Mistake it ’til you make it

by John Holbo on February 24, 2016

Whew! My Dreher post comments are running kind of long. Clearly, Crooked Timber needs fresh content. OK, I just realized that two things I’ve been thinking about this week – Rod Dreher’s Ben-Op plans, and Franklin Booth’s pen-and-ink style – are kind of the same. Franklin Booth? Via Lines and Colors, I found this nice page of fairly high-quality scans. This sort of stuff (click for larger):

FranklinBooth-AContinentIsBridged-full

That’s pen-and-ink, because Booth was trying … well, I’ll just let Wikipedia explain:

His unusual technique was the result of a misunderstanding: Booth scrupulously copied magazine illustrations which he thought were pen-and-ink drawings. In fact, they were wood engravings. As a result, this led him to develop a style of drawing composed of thousands of lines, whose careful positioning next to one another produced variations in density and shade. The characteristics of his art were his scale extremes with large buildings and forests looming over tiny figures, decorative scrolls and borders, classic hand lettering and gnarled trees.

Here’s another parallel case – that of Alexander Anderson – in which the ingenuity of Thomas Bewick emanated obliquely. “At the age of twelve years he made his first attempts at engraving on copper, frequently using pennies rolled out, and on type-metal plates. He received no instruction, and his knowledge was acquired by watching jewelers and other workmen.” Later, he learned that the Bewickian effects that had inspired him were achieved in wood. You can see some Alexander Anderson work here. (Those are actual wood engravings, not stuff he did on the backs of flattened pennies.) But early missteps, later corrected, weren’t dead ends. Anderson’s apprentice, Joseph Alexander Adams, would be a pioneer of electrotyping. Once you have effects you like, it is reasonable to try to induce them via different means.

Let’s get back to Booth. What other examples of this sort of thing can you think of, from the history of art? Quite wrong-headed attempts to produce some effect, by unsuitable means, resulting in impressive stylistic breakthroughs. There must be lots of examples from the history of recorded pop music. Artists trying to mimic someone’s sound; having no idea how to do it; inventing some weird new thing. A variation on fake it ‘til you make it. Mistake it ‘til you make it.

Let’s get back to Dreher: unsurprisingly, comments to my thread have been running hot against him. I get that. I started it. But I’m honestly less worked up myself. I don’t read Dreher to boil my blood but because his way of looking at things is at such fantastic right angles to my own. Some conservatives infuriate me because 1) they seem vicious; 2) the likely effects of what they are proposing seem likely to be bad. Dreher’s stuff doesn’t seem bad in either way. To me he looks fixated on a thin yet richly variegated surface of effects, to the oddly pure exclusion of likely causes, beneath that surface. This is true both of his Ben-Op plans and his cultural criticism.

It’s tempting to snark: those who do not study history are doomed to be unable to repeat it. But, even if my criticism is quite right (I’m sure Dreher would deny it, as is his right) that isn’t right. Who knows? Maybe Dreher’s Ben-Op will turn out to have the same relation to culture as Franklin Booth’s pen-and-ink style did to wood engraving. As usual, Nietzsche got there first, in “Uses and Abuses of History”: Dreher is engaged in what Nietzsche calls monumental history (and cultural criticism.) It “will always have to deal in approximations and generalities, in making what is dissimilar look similar; it will always have to diminish the differences of motives and instigations so as to exhibit the effectus monumentally, that is to say as something exemplary and worthy of imitation, at the expense of the causae: so that, since it as far as possible ignores causes, one might with only slight exaggeration call it a collection of ‘effects in themselves’, of events which will produce an effect upon all future ages.”

This is true even of Dreher’s MacIntyre-style criticism, which seems like it should be focused on deep underlying causes, yet has a tendency to reduce to grumping about effects. I would make the same point about After Virtue itself. It’s monumental history, with the advantages and disadvantages that implies.

Anyway, I like Franklin Booth. (Wish I hadn’t missed out when Fleskes published their limited edition.)

{ 30 comments }

1

Chadwick Crawford 02.24.16 at 3:06 am

I remember an interview with Hazill Adkins where he explained his accompanying himself on guitar and drum kit as not understanding that when the DJ announced a song as having been by Hank Williams that it was Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys playing in the song.

2

ZM 02.24.16 at 3:24 am

This is quite interesting with the drawings imitating wood engravings, but what I was thinking was I would like to hear Belle’s thoughts on Dreher’s Ben-Op ideas, given what she has written about her own upbringing, which has some similarities and yet vast differences with Dreher’s ideas.

I guess thinking about, as someone brought up on the other Dreher thread, how the left has localism and back-to-the-past and intentional community sort of groupings, and the possible intersections of these with Dreher’s plans. I think these intersections might not work well in theory, but Dreher’s book emphasises practice, and I don’t see why left and right localisms would not interact okay in practice…

Someone in the other thread also mentioned urban localisms, which reminded me of this song High On High [Street, Northcote], although it doesn’t really fit in with the OP theme of mistaking it til you make it

https://youtu.be/c1pXymQLCEQ

3

The Temporary Name 02.24.16 at 3:27 am

According to the liner notes from one of their records, The Flaming Lips thought they were making heavy metal for the first bunch of records.

I remember a T-shirt from one of those tours that said something like “dRuGs HeLpS” so it could even be true.

4

Russell Arben Fox 02.24.16 at 3:55 am

John,

To me he looks fixated on a thin yet richly variegated surface of effects, to the oddly pure exclusion of likely causes, beneath that surface. This is true both of his Ben-Op plans and his cultural criticism.

Again, I wouldn’t put it this way, but you’re correct–he’s responding to cultural shifts in contemporary mores, and connecting those shifts to the philosophical pillars of modern individualism, but he just doesn’t have the language to make a normative case as to why that connection is at all necessary.

I would make the same point about After Virtue itself. It’s monumental history, with the advantages and disadvantages that implies.

Interesting criticism, but I think I disagree. MacIntyre did provide an account of how moral judgments operate, and why the public decline of the traditional moral language of western Christendom therefore results in a language of morality whose references can no longer be reasoned about. His account may not be persuasive, but he really did claim, at least, to be looking at the causes of effects, and not just at the effect themselves.

ZM,

I guess thinking about, as someone brought up on the other Dreher thread, how the left has localism and back-to-the-past and intentional community sort of groupings, and the possible intersections of these with Dreher’s plans. I think these intersections might not work well in theory, but Dreher’s book emphasises practice, and I don’t see why left and right localisms would not interact okay in practice

For whatever its worth, my own involvement with small groups, movements, churches, co-ops, and local communities that are often quite egalitarian and anti-capitalist in their attitudes provides some proof to your suspicion. More than a few of these groups articulate what they are doing in a kind of counter-modernity way that is, rhetorically at least, a very good match for what Dreher describes.

5

rm 02.24.16 at 4:34 am

I think I remember the Kinks saying they were trying to reproduce the sounds of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but they didn’t realize that their turntable’s speed was set a bit slow.

6

John Holbo 02.24.16 at 4:42 am

Hi Russell, yeah MacIntyre would certainly be claiming to be doing the very opposite of what I’m saying he is. The neutral way to put it is this: it’s not just that Nietzscheans won’t agree with MacIntyre. They will think he is doing what he thinks they are doing.

“I think these intersections might not work well in theory, but Dreher’s book emphasises practice, and I don’t see why left and right localisms would not interact okay in practice.”

I can buy that. If Dreher got what he is looking for, I probably wouldn’t see much to object to. (Sure, he’ll teach ’em nonsense, but he’ll let them listen to David Bowie, so that cancels out.)

It occurs to me that an obvious, quite Franklin Booth-like analog for what I see in Dreher might come out of good old “A Canticle For Leibowitz”:

“Brother Francis spent several months of his unassigned time in redrawing some of the older prints from the Memorabilia’s files before daring to touch the Leibowitz print. If the old drawings were worth saving at all, they needed to be recopied every century or two anyhow. Not only did the original copies fade, but often the redrawn versions became nearly illegible after a time, due to the impermanence of the inks employed. He had not the slightest notion why the ancients had used white lines and lettering on a dark background, in preference to the reverse. When he roughly resketched a design in charcoal, thereby reversing the background, the rough sketch appeared more realistic than the white-on-dark, and the ancients were immeasurably wiser than Francis; if they had taken the trouble to put ink where blank paper would ordinarily be, and leave slivers of white paper where an inked line would appear in a straightforward drawing, then they must have had their reasons. Francis recopied the documents to appear as nearly like the originals as possible — even though the task of spreading blue ink around tiny white letters was particularly tedious, and quite wasteful of ink, a fact which caused Brother Horner to grumble.”

7

MilitantlyAardvark 02.24.16 at 8:14 am

It seems to me that your comparison fails in that Booth, admittedly accidentally, extended his artistic/technical heritage to some degree and opened the way for others to go further, whereas Dreher is just going in the same, sad, ever-decreasing circles in his attempts to claim persecution rather than indifference to his point of view. I find it hard to see how Dreher has extended or is extending conservative or religious thought or even rhetoric in any way. There is a certain strangeness to seeing a supposed Orthodox Christian adopt the pose of aggrieved Southern conservative fantasist, but to me it doesn’t seem to amount to even a minimal heap of beans where even accidental originality is concerned.

8

Ben 02.24.16 at 9:50 am

Might’ve been covered in previous thread, but:

Recent-ish-ly the Vatican advanced an argument that ties together SSM specifically with what the earlier Holbo post calls “wholesale collapse: divorce, decay, the fraying of social fabric, the coming anarchy”. I see Dreher almost-but-not-quite spelling it out in his post.

The argument revolves around the decline of the sexes relating to each other through acting out traditional sexual roles. Think “all the ways in which men and women behave differently toward each other today than they did in the Happy Days version of the ’50s (minus Pinky Tuscadero)”.

See UChicago law prof Mary Anne Case’s arguments here (esp. pg 1208) for the long version and here for the brief.

In sum: 1) The decline of the sexes relating to one another within traditional sex roles – one of which is heterosexual marriage in a patriarchal “the wife serves the husband” relationship – threatens “self-destruction of the human person”, in the words of recent Pope Joey Ratz. This decline is bad, m’kay. 2) SSM accelerates the decline (elaboration below*).

I think these are the “premises” Dreher refers to, and that he refers to them in a kind of code (which seems to permeate the Christian SSM rhetoric at large; he is using the code to transmit a message, he didn’t create it). “Sexuality”; “childbearing”; “traditional”. Often Dreher’s sentences where these are used can be read as referring to a patriarchal marriage structure where the husband earns (and leads) while the wife births (and follows).

The closest Dreher comes to explicitly stating this stuff is “[S]exuality [n.b. not e.g. “sexual practice”] needs to be bound within authoritarian structures in order to be controlled. This has meant untold hardship, usually falling on females, but strong marriage cultures also lessen the possibility of women like my friend falling into such a deep hole. [end of para.]”

The first sentence can be read as endorsing the idea that the marriage relationship Dreher’s envisioning is itself an authoritarian one. But look at that second sentence there. While the slippage of tense introduces some vagueness, the most straightforward reading of that argument is: marriage *necessarily* oppresses women, but there’s an upside to it.

So it seems like Dreher does at least subscribe to an underlying argument about why SSM specifically leads to dogs and cats living together, and it’s the same one that came out of the Vatican recently. Why he doesn’t spell it out and refers to it obliquely in a kind of code, one can only guess, but it might have something to do with it sounding misogynist as all fuck.

* On this account, because of how widely, early and deeply the concept of marriage affects interaction among the sexes, marriage moving away from “one man (being served by) one woman” affects how men and women in general relate to each other. Similar to how, if there’s less stigma about being gay, it affects how straight men relate to each other. This is the answer to “why should heterosexuals care if homosexuals get married?”; this is also partly why Dreher wants to cut off contact with society at large and create a little Christian bubble: traditional sex roles can still be the dominant way the sexes interact with each other.

9

BCS 02.24.16 at 10:02 am

Ingres thought he was painting exactly as Raphael had.

10

garymar 02.24.16 at 12:21 pm

Yes, exactly this:

“…his way of looking at things is at such fantastic right angles to my own”.

The whole AmCon website holds this fascination for me. (Well, the anti-neo-con part has me nodding in agreement.)

Whenever I browse Dreher, I often feel something is wrong, but can’t put my finger on it. Then I read the comments, and I find that someone has done the hard work of analysis for me. Ay, there’s the rub!

Mostly I read the website for interesting perspectives on Trump, though.

11

bianca steele 02.24.16 at 2:49 pm

But John,

Is this thing Dreher does a good thing or a bad one? What’s your take? What would you say is its greater significance? And while we’re on the subject, what implications does it have for the upcoming election?

12

RJ 02.24.16 at 3:07 pm

A reasonably bright and motivated political theorist probably could take D’s sort of ‘reasoning’ and invent 20 completely different societies that all could be defended with the same language. Fatuous. Want Gor? Modify D just a little. Want anarchocommunalism? Just a few modifications. Matriarchy? Dreher. Patriarchy? Dreher. Mercantilism? D. Feminism? D. Anti-feminism? D.

If someone wants to defend D, I suppose they would view this as unfair and failing to capture the actual path-dependent cultural touchstones of the West. But then I have D’s unmotivated opinion that these are worthy touchstones. In my own, motivated, opinions some are worthwhile, others not. D is asking us to assume that certain practices are best because he says so. And if D’s advocate tells me that we should then enter a process of consideration as to our cultural touchstones, I should have to decline, citing boredom. There is no goddamned way I’m going to defend my choice of music, my choice of heroes, my choice of what to care about, with a pig-headed jackoff (cultural conservative, but I repeat myself).

All appearances aside, discourse like Dreher (and MacIntyre) really is moral midgetry. It purports to engage with ‘practice’ and with the stuff of life; in reality it is a genteel but unmistakable command to obey your betters without advancing criteria for who is better.

My opinion would be the same even if D agreed with me politically and morally. This is a highly verbose form of rationalizing what you want to believe anyway. Possibly, like the venerable but unjustly-neglected Web Sites That Suck, D and M give the blueprints for the sort of discourse that should be quickly excluded from conservations about justice and caring.

13

Kiwanda 02.24.16 at 3:24 pm

On a smaller scale, “Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention”, from Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, is along similar lines. This stuff was mentioned recently, since Bowie collaborated with Eno and used those cards for the Berlin albums. R.E.M. also used them; the band’s use of not-their-usual instruments for Out of Time might be related.

14

jake the antisoshul soshulist 02.24.16 at 3:39 pm

Is there a specific term for Dreher’s mindset. One besides “social conservative” and that is descriptive without being derogatory. I think of it as authoritarian-conformism.
By this I mean the view that there a set of specific moral absolutes that everyone should
conform to which are the laws of their God. Most of those absolutes having nothing to do with the teachings of the nominative originator of their religion.

15

Plume 02.24.16 at 4:26 pm

Jake @14

This is key:

Most of those absolutes having nothing to do with the teachings of the nominative originator of their religion.

People want to claim their views are supported by or come from ultimate authority. Whether or not a person believes such a thing exists — I don’t — they rarely if ever do come from that source. They are more the work of decades, or centuries, or millennia of political maneuverings for power and the exploitation of power, more often than not by people who have forgotten that original source. They’ve forgotten it in the struggle to build powerful organizations, complex organizations, with brand new rules, regs, precepts, tenets, etc. etc. . . . which can’t be traced to that original source . . . Well, they can’t be traced there without major distortions, perversions, upside-downisms and so on.

(The exceptions to this are people who do their best to see the good in humans and honestly want a better world. They’ve fashioned alternative readings via selective emphasis and selective avoidance, along with inventing their own far more humane and generous fictions over time)

The god of the bible, for instance, never teaches love thy neighbor as thyself. His adopted son does — much, much later. But he doesn’t. He teaches kill thy neighbor if they don’t accept Yahweh as the father god. And his only instances of kindness and compassion are for a very tiny portion of humanity, and only if they obey him.

In short, we have an ongoing battle for supremacy of interpretation, still, in 2016, and it reflects ideological battles away from religion, too. Just as the original religious organizations all emerged from their own factional strife, with supremacy of one over the other reflecting earthly ideologies in conflict for supremacy.

Lost in the fight is the original message, whatever that may be.

16

Plume 02.24.16 at 4:27 pm

Messed up the blockquote. Apologies.

17

bianca steele 02.24.16 at 4:33 pm

hm, is D supposed to be Brother Francis or Walter H. Miller? Probably overthinking this.

18

Niall McAuley 02.24.16 at 4:34 pm

Messed up your Bible too, Leviticus 19:18

17 ‘You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. 18 ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

19

Helmut Monotreme 02.24.16 at 4:55 pm

What’s wrong with Rod Dreher? Pull up a chair. He’s arguing from moralist conclusions back to religious premises and hoping to obscure the fact that he doesn’t have any work to show. When I read anything by Rod Dreher, I fill in the missing, “Since everything I learned in Sunday School is unequivocally true…” that begins most of his arguments and the “And that’s why my hang-ups, phobias, fondest wishes, and nightmares ought to be considered more important than the lived experiences of actual human beings doing the best they can under trying circumstances.” that ends them. He doesn’t seem to recognize that there is a difference between wishful thinking and conclusions reached from diligent step by step arguments based on mutually agreed premises (or at least ones that don’t assume the literal truth of the bible as interpreted by southern evangelicals). I get that he is making explicitly christian arguments for an explicitly christian audience, but his approach already assumes his audience agrees with him on many issues that are still very much up for debate e.g. the wisdom and obvious benefits of withdrawing into a community of like minded moral scolds, in order to disengage with the issues raised by existing in a society not dominated by evangelical Christians.

20

CharleyCarp 02.24.16 at 10:46 pm

Dreher is an interesting case: his personal story has some complexities, as do his views. People trying to understand his objection to SSM have to take into account that he says he’s perfectly fine with civil unions that are legally indistinguishable from marriage. So, it’s about ownership of the word — more properly, constancy of the word — than about the sex or whatever. Measured against the real detriment caused by not allowing gay folks to marry, this semantical argument seems to me to be particularly frivolous. All the better to dress it up with some fancy philosophical bullshit. Oh well, it seems to pay his rent.

How does BenOp and Bowie work together? How does the guy who publicly left the faith of his family, and then the faith he left it for, make a project of preserving this new faith in his progeny?

21

jake the antisoshul soshulist 02.24.16 at 11:31 pm

Is Dreher like Ross Douthat, moving from church to church until he found one authoritarian enough for him.

22

Matt 02.25.16 at 12:02 am

All synthesizer music ever?

23

CharleyCarp 02.25.16 at 2:43 am

He left Catholicism over the Church’s mishandling of the child sex thing. Which showed, I suppose, that the institution didn’t actually have the mandate of heaven.

24

Plume 02.25.16 at 3:00 am

Niall,

Anyone can cherry pick. But the god of the bible, especially in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is full of sadistic rules and loves him some death penalties for some truly crazy things. Like:

Getting tattoos
Eating shellfish
Wearing mixed fabrics
Planting two crops in the same field
Talking back to parents
Being an unruly child
Adultery
Working on Saturdays
Failing to cry out loudly enough when raped in the city
Failing to be a virgin bride

Among others. Death penalty, from the psychopathic, genocidal madman of the bible.

Good source for all of this, with chapter and verse:

http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/index.htm
(Click on the categories to the right, like cruelty and intolerance, etc. etc. to narrow all of this down a bit.)

Oh, and even your example talks about one’s own tribe. Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all originally tribal religions. They didn’t begin to take on “universal” values until long after they spread to many different lands. Judaism primarily through forced expulsion; Christianity via Roman conquest; Islam via Arab conquest. Extreme violence in all cases. Supremely violent texts, spread through violence, softened eventually through centuries of human thought totally unrelated to the original messages of those religions — with few exceptions.

25

michaelnewsham 02.25.16 at 9:56 am

As with so many of these “More Catholic than the Pope (well, this Pope anyway)” types, he started out as an Evangelical Protestant, got entranced by the “smells and bells”, but then left for the Russian Orthodox over the child abuse scandals. However, as someone over there pointed out, his attitude to the One True Church is like someone jealously obsessed about his ex-wife’s every move: “Every breath you take…”

And he is into the Stones, not Bowie- it was his son who was the Bowie fan, shutting himself in his room and playing the music over and over at the time of Bowie’s death accompanying it on guitar (all this posted on his blog).

Which led some to questions, especially since
1) He feels it is extremely important for the continuation of Christianity for parents to control their children’s access to modern media decadence and corruption
2)Even more than homosexuality he is concerned about bi/transsex (for reasons stated by Ben above).

He is currently staying at the millenium-old Benedectine monastery in Norcia Italy, from which he wrote a lyrical post on the peace and timelessness of Christendom that the modern world so sorely needs-

I mentioned to the guestmaster, Brother Ignatius, that I hoped to share their Christian wisdom with the world beyond Norcia, which so hungers for it. He sighed gently, and said, “We came to the monastery to escape the world, but the world keeps coming.”

Followed, from there, by two posts on Trump and one on the mess Jindal has made of the Louisiana budget, also related to Trump.

26

Niall McAuley 02.25.16 at 10:44 am

Plume @#24 writesAnyone can cherry pick. But the god of the bible, especially in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is full of sadistic rules and loves him some death penalties for some truly crazy things.

You explicitly said: The god of the bible, for instance, never teaches love thy neighbor as thyself.

You are wrong, not only does the god of the bible teach that, he teaches that in those exact words: you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. It is pretty clear that his adopted son, the Jesus of the NT, is quoting this verse when he says it.

27

LarryM 02.25.16 at 2:13 pm

Re Ben, #8

I think you get Dreher wrong, but in a way which (IMO) gets to the heart of why he’s ultimately incoherent. He professes, and, I think honestly at some level, not to be hung up on the patriarchal nonsense. While having his problems with where feminism has gone, he accepts – and not grudgingly – the modern take on gender roles. At least to a point, that point being not accepting changes in sexual mores.

But you can’t really have it. In a sense the frankly patriarchal social conservatives have it “right” – if we’re really going to return to traditional christian morality, patriarchy is an inherent part of it. All the more reason to abandon it from my perspective, of course.

28

bekabot 02.25.16 at 7:49 pm

(Sure, he’ll teach ’em nonsense, but he’ll let them listen to David Bowie, so that cancels out.)

This is so wrongheaded that I lack the words to express its badness as an idea. It reminds me of Andrew Sullivan’s assertion that the drastic loss most people have undergone vis-a-vis their ownership of their communities and their lives during the last 35 years or so could be “assumed away” because sometimes “free markets” do one thing and sometimes they do another. The only way I can respond is to say that it’s not so, and that, in the one case, we’ve found out that it’s not so. The Privatization Of Everything has had real consequences in real time. The white middle class into which I was born is not what it was circa the early Sixties. The loss of common-wealth and common purpose and hope and the potential for change is also real, has had real effects, is not just a difference in artistic shading, was possibly intended and planned for, and may never be undone. This is something which everybody now knows and which nobody, least of all Dreher, seriously disputes. So, that’s the result of the first experiment. What I want to ask at this juncture is: knowing all this, do you retain the hardihood to embark upon a similar piece of research, with similar potential results? Knowing how Mr. Dreher feels about certain things, can you confidently state that his letting his kids smoke weed and listen to Bowie is going to make to make the results of his getting what he wants, in the event that he does get it, any better than they promise to be? If so, I have to confess that my faith’s not as great as yours is.

(At least Sullivan had the decency to retire for shame.)

29

lige 02.29.16 at 5:01 am

At Niall #26 The context of that quote implies the neighbor is of the same tribe.

30

John Holbo 02.29.16 at 5:55 am

“This is so wrongheaded that I lack the words to express its badness as an idea.”

But do you think we can save the republic, to some degree, by sending social services into the Dreher household to seize the kids? If so, then I confess that your faith is – contrary to your own protestations – much greater than my own, at least along some significant axes. If not, then what’s your point?

(I confess that some of your confusion may be due, not to a vast overestimation of the wisdom of using state power to break up families, but simply to an irony detector set too low to be usable in most online settings.)

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