Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mid-Sized Meditations #10: Soil and Sacrament in Certain Kinds of Cities

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend here in Wichita, I participated in the Eighth Day Institute's symposium, Soil and Sacrament: The World as Gift; Rod Dreher has a couple of nice write-ups about it, here and here. For me, sitting beside and listening to and talking with and learning from culturally wise small-o orthodox Christians (whether I agreed with their ideas or not, or whether they agreed with mine) was a real pleasure. Also, preparing for my presentation--"Urban Environments, Urban Gifts"--gave me a reason to read a classic I've been meaning to read for a while: Harvey Cox's The Secular City, which turns 50 years old this year. After reading it, giving my presentation, going back and forth with some other symposium participants about it all, and listening to Rod's continuing explorations of the Benedict Option, I came home with a huge load of thoughts banging around my head. Here are a few of them.

Christianity has for a long time, particularly over the past century and especially in Protestant America, struggled with the city. Just over 100 years ago, the main outlines of what soon turned into modern Christian fundamentalism were laid out, and the movements those fundamentalist declarations gave rise to became deeply interwoven with disputes over all the other changes being accomplished in Progressive-era America. Clearly, the greatest of those changes was the fact that in the two generations since the Civil War, the country had gone from being primarily agrarian and rural, with the bulk of its population and its wealth tied up with farming, to primarily industrial and urban, with the bulk of money and people moving into America's cities (a steady movement that, in the century since, has continued without let-up). The Social Gospel was essentially an acknowledgment that Christianity needed to make its home and find its vocation in the midst of urban industrialization. But even the Protestants who followed that liberal, modern, urban tradition through the first half of the 20th century were apparently bothered by it, haunted by the fundamentalist worry--a worry which, for better or worse (I think mostly the former), is probably unshakable--that in making peace with the modern American city, they were risking something essential about their faith.

Harvey Cox, though, insisted that kind of anxiousness was nonsense. In careful but powerful prose, he made the argument for the city, and all the secularism its growth as the defining type of social order in the post-Industrial Revolution world implies. Cox's explanations are succinct, sketching out the privatization and diversification of belief which attends modern life--a topic philosophers like Charles Taylor have spent hundreds of pages trying to understand--in just a few short short lines, and then moving on. He touched on the idea that Christianity was essential to both the "universality and radical openness" which is necessary to the modern city (p. 10), and the destruction of the "magical vision...[in] which nature is seen as a semidivine force" which is necessary to modern secularism (p. 20). This is a profoundly Protestant history of Christianity, and fairly elitist one as well; I suspect Catholicism and Orthodoxy wouldn't accept Cox's enthusiasm for the "disenchantment of the natural world" (p. 21). But still, his grasp of a Christianity stripped of natural law and metaphysics did allow him to see what the last 50 years have admittedly made obvious: that the Christian faith can and often does flourish in the pluralistic city, that urbanism's anonymity and distinction between public and private really can allow for a more charitable openness and the "capacity to live responsibly with increasing numbers of neighbors" (p. 39). In short, the pragmatism of the city is, he argued, fully compatible with Christian virtues--or at least not an enemy to them:

We should not be dismayed by the fact that fewer and fewer people are pressing what we have normally called "religious" questions. The fact that urban-secular man is incurably and irreversibly pragmatic, that he is less and less concerned with religious questions, is in no sense a disaster. It means that he is shedding the lifeless cuticles of the mythical and ontological periods and stepping into the functional age. He is leaving behind the styles of the tribe and the town and is becoming a technopolitan man. As such he may now be in a position to hear certain notes in the biblical message that he missed before. He may be ready, in some respects, to "do the truth" in a way his superstitious and religious forerunners we not (p. 60).

There's a lot that I like about Cox's vision; what he wrote about economics, sex, and civil society in the life of urban-dwelling (really just modern-epoch living) Christians struck me as wise, or at least prescient. But again and again, his Kennedyesque boosterism, his optimistic embrace of technology and change, led him to insist upon a normative breadth to his arguments that was just untenable. For Cox, rustic towns and small cities are even worse than the "tribal" existence we had before the emergence of the city; what is needed is the mobility, choice, and innovation promised by the true "technopolis"; those older forms of life presumably encouraged static authority and reactionary traditions, whereas "the Kingdom of Jesus came when God's doing something wholly new coincided with man's laying aside previous values and loyalties....the emerging secular city entails precisely this kind of renunciation" (p. 98). It's no surprise that Cox titles one of his chapters "The Church as God's Avant-garde."

But the problem with the avant-garde is that it almost always ends up being a friend to the impersonal and the authoritarian, and Cox wasn't free of that. In his view, the Christian in the city needs to fight the "stubborn residue of tribal and town ideology which prevents the technopolis from being realized," and that means challenging the "decentralization," the "fragmentation of power," and the "anarchy" in cities in favor of supporting "the power structure" so as to gain "political mastery over technical society" (pp. 116-117). The "defamilialization of work" has been a great, emancipatory thing, "sever[ing] once and for all the umbilical cord connecting family life and work life" (p. 148). The goal should be to direct our Christian efforts towards self-contained, rootless organizations that are "flexible," "future-oriented," "secularized," and "limited" in its claims on its members--which means, of course, that one shouldn't form attachments to those professions which resist such specialization and individuation (old-school industries and farming, mostly); "cybernation" is going to make them all go away, anyway, and with appropriate state planning those who are "emotionally attached to certain occupations" can be re-trained and moved into the service industries or simply subsidized: "We can easily," Cox added as an endnote, "afford to keep certain people in agriculture as a kind of occupational therapy" if necessary (pp. 152-153, 162-163, 166). What started as a realistic appraisal of the fate of the Christian faith in the modern era of urban individuality, diversity, and anonymity, ends up being a broad argument for happily accepting constant mobility, professional and personal transient-ness, and state-maintained procedural rationality as perfectly compatible with the Christian faith. That's a conclusion I find both socially unhealthy and scripturally untrue. But so what?

This is where Rod's Benedict Option comes in. Rod's presentation at the Eighth Day Symposium didn't add a great deal to much that he's written about the subject before. But, perhaps inspired by Hans Boersma, a Reformed theologian and historian who was also here in Wichita (and who is praised further in this thoughtful post by Rod here), he did sketch out a positively sacramental argument in favor of the idea of forming communities of practice, ritual, tradition, stability, and memory, as a tool to conserve in a truly equitable way the goods that we can know together. His various points all had their own significance, but they could be summed up, I thought, in one pithy comment of his: "Matter matters." Things--the gardens we grow, the animals we raise, the food we cook, the products we fashion with our hands, the rituals we physically enact, the arts we make and share and pass down, the stories we preserve in books, all of it--matter as part of a gifted, sacramental reality. It put me in mind of Martin Heidegger's "es gibt," the notion (which really is ultimately Pauline, though Heidegger himself was reluctant to acknowledge that connection) that all entities and all relationships are things revealed to and given to us, as opposed to abstract objects whose being and meaning is entirely a product of our choice to turn our efforts upon them. (It isn't surprising that Cox thought Heidegger was "entirely wrong in believing that the escape route [from our modern theological predicament] lies in returning to a kind of primordial mythical thinking," since that "would deny that God has made man responsible for nature and that politics is the sphere of human mastery"--p. 219.) And it also made me realize: I think most people, at least most people who are familiar with the sort of issues Rod is struggling with, probably have some sense that matter matters too. And that's what worries them.

It is rare for Rod to write or speak about the Benedict Option without him feeling obliged to push back against the idea that the communities he has in mind must be isolated, rural, restrictive, sectarian, agrarian communes. That's not it at all!, he says and writes over and over again. But why must he always repeat himself? In part, I came to think during the symposium, because the sort of people he's sharing his ideas with mostly live--as nearly all people nowadays live, myself included--in cities, as members of a near-completely urbanized civilization. And on some level or another, they recognize at least some part of themselves in Cox's description (and celebration!) of the mobile, changeable, transitory city. Perhaps they work in advertising, trying to create ways to sell social media apps over the iPhone. Or they're a project manager for some corporation, responsible for charting performance reviews and job training so as to hit some government agency's quota. Or they handle financial derivatives. Or they process purchasing orders for online marketers. Or they collate information for hedge fund managers. Or they do one of a million other jobs which the diversity and anonymity and wealth of modern urban existence makes possible, and they read about the Benedict Option, and they think to themselves, even if Rod doesn't put it this way explicitly: there is no matter to what I do. There's no there there, at least not a real, sacramental, thingy there. And that worries them--as it worries me, city-dweller that I am.

A few years ago I pushed Rod on what I called the "undertheorized agrarianism" in his writings about community. That may have been a bit much--but it wasn't, I think, essentially wrong. No, Rod's Benedict Option does not have to be a rural, self-sufficient, agricultural monastery. But still, some of the very best arguments as to why one should be open to understanding the challenges of modern life such that Rod's counter-cultural communitarianism seems an appropriate response to them cannot help, I think, but at least hint at preferring such a monastic life to the busy, globalized, trade-and-banking-and-service-economy-dependent, thoroughly monetized city which most of us know. Because Cox is right--there is so much about urban life which points, even a half-century ago, towards exactly that kind of abstraction, privatization, and context-less rule-making. What do cities make? What is the productive ground which their inhabitants can actually take in hand, the matter which they can hold in common? Rod's urbanized readers, particularly the Christian ones, who are worried about the same things he's worried about and who want, like him, to connect with communities where matter matters, may be forgiven for perhaps often looking around themselves and thinking "Well, maybe I can't do it here."

There are, of course, numerous possible responses to that worry, even assuming it applies (amazingly enough, there really are still are cities in the United States where actual things are built). Rod's forthcoming Benedict Option book is sure to offer its own responses, and in a way, my own presentation did as well. On my reading of Cox, the real breakdown between the correct observations he made about the Christian possibilities available in the city, and his later acceptance of a religion and an economy entirely based on abstract choice, came with his embrace of the cult of mobility and innovation, and his (I think quite flawed) attempt to read a complete rejection of "place" into the Biblical story. If we take Cox's legitimate insights seriously but decline to go as far as he did, and instead say that we need to be attendant to the virtues of stability even in urban places, we may notice that not all cities are made equal. Some cities--smaller or mid-sized ones, ones that still have within their local economy the resources for real material productivity and within the reach of their local ecosystem the soil for growing real food--have a bit more stability than Cox's technopolises.

That kind of steadiness is a precarious condition in the world of global capital flows, obviously; it requires careful, thoughtful, long-term work to fight against the cult of zoning and save productive exurban (or even urban) land for farming, or to pull together the support necessary for small-scale artisanal manufacturing when the big city players (both banks and governments) usually just want to build a new mall--or, as Rod himself has noted in his praise for Wichita's Eighth Day Books, simply build a community-centering small business (which really isn't a simple matter at all!). Perhaps through and in the midst of that kind of work, the possibility for truly urban Benedict Option communities, urban places that can keep their connection to the matter that matters even in the midst to the many mixed and abstract distractions and anonymous blessings of modern cities, could be possible after all. Since that's where most of us live, after all, such needs to be our hope, or else pondering the future of the Benedict Option (for those of us so inclined, whatever our reasons) is done for.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"No Doubt."

Rest in peace, Mr. Rickman. So many of your performances on stage and screen were wonderful, but my favorite role of yours was Colonel Brandon is Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. My single favorite line from that movie--indeed, from any Austen adaption I've ever seen--was when Brandon revealed his sad past to Elinor. Mr. Rickman, you drew more sadness and wry wisdom out of this short scene--indeed, from those two words, twice spoken, more humor--than I think any equally skilled stage and film actor ever could. I can't find an embed, but we can watch it here. Look up Mr. Bowie, and have a fine drink with him, will you? Godspeed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Assessing the Freedom Of, and the Freedom From, Cities

[Cross-posted to Bleeding Heart Libertarians]

Jacob Levy's Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a superb work of political theory and intellectual history. It introduces, in clear and compelling language, a new way of making sense of the development of liberal ideas, by distinguishing between what he labels "rationalist" (consistent, transparent, state-centric) and "pluralist" (variable, private, culture-dependent) responses to the threats to individual freedom which have arisen throughout the history of liberalism. And then, as an encore, he uses all that his analysis has suggested to shed some new light on contemporary theoretical debates. Overall it's a great book, one that I hope will have a long life.

What is there to criticize? Not much. I'm sure defenders of the rationalist approach to ensuring personal liberty (Jacob makes clear his own preference for the pluralist approach) might take issue with some implications of how he sets up and describes these variations within liberalism. And fans of Charles Taylor (like me) might think that Jacob’s suggestion in the conclusion that Taylor’s history of modernity wrongly attempts a synthesis of rationalism and pluralism is a simplistic reading of Taylor's philosophical aims. But all that is rather small potatoes, especially considering that such nits arise in the beginning and ending of the book, and skip over its central, and best, section, which deals with the history of intermediate groups in the West and their relationship to liberalism.

For myself, the most interesting way to engage that section is through Jacob’s (too short!) treatment of the rise of towns, cities, and provinces, and how seeing those bodies as associational forms presents different types of pluralist challenges to our understanding of how best to define and defend individual freedom. He begins by asserting--relying here primarily upon the scholarship of Harold Berman--that cities and towns are essentially non-contractual entities. Rather than emerging through some hypothetical social contract or actual historical process of constitutionalization, they are bodies of individuals that ratified their own collective existence in particular places (along rivers or trade routes or mountain passes) through “real acts of mutual promise” (p. 96): in other words, through the organic realization of, the participatory recognition of, a community. This distinguishes them, when one speaks of local governing bodies, from counties or provinces, which usually were “geographically far larger than cities...not surrounded by a wall...primarily rural...certainly not founded by equals committing to one another by oaths...[but rather were] in large part the leftover geography of the processes of state consolidation” (p. 108). Jacob’s tracing of the different forms and norms of law which emerged as relevant to these different types of local bodies–Germanic or “gothic,” in the first case; Roman or republican in the second–opens up multiple lines of argument within political theory.

For example, his idea that the “Germanic legal model of law [was] tied to personal status” is only truly effective in “mostly homogenous” contexts, whereas something different was needed for “the arms’-length interactions of strangers engaged in long-distance or urban trade” (p. 101), parallels the arguments of the sociologist Lyn Lofland, who in A World of Strangers contrasted the pre-industrial city, whose inhabitants informally ordered themselves through signs of personal recognition (what someone was wearing, for example), with the industrial, commercial city, where that informal order was provided by recognizing the--often authoritatively determined and imposed--rules of one’s location (the part of the city where one lived or worked). There is also the sense in which these distinctions can deepen our understanding of the intense connection many throughout American history have made between freedom and independent ownership, and the socio-economic and spatial context (urban vs. provincial/rural) relevant to the intensity, or lack of such, felt for that connection. Jacob observes that “the paradigmatic city for the humanists and republicans was a sovereign city-state, maybe sitting at the head of its own empire [though a limited one, presumably]...the independence of the city was a prerequisite to the freedom of its citizens. The Germanic tradition that Stadtluft macht frei [“city air makes one free”] rested on no such assumption” (p. 133). Seeing these bodies as part of ongoing arguments over association freedom, lends important light to ongoing arguments about how public policies ought to be constructed, on the one hand, in regards to the tangles of political and economic obligations and opportunities which so often characterize modern capitalist urban life, as well as towards the (more often idealized than real) clear rules and spatial authority supposedly associated with private property ownership on the other.

That is light which Jacob himself is, perhaps, not entirely aware of. Jacob is to be credited with having been among those political theorists who recognized early on the great value of James Scott's arguments about state and market-based forms of rational, organizational oppression, but he's been ambivalent about accepting Scott's insistence that it is the modernist logics of the market and the state which push this oppression, not something that only happens when the latter appropriates the former. Some of this reluctance might be discerned by looking at what is not particularly discussed early in the book, when Jacob writes about the value of "associations that resist the state" and explores Adam Smith's warning about the "man of system," without making any comment about, say, the rational reformer who wishes to get rid of inconsistent trade barriers and idiosyncratic excise and sin taxes, all in the name of maximizing the benefits of creative destruction (pp. 59, 67). But is important that we make use of the light Jacob has provided in his book exactly in regards to these matters. .

Why? Because, as Jacob superbly demonstrates in his brief history of the Western political understand of cities, these bodies are often much more than--using Oakeshottian terms--civil associations, but rather are enterprise ones, complex and purposive bodies which offer "local and distinct lifestyles to mobile populations, letting people sort into local communities, whose distinctiveness then becomes reinforcing" (p. 289). In connecting this observation to his larger analysis of liberalism, Levy gives added theoretical heft to arguments--made by Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, and many others (including me)--about the anarchic-yet-ordered potential of economically sufficient cities. While one can certainly fill whole books with accounts of localities throughout history being threatened by state-mandated "rationalizing" projects, in the name of ethnic cleansing, ideological punishment, or political homogeneity, surely one needs to at least acknowledge that in the modern and (mostly) law-abiding Western societies of today, the greatest threat to the survival of the purposive, economically sufficient, culture-forming capacity of cities is, in fact, the dominance of global finance capitalism. A dominance which is, of course, abetted by economic elites: elites whose propertied position and business revenue tends, more often than not, to be situated in provincial, state, or international contexts, rather than in the local urban communities they are part of; elites who, consciously or not, consistently favor making their lived environments as amenable to those remunerative, globalizing processes as possible.

Note that I acknowledge the remunerative character of these processes. There is no denying that there is a strict utilitarian, economic argument for the individual empowerment which generally arises from the capitalist rationalization of cities, making those bodies, and the consumers and workers who live there, into, as much as possible, enriching nodes in the global finance and capital flow machine. The question is: is liberty always best served by the liberation of individuals from obligation, community, and want which specialization and efficiency often (though not always) provides? Jacob's own preference for pluralism suggests that, despite his own libertarianism, the answer may not be a clear "yes." Still, his overarching thesis is that there can be no resolution of the rationalist-pluralist divide in liberalism, nor any moral judgment as to objective superiority of one over the other, so he really doesn't answer this question--indeed, he doesn't even broach it in these terms. But he shines a new light upon the question nonetheless, and that is valuable enough.

In the end, the great accomplishment of this wonderful book is that it provides a language to help us see (for many of us, for the first time), and thus think productively about, the history and significance of the rationalist-pluralist divide in liberalism. If Jacob himself didn't use that language to address, say, city-county relations, or local versus global markets--well, that's a small loss, but not a great one. Because he's now shown us all a better way to go about doing exactly that on our own. Freedom indeed!

Monday, January 11, 2016

"I Thought He Had One More Regeneration Left in Him"



Five Farewells to Our Thin White Duke

Innumerable tributes will pore forth today for David Bowie, who passed away yesterday from cancer, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar. That's appropriate, because Bowie's influence as a musician and a performer was as extensive, as protean, as wildly diverse and interpretive, as anyone's. Probably only Bob Dylan, among all modern pop, rock, and folk pioneers still living, could compare with the man's groundbreaking range. So in the midst of the oncoming flood of words, remember this tribute from Will Gompertz:

David Bowie was the Picasso of pop. He was an innovative, visionary, restless artist: the ultimate ever-changing postmodernist. Along with the Beatles, Stones and Elvis Presley, Bowie defined what pop music could and should be. He brought art to the pop party, infusing his music and performances with the avant-garde ideas of Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Andy Warhol.

He turned pop in a new direction in 1972 with the introduction of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Glam rock was the starting point, but Ziggy was much more than an eyeliner-wearing maverick: he was a truly theatrical character that at once harked backed to pre-War European theatre while anticipating 1980s androgyny and today's discussions around a transgender spectrum.

He was a great singer, songwriter, performer, actor, producer and collaborator. But beyond all that, at the very heart of the matter, David Bowie was quite simply--quite extraordinarily--cool.


Here, in memoriam, are five slices of the man that come to my mind this morning.

Appropriately enough, let's start with 1971's "Changes":



And follow it up immediately with Bowie, who was so often treated as some kind of the theatrical alien, owning his own reputation with 1971's "Life on Mars":



But Bowie would only allow his audiences to stick with an image of him as long as he wanted them to; when it came time to bury the 1970s, he did, definitively, in "Ashes to Ashes":



In the 1980s David Bowie re-made himself into a fashion and acting icon--but predictably, he's already preceded the meta-commentary on his own transformation with "Fashion":



Thirty years on from what many considered his peak, did Bowie still know how to rock? Oh yeah. Let's end with a holiday he almost lived to see a 70th time, "Valentine's Day":