Theatre of the Absurd

Theatre of the Absurd

One of the questions I have been asked with some frequency over the last month or so is why my contributions to the Reformation 21 blog tend to have something of a facetious edge to them. I am tempted to answer simply that that is the kind of person I am. If you want a bland blog, there are plenty of options out there, but, as Mariah Carey doesn't do stairs, I try my best not to do bland. Whether I'm successful or not is unclear, though the amount of hate mail is extremely encouraging in this regard: please keep sending it in; it means a lot to me and, judging by the adjectives alone, I know it means a lot to you too.

There is, however, more to it than the fact that I still have the mind of a seventeen year old schoolboy trapped inside an older but clearly no wiser body. It is that the whole blog phenomenon is inherently ridiculous; that the more serious it tries to be, the more absurd and pompous it becomes; and that I believe that if you can't beat the inevitable blogological deconstruction, you might as well join it, and that with relish. As the old Buddhist proverb says, `When faced with the inevitable, one must merely accept the inevitable.'

Why is this the case? Well, let's backtrack a little. The right to free speech is one of the most treasured aspects of the American Constitution, enshrined as it is the First Amendment. The freedom of the press is basic to this; yet we all know that the press is, by and large, the preserve of a wealthy elite. How many of us own newspapers or TV channels or have access to the contacts, the physical materials, and the distribution networks necessary to have our say in print or on the box? Very few. In theory we are all free to write, say or read what we want; in practice, however, there are considerable constraints, ideological and material, personal and impersonal, on our capacity to realize this freedom to its fullest theoretical extent.

This is where the web makes things more than a little different. At least on the surface, the web allows anyone, anywhere to have their say. Of course, the reality is somewhat less than that: you need to have the money to fund your techno-habit; you need to have the educational training to use a computer; and you need to have the time to indulge in your passion. While blogs and chatrooms may be `changing the way the world is,' I suspect that is rather more true for the children of stockbrokers in the American suburbs than for the nomads of northern Mongolia or the Berbers in the Moroccan desert. Nevertheless, it is clear that the capacity for greater participation in what we might call `media conversation' is now much greater, and much more instantaneous, than was ever possible with print or television.

What this increased freedom has arguably brought in its wake is a radical democratization of knowledge. Whereas in the past the availability of knowledge, and the opportunity to participate in the various institutions and conversations surrounding knowledge was limited, now those limitations have been decidedly weakened. On one level, this is to be welcomed. Frankly, if I depended on the American news media to tell me what is going on anywhere outside of - well, umm, Philadelphia and its immediate suburbs, then I'd be lost, doomed to assuming that the Eagles catastrophic showing in the NFL this year has indeed been greeted with universal disappointment, from Chestnut Hill to Samarkand. Thanks to the web, however, I can still find out each day what goes on back in the old country, from proper sports, like rugby, to politics, arts and entertainment. And the web potentially empowers groups who might otherwise find it hard to speak out - a little like the underground presses in Eastern Europe which played so signal a role in weakening the Iron Curtain the seventies and eighties.

Yet even as this increasing freedom is to be welcomed, it is not without inherent problems. In the past, if I wanted to tell you my views on subatomic physics, the best an idiot like myself could have done was to self-publish a book on the subject; and as soon as bookstore managers and journal editors noticed that the book was published by the `Carl R Trueman Center for Really Very Complicated Scientific Inquiry', no mainstream bookshop would stock it and no reputable organ would review it. These days, however, I could simply start my own webpage or blog, and somebody out there - probably a bunch of my own besotted but unqualified and incompetent disciples - would take it seriously, flag up my works, surround my blogs and articles with praise, and make me look like a credible player in the internet world of subatomic research . Credible, that is, to anyone who took the web at face value and did not know anything about the subject or my own lack of any qualifications in the relevant field.

The problem is this: the free access to public exposure which the web provides has facilitated what appears to be a dangerous confusion of categories, that of the right to speak with the right to be heard. Now, as noted above, everyone in America, from Larry Flynt to James Dobson, from Jesse Jackson to David Duke, has a constitutionally enshrined right to speak; and as I am, in political terms, a leftish, libertarianish type of person, I would defend their right so to do; but I would deny that they each have an equal right to be heard. Frankly, the likes of Flynt and Duke sicken me to the pit of my stomach; they can say what they like; but I am not going to bother listening; and the Constitution does not require that I do so.

This is where the democratization of knowledge which the web has fuelled is so damaging. Now anybody can spout on anything and find an audience, no matter how hateful or inept or ignorant they are. After all, cyberpsace dissolves the difference between a large, credible denomination, say The Presbyterian Church in America, and some survivalist nutcase out west who gathers with his wife and kids every Sunday and has a webpage entitled `The Presbyterian Church in America (Reconstituted).' In webworld, both apparently have an equally legitimate existence and an equally legitimate right to be heard. On a more prosaic, and less harmful level, webpages and blogs allow any Tom, Dick or Harriet, regardless of qualification, to hold forth on just about anything. And this is where it all gets so incredibly messy and even, in the technical sense, deconstructive.

A couple or recent examples which have been brought to my attention might help to illuminate the problem. One was a blogsite which railed against `self-appointed watchdogs' who do nothing but offer negative criticism of others. Well I never. An attack on negative, self-appointed watchdogs launched by - umm - a negative, self-appointed watchdog. Yet the apparent absurdity of the situation was entirely lost on the blogmeister who was engaged in this activity, oblivious to the obvious contradictions of his activity and attitude. It seems that where the web is concerned, negativity and self-appointment are in the eyes of the beholder. In this case, blogic aced logic, and the result was most unfortunate.

Then there was the case of a young guy who wanted to engage in email banter about something I'd written. What fascinated me was the way this person referred to himself at one point in our exchange as a scholar. Yet he had no higher degree, no track record of publications which had passed muster with peers in the field. Indeed, he's still a student, not yet even beginning a doctoral program. Indeed, he's a long way from possessing that most basic of academic union cards: a PhD. Now, I guess I'm old fashioned but the category of scholar is one which should be reserved for those who have established themselves in their chosen field by actual scholarly achievement, not by simply talking a good game. This credibility is achieved by consistent, careful and scholarly contributions to a field in terms of refereed publications which then enjoy currency among qualified peers outside the person's immediate circle of epigonous friends. Above all, `scholar' is a title that one never, ever applies to oneself. Yet here was this junior denizen of the web calling himself a `scholar,' a title at which even most of the distinguished academics with whom I am familiar would blush if it were to be applied to them. What on earth was going on? I can only assume that this chap had been tricked by the fact that he hangs round on blog pages with mutually-affirming virtual friends all day into imagining that he was a real player in the serious scholarly world beyond the blogosphere, so to speak. Yet, one might quip in response that having a vote and visiting a polling station every four years does not make one a professional politician, let alone the Prime Minister or the President. Once again, blogic aced logic; and, once again, the result was most unfortunate.

To cut to the chase: the danger of the web is this: where everyone has a right to speak, everyone ends up thinking they have a right to be heard; and when everyone in general thinks they have a right to be heard, then you end up with a situation where nobody in particular is listened to.

Let's conclude by bringing the point home to the church: the danger of an uncritical attitude to the web and to blogging is that it comports very easily with the conversational model of theology which is now gaining currency among the advocates of advanced modernism (aka postmodernism) of the Western church situation, where `Thus saith the Lord' is being displaced by `Come in, God, me old pal. Let's have a cup of coffee and a chat.' The absolute democratization of knowledge to which an uncritical attitude to blogging etc leads is, after all, inimical to any hierarchical view of truth, and thoroughly comfortable with the `this is my truth now tell me yours' approach which is gaining ground even as I write.

So how do we go about combating this? Well, we cannot abandon web-based media so we should not try. Yet it seems to me the only way to avoid being co-opted into the pompous and arrogant numptiness of a world where students claim to be scholars and pit-bulls genuinely lament the unacceptable aggression of poodles is to do one of two things. We could make sure that the stuff we read in the virtual world is backed up by achievements out there in the real world. If a blogmeister is a bishop in the Catholic Church or has been moderator of a Presbyterian denomination or has a string of peer-reviewed publications in a given field, the term `self-appointed' is somewhat different when applied to that person than to some kid with an appetite for self-publicity and a networked computer in his bedroom. The latter certainly has a right to speak; but the former has actually earned the right to be heard.

Or you could try another way, what we might call the `Samuel Beckett' option: face this theatre of the absurd head-on; join in with the other nobodies pretending to be somebodies; laugh at your own ridiculous complicity in this nonsense; expose the systemic contradictions for all they are worth; mock the blogworld for all of its inane self-importance; and in so doing try in some small way to subvert the system from the inside. It may not ultimately work; but you'll have fun in the process. Isn't that right, Del-Boy?