What We're Reading

14 Mar

The Meaning of Human Dignity

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/14/08

In his 1985 book, Toward a More Natural Science, Leon Kass observed: "Liberal democracy, founded on a doctrine of human freedom and dignity, has as its most respected body of thought a teaching that has no room for freedom and dignity." Kass was referring to the fact that a materialistic science, science detached from any metaphysical or religious definitions of human nature or purpose, had achieved an exalted place in Western societies. Kass went on to make the irony of our dilemma even more pointed: "Liberal democracy has reached a point--thanks in no small part to the success of the arts and sciences to which it is wedded--where it can no longer defend intellectually its founding principles. Likewise also the Enlightenment: It has brought forth a science that can initiate human life in the laboratory but is without embarrassment incompetent to say what it means either by life or by the distinctively human, and, therefore, whose teachings about man cannot even begin to support its own premise that enlightenment enriches life."

During his tenure as chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, Kass was unflinching in his insistence that laws and regulations that had bioethical ramifications ought to be based on first principles about the meaning of the human. Under Kass's successor on the Council, Edmund D. Pellegrino, that concern seems to be continuing. This month, a new publication was released by the Council entitled Human Dignity and Bioethics an anthology of essays commissioned by the Council which examine the meaning and significance of the concept of human dignity. There are a variety of viewpoints represented, Daniel C. Dennett, a committed materialist, has an essay in the volume, as do Gilbert Meilaender, Robert George, Peter Augustine Lawler, Leon Kass, Richard John Neuhaus, and Robert P. Kraynak (all former guests on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal).

The print copies of this anthology are no doubt in short supply, but a pdf version is available from the Council's website for download. If you are unfamiliar with the Council's earlier work, a number of the earlier reports are also online. I doubt that any American government organization has ever published as much theologically inspired reflection as may be found in the Reports: your tax dollars at work in a remarkable way.

Posted by Ken Myers on 3/15/08

12 Mar

A Culture of One

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/12/08

"In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself." That's the assertion of Richard Edelman, the founder and CEO of one of the world's largest public relations companies. The work of PR professionals has always caused concern from people who believe in the importance of truth-telling. But Edelman's observation suggests that in the communications ecosystem that is the Internet, where everyone is a spinmeister, the very idea of truth becomes less and less plausible. The quote from Edelman is in a new book by journalist Andrew Keen called The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Doubleday/Currency). "Today's media," writes Keen, "is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile."

Andrew Keen hasn't always been so negative about the Internet. He almost made a fortune in the 1990s by founding, one of the first digital music sites. Keen got involved in that project because he wanted to make the world's best music more available to more people. But the more time he spent among the digirati in Silicon Valley, and the more he heard the utopian pronouncements of its most energized leaders, the more he realized that his view of culture and theirs were at odds. He wanted to expand the audience for great music. The Web enthusiasts wanted to make money by allowing more people to distribute home-made music, no matter how unimaginative and insipid it was, and collect revenue for all of the web advertising that accompanies the narcissism-enabling websites.

Although he doesn't use the phrase, Keen's book is about the loss of cultural authority. He believes that the survival of the very best forms of cultural expression, in journalism, music, fiction, and other disciplines, requires a network of mediation and accreditation. Cultural institutions that nurture the production of the best cultural artifacts maintain teams of editors, critics, producers, and teachers who have advanced in their careers through years of training and evaluation within a guild or tradition. Over time, some of those institutions earn more trust and respect among their peers than do others, their expertise and ability are acknowledged through an organic process of accountability and recognition. Those cultural institutions can be corrupted and standards can become debased. But without some form of institutionalized judgment established over time in communities of expertise, without, that is, some knowledgeable person to tell you your work isn't good enough to be published, cultural expression easily becomes mere self-expression.

When everyone can self-publish by putting up a few bucks for a website, they don't have to face the humiliation of rejection slips. And when a critical mass of people spend more time reading self-published (and often mediocre) writing, and self-produced videos, less time is spent in the company of credentialed creativity. And that translates into declining revenue for established voices and their intermediaries. Keen is particularly helpful in calling attention to how institutions of cultural authority require economic support to continue to operate. They also require a widespread sympathy to the idea of hierarchies, an assumption that some ideas are objectively better than others, that some commentators are wiser than others, that some creative work is, well, more creative than others.

Twenty or so years ago, cultural conservatives were up in arms about higher education's demotion of the canon of great literature. They attributed this abandonment to the anti-Western bias of campus leftists. But surely the ecosystem of ideas and sentiments encouraged by uncritical use of the Web, energized by its defining myth of the democratization of knowledge and culture, poses a much greater threat than all those tenured radicals.

Posted by Ken Myers on 3/13/08

7 Nov

People, People who Poke People . . .

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/07/07

For several years, Christine Rosen has been writing a series of articles for The New Atlantis about the technologies of everyday life. Treating everything from computer games and personal identity (in "Playgrounds of the Self") to the effects of the proliferation of images in our culture, mediated by PhotoShop, Powerpoint, and other technologies (in "The Image Culture"), to online dating services (in "Romance in the Information Age"), Rosen has skillfully scrutinized how new ways of mediating space, time, and relationships are not simply new ways of accomplishing venerable ends, but, all too often, profoundly new practices with deep effects on the soul. (While you're reading her work, don't miss "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" and "Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?".)

Rosen has a perceptive sense of how technologies are never simply tools, serving also as talismans, metaphors, and templates for living. By conferring the ability to do something, technologies often convey a sense of the need to do something. And we rarely examine how both the need and the doing have rearranged our sense of who we are and how we might live well. We are all aware of the benefits of these new abilities, but rarely do we survey the possible (and often likely) liabilities.

The latest article by Rosen in this series is called "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism," which looks at some of the personal and social effects of the so-called "social networking" websites, the most popular being Facebook and MySpace. Rosen commences her reflections on this new way of having "friends" by observing that "we are only beginning to come to grips with the consequences of our use of these sites: for friendship, and for our notions of privacy, authenticity, community, and identity." She goes on to ask whether this technology, "with its constant demands to collect (friends and status) and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermines our ability to attain what it promises--a surer sense of who we are and where we belong."

The intensification of personal uncertainty in these virtual settings seems to be acknowledged by Facebook's own administrators. Facebook users can send a "poke" to a friend, a digital nudge, a cyber-smoke-signal, that serves to, well, exactly what does it serve? On their help pages, Facebook's administrators seem to revel in the uncertainty of the poke. "A poke is a way to interact with your friends on Facebook," they "explain." "When we created the poke, we thought it would be cool to have a feature without any specific purpose. People interpret the poke in many different ways, and we encourage you to come up with your own meanings." Whatever. Given the fact that our anarchic and script-free patterns of social relations are already so confusing to young people wandering toward adulthood, one wonders whether such indeterminacy is really helpful. Apparently many Facebookies agree and would like greater definition in their interactions, Rosen reports that "one Facebook group with over 200,000 members is called 'Enough with the Poking, Let's Just Have Sex.'"

One of the aspects of these sites that concerns me the most is suggested in the "New Narcissism" reference in the title of her article. It is the effect on the possibility of sincerity and humility generated by the necessity in these settings to act as one's own publicity agent. Rosen observes that in the world of social networking, "users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one's own and others' lives is the main activity in the online social networking world. There is no room for reticence, there is only revelation. Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month." Toward the end of the article, Rosen concludes: "The implications of the narcissistic and exhibitionistic tendencies of social networkers also cry out for further consideration. There are opportunity costs when we spend so much time carefully grooming ourselves online. Given how much time we already devote to entertaining ourselves with technology, it is at least worth asking if the time we spend on social networking sites is well spent. In investing so much energy into improving how we present ourselves online, are we missing chances to genuinely improve ourselves?"

A friend of mine who teaches at the University of Virginia has been doing some research on the new mode of friendship, and in conversation with students raised the question as to whether giving so much attention to creating one's online image wouldn't lead to vanity. The students stared blankly back, not sure what this "vanity" word meant, though they knew that a magazine title used the word. When my friend defined the vice in question, they continued to be baffled, not certain why this vanity thing was regarded as a problem. Their response may be evidence of the ways in which what is common in our experience is all too easily regarded as normal, and then as good.

Posted by Ken Myers on 11/8/07

30 Sep

Stronger than Death

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/30/07

In 1999, I interviewed Alan Jacobs about J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. After that interview, Dr. Jacobs collected his thoughts for an essay called "Harry Potter's Magic," published in First Things. Now that the final Harry Potter book has been published, a number of MARS HILL AUDIO listeners have suggested that I talk to Jacobs again to discover his take on the completed saga. While we won't be able to do that interview, you may be interested in reading the essay Alan wrote after reading the seventh book, "The Youngest Brother's Tale," published in Books and Culture. Jacobs argues that "The key theme of the whole series is the opposition of death and love: the devastation wrought by those whose fear of death causes them to shun love as a weakness, and, in contrast, the rich rewards in store for those who will not allow the fear of death to block love, who know that love risks all for the beloved."

Meanwhile, The First Things website has published a brief but thoughtful response to some of the accusations leveled against Rowling's book by conservative Christians. In "Harry Potter and the Christian Critics," Mark Shea argues that the magic in these books is 'incantational,' not 'invocational,' exactly like the magic of Gandalf. Born with the talent for magic, Gandalf says the magic words and fire leaps forth from his staff, just as from Harry's wand. No principalities or powers are invoked in HP. Indeed, if any words are 'invocational' they are the prayer to Elbereth and Gilthoniel uttered in Middle Earth. Yet nobody accuses Tolkien of promoting the worship of false gods. That's because we understand Tolkien's fictional subcreation and its rootedness in Christian thought. I suggest Christian critics try to extend Rowling the same charity.""

Posted by Ken Myers on 10/1/07"

30 Sep

Slower, Longer, Smarter

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/30/07

Many years ago, when working at National Public Radio, I talked with a friend who had left NPR to work in the news department at ABC. During the conversation, he remarked that the biggest difference between his old colleagues and his new ones was that reporters and producers at NPR regularly read books, while the people at ABC generally didn't. He said this somewhat wistfully, suggesting that he missed the conversations and arguments that are nourished by a shared experience of the focused and sustained attentiveness that books make possible. Books, like music, are ways of ordering our experience of time and intellect. They encourage habits of mind that are quite different from those typical among people whose reading is enabled most often by a device appropriately called a "browser."

Since the work of MARS HILL AUDIO is achieved primarily by passing on information about books, I have long been interested in appraisals of the place books and what George Steiner calls "bookishness" play in society. So the cover story in the September/October 2007 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review naturally called for my attention. "Goodbye to All That" is written by book editor and journalist Steve Wasserman, who for a number of years edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Wasserman's lead is that coverage of books in American newspapers is declining "with alarming speed." But, as he notes in his second paragraph, this decline has been going on for some time. Even the New York Times Book Review, the most prestigious and widely read book section in the country, has slimmed down from an average forty-two pages in 1985 to a present average of thirty-two pages.

The Internet is one reason for this decline, but this is not a zero-sum game in which identically valuable resources have simply been made available in a new setting. Wasserman worries that the loss of newspaper coverage of books is part of "the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument." Wasserman quotes Time film critic Richard Schickel who (in an article in the L.A. Times in May) bemoaned "the 'hairy-chested populism' promoted by the boosters of blogging. 'Criticism--and its humble cousin reviewing--is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.'"

Wasserman's article is a revealing window into newspaper and book publishing, as well as to the constructive and constituting place of books and news about books in a good society. As a fellow editor, I especially appreciated his description of the convictions he carried with him when he assumed responsibility for the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1996. "Where everyone else was going faster, shorter, dumber, I was intent upon going slower, longer, smarter, on the perhaps foolhardy presumption that there were enough adults out there in Newspaper Land who yearned to be spoken to as adults."

Posted by Ken Myers on 10/1/07