Friday, 4 November 2016

Nous voici réunis!

Typical! Commit yourself to the gym (in this case, a thought gym) and then never go once in six months! Here I was in April promising to roll out of the blog again, and then silence ... at least over these digitalised pages. Count yourself lucky, say I!

I have not been idle though, no indeed. Apart from my exacting duties at work, and my pleasurable duties at home,  I have been swimming though seas of gripping digital reflection and wondering what it means that I would sometimes rather text than phone somebody. Am I just short of time, or am I joining the ranks of disembodied digital natives who send thousands of texts a month but cannot sustain a conversation on any subject concerning which they have not received adequate media programming?

I confess that part of my anxieties about digital culture stems directly from being responsible for the education of the students who pass before me in the lecture room. Learning and Teaching orthodoxy holds that the more we digitise our teaching, the more we are likely to deliver quality teaching and enhance learning. Our new VC, Alec Cameron, in his latest video blog, has evoked the possibilities offered by distance courses which would of course be beamed to all four corners of the planet by the marvel that is the Internet (password protected of course).

And yet, and yet (reflects your blogger through the very same medium), where will this end? Digital platforms are all very well, but like so many technological innovations, we must ask whether we have thought through all the risks. I'm not referring here to the technological risks about which I am not remotely qualified to speak. But I do wonder about the pedagogical risks and, more seriously, the cultural ones. Insofar as the Internet is but a digitised book, there is surely no harm in it. But what about the medium itself?

I suppose at the root of my question here is a distinction elucidated by French writer Fabrice Hadjadj between communiquer and communier. The verb communiquer seems to focus more on the information articulated. Communier seems to focus more on the encounter between the agents of any act of communication. Arguably, the distinction between the two is all the clearer in the domain of digital exchange where, it appears, the first thing people lose is the sense of the personhood of their interlocutor. Cue cyber-bullying, trolling and all manner of ugliness, frequently by those who, one suspects, would not dare to cross you in real life. Could this be because digital communication tempts us into communication rather than leading us into communion? The medium shapes the message, as we know, thanks to McLuhan. But to what extent does the medium also shape the messenger?

Perhaps one of the challenges of digital communication - be it long distance courses or blogspots! - lies in the imaginative effort never to forget what the interlocutor represents or, better, who the interlocutor is. Or - better still! -  that the digital representation of the interlocutor (a text on a screen, an image, a wave of digital sound) denotes a real human person. I can claim no credit for this thought. In many ways Gabriel Marcel was there before us in the 1930s and 1940s, warning constantly about this very forgetfulness of the person that seems to break over us when we are mired in our abstractions. And technology is nothing if not an abstraction.


Well, that's enough from me for one blog session. Is there anybody there, said the blogger,

Knocking at the moonlit screen?

I hope you'll join me again, dear reader, or as Baudelaire would say, 

Hypocrite lecteur mon semblable, mon frère!

Monday, 4 April 2016

On rebooting the blog

The irony of my last post in 2013 being called 'Time stands still' was purely unintentional. I had no idea it would be almost another three years before posting here again! That must be one of those 'original accidents' Paul Virilio promises are inherent to any technology. It is a thought that haunts me constantly these days …

… which in itself is the reason that I thought of coming back here. For some time now I have been increasingly anxious about what our technologies are doing to us. Talk of technology's ubiquity, its intimidating proliferation, is so banal now as to be unremarkable. At the same time, we are all of us unconscious users of technology in ways that ought to be disturbing (but mostly are not). I think both Albert Borgmann and Neil Postman have commented on the invisibility of technology; the way in which the tools we use tend to become invisible to our perception - invisible in the sense of being easily taken for granted, as unconscious as any of our closest and most intimate cultural practices. What troubles me in such a vision is the potential damage that we suffer from powerful tools that have sunk entirely below our radar. If there is anything worse than suffering the unexpected accidents of some new technology à la Virilio, it is being of a frame of mind to ignore or suppress the same.

In rebooting this blog, I am looking for a thought gym; opening up a man cave in which to ponder on some of the issues that trouble me most. I have been a mild techno-pessimist for years. This recent journey has begun, however, with several works that I have either just read, am reading or am about to read. A list of these appears below.  If you, dear reader, can suggest others, please post a comment.

I am not ignorant of the irony, the paradox, of launching a sceptical reflection on technology from the dizzy heights of a Blogspot page.  What can I say but that I am a creature of my age? I may very well end up sawing off the branch on which I sit! If that is the case ... well, so be it.

The cruellest thing anyone said about the posts on a previous blog I ran was 'TLDR'. That is text speak for 'too long, didn't read'. Someone else laughingly asked me who on earth read my long, delirious postings anyway. Charming!

If I felt a little huffy at these comments, however, I now take it all back. Long posts are basically sound. Long posts are about concentration; they are about attention; they are about mental investment. They are, in other words, about as "counter-web" as it is possible to be. I dare say a very long blog post might even come close to the cultural level of a very short, personal, hand-written letter. Or might that be over stretching the point?

In any case, my warning should be clear. If you are looking for mental shorthand, you have the whole internet at your disposal. Some sites, I'm told, specialise pretty much in nothing but images.

But if you want a longer form of cerebral engagement, then you are most welcome. The blog from now on, for however long it lasts, will be mostly about technology, with perhaps one or two other obsessions dropped in occasionally.

Here's mud in your eye.

Albert Borgmann, Power Failure

Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Everyday Life

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember

Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working With Your Hands, or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good.

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: how to flourish in an age of distraction

Marc Goodman, Future Crimes: inside the digital underworld and the battle for our connected world

Susan Greenfield, Mind Change: how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains

Andrew Keen, The Internet is Not the Answer

Conrad Pepler, Riches Despised: a study of the roots of religion

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Time stands still

One thing we have learned about having twins is that there are times when the clock just defeats you. I say the clock; perhaps I should say the revolution of the earth (if you believe in that sort of thing).

We haven't been married that long (close to three years, though who's counting?). And I think that having married in early middle age, we still want back from our day the sort of change that we could have counted on as singletons. I mean, you'll always have a few hours of an evening to feel like you are human again, won't you? Whatever the schedule, there will always be a decompression period during the hours of darkness, offering itself up like a guarantee of sanity, won't there?

Quite, but it is paper thin. How can I put this? "Twins eat time". Or how about

E=MC2 where E is parental fatigue, M is madness, and C is chaos (all squared by twins of course!).

 The days blend into one, the feeds become indistinguishable, nappies heap up in corners like spent cartridges, and, as Yeats wrote after a sleepless night with a grumpy toddler, Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

One accepts all these things as a parent. This is the price of having those delightful little bundles who, after driving you slightly round the bend for an hour, melt your heart with their indescribable magic. But I never calculated the loss of time beforehand! Everything goes by the board. Correspondence is neglected, phone calls are never made and, mais oui, blogs grow dusty with disuse. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the nursery.

It's at time like this that I like to think of the words of the great Canadian bard Neil Peart:

I let my past go too fast
No time to pause
If I could slow it all down
Like some captain
Whose ship runs aground
I can wait until the tide
Comes around.

If I could slow it all down! If only!

At least I still have time to listen to music (if it can be heard over the caterwauling!)

Monday, 24 June 2013

Silence is golden

I have on the coffee table beside my chair Georges Duhamel's Querelles de famille. It is a patchwork quilt of a book in which Duhamel, a now largely forgotten French novelist and essayist, sets out his case against the creeping encroachment of technology on life in the France in the 1930s. The picture is fascinating and alarmingly contemporary in all its resonances.

Duhamel had made his name just after WWI in which he served as a field surgeon. Fifty-one months on the front and over 3,000 operations gave him the raw material for two fictionalised accounts of his experiences, Vie des Martyrs 1914-1916 and Civilisation 1917. Like Querelles de famille, these works are a patchwork, or to use a more noble term, they are impressionistic. The author approaches his goal not using the sharp lines of rational discourse but rather through suggestion, allusion, example and juxtaposition. The particular stories are for another time. In Duhamel, what emerged from this war experience was a sound distaste for rationalisation and mechanisation. Months on end of removing shards of shrapnel from every nook and cranny of men's bodies will do that to anybody, even to one who applauded every new advance in surgery so as to be able to repair, or at least to palliate, the damage done by the awful mechanisation of war.

Querelles de famille was written just over ten years after the end of WWI and at a not dissimilar interval before the outbreak of WWII. The logic of Ford and the spirit of Taylorism were just beginning to have an impact on French industry. Rationalisation was a growing theme among a new generation of thinkers who would pave the way for the technocracy of the 1950s and beyond. On the home front, consumer society really started here also, the explosion of the 1950s being anticipated by the growing availability of disposable and quickly obsolete domestic playthings which, according to Duhamel, were beginning to fill up the poorly-managed rubbish dumps of the 1920s and 1930s.

I was going to tell you also about the noise pollution which Duhamel so strongly decried.... But that will have to wait. As if on cue, my eldest twin boy - on the left here - is currently yelling and, well, I cannot think straight! You would not think he could make such a din!

Oddly enough, all of a sudden, Duhamel's suggestion for a Parc national du silence seems strangely attractive ... unless you're four months old!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

What goes around comes around ...

... and I've been around a bit since last I blogged!

Is there anybody there? said the blogger, 
Looking at his flatlined stats;
And his blog in the silence whirred away
Like Eliots's purring cats.

This blog was always likely to lie dormant for a little while, given that its vocation is to celebrate what Pieper and Borgmann define unsatisfactorily as leisure or focal points. One needs time to breathe in a world full of words and that is not a proposition that ought to be enunciated.

That said, my recent failure to show up has been more connected to events chez Sudlow. My wife gave birth to baby boys in February - a tremendous moment. The crest of happiness this moment brought to our household was immediately cast into shadow when it proved that one boy, John Henry Joseph, was having breathing difficulties. By the end of the same day we had a diagnosis: TAPVD, as the cardiologists called it. Bad heart plumbing, to we laymen.

John on the right and Pip on the left ... or is it?
Fast forward several months of endless hospital visits, chaotic childcare arrangements for our toddler daughter, and some serious worry and prayer, and John is now happily ensconced at home next to his identical twin brother (Philip Charles Benedict), a blessed recipient of the surgical brilliance lurking at Birmingham Children's Hospital and the proud wearer of a four-inch scar. Jobs a good'un, as they say from where I come.Twins are not as hard as I thought they were, but the difficulties they pose are wholly unimaginable before you're in the situation. We often find ourselves wishing we had a third arm or simply the gift of bilocation. But of course, alongside the double trouble, there is double joy. The boys are now four months old and like to live, thank God!

Anyway, now I've explained why I've not been at school, I can tell you I will be back here hanging out a little bit more regularly and very much as before. I thought of ending this post with the famous words of Fray Luis de Leon who, after some years of incarceration while he was being investigated by the Inquisition, was released and returned in triumph to his lecturer hall where he had been arrested. The students welcomed back the famous theologian with shouts and clapping, and when the tumult had died down, the good friar looked up at his audience with a sparkle in his eye and said 'Dicebamus hesterna die' ... which roughly translates, 'As I was saying.

But can anyone really say this better than Arnie?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

It's Christmas time

... so what better reason to potter back to my old haunts and hang out for a while? Since late October, when I last blogged, I confess to a mixture of overwhelming work and solid disinterest in blogging. It's hard to describe the place I've been in, but it might be word-fatigue or something like it. Language has been peeling off experience like some bad Foucauldian wallpaper. I've been needing different outlets. Blimey, I've even started baking!

Domestically, life is rather full. My wife and I are expecting twins in February so daily life has been more complex than expected. On the work front, I've been doing my own duties and filling in for various absent colleagues, so there was no respite there.

It all makes one wonder whether the old truisms about creativity and academia are true: that they are not compatible with family life! Then again, I feel they certainly are; I just haven't cracked the solution yet.

Spiritually and mentally - the reasons for which this blog began - I suppose I have been focusing on getting on with life, rather than blogging about it here. I hate blather more and more each day. The Twelve Days of Christmas are providing their own opportunity for some focal practices. Today, we celebrated St John's feastday with blessed wine and lamb's heart for supper. Why can't our days be always filled with such symbolism? My wife and I toasted each other the traditional St John's toast: I drink to you the love of St John, and while I took a swig, she just tasted a little, having committed herself to avoiding alcohol and caffeine while pregnant. I have a menu planned for the rest of the Twelve Days. Tomorrow, the feast of the Holy Innocents, we will have pigeon. On Saturday, feast of St Thomas à Beckett, we'll have a good English stew of beef shin - even though St Thomas was a Norman!

What is the point? Ultimately, it is about the depths of things. It is about the depths of things, when all we feel we have to hold on to are the fragments and ruins, the flotsam and jetsam; it's about being the rogue dandelion on the crumbling brick edifice of a wall set for demolition. How much our functionalist and pragmatic world clamours for us to live on the surface! How much we are stifled by living at such low altitudes!  

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars, as old Oscar said. I think, however, I prefer Gerard Manley Hopkins's version of the same idea. It's less cynical and less self-conscious.

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;       
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;       
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Monday, 29 October 2012


My friend and colleague Professor Paul Scott has just opened a blog at Cufflink Catholic.

Paul has been displaying a series of cufflink shots on Facebook for some months now, and it was only a matter of time before this extravagant procession of aesthetic cufflinkery broke forth in search of a new platform. The narrative of his initiation to cufflinks is a veritable rebirth story, told with a waft of fine incense and the respectable echo of memory. I recommend it to you.

Meanwhile, I stagger from pillar to post, but mostly from lesson planning to admin task, in search of research time, illumination and copy. Notable achievements of the last few weeks include an almost perfect tarte tatin which collapsed only when it was being extracted from the pan, a new, key insight which might provide the start of my next book, and another birthday. By way of a present, Mrs Sudlow finally gave way to my incessant pleading and bought me a kitchen blowtorch. I cannot tell you how happy this has made me!

So, go over to Cufflink Catholic and say hello (both of you). 

With Professor Scott's cufflinks and my new incendiary prowess, I'm reminded of Chesterton's famous dictum: give us the luxuries in life and we will dispense with the necessities. Like all Chesterton's sayings - such as 'If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly (even if you do it badly, in other words) - it is a paradox. What he means - says the blogger, indulging in a shameful act of overbearing glossaria - is that if we revel in the celebratory side of life, those things we consider necessary in the prosaic quotidian will be seen for what they are: frequently unimportant.