Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

I’m quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here

‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’

In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504). Continue reading

The Silence of Technology: Presence Precedes Tools

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.”

That’s Paul, who knew a little about the God who made the world.  But the abrogation of the temple is a thread running through the New Testament.  Compare:

  • “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”  — Mark 14:58
  • “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  —  2 Corinthians 5:1
  • “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” — Hebrews 9:11-12
  • “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”  — Hebrews 9:24

There is a subtle caution about the limitations of technology here–the presence of God is not the sort of thing that can be brought about through the Promethean effort or the quest of Babel.

But the eschatological limitation of technology’s promise actually starts in the Old Testament’s understanding of the temple and its creation:

  • “If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.”  — Exodus 20:25
  • “…just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” — Joshua 8:31

What started with an altar, though, was extended to the temple itself.  In describing what must have been a curious scene, the author of 1 Kings writes about the temple’s construction:

“When the house was built, it was with stone prepared at the quarry, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the house while it was being built.”

The moment, I think, perfectly encapsulates the double-nature of technology.  The silence of the tools in the formation of the temple is not a critique of technology per se, but rather points to (I think) the ultimate imperfection of human making in a world marked by sin.  There are some things which tools simply cannot and should not do in a fallen world.   This isn’t simply a critique of using tools as instruments of war or violence.  Rather, it is a critique of our pretension to turn the objects of human making into recipients of our worship, a pretension that we are not free from even though the ends to which we put our making are “holy.”

Of course, none of this is complete without Revelation 21.  Of that passage I let Gregory Beale, on whose work the post largely depends, conclude:

Likewise the purpose of the temple in the Old Testament and the purpose of the expected end-time temple was to house God’s glory, before which his people were to worship.  Some prophecies may have been conceived of as referring to a small-scale structure that would encase the divine glory.  However, their fulfillment revealed that the entire recreated cosmos and not a manmade building would by the physical temple housing God’s glory instead of a little building in a small part of the earth.

Of course, that recreated cosmos isn’t made by human hands either.  It drops down out of heaven.

(This is all a part of my inquiries into a theology of presence.  The translation into textual form is going somewhat slower than anticipated, but then that’s providing me more opportunities to refine my thoughts along the way.)

Four Reasons we need a ‘Theology of Presence’

  1. While Christians are currently very excited about technology and our ability to use the tools responsibly and for the proper ends, the purpose of some of those technologies will be determined in part by the nature of who is using them.  Subordinating our understanding of technology beneath a theology of presence orients us toward the people using tools, rather than the tools themselves.  This isn’t an either/or, but I think we’ve got to get the order right.
  2. There’s a deeply depersonalizing edge to contemporary technology that an account of presence cuts against.  You can see it in the shift within evangelicalism from communion to communication.  While communion is about the proper relationship of persons, communication (a derivative term, though not a bad one) is about the proper transfer of information.
  3. Currently, the only way which we can notice or attend to others’ presence online is if they are active in some way.  As online engagement increases, we run the risk of letting that sense of activity and doing overwhelm our more basic presence and being.
  4. Distractions are increasing and we need to think through what presence looks like as a mode of life.

Socrates, Remy, and the Solitary Contemplation of Beauty

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates is shown to be very strange. In an episode related by Alcibiades, Socrates is said to have stood all day and night in an army camp—with the other soldiers lying down watching him—considering something. (Near the beginning of the Symposium, Socrates seems to have a similar kind of experience.) And at the end of the Symposium, Plato portrays Socrates as the only one at the party to be awake at its end. Having stayed awake all night, he leaves the party and goes about his daily business until he goes home in the evening. Both of these episodes reveal a kind of strangeness about Socrates.

These two episodes are in my mind related to the Pixar film Ratatouille and, in particular, to the character of Remy. At the end of his most successful evening as a chef Remy has a choice to make: will he go home with Linguini or will he go home with his father and brother? He does neither.

Under the narration of Ego reading his glowing review of his previous night’s dining experience—which narration is really a statement of Brad Bird’s working philosophy—the animation shows Remy ascending to a rooftop in Paris and remaining there until the sunrise. Because of the significance of Ego’s narration, I never really paid attention to Remy’s silent ascent until a few months ago when a friend pointed it out to me: “I don’t like the sequence; it’s too over-the-top,” she said. I’ve been thinking about whether that’s true ever since.

It seems completely appropriate that Remy does not go to live with Linguini. He can work with Linguini, but he cannot live with him. Linguini does not even know Remy’s name. He only refers to him as “little chef,” which is simply a job description. And the film suggests that Linguini and Colette will go on to share a life together. Remy’s presence in their shared home life would be odd.

At first glance, it also seems appropriate that Remy does not go back to live with his father and brother and the other rats. Remy is too exceptional to be part of the pack. It’s true that at the very end of the film after Remy has been reconciled to his father, Remy is shown making food to be served to his rodent friends and family. Their tastes in food have obviously been elevated, literally and not literally. They are now eating on top of a restaurant instead of underground, and they seem to be eating food that isn’t literally garbage. But this doesn’t mean that he lives with his fellow rats.

So it is not clear where Remy lives. Does he live by himself? In one sense, that’s a secondary question because Remy is clearly most alive when he is making food in the restaurant kitchen. (This doesn’t mean that he “lives” with Linguini by working with him. I think Linguini doesn’t understand Remy well enough to live with him while Remy is “working.”) In another sense, though, it’s a question that cuts to the heart of the relation between the artist and society. Where do the great artists live? Can they be at home among regular folk? The film doesn’t answer this question, and I think that’s a bit of a let down. It dodges a hard question.

Return to the earlier criticism of the scene of Remy’s ascent: Is it really necessary? I suppose that depends on whether we understand what Remy is doing up there. Like Socrates in the army camp, Remy seems to be paying attention to something, but we don’t know what that is. And like Socrates after the symposium, Remy does not go directly home. He goes to a rooftop to wait for and watch the sunrise. One thing about that sunrise: It’s beautiful, and Remy seems to be content in the presence of an expansive, subtle beauty. Likewise, having read the Symposium we suspect that whatever it is that Socrates is contemplating, it’s beautiful.

For Plato, the contemplation of beauty is part of what makes life worth living. (Indeed, if some commentators are right, for Plato the contemplation of beauty is the whole of what makes life worth living.) Remy’s awareness of and sensitivity to the beauty of a sunrise over Paris is part of what separates him from everyone else in the film. This distinctive indicates that for Brad Bird (and for Plato) the contemplation of beauty at the highest level is a solitary experience. Both Plato and Bird depict their heroes alone, contemplating some thing—probably beauty itself. If the contemplation of beauty is something that can only be done alone, then there is no way to avoid the necessity of Remy’s solitary ascent. The scene that my friend wasn’t so sure about turns out to be a (perhaps melancholy) necessity.

Two things in closing. First, I don’t know if the Symposium presents Plato’s last word on the contemplation of beauty. There are passages in the Phaedrus that suggest that after death two lovers can, as Socrates say, become “winged together” (256d–e) in a life of shining bliss. Secondly, I don’t know if the Christian view of the contemplation of beauty is any different from the SymposiumRatatouille account. Certainly there is an emphasis on corporate worship in Christian practice, but I don’t know whether that’s comparable to the contemplation of beauty. If it is, then perhaps there’s a way in which the contemplation of beauty is not solitary.