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Piety, Technology, and Tradition

June 13th, 2023 | 18 min read

By Jon Askonas

I am accused by Alan Jacobs of “absolutizing fright,” of sounding an “undefined alarm and an undefined response to that alarm,” in my essay “Why Conservatism Failed.”

Jacobs is not the first person to criticize the lack of specifics in that essay (which was largely an editorial decision - what Compact published was half of the length of the original draft). And so let me not mince words here.

There are largely two points of disagreement. The first is the question of what the boundaries of “conserving” a tradition are. The second is the question of why technology renders traditions void.

In answering this point of disagreement, I hope to convey in sufficiently concrete and specific terms why American conservatives must remove their heads from the sand (or another hole) and move beyond the repertoire of conservation to recover, discover, forge, and otherwise take a stand on what must be abandoned and what must be built anew.

What does it mean to 'conserve' something?

Last year Josh Askonas [sic] published an essay called “Why Conservatism Failed,” in which he wrote, “We can no longer conserve. So we must build and rebuild and, therefore, take a stand on what is worth building.” I don’t understand this either. If you’re rebuilding something aren’t you conserving some elements of it — or at the very least the memory and the idea of it?

Right at the beginning, Jacobs expresses an unwittingly subtle point. Perhaps this owes to most conservatives discussing traditions loosely and abstractly, while I mean the term precisely in terms of discrete practices and concrete institutions.

If you are conserving some actual thing (a house, a church, a ship), and not merely “a memory,” then you face the decision of how to maintain it, preserve it, extend it etc. But if the thing has been destroyed and must be rebuilt, you are forced to answer the question: what are the essential elements of it? What exactly is the idea of it? In other words, you are forced to “take a stand on what is worth building.” The inertia of conservation is no more - you must begin again. And in some cases, you may attempt to rebuild it exactly as it was, in which case you will face dilemmas that neither the originators nor the conservators ever faced (for example, you may need to re-discover or re-create traditional crafts which have been lost, or need to make due without a material). In most cases, though, it may prove impossible or undesirable to rebuild it exactly as it was, in which case, again, your rebuilding actually takes a stand on what is most essential, valuable, and necessary about the thing.

To conserve is surely to inherit or discover something of value and then attempt (a) keep it in good condition when you can, (b) repair it when it needs repair, and (c) pass it along to the next generation.

One of the frustrating things about the line of criticism Jacobs undertakes is that it is highly personalist and individualistic, as if it was within the power of any individual to always conserve the things that he loves. There is, again, such an abstraction and a slipperiness to the “it” here. Whether we mean a particular school house building, or the institution it houses, or classical education as such, or “the Western tradition”, makes a great deal of difference. Jacobs then speaks to his own engagement with his traditions:

I’ve been doing that my entire adult life, in a thousand ways. I’ve tried to teach my son the manners, morals, and convictions that I learned from the family I married into. I hope he’ll teach them to his children. I have taught and written in defense and celebration of the great books that previous generations preserved for me; of certain strenuous but also illuminating and life-giving ways of reading; of the rich inheritance of liturgy and hymnody that the churches in my life have introduced me to; of the world-centering and world-transforming story of Jesus Christ. I hope that those I have taught will receive all this as their inheritance and in their turn preserve and transmit it. Many, many others I know have done the same work. Is this not conserving?

Here I must make an impolitic confession - it was a discussion with a different Baylor academic years ago, along similar lines, that drove me into such a frenzy that I wrote the first draft of that essay all in one blow.

“You’re much too pessimistic,” he said. “You’re on the wicked coast. Here in real America, things don’t look so bad. People have families. They go to church. We pass on our traditions.” This is a classic example of “sampling bias.” Being a professor at Baylor or Catholic University means you sit at the end of a selection funnel finding some of the best, brightest, most encouraging young people in the entire country. The quality of your sample says absolutely nothing about the important variable: the size of the population they are being drawn from.

My interlocutor seemed to think my distress owed to a lack of virtue in my own city of Washington. Quite the opposite! The churches of Washington DC, are full of zealous, bright, intelligent young people. I meet many young conservatives that give me hope. But I’ve also looked at the numbers. Places like Baylor and Washington act, to borrow a concept from Nick Land, as a virtue shredder. Selection effects drive a local increase in virtue and faithfulness. The strength of the tradition in these unique, rare local places masks the global decline. Places like Baylor or Washington strip mine some of the best people from their towns and places across America. They introduce the best men to the best women, who will marry in due course and have children (later and fewer than they ought). And, in their own individual lives, things may look pretty ok. But you zoom out, and it tells a different story. The question is not whether these, the best men and women, may pass on their traditions, but whether their number are increasing or decreasing in society on the aggregate. Or, to put it another way, do you have to be a Distinguished Professor at Baylor to have the wherewithal to pass on your traditions?

Let me be more specific. Jacobs speaks of “of the rich inheritance of liturgy and hymnody that the churches in my life have introduced me to.” He and I are both Episcopalians.

To be a part of the Anglican Communion is to be familiar with compromise. But when my wife and I lived in Austin, we were blessed (as I imagine is true in Waco as well) with several good choices. Within the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), we could choose between two churches which both maintained traditional services and hewed to Christian orthodoxy. And I understand we would have had as many choices within the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the area.

When we moved to DC, we found a vastly different landscape. Within a reasonable drive of our home, as near as we can tell there is not a single congregation that hews to both the prayerbook tradition of worship from which we draw such succor and a fully orthodox understanding of Christian theology. This has enormous practical significance, and requires us to choose what, exactly, we believe is most essential to our family’s spiritual health. We cannot merely “conserve.”

Texas, with its healthy and growing traditional Anglican churches, appears more like the exception than the rule, globally. In DC, low-church evangelical ACNA churches are growing far more rapidly than any Episcopal churches. As yet, there are few signs that most ACNA churches, which adhere more fully to traditional Christian orthodoxy, will also embrace the fullness of the Anglican liturgical tradition. And, as with the Episcopal Church writ large, TEC churches in DC are rapidly declining in congregational size and age.

If a traditional service of the Book of Common Prayer is still said in the nation’s capital in fifty years, it will likely not be in a church that is in communion with the See of Canterbury. And the vast majority of churches claiming the Anglican inheritance will have little part of its hymnody or choral tradition. What then can it mean to be a conservative in the Episcopal Church? Those who seek to preserve the Anglican inheritance must have a plan to do something quite different. The kinds of conservation possible even fifteen years ago, maybe even five years ago, are no longer possible today.

Jacobs again:

Those who look to build a human future have been freed from a rearguard defense of tradition to take up the path of the guerrilla, the upstart, the nomad.” Again: what does this mean? Like me, Askonas is a professor at an American university. How is this being a “nomad”?

First, ouch, touché. But the point is weak. I consider myself highly lucky, and anyways my initial position was funded as part of a conservative research center. And I’m not a political theorist. The vast majority of my most talented friends in that field have had to “take up the path of the guerrilla, the upstart, the nomad” as it relates to academia: Christian study centers, affiliated research institutes, think tanks, etc. I may not have taken up that path but my friends at the Davenant Institute or Greystone Theological Institute sure have, as have academics like Geoff Schullenberger, Michael Millerman, and Justin Murphy, to name a few. And that’s just academia.

I also think it’s a bit puzzling to say that Paul Kingsnorth and I have “not tried conservation and found it impossible, but found it challenging and left it untried.” Kingsnorth is a literal environmental conservationist and has been for decades. He mows his lawn with a scythe. He joined the Orthodox Church and visits monastic caves. He lives on a farm in the Irish woods.

For my bit, sinner that I am, I’m a weekly churchgoer, a member of the Prayer Book Society, with a large young family, an academic at a traditional institution who loves the liberal tradition of inquiry. Every day I try to conserve the best of what has been handed down to me.

But as Jacobs surely (surely?) must know, it’s a challenge. It’s impossible (not hard, impossible) to maintain a large family in the DC area, living close enough to campus where I can daily interact with my students, feeding my children real food, providing them a real education, raising them in a real community, with a well-kept if modest old house requiring all the usual repairs, on a single academic’s income. And so, we don’t. We’ve had to make compromises which, even twenty years ago, we need not have made. What has changed? Not my desires or my work ethic.

And anyways we recognize we are the lucky ones, making professional salaries in a part of the country with real community (remember, lots of great conservatives move here to DC, away from their home-places). Outside of the ivory tower (and even inside the ivory tower, non-tenure track edition), the desire to conserve something like the traditional order of human things has run straight into the buzz-saw of the modern economy. The Two Income Trap isn’t a “stultifying abstraction”.

Why does technology nullify traditions?

Following a series of these kinds of critical inquiries, Jacobs muses that, perhaps it ever was thus. That, to quote a different Eliot line than Jacobs does, “There are no lost causes because there are no gained causes”. And, as Jacobs points out, people have managed to preserve their traditions in far more dire material conditions than we face today.

Askonas writes that “we are living after tradition” — but are we? I have received rich and wonderful traditions, have been blessed by them, and work for their perpetuation.

The whole point of my essay, of course, is that the health of the tradition is not up to the individual, that there is a social context which can overwhelm individual efforts, and that technology is a key driver of this process (which we will take up further below). When I say we are living “after tradition” I mean it in the sense that our ability to pass on tradition going forward, as of this generation, has become greatly compromised. From the essay:

Technology, for Marx, is the true revolutionary principle, destroying traditions by shifting their foundations faster than they can adapt.

As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards. They can render traditions purposeless, destroy the distinction between virtuous and vicious behavior, make customary ways of life obsolete, or render their rewards meaningless or paltry. If the institutions that shepherd traditions aren’t regenerated, and if no one adopts their practices, traditions will fade into nothingness.

From later in the essay:

When you descend from lofty rhetoric about “Traditions” and “Values,” it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology. For decades, sociologists have charted the decline of two-parent families, hobbies, local newspapers, churches, stable employment, women’s clubs, libraries, amateur sports, political rhetoric, neighborhood barbecues, Boy Scouts, small businesses, classical music, credit unions, and on and on. Even studies that catastrophize about the rise of loneliness, fatherlessness, economic precarity, and suicide, miss the bigger picture, which is that the social infrastructure conducive to human flourishing has shifted even for those fortunate enough to piece together a semblance of the average American life 50 years ago. A tradition is at an end when the wisdom of yesteryear no longer obtains.

The reason we are “after tradition” is that, in very many cases, tradition is no longer necessary to produce the human social world and its material underpinnings. Almost all economic production occurs in self-organizing global networks of firms that collectively create and distribute almost all material products. Material production outside of commercial exchange is a paltry fraction of what it was even fifty years ago. This change, the culmination of the industrial revolution (which was a revolution in household structure), has also pulled the household outside of itself and rendered it a site of mere consumption, where, again, many domestic traditions are not even passed on.

For instance, the domestic tradition of African-American cuisine. Jacobs again:

On the Netflix series High on the Hog, in the episode “The Rice Kingdom,” the food historian Michael W. Twitty makes a crab and okra soup — okra of course being a vegetable that slaves brought from West Africa — and comments, “Despite the fact that we were in hell, that we were being worked to death, we created a cuisine.” And note that that cuisine depended on elements of old food traditions that they had conserved — conserved in the most unpropitious circumstances imaginable….A people who underwent centuries of slavery could think this way, could create all that they have created, but we can’t conserve? Tradition is over? Give me a break.

This example doesn’t mean what Jacobs thinks it does. Almost the opposite, in fact.

For one thing, food is the rule-proving exception. It is the only kind of tradition that it is universally agreed that we ought to preserve, and it is the only kind of tradition where the entire human inheritance seems sustained across all cultures and all history, from agronomists recreating paleolithic grains to food scientists inventing new kinds of foam (food actually may be a good model for conservatism writ large). Of course, Houellebecq (in Serotonin) sees a dark side in this: eating good food is about the only kind of desire we can muster in ourselves as we await euthanasia at the End of History.

But leaving that aside, is it the case that, for African Americans, their cuisine tradition is preserved? For food historians and Michelin-star restaurants, sure. But for everyday African Americans? Hardly. Hundreds of years, their cuisine survived, grew, expanded, morphed because they needed it to in the face of their material conditions. This persisted even into -and because of- much of the poverty of the post-Emancipation world.

And then what? Well, prosperity meant you didn’t need to grow and cook your own okra. Urban dislocation meant that the foodstuffs available to you changed greatly. The disintegration of the Black family (out-of-wedlock births exploded from 25% when Albert Murray complained about the Moynihan report to 70% today) meant that, materially, the passing on of culinary traditions within the home was highly attenuated (this is true for single parents and two-income-trappers alike). The reason Black food historians like Michael Twitty have been hard at work is that whole swathes of the Black cooking tradition went functionally extinct, and needed to be recovered from old cookbooks and oral histories. And while they have managed to recover it greatly for the world of restaurants (read: rich people), it has hardly changed the reality of the matter for most African Americans. What percentage today grow, or know how to grow, any of their own food the way even their grandparents likely did? What percentage know how to make “crab and okra soup”?

These kinds of dislocations, disruptions, and destructions are par for the course in a technological society. But it gets worse. I wrote:

The digital era has ushered in a further phase of the technological destruction of tradition. Whereas some kinds of automation create new demand for higher-skilled work, digital automation based on even rudimentary forms of artificial intelligence can instead increase demand for low-skill work pushing buttons. Training on the collective efforts of thousands of years of culture, machine-learning algorithms aim to supplant human performance for classification, writing, drawing, coding, driving, making music, and a host of other practices. While the best humans may always outperform computers, these technologies knock out the bottom rungs of skilled practice that allow for the development of mastery in the first place.

The increased power to simulate human culture goes alongside the increasing availability, searchability, and profitability of “intellectual property” (the detritus of past popular culture), such that continued production of new culture and art has become optional. The incentives for investors skew more every year towards the marketing, exploitation, and further development (aided by deepfake technology) of the old over the discovery of the new. For instance, while the advent of mass media in the last century weakened older musical cultures by undermining the need to make music within the home, it also produced wave after wave of new popular music forms: jazz, country, rock, hip-hop, electronica, and so on. But since the rise of instantly accessible, algorithmically recommended digital music, a strange quietude has settled upon the whole field. This combination of stasis, decadence, and simulation characterizes human culture after tradition.

Alan Jacobs has himself written extensively about how the digital transformation is altering the context of education, of reading, of teaching, etc.

The point I made in my essay is not such a radical one: it is just uncommonly open to the radical implications of a common idea. We are exiting the world built primarily by human culture and print media, and entering one built by cybernetic postindustrial economics and the digital merging of human and machine consciousness. Such a radical change in environment will radically alter the context of human tradition.

I can endeavor in my efforts to hand on my traditions, but I can’t do much about the change in the environment. And the worst form of navel-gazing would be to simply hand on the tradition without being gravely circumspect about how much the environment has changed. I would be setting my children and my students up for failure.

I can hand down my faith to my son, but I can’t hand down a world where pornography is not instantly available to him at every moment. I can hand down my love of reading and some of my favorite books, but I can’t hand down to him an American society of broad literacy. I can hand down a love of English choral music, but not a world in which his local Episcopal or Anglican church has a choir worthy of that tradition. I can hand down my traditions, but the environment in which he finds himself will greatly shape, maybe definitively shape, my son’s engagement with them. My handing down better account for it, and in my having to decide what to do amidst radical change, I will have gone beyond conservation alone. “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

We sit at a moment of extinction. How many human languages have already gone extinct? How many traditional crafts? How many folk music practices? How many kinds of associations and membership? How much more specific can I get?

Jacobs again:

Like Paul Kingsnorth, Askonas is speaking an imagistic language that strongly resists translation into specific beliefs and practices. Even when he suggests the possibility of “wild new technological practices,” it’s impossible to tell whether he’s referring to biotechnology, information technology, architecture, infrastructure — it could be anything, or nothing. The sheer abstraction is stultifying.

There’s a seeming self-contradiction in the sentence “imagistic language that strongly resists translation into specific beliefs and practices.” (it’s imagistic, but not specific?). It also takes that specific quote out of context to make it seem like that’s the only thing I’m recommending. Here’s the quote in context (and as Prof. Jacobs surely knows, an analogy is not an abstraction):

To further the agricultural metaphor, in some places the topsoil of tradition is strained but not exhausted, such that a return to practices of conservation might make it flourish again. In other places, the soil has been decimated and the traditional practices no longer work. Here, the recovery or reinvention of a heirloom or now-extinct variety may do the trick; it may even be necessary to find new non-native species that provide what the native no longer can. Lastly, we must not fear the forging of wild new technological practices, the equivalent of vertical farming or hydroponics, if the result is revitalizing.

Now, in the original version of the essay (which I may adapt in future work), each of these sentences was its own paragraph. Here is my initial schema for moving beyond mere conservativism:

Conserve: There are still places where the traditions remain bruised but not broken. Keeping these practices alive will require creativity, organization, and the appropriate use of technology (YouTube, for instance, is a powerful tool to preserve human memory). Better yet, saving these traditions will require bending the political-economic order towards protecting them: things must change in order to stay the same.  

Recover: Some of the most important developments in history have not been organic outgrowths of tradition but intentional projects of retrieval or revival from the long-dead past. The classical school movement is lighting the way towards a retrieval of education and lost modes of thinking and arguing. Some scholars have suggested that a revival of Thomistic psychology (out of fashion even before Freud) may help us make sense of digital technology. Roads not traveled and long-dead practices can be recovered and revived, with care, even where the tradition had effectively died out, the human equivalent of reintroducing wolves and bison to the American West. In this quest, we are aided by the same technologies that are destroying tradition. Even as the culture of modernity attempts to erase human nature and the history of human culture, digital technology gives us new tools to remember who we are and what has worked before. All the best of what has been said or done is increasingly at our fingertips, waiting to be taken up again.

Discover: The confrontation with digital civilization (what David Bowie called “an alien life form”) and the arrival of transhumanism requires those who would remain human forever to summon the entire patrimony of our species, to say with Terence “nothing human is alien to me.” A love of our people should not inhibit us from learning from others, and from translating or grafting durable traditions into our own context. What can we learn from how the French have managed to keep ancient horticultural practices afloat, how the Japanese build durable traditional buildings, or how the Crow nation survived cultural extinction?

Forge: Some of the challenges we face are simply unprecedented, the novel results of new technological and ideological forms, requiring equally radical responses. Conservatism failed because it never understood how to build technologies in keeping with human nature in order to preserve tradition, or that it needed to. The species will not withstand another failure. Some of the most innovative thinkers today are exploring how to use decentralized computing to protect human flourishing and preserve American liberty, how additive manufacturing and 3D printing can restore a republican political economy, and how re-aligning social movements, federalism, and new media startups can break the chokeholds of oligopolistic media and technology companies. By making it possible to compute from anywhere in the United States, Starlink and similar technologies may, in the right hands, do more to preserve the American way of life than the whole modern conservative intellectual project did.

But I’m happy to be more specific about the “wild technological practices” that may be required to forge a conservative future. I’m a font of ideas. I’m talking Urbit universities. Cathedrals built with stones milled by CNC robots. Networks of farmers markets run on decentralized blockchain protocols. Augmented reality tutorials for traditional handicrafts. Nanobot sperm motility enhancers as a reproductive assist technology. To be clear, I’m not interested in technology for technology’s sake. I view this path as the most extreme in the repertoire of the post-tradition humanist. But, because it is strangest to our tastes, it is perhaps the one we must confront most directly.

Jacobs again:

By the lights of this new do-over religion, what, specifically, should I be doing instead of what I have been doing? Until I find out, I’m going to keep practicing piety.

Jacobs asks what he ought to be doing differently. I think he’s already a bright light in many ways. But he might ask:

  • How have the needs of students changed as we enter a truly post-literate age?
  • How am I transmitting learning and shared tradition to those majority of Americans that won’t go to college and won’t read books?
  • How can the traditions I love so much reach a new generation afresh?
  • What do our people need that lies outside of our existing traditions (such as they are)?

By coincidence, I have been thinking a lot about piety this week too.

Of course, the classical portrait of piety is Aeneas, “pious Aeneas” as Virgil calls him twenty times. And what is Aeneas’s first great act of piety? To abandon the city of Troy with his household. His father Anchises’s long delay has endangered the entire household and, in fact, the future of what will be a new civitas. Aeneas doesn’t mince words:

You term it prudence, what I baseness call: 
Could such a word from such a parent fall?

Anchises still isn’t having it, demanding a literal act of god before he will finally assent to leaving the burning city. Aeneas hoists his father (holding the household gods) on his shoulders, taking his son by the hand, and leading them out of his city into the wide unknown.

You can imagine the calls from the peanut gallery, quoting T.S. Elliot or Burke at Aeneas. “What kind of so-called conservative abandons the ‘ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods?’ Sad!” says the leader of the Principled Trojan Conservatives. And yet, with Troy burning, the “conservative” thing to do, the thing that best preserved its memory and its essence, was to set out and build anew in a different place, in different circumstances, in a different way.

Likewise today. What sign in the sky will it take for our American Anchises to realize what time it is?