You could have a steam train (to nowhere)

by CarlD

When Martin Luther nailed his feces theses to the church door in Wittenberg and began printing up Bibles so everyone could get a direct, personal relationship with God, the sensible reply of good Catholics was something like “Dude. If you do that there will end up being as many arbitrary personal versions of God as there are arbitrary persons interpreting the text for their convenience. Eventually you’ll have a new paganism and the world will be spammed with ‘personal spiritualities’ none of which have any more claim on truth than the whim of their creators.”

Which is exactly what has happened. And it’s “all good,” that is, we don’t really have a lot of moral traction in anything more sticky than our own tastes and preferences to say it’s bad.

I’ve just described one of the historical trajectories toward what’s called postmodernism (and far from the most important one). What made me think of this right now is a post and responses on Enkerli’s blog. Blork has been quite rightly offput by the spamming of the blogosphere with nasty junk posts whose only purpose seems to be to generate advertising hits. The claim would be that there’s a good version of blogging and a bad one.

In short, he don’t like these other folks’ voles; and neither do I. But the historical trajectory of the sanctification of individual conscience and the mechanical enablement of democratized publishing, of which the internet is the current cutting edge, don’t offer much hope of a trend toward fewer and higher-quality products of our collective intellectual life. Quite the opposite.

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3 Comments to “You could have a steam train (to nowhere)”

  1. Oh kay…
    The historical background is useful insight. I keep forgetting how reactionary Catholics used to be, during Reformation. Of course, I also wash away the Spanish Inquisition and large family size with a good dose of Monty Python.
    But I do come from a “culturally Catholic” background (Quebec during the so-called “Quiet Revolution”). And I don’t recognize the form of Catholicism which was prominent during my childhood with descriptions of historical Catholicism.
    Sure, there was still a notion of “referral to a higher authority.” On occasion. When we felt like it. To give us a good conscience. But, on average, the social logic was one of dealing with issues on the ground with little reference to exegesis and moral dilemmas. Moralism was mostly considered boring and religion was something people were free to deal with through their own means.
    In other words, religion was still present but we didn’t care about it in daily life and it was eventually a taboo. Quebec was also filled with very diverse spiritual and religious practices, including some which had been invented locally to fit local needs.
    At the end of the Quiet Revolution, Quebec was almost a case study for Durkheim’s «anomie». A more anthropological way to put it would be “ordered anarchy” in the social/cultural domain. Not in the realm of government politics. But in the way people lived. A kind of libertarian solidarity, “egoless behavior.” A site of radicalized sexual revolution (at least, as compared to other parts of North America).
    When I first came to live in the U.S. (after having lived in Switzerland), I started noticing the effects of what I now package under the concept of neo-Weberian protestantism. Less Lutheran than Calvinist, actually. And my (half-)joke was to start talking about “Catholic Party Ethic” in opposition to the teleological tendencies I’ve noticed here.
    So, it’s really funny to me to think about early Catholic reactions to Luther.

    Briefly, about the blogosphere… I’m not sure this is exactly where Blork would situate himself but I do tend to be nostalgic of the Old Internet. The one which was resolutely non-commercial. Sure, it was a bit restrictive as academics were almost the only ones on it. But it was a fun type of bounded chaos.
    I personally don’t care much about the junk posts. And I do see them as part of a broader system. But I prefer to do my own thing, without asking anyone for permission… 😉

  2. Yes, yes and yes. Thanks AE, great stuff.

    We had a bigwig speaker here on campus a few years ago, an expert on the historical Jesus fabulously named Luke Timothy Johnson, who remarked that U.S. Catholics are currently the largest sect of Protestantism. That seemed about right to the guys in our Religion department.

    I used to argue about this with my ex, a nominal Catholic. She emphasized freedom of individual conscience in interpreting the instructions of the Church. I thought that sounded great, but it sounded to me like pretty much what Luther said. It’s not my impression that the Pope thinks of his moral authority as optional; and if one doesn’t want to listen to the Pope, there are all sorts of ways of being Christian (but not Catholic) where that’s not an issue.

    But what do I know.

    Of course, no one ignores the Pope like Italians ignore the Pope, and who’s more Catholic than them?

  3. Btw, the “postmodernism” link above will take you to an instance of the Postmodernism Generator, a text generator that (as I understand it) takes names, words and phrases associated with academic postmodernism (and poststructuralism) and shuffles them randomly through a grammar algorithm into what look like real sentences organized into a real academic essay. Because, heehee, that’s what a lot of that writing looks like anyway. You get a new essay each time you click the link or refresh the page.

    Oddly, or sadly, or something, it’s pretty clear that this is what me talking sometimes sounds like to my students. Charlie Brown’s parents. I comfort myself that I’m patiently teaching them new ways of making sense.

    Anyhoo, perhaps the joke is on postmodernism after all, because I believe the first experiment in this kind of text generation was romance novels (and now it’s being used to spam the internet).

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