The Internet and Private Space

As I was working on the wording of last Sunday’s sermon the other day, I stumbled over some wording that stirred up my thinking about one of the complexities of this moment. 

As I was writing, I tossed out the comment “in public on the internet.” 

I left the phrase in my sermon because it fit in contrast to “in public in person” for conveying the intent of a relatively minor point.

Yet I knew even then that it was problematic. 

Because there is no public space on the internet.  

Every online space is also a product, a personally or organizationally branded and controlled transactional, manipulated invention. 

There are people and organizations that offer opn spaces, but ultimately such a space still belongs to the entity that curates or moderates it,  that constructs it or pays for its domain name and server space. 

As with all things, there are trade offs. 

Online spaces are more accessible than physical ones for a range of folks and a range of reasons. 

That is good.

At the same time, they are less accessible to others. 

That is not good. 

And beyond the question of accessibility, they are still privately controlled. They produce and are a product of the ongoing erosion of public space, the wholesale dominance of an enacted ideology of privatization. 

Some of us are deeply disturbed by hardened postmodern neoliberal capitalism’s commodification of all things, its reduction of all matters of life to economic transactionalism. 

A shift of activity from physical spaces to online ones inescapably intensifies the process of privatization. 

I don’t see how it cannot, at least not under contemporary paradigms of privatized internet space. 

And of course I’m participating in one right here. 

Before all this started, I had begun studying Shosana Zuboff’s work on surveillance capitalism – and also begun trying, if not to extricate myself and the church from it – because I’m not sure that’s even possible – at least to develop alternative ways of communication and representation as well. 

But in the urgency of this moment, I’ve had to set that aside and lean fully into efficient, broad-reaching, monetized privately controlled internet spaces – like this one and like Google’s suite of products – for the purposes of conversation, substantive work, and meaningful connection beyond the walls of my household. 

I simply don’t have the resources of time, energy, money, and knowledge to do otherwise and still get all the necessary (or at least a significant portion of the necessary) things done. 

Even beyond those exigencies, I’m increasingly aware of how our cultural worldview and expectations – perhaps even our ways of understanding knowledge-making and being – are being shaped by our reliance on and seduction by such pervasive privatized methods and mediums/media. 

It can be democratic in certain ways, but in all things it is entirely reliant on the money and control mechanisms of the private market. 

I am SURE there are folks working in this field, likely even in analyzing and theorizing cultural production in the COVID era – and it may be that Zuboff has more to say about this in particular and I just haven’t gotten there. 

So this is still an evolving thought on my part – and I need to do more lit search to properly situate it. 

But I want to go ahead and set it out there because it’s important as a touchstone of understanding about how we are forming and being formed by powerful forces motivated by particular agendas (some of which are good in my opinion and some not – but it’s critical to recognize them as private agendas operating in privatized spaces no matter what). 

I welcome thoughts and feedback, as well as references to work by others in this area.  

Easter and the Capitalist Resurrection

Never mind that
you are gasping
for breath
and still
contagious.

Come sunrise
on Resurrection Day,
you will surely see
the (dollar) signs
gathered
round the
idol’s outstretched
grasping
hand

No stone of
conscience
to roll
away

Christ, the
Market is
Risen
today.
Ahhhh
le
lu
YEAH
we are
back in
business

All Hail the
Power of
Preserv’d
Profit as
Elijah and
Moses
would surely
agree.

Lord we lift your
Golden Calf
on high

Up from the
Grave the
Economy
Arose and
We All
Rejoiced

Attacks on the Vulnerable: Transgender Youth and Alabama House Bill 303

Yesterday the Health Committees in the Alabama House and Senate advanced a bill that would prohibit doctors from offering appropriate medical care to transgender children and youth. It would force schools to disclose information shared by transgender children and youth with their parents. It also establishes criminal penalties for those who do not comply.

HB 303 is part of an ongoing national strategy to manipulate public sentiment and public institutions in service of the powerful by targeting the most vulnerable populations in our society.

Like undocumented people and poor black people, transgender youth are a convenient target for boilerplate legislation designed to incite fear across difference, so that those with economic, political, and cultural power can maintain that power.

It’s a formula of lies about freedom and the Gospels intended to prey upon the the capacity of those with power to deploy it against those with less power – and to feel self-righteous about doing so, as any proud bully will do.

In Alabama, this little packet of evil is deceptively named the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act. In truth, like its poison kin aimed at other marginalized people, it will result directly in death and sorrow.

More information about the source of such bills can be found here, here, and here.

The fabric of our nation is woven with one of measure of blood, bone, exploitation, manipulation, and violence and one measure of hope, opportunity, respect, liberty, and blessing.

It’s up to us what we make of it going forward.

Amen

Human Condition, 2020 – Part I

I started the day
with a poem
which got interrupted
by something,
important,
that got
interrupted,
which then was
interrupted
by something
important
that got interrupted
by something
else,
important,
leaving me
late to
where I was
supposed
to be.

Several
interruptions
followed. 

And then came
more
important
interruptions
stacked
one
on
top
of
the
other.

Facing west,
late (again)
to the next
important thing,
the sunset
stretched orange
across the
full
sky,
interrupting
my hurry,
leaving me
breathing,
with my poems
tucked neatly
in my pocket
til there is time.

 

The Not Cult of Not Celebrity

History has forgotten
those I admire
most. Even I
can’t call
their names.

People of the daily
who because it
needed to be done
tended wounds,
spoke truths,
opened doors to
hungry people,
appreciated beauty
and found it often,
lived lightly
on the Earth,
flinched not while
challenging
brutality,
or flinched,
but remained
steadfast anyway,
sang with abandon,
died when
it was time.

Deeds undocumented
by any textbook.
No image
for posterity.
Nothing left counted
by the common
measures of man.

They who mended the world
over and over again,
alive in the not-known.

Questions in Advent

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year.*  We immerse ourselves in the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the journey of his life. We are called to pause and reflect, even (and especially) amid the Christmas marketplace chaos.

Advent is also an excellent time to reflect on the questions that guide us. Productivity gurus tout the magic of goal setting. Cultural conditioning instructs us to know – and proclaim our knowledge of – all the answers.

But I learn a lot from sitting with questions. A couple have travelled with me for many years: how can such joy and such suffering exist simultaneously in our world? And how ought I to live in the face of this dissonance?

I expect to grapple with these questions as long as I have breath in me.

Others are more transitory, such as – how do I live into and love the work of this moment? what words and actions can I usefully contribute in this cultural climate? what exactly is that cultural climate even anyway?

Those who listen to me regularly know that I consider all time holy. Yet each season carries that sacredness in a different manner. The rhythm of Christian life offers us the continual discipline of lifting our spirits and opening our hearts. It also gives us time to reflect, to discern, and to grow in wisdom and understanding.

I invite you in these early days of the Christian year, in this sacred time of waiting and hoping, of rejoicing and contemplation, to spend some time with your questions – or, if need be, to work on figuring out what questions you might journey with in the days, months, and years ahead.

May you find blessing in that journey.

Amen

(*my sermons, never especially long by conventional standards, are particularly brief during Advent because Beloved has a tradition of glorious extra music during this season. Consider this a sermon outtake 🙂)

 

Community-Developed Knowledge

At the end of an article* in the fall issue of the journal n+1, sex worker Lorelei Lee notes:

“This essay could not have been written without community-developed knowledge. Any mistakes are my own, and anything I got right is the result of living, working, and thinking in coalition with hundreds of brilliant people in the sex trades.”

(*that outstanding article, Cash/Consent, is preceded immediately by another insightful piece entitled The Evangelical Mind by non-practicing evangelical Adam Kotsko – and the mere juxtaposition of these two pieces, let alone their thought-provoking content, is a sharp move)

I’ve been reflecting on the notion of community-developed knowledge since I read the piece several days ago.

I’ve always had a thing for epistemology (the mechanisms of knowledge production) – and this concept is right at the edge of what is wise and what is problematic in our world today.

For the most part, we have ceased to grant collective authority of knowledge to central figures – whether those be individuals or institutions.

Diffusing power in this way can be a good thing.

However, in our knowledge processes, we have fallen prey to (a) the market-driven cult of celebrity and (b) an overly uncritical willingness to accept sources that simply reframe what we already believe, regardless of whether they are rigorous or merely speculatively profit- or attention-driven.

I don’t know exactly how Lee defines community-developed knowledge, but I hear the potential for a useful corrective to these problems.

Community-developed knowledge is meaningful when it centers the experiences and expertise of perspectives often excluded from discussions of ‘what is known.’

Community-developed knowledge is generated not by a single human savior source, but by collectively sharing in work, commitment, and respect.

Community-developed knowledge can be geared to reject shallow trade in convenient sound bytes that erase nuance, instead weaving insights gathered over time through living and learning (both formal and informal).

Obviously, it can also go wrong, so that homogenous communities of relative power simply reinforce problematic ‘knowledge’ about others and the world – but that’s an ongoing risk no matter what.

We work with and within the world as it is.

Go Fourth

I cannot celebrate a
country so relentlessly
rich in willful
oblivion concerning the
suffering upon which
it was built
back then

Back then
meaning centuries
decades
yesterday

Back then
meaning
an hour
ago

Today I celebrate instead –

the open hearts of so many
genuine kindness found in passing
radical solidarity with exiles from domination’s favor

the art of rejoicing at beauty
those who give in to the weighty gifts of mutuality
good books

days spent in honest work
the courage of witness in the face of power
friends who think with me

this one ripe peach

In the Shadow of Honky Tonk Central

Half a crowded block
away I heard him

Tourists seeking
downtown drinks
and country covers
no match for his
volume:

“WHORE!”

That much
I caught
before sight
of the pair

Her head down,
with what?
fear, shame,
or the sure
certainty that hope
has no place in
hell here

His body vibrating
with noisy rage

Yet together
they walked,
breaking stride only

beside me,
ignored with effort
by every single soul
especially the sidewalk cop
bouncer taking no note of my
desperate wish that he would
fix things
send this man
on his way 

as he keeps
smashing words
walking away
          coming back for more

smashing words
walking away
          coming back for more

smashing words
walking away
          coming back for more

Rage in a torn green t-shirt

They are dirty, lean, distant
even in the crowd

A world within some
private
compelling
hell

I have nothing to offer
No answers
protection
dollar bills
wisdom
magic
not a useful thing
except to stop and stand
praying that
he will not turn again
she will cross the
street and
go
away

Knowing the feel of fists
I can’t leave and
can’t do a thing
but choke on
dry words of fervent
pleading

Go
away

Either one of
you

East
North
or
an angled move
with the light
and the crush of
people
oblivious by intent

There I stand
feet leaden
muttering silent
prayers as –
finally –
gravity tugs him
toward the river and
she turns
swallowed in neon
and vanishes
into the night.