(this page contains journal entries prior to 15 April 2019 in reverse chronological order; entries subsequent to that date are in journal)
5 December 2017 –– three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a film written & directed by Martin McDonagh, & starring Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, & John Hawkes. It has strong performances, too, from Peter Dinklage & Clarke Peters. A teenaged girl is raped & murdered, her body burned. Seven months later, the police investigation has yielded nothing. The girl’s mother (McDormand) rents three billboards outside town, &, in harsh red-and-black, calls out what she takes to be the police chief’s (Harrelson’s) incompetence. There’s a lovelorn dwarf (Dinklage), a violently racist cop (Hawkes), and several other sharply-drawn characters. The story’s unfolding includes a defenestration, a suicide, several beatings, an assault on a dentist with his own drill, the fire-bombing of a police station, much misunderstanding & violent language, & an almost-total lack of resolution. The rape-murder isn’t solved; the dead girl’s mother, she of the billboards, is last seen on a road trip with the racist cop, contemplating murder but maybe also imagining repentance; no loose end is tied. The film is violent, exaggerated in fabulist mode, & shot through, too, with love & longing & desire & repentance & grace. It shows the world’s devastation as it is, & avoids both sentimentality & cynicism, which is a rare thing. It is, although it’s unlikely that its writer-director or its actors had this in mind, a deeply Christian film. Jesus is everywhere in it, as is the possibility of redemption. McDormand & Harrelson are both superb: real people in a real fable. Dinklage, though he hasn’t much screen time, has some of the best lines & the single emotionally strongest scene, when he aborts his attempt to date the McDormand character by puncturing her contempt for him with deep-cutting words. He’s not much of a catch, he admits; but neither is she, &, after all, who is? Catholics might watch the film with I Timothy 1:15 in mind; they should certainly watch it.
24 November 2017 –– carbon indulgences: a principal cause of global warming is increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we – we humans, that is – don’t want global warming, or if we want less of it, then we should reduce that concentration, or at least slow its rate of increase. This can be done in two ways: by reducing carbon emissions; and (or) by removing carbon dioxide already present. There are feasible ways of doing both, although by most accounts we’re not doing enough of either to make much difference in the rate of global warming. One thing we – we wealthy American humans in this case – are doing, however, is indulging ourselves by using money and power to effect carbon neutrality without altering our behavior. Some wealthy institutions (universities, corporations, municipalities) have, and tout, an ambition to be carbon-neutral by some date not far from now – 2025, say, or thereabouts. What this usually entails is paying for an offset. That is, we continue to do just what we’ve always done (travel by air, drive automobiles, heat & cool our homes, power our laboratories, air-condition our offices, &c), but outsource the problem by paying others, somewhere else, usually, to do something that’ll reduce carbon concentration. Perhaps we pay to have some trees planted; or to have a carbon-scrubber installed; or to subsidize sucking carbon from the air by way of chemical filters. Good-enough things, all; but indulgences nonetheless, in the strict-&-negative theological sense (the Reformation was in part about this). These solutions outsource virtue; they permit us viciously to continue to do what we want to do, while paying someone else to remove the effects of our vices from us. A better thing for our carbon-neutrality-seeking institutions would be to seek it & boast of it only when the activities that belong to them effect it. Otherwise, acknowledge the use of indulgences, & read Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ for description of a better way
20 November 2017 –– bodycounting: In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine there’s a long, well-researched & well-reported piece (published online a few days earlier) about noncombatant deaths produced by coalition airstrikes against IS in Iraq from 2014 until now. Among the findings of the piece are that about one in five of the coalition’s 14,000 or so airstrikes in Iraq during this period yielded noncombatant deaths. If that’s right, the noncombatant bodycount is in the thousands. If the number of IS’s combatant deaths is added to this, between 10,000 and 25,000 deaths have been caused by coalition airstrikes in Iraq since 2014. That total is many times higher than the total of those killed by IS in Iraq, or worldwide, during the same period. The bodycount doesn’t speak to the legitimacy or otherwise of the coalition’s or IS’s causes. But it does speak to the legitimacy of the coalition’s, and especially the USA’s, more-or-less official expressions of outrage at IS’s atrocities. Those expressions might carry some conviction if they were accompanied by lament for our (I am a citizen of the USA) own atrocities. Such laments are almost impossible to find, and that creates a distressing equivalence between the coalition and IS. We, like them, show little but contempt for those we slaughter, &, also like them, little but celebration of the fact of that we’ve slaughtered them. And, we slaughter many more than they do. Which bears repeating: the coalition, with the military forces of the USA as its principal weapon, slaughters many more people than IS at its bloodiest. The people’s elected representatives in the USA, of all parties, do not acknowledge these facts, & when they perforce approach them, it’s usually with unholy glee. The fourth estate, too, in the USA, by & large doesn’t acknowledge the facts: it pays endless attention to the slaughter of Americans, but little to the slaughters that Americans perform. That is a moral & vocational failure, a sign of corruption on the part of that estate; The New York Times deserves, in the case of this piece, congratulation for being an exception. We the American people should want to know the bodycount produced by those we depute to kill on our behalf. Not to want to know it, to celebrate our ignorance & to refuse lament when we’re faced, unwillingly, with what we’ve done & are doing – these are fundamental failings of our belovèd country.
13 November 2017 –– veiling eros: It’s no news that those in positions of power often use their power to sexually manipulate, abuse, & insult those over whom they have power, which is lamentable. The recent accusations of such behavior leveled against men in politics & the arts have, therefore, prima facie plausibility. And some accusations have been confirmed by those against whom they’ve been made, in which case they’re more than plausible. But. And again but. There’s manipulation, abuse, & insult, and then there’s ordinary eros. Performance professions (politics belongs here) are by nature deeply & dramatically erotic. Performers require an audience, & that relation is always in part erotic. Teachers know this; politicians know it; actors know it; everyone, really, knows it. Seduction & excitement belong to audience & performer, both; they’re ingredient, too, in unequal power relations, & bidirectionally so. Commentary upon the recent spate of accusations, together with the abject, ritualized apologies of the accused-who-confess, is often explicit in its commitment to the de-eroticization of our professionalized spaces for performance – to their gating and fencing against the impurity of desire and its enactment. That won’t work. Seeking it contributes, causally, to the proliferation of abuse, manipulation, & insult in much the same way that the liberal state’s sequestration of religion to the private sphere intensifies & warps religious behavior & expression. When the veil is the only thing left, what happens under it is likely to be worse than what would happen were it lifted.
11 November 2017 –– here’s a recent publication of mine on judicial execution, aka ‘the death penalty’.
11 November 2017 –– it’s now abundantly clear that many false &/or misleading posts aimed at influencing the outcome of the US presidential election appeared during 2016 on Facebook, Twitter, and other (social) media platforms. It may also be that they did indeed influence the outcome of the election, at least in the mild sense that some American voters may have been persuaded by them to vote otherwise. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t happen: everyone would be moved to vote only by goodness, truth, & beauty. But this is not an ideal world. No election has ever been free of widely-promulgated public untruths intended to influence voting. No candidate for office in an election has ever been elected without lying. These are features of democracy. Over-excitement about them is misplaced, therefore. It’s especially misplaced when it results in attempts to control public speech by legislation or regulation. American voters, like all other voters, are by and large ill-informed & driven by passion rather than intellect when they decide whom to vote for. (I am no different.) The appropriately democratic, and deeply American, answer to political lies & distortions isn’t to use the soft violence of the law to stifle them. It’s to counter them with (what you take to be) nuanced & accurate truths. If those truths don’t find purchase, then so be it. It’s a fallen world. If you want to be an informed and thoughtful voter (you’ll be in a tiny minority if you succeed in being that), you should do the following: (1) abjure Facebook, Twitter, and their like, systematically & completely; (2) read news, commentary, & analysis, at most once a week (once every two weeks would be better), preferably in hardcopy (you’ll read more closely, more slowly, & better); (3) make sure that the sources you use include at least one whose editorial stance you find repellent; (4) make sure that the sources you use include at least one written largely or entirely outside the US. If you do these things, you’ll find your relation to what goes on in this, my beloved country & perhaps yours too, altogether more interesting. That’s the best you can hope for, the best any of us can hope for. And, incidentally, so far as it in you lies, resist legislative & regulatory constraints upon speech. That is a true American political distinctive.
30 October 2017 –– emily st. john mandel has published four novels to date. Their world is surfaces & colors & scents & tastes & movements shown as if through a screen, as though Tarkovsky had filmed them. Her protagonists seek, through travel or art, to redeem the world & themselves by moving detachedly through it; they fail (how could they not?), but their failure shows the world’s beauty, & their own. The world of these books is that of the damaged observer, floating beautifully but never quite freely. To read e-st-j-m is to have daily distractions made less pressing. Snow on the water, wind in the trees, deserted ship-hulks illuminated in the unreachable distance, Burmese pythons in the Everglades – these seem, for a while, as though they might suffice if one could only look at them closely enough. One can’t; even her protagonists don’t; but they – and her readers – glimpse what it would be like to do so. Reading her makes it seem possible that the world as we find it, all that is the case, is enough. ¶e-st-j-m also has her particular obsessions: hats (fedoras), reporters, detectives, boats, light, snow, stillness, detachment, hotels. Antecedents and resonances in the echo-chamber include: Howard Norman (especially); Nabokov (Lolita’s road-trip prefigures, often closely, Lilia’s in Last Night); contemplative cyberpunk (Z. Mason rather than W. Gibson, with occasional hints of C. Miéville), and, above all else, Raymond Chandler. e-st-j-m is a loving poet of the world’s surfaces; reading her can make you want to live on the road, learning to look at them – & to welcome an armageddon that might remove the distractions that make such looking impossible.
28 October 2017 –– proof in brooklyn: Until January 2018, there’s a show called ‘proof’ at the Brooklyn Museum. It was earlier (2016-2017) shown at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, and will later go to the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. It juxtaposes work by Goya, Eisenstein, & Longo. All the images are black-&-white, and each of them ravishes with its depiction of violence or its threat/implication of violence. The images span more than two centuries, & their juxtaposition lifts them out of time & into the eternal present of the dismemberment, crushing, screaming, & massing of fleshly bodies, as well as that of the traces & remnants & fragments of inanimate bodies broken. Only one-half, perhaps, of the images is explicit in its depiction of violence. The rest suggest & expect & wait: crowds surge together at Mecca; stormclouds gather as Obama departs the presidency; matadors enter the arena. Or, the images show the aftermath: corpses produced by revolutionary violence lie still, dead, bleeding; Lenin orates; deposed monuments lie grounded; striated icebergs break free; & the perambulator jounces endlessly down the steps, violently displaced. The black-white-steelgrey of the images strengthens them by avoiding cheap visceral thrills; there’s no bloodscarlet, no greenyellow flash of the musket’s discharge. Black-&-white asks for attention; giving what’s asked for scars the giver. As it should. Attention to violence is its only remedy. And attention to violence shows that its performance, yes, even that, has beauty. No better evidence of the fall.
24 October 2017 –– custom: Pascal has a good deal to say about coutume, habitude, automate, and machine. We are, he says, barely human without custom-given habits; with them – and we can’t avoid them – we become particular persons with particular lives: tant est grande la force de la coutume qui, de ceux que la nature n’a fait qu’hommes, en faites toutes les conditions des hommes. The right custom-driven & grace-given habits make Christians; that is because those right habits overwrite (or: transfigure; or: baptize; or: re-order) the persons who come to have them so that they are displaced from themselves by being made ecstatic. These right habits are fundamentally & constitutively liturgical. They are our seconde nature qui détruit la première. But, what is nature? Pourquoi la coutume n’est-elle pas naturelle? No reason at all: we do just as well to call what we’re pleased to understand as our nature ‘first custom’ as we do to call our customs ‘second nature’. So calling can help us to see that nous sommes automate autant qu’esprit –– or more. This is good. Saying it serves to constrain too-crude Aristotelean Thomisms, according to which esprit is the thing that counts about us. It isn’t. Thought is much over-rated. Learning how to do the right thing without having to think about it (in this courtesy is like liturgy) is much to be preferred.
19 October 2017 –– angst & its objects: Those I love and those I like, almost all those I’m closest to, are worried. They think that things are very bad; that nuclear war is close; that climate change is a disaster now no longer impending but here; that all things Trumpian, but especially the man himself, are dangerous & repellent & contemptible; that democracy is on the edge of the end, hopelessly compromised by gerrymandering & money & Russians & homegrown fascism; and – especially – that those who think things are just as bad as usual but not more so are dangerously deluded. Something, they think, Needs To Be Done because we live in a wasteland from which there’s no direction home. This is puzzling. Yes, things are very bad; yes, killing & torture & rapine & climate-destruction & rumors of war & corruption & insults & all the other horrors you can think of are here, right in front of us, grinning at us, licking their chops in anticipation of new victims. All those things couch at the door, under the bed, and, especially inside our own hearts & minds, where they remain largely invisible to us. But it’s always like that. It’s never been otherwise & can’t be otherwise. Until the end of things it won’t be different. Local improvements are sometimes made (the bodycount goes temporarily down, sometimes, for a short while, here or there) but they never come to much (the bodycount rises again). It’s never the best of times & never the worst of times; it’s always a very bad time, & a good politics, predicated neither on nostalgia nor hope, oughtn’t be surprised by the particularities or the extent of local horrors. However bad they are, they’re just what’s expected. The central political task is to lament them, resist them when they stare you in the face or rise from inside you (where they’re likely more firmly lodged than anywhere else), & to know that your lamentation & resistance, while required, won’t alter the fabric of things. No one’s ever have, and yours won’t. “Keep your mind in hell & despair not” (thanks to Staretz Silouan & Gillian Rose): that’s the political task. Today’s liberal-American angst doesn’t like being in hell, and, worse, is under the delusion that it was once somewhere else & might be again.
17 October 2017 –– universities: What are they & what are they for? There’s no substantive agreement about that among those who inhabit them. Forty-two years of experience in them in several countries suggests the following: a university is a place of thought; more exactly, it’s a holding-pen for those who wish to devote their lives to thinking. It pays such people, & gives them facilities & supports for their work. ¶Those who think don’t merely do that: they also communicate the results & the processes of their thinking to others, orally, in writing, or visually; & they enter into various forms of exchange about whatever their topic is. These communicative acts vary in form according to the topic being thought about; & the norms & procedures & measures of success in both thought & communication vary similarly. Those thinking about mathematical topics & those thinking about biological or literary or historical ones communicate differently, & often with little mutual comprehension. But for all, the feedback loop between thought & expression is there, & it is the characteristic virtue of universities to provide support & nourishment for those whose vocation & profession it is to think hard & repeatedly over the course of a life about some topic or topics. ¶This way of describing the work of universities – simple, formal, unimpeachable – has the virtue of obviating any deep or principled distinction between teaching & research. Each of those is a thought/expression activity, differently modulated & directed but not different in kind. It also has the virtue of establishing a center & a periphery: the center is thought/expression & its nurture; the periphery is everything else – the parking lots, the sports teams, the attempts at moral uplift, the efforts to make the world a better place, &c &c. Those, & many more, may be goods with their own virtues, but they are ancillary – ancillae, I’d like even to say – to the university’s character. When these ancillae aspire to centrality, & are permitted, unopposed, to do so, the university is diverted from its characteristic purpose & becomes lukewarm. Administrators, & others with power to shape what goes on in universities, might, when faced with decisions about what to support & what not to, ask: Is this proper to thought & expression, or does it directly nurture those activities? If yes, then encourage & support it; if no, then consign it to the flames.
17 October 2017 –– pope francis & judicial execution: On 11 October, in a speech to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization in Rome celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis made comments that show decisively that Catholic doctrine about judicial execution is developing. In that speech, he said, inter alia, that “it is necessary to reiterate that, no matter how serious the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attempt against the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Francis has earlier written similar things, for example in a 2015 letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty; what’s new in the October speech is that he advocates the provision of a “more adequate and coherent space” for the topic of judicial execution in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If that happens, the development of doctrine will be solidified, and it will be correspondingly more difficult for Catholic defenders of the legitimacy (or in some distressing cases even the necessity) of judicial execution to make their case. That’s cause for unambiguous celebration.