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Monday, March 19, 2012

"They Moved My Blog Without Telling Me!"

For those of you devoted souls who have been coming to High Concepts in the last few weeks ravenous for some fresh material, I have some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is, I have decided to close the book on High Concepts, which I have enjoyed writing in this space since October 2010.

However, the good news is, you can find me blogging on the arts, entertainment and media over at my new virtual digs on Catholic Exchange

And for those of you interested in children’s middle grade literature, you can follow my blog at the Kingdom of Patria website.

Thank you High Concepts readers! I look forward to talking with you over at my other blogs soon.

Daniel McInerny

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Popular Fictions, Or How I Learned to Relax and Enjoy Downton Abbey

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook about Downton Abbey: “take away the English accents, the bucolic setting, the period costumes, and the antiquated moral code, and you’re left with Days of Our Lives.
So true, I thought at first. Downton Abbey often suffers from severe melodramatic fits. 
Such as: the illicit lover who ends up dying in flagrante delicto...the spine-injured war-hero who suddenly and miraculously walks again...the lovers kept apart by social class...the dying fiancĂ©e who importunes her betrothed to marry the woman she knows he really loves...the odious newspaper magnate who coerces a young woman into marriage on pains of exposing her awful secret... 
Pretty fruity stuff, as Bertie Wooster would say. But how different, really, from plot elements that might be found in Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, or The Great Gatsby?
Speaking of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. T.S. Eliot (that’s Thomas Stearns Eliot, high-priest of high culture) once wrote an essay called “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” In this essay about two pre-eminent practitioners of the Victorian potboiler Eliot wrote:
You cannot define Drama and Melodrama so that they shall be reciprocally exclusive; great drama has something melodramatic in it, and the best melodrama partakes of the greatness of drama….It is possible that the artist can be too conscious of his “art.”…We cannot afford to forget that the first—and not one of the least difficult—requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting.
Eliot’s point is that what we enjoy in the best melodramas are qualities inherent to great storytelling itself. 
To want one’s nerves rattled, to want one’s comedy laugh-out-loud, to want one’s love stories full of pain and anguish but still, by series end, to culminate in a marriage—these are the natural wants of the human being seeking a story, not the low, vulgar tastes of the great soap-opera watching unwashed who don’t know any better.
G.K. Chesterton echoes the theme in his magnificent book on Dickens (whose 200th birthday, by the way, we celebrate this month). Writing on Dickens’s immense popularity in the mid 19th century, Chesterton first feels a need to address the charge that Dickens’s work is admirable even though he was widely admired. As if being a hugely popular novelist is an automatic strike (or two) against a writer’s literary merit. But for this kind of pretentious bushwah Chesterton holds no truck.
[Dickens’s] power...lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. 
But isn’t Chesterton admitting here that Dickens’s work is “common” in the sense of vulgar, addressed to “the mind of the mere mob”? Not at all:
[The] common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind; or that mind was not common. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody...” 
There is a great democratic impulse in Dickens’s devotion to the common mind. As Chesterton puts it, “Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people.” It is not so much that Dickens wrote what people wanted, but that “Dickens wanted what the people wanted.” And what he wanted were the simple, but not simplistic, truths that reveal our common humanity.  
I heard Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter of Downton Abbey (and a Catholic), remark in one of the “extras” that one of the things that most interests him in the story is the way in which it reveals people both “upstairs” and “downstairs” as equals. High birth and money may separate us accidentally, Downton Abbey urges us to see, but life’s dramas will always expose these superficial differences and reveal the common truth that we are all human beings before we are anything else.  
And this is what Downton Abbey does at its best: reveal truths common to the saint and the sinner, the philosopher and the fool. Sure, it sometimes sacrifices character and plot development to the quick emotional payoff. But often enough it tells a compelling melodramatic story that Dickens himself might well have enjoyed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Can This Be the Catholic Moment in the Arts?

“Irish poets, learn your trade.”
So W.B. Yeats admonished his fellow Irish poets in his celebrated poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” With a slight amendment, it’s an admonition that could well apply to our Catholic artists. 
The other day Emily Stimpson, a blogger over at, wrote an inspired piece called “Telling the Catholic Story.” In it she laments, after noting certain admirable exceptions, the current state of Catholic art, in particular our storytelling in the media of film, television and literature. Her lament pointed up the question: why aren’t Catholics today known for creating artistic masterpieces, or at least compelling works of art? Stimpson herself has difficulties zeroing in on the reason:
So again, why? Why can’t we match in quality and skill the media being made by our secular counterparts?
I’ve put that question to a lot of smart people over the last couple weeks and the answers they gave were plentiful: a dearth of excellent training programs at faithful Catholic schools, a reluctance and/or inability to invest substantially in high quality media, poor understanding of the medium of media itself, a distrust of Hollywood and the tools of social media, and the misguided belief that what we have to say is so compelling that we don’t need to worry about how we say it.
Those are all good answers. They’re true answers. But I don’t find them entirely satisfying. They explain why the media we’re making now is not up to snuff, but they don’t explain how the Church of the Sistine Chapel and Mozart’s Requiem became the Church of Therese and There Be Dragons.
Catholics once financed and made the greatest works of art the world has ever known. We used the primary mediums of the day—painting, sculpture, literature, and music—to express the beauty and glory of God, the truth about the human person, and the pathos of the human condition. We understood the power of beauty and the power of story, and for centuries, creating art that reflected that understanding came as naturally to Catholic artists as breathing.
Stimpson is right that the various answers she received to her question were all good and true. The diagnosis must certainly be a complex one. Catholic education, the American reception to Vatican II, scorn of Hollywood and the entertainment industry generally, lack of money--all of these are contributing factors to the current Catholic malaise in the arts. I would add that the political culture wars of the last forty years, as crucially important as those have been, have tempted Catholics to neglect the power of art to shape culture. They have led to the distrust of the entertainment industry that Stimpson mentions in her piece. 
But there is one other reason for the malaise in Catholic art that I would like to identify, one that I think lies even closer to the nub of the problem: 
The absence of a devotion to craft.
I choose the word “devotion” here carefully. Devotion indicates love, passion, total commitment. For the Catholic artist, his or her work must be inspired, first and foremost, by devotion to God. But this is not enough to make a beautiful and powerful work of art. The devotion to God must “spill over” into a devotion to craft. And here I choose the word “craft” carefully. For anyone who writes a novel or poem or screenplay will admit to “loving” what he is doing. But there is far more to a craft than this. 
To be devoted to a craft means to submit oneself to a discipline existing outside one’s thoughts and feelings. And such disciplines do not arise out of nowhere. They come into being and flourish within traditions of thought and practice, traditions that often stretch centuries into the past.
In recent decades Catholic artists seem to have forgotten this sense of devotion to a craft tradition. But when one looks to past examples of great Catholic artists, such devotion is everywhere in evidence. 
Consider Dante. To be a poet, in Dante’s mind, was to submit oneself to the great minds and works of Greece, Rome, and Christian Europe. Thus The Divine Comedy reflects Dante’s passionate study of Aristotle, Virgil, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Or consider, to take a somewhat more contemporary example, Flannery O’Connor. O'Connor did not shy away from serving her apprenticeship at the very mainstream secular, but artistically pre-eminent, Iowa Writer's Workshop. She knew that this was where she had to be in order to become excellent at her craft. And the result of her efforts was a strikingly counter-cultural and singular contribution to literature in the 20th century. 
What we learn from Dante, O’Connor, and other great Catholic artists is that devotion to craft means disciplining oneself to learning from the best minds that have worked in that craft tradition. Which means seeking out those mentors, and becoming part of those institutions, which embody that tradition in the present-day--not all of which (as we learn from O’Connor’s experience at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop) will be Catholic. 
Many Catholic individuals and institutions have recognized this truth. Barbara Nicolosi and her efforts in founding Act One, and John Paul the Great Catholic University and its mission to educate students in the arts and new media, are just two examples that readily come to mind.
But so many more devoted artists are needed. 
Catholic artists, learn your trade.

* The photograph at the top is of Flannery O'Connor's writing desk at her home in Milledgeville, Georgia

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ralph McInerny, Sonnet 71

My father, Ralph McInerny, died two years today, January 29, 2010. Below is his poem, Sonnet 71, from his collection, Shakespearean Variations (St. Augustine’s Press 2001), a series of poems in which he ingeniously takes the first line and end rhymes from each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and from there composes a wholly new sonnet.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Nor dirges play nor toll the dismal bell,
For when in earth I’m laid at last to bed
My spirit will in a better country dwell,
Where then what is will be as if it’s not,
And what is not will be again. ‘Tis so,
For there is that which cannot be forgot
But rises out of reach of tearful woe.
Why would the poet seek to catch in verse
Our deeds if we were only drying clay
And did not in our lives by acts rehearse
A drama that resists mortal decay?
         Our going would elicit only moan
         If we were wholly gone when we are gone.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

6 Insights from Pope Benedict on Authentic Communication

Today, the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and journalists, Pope Benedict XVI released, as is traditional, his Message for the 46th Annual World Communications Day (which actually takes place on May 20, 2012). These annual messages are an invaluable gift from the Holy Father, as he gives us a chance to learn from his great wisdom about how to make good use of the various means of social communication that so dominate modern culture. Last year’s message was on the theme of authenticity in social communications. This year, the Holy Father takes up the theme of the interplay of “silence and word.”

Here are the key insights I gleaned from Pope Benedict’s remarks:

1.   True communication between human persons involves an interplay of word and silence. When one of these is missing, communication breaks down.
2.   In the absence of silence, words rich in context cannot exist. “In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.”
3.   Silence is the more necessary amid the “surcharge of stimuli” from modern electronic media. “Deeper reflection [in silence] helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.”
4.   The environment of social communications today is characterized by questioning, thus reflecting the restless hearts of human beings hungry for answers to the ultimate questions. Quoting his own message from the year before, Pope Benedict stresses: “When people exchange information, they are already sharing themselves, their view of the world, their hopes, their ideals.” Amid all this questioning, silence is necessary in order to discern what questions are relevant and what their most appropriate answers might be.
5.   Many types of websites, applications, and social networks can be amenable to authentic questioning and the silence that must accompany it. How positive a view this is of the Internet’s potential! “In concise phrases, often no longer than a verse from the Bible, profound thoughts can be communicated, as long as those taking part in the conversation do not neglect to cultivate their own inner lives” (emphasis added).
6.   The richest fruit of silence is the contemplative encounter with God, who often speaks to us in stillness, especially in the silent figure of Christ on the Cross. The peace and friendship that we find in this encounter with Christ is the ultimate goal of all social communications. “Silent contemplation immerses us in the source of that Love who directs us towards our neighbours so that we may feel their suffering and offer them the light of Christ, his message of life and his saving gift of the fullness of love.”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Obama Policy's Reasons of Force

Still riffing on themes from The Iron Lady and Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus… And one of the themes I touched on last time, the inherent connection between freedom and truth, is very much in play in current mischief from the Obama administration.

On January 20 Health and Human Services Secretary Katheleen Sebelius (a Catholic, no less), announced that non-profit employers will have one year to comply with the Obama administration’s mandate that they provide, in their employee health-care plans, sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs.

About this outrage, the Archbishop and Cardinal-designate of New York, Timothy Dolan, commented:

Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights….

“In effect,” added Archbishop Dolan, “the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” (For His Excellency's full comment click here.)

This is a pure power play on the part of the Obama administration. As Archbishop Dolan says, it shows a blatant disregard for religious liberty, and certainly makes the cultural battle lines clear as on Monday pro-life defenders throughout the country prepare to recall, in both prayer and protest, the grim anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

To use a pair of terms from another encyclical by Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, in the Obama administration’s attack upon the consciences of American citizens, it is replacing the “force of reason” with the “reasons of force.”

For the Obama administration’s policy threatens to substantially weaken our polity’s sense of freedom’s intrinsic relationship to truth: on the one hand, the truth about freedom’s relationship to conscience; and on the other hand, the truth about human sexuality’s natural ordering to the goods of family life.

If Obama is still in the White House a year from now, it will be reckoning time for Catholic non-profits—hospitals, schools, charities, etc. They will have to decide whether or not to take a stand against the Obama policy. They will have to decide whether they will fight for a freedom that respects the true dignity of human persons, or acquiesce to a bald-faced assertion of power by the federal government.

Friday, January 20, 2012

GarageBand for Philosophy

The introduction by Apple yesterday of iBooks 2 and its companion (and free) application, iBooks Author, will almost surely accelerate the pace at which education at all levels follows the way of music, book publishing, and electronic technology generally. One of the chief purposes of these two applications is to revolutionize the educational textbook industry, inviting more and more authors to create electronic textbooks specifically designed for the engaging functionality of the iPad. The greater presence of the iPad in classrooms, or in the hands of individuals exploring some avenue of knowledge, seems inevitable.

I think about this announcement in juxtaposition with this post by Matthew over at By Way of Beauty, which worries (for good reason) that our culture is drowning in “information” while losing its sense of “wisdom.” In making his point Matthew draws upon the thought of Marshall McLuhan, especially his adage that “the medium is the message”:

McLuhan's idea was this: all media—whether it has content (Internet, books, movies, etc.) or not (cars, light bulbs, etc.)—“amplifies or accelerates existing processes” and can introduce a "change of scale or pace or shape or pattern into human association, affairs, and action", resulting in “psychic, and social consequences.” This, not the content of the medium, is the real "meaning or message.”

For example, the changes in the way we exist brought about by the internet are the real “message” of a medium, not its actual content (what we read through the medium—say, Wikipedia entries, news articles, etc.). 

If McLuhan is right, then innovations such as iBooks2 and iBooks Author will have profound “psychic and social consequences.” They will help advance an age (already well underway) in which education (like music and publishing) becomes more diffuse, more heterogeneous, more disconnected, more ubiquitous, more democratized, more image-based in its rhetorical presentation, more focused on material explanation.

But the “medium” of the new educational technology is not the only challenge the future holds. As content proliferates, the challenge of distinguishing wisdom from information will become all the greater as well. The digital sea is only going to get deeper and more tumultuous, even as the question of how to navigate it remains.

Still, I believe there is an educational opportunity here with the new Apple apps, an opportunity for individuals and enclaves devoted to the tradition of the liberal arts to create new forums of teaching and learning, and thus pass by the desiccated institutions which comprise so much of our educational system here in the United States, at every level, both public and private.

Just think of it as GarageBand for philosophy. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Iron Lady and the Pope, Part 2

Over at Standpoint there is a perceptive review of The Iron Lady by Peter Whittle. The Thatcher years in England, Whittle observes, “allowed one a feeling of heady relief; one could believe for the first time that the national game was not necessarily up, that decline wasn't the only option open to us, that we should celebrate this, and the fact that there was somebody who instinctively thought and felt the same as us residing in Downing Street.”

Here in the United States, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, many of us would love a shot of such “heady relief.” The Obama presidency has produced in a large segment of the citizenry the sense that, on the present course, decline is the only option open to us. The Iron Lady’s portrayal of the life and career of Margaret Thatcher invites the thought that it is a conservative, perhaps even libertarian, understanding of individual liberties and personal responsibility—the very opposite of the soft socialism of Western democratic liberalism—that is most needed to help us out of the current malaise (this, no doubt in spite of the filmmakers’ own political propensities—which is a credit to their art).

I want to pursue this question by bringing Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, into conversation with the views both of Thatcherite conservatism and its liberal antagonists. My results will take the form of an outline of principles and ideas—a set of notes. Whether they are useful to more than just myself I invite you to let me know.

Caveat: this is not a review essay of Centesimus Annus. For something more along those lines, see

a.   George Weigel, Witness to Hope, pp. 612ff.;
b.   this revisiting of the encyclical by Weigel last summer in First Things;
c.   and this series of articles by Thomas Storck over at The Distributist Review.

1.   There is an essential bond between freedom and truth (CA no. 4): freedom that refuses to be bound to truth falls into arbitrariness and ends up submitting itself to the vilest of passions, to the point of self-destruction. Political freedom, economic freedom, must be grounded, above all, in the truth about the human person.

2.   Socialism mistakes the truth about the human person; its error is fundamentally “anthropological.” With socialism the individual person is regarded “simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil” (CA no. 13).

3.   There is an inherent dignity to the worker and to work. As Leo XIII affirmed, work is “personal,” inasmuch as the energy expended is bound up with the personality and is the exclusive property of him who acts, and, furthermore, was given to him for his advantage” (CA no. 6).

4.   Human persons have a right to private property—though this is not an absolute right. It must harmonize with its complementary principle: the universal destination of the earth’s goods.

To be continued…

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Peter Jackson, The Hobbit, and Tolkien's Noble Heroes

I want to insert here between discussions of The Iron Lady and Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus this fine piece by Erik Wecks, one of the GeekDads over at Wired, on Peter Jackson’s approaches to his films of Tolkien’s works. For those who love Jackson’s films but who also have regrets about the ways in which he departs from Tolkien’s own approach to his heroes, this is a must read. And it’s not the only nice piece on Wired about Tolkien. See also here.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Iron Lady and the Pope, Part 1

I came out of the theater with a twinge of disappointment after seeing The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic of Margaret Thatcher. Not because The Iron Lady isn’t a terrific film. It is—and for more than one reason. Meryl Streep’s magnificent rendering of Mrs. Thatcher is a masterpiece, and she is well-deserving of the Golden Globe she won last night for her performance (a performance turned in with the aid of the best geriatric make-up I have ever seen—if Billy Crystal’s old man get-up in Mr. Saturday Night is a 1, Meryl Streep’s aged Mrs. Thatcher is at least a 13). And the narrative structure of the film is extremely compelling. It takes Mrs. Thatcher’s slide into dimentia in the present day as an impetus for excursions back in time to various episodes in her personal life and political career. In his New York Times review A.O. Scott wonders whether Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan aren’t trying to have their cake and eat it too by making a film that, at once, tries to “celebrate their heroine as a feminist pioneer while showing her to be tragically unfulfilled according to traditional standards of feminine accomplishment.” I don’t see this as Lloyd and Morgan trying to have it both ways. The complexities of their subject demanded that their attention be pulled in both these directions, and it seems to me a brilliant stroke that they didn’t merely focus on Mrs. Thatcher as the lioness of Britain, but also tried to see her as a (not always very successful) wife, mother and widow.

Mrs. Thatcher is portrayed in the film as passionate about ideas, about “doing things” rather than “being somebody.” Scott, however, doesn’t find Lloyd and Morgan themselves as interested in ideas as Mrs. Thatcher. “Though the film pays lip service to Mrs. Thatcher’s analytic intelligence and tactical shrewdness, its focus is on the drama and pathos of her personal life. In her dotage, watched over by professionally cheery minders, she putters about in a haze of half-senile nostalgia, occasionally drawn back into the glory and pain of the past.” Again, I applaud Lloyd and Morgan for not divorcing their heroine’s personal and political life—who knows if a male director and screenwriter would ever have approached this particular subject in this particular way? But the film, like most biopics that attempt to cover the entirety of their subject’s life, left me a little cold. There are so many facets of Mrs. Thatcher’s life that were, if not passed over, given only impressionistic treatment. The film comes off as a series of episodes, as elliptical as memory itself, and while there is much interest to the approach, the lack of narrative unity left me hungry for more extended dramatic developments of her marriage and family life, her rise to power, her key political decisions, and her relationships with male political colleagues and combatants. No one film could possibly do all of this, of course, but that precisely is the grandeur and misery of the biopic: wanting to present the whole life, it ends up giving us only a series of episodes. Compare, on this score, the approach in The Queen (2006, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Peter Morgan), which is not at all a biopic of Queen Elizabeth II, but is rather a study of Queen Elizabeth in one particularly dramatic episode of her life. Perhaps this kind of approach, while limited in its own way, is the best means of telling a single story about a famous person. 

There are scenes in The Iron Lady where Mrs. Thatcher is shown giving voice to her always controversial political ideas. But these scenes are either snippets of speeches, or scenes in which she is knocking down straw men (often her own advisors). One dialectic that is missing in the film is a dramatic contest between Mrs. Thatcher’s conservative ideas and those of her rivals. Scott says of Lloyd and Morgan that “they…manage to push the great passion and distinction of her life—her pursuit and exercise of power—into the background. This is not unusual in biopics, which frequently turn artists into substance abusers and sexual adventurers who just happened to cut a few records or paint a few pictures on their way to redemption. The Iron Lady, following this template, makes a particular hash of British history, compressing social and economic turmoil into a shorthand that resembles a chronologically scrambled British version of Billy’s Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Miners’ strike/Falklands War/I can’t take it any more ...).” This comment doesn’t do justice to how fascinating Lloyd and Morgan’s whirlwind tour of Mrs. Thatcher’s political career actually is. But it does hit upon a real weakness in their narrative approach.

One of the most intriguing facets of The Iron Lady is the light it sheds on the current political scene, not just in Britain but throughout the West. To many under forty, the events portrayed in this film might seem like ancient history. The reality, however, is that the political turmoil that characterized Mrs. Thatcher’s career is all too identical to the political turmoil that characterizes our political climate today. The question that roiled Britain throughout the 1980s is still the question facing the West today: What is the guiding principle of politics? Is it the resourcefulness of individuals making the most out of their liberties? Or is it the obligation of the State to ensure the realization of the common good? Or is it some third consideration? I credit The Iron Lady for telling a story that invites its audience to ponder these issues. In trying to get my own thoughts clear on them, I have returned to a document written by one of Mrs. Thatcher’s eminent contemporaries, Pope John Paul II. In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus (“The Hundreth Year”—written for the centennial of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum), John Paul discusses, through the lens the Iron Curtain's downfall in 1989, the fundamental principles of political life, and in doing so illuminates several truths about politics concerning which both conservative and liberal proponents consistently are blind. In my next couple of posts I want at least to make a list of what I have learned from Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, and thus pay tribute to one thing about which Mrs. Thatcher was undoubtedly in the right:

The supreme importance of thinking.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts

This has become one of the more quoted sayings of the late Steve Jobs: he wanted Apple and its products to exist at the intersection of technology and what he termed, alternatively, the “humanities” or “the liberal arts.”

What does this mean?

Toward the end of Walter Isaacson’s biography, Jobs is quoted as observing:

The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side. In the seventies computers became a way for people to express their creativity. Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science. Michelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor.

There’s a lot to think about in these interesting remarks.

First of all, what sense of “art” does Jobs have in mind? Self-expression? If so, does modern digital technology especially lend itself to art conceived as self-expression (as opposed to art conceived as an imitation of nature)?

Jobs clearly doesn’t have a precise idea of the “liberal arts,” confusing them indifferently with “art” and “creativity” and “humanity.” But what if one reads his remarks with a more robust idea of the liberal arts in mind (i.e., one stemming out of the medieval Christian intellectual tradition)? How would the liberal arts conceived in that way relate to contemporary digital technology?

In other words, in what ways, if any, does digital technology successfully reflect the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (the traditional objects of the liberal arts)?

I’d appreciate your thoughts…

Meanwhile, for my own humble attempt to bring digital technology into conversation with art, see here

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012: Year of the Artist-Entrepreneur

Back on Decmeber 29, Publisher’s Weekly reported that in each week of December over 1 million Kindles were sold. Sales of e-books also reportedly broke records. In the period from Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) to Christmas Day, the “gifting” of Kindle books alone was up 175% over the same period in 2010. Christmas Day was the biggest day ever for e-book sales, and my family was among the eager buyers as we helped my son download some books for his brand new Kindle. Finally, what were the two best-selling Kindle books of 2011? Two self-published efforts, as a matter of fact: Darcie Chan’s The Mill River Recluse and Chris Culver’s The Abbey.

This was all pretty much expected. Beginning with the explosion in e-reader and e-book sales last Christmas Season, the year 2011 continued to be an annus mirabilis for electronic reading and the self-publishing it inspires. David Gaughran, a self-pubbed author who maintains a fantastic blog on the self-publishing world, Let’s Get Digital, has written this vivid summary of a year that in future will no doubt be considered a watershed year in the publishing industry. Among the compelling facts cited by Gaughran is that starting in February of 2010, e-books for the first time became the dominant format, outselling both hardbacks and paperbacks, and capturing an astounding 29.5% market share. In May Amazon announced that it was now selling more e-books than all print formats combined. In June J.K. Rowling announced the coming launch of her Pottermore website (still coming, in fact), where the Harry Potter e-books will be sold exclusively for the first time. In the midst of these sea changes the traditional publishing world began to reel. As Gaughran puts it: “The old order was fragmenting, and something messy and chaotic (and beautiful) was emerging in its stead.”

I mention all this not out of spite against traditional publishing and traditional books. Of course, innumerable excellent books continue to be brought out by traditional publishers. And I love my hardbound books. The shelves in my office are bursting with them, and many of them are real treasures both in terms of content and design. I suspect that I will always continue to buy them.

So I don’t take the rise of the e-book as creating an either/or situation with traditional books. For me, they make for a delightful both/and.

Still, I’d like to tell you why I love this electronic revolution in reading. First of all, reading in bed is so much more enjoyable! No more having to keep moving the book or switching positions in order to get a comfortable angle on the page. With the e-reader’s single screen, everything is always right there in front of me. I adjust the pillows once, and off I go…

But seriously, I love this electronic revolution primarily for the artistic freedom it affords. The new technology has given an outlet to scads of self-published writers hungry for an audience, an audience they can invite to read their work without having to go through the middlemen of traditional agents and publishers. To the argument that the rise of self-publishing has also unleashed upon an unsuspecting world legions of awful books, one can only retort: so also has traditional publishing. A New York imprimatur does not guarantee excellence. If a self-published author is not quite ready for prime time on your e-reader, then you can be the judge and stop buying his or her books.

This past summer I began Trojan Tub Entertainment with a rather simple desire to get my work quickly out to the world. But the deeper I got into developing the company, the more I became excited about this e-book revolution that was crackling all around me. I sensed that I was in the middle of a huge cultural change. I thought that, inevitably, children would be reading more and more on electronic devices. I guessed that especially when Pottermore launched, children and young readers would bond with digital books like never before.

I believe my hunches were right, and I’m very proud that my Patria series is (more or less just slightly behind) the forefront of this messy, chaotic and beautiful creative impetus in the world of publishing. And not just because it’s cool being on the cutting edge. But because this, the virtual space in which people more and more are choosing to congregate, is where the children and families (and adults!) are with whom I wish to share my writing. The rise of the e-book has allowed me the chance to create a little electronic enclave with this audience—with you!—and that is an opportunity I simply cannot pass up.

Yesterday GigaOM, a technology blog, made this prediction that 2012 would be the year of the artist-entrepreneur. With distribution chains in the arts and entertainment world collapsing across all content areas, and with the changes in technology democratizing content creation, the tech-savvy entrepreneur is poised to make his or her voice well heard in the year ahead. I for one can’t wait to be a part of it.

If you’d like to join me, then go ahead and dive into the Kingdom of Patria website, and venture over to the homepage to download the first book in my Patria series of humorous adventures for middle grade readers: Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits. If you like the book, think about penning a short review for the book’s page on Amazon,, or iTunes (a few sentences will do). Self-published authors depend upon good reviews perhaps even more than do other authors, so I would appreciate anything you can manage.

The second book in the Patria series, Stoop of Mastodon Meadow, will be released very early here in 2012. You can find a synopsis and the cover art here. Thoughts on these are welcome.

My best wishes to everyone, especially all you artist-entrepreneurs, for a New Year 2012 full of blessings and beautiful works of art. Let me know how things are going for you, and I’ll meet you back here soon! 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Day and the Desire for More

I found this meditation this morning at the beginning of the January 2012 Magnificat. It’s by Father James M. Sullivan, O.P., novice master for the Dominican Province of Saint Joseph at Saint Gertrude Priory in Cincinnati. I thought I’d share it with you. It’s a wonderful meditation with which to start the New Year…

Why do we look forward to a New Year? This perception within ourselves is almost built into us: The New Year will be better than the last. This year will be happier. I will be more organized. I will be thinner! In truth, this notion of beginning again is built into us and God made us this way so that we would never stop longing for him.

Whatever it is we are wishing for or desiring this New Year, stop for a second and thank God simply for the gift of desire itself, for the theological virtue of hope which shows us the fulfillment of our desire, and for the longing he has placed in our heart that will never be satisfied in this world.

In whatever way the New Year will unfold before us remains a matter of God’s providence. Our fulfillment of his will rests in what we choose to do. In the midst of all of that, no matter what happens, never stop desiring more—more happiness, more joy, more of him.

Through the intercession of Our Lady, Mary Mother of God, may God bless you all with abundant graces in 2012!