Measuring the Self: the hinge between body and network

the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.” Adam Greenfield

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Adam Greenfield called, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. It’s a book that digs deep into life in the Network Age and explores the complex relations we have with everyday technologies. The smartphone, as you would imagine, figures heavily in the book, Greenfield writes about the subtle ways in which we are immersed in a whole new sense of subjectivity—as Marshal Mcluhan said many decades ago, technology changes who we are, or rather who we perceive our selves to be in relation to self, others and the world around us.

Now I’m sure I am coming late to this, but when Greenfield turns his attention to biometric sensors, he mentioned an organization called Quantified Self. It was established in 2007 by Kevin Kelley of Wired magazine and Gary Wolf. The OS practices life-logging or self-tracking, capitalizing on the emerging world of measuring data that is available to us-everything from counting steps to monitoring ovulation. The mission of the organization seems fairly innocuous,

Our mission is to support new discoveries about ourselves and our communities that are grounded in accurate observation and enlivened by a spirit of friendship.

Far be it from me to pass any judgment on this, it is a purely personal decision to utilize available technologies in this manner, but I admit that something about this measuring has always made me uneasy. The Fitbit/AppleWatch craze of measuring steps, heart-rate etc. is something that leaves me cold to be honest.

I think it is the notion of measuring performance that irks me. Counting steps turns a walk into exercise and then into a goal and a performance and I feel as though something is being taken away by this constant measuring that goes on now-whether it is counting calories, or steps and so on. I think the larger issue that I’m concerned about is the normalizing of this way of living. What is not asked is what this information about the self is being mobilized for and how it came to be that measuring our lives in this manner came about in the first place. As I have already said, I think it’s fine for a group of people to be into this, but it feels as though we are being steered in this direction as more and more technologies emerge that offer more complex measuring techniques.

Against the backdrop of late capitalism, the rise of wearable biometric monitoring can only be understood as a disciplinary power traversing the body itself and all its flows.”

It’s the capitalist component in all of this that concerns me. Our technologies are offered to us within the stream of consumer-capitalism and what seems to be seldom considered in all of this talk of technology is the implications of economic systems driving this. Data is collected from us, this is the exchange we make in return for access. This data is also leveraged and sold on to other economic interests and most of the time we are unaware of that. This new subjectivity, the mediated self, the digital self, the quantified self, whatever we might call it, exists within a labyrinth of relations, with vested economic interests and agendas.

I do not wish to rail against technology as much as ask us to take a minute to ‘listen between the clouds,’ to take a moment to think about what is happening to us and with us as life becomes more and more enmeshed in networks.

I’d be really interested in any of your thoughts on this, so feel free to comment back.


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God: A Work In Progress

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(God 1, 2014 George Condo)

I have spent the better part of more than three decades exploring the world of the divine, the realm of the sacred and notions about faith, belief and God. Like many people my view of God has changed a lot over the years, although I am not sure I was ever entirely convinced, it just came with the territory of religion so I embraced concepts that were handed to me without much reflection. But it didn’t take long for that decision to become problematic in my life as I tried to reconcile things that I was feeling, thinking and experiencing with ideas that seemed a bit hard to hold onto and made very little sense to me, even when I was embedded in a much more conservative and bounded religious environment.

I don’t believe in an Interventionist God,” when I heard those words, the opening line from Into My Arms by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, in 1997, I was searching for language to help me give voice to the shifting ideas inside me that I wanted to express. I didn’t believe in an interventionist God, that was a place to begin. I took those words and began to create a new language to talk about the divine. I’d been reading some Death of God theology (Altizer, Vahanian), and some more progressive theological voices and I had also begun an exploration into deconstructionist philosophy, but I felt the need to voice things in a more approachable way as I was doing a lot of speaking in community settings. I’d also started to teach theology and cultural stuff whilst doing a PhD but wanted to translate a lot of things into a more accessible vocabulary as I was interacting with people coming from fairly evangelical and non-denominational backgrounds who tended to react negatively when things were couched in certain language structures.

My views about God have continued to shift. I realized that the notion of a supernatural, metaphysical God was never of much interest to me, my journey into religion borne out of an interest in the humanistic, materialist aspects of the life of Christ, but it took me a while to give that shape and expression.

This past week, more words about all of this came via Nick Cave. I subscribe to a things called Red Hand Files which is a digital space where Cave responds to questions from some of his fans. This reply was in response to a few questions, all of which in someway asked about Cave’s views about God. I thought I would post the whole thing here and let you read it for yourself rather than quoting or paraphrasing it.

Dear Ali, Maggie, João and Peter and the many people who have asked similar God related questions. 

I’ve been circling around the idea of God for decades. It’s been a slow creep around the periphery of His Majesty, pen in hand, trying to write God alive. Sometimes, I think, I have almost succeeded. The more I become willing to open my mind to the unknown, my imagination to the impossible and my heart to the notion of the divine, the more God becomes apparent. I think we get what we are willing to believe, and that our experience of the world extends exactly to the limits of our interest and credence. I am interested in the idea of possibility and uncertainty. Possibility, by its very nature, extends beyond provable facts, and uncertainty propels us forward. I try to meet the world with an open and curious mind, insisting on nothing other than the freedom to look beyond what we think we know. Does God exist? I don’t have any evidence either way, but I am not sure that is the right question. For me, the question is what it means to believe. The thing is, against all my better judgement, I find it impossible not to believe, or at the very least not to be engaged in the inquiry of such a thingwhich in a way is the same thing. My life is dominated by the notion of God, whether it is His presence or His absence.  I am a believer – in both God’s presence and His absence. I am a believer in the inquiry itself, more so than the result of that inquiry. As an extension of this belief, my songs are questions, rarely answers. 

In the end, with all respect, I haven’t the stomach for atheism and its insistence on what we know. It feels like a dead end to me, unhelpful and bad for the business of writing. I share many of the problems that atheists have toward religion – the dogma, the extremism, the hypocrisy, the concept of revelation with its many attendant horrors – I am just at variance with the often self-satisfied certainty that accompanies the idea that God does not exist. It is simply not in my nature. I have, for better or for worse, a predisposition toward perverse and contradictory thinking. Perhaps this is something of a curse, but the idea of uncertainty, of not knowing, is the creative engine that drives everything I do. I may well be living a delusion, I don’t know, but it is a serviceable one that greatly improves my life, both creatively and otherwise. 

So, do I believe in God? Well, I act like I do, for my own greater good. Does God exist? Maybe, I don’t know. Right now, God is a work in progress. 

Love, Nick

There are many things in this short response that I connect with. Like Cave I often find myself between the twin poles of possibility and uncertainty and I agree with him that uncertainty is a great key to unlock one’s imagination and creativity. I also tire very quickly of the atheist argument,. Recently, the comedian Marc Maron said that given the choice he would prefer lunch with a reasonable Christian over a vegan atheist, and I understand (no offense to vegans, hahaha). I’m also fairly committed to the inquiry, to the questions, and the process of questioning, rather than the answers.

At this stage in my life I don’t believe in God, at least not the supernaturalist being most often described as such. I’m open, but I live with the idea that Christ, and Christianity, is about the end of ideas about that kind of God, not a testament to His existence. But I am, at the same time, haunted by the idea of that God, religious stuff runs deep and doesn’t depart quickly when turned away from. So my life is still marked by inquiry, by question, by possibility, but I swim in the waters of uncertainty, not looking for answers, but trying to keep the questions alive.

Next year I have a book coming out that explores some of these ideas more formally. i wrote it with a friend, it’s called, The Aesthetics of A/Theism, I’ll let you know the release date when I have it.

The Price of Everything

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“There are three kinds of people in the world. Those who see; those who see when they are shown; and those who will never see.” Amy Cappellazzo

The Price of Everything is a sobering, sometimes sad and enthralling documentary about the art world, focused primarily on the highs and lows of the art market. if you ever wondered about the relationship between art and commerce this film will give you a brutal introduction to the fickle nature of art as investment and the challenge of being an artist in such a world. The quote at the top of this post made by Sotheby’s Fine Arts Chair, pretty much sums up the reality that the film tries to address. In a world where investors, hedge-fund managers, artists, dealers and collectors craft a value-driven world and ascribe worth to physical objects in an often cynical manner.

The film addresses the disparities and challenges of being in an artist in a world like this, because, as the documentary shows, not everyone gets to reap the rewards of having their work sell for millions or increase in value. It is arbitrary and cynical and market-driven. The film charts the explosion of the contemporary art market back to 1973, when New York Yellow Taxi magnate, Robert Scull auctioned off his collection. This seminal moment changed the art market for ever.

The ‘artistic’ device in the film is a tenuous comparison between the heady successes of Jeff Koons against the obscurity of Larry Poons, whose success in the art market peaked in the 1970s when he created a series of wildly popular dot paintings. His humble circumstances and honest musings about the purpose of art over against the concerns of markets and investors provide some of the film’s most tender moments. of course, It’s a cinematic device, but Poons is a perfect. “The only defence against fate is colour,” he declares as the camera pans his large, panoramic, abstract pieces.

Art critic, Jerry Saltz, also has some great moments of commentary. never one to shy away from an opinion (check out his instagram: @jerrysaltz). The film briefly shows a clip of Jackson Pollock creating one of his famous drip paintings. Saltz says,

When he finished his first drip painting, he asked his wife, “Is this a painting?” He made something that may not even fit in the very large category we call art. What many people don’t know is that Pollock only dripped for about forty-eight months. I would ask of any artist or cynic, “If you invented fire,” which Pollock did, “Are you strong enough to stop making fire and go back to hell? 48 months later, go back to hell and try to make something new again. how many people have done that?””

It’s a compelling critique against making art purely for the market and that notion is gently referenced by a couple of up and coming artists who are wrestling with the prospect of what they will do with their creative process if their success with a particular approach would be threatened by their embrace of some new process or practice.

Art and commerce have been in cahoots for centuries. What is new today is art as investment, the purchasing of art like real estate; something to roll over and make a profit on, and the increasing disappearance of art into private collections as museums cannot compete with private money for available works.

It’s both disappointing and fascinating to watch this film. Nothing it tells you is really that new, but the way it is told and, the way in which the inner workings of the contemporary art market are exposed, makes this really worth watching. The Price of Everything is filled with fascinating characters from all sides of the art world and in spite of the revealed ugliness of a value-driven, cynically capitalist and consumerist world it portrays, it manages to deliver a homage to the creative process of making art, which is always a good thing

Going Guccy: fashioning theological transgression

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“Transgression reveals what Christianity attempts to conceal, namely that “the sacred and the forbidden are one, and that the sacred can be reached through the violence of a broken taboo.”

Dominic PettmanI am interested in fashion. I always have been. I used to get in trouble at school for uniform violations all the time; a checked shirt instead of white or grey, the occasional coloured socks, the wrong shoes, hair too long, then too short. One of my earliest jobs was after school and at weekends working in the stockroom of one of the only men’s clothiers in the town I grew up in. I buy fashion magazines all the time, even when I’m broke, and there is nothing I like more than visiting clothing stores and checking things out.

The past few years have seen some interesting developments in the fashion world. The latest perhaps being the appointment of Virgil Abloh, former Kanye West collaborator and creator of the Off-White streetwear label, as creative director of Louis Vuitton. Not only is he the first African-American to head up a major french fashion house, he’s also comes from the world of streetwear and is a DJ. He is part of a re-defining of the fashion industry that is underway right now.

But it’s Gucci and its creative director Alessandro Michele that has really captured my attention the past couple of years. If there are any lessons to be learned from the world of fashion as it negotiates the current times, I think Gucci might be the place to be looking. As someone recently wrote, “while other brands are developing apps, Gucci is busy writing a new OS.”

It all began with Michele. Appointed to the position seemingly out of nowhere (he was not widely know although he had worked at Gucci for a number of years in different positions) he almost immediately set about re-positioning the company. A decision was made from the beginning to give Michele complete creative control and the business side of things was set-up to serve that end. This has allowed for a complete and quite radical overhaul of the entire brand in a few short years.

What the brand has managed to so is reach millennials whose relationship to consumerism is very different than the focus of traditional luxury brands. Luxury goods focus on high quality craftsmanship and exclusivity, two values that millennials and under 35s in general have little interest in responding to. Rather than buy things for status they tend to buy to please themselves and are much more interested in things like passion and authenticity (a troubling word, I think it’s a bit of a misnomer, believability might be better but I will save that for later). Things like sustainability, company transparency, ethical manufacturing matter, which again, luxury brands have been slow to respond to. Fashion is fundamentally wasteful which hasn’t helped in gaining environmentally minded consumers in the past.

So Gucci put creativity at the centre of the brand, created a new set of values built around sustainability, respect, empowerment and inclusivity and then took a whole new approach to the market. They have also brought answered the demands of the digital economy in a way no other company has and become the best-performing digital luxury fashion brand. They have done that by choosing a strategy that honours the brand integrity and focuses on the channel second, or to put it another way, they are not driven by the tyranny of digital platforms but by the vision of the company.

You may be aware of the huge market in counterfeit luxury goods-fake clothing and bags that bear company logos but are really cheap knock-offs. Well, Gucci decided to absorb those fake things into the brand. Canada’s GucciGhost created a capsule line with Michele. Dapper Dan the Brooklyn tailor who created memorable outfits at the height of hip-hop out of fake luxury brand fabrics became a partner in another venture with the company. The company even produced a series of t-shirts with the misspelt Guccy name that is often found adorning knock-off products. The energy of the transgressive was absorbed into the ethos of the real company. All of this transformation essentially came out of nowhere and took everyone in fashion by surprise.

I have been giving all of this a lot of thought with regard to the worlds that I inhabit in my working life, the world of theological innovation and practice for instance. Without pushing the analogy too far, Christianity, the Church, is a bit like a stagnant fashion brand, constantly trying to find the latest trend to capture the imagination of the public. But it always feels tired and repetitious, a bit like lipstick on a pig, the same thing underneath but hopefully we are drawn away by some surface glitz.

Gucci was caught up in a cycle just like that. Fashion has traditionally run on seasons: fall, summer, winter, cruise, spring, each new season bringing a new collection. Michele has abandoned that approach and created a more integrated, holistic model, blending seasons, shows and markets into a new permutation. If you like he has abandoned the petit recits of the postmodern in favour of a new type of meta-narrative, a post-postmodern story that is broad, inclusive, and beholden to none of the old ideas that have driven fashion for a long time. It is not a static, authoritative modern meta-narrative, but rather an evolving, open-ended space where a story is built upon season after season in order to create a changing space where ideas can live, be amended, adjusted, and added to. Each time there is a new Gucci collection, it builds on what has come before. It is not that the clothes don’t change in terms of look etc., it is deeper than that, the message isn’t just in the clothes, it is in the space that Michele is creating through the company. In a recent article in Tank magazine Michele is quoted as saying, “The revolutionary thing is that you can be Gucci even if you don’t buy one part of the collection,” in other words, it’s about a way of looking at life as much as it is about what clothes you wear.

What does it mean to be Gucci? Well, there is no single answer to that, it is many things, but ultimately it means that it is to engage in a process of self-realization, not necessarily through the clothes and accessories but through the very ideas the company is offering up. Gucci sees the conventional wisdom of the fashion industry and goes in the opposite direction, abandoning all attempts to reclaim the past as a future model.

It’s not so much a revolution of fashion as an insurrection. Michele and Gucci president Marco Bizzarri, are not engaged in a power struggle with other brands, they are crafting their own market space by radically reconfiguring how they do fashion. The heart of this insurrection is built around transgression, whether it be embracing the transgressive world of fake luxury or by transgressing fashion’s concrete rules in favour of new approaches which liberate the company from the tyranny of a world that no longer works. Foucault wrote that transgression is an “affirmative gesture that must be liberated from the scandalous or subversive,” something Gucci has managed to do with great success.

Christianity would seem to be committed to the opposite of the transgressive, but I think that what has been missing or lost in the shuffle somewhere is the very transgressive nature of the Christian story. “The transgressive rejects stable codes in order to clear an ideological space; a space for action, experimentation, chance, freedom, mobility. it seeks to explode orthodox notions of coherence and consistency,” so says the cultural theorist Dominic Pettman. In a transgressive environment contradictions might be reconciled and if not they are fused together in a sort of wild clash of celebration (one look at the clashes that come together in Gucci’s fashion demonstrates a fabricated version of this—it shouldn’t work, but it does).

The take-away for me is that there is a need for an insurrectionist, transgressive take on Christianity that relieves itself from the tyranny, from the hostage, of business as usual, or the tendency to look backwards in order to find a way forward, and instead creates a space for a different experiential encounter and the possibility of re-formulation. What does that look like? Like everything you’ve ever seen and nothing you’ve ever seen before. How is it done? Well we have to start where we are and build out from there, or as Picasso says, “Go and do the things you can’t, that is how you get to do them.” We’ll talk more about this soon.

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Tenuous Threads

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A couple of weeks ago I came across a school report card from when I was eight years old. It was interesting to see what I was interested in back then and somewhat to my surprise, the subjects that I apparently excelled in were subjects that interest me still; art, religion and music. I did pretty well across all subjects but those three were singled out as areas I did well in. Who knows why we lean towards certain things and not others? Or why we find interest or passion, vocation even, in a particular art form or field of study. But there it was on a folded piece of paper, written decades ago, inscribed as it were in a young life.

I was browsing in a book shop earlier this week and saw the Krishnamurti book in the image at the top of this post. In my early teens I decided to hitchhike to Greece one summer. A friend of mine was working as an au pair for a Greek family for the summer so I thought I would make my way down there and pay her a visit. It was really pretty easy, I got great rides and before I knew it I was in Brindisi in southern Italy catching a ferry to Corfu. I had no real idea where I was going and I had some time to kill before I had to be in Athens so I followed a few people to a place called Sidari and spent a few weeks sleeping in a tent on a nude beach.

On the boat from Corfu to the mainland I met an American, from Santa Barbara, and we spent a day walking around Athens and exploring the city. Before we parted company, he handed me a book and said that it was important to him, the only book he had bought on his trip, but he wanted me to have it. It was a Krishnamurti book. I had no interest, or at least was not nurturing any interest in religion at the time, but I took the book and read it a few times on that trip. I don’t know how much it impacted me, I know that among the garbled and blurred memories of that time, that moment and that book have always stood out, but I didn’t become a follower of Krishnamurti or anyone else at that time.

The writer Frederick Buechner wrote about his ‘conversion’ and described the strange turn of events that brought him to a moment where the axis of his life shifted. He had been attending a church famous for its preacher’s oratory and expository skills but found nothing in the sermons he heard exceot for an appreciation of the man’s giftedness and ability, but a throwaway comment about ‘great laughter’ brought him to a new place of self-understanding.

And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all.

Foolish, tenuous and holy threads, that’s how our lives are pieced together I think. All too often we present life as some all-encompassing grand narrative, born of a divine plan or scheme, but personally I think life is made up of ‘episodic blips,’ as Simon Critchley the philosopher says, threaded through with moments, singular moments, but usually unremarkable at the time, that take us in particular directions and maybe, just maybe, hold together a fragile shape that is our lived life.

While I find it curious that my interests, or at least some of them, remain very similar to what they were when I was a kid, I don’t ascribe larger meaning to that. There are so many factors to take into consideration and I have added other things along the way. What is of interest to me, is that it was never one thing with me, my interests have always been wide, and that hasn’t changed. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it hasn’t killed me.

P.S. I will be offering a class on my Patreon page in the new year where I will be talking about curiosity and other technologies for survival in the 21st century and I will tell you why that proverb about cats and curiosity has been completely mistranslated-so stay tuned I will release some more info soon.

In Celebration of Clutter

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And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do the hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the milky way.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I mentioned a painting called The Orgy by William Hogarth in a post I wrote a couple of weeks back. It is part of a series of eight paintings charting the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a young man who squanders his fortune and winds up penniless in life. The original works are part of a larger collection of art works at the Sir John Soanes museum here in London. I went to look at the painting this week. Soanes (1753-1837) was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy and created a personal museum out of three homes that he re-built in Holborn in central London. There are some 45000 objects on display, just as they were when Soanes lived there, everything from an alabaster Egyptian sarcophagus to Greco-roman statuary, medieval statues, paintings, etchings, it’s mind-boggling. The museum is one of London’s little gems.

The image at the top of the gives a little insight to just how much stuff is crammed into the space. As I wandered through the rooms, squeezing past Roman statues in small passageways and not knowing where to focus my eyes because every single surface had something worth seeing, I thought about the current trend in simplifying life and getting rid of clutter and particularly some talks I have heard in the past couple of years where creativity has been tied to making sure that your space is devoid of stuff, which apparently inhibits the creative process.

I lived for a long time in Los Angeles, bastion of mid-century modernism and all things zen, so perhaps it’s no wonder that the idea of clean surfaces is tied to creativity there, but as with most things, I think it is a bit more complex than that. I understand the extremes of collecting and hoarding, the disposophobia, that leads people to hoard and hold onto things that they not only don’t need, but which are actually inhibiting their well-being, but this prevailing cultural meme that wants us to minimize and essentially ‘go modern,’ because that is really the influence-space, functionality, utilitarianism etc., is a little disturbing to me.

Creativity, like many things, is an umbrella under which any number of diverse methodologies and practices have to live side by side. Ones relationship to stuff is quite subjective. But even a cursory exploration of an artist’s studio or a visit to Soanes museum tells you that what is going on is much more than simply a lack of discipline or a pathological behaviour.

There are things that we keep and grant significance to that seem agreed upon in the broader culture, family heirlooms, children’s crafts, holiday souvenirs etc. But I think that what we collect with intention is some kind of signifier, a revelation of sorts, about how we see ourselves and how we relate to the world around us.

You may have gathered that I am not a minimalist. I appreciate a nice clean space, I really do, but that is not a space I can exist in. I need to surround myself with things that stimulate, inspire, and in many ways reveal much about how I see myself. I am also very much an everything in its place person, a little bit of a neat-freak. I like stuff but I like it orderly. The apparent chaos of the Soanes museum, or an artist’s studio is not a challenge for me, it is an adventure of discovery. A visit to the Soanes Museum might just help you change your relationship to things, or you will immediately want to go to and sit in an empty room in an Eames chair looking at empty walla and breathing a sigh of relief.

Inspiration from everywhere, and anywhere.

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I’m a big fan of the designer Paul Smith. His slightly twisted take on traditional clothing has changed the face of British fashion. I like his approach to life in general and find him to be one of those people who bring ideas about inspiration and creativity down to earth and make them accessible to whomever is listening. A friend sent me a podcast interview with Smith that he stumbled upon. You can listen to it here.

Five Books

Someone recently asked me about the books I’ve been reading and for any recommendations. It’s always difficult to recommend a book, it’s much the same as with music. Your favourite album might just be a cipher in someone else’s collection or even fall on deaf ears. I have always been a voracious reader and have been reading prolifically of late, partly because since my move to London I have more time on my hands.

Every book I read is the best book I have ever read. I read mostly non-fiction, theology, philosophy, cultural theory, psychoanalytic writings, poetry, biography, I rarely read fiction. I judge books by their covers, they say you can’t, but that maxim emerged in the days when books were plainly bound and generally similar looking on the cover and spine, these days a cover can tell you an awful lot about the content inside.

Anyway, rather than recommend books, I’ll tell you about a few that have had major impact on my life, about some books that I have carried with me and returned to more than once. They are books that I have read and re-read and each time have found things that speak, inspire, provoke and challenge my thinking about life.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell

Having just said that I rarely read fiction my first selection is a novel. It was first given to me by a friend’s father. He was a union man and lifelong socialist and I spent many an afternoon arguing politics with my friends at his home. The book was published posthumously in 1914, three years after the death of its author. It is regarded as a classic piece of working-class literature. It tells the story of a house-painter who is trying to stave off poverty and the workhouse. The original cover carried the sub-title, "Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell." Tressell’s real name was Robert Noonan, he chose the pen name in reference to the trestle table which was essential to his trade as a painter and decorator. The book is basically a scathing examination of the working-class and their employers.

This is the book that politicized me. It expressed many of the frustrations I felt decades later, growing up working-class, admittedly with a lot more than those in the novel, but nonetheless still struggling to fight against classism and the like. This is a book that is more than the sum total of its parts for me, it was a catalyst, it gave me language and a desire to take action and not just sit in passivity. The book’s critique of selfish capitalism has never left me. Every few years I buy a new copy and read it again. The world we live in feels a long way from Tressell’s and yet there are elements of the book that transcend time and space, which is perhaps what makes for good fiction, it still speaks, to a world unlike the one it was published into.

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus.

This book! I have used it for many years in classes on theology and culture. It’s a book about a cultural moment I lived through, but Marcus gave me eyes to see it in a much more expansive way. It’s about punk, but punk in its larger sense. Punk was never really about a musical genre, it was always about more than that, it was about everything that happened outside of the dominant culture. Marcus tells the story through the surrealists, the situationists, the dadaists, the punks, he tells of an event that happened in a pre-mediatized world. For Marcus music has no potency, no power, no meaning if it doesn’t scream with politics and philosophy and ideas that exist outside of the mainstream environments those things usually swim in.

It’s a book I think everyone should read, not for tidbits about the Sex Pistols or the other bands referenced, but t understand the even that happened, to think about how it happened and how much of that still echoes around the fringes of culture, just waiting.

In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann

There are moments in ones life when you know change is coming to you or for you and you need new words, new language to give voice to your transition. Not necessarily to explain yourself to others, but for self-understanding. This book came along at such a time for me. It’s not one of Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann’s most widely read works. It was published in 1972 and is a product of its time. There is a large section about race but the general focus is on the neglected notion that the Bible affirms human culture, capability, and responsibility as a part of the biblical narrative and gospel story. Brueggemann hones in on the book of Proverbs and the wisdom traditions it contains that affirm the world and celebrate culture. There is a great section on King David and his counter-intuitive practice of holiness that I found incredibly liberating at the time. As someone who had found themselves in a bit of a cul-de-sac, caught up in what Brueggemann calls ‘culture-despising,’ I was struggling with my own inclinations and interests and feeling the pressure to conform to a version of Christianity that I found unhelpful and confining, This book helped me to open the doors to my own theological thinking and gave me an alphabet with which to begin the process of creating a way of speaking about life and culture and theology.

After Christianity by Gianni Vattimo

I’m a big fan of most things Italian—the country, the food, the art, the artists, the architecture, the philosophers and thinkers. There is something about the way they live, and particularly the way they write and think that just resonates with me. I think it has something to do with its Catholicism, in the sense that Southern Europe had a different relationship to the Enlightenment and Protestantism. I like the neo-Baroque-ness of contemporary Italian philosophy. Vattimo is an interesting figure, a philosopher, former member of the European parliament, and a lapsed Catholic-homosexual who found his way back to faith though Nietzsche. He has written a lot about belief, religion and Christianity in particular, in very novel and challenging ways. After Christianity is his view Christianity after the death of God. He addresses the uncertainty of belief, secularization as a fulfillment of the Christian mission and argues that this sets up the potential and possibility for a new mode of Christianity. This is no gentle re-framing of the old, it is an invitation to a new way of thinking about faith and its role in society today.

Central to this book is Vattimo’s theory of pensiero debole, weak thought, an idea that Jack Caputo has utilized in his work on weak theology. For Vattimo philosophy in the postmetaphysical age can only acknowledge, after Nietzsche, that all is interpretation, and that the "real" is always relative and not the hard and fast truth we once thought it to be. Contemporary thought must acknowledge its claims as "weak" as opposed to the "strong" foundationalist claims of the metaphysical past. Vattimo that this is what makes it possible for religion and God to become a serious topic for philosophy again, and that philosophy should now formally engage religion. The relationship between religion and philosophy is remarkably different than when he wrote this book in 2002. This book was another link in the chain for my own thinking. His contribution to contemporary theological discourse is under-utilized I think.

Six Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino

The novelist Italo Calvino died suddenly in 1985. He was scheduled to give a series of lectures on literature at Harvard in the fall of the same year. Six Notes, was published after his death and are basically his unfinished notes for the lectures. Given that they were written in 1985, they have an air of the prophetic about them. The categories: Lightness; quickness; exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and the final unfinished note on consistency, resonate still.

The Cuban born, Italian based Calvino is known mostly for his novels and short stories. Regarded as one of the earliest postmodern writers, his works are hard to categorize, he himself said that "My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language" which tells a lot about how he wrote but also what to expect when reading him.

I have returned to these notes on occasion and find myself still interested in what he offers for those who are now fully embedded in the new era that he sadly did not get to see.

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All Sex is Pornographic

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I read recently that Christian speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber’s next book is about sex. The article noted the controversy around some comments that she made about the consumption of ethical porn, an inflammatory remark no doubt riling both conservatives and liberals for entirely different reasons. Then yesterday I saw a thing on Instagram that offered people a ‘certificate’ signed by the same author if they sent in their purity ring so that it could be melted down with all the others to make a sculpture of a vagina, in service of the author’s ‘shameless’ sex mission. Apparently those who turn in their rings will get a ‘shameless’ ring in return.

This book is part of what I see as an on-going attempt by a number of Christians of all stripes at reclaiming human sexuality from the clutches of a particular kind of moralism and biblical interpretation that has turned sex into a quagmire for many people. I cannot count the number of people I have spoken with over the years whose sex lives were a mess, who felt dis-empowered, shamed, confused and generally ‘fucked-up’ by their struggle to fit a particular understanding about sex into their world with little to no success, forced into games of pretense, and essentially to live double-lives when it came to their sexuality.

Sex in America, exists like many other things in a conflicted landscape where religious moralism meets hyper-sexualized commercialization and seldom is that equation addressed in the religious environs in which many try and live out their lives.

There is a notion that says that all sexuality is pornographic, meaning that if you were to strip away all the fantasies surrounding sex, from the romantic to the fetish, it would not be possible to reduce sex to mere biology, it would simply disappear. Human sexuality is dependent upon the supplemental if you will. You can detect hints of this idea played out in films like Vertigo, Crash and Eyes Wide Shut, where the main characters process their desire in various ways, be it through eroticized car crashes, or by chasing a vision of a woman ala Lacan’s petit object a, or by using other people’s sexual games to stimulate a stilted marriage.

The Moebius Strip of Sexual Contracts is an interesting essay by Slavoj Žižek that addresses what he sees as the dilemma in human sexual relations, essentially they resist regulation. His argument is that sexual pleasure and intimate relationships based on love and devotion cannot be effectively regulated, neither by individual contract (the consent model) nor by social regulation (cultural scripts for monogamy etc). The question for Žižek is not how should they be regulated, but rather how we deal with the fact that sexuality resists any attempt to regulate them. As Oscar Wilde noted, “Everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” My worry in all the re-thinking and re-invention around sex and sexuality is that the power component is inadequately reflected upon. Power is often the elusive and seductive snake in situations, the hidden issue.

I don’t think we don’t need a sexual revolution, we need a sexual insurrection. A revolution is a tired metaphor and one that I think is not up to the present task, an insurrection is a disentanglement from the dominant paradigms, the carving of a new and different space where things can find other ways to manifest and blossom.

After the Orgy

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In the early decades of the 18th century, artist William Hogarth created a series of paintings titled, A Rake’s Progress, charting the decline and fall of a fictional character named Tom Rakewell. The eight paintings he created were turned into engravings and then published in print in 1735. They have been called an early form of the storyboard and are currently displayed at Sir John Soame’s museum.

The third painting in the series, called The Orgy, shows Rakewell in the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden, surrounded by prostitutes.

I was thinking about this painting when I read something that the philosopher Jean Beaudrillard wrote in an article for Art Forum magazine in 1983,

In the middle of the revelries, a man whispers into a woman’s ear: “What are you doing after the orgy?””

Beaudrillard wasn’t referring to a literal orgy as Hogarth depicted, his was a symbolic one. The orgy was the wild world of the pre-millennial future. There was a time when it seemed that our lives were being shaped by the anticipation of the world to come, 2000 and all that. The promise of the bright future proclaimed everywhere in the latter half of the 20th century, the illusion that things were only going to get better, the belief that we had put the worst of ourselves aside in order to fashion a new world, a new way of being. Driven by consumer capitalism and emerging technologies what could possibly go wrong? And yet somehow it did. The imagined future was never realized and in its place the unimaginable, a world characterized by all the things we thought we had put to bed long ago: financial vulnerability and collapse, insecurity and anxiety, terrorism, fascism, a world with ‘no future,’ at least not any future we might have envisioned. The problems that contemporary societies of consumption face caught up in an endless cycle of frustration and gratification. Beaudrillard wonders whether human desire is being kidnapped and finds itself in a sort of hostage situation but without the possibility of exchange, without the possibility of freedom. He wonders what we are sacrificing of ourselves in our affluent society. And are we now passively looking at ourselves now, and losing our humanity? This is the orgy and the post-orgy situation that Beaudrillard turns his attention towards.

So the question is, “What will we do after the orgy?” What will we do in the wake of our failed futre? The temptation might be to plan another party, to plot another future if you will, to address the failed future of modernity with a new vision of success and prosperity, but perhaps that simply perpetuates a fruitless view of life that keeps us trapped in cycles of false hopes.

In 1976 the Sex Pistols rightly declared that there was No Future, and there still isn’t. But perhaps we don’t actually need one, at least not one of those futures.

I’m going to be putting together a series of talks on the theme of what we might do after the orgy, so stay tuned.