Volume 129

Guests on Volume 129: Nicholas Carr, on how automation technologies make our lives easier — while detaching us from the practices of engaging the world that are most fulfilling for us; Robert Pogue Harrison, on the challenges of nurturing the inner lives and loves of our children to enable them to receive the legacies of our culture; R. J. Snell, on how the vice of acedia denies the being of Creation; Norman Wirzba, on how a Scriptural imagination allows us to perceive the world as Creation (not just as nature); Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, on how the Inklings were critical of modernity in the interest of restoring Western culture to its Christian roots; and Peter Phillips, on the “tintinnabuli” style of composition in the works of Arvo Pärt. 

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Part 1

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    Nicholas Carr, on the subtle ways that automation technologies displace human skills and affect our capacities.
    The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (W. W. Norton and Company, 2014)

    “A tool at its best is not just a means of production, it’s a means of experience. A good tool allows us to do things that we couldn’t do otherwise. And that actually expands our perceptions of the world; it expands our ability to act in the world; it changes the world.”

    Nicholas Carr

    How are we to think well about automation? As software technologies grow more ubiquitous and more sophisticated, how often do we imagine ourselves in the image of our devices rather than vice versa? Do we assume that our brains work computationally and that, given the right equations, we can transfer our thought-processes and our skills to machines without suffering any losses? Profit-making companies have long preferred machines to humans, replacing skilled laborers with machine operators and, more recently, computer operators, but to what extent do we now individually forgo our own human skills and capacities in favor of an easy, “frictionless” experience? Technology critic, Nicholas Carr, encourages us to consider how automation technologies impact our ability to engage with the world and whether — like a good tool — they present a more inviting world or close us off from that world.

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    Robert Pogue Harrison, on the differences between rejuvenation and juvenilization of culture
    Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age (University of Chicago Press, 2014)

    “It’s the permanence of the world which is in danger at the present moment in my view. That permanence now is going to depend on the younger generations. And for them to preserve a certain degree of the world’s permanence is going to require a certain commitment to the world. And that commitment is always in the final analysis based on love. That’s where education has to find a way to get deep into the soul where the sources of love lie.”

    Robert Pogue Harrison

    In this interview, cultural critic and professor of Italian literature, Robert Pogue Harrison, examines the conditions in which cultural transmission can take place. In his book, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, Harrison argues that Western culture is on the cusp of a new mode of civilization that can either result in a rejuvenation of the legacies of the past or in their juvenilization, the latter of which would lead to (among other things) a loss of cultural memory and the infantilization of desires. Harrison reflects not only upon the ways in which our culture is evolving into a younger kind of human being, but also upon the peculiar and precious qualities of youth that are uniquely receptive to fostering the amor mundi needed to preserve and transmit a world of permanence and belonging.

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    R. J. Snell, on how the sin of sloth isn't simple laziness, but the rejection of the good order of being that God has established in Creation.
    Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Angelico Press, 2015)

    “Our own society is so full of power. We’re capable of living the way that monarchs lived in the past. We’re capable of reordering our body; perhaps now that we’ve mapped the gene, of remapping aspects of the gene. We have this incredible power, and along with that is a real sense that we wish to be in control. And I think a real sense that what earlier generations had thought of as a gift is for us just merely factual; it’s just there. We can do with it as we wish. And its limits on us are not thought of as something to welcome or to cherish, but as something to refuse or even to overcome, which in the end is what I think sloth basically is: this refusal to accept limits.”

    R. J. Snell

    On this segment of the Journal, philosopher R. J. Snell talks about the vice of boredom as the “mood of our age.” Acedia, sloth, and boredom are all nouns depicting a vice which at its root rejects God’s gift of being (and all of its limited manifestations in Creation) as an imposition upon our freedom and chooses instead a world that can be mastered and bent to our wills. Like a sulking child, the slothful prefer to choose nothing rather than accept the neediness and dependency that gift implies. When this slothful posture expands to the metaphysical plane, boredom becomes the very denial of being itself, the “noughting” of the world by which the world can no longer captivate and we can no longer be captivated.

Part 2

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    Norman Wirzba, on rethinking the category of "nature" and developing a Christian imagination.
    From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding Our World The Church and Postmodern Culture Series (Baker Academic, 2015)

    “What would it mean for the church to say we’re serious about proclaiming the Gospel, not just to people, but to the whole of creation? What would we need to do as Christian communities or denominations to become good news for ecosystems or to become good news for animal species?”

    Norman Wirzba

    Theologian, Norman Wirzba, joins us again to help us rethink the category of nature in terms of the Christian doctrine of creation. Jesus, observes Wirzba, is not just the Savior of the world, he is the Creator of the world and his salvation extends to all of creation. So, too, the creation of the world is not just an originating event, but is a description of what everything is. With Christ as the logos through which everthing was created and by which everything holds together, the Christian understanding of creation apprehends nature not as raw material or resources, but as things that are the subjects of their own intelligible purpose.

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    Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, on the origins of the literary club The Inklings and the influence that they had upon each other.
    The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

    “You can think about them as a group tackling the disenchantment, looking for ways of re-enchantment, but also individually — they’re not all doing the same things, but they are all certainly concerned with the recovery of a more meaningful universe, a more coherent vision of the universe, which includes both enchantment and a sense of reason. They want to recover reason as well.”

    Carol Zaleski

    In this interview, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski talk about the underlying themes of recovery and wonder that unified the members of the literary club, The Inklings. While the group never articulated any social agenda, the Inklings, through their literary work and common enthusiasms, shared a desire to confront the disenchantment of modernity by recovering those sources in Western culture that were truly humanizing. Frequently, this literary “ressourcement” revolved around the cultural significance of language and mythopoeic fantasy as media that contain a unique potential for enhancing our powers of perception and restoring human imagination and wonder in the wake of devastating events, such as (in the case of The Inklings members) the wreckage of World War I.

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    Peter Phillips, on the simplicity of Arvo Pärt's "tintinnabuli" style and its compatibility with Renaissance polyphony.
    Pärt: Tintinnabuli (GIMELL, 2015)

    Theres a grit in there; theres a pull on ones overall awareness of life and death that Pärt can express very directly. . . . And its fascinating; it holds ones attention over long spans and for a long time.

    Peter Phillips

    On this last segment of the issue, conductor Peter Phillips discusses the work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Known for his “new simplicity” or “new minimalist” style of composition, Pärt developed his style by returning to the sources of melody in the Western musical tradition after rejecting the serialism in vogue during the mid-twentieth century. As Phillips observes, one senses a compatibility between Pärt’s music and that of Medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony. Though this compatibility is subtle and difficult to analyze, Pärt’s music shares with Renaissance sacred music a type of musical space that is contemplative and unhurried. One defining aspect of this space is Pärt’s use of bell-like, or bell-inspired, sounds, which he called “tintinnabuli.” The soft, yet precise, harmonic language of bells became the organizing principle in Pärt’s musical language.