11 February, 2002

( 8:59 AM )
Before I generate any official, this-is-today’s-blog blog, it occurred to me during the afternoon Hymn Festival yesterday that the problem with “authenticity” may lie in part with how we’re trying to get at it, rather than with the concept itself. That is, “inauthenticity” tends toward homogeneity and imitation; the kind of “authenticity” for which people generally aim, derives from (a) not worrying about whether one is sounding authentic and (b) not trying to sound like something else, whether an ideal of one’s own or a model provided by someone else.
So while “authenticity” may be necessarily elusive as a positive quality, “inauthenticity” may be easier to get hold of. Or as Tolstoy might have said if he had been a Web visionary, “All inauthentic web voices are alike, but an authentic web voice is authentic after its own fashion.”


Hasty reader that I am, I missed David Weinberger’s “If your outer self doesn’t pretend to represent your inner self, you’re now in a politics of theatre or authorship, not one of personal identity” until Tom Matrullo (weblogs.comlink lost) pointed it out. But this is just the kind of distinction I’m wondering if we might want to question; after all, isn’t “the politics of theatre or authorship” a constituent of “the politics of personal identity”? It might not make sense to ask if RageBoy is “authentic” (and here I’m presupposing, contra my intuition, that it’s worth deploying that concept), but since Chris Locke has made his sharing RageBoy’s voice a transparent gesture, it seems to make sense to ask whether Locke/RageBoy’s voice is authentic.
Moreover, don’t we expect theatrical or literary characters to have distinctive, convincing, expressive voices? One of Gosford Park‘s strengths lies in the richness of the characters; they strike us as authentic characters. So I’d hesitate before I affirmed David’s proposal from yesterday.


Well, in response to David and Tom and Steve Himmer (link lost) and Dave R., I will push us another step beyond. The various contributions from these wise gentlefolk have tended to operate within the set of assumptions that treats our Web personae as somehow extrinsic to the real “us” (observations on corporate websites anon); but what if our Web personae are, quite simply, yet another part of us?
I am a different guy at home with my family from when I’m teaching, and different yet again when I’m leading worship or preaching, and different again when I’m discussing my fantasy baseball league team, and so on. (How different are these personae? That’s part of the meta-question.) Culture has variously urged us to be natural & strip off our masks; or to keep our affections in the closet; or to compartmentalize; or a thousand other bits of identity-shaping instruction. Perhaps it’s a mistake to parse this advice as involving different “inner” and “outer” selves (as one might say, “my ‘inner’ self is a gay Mets fan, whereas my ‘outer’ self is a straight Red Sox fan”). Perhaps the question ought not concern “inner” and “outer,” but ought to involve the extent to which our ways in the world are coherent with one another, the extent to which they complement one another in constituting an engaging whole.
Now, that’s of little immediate help in evaluating Web personae; I know none of my present interlocutors as anything other than a stream of electrons (though sometimes I hear David Weinberger’s stream of electrons on NPR). But that doesn’t mean that my acquaintance with them is less real; it simply means that I know less of them. I know relatively little of the Academic Affairs Assistant at my office apart from her work on campus; I know more of the administrator of the Seabury Instute, because she worships in my parish; I know even more of the professor of Church History, because she and I belong to the same parish and we work side-by-side; I know yet more of the professor of Systematic Theology, because we became close friends way back in graduate school (walking around following Aristotle).
The issue at hand in both Web personae and workplace/family/gang/etc. personae isn’t reducible to “inner” and “outer.” There are whole vast Venn diagrams of persona whose complexities it would take a lifetime to map. Here Steve Himmer’s blog seems quite to the point, and I’d quote him except I can’t copy-and-paste from his page. Any one of the facets of our identity may represent an unexpected, radically incongruous aspect of the whole, or it may draw on a broader pool of characteristics that our various personae share.
The matter of a corporate persona gets complicated in large part because we construe a site as a single voice (unless different voices re marked out for us), yet that single voice has been proiduced by a committee, or “to suit a committee,” or “so as not to offend a number of people important to the well-being of this institution.” This usually doesn’t yield a convincingly human-sounding voice–the overlap among the various constituent personae get awfully thin, and some of the personae who might contribute to making the web voice get flattened out or ignored.
This is me. This is what I’m like when you can’t see my face, or hear my voice, but can make out the words I’m scrawling on your computer screen and can tell from the color scheme and logo that I teach at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.
At this point, I’m going to sleep. I’ll blog more tomorrow. By the way, David W., Margaret loved the curling metaphor; she said, “Oh, AKMA, you finally made a team!” I want to know when I get my uniform.

10 February, 2002

( 2:06 PM )
Well, Tom Matrullo (weblogs.com link lost) has advanced the conversation about voice, etc., with a generous examination of the touchstone concepts “voice,” “presence,” and “authenticity.” My first response involves pushing a little bit on a point he makes toward the end of his post:

Not to get too Zenny about it, but the bit of us that comes in after something has struck a portion of the receiving public as authentic – the part that attempts to parse, seize, analyze, appreciate and “understand” the felicitous authenticity of this or that piece of expression, (for there is a link, I think, between what we like to call authentic and felicity) – is itself inauthentic. The very gesture betrays our wish to possess that which can be replicated, re-produced, by technique. Desire for the authentic, for replication – regardless of why one wishes the happy outcome of reproduction – has the misfortune of always being fresh out of luck.

Here my postmodern union card obliges me to wonder whether even Tom’s specification of the “inauthentic” arrives on the scene belatedly. That is, once it occurs to a public to perceive something, as “authentic,” they/we’ve already produced the effect of an inauthenticity even without someone rushing to capture that-which-made-it-authentic. The category itself is the problem; one can’t have authentic without inauthentic, and even the “authentic” itself hs a hard time staying “authentic” once it has “authenticity” to live up to; it becomes a parody of itself (perhaps a case in point might be “Saturday Night Live”).

Likewise in the next paragraph,

That which attempts to possess, copy, multiply, limn or mime it is stillborn. The authentic arrives unbidden, without fair warning, unconceived. Once it is in the world, the world might bestow an abundance of attention, or none. But does it have an interest in what the world says?


There’s the rub! Once “authenticity” becomes a positive characterization toward which one might aspire, it perpetually recedes from the grasp of the seeker-after-authenticity. One can’t attain authenticity by trying to get there. Indeed, the desire may itself be the insuperable obstacle. (Not just Zen, but many ways touch on this; I think I remember being impressed with Gurdjieff’s insistence on this point.)
Perhaps corporate clients’ desire to cultivate an “authentic” web voice constitutes an element in the problem they’re trying to correct (working out the problem outside themselves, on the web site, as surrogate for their impoverished selves). Or maybe not.
Remember Louis Armstrong’s correct analysis of this phenomenon, when he was asked to define jazz: “if you’ve got to ask, you’re never going to know.” But he might alternatively simply have raised cornet to lips and played the “St. Louis Blues.”
Now, David W. directs our attention a different direction, complicating life by pointing out the problem of assuming a bifurcated anthropology of “inner” and “outer” selves. Such an assumption dominates colloquial talk and thought about people, but as he points out, it’s got to be more complicated than that. What if, instead of letting our idioms about “inner” and “outer” dictate what we think about people, we trained ourselves to talk about “obvious” and “obscure,” or “manifest” and latent” characteristics of a person? Would that make a difference, or would the powerful custom of assuming a binary personality of outer and inner personae simply adopt new terminology to suit long-established habits?
Then David also connects this with “why I’m so interested in the ways in which our Web selves are literary.” Now, when David talks that way, or when he says

Even the immediate conversations – chat, IM – occur through keyboards, allowing us to compose ourselves as we compose our words.
We are writing ourselves into existence on the Web. Together.


I get all weak-kneed and ardently enthusiastic, ’cause I’m a literary guy. (I’m going to use David’s point here the next time I cajole a bunch of students into writing more carefully; if “we’re writing ourselves into existence,” who wants to have a sloppy existence just ’cause you can’t be bothered to write carefully?)
But doesn’t our self-composition include visual presentation elements such as page design (and video and eventually perhaps auditory elements)? Isn’t Jenny Whoever “composing” herself into existence with her webcam, too? I don’t want to knock words or literariness–if they turn out to be the keys to the future, I’m better off than if I’m relying on looks. But I don’t want us to lock on to literary composition to the exclusion of the various other ways we consitute our prosthetic Web selves.

That’s enough, now.


Has anyone else thought it very odd that with all the perturbation about the “Today’s New International Version” (with more precise treatment of gender issues, as brought to my attention by Telford Work and the NY Times), that I haven;t seen any mention of the New Revised Standard Version, which came out more than ten years ago and did a more far-reaching job of tackling translation and gender. Now, it may be that the TNIV translators did a better job, and it may be that part of the fuss about the TNIV arises because the NIV has been the standard translation for English-speaking conservatives who wanted a contemporary translation from reliable manuscripts, but without the perceived leftward tilt of the RSV and NRSV. Still, if the press coverage concerns gender-sensitive translations, you might think that someone would at least allude to an existing exemplar that has become part of daily (or just weekly) life for hundred of thousands of US Christians.

9 February, 2002

( 4:23 PM )
Okay, Tom Matrullo (weblogs.com link lost) and David Weinberger (here and here) and Dave Rogers (here and here and here) have been worrying the topic of voice and the web, and friendship and the web, and preaching and marketing, and they have me thinking about all of the above and authenticity and presence.
So here are some more undercooked thoughts about these Really Big Topics. First, about voice and authenticity (and when I talk about “authenticity” here, I’m using the colloquial-usage word, not the technical term Eigentlichkeit from Heideggerian philosophy, about which I have related, but more nuanced, doubts): I fear that language of “voice” and “authenticity” risks making available a rhetoric of criticism that sounds grand, but covers up the lack of a rich reasoning about what would count as “authenticity” in an inherently phantasmic medium. I know offhand what it means to say that one’s favorite mountain-bike retailer has a website that sounds authentic and human, but the website itself is a peculiar sort of representation about which to claim “authenticity.” Do we mean that the site tells us what we want to know, incorporates idiosyncratic sidebar information (a surplus of information that reminds of the ways that we know more than we need to about particular human beings), that does not address us as idiots or suckers? Is it more “authentic” to make a website like that than a website that says, in effect, “Buy our junk for high prices on our terms, you desperate schnook”? “Authentic relative to what? “Humanity”?
This is where I get edgy, because the language of “authenticity” seems to depend for its applicability on a notion of what it means to be human–but many who adopt that language choose it without having thought through what about “humanity” they deem the “authentic” part.
Can you fake “authenticity”? What if (for instance) Ben and Jerry weren’t sweetly philanthropic idealists, but cut-throat entrepreneurs who realized that they could make big bucks by pretending to be quirky, northeastern post-flower children? Would their business and commercial facade have been less “authentic,” or they simply more clever? It’s sort of a Turing test for “authenticity,” except that if you can outsmart the distinction by faking “authenticity,” I have the lingering feeling that the value of the term may have dwindled.
Then also, some of the value of “authenticity” language derives from “presence,” from the sense that an “authentic” voice conveys what it would be like for the site visitor to encounter the person behind the site. I can appreciate the personae that Dave R’s and David W’s and Tom’s sites, and I wish I knew the people who stand behind these projections. But yet, at a certain point we are our masks, we are our represesentations–so just how important is it for me to know “Tom Matrullo” after I’ve gotten to know well the author of the “Commonplaces” weblog?
Ah, but you can’t clink beer mugs (or wine glasses, or soda bottles) over the net; you can’t hug; you can’t observe that endearing little thing I do with my left eyebrow. But over the web, you can go back and reread the quite-clever thing David wrote the other day (over and over) and you can follow up the hyperlinks he constructed between his remarks and what someone else said.
Is “physical presence” better than “web presence”? It would seem that it all depends. Some people, I feel confident, I would much prefer to encounter only via the Web (and vice versa, of course). Other people engender in me such a kind of affection that I keenly miss their physical presence, even when (or especially when) I see something they’ve just written, or hear their voice on the phone line.
I’ll keep thinking about this, though.


Is it “blogmail” if you mention someone else’s blog in yours, so as to oblige them to pay attention to you?

Or is blogmail the thing you send someone to let them know you mentioned them? (I suppose it works both ways simultaneously.)

8 February, 2002

( 6:48 AM )
Woke up this morning with a clear thought relative to my feelings as my unusually-late tenure review approaches (Tuesday, at 9 AM; I meet with my external reviewer this morning). I’m not “nervous” in the “Golly, what will those people decide?” way; I know the committee, and they’ll decide what they’ll decide, and that’s not a concern for me.
I do feel a sense of the gravity of the moment, though. I know a lot of folks for whom these days were fraught either with anxiety in anticipation, or with recrimination and pain in retrospect. This is a process by which plenty of people have been broken and, without disregard for their gifts and attainments, the justice of those tenure decisions is beside the point; the point is that a process designed for one end (ensuring that able scholars be freed from the threat of capricious retribution for unwelcome research and unpopular conclusions, to oversimplify) often enough produces an entirely different effect: steamrollering people.
So I do feel the momentousness of what’s happening these days, not out of a particular dread of the outcome in my own case (though only an arrant fool casually assumes a positive tenure recommendation), but out of respect for people whose lives have been wounded by ugly, or unfair, or biased, or vindictive, or just plain short-sighted tenure reviews.


Blogging, phase one:writing as though no one would ever read what you put there. (I certainly never figured David Weinberger would read the squib I wrote down the first time I opened a Blogger window).

Blogging, phase two: writing as though only the people whom you know might possibly read your blog will in fact do so.
Blogging, phase three: Become conscious of phases one and two, and realizing that someone else has surely already thought about this before.
Blogging, phase four: Beginning to grasp the fact that your words are out there, that anyone could read them, including that idiot you lambasted after he snubbed you in the planning meeting, or that exquisitely intelligent and beautiful woman about whom you’ve been blathering, day after day, like a hormone-soaked teenager.
Blogging, phase five: writing as though no one would ever read what you put there, or maybe would, but that’s not why you’re writing what you write. You’re just blogging.
(Consumer health advisory: This developmental scheme does not necessarily apply to anyone else in the world. My experience is not the measure of all things, and especially not of your experience.) (Leopold, this means you, not that you’ll ever read it.)
[Retrospective addition: ‘The Five Phases of Blogging’ actually got a little web traction when I first posted it, in olden days when there were many fewer things to find interesting on any given day on the web. Those were simpler times.]

7 February, 2002

( 1:12 PM )
I’ve spent most of the morning setting up and stage-dressing a shared blog for some friends to talk about theological topics at the Theoblogy Seminar (dead link, alas). Steve Webb is outta control, racking up the postings at the moment, but I’m hoping other folks will join in.
Dave and David, here’s one difference between “preaching” (and here I’m referring to preaching in the best, truest sense, however rarely that may be exemplified) and “marketing”: preaching should be an intrinsically non-profit, disinterested enterprise, whereas marketing, as best I understand it, is intrinsically “interested,” and has a lot at stake in “profit.” Now, a gold-star, beneficent, Love Is the Killer App marketer may order his energies to the end that “everybody profits”–but I still sense a difference. Preaching should be like the anti-Enron: no effective auditing of income and outflow, not because someone wants to pull something over on others, but because the well-being of others is the absolute, only, ultimate and exclusive telos of the practice. If marketing succeeds at helping others profit, but at the cost of its own bankruptcy, then something’s wrong with the equation–isn’t it? Saints and martyrs are positive exemplars in preaching; calamitous bankruptcies are not positive exemplars in marketing.
I must admit, though, that every time I try to articulate that difference, I can hear a marketer saying, “That’s just like me,” and I suppose that someone will tell me that bankruptcies are good marketing, too. But I’ll wait to be persuaded of that.
( 10:22 PM )
I’m thinking about persons, identity, presence, voice, and corporations. Fair warning — blog ahead.

February 06, 2002

( 12:52 AM )
Dave Rogers at Connect & Empower says (in a response to a blog from David Weinberger, who has since responded to David Rogers, but I’m a slow reader), “The secret, the magical art is to find and know one’s soul and to speak and write from that wellspring. That holds true whether it’s an individual or a company.” I’m hypersensitive to connections between marketing and anything having to do with the church, but I find myself saying the same thing to my students with regard to their preaching. (Actually, I leave out the bit about “whether it’s an individual or a company” when I’m talking to my students).
Maybe the big answer (which perhaps applies to marketing, I don’t know and don’t want to think about it) but surely applies to preaching is that the deeper you reach into your soul, the more reason you’re giving someone to pay attention to you. Is it “deeper” or “more truly”? Is it a matter of self-knowledge or (pardon the upcoming barbarism) self-profundity (or both)?
I’m just an awful bear on writing precisely; it’s one reason I just read people’s blogs for a long time before I stuck my toe in the water. In what is a typically casual medium, I’m wearing a starched shirt and tie. But my rigor comes not (only) from latent obsessive tendencies, as anyone who has seen my office can attest — it comes at least to some extent out of respect for whoever might be listening, out of the sense that if I’m going to speak to someone who has other things to do, the very least I can do is speak carefully. And of course this applies all the more so when we preach. It’s so very easy for Jane or John Q. Citizen to not go to church, and such a bother to go, that if I’m going to ask them to listen to me rant for twenty minutes or so, I’d better jolly well have put every available bit of consideration and attention to what I say in their presence. It’s the least I, or we, can do.
And part of that painstaking preparation (here I get back to David Rogers–remember him?) involves not trivializing either the message or the listener’s effort by treating the enterprise as no-big-deal.
( 11:07 AM )
My family watched O Brother Where Art Thou again last weekend (imagine five inhabitants of the same house, from mid-forties to eight years old, whispering loudly, “We thought you was a toad“), and Nate (eldest son) was especially taken by George Clooney’s repetition of the line, “Dang! We’re in a tight spot!” Well, I should now say, “Dang! I should have known that Telford Work would be a blogger!” It’s some comfort to see that he only started relatively recently, too, but I’ve known Telford and his interest electronic media for a long time, and I shoulda reckoned that he’d be onto this blogging thang. (He’s also the one who set up the Ekklesia Project blog/zine; maybe I just thought he was too busy with the EP to make his own, but more likely I just wasn’t quick enough to put 2 and 2 together.) Anyway, now the web of theoblogs grows another iteration richer. Thanks to Joel Garver for finding Telford’s blog and pointing it out. (Will I have to link to people’s blogs every time I mention them? Soon I’ll have to quit work just to keep up with my HTML.)
( 12:13 PM )
Okay, Weinberger is pushing me too far. For the record, I’m very far from being the luminous presence that he describes me as being. I didn’t want to get my wife her pet dog; I make my Greek students tackle a new lesson almost every day; I make them parse and construe syntax; I’m fierce about students improving their writing; I make my early church history class memorize some names and dates. But it’s kind of David to take so generous a view of my stuff, anyway, and gosh, I like him too.
But now I have to devise some way of surpassing him in incipient assholism. Hmmm…..
( 12:52 PM )
While cruising Telford Work’s site, I noticed that he too inherited Duke University’s greatest legacy to its students (well, maybe after a terrific education and the opportunity to see your alumnal basketball team play for the National Championship almost every year): a relentless commitment to writing well. Thanks for keeping the flame alive, Telford. I appreciate all your observations, but am especially keen on number 5 (“Use the right words!”), as I said here a few days ago.
On the other hand, as a copyright skeptic, I was a little bemused by the intellectual-property claim at the top of the page. One of the interesting topics that will come to the fore in some blogathon or another will be the future of and alternatives to copyright, and I hope I’ll be there to take part in the brouhaha.
( 2:47 PM )
Did I used to have a life, or is that just a nostalgia-induced mirage? [Editorial Revision: I should have said, “Didn’t I already have a life, to which I didn’t precisely need additional exciting ideas added?”] So many people are shooting so many provocative ideas around here that I’m spending all my time just trying (in vain) to keep up.
Last episode, I was commenting on remarks about voice that Dave Rogers and David Weinberger had probably thought quiescent; after all, they had stopped blogging about the topic days ago. But I had to butt in, and now they’re both freewheeling through the ether with more on voice, communication, preaching, and so on. So:
To Dave R. (why are both these guys named “David”? Couldn’t one of my correspondents be named “Alonzo” or “Gertrude”?): Quite so, alhtough I’ve heard many fewer hokey, rambling sermons that came off than I’ve heard hokey, rambling sermons that some preacher would have defended by characterizing them as “friendly” and “not too academic” and “inclusive.” But yes, some do work that way.
I feel a little queasy, though, that my observations about preaching good news seem to lend themselves so readily to designing corporate web sites. Not that I can disagree, offhand, but that I’m a generally pretty anti-commercial character, so it’s a somewhat surreal experience. On the other hand, if you can get me some consulting gigs to help pay for my son’s conservatory tuition….
To David W. and Dave R.–I guess I have to read Rageboy’s book, now. The blogs at Gonzo Engaged sure sound interesting, though. Now I have to take Si to get his typhoid shot–so nobody say anything interesting till we get back.
( 7:02 PM )
Getting back to Telford and his copyrighted page of writing advice:
I don’t know whether I’m just so hiply post-copyright that I thought, “Anyone can use these ideas; they are free, like the birds,” or whether it never occurred to me that the stuff I wrote there was worth trying to protect, or whether I was just adapting stuff from classroom handouts, so I didn’t put copyright notices on my web stuff any more than I do on my Greek quizzes (now, wouldn’t that be an idea). But my composition pages don’t have no copyright notices, and the recent article in which I quote DW involves a shallow but ardent dismissal of the future of copyright.
(Digression: the article is in an academic journal, so I had to make it sound sober and reputable–but the presentation from which it arose, is still available on the web (don’t tell anyone: the publishers of the academic journal, to protect their copyright on what I wrote, made me sign a statement that their article wasn’t available on the web) (so it isn’t; this is the presentation I gave, which coincidentally has some thematic and verbatim overlaps with the article) and is much more casual and–hmm–vivid in expression (and less carefully copy-edited) than my academic writing, or even my web writing so far. I was nervous about this talk, which came at the end of a conference mostly dedicated to “How I used Powerpoint to transform my boring lectures into somewhat-less-boring lectures” and “I tried using a bulletin board for my Hebrew class, but it didn’t work very well.” So I had two separate presentations planned–one a more straightforward conventional lecture about biblical scholarship and media scholarship, which is closely related to an essay still in gestation for the American Bible Society, and this one. But I got so angry at having to sit through all the bilgewater other academics were pumping that I whipped together a much more flamboyant presentation with UPresent, a formerly-freeware Powerpoint knockoff for the Mac, while I was sitting through other people’s excruciatingly tedious presentations. That’s why some of the graphics are so crude. End of digression.)
I’m a copyright holder myself, and the Greek textbook I wrote could conceivably catch on and make what counts for big bucks among us nickel-and-dime academic types — the rest of the books barely make me minimum wage on the time spent writing them, if I’m lucky — but mercy sakes, I just don’t feel at all moved by prolonging the death-pangs of copyright. Coders need to earn a living, writers and musicians need to earn livings, and I respect that, but something else will happen, and clinging furiously to an outdated model won’t help prepare us for what’s around the corner.

February 5, 2002

( 8:20 PM )
David Weinberger thinks he’s winning the contest of “incipient assholism”–don’t tell him (it’ll break his heart), but I’m just letting him win to make him feel better.
As for whether it would be appropriate for us to call one another friends, I’m a little surprised that yesterday he cited “friendship” as a word that the Web was transforming, but today he figures that there’s a problem if (for instance) he and I call one another “friend” if we’ve never met. I’m not even sure that’s good Aristotelian ethics — the Philosopher says:

For separation does not destroy friendship absolutely, though it prevents its active exercise. If however the absence be prolonged, it seems to cause the friendly feeling itself to be forgotten: hence the poet’s remark:
Full many a man finds friendship end
For lack of converse with his friend. (Nic. Ethics 1157b 1)

But observe that Aristotle is concerned with the possiblity of converse, of (and I’m using this in an innocent sense) intercourse with another, which would be gravely impaired in Aristotle’s fourth-century context if the two friends-or-maybe-not weren’t in the same place. Sure, you could gamble on letters, for what they were able to accomplish, but for true friendship to thrive, you needed to be able to exchange ideas, to be present to one another.
But if “presence” and “voice” are among the transitional-words that David’s discussing (and I’m putting them there, they weren’t on his list), what’s the impediment to Web-based friendship? Indeed, some folks are more candid (parrhesiastikos) on the Web than they ever were in person; might it not be easier to be their friend online than face-to-face?
So if David’s right that new media change the words we use in them (isn’t that what you meant?), then I’d think that “friendship” of a different sort, both more diffuse and more intense, is perhaps available at a distance, whatever Aristotle reckoned. And don’t worry; I wouldn’t think less of Aristotle for not anticipating the Web.
( 10:03 PM )
As I complained yesterday about the paucity of theologically-interesting blogs, today I see that I should include Joel Garver’s page. He’s reading The Postmodern God and looking out for James Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation, and those are good signs bei mir.
I should add that my son Si has a blog now, too, with potential for exciting posts as he goes away for a four-week trip to Sri Lanka. Or even just tomorrow, as he goes to Children’s Memorial Hospital for his typhoid vaccination.

February 4, 2002

( 1:09 PM )
Okay, so part of the blog phenomenon involves locating oneself in a network of co-conspirators — not necessarily likeminded, but interesting conversation partners, and then linking to their blogs and further articulating the web. So far, so good.
Since I’m just a nouveau blogger, however, I have relatively few cyber-compatriots (“Hi, I’m AKMA, your electronic friend”). And among the blogs I’ve observed, many constitute different conversations from the ones that interest me most, and others look rather tidily complete (I have a horror of squeezing a chair in at a table where everyone is already engaged in active conversation, where no one knows me, and where no one — it turns out — particularly wants me to be there).
So, for the record, when I get around to revising the page design I’ll cite David Weinberger‘s blog, because he is someone I relish talking with, and he has cordially involved me in his conversations. And I’m looking around at other blogs, really I am. I always check Dean Allen’s blog at Textism, because I used to work in digital type design and can’t get over the summer I spent adding and deleting rows of pixels from Cheltenham Bold 24, and besides I have France envy, and because I like his voice, even when I think he’s wrong. Likewise Andy Crewdson’s blog at Lines and Splines.
And my colleagues at the Ekklesia Project have a snappy new zine-blog at (get this) the Ekklesia Project Online.
I just thought of some other people and voices I should cite, but they went out of my head no sooner than I pushed the “edit” button.
And I’ll keep looking around at other blogs, to enrich the conversation.
( 1:54 PM )
David Weinberger cites a book by Michel Foucault as a provocation for him to think about the way words and concepts may be changing around us under the influence of the Web. I thank David for prodding us to think about such things in public (with parrhesia); it stimulates oxygen flow to the brain, even as I feel some hesitations about his angle on the book (which I have not read yet, partly because my neighborhood bookstores don’t stock books published by Semiotext(e) — not even here in Evanston).
So for starters, words and meanings and concepts are always changing — they just usually change slowly enough that we don’t notice them much (although think about the career of “gay,” which in my youth meant “cheery,” in my adolescence meant “homosexual,” and now in some sad linguistic circles has come to mean “stupid” or “uncool” or “pointless”). “Parrhesia” isn’t different in that respect, though it’s intriguingly illustrative.
So especially when the social circumstances within which we use words are changing so rapidly, convulsively, we ought only to expect that words/meanings/concepts would be changing too, if only because there’s no fixed point to which those words/meanings/concepts might be attached to insulate them from the pervasive cultural change around us.
But I’m very uncertain that

the concepts today that no longer make as much sense as they once did [are:] Privacy. Friendship. Employee. Politeness. Sincerity.

I’m not sure of what DW is getting at here. Sure, “employee” is undergoing a mutation, especially for information-industry types but indeed also for assembly-line workers and career middle-managerial types. And the Web is obliging us to accelerate the pace of our re-examination of “privacy,” a concept which had been wavering under ideological assault from every side for a few decades. But “politeness”? “Sincerity” and “friendship”? I have much at stake, philosophically, theologically, and personally, if those are concepts that don’t hold up any more. (And why leave out “identity,” “voice,” and “conversation,” to name three concepts David has been unraveling for a while now?)
Yes, cybermedia complicate the concepts (or, more to the point, they amplify problems that already affected the concepts to a greater or lesser degree), but “no longer make as much sense” sounds like a different point.
The blog ends with the hopeful prospect of a new golden age of Athens. Sounds exciting, though we should remember (as Foucault would hasten to remind us) that the first golden age of Athens coincided the subordination of certain insignificant people to the end that the really important people could have their say. I would have nominated “distance” for David’s list of problem-words, since the Web both makes possible friendships between distant correspondents in ways that Aristotle would have dismissed as impossible, but the same technologies further conceal from me the extent to which my high-bandwidth lifestyle separates me (and sets me at odds with) others.
You know, there aren’t many theologically-interesting blogs out there. I’m looking, really I am, but I’m not finding.

Kierkegaard and Doubt

Kierkegaard: “If I want to keep myself in faith,” Climacus writes in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty.”
Now, the author of the article cited above, Erin Leib, continues, “In building faith out of doubt, Kierkegaard made the absence of God look like the presence of God. He constructed a theology wherein one has full faith precisely where one does not have full faith. This, to put it mildly, is slippery, and lends itself to a theological demagoguery. For engaging with possibility is not the same thing as asserting definitively. Entertaining marriage is emphatically not the same thing as marrying. The dialectical lover and the dialectical thinker lived and died a bachelor after all.” Well, to an extent; I’m no Kierkegaard expert, so I can’t make a definitive claim about his success at getting his rhetoric just right. At the same time, Leib’s position seems to oversimplify the theological sublime to which Kierkegaard aims. Those for whom “faith” or “presence” excludes an appreciation of “the objective uncertainty,” and who thereby dismiss Kierkegaard as having weak faith or impaired faith (are these not the “knights of faith” whom he so pointedly interrogates?), miss the point that “faith” itself can well include the recognition of how improbable the whole venture looks from outside, that is, the recognition of “the objective uncertainty.”
Now, the tawdry theologians of uncertainty make a virtue out of doubt, and I don’t believe that that was Kierkegaard’s path; he can hardly have advocated the virtue of doubt when he ascribed such transcendent importance to obedience to God’s counter-ethical demand. The pivotal line, the line so thin as perhaps not to be there, takes the possibility of intelligent doubt seriously enough to acknowledge that faith is not necessary, that atheists, agnostics, and those whose faith differs materially from “our” faith (whoever “we” are) are stupid, perverse, deranged, or in some other manner out of touch with plain manifest reason. That doesn’t make faith “unreasonable” nor does it constitute “doubt” as a virtue — but it demands humility of faith, and offers doubt the respect that we ourselves would ask for our faith.

W and Difference

George Bush heard my rant from the other day and hammered home my point with this speech.
“Not only will our country be better, but we will show the world that values — universal values — must be respected and must be adhered to” — or else, presumably, we’ll bomb the dickens out of anyone who doesn’t respect the universal values that W stipulates.
Now, if you have to threaten people in order to make them adhere to values that you’re claiming are universal, how does that work out? It sounds to me as though they’re not exactly universal values under those circumstances. “Universal values, except for the people we disagree violently with.” Now there’s some good clear thinking.

Religion and Difference

David Weinberger gets what jillions of folks can’t see: that it’s only to be expected that religious disagreements may go all the way to the roots, even when the disagreement seems to involve really nice and friendly people. I suspect the Dalai Lama is a snazzy guy, probably beats the dickens out of many of my bishops for sophistication and profondeur, but so far as it’s been given me to understand the world, Buddhists just have the deal wrong. Nicely wrong (when they’re not using government military power to coerce native peoples into submission), but they still miss an important boat.
It doesn’t bother me to say this because, as far as it’s given me to understand Buddhism, a good Buddhist has to think that I’ve misconstrued the nature of the universe. And rightly so.
Not that this means Buddhists and Christians can’t get along, can’t agree on things like “It’s better not to slaughter indigenous peoples to shore up the nation-state,” can’t play football (the world kind, not American football) (not that a Buddhist couldn’t play football, though I don’t understand why they’d want to). They will just disagree about lots of important things. And again, that should be okay. Especially when Christians (and here I’m picking on my sisters and brothers because they have a claim of accountability on me and I on them) remember that they’re supposed to turn the other cheek, endure suffering rather than inflict it, be wronged rather than wrong someone else, and so on.
Again, Weinberger wonders how the very idea of universal truths works: “Finding a universal ground for all religion reduces us to mouthing abstractions so vague as to be meaningless and ignores what is most distinctive and most important about each religion.” My way of putting this in an argument with a colleague who believed fervently in universal truths was, “I’ll agree that we believe in universal truths when the truths in question are so universal that you’ll let me tell you what they are.” Of course, Max wouldn’t let me define what the universal truths were; he wanted both universality and the whip hand in defining the universal truths. Does that smell fishy to anyone else? “You have to believe in universal truths, and let me tell you what they are.” This kind of arguing often comes from people who slag the writers who taught me a lot about thinking (Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Irigaray, that bunch) for complicity with the forces of reaction and fascism— presumably because these theorists don’t subscribe to the dogmas of universal reason.
There! Got that off my chest. Still haven’t found a copy of “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime,” though.
By the way, David Weinberger ascribes the aphorism, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted” to Dostoevsky; a little Googling, though, would have suggested that this expression doesn’t appear in the most common translations of Dostoevsky’s works, though the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” appears in John Fowles’s The Magus and William S. Burroughs (“Apocalypse,” there assigned to Hassan i Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountain), and, most memorably for me, Jim Carroll on his Catholic Boy album (“Nothing is True”) (I’ll bet you can find that on the Internet).

Sunday, January 27, 2002

   ( 3:27 PM )
It’s interesting to observe the tides with which particular artists wax and wane in popularity in the cyberworld of the Gnutella, Napster, and Hotline networks.
I happen to be very enthusiastic about the Pyschedelic Furs. I am both a fan and an advocate; I relish the listening/croaking-along experience, and I admire the music as compositions, arrangements, and performances. They’re a pretty well-known band, right? They’ve inspired some covers, their single “Pretty in Pink” was adopted as the title of a movie I never cared to watch, and they’ve reassembled recently to release a live album featuring a new single. But the P2P networks seem never to have heard of “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime),” though the number of tedious make-fun-of-Osama jingles and ‘N Sync blockbusters seems limitless. In a recent Gnutella search, only four Furs songs came up, three of them versions of “Love My Way.”
Now, lots of factors enter into how far the Gnutella system searches, how many hits it returns, but all the same it seems clear that the Psychedelic Furs occupy a lot less bandwidth than I would have thought.
   ( 5:12 PM )
I should add, in the name of honesty, that I also get pedantically vexed by people with tin ears and short attention spans, who can’t tell the Cure from the Furs, or the Pretenders from the Proclaimers, or They Might Be Giants from any other band with pretensions to being amusing. Likewise those who can’t spell “Psychedelic.”