Matt’s essay concludes our discussion of “Localist Social Media.” You can view all the essays in this symposium here

 

When I first submitted my attempt at a jovial attack on localist Twitter to Front Porch Republic, I did so under the assumption that most Wendell Berry readers considered their use of Twitter a necessary evil and/or guilty pleasure. I thought it nearly axiomatic that people who had been moved by the writing of the world’s most famous abstainer from the computer would look with contempt or at least distaste on a platform that has done as much as any “disruptor” to entice us to define our lives in a digital relation to the universe.

Some of the responses do suggest this position. Apparently, however, Twitter is our best option for public life in some cases and the call to reject it is asking too much. I find that to be disconcerting for what it reveals about the extent of Twitter’s dominance of our public sphere. Tara Ann Thieke’s essay and Jordan Smith’s comment about Twitter are poignant for their confession that without Twitter they would have few outlets for conversation, whether due to the noble calling of amateurism (literally “for love,” as Berry once reminded his readers when discussing his own amateurism) or geographical isolation.

I am sympathetic to both and I’m sure we would have fine conversations about Berry and much else if we ever meet. At the same time, this only confirms what struck me at first as a rather rigid assumption from Berry when I revisited his essay on the computer—that tools “replace” rather than “coexist with.” It might be more accurate to say that the tools create new norms and allow the old norm to exist only as a boutique option, one available only to people with special privileges. But I think Berry is right to issue that provocation and let it hang over us.

Granting Berry’s legitimate provocation, it is worth asking: have conversation, letters, and even email become a boutique option for us? Is something only public, does it only engage our cosmopolitan longings, if it is submitted to Big Ether for validation? Is “alone together on the internet” the best we can hope for?

If this is the case, I think the war against Twitter is even more urgent, and I want to extend my arguments against it. First, I am sincerely grateful for the generous and judicious responses to my essay. I should acknowledge that my line of work does not (yet) require me to join Twitter and that my choice to forsake it is relatively easy. If all users of Twitter were as responsible as Jake Meador, Tara Ann Thieke, L.M. Sacasas, Jeff Bilbro, and Gracy Olmstead, we would not have a problem and Twitter would likely disappear. I do wish them well. For these localists who, like Frodo, are called to carry the Ring, I suppose I will be their Gimli.

Conspicuous Conversation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s quip comes to mind: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”

I still think we need to take a cue from the New Pantagruel’s Father Jape on some occasions and risk offense for the sake of truth. Therefore, donning my carnival mask: I can’t help but be reminded of the technicalities demanded by John Humphrey Noyes’ practice of male continence upon consideration of their suggestions for wise use of Twitter. What fun is the aptly named Twitter Demetricator? A tool that can only be used well when it is stripped of all of its distinctive features seems like the wrong tool for the job. Twitter is not just any old brothel. It is the House of the Rising Sun, it is Hotel California, and I fear that the hymns of these localists are too often being drowned out. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s quip comes to mind: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”

It is true that the glass is decidedly half-empty in this analysis and that I risk hyperbole. But if the readers of Wendell Berry do not speak forcefully and often about the costs of our digital world, who else will? Who else can be counted on to simply reject, at times, these new “necessities?” Who else will remind us that we have options beyond either a grim realism that just accepts the tools that we have at hand and a shallow techno-utopianism that awaits not a new tool but a talisman? Poor old Twitter ($7.41 billion in total assets as of 2017) and Facebook ($84.5 billion in total assets as of 2017) can defend themselves, and I do not think it irresponsible to indulge in some hostile interrogation of the influence of their products.

I urge my fellow localists to think of their Tweets and Facebooks as analogous to cigarettes or plastic grocery bags. One or two are not so bad and they can even be enjoyable and useful. But they are not designed for moderate use and in the quantities with which we pump them out, a severe reckoning is at hand. I think it is likely that future generations will not look on us kindly as they labor to clean up the digital equivalent of secondhand smoke and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Unfortunately, I still find myself at odds with my friend John Fea, who wonders if I would charge him with heresy for hosting a podcast on the idea of “Flourishing in a Digital World.” Heresy is a strong word, but I do think this a jarring phrase that is unlikely to be the title of a Wendell Berry essay. Though no more likely to become the title of a Wendell Berry essay, I would be more comfortable joining a panel titled “Twitter and Facebook: Two Tentacles of the Digital Monster that Never Cries, ‘Enough!’”

Wendell Berry’s simple question, “what are people for?” should not have such a radical ring to it.

I am angry that Twitter and Facebook have tethered people so tightly to the screens that increasingly shape our public life. Jeff Bilbro and Jason Peters note that we live in a world built for cars; do we also wish to live in a world built for screens? Does any educator not see that the logic of many trends in education suggests that the whole process would really be much easier if we could just go ahead and automate both the teachers and the students? Wendell Berry’s simple question, “what are people for?” should not have such a radical ring to it.

We have ceded too much to the digital world when my young children cannot go to our otherwise wonderful public library without being subjected, right as they walk through the door, to the tyranny of screens and the invitation to experience the world digitally before they have developed the discipline to choose instead the quiet and enduring satisfactions of a book read to them by a kind librarian. Should screens be default and librarians boutique?

A Republic of Letters or High School Hallways and DIY Paparazzi?

To extend Eric Miller’s argument about the republic of letters, I think it is truly a loss if the cosmopolitanism of our republic of letters (I use the term ahistorically to suggest an idealized space for public debate and conversation that is open to the best argument regardless of the status of the debater) becomes completely coextensive with the world of social media. It is true that the Republic of Letters and republics of letters in a more general sense have never lived up to their ideal conceptions. They have been exclusive, they have mistaken particularity for universality, they have been populated by celebrities. It should also be noted that the ideal itself deserves challenge. However flawed, I still think the model of private letters, semi-public places, and public periodicals operating on various scales is more humane than the flattened model of social media created, monitored, and sustained by the new robber barons of Silicon Valley.

Twitter as republic of letters almost demands a celebrity-like status of its users. It would take more than a hair shirt for just about any Twitterer to use this tool without glancing too habitually at who is watching and how many are following. We are all celebrities now except that some of us must settle for DIY paparazzi. In 2005, Father Jape wrote of the quaint blog that “the better one is at it, the more subtle the vices and the greater the risk.” Twitter only exacerbates this problem by extending into the near-infinity of digital space the normal temptations we all have towards vanity, flattery, pride, cynicism, and envy. Further, the evidence of these sins is nearly impossible to extinguish and there is no earthly redemption from them. Our digital landscape is cluttered with the remnants of moral failure and dominated by people I do not trust.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if our Twitter King’s tweets were greeted with the sound of digital crickets.

I do not wish to live in Facebookistan and I certainly have no wish to spend my time in the Twitter King’s empire, or to be one of his 52.2M minions. Imagine how wonderful it would be if our Twitter King’s tweets were greeted with the sound of digital crickets rather than what is now our tired public routine: choruses of superlatives from the court evangelicals, and ritual outrage from everyone else. It is no wonder that we have a celebrity president when we have traded the republic of letters for a medium built for sophomores, as Jason Peters notes. It is the Twitter King’s turf and the Twitter Demetricator is not going to make the playing field any more level. We need to play where “another measure” is actually possible.

Though Christopher Lasch’s haunting line from The Culture of Narcissism—that Americans wish to be “envied rather than respected,” or loved, I would add—was written in 1979, our new technology has not made this situation any better. The older forms that the republic of letters took did not allow for quite this level of invasion into our private lives or the endless selling of a painstakingly handcrafted self. It allowed for some breathing room; there were still silences built into the old version. We should build practices into our lives that remind us that these silences are precious, that our memories are not reducible to our online clouds.

I tread lightly, but again I think a frank statement of this problem as I see it is worth the risk of offense: as a parent of small children myself, I would be frightfully worried about the constant temptation to use my kids as props for the narrative the medium demands of me. If I say I’m a husband, father, localist, etc., on my Twitter/Facebook mini-mission statement, my live feed better back it up: “Come on kids, get in a picture for daddy’s Twitter feed! Look grateful for the handcrafted breakfast I just served you!” The tragic confusion of means and ends lurks at the door.

The Whole Berry

Finally: Wendell Berry is one of the few great prophets of our time. He has with more restraint than any public figure of stature who I can name resisted the call to celebrity. I mentioned in my previous article his refusal to be considered for the MacArthur Fellowship. He declined to appear in Look and See, the recent documentary made in response to his work. And, of course, he cannot join any form of social media to hawk his latest without owning a computer.

Berry didn’t ask for permission from the internet to go live in Kentucky. He did it and risked his chance to write for a substantial public in doing so. I think we have good reason to take Berry at his word that if he would have disappeared from public view, he would have still considered his move back to Kentucky worth it even if, being human, he might have also fallen into bouts of envy or resentment. Did he write and publish several essays for the public that described this private decision? Did he ask the nation to observe, on occasion, his little plot of land in Kentucky? Yes, but that is much different from sending daily or even hourly missives to remind us of his continued localist existence. He trusted in the quality of his work, that if it was valuable enough to deserve a substantial audience it would get one.

To risk reducing Berry to cozy, tweetable thoughts about nebulous community, slow food, and bucolic farms is to risk losing one of our only real prophets. Prophets denounce, whisper, thunder, and lament. They rend garments and eat scrolls. They do not tweet. Let’s save this verb for the sparrows and finches, who tweet with infinitely more grace.

We cannot allow Berry’s books to be reduced to accessories that look nice next to homey knickknacks from Cracker Barrel or the latest from the Magnolia empire, however well-made the products are. We cannot risk a tame, sentimental Wendell Berry any more than we can risk becoming Wendell Berry fundamentalists who refuse to argue with him. We need the whole Berry.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Matthew,

    Your third-to-final paragraph is gold:

    Berry didn’t ask for permission from the internet to go live in Kentucky. He did it and risked his chance to write for a substantial public in doing so. I think we have good reason to take Berry at his word that if he would have disappeared from public view, he would have still considered his move back to Kentucky worth it even if, being human, he might have also fallen into bouts of envy or resentment. Did he write and publish several essays for the public that described this private decision? Did he ask the nation to observe, on occasion, his little plot of land in Kentucky? Yes, but that is much different from sending daily or even hourly missives to remind us of his continued localist existence. He trusted in the quality of his work, that if it was valuable enough to deserve a substantial audience it would get one.

    There are, of course, ways in which this claim you make on Berry’s behalf could be unpacked so as to undermine the man. But that’s just the thing–no one, in this whole symposium, has fundamentally challenged Berry, or denied his prophetic stature in regards to how we need to struggle to hold on to localism in our present moment. And if that is the case, then, as you say, the “whole Berry” ought to be embraced…and the whole Berry is one which looks reprovingly, I think–with a kindly chuckle, no doubt, but nonetheless, sternly–upon those who would plead that there it is impossible for them to pursue this professional dream, or accomplish that intellectual task, without reliance upon screens. Okay, fine, the media ecosystem of Washington DC is overwhelmingly wrapped up in Twitter. Well, all right, so absent social media you can’t chat with anyone else about localism, because there aren’t any such people otherwise in one’s neighborhood or city or state. And so therefore….? Wouldn’t the “whole Berry” suggest, then, that you don’t choose to work in the media ecosystem of Washington DC? Or that you find something else to talk face to face with your neighbors about? You say you’re willing to risk offense, and I think that is appropriate, because Berry does offend the choices so many moderns have made. (And in that offense, maybe plants the possibility of us recognizing that there are other ecosystems, other neighbors, other topics, all around us that are not quite so social media dependent, and which, once explored, might provide professional satisfaction and community connection all the same.)

    Of course, the other possibility is to reject the whole Berry. Which one can do! (I do; I think his attacks on modern industrial agriculture have serious problems, as valuable as they may be.) The man isn’t God, after all. So it struck me as interesting that, unless I missed an entry, no one in this symposium was willing to suggest that actually Berry is just a crank when it comes to “the internet.” Does that just mean we all feel guilty inside? Or that we just haven’t really thought through our own choices yet? If the latter, than we owe additional thanks to Matthew’s concluding jab here, because maybe it will get us all (me included) to think some more.

    • Thanks, Russell, for the comment and your appreciation of that paragraph. I don’t think I’ve seen the critique you mention above but I’m interested.

  2. Well, I think on the whole, this is proving to be a useful conversation. (Online, no less! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

    The temptation is to quibble with a few of your points in order to score a few of my own, but that won’t accomplish anything or lead us anywhere useful. That is, after all, what most of Twitter is.

    But my broader critique parallels Russell’s. I find the deification of Wendell Berry strikes a false, off-key note in my soul. I like many others greatly admire the man and his writing, but I hardly take what he says as Gospel truth. He is a man who has found a way of grace that works for him, and who he is. That is why I admire him. And that, I believe, is why his work resonates: Because it is true and flows from a place of honest love, work and rest. (His exceptional clarity of mind and ability with the written word doesn’t hurt either.) But is it a template for us all, or even an ideal for the would-be agrarian? I don’t think so. Which brings is my even broader critique.

    There are a great number of writers on FPR who seem trapped in this endless attempt to hold onto to some halcyon idyll of some mythical golden age of American agrarianism. Perhaps this root of this disease is the parallel attempt to hold onto to some past perfect dominion and iteration of the Catholic Church.

    The thing is, the ways of grace are manifold. The ways of grace do not concern themselves with technology. Nor do they concern themselves with dogma. The ways of grace are beyond these concerns.

    Is it possible to look at the big picture and conclude “la technique” is bad? Yes. Jacques Ellul has done a marvellous job of this. And your critique isn’t “wrong”. But at the end of the day we all have to find our own path through the wilderness or the rubble of a crumbling and chaotic modernity.

    Have I thought about deleting my Twitter account? Sure. (I deleted my Facebook account 12 years ago and haven’t missed it at all.) But for where I am at right now and for what I do (work alone and live alone) I am not willing to wear a flea-beaten enough hairshirt to allow me to discard this one technology that keeps me in touch with good people. Not at at this juncture. Can I see that changing? Yes. (Incidentally there is nothing difficult about ignoring how many followers or mentions I may or may not have.)

    What concerns me more than anything else is the wolf of “fundamentalism”. It is a seductive mistress. Whether it comes in scientific, theological, cultural, or technological clothing, I am wary when I detect its foul, controlling stench. It’s actually easy to avoid becoming a crank. All you have to do is believe in the sovereignty of God and allow love and grace into your heart.

    If you are willing to follow Jesus, and him alone, you might find yourself in surprising places. After all, he walks on water. As Pirsig describes it:

    ““The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”

    I think Pirsig was describing the Spirit of God, the will of the Father, and the ways of Grace. Jesus operates in a different kingdom. A different realm. If you follow, you might find yourself drinking too much wine at a wedding. You might find yourself covered in sores, sitting in the dust, scraping yourself with a broken bit of pottery while complaining to God. You might find yourself eating consecrated bread from a temple. You might find yourself breaking all sorts of taboos. You might find yourself raising a man from the dead.

    Who knows, one day, you might find yourself using Twitter.

      • Thanks for reading and for the comment, Jordan. I don’t doubt at all that God’s grace is more powerful than Twitter, though I did allow for something of an environmental determinist drift in these essays. I sense a quietism in your response that I disagree with, though–don’t you think it is valuable to fight for better places (such as libraries that do not just funnel kids straight to the computers) and tools? We may lose such fights and have to make tough decisions afterward but I still think a fight is worth it. Just because we can experience grace in the worst of situations doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up in the air and say all places/tools are neutral and oriented towards valuable ends. Or am I not reading you correctly here? Do we just disagree on what makes a good place/tool?

        • Sorry, need to rewrite a sentence in there. “Just because we can experience grace in the worst of situations doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up in the air and say all places/tools are neutral OR oriented towards equally valuable ends.”

        • Hi Matt,

          Thank you for you thoughtful reply.

          I do indeed believe it is valuable to fight for better places. I have just joined a working technical group dedicated to improving nearshore fish foraging habitat in the ocean sound where the island I live on is located. Through a good friend I met through Twitter I have made connections with the Squamish Nation, and I hope to help facilitate a way for their people to establish a presence again on Lhaxwm, because this island is important in their heritage and lore. This is a small thing I can do to help heal the colonial wounds that were inflicted upon their peoples, and maybe help foster cultural reconciliation. And through the same Twitter friend I have abandoned supporting the “big league” soccer team in Vancouver that is a money-making “franchise” mostly populated by players than come from foreign countries in favour of throwing my support behind a small local club dedicated to providing local players a pathway to success while supporting local business and charities (and local craft beer!). Finally I have recently joined a committee involved in taking care of the Christian summer camp on the island. I hope to improve their understanding and raise their standards when it comes to delicacies and details of placemaking.

          The “quietism” you sense is simply the death of my own desires and the surrender to what the Father is doing in my life. I strive to only do what He is doing. And now that I have let go of anger I find He is taking over and suddenly all these opportunities to make a real difference in my immediate world are opening up. And so, even as I watch our houses divide, our power structures be judged and Babel crumble I know that the Lord is sovereign and the collapse all may be engineered to save us from ourselves. And so I do not despair. Instead I look to where God is building local grassroots networks that will be needed to replace the larger societal structures as they fail. Organizations like Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns comes to mind.

          Forgive me if there was a sense in my post that my way is the only way. In the same way that the ways of grace are manifold, so too are the gifts given us varied and manifold. Some might have the gift of fierce advocacy and tenaciousness; others may have the serene gifts of love and encouragement. And, of course, there are many other manifestations of the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. But I do believe that the more we surrender to the sovereignty of God, the more time we spend listening to Him and trying to discern his ways, the more Resurrection power we release into the world. The net was empty until Jesus told the disciples to cast their net on the other side of the boat.

          Carry on fighting the battles you feel called to fight. I enjoy your writing.

          Selah.

          • Thanks again, Jordan. I hope our paths will cross sometime to talk about this good work and much else.

  3. I’ve never had Twitter because I’ve never had a smartphone, and refuse to get one. I was on FB briefly about six years ago, but soon tired of it and was off again after a couple months. I guess for some people in certain work or life situations these things may in some sense be necessary, but on the whole I simply don’t buy it. We have been conditioned to believe that some luxuries are okay because they’re conveniences, after which these conveniences then magically become necessities. In other words we’re suckers. (I once had a friend tell me that he found it inconvenient that I didn’t use “text” on my cell phone. My inclination was to clonk him on the head like Moe, but instead I just grinned and said, “Well, that’s just too damn bad.”)

    Point is, if you’re able to live without these things, you can live without them. They are designed to be addictive. That ought to tell you something.

    • Rob G.,

      I once had a friend tell me that he found it inconvenient that I didn’t use “text” on my cell phone. My inclination was to clonk him on the head like Moe, but instead I just grinned and said, “Well, that’s just too damn bad.”

      That’s essentially my response when someone asks if they can text me. I take out my flip-phone and so “No.” AT&T will surely eventually take away my ability to make that response by refusing to continue to provide service to non-smartphones such as we have, but for the moment, it’s a fun response to be able to make.

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