Monday, October 4, 2010

A pastiche tribute to Art Gish

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo credit: Sahal Abdulle
On that day this past July when Art Gish was tragically killed on his farm in Ohio, I was on another farm a few states away in Iowa, reclining on a porch swing at my in-law's reading Gish's 1972 book, Beyond the Rat Race. It was my first substantive engagement with Gish's writing, and that it was being done on the day he died was sobering and sad. Those two concurrent realities will forever be fused in my mind.

In the ensuing months I've been thinking of a way to honor Gish's life, which I see as deeply resonant with traditional Brethren attempts at living "the simple life" as disciples of Jesus Christ. Art and Peggy Gish have let their lives narrate their faith and theology. In this post, which will be somewhat lengthy and mishmashy, I'll do a few different things that attempt to honor this legacy.  First will be a video that I had nothing to do with, but stands as a great snapshot of Art and Peggy from earlier this year, just months before Art's death. Second, I will do a Gish-inspired social/technological critique of the digital age, which I wrote as part of my Brethren studies over the summer (the occasion for reading Gish's book).

Here's a little Gumm family connection to Gish before I get going: My paternal grandfather and Art were both at the Brethren seminary in the late 60s. One of my dad's little brothers thought Art was Jesus, as he was often seen walking around Bethany's campus with long hair, a beard, and sandals. Finally, as my wife and I have recently been dreaming about what we want to be when we grow up (or at least graduate), the witness of Art and Peggy has had an impact on me. I've recently been thinking that I'd like to be a farmer/peacebuilder/theologian when I grow up.

So read on as I add my little voice to the many who have lamented Art's passing and how Gish's ongoing witness may be relevant to the digital age we find ourselves in...

Old Radicals
Clocking in at a mere 7 minutes (how's that for simple!), here's a great piece produced by Noonday Films, which offers a glimpse into the life and work of Art and Peggy:

Old Radicals from matthew leahy on Vimeo.

Beyond the 21st century rat race?
Gish's life and writings offer us practical and striking insights into living out our faith in Christ amidst a powerfully coercive and fallen world. Art's and Peggy's is a contextual recapitulation of traditional Brethren nonconformity. For being published nearly 40 years ago in the late days of the war in Vietnam and closely in the wake of hippie culture and broader social upheaval, Beyond the Rat Race remains startlingly relevant. Indeed, the corrupting cultural currents that Gish identifies and critiques have in some ways become more deeply entrenched in society and are therefore harder to discern and resist in a deeply Christian way. In particular, we'll be interested in Gish's critique of the technological society and its contemporary implications. First, though, some notes on his approach in the book. (Note: sub. page references are from the 1972 Herald Press edition.)

Beyond the Rat Race exhibits some of what can be described as Brethren or Anabaptist+Pietist. These approaches display a clear practical and ethical concern, an embodied and deeply biblical faith in, and discipleship to, Jesus Christ. James McClendon's volumes of systematic theology follow as Ethics, Doctrine, then Witness. Using those same categories, the flow of Gish's Beyond the Rat Race could be described as: Ethics, Witness, then Doctrine. His approach starts at a very fine-grain practical level, moving into somewhat more general practical material (Ethics), then shifting to a defense against anticipated criticisms from the broader culture and a strong social critique of his own against that same society (Witness). Finally, he closes the book with a theological treatise that makes clear the foundation for all that came before (Doctrine). While theological reflections and biblical allusions are scattered throughout the book, his final chapter is the most explicitly doctrinal in its defense of simple living, a traditionally Brethren concern.

Technological forms in the early 21st century – especially after the emergence of the Internet and other telecommunications “advances” – have developed to a point that would be nearly inconceivable to the 1970s imagination, save by science fiction writers or futurists. And yet the scaffolding of Gish's critique stands firm and we'll seek to contextualize it here. Tightly coupled with his reflections on technology is a strong rebuke of consumerism throughout the book.  This latter component keeps Gish from advocating an ascetic technological withdrawal, partially illustrated by his comment that, “We will never better ourselves through technology, although neither will we save ourselves by getting rid of it” (p. 118). The effects of these technological and consumerist impulses in the society are innumerable but Gish points out a range. The ethical locus of the individual set adrift from communal relationships brings about a teleological shift in, for instance, marriage. No longer a “covenantal relationship” (both words implying interconnection), but rather a state-sanctioned “contract based on mutual convenience” (p. 117). Even sports, once practiced as play “for the sheer fun and joy of it!,” are now oriented toward “breaking records, winning, and efficiency" (p. 117).

Especially eerie in light of the Internet is Gish's passing remark about then-contemporary media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who Gish saw as “(advocating) deeper devotion to electronic fragmentation for those disorganized by society,” then adding, “But we will not find reality by turning ourselves into an electronic package” (p. 117). What is Facebook and related social media on the Internet but a contemporary venture into just that electronic packaging of ourselves? Such an environment builds on the “it's all about you” lie perpetrated by advertisers on the consuming populace. Advertising in the technological society of McLuhan's and Gish's day is a far cry from today's world. Indeed, the lie of advertising becomes more insidiously subtle in the highly interactive alternative universe of social media. The tools presented on Facebook tout nurturing connection with family, friends, co-workers, et al. Honestly, Facebook can be used for such things within reasonable limits (that are often unwittingly ignored). But right alongside your “friends” are things, often products or brands, that you can tell the world you “like” with the click of a button. More than just liking something, you're subtly encouraged to make public statements about why you like these things. Your friends see this and comment on it. Maybe they like it too. Making all of this possible is the desire of advertisers: Go buy this stuff.

What is at once impressive and sobering about the Facebook system is its systematic and highly organized storage of such social connections and consumer preference data. It is a digital network that contains “(m)ore than 500 million active users,” 50% of whom log on “in any given day,” spending a combined “700 billion minutes per month” on the site (Source: from the horse's mouth). What sets this massive network and its virtual warehouses full of data apart from previous iterations of Internet socialization tools is that Facebook has mastered the art of eliciting this information from its users and masquerading it as “conversation.” This data is then opened up for mining on the back-end by Facebook to its advertising clients, providing one of the most powerful targeted advertising platforms ever created. An Internet-generation ago, this type of arrangement was a pipe dream for advertisers. Banner ad networks could only guess at what your interests as a consumer were, and now here we are joyfully giving it up, only to have it served back to us, slightly altered, in ad form. These advertisements are often so relevant they startle us. People (myself included) comment on Facebook about how startlingly relevant the ads on Facebook are. It is a system that is highly self-supporting and elicits further and further interaction.

In addition to advertisers, game developers have been given a place to play in the Facebook sandbox. Video games have long been the domain of young men, some now not so young as the industry is entering its fifth decade of existence and has done well at engendering loyalty. Their appearance on Facebook gives them access to a market they have mostly dreamed of to this point: women. Yet the ads for some of these games show that the vestiges of a male-dominated industry persist. These games are often predicated on violence and objectify women as scantily-clad objects of male sexual desire, fueling already close ties to another “entertainment” industry, pornography. Their respective industry trade shows can, at some distance, be hard to distinguish.

Witness also the successful use of video games as a recruitment tool by the U.S. military, replacing the quarter-sucking mall arcades of decades prior.  Military-themed games are consistently best-sellers, so aspects of training are built into the games themselves. There's a dark irony to piloting unmanned, armed Predator drones that drop real bombs on real people in Afghanistan and Pakistan; their pilots sit in air-conditioned rooms in safe, remote locations in the U.S., using equipment that bears striking resemblance to that used in video gaming. Basic training for such pilots is far less physically and psychologically rigorous than for any other combat unit in military history.  The jump from video gamer to this mode of warfare is terrifyingly short. This is Richard Eberhart's The Fury of Arial Bombardment taken to a whole new level. From the last stanza:
Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill,
Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall
But they are gone to early death, who late in school
Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.
(emphasis added)
Turning back to relatively more innocuous Facebook games, their social-competitive element enters into the broader “conversation” on Facebook, attracting new players with reports of rewards and accomplishments by your friends as they play. Other networked gaming platforms, the Sony Playstation and the Microsoft Xbox 360, have an interface to the Facebook system, reporting similar data. All networked, all the time, all being recorded into a dizzyingly complex and startlingly accurate “picture” of our increasingly digital lives. Enter the rapid emergence of smartphones whose capabilities include access to these social networks and their wares, and the degree of immersion into the digital only deepens.

If there is a place for the social/theological critique of Art Gish in today's world, this is it. The degree to which we uncritically engage in digital “global villages” (a term coined by McLuhan, btw) such as Facebook opens us to a depth of enculturation that would, pardon the anachronistic analogy, make early Brethren keel over on the spot. Borrowing James K.A. Smith's "cultural liturgies" framework, we can look at digital social networks thusly: The inherently human desire at which these mediated activities engage is our desire for connection/relationships/intimacy. At some level, we as a society seem to aware that we need each other (that's a good thing). The progeny of the Internet and the current raft of online social media have facilitated a virtual form of this better than any preceding technological innovation. But to what end are these offerings pulling our desires for connection? The liturgy of the digital social network calls us to the telos of being good, consuming citizens. The advertising culture coerces us to consume goods both material and immaterial. The so-called gaming culture coerces us to spend copious amounts of time in virtual worlds embedded within other virtual worlds, often engaged in simulated violence purported to be innocent play. The liturgy of the video gamer calls us to the telos of being entertained under the apolitical lie that “it's just a game.”

The social, psychological, and physiological impact of this degree of purported connectedness is only beginning to be explored. Our brains are stimulated by these activities, but our spirits are bled dry. From the kitchen table we keep up on all the latest gossip on people from high school we haven't have any meaningful connection with for years and years, but we're doing so while ignoring our immediate physical living partners, spouses, and children. When we lay in bed and close our eyes, they twitch in their sockets and the activity in our brains from such hyper-connection doesn't stop. Restless, we reach to the nightstand for our smartphone and pull up the Facebook app, giving the pleasure centers in our brains the hit they report needing while robbing the rest of our body of much-needed sleep.

The economic and environmental impact of the cultural liturgy of the digital social network is rarely questioned. Marketed as must-have goods and services, these things cost money, and lots of it. A Facebook account is free but only in a sense, as users are bombarded with advertisements both blatant and subtle, from advertisers and their friends alike. The devices required to interface with Facebook are far from free, along with the monthly service fees associated with the communications infrastructure that brings such connectivity. Smartphones require the most expensive monthly service plan that carriers offer. Most gadgets, from laptops to smartphones, are designed from concept to end-of-life to have remarkably short shelf lives, an insidious capitalist practice Frederic Jameson called “planned obsolescence.” Companies are beginning to have better recycling programs for this type of e-waste, but these are either opt-in or actually cost the consumer money. Many go directly into the garbage.

From top to bottom, pledging allegiance to the digital age comes with serious implications that most people are not even remotely aware of. A consistent post-Christendom critique of this system in the tradition of Yoder and Hauerwas exposes it as a neo-Constantinian political-economic industrial complex. The poor rarely have voice in this system, as the economic and educational barriers to entry are high. Christians of means are lulled into a slumber by the flashing lights and excited voices, deaf to the despairing cries of a fallen world, deaf to even the cries of those closest to them. If what Gish states is true (and I think it is), that “(u)ncontrolled technology helped us get us into our mess and shows no sign of getting us out” (p. 118), then where to from here?

[Note: An abbreviated version of this post appears on the Work and Hope blog of Eastern Mennonite Seminary: The Theological Legacy of Art Gish (old books need love too!)]

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