Tuesday 19 October 2010

Reading and progress

(I've been sketching some theses on reading as a follow-up to the theses on writing. One of the points became long and unwieldy, so I'm posting it separately here.)

In a culture that worships progress, even reading an old novel becomes a theological act.

Today belief in progress far exceeds the most extravagant excesses of 19th-century enlightened Europe. Belief in progress is cemented deep beneath the floorboards of our culture; if we rarely speak of it, that is only because it has attained the status of an absolute fides implicita. We believe in progress as we believe in financial credit: a powerful silent credendum that gives shape to our social behaviour, preferences, and habits of mind.

In the temple of progress the doors are never shut and the priests never sleep. The worship of progress produces a new kind of moral imagination: the technological mind. Implicit in every new technology – without exception – is the belief that the New is a historical ‘advance’ on the old, that newness rides the crest of a teleological wave. No one lines up for the iPhone 4 believing it will be worse than the previous model, a step ‘backwards’ (i.e., against the direction of history).

The worship of progress is likewise the secret of all contemporary cultural values, which are held up as self-evident and infallible on account of their teleological relation to the antiquated values of the past. Witness the recent emergence of political correctness, surely the most remarkable cultural phenomenon of the past few decades, memorably described by one commentator as ‘the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation’ (Peter Hitchens). In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault identified the Panopticon not merely as an isolated phenomenon but as the emblem of a whole cultural epoch. The emblem of our time is the managerial memo, stipulating the correct use of words and values.

When the cultural history of our time is written, will it not be organised around the twofold emergence of internet technology and political correctness? (And is it not conceivable that some future historian will also devote a minor chapter to the emergence of enforced euthanasia in the later 21st century? We are morally offended by whatever is old; it’s only a matter of time before blood is demanded at the altar of progress.) Our cultural and political life deems inadmissible anything that is outdated or ‘backwards’, anything that fails to reflect the teleological direction of history. In a society ruled by progress, the most powerful person is the one who stipulates new (progressive, forward-looking) values, and the policies to enforce them: just think of university management. Increasingly, it is not only the technological innovator but also the values-driven manager who serves as high priest of the technological society.

Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy technology as much as anyone; I just don't think it makes a very good deity. And this is where reading comes in. In a society that worships progress, reading is a site of resistance. To read is to refuse the ideology of progress. Reading is a lunge backwards into the continuum of history. The reader refuses to accept that the relation between past and present is always and necessarily one of teleology. In the night sky we peer deep into the past, at light emitted millions of years ago by dying stars. Books are the twinkling lights of the human past. Reading is the experience of the simultaneity of past and present. It is a silent witness against the god of progress and those who clamour at its temple. Reading is a preferential option for the past.

As the prophet Daniel disobeyed the king’s edict and prayed to the Lord three times a day, so readers bend their minds to the past, quietly ignoring the decrees of progress. A whole society gathers smilingly around the bright battery-operated glow of its temple, whispering the hypnotic mantras of values and progress. To speak or act otherwise is forbidden by sovereign edict. Three times a day I go into my room and read, the windows open as before towards Jerusalem.

Update: C. S. Lewis responds.


Paul Tyson said...

In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader Eustace is explaining what Progress is to the barbaric and backward Narnians. However, thanks to Eustace’s description, Prince Caspian is not convinced that Narnia does not have progress. He says something to the effect, ‘Yes, we have progress in an egg. We call it going off.’ It seems to me we have progressed in scientia a great pace (and this enhances human power for both good and evil) but we have regressed in sapientia with equal speed. We have incredible ‘know how’, very little ‘know why’, and even less understanding that the essence of a human life that finds its telos is not in any type of knowledge, power or achievement, but in doxology. And it strikes me that this spainetial regress and this doxological vacuity is in no manner unrelated to our now and forward infatuated disinterest in the past. Yes Ben – let is be subversive readers and taste of the richness in meaning and worship that can be found in the past.

kim fabricius said...

In the night sky we peer deep into the past, at light emitted millions of years ago by dying stars. Books are the twinkling lights of the human past. Reading is the experience of the simultaneity of past and present. It is a silent witness against the god of progress and those who clamour at its temple. Reading is a preferential option for the past.

Beautifully and powerfully put.

For a penetrating analysis of "presentism", see J. C. D. Clark, Our Shadowed Present (2003) (on which Rowan Williams has drawn). In the Introduction alone there are such acute observations as:

"A de-historicized mental universe must also be an atheistic one" (p. 13).

"A society which sees itself as unconstrained by the past ... will be a society with many lawyers and much litigation" (p. 14).

"By claiming to emancipate the present from the past, presentism promises to abolish the future also, for the future cannot look essentially different from that which we now have. The world ceases to be a narrative of suffering and achievement, and becomes a timeless cultural shopping mall" (p. 28).

Meanwhile, on campus, a first-year student texts a friend at home: "Shit, the lecturers actually expect us 2 read books."

Pamela said...

I become irritable and overwrought without my books close by. And I can easily become irritable and overwrought with technology close by. So I will try to keep quietly ignoring the decrees of progress.

R. Alexander Tracy said...

Interesting post. But as a "good Methodist," I have to ask whether (and perhaps how) you would distinguish between a technological/cultural kind of progress and spiritual progress - what Wesley called "going on to perfection." Our Christian life is teleologically oriented in that sanctification is the goal; whether one calls that "Christian maturity" or "holiness" or whatever. There is a directionality and growth, and in this journey we might have some steps backward (backsliding is always a possibility), but our prayer is greater progress toward holiness. Now, I suppose you can argue that this is an inherent flaw in Wesley's theology, but nearly every theologian from Paul to Zizioulas has maintained in some language that growth in Christlikeness is the shape of the Christian life. (Okay, Zizioulas is a bit different, but he still defines the Christian life teleologically; it's just that that telos is already perfectly realized in the communion of the Eucharistic community.)

Which brings me back to my original question: how do we distinguish between "good" and "bad" models of progress? Is the Christian life a special case? (My hunch is that the answer is yes, since God is the true Good.)

Adam Morton said...


Of course we can talk about spiritual perfection. But to the eyes of this world, it looks greatly like suffering and death, like being poured out. On this point, perhaps we should take John the Baptist's, "He must increase, but I must decrease" as more directly relevant to sanctification--but then we'd also have to note that sanctification can look terribly like Alzheimer's.

Which brings me to the point about reading. While I strongly identify with much of what Ben wrote, I don't trust something about it. Reading seems, at best, only mildly and benignly out of step with this age. Nobody reacts in shock and horror when I tell them I read, as if I'd just kicked a puppy or insulted their god. If it's some noble act of resistance against the god Progress, shouldn't the world and the flesh hate it more? What if I just happen to enjoy reading?

There's a dirty secret buried in my love of reading, you see--as I learn more stuff, grow familiar with more authors, I think I'm actually getting better. Deep down, I disagree only on the method of progress, not the fact of it (at least when it comes to me)--that's why its cult doesn't hate me yet. I merely represent another form of piety, not a different god.

roger flyer said...

Ben said: We are morally offended by whatever is old; it’s only a matter of time before blood is demanded at the altar of progress.

A very quotable sentence.

Evan said...

...not only quotable, but I thought this was the most unexpected aspect of the post. Not the sentiment of this sentence itself so much as the forecast that it followed and worked to explain.

Anthony Paul Smith said...


Student said...

Oh beauty!
"I enjoy hi-tech...just don't think it makes a very good diety."

I worked in super-duper-High Tech for 25 years. And it became more and more a deity, a coolness for oneself, an identity of having, knowing, being important. I mean, remember when it was cool to have a laptop in a cafe? Now, for me, it's cool not to have one, to have a real book and writer's pad ; )

Jesus healing people in their hearts, minds, and bodies. Now *THAT* is High Tech deity!

FYI tho, I'm considering the new low-priced Kindle, to save $$$ on school text books. Not because I don't have books on my bed, tables, chairs, in the car. To save my wrists, eyes, and a few bucks is all.

Thanks for a rewarding post. I so do not miss working in high tech, ha ha. (makes people crazy who don't know me, and try to convince me to be more hi-tech; I laugh quietly.)

Adam Kotsko said...

That euthanasia bit is pretty crazy -- was the old book you were reading The Giver?

Ben Myers said...

OK, I'll admit it was a crazy line. Not a literal forecast obviously, but a statement of something that I find imaginatively "conceivable".

After all, that's the point of dystopian novels like The Giver: not that they're trying to forecast anything, but that they're exploring the way our own society makes certain things imaginatively "conceivable". If something is conceivable, I think that tells us something interesting about ourselves.

Mark said...

'Progress' is such a loaded word, with its value being determined a great deal by the direction of one's gaze and the criteria by which we judge events. Surely we can point to different kinds of developments, such as the recognition of civil rights for more and more groups in the world and leaps forward in equal rights for women in many ways, as desirable because fighting for them is part of the fight against all that dehumanizes people.

Though the main target of this post is technological progress and the tyranny of technique, the appearance of the idea of 'political correctness' complicates the social dimension involved. For some, 'political correctness' is indeed the managerial ethos which wants to tell us how to think and speak in order to pretend to care about other people. For others, however, 'political correctness' is the pejorative label thrown around in attempts to squash movements for liberation: for example, calls for inclusive language are derided as political correctness forcing people to talk a certain way, brushing aside the effort to add hospitality to one's discourse.

So some way to judge movement in human history remains necessary. Certainly theologians want the world to get better, right?

Still, I sympathize with the frustration that the adoration of innovation can bring--something that seems extremely evident in churches: denominations, desperate for the program which will give the answer to the organization's ills, continually move on to the next big thing without having the patience to wait for what might develop out of the last one.

But if books only linked readers to the past in an eternal backward glance, what help would they be, even in the context of protest given here? Maybe we could link this idea of reading as a protest against a certain relentless and uncaring type of progress to the insights of someone like Paul Ricoeur, who thought of stories and narration as being oriented toward the future and the ability to imagine the reconstruction of the world. Stories link readers to the past, but in a way that allows us to see possibilities that life may be different than it is, so that reading can contribute positively to the struggle for justice and peace to which God calls us.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Right, and The Giver does that by re-imagining Plato's Republic... an old book.

Man, I like you and we're friendly and all, but I just can't dig on this.

Ben Myers said...

No problem Anthony, I completely understand your reservations. And of course I only half-mean any of this — especially here, with a post lifted from a series of "theses" whose main purpose is to be bizarrely provocative.

Speaking of novels though, it's not The Giver that I've been reading this week, but Roberto Bolaño. I finished 2666 last night, and — testament to the power of reading — it kept me lying awake most of the night thinking about it. It's an incredible novel — an bewildering labyrinth, infinitely dark, a sort of cross between Borges, Moby-Dick, and detective fiction.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Common ground then. Great novel, though I had only just finished Book Three when I had to leave it in the UK.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

One last thing with my apologies before I launch into it. You say that you only half-mean this, but it seems like you have many readers who more-than-half-agree. Why, as a public theologian, feed a certain comfort in believers? A certain comfort in the idea that the world is against them, that they can stand against and resist this abstract world, one full of people waiting to kill the aged by way of political correctness (I really don't know who this "we" is in "we are morally offended", but I urge you to really consider how close this comes to conservative paranoia, something I suspect should be obvious given you're quoting the other right-wing, Daily Mail writer Hitchens). Why perpetuate that paranoia when actual horrible shit is going on? Why make a boogeyman out of progress precisely when no one is making the case for progress? When all those in power are making the case for "austerity" in order to save the rich and the end to equality and multiculturalism? Why don't you speak out about the theological voices supporting those in power?

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Or, to put it another way, I'm not morally offended by whatever is old, but I am shocked that you and others here are not morally offended by the blood already being demanded at the altar of "communitarianism", austerity, and the impossibility of equality to say nothing of the lack of distaste for the theologians who helped erect the altar.

Evan said...

...because doing anything at all with a blogspot platform other than fighting the good fight is a telltale sign of complicity.

kim fabricius said...

Tony Blair and New Labour rose to power with the slogan-song "Things can only get better" - and then proceeded to abandon socialism, embrace neo-liberalism and managerialism, osculate the buttocks of Murdock and Bush, and embroil the UK in two wars. That's the kind of "progress" (and and the populist moral discourse of "values", also mentioned) that I take to be the object of Ben's lament. Ben was, admittedly, unwise to have a go at political correctness, which, though often inane, has become the whipping boy of the gloating Right (an indiscretion exacerbated by the endorsement of Hitchens), though the reference to euthanasia, at least in a British context, is hardly a nod to the forces of reaction. But as pissed off as I too am about Brand Clegg and the spending cuts crapola, to read this post as politically Cameronian and theologically Milbankian strikes me as ungenerous and tedentious. What next after reading, prayer as a crypto-fascist activity?

scott said...

It would be great if Ben and APS did an official response and response-to-response type thing on one of the two blogs, so we can collectively get to the bottom of some of the rhetorical disjunction.

Antonio Manetti said...

Well, I was a bit confused by the jeremiad. Condemning the erosion of spiritual and cultural values is one thing, With regard to technology, however, no one wants to live in the squalor of the early 19th century London described by Steven Johnson's "The Ghost Map". Technology, in the form of a modernized system for human waste disposal, saved many lives and made city life endurable.

As for the present, my GPS and cell phone were lifelines on my recent driving tour of Sicily. I also took along a couple of books but my luggage would have been a lot more luggable with a Kindle.

besideourselves said...

If I was a book it would be called "My Life as an Anachronism".

I thank God for my reliable broadband, I use it to download ancient books for nix which I read on my gorgeous big flatscreen. My hard drive looks like the library of Alexandria. And just think, without progress I probably wouldn't even have a single parchment to read.

If you read enough history you should be struck by just how old the new really is. Just don't say too much about the emperors new clothes or it'll be your blood on the altar!

BTW, did you illustrate your own point by being pilloried for "exciting conservative paranoia"?


Anthony Paul Smith said...


I wasn't accusing Ben of being Cameronian nor was I defending New Labour.

I don't really want to go down the "euthansia" is a real threat in the UK road. I live there too. No one is lining up old people to die, in fact the evil forces of progress represented by New Labour did more to help keep old people alive. Not just alive, but with a decent quality of life and that's a fact despite their other failings (which are very, very fucking serious).

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Also, I would be open to a more organized dialogue with Ben. I think we could both hold back on our polemical flourishes. I do like Ben, after all, and I think, despite our differences, he doesn't hate me. Both of us are, I suspect, very busy though, so it could be difficult.

Steve Wright said...

@Antonio - You had best reread the second last paragraph.

Anonymous said...

I think what disturbed me most about this post was calling reading "a preferential option for the past."

I felt nauseous at the thought of deploying the rage for justice in the context of death-bringing totalitarian regimes for the sake of an activity which at best is only possibly revolutionary.

I would stay with Augustine's maxim - don't believe anything because it's new; don't believe anything because it's old.

Which is to say that the past is not holy.

Anonymous said...

Of course the idea of progress has its roots in the Christian tradition.

The idea that "God" created the world some definitive time in the past (however long ago), and has a "plan" for humankind and "creation" altogether, that Jesus created some inherent "meaning" to it all, and that some time in the future "Jesus" will re-appear to provide the ultimate fulfillment of His-story.

Once upon a time Western culture was patterned by presumptions based on Christian religiosity. After the Renaissance that changed to a merely humanist ideal. And in more recent times the "ideal" changed to homo-economicus. Capitalism rules OK. Capitalism of course depends on the invention of always newly invented things, products and ideas to be excited about, and to consume. We are thus Consuming Ourselves, and the Earthworld altogether, To Death

One of the results of the paradigm shift that occurred with the Renaissance was the Western literary tradition particularly in the form of the novel, and also via the Protestant every-person sitting alone in his/her room presuming that the Truth (with a capital T) can be discovered by reading the Bible.

And of course some of the staunchest advocates of "progress" via capitalism are right-wing "catholics".

Anonymous said...

Two now-time examples of so called progress are encapsulated in the notion of "globo-christ", and the entire so called "emergent" church phenomenon as epitomized in the writings and activities of Pete Rollins.

gaius said...

"Anonymous" with "his" quotation marks is "hilarious"!

Martyn J Smith said...

Thanks for the book recommendation (For a penetrating analysis of "presentism", see J. C. D. Clark, Our Shadowed Present (2003) (on which Rowan Williams has drawn)that came as a result of this fascinating article.
Does anyone have any other on the issue of the 'old versus the new' and the concept of 'progress'?
I am thinking/writing/researching issues that lead me into this area of thinking and for which I'd value some scholarly insights (not just cos they're new either!!!) to help me reflect further on the fascinating proposition that the new generally surplants the old and especially so in terms of theological thought...

All help/advice/bibliographies gratefully received...

Antonio Manetti said...

@Antonio - You had best reread the second last paragraph.

Ben Myers said:

Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy technology as much as anyone; I just don't think it makes a very good deity.

My point it that technology, like food, is more than something to be enjoyed. One of its fruits is the health and leisure to read that used to be the sole province of clerics and other elites. I agree about the corrosive effect of modernity but before we deify the past, we ought to do enough reading to see what it was like for most of humankind.

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