The Network Society: Committing Mass Suicide Online

Network is a story of suicide. Anyone who’s seen the 1976 film by Sydney Lumet, or even the more recent hit theater adaptation, will, of course, remember the story’s inciting incident: veteran newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has been fired after a long slow ratings decline, and, in a fit of despair, declares on live TV that he’ll blow his brains out in front of the cameras the following week. What’s less obvious, though, is that Beale succeeds in committing suicide, though it takes him much longer than a mere few days. And, the full significance of this fact makes the story’s most stirring moments at the same time its darkest ones.

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Recent talks in the philosophy of religion

I’m taking a one week hiatus from my usual rantings and ravings to feature some recent talks from friends from whom I’ve learned a great deal. I encourage readers of the blog to take some time and treat yourself to these: they can give you a taste of the kinds of lectures and conversations that led me to philosophy, and ultimately to philosophy of religion. Joseph Almog and Howie Wettstein, both long time friends and teachers of mine, whom I’ve found over the years to be exemplary cases of philosophers who tackle the most difficult questions of philosophy without hiding behind walls of jargon and erudite references.

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Amorous reading and the amorous life

Amorous reading seeks out texts that will teach one how to read. When we imagine a person who reads in this way, perhaps we think of the aspiring preliterate child, hunched over and relishing their primer. If we do, it’s probably because learning how to read is something we usually think we did as children, and have been finished doing for a very long time. If someone were to ask us “Do you know how to read?” we’d raise our chins, insulted, and bark in anger “Of course!”

The kind of reading I have in mind, though, reads as if it’s not so sure. What prompts it are moments of elevating ignorance. You pick up a text, secure in your literacy, but as you begin reading are bewildered. Most of us would put it aside more times than not, never to return. However, for some reason you don’t. Perhaps you’ve done so many times with other such texts. Or perhaps there have been times when you persisted, but only to find assurance of your own cleverness, or simply to discharge some obligation. This time, though, amidst the confusion, and any other motives you might have, there’s something about the text itself that solicits you. It’s like encountering a language you’ve never heard before, and yet discovering to your shock that it’s your native tongue. It had never occurred to you that language could do quite this—whatever this is—and you set yourself the task of learning how to read anew, and thus learn the language that in a trivial sense you already speak. You plunge further into the text, striving to let it transform your practice of reading—or even that of using language at all.

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World without setting: Beckett’s The Lost Ones

Among the tasks that fiction writers usually set for themselves is to craft some depiction of place. There are, for example, the settings for stories: along with character, theme, and plot, one among the standard list of particulars that readers expect writers to provide. However, a fictional place need not be a setting. That is, a setting is always a setting for. It’s made up of the location or locations where the story takes place. As such, it’s given the lower billing. It functions as the stage on which the main attraction—usually some drama of human affairs—unfolds. Of course, writers often take great care constructing their settings. However, the same is true of set designers for films and plays. Such efforts, magnificent as their fruits might be, don’t detract from the point. Fictional places, when they take the form of settings, are containers: vessels for delivering the heart of the fiction to the reader.

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Why isn’t God a stupid weakling?

The notion of a personal God has made it possible to envision the human relation to God as one of love. This is one of the notion’s most important roles in traditional religion—not merely in abstract theology, but in the lived experience of a great many religious people. The notion that they enjoy a love relationship with God serves as both hermeneutic aid and source of solace for them. That is, through it, they can imagine their relation to God in terms taken from their lives with other people. And, in conceiving of that relation as the central pillar around which the rest of their life turns, they can extend these terms to aid them in understanding the fundamental stakes of that life. They see every bit of it in terms of things like devotion, obligation, trust, caretaking, faithfulness, and the like. In doing so, they find of the kind of solace they find in their love relationships with other people—except that, because of God’s place as the greatest among all persons and all love objects, it strikes them as being of incomparably greater significance: at its best, the fullness of a life led in all its respects as an expression of love.

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Naturalism as a religious view

Naturalistic defenses of religion often presuppose what we can call a segregationist view. On the segregationist view, natural science and religion have their separate domains of concern: respectively, Nature, and the supernatural. On the one hand, there’s Nature—the world around us—which we study through practices like physics, biology, chemistry, and so on. On the other hand, there’s religion, which concerns itself primarily with the supernatural—with what, in some sense that requires clarification, lies beyond the ordinary world with which we’re faced on a daily basis.

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The Infinitude of Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake is a book about anything and everything. Of course, the phrase “anything and everything” is usually used hyperbolically. However, I mean it quite literally. Whereas most literary works are only about some things, the Wake is about anything and everything: its world is absolutely unbounded, and this unboundedness is one of its central preoccupations. In the book, Joyce took up a cosmic impulse characteristic of great religious texts and metaphysical treatises, and found a way to give it distinctive literary expression.

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