The Hedgehog’s Array: October 9, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Take That,” Angela Nagle
“When a book is published by MIT Press and comes with a list of quotes from people like Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman you can be assured that its content will be free of heresies against the teachings of utopian social media populism.”

“Shakespeare in Modern English?,” James Shapiro
“I’ve had a chance to look over a prototype translation ‘Timon of Athens’ that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been sharing at workshops and readings for the past five years. While the work of an accomplished playwright, it is a hodgepodge, neither Elizabethan nor contemporary, and makes for dismal reading.”

“Uncovering The Secret History Of Myers-Briggs,” Merve Emre
“Less obvious at first, and then wholly undeniable, is how hard the present-day guardians of the type indicator work to shield Myers’s personal and professional history from critical scrutiny. For the foundation, as well as for its for-profit-research-arm, the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT), this means keeping journalists far away from Myers’s notebooks, correspondences and research materials, which are stored in the Special Collections division of the University of Florida library.”

“Just Saying,” Jack Hanson
“Subjectivity is not employed as a disclaimer, a way of implying a subheading that reads, ‘But really, I don’t know.’ To the contrary. More often than not, the role of the subjective is as a bulwark to objections or alternate interpretations.”

“What Is the Anthropocene?,” Timothy Shenk and Jedediah Purdy
“This huge increase in human impact I would call the Anthropocene Condition. This is separate from what I call the Anthropocene Insight, which is owning that, in a deep way, nature has never been separate from culture and politics.”

“Racial Profiling Via,” Sam Levin
“On Nextdoor, people give away free furniture or fruit from their backyards. Users reunite lost dogs with their owners. Members organize community meetings and share tips about babysitters and plumbers. But under the ‘Crime and Safety’ section of the site, the tone is much less neighborly.”

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Social Visibility

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the finding and their implications in a series of short essays. This first focuses on how digital technology and social media have accentuated the “struggle” for attention and social visibility.

You can read all the essays in this series here.


With the widespread adoption of mobile phones and tablets, social media (e.g., Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat) have become a central feature of contemporary society. Teenagers were eager adopters of the new media. This has changed their culture and behavior: Social visibility through social media became more important and face-to-face interaction less so. Such media have tended to increase the size of social networks and hence made social visibility more difficult. In a village or small school everyone is known and has a status. In much larger settings many people are socially invisible; they become “nobodies.”

Teenagers have multiple motivations for their use of social media, but a concern about their status with other peers is certainly central—and social visibility is a prerequisite to such status. A college student from Colorado reports: “At my high school [social media were] a very big deal. Certain students were either Twitter or Instagram “famous” because they had a lot of followers. The amount of favorites or likes … received could determine their popularity.”

A different college student describes her high-school experience:

There were the star athletes, the dance team captain, the talented singer, the class comedian, the guy who threw parties every weekend, the girl who was arrested twice, and the girl who sent racy photos to the entire JV lacrosse team. Those who stood out from the crowd, no matter how they got the attention, were those deemed popular [italics added].

The Colorado student indicates that teenagers are well aware of social visibility as a prerequisite for status:

It was … easy for the popular crowd to advertise what they were doing at all times because they could simply post a picture or tweet and everyone would automatically know about it. Students who weren’t friends with the popular crowd knew [of] their activities, drama, and friends…. The things that people would post on twitter and Instagram tended to be topics for gossip.

A student from Southwest Virginia is explicit about the importance of technology and social media in the concerns about visibility:

[T]he more outgoing students invested more time … in keeping in touch with their friends, social networking, and focusing on building relationships…. Electronic communication played a crucial role in this constant communication.… [I]t was utilized more often than face-to- face interaction. In an average class, a “popular” student seemed to check their phone or send text messages about once every five to ten minutes.

A student from New Jersey gives a similar account:

Instagram was definitely the most important reason to have an iPhone, with Twitter at a close second. The “popular” clique was the most active on social media.… [T]hey had to prove … how much fun they were having at all times. Partying with excessive amounts of alcohol was their favorite hobby to broadcast. Their parties would be small and exclusive and half of the time at the party would be spent taking pictures to post on Instagram. Four girls would each post the same picture within minutes of each other [and] numerous other pictures that showed how “drunk-and-in-love-with-each-other” they were. The captions would always be very boastful, such as “My friends are better than your friends”. Soon the entire news feed would be consumed with pictures solely from this one party.

The struggle for visibility is not limited to teenagers. We see this struggle for visibility in “reality TV,” when people subject themselves to all kinds of stressful situations and share their romantic conflicts, their addictions, the neglect of their children, and other behaviors that put them in a bad light. Couples take videos of themselves having sex and post these online. Making visible intimate, weird, or bad behavior is a way to become known; anything seems preferable to being an unknown “nobody.”

A parallel phenomenon seems to be occurring in politics. With more than a dozen Republicans candidates running for president, the real struggle is to grab the most attention—and the winner so far is Donald Trump, who has no political experience or qualifications, but a long history of highly visible behaviors running from unorthodox to scandalous.

Other aspects of the new teenage culture that give us insight into broader changes will be described in subsequent essays. You can read all the essays in this series here.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.

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Recommended Reading: “A Conversation With Mark Noll”

nollScandal.qxdAlumni IASC fellow Dan Turello has interviewed Notre Dame’s Mark A. Noll for the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. They discuss Mark Knoll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, changes Knoll has observed over the past twenty years, “world Christianity,” and more. You can read the interview here, or check out a teaser quote below.

Just over 20 years ago, you published a book that made waves, titled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” Then, as now, you identified as an Evangelical, and the book was issued by an Evangelical publishing house. What was the “scandal” and why did you feel it was important to write this book?

The scandal of the evangelical mind, I said in that book, was that not much “an evangelical mind” existed. I still believe that this assessment is correct, although I would now try to put it in ways that require at least a couple of subordinate clauses, along the following lines: Since the seventeenth century and the rise of European pietism, and then the emergence of evangelicalism in Britain and her colonies in the eighteenth century, pietistic and evangelical impulses have greatly assisted in adapting historical Christianity to the individualism, democracy, and practical mind-set of western modernity. At the same time, that very process of adaptation has, with a few exceptions like the New England minister Jonathan Edwards, hindered pietists and evangelicals in thinking carefully about the basic questions concerning God, the physical world, social order, other cultures, and the human condition.

Broader and more comprehensive thinking of that sort needs the intellectual and theological ballast provided by the historical Christian traditions (Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, or even Orthodox). Pietists and evangelicals who make use of those traditions are in a good position to think carefully and to produce responsible intellectual work, even as they can bring a measure of spiritual vitality to those traditions. But because of the populist, individualist, and activist character of evangelicalism, the foundations for productive thinking need to be sought somewhere other than in evangelicalism itself. I wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” to encourage other evangelicals, along with myself, to think more responsibly about how to contribute to serious intellectual endeavor.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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The Other Neoliberals

Charles Peters, founder and president of Understanding Government, speaking at the presentation of the Prize for Preventive Journalism, September 30, 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Peters, founding editor of Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government, speaking at the presentation of the Prize for Preventive Journalism, September 30, 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The University of Chicago historian William Sewell once observed that uses of the term “structure” in academic discourse far exceeded any attempts to define it. These days, it seems the same is true of neoliberalism.

For Norwegian political scientists Dag Einar Thorsen and Amund Lie, for example, neoliberalism is the notion that “the only legitimate purpose of the state is to safeguard individual, especially commercial, liberty, as well as strong private property rights,” but they also acknowledge that neoliberalism, as they see is, is only “loosely demarcated.” To political theorist Wendy Brown, it is “a governing rationality through which everything is ‘economized,’” “every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business or state) is governed as a firm,” and which “casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.”

While there might be slight disagreements about what, exactly, the concept entails, the voluminous commentary implies a rough consensus that it involves heavy doses of deregulation, free trade, and privatization. Within the academy, particularly among members of the post-Marxist Left, the term has come to serve as the primary explanation for what is wrong with today’s global political economy. From Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics to Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to—well, name just about any recent political leader apart from Raul Castro—it would seem that a global governing cabal is responsible for the neoliberal order that is ineluctably pauperizing all but an ever-narrowing elite in our precarious winner-take-all economy. Neoliberalism spans the oceans, from the United States and Australia to Chile and Egypt, and its influence is said to be overwhelming. For City University of New York anthropologist David Harvey, “neoliberalism has become a hegemonic discourse with pervasive effects on ways of thought and political-economic practices to the point where it is now part of the commonsense way we interpret, live in, and understand the world.”

It would seem, then, that journalist Randall Rothenberg’s 1984 assertion that “the future belongs to the neoliberals” was quite prescient. But the neoliberalism that Rothenberg had in mind was something slightly different, a related but distinct concept—and one that been has largely been lost in the current academic discourse of neoliberalism. In its heyday in the 1980s, this “other neoliberalism” was associated not with Reagan but with a subset of his Democratic political rivals. Its political and intellectual leader was Gary Hart, a senator from Colorado, with other prominent figures including Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, and journalists like Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly. In political terms, these other neoliberals argued for revisiting and modifying some of the ideological and methodological bases of postwar American liberalism—namely the use of federal government programs to assist in bringing about a more equitable distribution of wealth—while stopping well short of the free-market fervor advocated by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher. In this sense, it would be tempting to cast the other neoliberals as little more than watered-down versions of the “normal neoliberals.” Continue reading

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The Talking Cure

Sherry Turkle, 2009. Jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr.

Sherry Turkle, 2009. Jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr.

This week, Sherry Turkle will publish Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. It develops themes that she began to explore in her astute and disturbing Alone Together (see the conversation with Turkle in THR about Alone Together here). An essay adapted from her new book that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday provides a nice summary of some of her critical observations on the personal and social impact of how we use our devices and her recommendations for how we might reclaim conversation, a “talking cure” for the “failing connections of our digital world.”

This is her central point:

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

She argues, not unreasonably, that smartphones, and connectivity more generally, disrupt such “emphatic conversation” because we can’t be fully present to someone while we’re attending to something else; thus phones diminish our ability to know and understand each other and undercut the quality of the conversations we do have. These conversations must necessarily be kept “relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.”

On an even more basic level, she believes that our connectivity diminishes our ability to “converse” with ourselves, because the “capacity for solitude” is also undercut by picking up the phone and checking our email. For Turkle, self-reflection in solitude is how “we find ourselves” and gain the capacity to “really hear what other people have to say.” While she observes that conversation with others “leads us to become better at inner dialogue,” her emphasis is on the importance of slowing down and reclaiming solitude as a “start toward reclaiming conversation.”

Turkle notes that we have turned “time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology,” and she briefly cites the research of University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his colleagues, who did a series of studies on how people experience solitude. In a paper, published last year in the journal Science they

found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.

However, Wilson et al. do not argue that we have turned time alone into a problem or that technologies are themselves making solitude more difficult. In addition to their studies with college students, they did another with community participants, ages eighteen to seventy-seven (the median age was forty-eight), recruited at a farmers’ market and a local church. They report that

the results were similar to those found with college students. There was no evidence that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to participants’ age, education, income, or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media.

Their claim is that solitude is inherently difficult. This point does not contradict Turkle’s but it does suggest that our devices are hazardous because they discourage us from doing something—inner dialogue—that’s already challenging. Our efforts to “reclaim solitude” will involve an element of asceticism.

Further, if “the untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” as Wilson and colleagues argue, then perhaps a better starting point for energizing what Turkle calls the “virtuous circle that links conversation to the capacity for self-reflection,” is with conversation rather than solitude. That is, perhaps at the individual level the joys of friendship can be more easily acknowledged and cultivated than those of the inner life, better motivating us toward a more judicious use of our devices and an increased capacity to “listen to ourselves.”

Joseph E. Davis is publisher of the Hedgehog Review.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: October 2, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals,” Tim Flannery
“Most of us will never see a wild elephant, much less spend the time observing them that is required to understand them as individuals. But there are animals that share our lives, and whose societies, emotional depth, and intelligence are readily accessible.”

“Behind the Draped Mirror,” Colin Dickey
“The period of mourning is always delicate, temporally speaking. The procession from death to the afterlife is represented in many human cultures as a journey, sometimes including a psychopomp like Anubis or Charon, a ferryman to guide us on our way.”

“Unstable Atoms,” Kerry Clare
“Closer to home, the past itself functions as another kind of otherwhere. From Mary-Rose’s perspective, there seems to be an impassable gulf between then and now, even though the characters are the same people.”

“Thinking with Heidegger: On the Theological Implications of an ‘A-theistic’ Philosophy,” Christopher Barnett
“Thus Heidegger’s intellectual formation lies very much in the traditional Catholicism of his hometown. What, then, led him away from this heritage and toward the a-theological character of his later thinking?”

“From Silkworms to Songbirds: Why We No Longer Preach Like Jonathan Edwards,” Ted A. Smith
“Edwards saw these typological connections everywhere. He saw shadows of divine things in the way a snake caught its prey, what it is like to climb a hill, the waves of a stormy sea, flaxen clothing, cornmeal, the stench of a corpse, milk, and the habit of taking off one’s clothes before sleeping.”

“Has Child Protective Services Gone Too Far?,” Michelle Goldberg
“Advocates for families caught up in the child-welfare system hope that the national debate sparked by the free-range parenting movement will draw attention to the threats and intrusions that poor and minority parents endure all the time.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“How to Tame an Internet Troll,” Frank Pasquale
“The fantasy of using words alone to right a perceived injustice—or trigger a meltdown—has renewed relevance today.”

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T. S. Eliot on Psychology and the Modern Novel

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, June 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, June 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not one of T. S. Eliot’s major works of criticism, and though it appeared in a French publication in 1927, the English version of “The Contemporary Novel” that he promised to Edmund Wilson at the New Republic was apparently lost. Recovered among his mother’s papers and soon to be published in the third volume of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, this seemingly slight essay on the novels of four contemporaries (D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, David Garnett, and Aldous Huxley) contains some strikingly canny observations about both modern fiction and certain tendencies in Western intellectual culture that persist to this day.

Eliot begins by quoting Henry James’s critical assessment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories:

They are moral, and their interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it

Like James, Eliot appreciated Hawthorne for both his moral seriousness and his care for the “deeper psychology,” and he esteemed James for that very same conjunction of concerns. Indeed, Eliot suggests that what is most interesting about both writers is their shared assumption of a deep connection between psychological depth and moral seriousness, a connection that Eliot believed was becoming progressively de-linked in his own time, nowhere more obviously than in literary and intellectual understandings of psychology itself. Writes Eliot:

James’s book on Hawthorne was published in 1879. “Psychology” had not then reached the meaning of to-day, or if it had the meaning had not reached Henry James. One could not use the phrase now without surrounding it with a whole commentary of exposition and defence. But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.

To Eliot, the primary source of this new and shallower psychology was clear: the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. “It would,” he wrote, “be a work for a more highly trained and specialized mind than my own, to trace the effect of psycho-analysis upon literature and upon life, within the last thirty years or so. This effect is probably both greater and more transient than we suppose.”

Transient, perhaps, but Eliot had no doubt about its decisive influence on the work of contemporary novelists, including the four that he addressed specifically in the essay:

All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.

Was Eliot here revealing his own prudish fastidiousness? Was this the prim judgement of the Anglo-Catholic poet, horrified by Freud’s probing of the recessive, sexually driven workings of the human unconscious? It might seem so. But in words so elliptical as almost to obscure their intent, Eliot complicates his assessment of Freud (and our understanding of Eliot himself) by mentioning the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, implying that the Russian novelist’s understanding of human psychology was no less appreciative of the power of the unconscious than Freud’s, but still decisively different:

 It [the influence of psychoanalysis] would have to be distinguished from the influence of Dostoevski; or rather, one would have to reconstruct hypothetically what the influence of Dostoevski would or could have been had not one aspect of his work been tremendously reinforced by the coincidence of his vogue in western Europe with the rise of Freud.

The key phrase here is “one aspect.” More by implication than by explicit argument, Eliot credits Dostoevsky with peering into the abyss at least as intently as Freud and his acolytes did, but nevertheless coming away from the experience with a richer, fuller, and, yes, deeper understanding of human psychology. Dostoevsky did so precisely because he did not take such depths to be all-shaping or ultimately determinative. He did not reduce the complex dynamics of human motivation to one set of primal drives. He understood—and his greatest novels demonstrated—that human motivations were just as powerfully influenced and shaped by moral aspirations and spiritual longings. In short, in Eliot’s view, Dostoevsky resisted the seductions of reductivism that drew so many of the best modern minds toward a tragic misconstrual of the human person.

What Eliot was also getting at was a larger cultural-intellectual affliction: the seductions of ideas and ideologies. And it was precisely in his resistance to such seductions that Eliot saw James as such an exemplary artist and mind: of a kind that seemed, in Eliot’s view, to have largely disappeared after the death of James himself, in 1918. In that same year, Eliot wrote these words about James in The Little Review, words that merit reconsideration in light of the recently recovered essay:

James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.

Jay Tolson is editor of the Hedgehog Review.

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The Critical Fate of the Major Novel

9780374239213I read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity in one sitting: It came in the mail, I opened it up, and despite frequent breaks and every intention of doing something else with my time, I ended up finishing the novel before the next day broke.

This isn’t a ringing endorsement of Purity as a book. It is, I would say, an interesting mess. It has a huge plot in which everyone ends up connected to everyone else, but when the pieces come together, it’s not exciting—just over-determined. Franzen has continued his commitment to “transparent access” (i.e. uninteresting prose). The result is a certain predictability and a sentence-by-sentence flatness.

The Franzen news cycle has, by this point, come and gone, at least until Franzen himself gives another press interview and (inevitably) says something a little ill-considered (or at least easily misrepresented). But it reminded me of the cycle of coverage that surrounded another “big” novel this year—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There, too, the coverage ended up being linked to Ishiguro’s biography and to a remark he made in an interview about concerns that the book would be viewed as “fantasy.”

And, much like Purity, The Buried Giant was not a book that lent itself to an easy “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” It, too, was an interesting mess. It attempted a lot of things and failed at some of them. The best reviews were those that set aside the task of delivering some sort of definitive verdict to consider the novel as a complex whole. And this has been the case, too, with Purity. (For good reviews in the sense I mean, I would recommend Lydia Kiesling at the Millions and Elaine Blair at Harper’s, along with James Meek at the London Review of Books.)

An “interesting mess”–type book is a challenge for a reviewer because, as a category, it resists the somewhat more headline-friendly declaration that the novel is the “best yet,” the “worst yet,“ the “most challenging yet,” or the “most disappointing yet.”  Or you can sidestep this kind of difficulty in order to talk about the author. Or you can simply make your declaration anyway. Continue reading

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