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What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?

In the churches of which I have been a part – the Protestant, free-church, evangelical variety with little formal liturgy – form is often treated as irrelevant. This attitude typically appears when someone has a complaint related to music, and the approach that leadership takes to such complaints is often to simply suggest that they should not be made at all. What matters is doctrine and beyond doctrine what matters is relationship, community, and unity. Issues of form are matters of preference only and are therefore debates into which only the “immature” enter. Arguments over form are not arguments over doctrine and are therefore mere threats to unity. We should therefore strive not to critique or enter into conversations about form at all. Certainly not everyone feels this way and I don’t know that everyone who gets frustrated with such arguments would express it in this way, but I frequently hear a variation of “there are more important things to talk about” in response to such critiques. Continue reading “What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?”

Parsing Poetry and Public Discourse

I have been quiet over here because I have been using the summer to finish my manuscript of Rhythm: A Theological Category. I have now submitted the manuscript and expect to be entering into several rounds of revisions over the next year or so. The last weeks of developing the manuscript have involved dealing with a few interesting side issues related to rhythm in theology that I wanted to share here. In this case, I want to talk about parsing poetry and why it matters. Continue reading “Parsing Poetry and Public Discourse”

Beyond Baudrillard: The Rhythms of Media Society

My last post pointed out the rhythms that Baudrillard has identified as part of consumer society. Given that he wrote the text in 1970, it’s remarkable how true it remains to the nature of Western society today. Nevertheless, there are ways in which the text does not account for all the rhythms of the current expression of consumer society. This is not to say that his text is wrong or obsolete, but that there are new instances of the commodity rhythms that he identifies.

Consumer society is becoming increasingly dominated, not by the rhythms of physical commodities, but by media rhythms. The rhythms of commodities still exist; we continue to buy and replace objects at ever faster rates as more and more objects become disposable. But these physical rhythms now intersect with more ephemeral media rhythms, which arguably hold tighter sway over everyday life than commodity rhythms because they are compound-rhythms, they include cycles at multiple levels of time-length: days, weeks, years.

A helpful picture of these rhythms has been recently supplied by Anthony Curtis Adler in his book Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life. Like Henri Lefebvre before him, who identified the cycles of radio as a significant rhythm in modern life in his book Rhythmanalysis, Adler notes that the rhythms of television are perhaps those rhythms that are now closest to us, without ever quite being our own.

The cycles of television occur at a multitude of levels that mimic natural rhythms. Each particular segment or show includes its own cycles (most visible in even “giving us the time, between shows and scenes, to defecate” (27)). These are embedded in daily cycles, like the circadian rhythms or the oscillation between night and day. Television moves through the levity of morning news, the possibilities of the game show, the heaviness of soap operas, the seriousness of prime time and evening news, and finally the infomercials for the nocturnal (27-28). These daily cycles are also, in turn, embedded in weekly cycles, in which the weekend marks a weekly repetition through the injection of sports and religion, film, and the Saturday Night Live party (28). Finally, each show has “its own time, space, and manner of truth,” in other words its own rhythm, that unfolds over the course of successive installments thus lending a longer arc to the smaller cycles. “The privileged vehicle for quality television is a series extended over the course of may seasons, combining an ‘epic,’ world-building scope with ‘dramatic’ plot lines that unfold rhythmically not only in each episode and throughout each season, but over the course of the entire series” (30). And thus shape is likewise given to the year.

This is not unlike the church calendar, which provides a yearly arc through the drama of Christ’s life, which is both the same and different every year. In the case of the church calendar, however, the dramatic plot lines that “unfold rhythmically over the course of the entire series” are not only Christ’s life as a drama that we passively watch each year. It is our own lives, the dramatic plot lines rhythmically unfolding are those of the body of Christ, in which we are participants. Adler says,

television orchestrates and organizes a kind of everydayness, …it accompanies the times and seasons of our lives. We still also exist in everydayness, between life and death, but now we…, while living, watch TV, which has become the constant accompaniment to a life beyond work, organizing it through a complex system of rhythms (interstitial, hourly, daily, weekly, yearly) that, in contrast to the schedules that govern monastic orders, the military schools, factories, and hospitals, no longer have any sacral, political, or even purely instrumental and productive rationale (25).

Television works in the same way as the other institutions that have historically codified and transmitted and accompanied the natural rhythms in which we are embedded, institutions like the church. The difference is that television does not seem to do so for any particular purpose. Rather than conveying meaning or purpose, it conveys moods, moods that organize everyday life without exactly being ours (27).

Remember that Baudrillard suggests that the life beyond work, leisure time, does not really have a rhythm of its own that is different from the consumption-production cycle of work. Instead, we live according to rhythms that are not our own, the rhythm of objects. Adler is essentially saying the same thing, that our leisure time is marked by rhythms of something that is not really our own. “The moods of everyday life have everything to do with the fact that while each of us has been consigned to the one life that we have to live, we are, for the most part, always evading this responsibility, losing ourselves in the distractions of the world.” (28)

Each show shows its own time, space, and manner of truth (disclosure) – each opens onto its own life and its own world – and yet these are all fused to a clock and calendar time that presents itself with an almost perfect mathematical precision. While the clock and the calendar are tools organizing the activities of everyday life, this mathematically precise time elicited by the television is precisely not the time of our lives. It exists as it were at the limit of our lives as a time that imposes itself on us but that we can never actually inhabit. It is at this limit hat television touches our life, but we should never suppose on this basis that the rhythms of television have anything to do with the everyday life that we live (29).

The difficulty with Adler’s assessment, which he himself acknowledges, is that the domination of television’s rhythms is of course not exactly the relationship to media in which we currently find ourselves. His analysis is not, and he thinks it cannot, be absolutely contemporaneous. The only reason his analysis of television is at all possible is that this age of television has, in important ways, already passed. The rhythms of television have themselves been absorbed into another, more totalizing medium: the internet,

which replaces the orderly schedule of television with the absolute simultaneity of possibilities. The past coexists alongside the present, or is forgotten utterly, and the future is no longer the prospect of the new day and the new year but the constantly abiding expectation of something different showing up for us (38).

This becomes particularly the case through the “gadget,” which I take to be a veiled reference to the smart-phone. Adler describes the gadget as that which “through a strange ambivalence, names both the ‘novelty’ item without use and the eminently useful item without name (it was originally sailor’s slang for anonymous tools) – and thus, by a savage and strange irony, would also be the name bestowed on the first atom bomb, the first of the things to end all things…” (126). The smartphone is the perfect confluence of these two definitions in that on the one hand everything that a smartphone can do, other things can also do; it is a novelty item without use much like a fidget-spinner. But on the other hand, this is also what makes it eminently useful and its very multi-purpose usefulness is what means it does not have a name other than a derivation from a prior invention, “the phone,” that has now been made “smart.” Perhaps it too will in some way play a role in ending all things.

Adler seems to suggest in the above quote that a central difference between television and the internet is that the latter has no rhythm, it simply makes everything available at once. We must be careful, however, not to confuse the lack of schedule with a lack of rhythm. The rhythms of the internet are simply located somewhere slightly different, namely, not in the schedule produced independently of the viewer and projected onto his or her life from the outside, but in the user him or her self. The rhythm of the smart phone is compulsive checking that punctuates the day, beginning very likely immediately upon waking. This is interwoven with the more serious and sustained flow of laptop or desktop work. It clearly forms a rhythm of work-flow punctuated at semi-regular intervals by pings, messages, and general smart-phone checking. The internet is thus a much closer, co-operative human-object production of rhythm, which looks slightly different and yet also remarkably similar between different users. Thus the rhythm might appear slightly different – more like free-verse than like a nursery-rhyme perhaps – but it nevertheless persists.

I therefore locate this difference somewhere slightly different. Adler points out that the television is rhythm of moods without purpose. The internet is likewise without clear purpose. The difference is that it invites the production of individual meaning, identity, purpose in a way that the television cannot. I suspect this makes the internet a far more robust medium than the television. Thus, I suggested at the beginning, that we need to not replace Baudrillard’s rhythm-of-objects within the production-consumption cycle, but to understand the ways in which it intersects with media rhythms. The most saturated point of such confluence is the smart phone. Itself an object with inbuilt obsolescence, requiring very regular replacement, it is a portal into an ever-shifting self-production-through-consumption that is not limited to the object itself.

To consume in this context is not to purchase specific objects but to absorb all of life into “creative” electronic self-production. We, the consumers, have become ever more clearly not merely consumers but producers-through-consumption. We consume electronic content generated by others while nearly simultaneously consuming the whole of life as a production of posts, tweets, photos, memes, videos etc. All of life is directly subjected to the project of electronic self-production. The circle between consumption and production has revolved ever tighter until it has coalesced into a dot.

 

Features Image: By ArnoD27 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47890803

 

Baudrillard and the Rhythms of Consumer Society

Jean Baudrillard wrote a book called The Consumer Society in 1970 in which he considers an enormous number of phenomena from the perspective of consumerism, including time. The way in which time itself is changed or re-conceptualized in consumer society is especially evident in the idea of “leisure time.” We work for leisure time as much as we work for money. In fact, in consumerism, money and time are entirely exchangeable in an almost one-for-one correlation evidenced by the adage “time is money.” Baudrillard says “Divisible, abstract, measured time thus becomes homogeneous with the exchange-value system: it forms part of that system on the same basis as any other object. As an object of temporal calculation, it can and must be exchanged against any other commodity (in particular, money).” (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 153). When we pay for the convenience of something (pre-made orange juice rather than oranges themselves is Baudriallard’s example) what we are in fact buying is time. Continue reading “Baudrillard and the Rhythms of Consumer Society”

Sciences of Rhythm

One of the foundational claims of my research is that, as with many phenomena, the way in which one approaches rhythm will impact how one thinks about it. Pascal Michon, probably the most explicit philosopher of rhythm, thinks about this in terms of the two different definitions of rhythm identified by linguist Benveniste in 1966. Benveniste argues that the Platonic definition of rhythm is the default one for which we all reach – an oscillation between strong and weak beats, an order of a sequence of time, associated with concepts like meter, number and periodicity – but that it is not oldest. The older, pre-Socratic, ionian version of rhythm, Rhuthmos, denotes an ephemeral shape or improvisation. Michon takes this schema and traces a battle between these two versions of rhythm that plays itself out over the history of philosophy. One feature of his narrative is that the scientific disciplines tend to gravitate towards the Platonic understanding while the poets attempt to recover something of the pre-Socratic. Philosophers are split down the middle. You can read the whole of Michon’s history of the concept for free here. Continue reading “Sciences of Rhythm”

A Reflection on Vision (for while I’m away)

I am currently in Vietnam visiting family and focusing all my attention on getting to know that culture, not on writing blog posts. In my absence, however, Transpositions, the blog associated with the University of Saint Andrews program in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, has published an article that I wrote for them on Jackson Pollock and Gregory of Nyssa called “God’s Back: Jackson Pollock and the Beatific Vision.”

The article engages one of my favourite words: “vision.” I’m interested in the word because it can mean both something that one sees (you are a vision of loveliness) and the capacity to see (I wear glasses because my vision is poor). One word captures both that which is received and the act of receiving. It therefore seems to suggest a connection between those two aspects – what is seen and the act of seeing. And so a question emerges: Are there different types of visions (the capacity) appropriate to different types of visions (the seen)? Can that which is visually received in some way shape or change the act of seeing itself?

Certain artists and theologians seem to say “yes.”

 

 

Image: By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44204608

What is an Idea?

I don’t have a scientific answer to that question. I’m sure one or several such accounts exist (leave some in the comments if you know!) but I’m more interested in the phenomenology of an idea, a map of the experience of having one.

I tend to think about the world of ideas as an electro-magnetic field that hums between objects and events. There are many points of affinity or attraction between objects and events, potential connections to be made, but they are only actualized when these objects and events come into spatial and/or temporal proximity to one another and to a particular human person (at least as far as we know). When a connection like this snaps into place, we call that event an idea. Continue reading “What is an Idea?”

Using Rhythm to Move Beyond Text in the Study of Christian Spirituality

A preview of my proposed paper for this year’s AAR Christian Spirituality unit:

Several recent pieces of research attempt to move beyond text as the default form of spirituality and religion in academic philosophy and theology. A particular recurring strategy in this endeavor is the analysis of non-discursive artistic expressions of spirituality. Examples include Kimerer Lamothe’s books Between Writing and Dancing and Why We Dance on why dance is vital for spirituality and why philosophy and theology struggle to take this non-discursive form seriously, and Jason C. Bivins’s recent Spirits Rejoice! on what jazz, as a non-discursive form, reveals about American religion. My interest lies in the form behind these forms. Is there something that aesthetic forms like music, dance, and visual art have in common that make them particularly suited to a more-than-textual expression of spirituality? If so, what does this form reveal about the nature of spirituality? Continue reading “Using Rhythm to Move Beyond Text in the Study of Christian Spirituality”

Lenten Caesura: The silence of this blog for the next 40 days

The rhythm of a poem frequently includes a device known as a caesura: a mid-line pause indicated by a punctuation mark that breaks up a line-unit. On the one hand, the caesura is experienced as an interruption to an established rhythmic flow or pattern. The caesura intrudes upon the momentum towards completion, slowing the forward-momentum of the poem. It stops the reader suddenly, creating a feeling of coming up short.

On the other hand, however, the caesura also facilitates the perception of the rhythm by forcing “the line to reassert itself in the listener’s perception.” (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm, 113, 15.) The caesuric interruption breaks up the semantic content into two more manageable chunks, making the musicality of the line, its rhythm and pattern rather than only its semantic content, more available to the reader’s consciousness. Giorgio Agamben therefore compares the caesura to a situation in which a rider has fallen asleep on a horse. When the horse suddenly stops, the rider becomes aware of that which carriers her, that of which she was previously unaware (The Idea of Prose). The caesuric interruption makes one suddenly aware of the rhythm which was previously carrying one but had slipped into the background. The reader is then responsible for maintain the pattern in the face of this event, of accommodating the rhythm to the event such that it deepens and complexifies, but does not break. If the rhythm of a poem is to become complete, such complexification is necessary and this is largely accomplished through moments that disrupt the pattern begun at the outset.

The season of Lent is caesuric. It is an interruption, of one sort of another, to the daily routine of ordinary time. It is intended to “throw us off” in some way, destabilizing our typical habits of reliance and thereby forcing us to confront the fragility of the creaturely rhythms of eating, sleeping, working, communicating on which existence is carried. It is not necessarily a matter of breaking these rhythms as one would break a bad habit. These creaturely rhythms are good. But we are often unaware of them, eager as we are to set our minds on things that remind us less of our fragility, and as such we do not always perform them very well. So Lent is a caesura in that it requires us to notice these patterns by disrupting them and as such invites us to continue these rhythms in ways that are deeper, more complex, and more attentive.

The rhythms of the contemporary West, and consequently of my own space-time, are in large part determined by the rhythms of electronic and web media – social and otherwise – the rhythms of checking-and-rechecking, scrolling, of thinking and communicating in short bursts, of the background noises that govern electronic media. These shape the rhythms of the day more than many of us realize, and as such, my Lent this year is a caesura of the rhythms of those electronic media, so that I might return to performing them in ways that are deeper and more aware.

As such, this blog and all my other online presences will be silent for the next 40 days. I look forward to this creative interruption and wish you a likewise caesuric Lent.

 

 

 

The Poetic Shape of the Doctrine of Recapitulation

Christianity, when viewed in terms of its form or shape, is essentially made up of lines and circles. On the one hand, it includes narrative, a kind of intra-historical line from Abraham to slightly after Christ. Genealogical lines are drawn, geographical lines from point A to point B can be mapped and are considered religiously significant. Jurgen Moltmann argues that Judaism was the first historical religion in that it is based on events in space and time rather than cosmological cycles. David Abram argues something similar on account of the Hebrew development of non-pictographic writing, which lends itself to a linear way of thinking. For Moltmann this is a virtue, for Abram it is not, but both think that this linear, historical impulse became as much a part of Christianity as Judaism.

On the other hand, Christianity also includes a significant circular dimension that is often overlooked in attempts to identify Judeo-Christian distinctiveness as a virtue or an ill. The historical lines are almost never significant as lines, but only gain their significance by being bent into circles. Perhaps the most fundamental of such circles is Irenaeus of Lyon’s doctrine of recapitulation. Continue reading “The Poetic Shape of the Doctrine of Recapitulation”