Posts in: Longer writing

The Luddite comic I posted a few days ago mentioned a couple of movements I hadn’t heard of before so I followed it up by watching a couple of videos. Actually, a few seconds of a couple of videos, because it quickly became apparent that the videos were part of yet another trendy lifestyle. “I tried slow living for thirty days and it changed my life.” More would-be influencers with clickbait titles trying way too hard.

But, listen, I get it. It’s easy for me to mock these folks because their style is most definitely not my own. But underneath that style? I get it.

We’re all so damned self-conscious. So many of us are trying to live authentic lives (whatever the hell that means) but the best we can do is define ourselves against the regnant culture and slap together practices wistfully imitating lifeways that have been destroyed by … well, pick your destructive system. There’s a lifestyle trend available for opposing whatever you hate.

It’s the self-consciousness that gets me. Maybe we’d be better off without it. Maybe it’s what the Adam and Eve story is about. Maybe it’s our “happy fault.” I just don’t know. There are times when I envy the apparent mental freedom of wild animals; their lives may be short but at least they don’t blog.

Consciousness feels like an unbridgeable gap. Are Buddhism and Taoism not pointing to the abandonment of self-consciousness as the solution to our suffering? What is ultimate human happiness in Christianity but the beatific vision, the abandonment of self-consciousness in union with God All-in-All? And what are we dirt worshippers looking for if not a rapprochement with the nonhuman world and a more “animal” existence?

Aren’t we all just wishing for our long-lost, unselfconscious primate existence on the African savannah? Who knows. Anyway, it’s going to be a nice weekend and I have work to do.

A friend and I were talking last year about our mutual need to over-intellectualize everything we do. “I need a theory to tie my shoes.” Now, mind you, I’m not saying that’s a good thing; quite the opposite, in fact. I think this friend and I do this because we both have similar sorts of brains that have suffered similar traumas.

All of which is to say I can really get into practical work once an idea has given it a framing.

Ever since I wrote about my experience with working from home, I’ve been thinking about households as workshops. I am 90% sure I derived this from Wendell Berry’s various discussions of productive households, as opposed to households as sites of consumption. (I’m a blogger, not an academic, so that’s the best you’re gonna get for source citation.) The preeminent example for Berry is of course the family farm, which is both the site of work and the source of goods that fulfill the needs of the family itself and contribute to the local economy.

Now, obviously, most of my work is for the benefit of an entity thirty miles away from here. But that work is done here, and that means it is in some real way situated within my household. This relativizes my “day job” in ways that wouldn’t be possible if I was sitting in the office, surrounded by co-workers, in an environment where The Institution is all. (This is, no doubt, behind some of the most insistent calls to return to the office by those who would have their employees devote their lives and bodies to their work.)

I grew up in a blue collar household and I’ve always had what you might call the blue-collar attitude toward work, that is, it’s just a job and its purpose is to give you money to do what you really want to do. Hustle culture, devotion to career, finding meaning in employment—these things have always been nonsensical to me. This attitude, combined with working from home, works well to remind me of the purpose and limitations of my day job. It places it within its proper context, i.e., the household.

People who read this blog know that I also garden and dabble in woodworking and DIY. Rachel gardens even more than I do and bakes bread and cooks and shovels seven hundred pounds of rock and many, many more things. We were discussing this the other day and we concluded that we really are making some progress on turning our household into a productive—not merely consumptive—place.

Reframing my household as my workshop has helped rid me of the nagging feeling that I should be doing something else. That repairing the stove, for example, is an annoying distraction from my “real work.” And, strangely, I was never quite able to articulate what that “real work” was meant to be. It was always just the vague feeling that it was something else, something more important. (Arrogance is a besetting sin of mine.) But if my household is my workshop, then my real work is here, now. My real work includes all of this, from accounting to building raised beds to helping my daughter navigate adult problems.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m not sure why it took a certain idea clicking into place to make me see the union of all these things, but that’s the curse of my addled mind.

Why I will not be compelled to speak publicly about [insert atrocity here]

Denny: If history demonstrates that Israel committed genocide in 2024 how will you feel about your silence, your role as an enabler? That’s my question to you if you’re silent on the subject of the current events in Gaza. And if your silence does not enable wrong policy and action, explain to me why it does not. … I would suggest that tax-paying citizens of the United States do need to take a public position as a matter of basic human accountability and decency in regards to basic human rights.

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John Halstead’s post “Re-placing Ourselves” contains that blend of an animist worldview with Wendell Berry-style thinking about place and rootedness that I find very satisfying. I highly recommend it.

I like it so much, in fact, that I considered splitting this into two posts so that it wouldn’t seem like the following is a criticism—but it provides a perfect context for what I want to say.

Over the past couple of years, several writers I respect have, in varying degrees, criticized remote work in terms of its placelessness and dehumanizing character. I understand the criticism. My problem with it is entirely a matter of my own subjective experience of remote work.

I began working from home in March 2020 and continue to do so. (Most people working for my employer are hybrid at this point.) It has improved my life in a number of ways. I will admit up front that, although I have always been an introvert, I may actually be worse at large social events than I was before. So maybe remote work has caused me to lose some of the social skill of navigating large events comfortably.

But I’m totally fine with that, given the benefits. In the context of this post, remote work has integrated me into the life of my own household in a way that I have never experienced before. My wife Rachel is a homemaker 1, so this means we’re normally within 20 feet of each other 24 hours a day. We talk all the time, including discussions of what’s going on with my work (poor thing). During the growing season, I can take a break from work and go see what the plants are doing. I can get a sense of what’s happening in the neighborhood.

The locus of my life is now here, at home. My mind is obviously occupied with work for the same amount of time per day, but it feels more integrated into the life of the household. I can watch the birds in the tree outside my window during the many, many Teams and Zoom meetings.

I no longer go to work, driving my car ninety minutes a day with all its attendant emissions, spending money on gasoline and lunch costs. I do not doubt that many people have socializing experiences at work, feeling connected to people and making friends. I’ve never been that way. I do have a friend at work and I genuinely value the people on my team. But I’ve always had the “it’s just a job” attitude toward work. Despite being good at my job, I’ve never found—and never expected to find—meaning in it. It’s always been the way I make money to live my real life, which is undoubtedly why it’s always been a “non-place” for me.

A non-place, for Halstead, is a location that does not have “depth and complexity of history and relationships.” My employer does have that depth and complexity for certain people, but not for me. Remote work, then, means that I can stop traveling every day to a non-place and instead remain in a place with a great deal of history and complexity. By being here, I am nurturing and deepening my relationship to it. My work still gets done. In fact, my team is better than ever. (The problems that people attribute to remote work are almost always the result of bad management.)

I do understand the criticism and concerns of people life John Halstead and Charles Eisenstein and Alan Jacobs. I am very aware of the increasing artificiality of life in a high-tech world. On the issue of remote work, however, my lived experience does not square with their concerns. This is almost certainly because of the particularities of my history and personality—but then that’s always the case. We can’t let our theories get in the way of actual practice. We have to keep in mind our actual goals, which are (quoting Halstead):

Real places. Places with history. Places that are bound up in a network of relationships with the human and more-than-human world. And if we are ever to find one another again, we have to find real places again. We have to reclaim them. We have to restore them. And we have to re-place ourselves in them again.

  1. Our domestic arrangement has spanned several large changes in our 25+ years of life together. When we first married, we were raving fundamentalists. The wife at home just was God’s will. We left fundamentalism about six years after marriage and we continued the arrangement because it worked for us. Rachel homeschooled Darcy through eighth grade. Darcy is now eighteen. We expect to continue this arrangement, again, because it works for us, despite neither of us being any sort of Christian for ten years now. It’s unusual for a couple who are progressive on social issues, but we also strongly believe in “live and let live.” ↩︎

It is said that God is able to witness the multi-faceted suffering of the world, hear the prayers of its desperate creatures, and remain, nevertheless, eternally beatific.

Whatever your opinion of the ontological status of God, one thing is certain: we are not God.

The quantity of data created each day is staggering.

Data flow at these levels can only be managed by a vast infrastructure of computing machines. Not even the creators of algorithms and large language models fully understand what is going on inside their creations.

No organic life can be expected to survive undamaged when it is jacked into information moving at this velocity.

We are not God. We are not machines. We are organic life facing a destabilizing year. (Particularly those bits of organic life on Turtle Island.) Organic life requires rest. Organic life requires ebb and flow, creation and destruction—it requires cycles. Organic life cannot—must not!—be always on. Organic life needs to shit in peace and quiet.

As we face a time of uncertainty and increasing demands on our attention, we need to decide now: will we pretend to be God, who can see and know all with perfect love and equanimity? Will we imagine our minds to be made of silicon, capable of handling the endless flow of data? Or will we accept ourselves as organic life: limited, frail, and worthy of peace and compassion, come what may?

There is a certain expectation—picked up from the tourism industry, perhaps—that the ideal place the live is a “beautiful” one, a place with a “view.” It is thought that life would be more full or satisfying when the eye can consume such beauty every day.

Far be it from me to deny the central importance of beauty in human life—but the above expectation seems to be a consumerist expectation, not an aesthetic one. That is, this expectation is one more facet of the consumer economy.

Rootedness is one alternative to the consumerist attitude toward one’s homeplace. Rootedness is an interlacing of people and place with threads of stories. What counts is not the view—though beauty can be found in any beloved place—but the connections built up over the course of a relationship.

Am I saying that rootedness is the only acceptable way to relate to a place? No. There are any number of reasons why people cannot maintain relationships with a place over time. I would say, however, that the consumerist relationship is poisonous. And I do say we should reject the silly stigma attached to someone living in the same place their whole life long. That stigma is born of the consumerist fantasy.

Happy Solstice, everyone!

The Winter Solstice has always been my favorite of the Quarter Days. I was marking it long before I would have thought of calling myself an animist or pagan. For many years, winter was my most dreaded season, probably due to some seasonal depression that thankfully has eased over the past few years. Just as hitting the halfway point of a long walk flips some mental switch, so the Solstice has been an annual turning point for me.

Here in southern Indiana, however, it wouldn’t be right to call it the beginning of winter, which has always set in long before the solstice. Here, Thanksgiving could be called the last day of Fall—and the Solstice as the descent into the depths of winter. The Christmas lights on the houses don’t usually stay up past the new year, rendering the early evening darkness still darker. The sun is making its return trip, yes, but the increase in daylight following the solstice moves very slowly. The worst winter weather here happens in January and February. So while Solstice is a turning point, it’s a turn taken in patient hope.

Our Yule log was cut from a windfall in the nearby woods. The branches are from the front yard. The candles are a bit less local—from a beekeeper in Cincinnati.

Simple, uncomplicated things. Imbue them with whatever symbolism you wish but, for myself, I prefer it simple. I’ve done complicated; I understand the appeal. But these days I’ll take what has worked for aeons of humans: Sky Father. Earth Mother. Sitting in silence. Conversing with ancestors. Observing the seasons.

This is enough.

The times in which we live are almost enough to make me into a Gnostic.

  • The stupidity on display everywhere has the flavor of fatedness. The fatedness, however, arises not out the beneficient providence of God but the delusions of a Demiurge. We have become entrapped in a lunatic mind. The levers are broken because the Engineer has disconnected the power.
  • American voters will be forced to choose between two elderly men representing two dying ideologies. And every effort to find a way out of this bind serves only to heighten the hatred and division and further solidifies the goddamned inevitability of it all. We both must and must not act. Is some new Archon set to inherit this age? Has this Archon devised some perfect Chinese finger trap?
  • Is reality an illusion? Whatever the answer to that question, Apple intends to wedge glass and silicon between you and the physical world. Enhanced reality, like enhanced interrogation, is a euphemism taken up by those who love their fantasies. Gnosticism told us that we were born into a world of unreality—a world from which, if we would listen, secret knowledge would deliver us. Soon enough, a large number of us will be paying premiums for beautiful blinders and immersive illusions.

I know I’m playing a bit fast and loose with some ideas here. On the other hand, maybe that’s sound strategy. Stay slippery; surf the weird. If we are in fact living in gnostic times, we should not count on predictability and solid reality. Perhaps the key skill we must learn is negative capability, which John Keats said is

when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason

Just as there will be merchants of illusion, there will be merchants of certainty. Reject them both and trust your gnosis.

In a recent continuing education course on AI, the speaker said, “No one will lose their jobs to AI, but some may lose their jobs because they don’t use AI.” On that first half, bullshit.

The second half, however, may contain some truth. I’ve reluctantly begun using the university’s enterprise version of Microsoft Copilot—mostly to answer questions about Excel so far. It’s useful. Basically a much more efficient search engine.

I don’t actually think I’d lose my job if I didn’t use AI—but over the course of the next few years my work could suffer comparatively without it. But here is where I need to be cautious: while I may find a tool to make my work more efficient, I must remember that the goal of my work is not efficiency. Ivan Illich:

Tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.

Tools are not neutral. They are products of intelligence and have an intelligence of their own. Used mindlessly, they will shape the worker according to the tool’s nature.

What does this mean for my use of AI at work?

  1. I will remain in control of my work’s purposes.
  2. I will not use artificial intelligence as a substitute for my own.
  3. I will not allow the values of the designers of AI—which perforce exist within AI itself—to override my own values.

Matt Cardin:

For much of my life, I read books and other things in a frankly desperate, craving way, hoping to find The Answer to the problem that was given to me when I was born. It took several decades and college degrees, and the cultivation of a hyper-developed intellect stocked with more texts than the Library of Congress and the Library of Alexandria combined, for me to arrive, not through reading but through realization, at the recognition that the answer isn’t in a book at all but in the one who reads books in search of the answer.

Something like this realization—less fully realized, no doubt—has been nagging me for some time. Early January will be the 20th anniversary of our departure from Christian fundamentalism and for the entirety of that time I have been hoping to find The Answer in books.

The fundamentalism my wife and I left was intellectually incurious. I started to say it was anti-intellectual but that’s not quite right. Intelligence was valued as a gift of God. That gift, however, could only be put to narrow uses. College education was tolerated for men for the purpose of establishing a career. Reading was encouraged, as long as you limited yourself to the list of acceptable writers. Preaching was typically more emotional than intellectual, but intelligent teachers were valued for the purposes of Sunday School.

More than anything else, it was when Rachel and I realized that these bounds of acceptability not only ruled out people who were clearly devoted and sincere Christians but also were limiting us in harmful ways that it became clear that we needed to get out. We’ve often described our exit as the world opening up for us—an almost physical sensation of walking out of a dimly lit room into brilliant sunshine and blue skies.

So you can imagine how 27 year old me—curious and intelligent, finding the world open—devoured book after book after book. Even academic work that I barely understood but had the virtue of exercising my mind with ideas that were just out of my reach. After a few years of that, I had a broader and richer understanding of theology than some of the seminary-educated ministers I knew.

In the years that followed, I chased ideas—whether they appeared in books or online. With every new idea came the hope that this would be the one. Then the midlife transition arrived (I do not say “crisis,” though there were many critical moments) and I began to wonder if this was all just a monumental exercise in compensation and fear and trauma. This is the idea that has nagged me for much of my forties, particularly since that time in mid-2020 when I shut down all my social media accounts, quit the news, and started reading about hermits.

Wise teachers keep telling me that in order to become wise I must become a fool—yet I keep building teetering piles of books around me. Little by little, though, I manage to laugh at my piles and glimpse the lie hiding within them. Eventually, perhaps, I won’t need them any longer.