both and my excerpts here will not convey either the feel or the insight of the whole. That said, here are the fragments of Ford’s speech I want to bring into conversation with the second piece which I’ll get to in just a minute. After giving a few illustrative examples, Ford reminds his listeners of the following:

“So it’s only a few hundred years ago that people started to care about centuries, and then more recently, decades. And of course hours and minutes. And in the last 40 years we’ve got 86 trillion nanoseconds a day, and a whole industry trying to make every one of them count.”

He introduced the nanosecond by referring back to a book published in the early 1980’s on the history of the computer, The Soul of a New Machine. After quoting one engineer describing the significance of nano-seconds, Ford then tells his audience,”One of the engineers in the book burned out and quit and he left a note that read: ‘I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.'”

Ford, who is speaking to creative types who will design digital tools that other creative types will use to do all sorts of work, concludes: “And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? Am I going to help someone make order in his or her life, or am I going to send that person to a commune in Vermont?”

Perhaps it would not be so bad to be in a commune in Vermont, but Ford clearly understood that one engineer’s decision to be the product of exhaustion — exhaustion that resulted from continuous work within a frame of time that led to a disordered experience of life.

Many of the discontents and disorders associated with modernity, discontents and disorders that are exacerbated by the advent of digital culture, revolve around time. Ford reminds us that our experience of time has a history, a history intimately tied to our machines for measuring time as Lewis Mumford observed many years ago. Mumford’s observations about the mechanical clock, whose origins lie in medieval monasticism, segue nicely (and somewhat paradoxically) to the second piece.

“How Silence Works”, a transcript of Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s email interviews with Trappist monks in the Benedictine Order living in Quebec, also dwells on the shape of the well ordered life. As the title suggests, the interviews focus on the place of silence in the monastic life. Contrary to popular belief, the Trappists take no “vow of silence,” although silence is an integral part of their communal life. As with Ford’s piece, I encourage you to read the whole, it is brimming with timely wisdom and insight.

Out of the many passages that are worth noting in the email exchanges, I’ll draw your attention to two. The first ties in nicely with Ford’s concerns. Mesiano-Crookston asks, “Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?” In response one monk wrote,

“I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to [in a previous question] seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don’t know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant.”

The practices of the monastery, including the practice of silence, a practice that has the collateral effect of slowing down time, yield a frame of time (to borrow Ford’s terminology) quite different from the frame of time most of us work with in our day to day life. Saying as much is probably stating the obvious. But without suggesting that we all take up the monastic life, it would seem that with smaller gestures we might come closer to an ordering of time that was, simply put, better for us. Perhaps taking a cue  from the monastic life, we might learn to cultivate small rituals that establish a more humane rhythm for our daily life. Such small gestures are certainly within the realm of the possible for most of us. We might find that such small gestures — micro-practices to borrow sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s wording — may have a considerable impact on the shape of our experience.

Asked whether they believed the practice of silence were beneficial for all people, one of the monks replied,

“I would say the cultivation of silence is indispensable to being human. People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can’t find it? Not to worry—it will find them.”

Perhaps. It is hard to quibble with a point so eloquently put; but while silence may indeed find us, I think that we ought also to do a little searching for it ourselves. At the very least, we should be prepared to receive it when it does find us. Perhaps then, in silence, we will find ourselves better able to recalibrate our frame of time and achieve something more closely resembling a well-ordered life.

Body and Soul

From Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals. Speaking of Aristotle’s many commentators:

“They have underestimated the importance of the fact that our bodies are animal bodies with the identity and continuities of animal bodies. Other commentators have understood this. And it was his reading not only of Aristotle, but also of Ibn Rushd’s commentary that led Aquinas to assert: ‘Since the soul is part of the body of a human being, the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I” (Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians XV, 1, 11; note also that Aquinas, unlike most moderns, often refers to nonhuman animas as ‘other animals’). This is a lesson that those of us who identify ourselves as contemporary Aristotelians may need to relearn, perhaps from those phenomenological investigations that enabled Merleau-Ponty also to conclude that I am my body.”

This passage struck me for two reasons. The first is the host of assumptions that are challenged by that one line from Aquinas. That line alone troubles all sorts of commonly held misconceptions regarding the theological anthropology of the medieval Christian tradition. Misconceptions held both by those inside and outside of the tradition.

The second, of course, is MacIntyre’s recommendation of Merleau-Ponty and his investigations of the body’s role in structuring experience. Seconded.

Revisiting “The Religion of Technology”

Several months ago I wrote a short post on David Noble’s The Religion of Technology. Having recently revisited the book I thought it would be worthwhile to post about Noble’s work once again, this time with a little more detail.

Noble’s thesis offers an intriguing perspective on the relationship between religion and technology. By tracing their historical entwinement, Noble claimed to expose more than “a merely metaphorical” relationship between the two. Noble intended the designation, religion of technology, “literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”

Noble is making an important distinction here. It is not uncommon to hear people talk metaphorically about technology in religiously inflected language or to draw analogies between religious practices and technology. As an example consider the poster below for “Login: The Conference of Future Insight” by the New! ad agency (h/t @troy_s). This poster analogically relates religion to technology by taking as its theme, “What will we worship next?” The question implies that we “worship” technology analogously to the worship of the religious believer, or that technology functions analogously to a deity in the life of the believer. This is a perfectly valid and suggestive angle of inquiry. However, it is not exactly what Noble has in mind. He unearths a concrete historical interrelationship between the Western technological project and the Christian tradition. A relationship, incidentally, which Noble hoped could be severed for the benefit of all involved.

By the New! ad agency

According to Noble, the religion of technology constitutes “an enduring ideological tradition that has defined the dynamic Western technological enterprise since its inception.” Consequently, it’s influence is evident not only upon “professed believers and those who employ explicitly religious language,” but also on many for “whom the religious compulsion is largely unconscious, obscured by a secularized vocabulary.” This influence manifests itself in the utopian hopes attached to the technological enterprise and can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. These utopian hopes include the expectation that technology would bring about the perfection of the individual and of society and serve as a vehicle of transcendence.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The religion of technology emerges out of a worldview that posits an original state of perfection that, once lost, must be retrieved. Noble’s narrative traces the manner in which technology came to occupy a central place in this effort to regain the lost paradise. The medieval Christian worldview posited the requisite fallen condition: humanity had, by Adam’s sin, fallen from a state of spiritual and material perfection, and technology’s entanglement with the project of restoring the fallen order begins in an unlikely setting. Within the Benedictine monastic tradition, according to Noble’s interpretation*, work and its tools came to be seen as a means of grace enabling the recovery of mankind’s original perfection. At the dawning of the second millennium, this redemptive view of work and its tools was then joined to an eschatological fervor that anticipated the soon return of Christ and the renewal of the created order. In Noble’s narrative, this fusion was best exemplified by Roger Bacon:

“Having inherited the new medieval view of technology as a means of recovering mankind’s original perfection, Bacon now placed it in the context of millenarian prophecy, prediction, and promise. If Bacon, following Erigena and Hugh of St. Victor, perceived the advance of the arts as a means of restoring humanity’s lost divinity, he now saw it at the same time, following Joachim of Fiore, as a means of anticipating and preparing for the kingdom to come, and as a sure sign in and of itself that that kingdom was at hand.”

Noble goes on to describe the manner in which Christianity’s evangelical and missionary impulse “encouraged exploration, and thereby advanced the arts upon which such exploration depended, including geography, astronomy, and navigation, as well as shipbuilding, metallurgy, and, of course, weaponry.” Francis Bacon – who, Noble notes, “is typically revered as the greatest prophet of modern science” – is the next key figure in the evolution of the religion of technology. Noble, agrees with Lewis Mumford’s insistence that what Bacon advanced was “science as technology.” Bacon had little patience for science that did not issue in application and he suffused his advocacy of science as technology with a very specific theological aim: “the relief of man’s estate” understood as the amelioration of the material consequences of humanity’s fall. While the advent of Protestantism addressed the spiritual consequences of the fall, the scientific revolution underway in Europe was destined to address its material consequences. Both together would result in the re-establishment of the unfallen created order.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the religion of technology was alive and well in America, and it was best exemplified, according to Noble, by the techno-utopianism of Edward Bellamy whose writings “resound with the familiar refrains of redemption, of the divinely destined recovery of mankind’s lost perfection.” The historian Howard P. Segal, cited by Noble, summarizes Bellamy’s depiction of life in the year 2000 as follows:

The United States of the year 2000 is very much a technological utopia: an allegedly ideal society not simply dependent upon tools and machines, or even worshipful of them, but outright modeled after them. … The purposeful, positive use of technology – from improved factories and offices to new highways and electric lighting systems to innovative pneumatic tubes, electronic broadcasts, and credit cards – is, in fact, critical to the predicted transformation of the United States from living hell into a heaven on earth.

Following his survey of the historical origins of the religion of technology, Noble demonstrates its continuing vitality throughout the twentieth century in chapters exploring atomic weaponry, the space program, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. In each of these fields, Noble illustrates the enduring allure of the religiously inspired techno-utopian quest for perfection and transcendence.  In the end, Noble concludes that the religion of technology ultimately hinges on a hope of salvation that technology cannot finally provide.


*Noble’s interpretation of the Benedictine tradition should be qualified by George Ovitt’s work on the same.

Ritual, Remembrance, and Communities of Memory

This week Jews celebrate Passover and Christians will celebrate Easter. In both cases the celebration will be anchored in the memory of an event upon which each community grounds its identity — the Exodus from Egypt and the death and resurrection of Christ.  And in both cases again, the celebration is not only anchored in the memory, it sustains the memory of the event in the present and for the future while also grounding the community’s identity in the founding memory.

The commemorative function of religious celebrations and rituals plays a critical role in Paul Connerton’s analysis in How Societies Remember.  Connerton’s thesis is simple and elegant:  whatever societies care to remember most, they entrust to embodied ritual and practice.  There are a variety of reasons for this which Connerton explores, but for brevity’s sake I’ll mention only one.  Remembrances carried by and enacted in the body  are more durable and less contingent than verbally articulated forms of remembrance precisely because they are less subject to verbal manipulation and critique.

Connerton begins by defining ritual as “rule-governed activity of a symbolic character which draws the attention of its participants to objects of thought and feeling which they hold to be of special significance.” He then elaborates this definition of ritual by proposing three things that rites or rituals are not.

  1. “Rites are not merely expressive … They are formalized acts and tend to be stylized, stereotyped and repetitive … They do discharge expressive feelings; but this is not their central point.”
  2. “Rites are not merely formal.  We commonly express our sense of their formalism by speaking of such acts as ‘merely’ ritual or as ’empty’ forms … But this is misleading. For rites are felt by those who observe them to be obligatory … and the interference with acts that are endowed with ritual value is always felt to be an intolerable injury inflicted by one person or group upon another … To make patriots insult their flag or to force pagans to receive baptism is to violate them.”
  3. Rites are not limited in their effect to the ritual occasion … [W]hatever is demonstrated in rites permeates also non-ritual behavior and mentality … Rites have the capacity to give value and meaning to the life of those who perform them.”

Each of these three elaborations by Connerton pose something of a challenge to conventional understandings of ritual and rites.  Contemporary culture, and large segments of the Christian community will take issue with the lack of expressivity and fail to recognize the formative power of ritual.  Connerton, however, is judicious in his formulations.  Rituals can be expressive, that is simply not their chief end which is, rather, remembrance.  Those who question the power of ritual should ask themselves if they would willing partake in the rituals of another religion not their own or salute the flag of a foreign country.  And finally, Connerton claims that rituals have the capacity to reorient the worshiper’s life, not that they will necessarily accomplish this.

Moving from what rituals are not to what they are, Connerton writes, “All rites are repetitive, and repetition automatically implies continuity with the past.”  In other words, by repeating you are automatically bringing into the present something that was done in the past.  But many rites not only imply continuity with the past, but explicitly claim such continuity and they “do so by ritually re-enacting a narrative of events held to have taken place at some past time … Nowhere is this explicit claim to be commemorating an earlier set of founding events in the form of a rite more abundantly expressed then in the great world religions …”

So for example Judaism:  “The core of Jewish identity is established by reference to a sequence of historical events.”  The social and cultic life of Israel is more or less geared toward remembrance.  And, according to Connerton,

“Nowhere is this theology of memory more pronounced than in Deuteronomy.  For the Deuteronomist the test of showing that the new generation of Israel remains linked to the tradition of Moses, that present Israel has not been severed from its redemptive history, is to be met by a form of life in which to remember is to make the past actual, to form a solidarity with the fathers.”

Christianity also “stands or falls with the tie that binds it to  its unique historical origin.”  Amid his discussion of the Christian liturgical calendar, Connerton fastens on the historical character of the Christian faith and the subsequent burden of remembering those events that is borne by Christian worship:

“The period of time evoked by the Gospels and recalled in the liturgy is not, as in archaic religions, a mythical time, and the events annually recapitulated in the sacred calendar are not to be thought of as events that occurred ‘in the beginning’, ‘in illo tempore‘.  The events took place in a datable history and at a clearly defined historical period, the period in which Pontius Pilate was a governor in Judea.  Those events and that period are commemorated annually in the Good Friday and Easter festivals.”

In support of Connerton’s thesis it should also be noted that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which historically has been the linchpin of Christian worship, is fundamentally an act of remembrance and re-enactment.  And while words are pronounced, and this is not insignificant, it is principally something that is done and not said.  What is more it is a robustly sensual act that incorporates vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, all in the service of engraving a memory on our bodies that it may then go with us and permeate our lives and shape our identity.

Auden on the Crucifixion

From W. H. Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book:

“Just as we are all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight – three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, ‘It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute people humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?’ Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the True, the Good and the Beautiful.”