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Angels, Demons, and Inklings

9 March 2019

That Hideous StrengthThat Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading That Hideous Strength again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it, I think this is the eighth time, and each time I find something new.

Last time I read it I concentrated on one aspect of the story. That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.You can find plenty of other references to the book on this blog, and there are also several on my other blog Notes from Underground. So is there anything left to say about this book that I haven’t already said? Probably not, but I hope I will not be guilty of too much repetition if in this post I concentrate on the angelology and demonology of C.S. Lewis and, to a lesser extent, the other Inklings.

As in the earlier books of the series, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, That Hideous Strength features beings that Lewis calls eldils or eldila. He uses many terms for these creatures, but “eldil” appears to be one that he made up. The most usual theological term would be “angel”, but in That Hideous Strength Lewis has a conversation between Professor Cecil Dimble and his wife, discussing the difficulties they are likely to have when a revived Merlin joins their company:

“Well, about Merlin. Were there possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours? The earth itself was more like an animal. Mental processes were more like physical actions. And there were — well, Neutrals, knocking about.”
“You mean eldils — angels?”
“Well the word angel rather begs the question. Even the Oyeresu aren’t exactly angels in the same sense as our guardian angels. There used to be things on this earth pursuing their own business. They weren’t ministering spirits sent to help humanity, but neither were they enemies preying upon us… all the gods, elves, dwarfs, water people, fate, longaevi.”

The word angel means a messenger, and in Christian terminology angels are basically ministering spirits sent to help humanity. “Angel” was also used, in a wider sense, to refer to a whole class of beings whose role and functions were quite different.

In The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams Damaris Tighe reads a paper on The Eidola and the Angeli to a group- of people, and to introduce her subject she says:

You will all know that in the Middle Ages there were supposed to be various classes of angels, who were given different names–to be exact” (“and what is research if it is not exact?” she asked Mrs. Rockbotham, who nodded), “in descending order, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, princes, powers, archangels, angels. Now these hierarchized celsitudes are but the last traces in a less philosophical age of the ideas which Plato taught his disciples existed in the spiritual world. We may not believe in them as actually existent–either ideas or angels–but here we have what I may call two selected patterns of thought. Let us examine the likenesses between them; though first I should like to say a word on what the path was by which imaginations of the Greek seer became the white-robed beings invoked by the credulous piety of Christian Europe, and familiar to us in many paintings.

Archangel Michael

Leaving aside for the moment Damaris Tighe’s notion that the Christian idea of angels was merely a distorted development from Plato’s Ideas and Archetypes, she gives the list of nine kinds of spiritual creatures, which theologians such as Dionysius the (pseudo)Areopagite have ranked in order, with the Seraphim being closest to God, and the angels being closest to man. Therefore to call them all “angels”, as Professor Dimble said, does tend to beg the question. To refer to them all without begging the question, theologians refer to them as “the Bodiless Powers”, but perhaps Lewis found “Bodiless Powers” too cumbersome, and so he made up the word “eldil” to refer to them.

In That Hideous Strength Lewis uses several other terms to refer to them, or to particular classes of them. One that also appears in the passage cited above is Oyeresu. There are eldils that are in charge of planets, planetary rulers. But in Lewis’s understanding they are more than that. They are the spirits of the planets, and in a sense animate the planets. Another word he uses for them in this role is gods, and so the Oyeresu are the old Roman gods of the planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. And Mercury is mercurial, Venus is venereal, Mars is martial, Jupiter is jovial and Saturn is saturnine.

One could speculate about which level of the celestial hierarchy represents the Oyeresu — perhaps they are among the “Virtues”, but St John of Damascus gives the following list, and perhaps Dominions or Powers might be closer to the mark:

  1. Seraphim
  2. Cherubim
  3. Thrones
  4. Dominions
  5. Powers
  6. Authorities (Virtues)
  7. Rulers (Principalities)
  8. Archangels
  9. Angels

Bible translators haven’t always been consistent in their use of these terms. Colossians  1:13, for example, says that God has delivered us from the authority (exousia) of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. But if the Authorities are Virtues, then the darkness from which he has delivered us must be virtuous too.

Damaris Tighe (in The Place of the Lion) had watered down her paper for a more popular audience by substituting phrases like  “credulous piety” for “superstitious slavery”, but in talking about her thesis of how Platonic Ideas and Archetypes had been transformed into Christian angels she had shown herself to be something of an archetype of an ivory-tower academic.

Damaris Tighe had all the disdain of a modern academic for premodern (ie medieval) thought and culture, an attitude which in South Africa sometimes leads to calls for academia to be decolonised. And Lewis brings up another aspect of the modern mind when (through Dimble) describing Merlin’s premodernity — “The earth itself was more like an animal. Mental processes were more like physical actions.” Modern academics have their own terminology for describing this — animism. In this regard, Lewis is something of a medievalist, not just that he has studied medieval culture and literature, but that he tries to interpret these to moderns in such a way that they can see that by abandoning these things, modernity is missing something.

The villain of That Hideous Strength is the N.I.C.E., which is imbued with the spirit of modernity. But Lewis does not simply write off modernity as the invention of the Devil (who is, of course, the Bent Oyarsa, the Oyarsa of Thulcandra, the Silent Planet). He balances the abomination of NICE with the character of McPhee, who represents the good aspect of modernity and the value of the scientific method. But modernity, as represented by NICE, comes up with another name for eldila — macrobes.

It was a sometime modern theologian, Harvey Cox, who in his book The Secular City, attacked the animism of people like Lewis (without naming names), when he wrote, “We should oppose the romantic restoration of the sprites of the forest. It may seem pleasant at first to reinstate the leprechauns, but — as Hitler made all too clear — once the Valkyries return, they will seek a bloodthirsty revenge on those who banished them.” And that is, in a sense, what happened to NICE.

Other Christian theologians of the 1960s were, like Cox, also trying to “demythologise” the gospel because, it seemed to many of them, it did not make sense to “modern man”. Lewis and his fellow Inklings, by contrast, were trying remythologise it in such a way that it could make sense to modern men,.

Though Lewis was not really trying to reinstate the leprechauns; he recognised that they belonged to a different world. But one of his concerns in his novels was to show the rationality of what moderns tended to regard as “credulous piety” at best, or “superstitious slavery” at worst. Merlin represents the irruption of the premodern into the modern. His almost instinctive reaction in the presence of the eldila is to worship them, but Ransom holds him back, for all their difference and awesomeness, they are fellow creatures with us. They are gods, but they are not the “Great King above all gods”. .

Lewis, we can say, is not only an animist, he is a polytheist. That’s another concept that gives moderns the heebie jeebies. Christianity has been described as a “monotheistic religion”, therefore Christianity must conform to some kind of Platonic conceptual Idea of “monotheism”. But why should it? To insist that it should conform to such an idea is actually to set up the idea as a little Oyarsa, a ruler, an archon, a prince, a principality.

At some point in the late Middle Ages, possibly under the influence of scholasticism, there was a conceptual shift. Before then the primary distinction was between Creator and creature. God was on one side of the line, and angels and men were on the other. Angels, eldils, bodiless powers, gods, macrobes, call them what you will, were fellow creatures with us, and therefore on our side of the line. But when the change came, the line was made between “natural” and “supernatural”, and so we were on one side of the line and God and the gods were on the other,.

C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien all shy away from the term “angels”, though they do write about them. Williams goes so far as to call them angelicals, but they are more than that. Tolkien devises his own names, Valar, Maiar and the like. One group of Maiar that appeared on earth to help its inhabitants were the Istari, who were called by the hobbits “wizards”. That brings its own problems, especially since the appearance of the Harry Potter books, which have reinforced the perception that witches are female and that the male equivalent is a “wizard”. But really a witch is one thing (and witches can be male or female), and wizards are another. The characteristic of wizards was to be wise; the characteristic of witches was to be bent, like the Oyarsa of Thulcandra.

One of the web sites I frequent, probably too much, is Quora, where people ask any questions they like, and others, who know the answers, or think they do, try to answer them. Seeing the kind of questions people ask can in some way give one a handle on modern culture. And quite a lot of the questions are about the effect that the discovery of alien races from elsewhere in space would have on religion.

C.S. Lewis has answered that pretty conclusively in his science fiction books, which are written to be consistent with Christian mythology. Yet almost invariably the questioners seem to assume that discovery of or interaction with aliens from otherwhere in the universe would be damaging to the human race, to human religion in general, and to Christianity in particular. What never seems to occur to them is what Lewis said — that the danger goes the other way. Earth is the “silent planet”, earth is the danger to the rest of the universe. The question is not whether we can survive them, but whether they can survive contact with us, because we are the ones who have been contaminated. .

But what strikes me about reading the Inklings is how they manage to keep everything they write about angels, gods, eldils, bodiless powers, macrobes or whatever you want to call them, consistent with Christian mythology. The moderns who question such things, or question Christian creation myths, are generally ignorant of mythology. Many believe that Genesis 1 has the only account of creation. Some are aware that there is a different take on it in Genesis 2, and yet are unaware that the Genesis 1 version is a demythologised version of a Babylonian story. But even fewer are aware that Lewis’s version (in The Magician’s Nephew) and Tolkien’s version (in the Ainulindale of The Silmarillion are based on the creation account in Job 38, where the gods helped God create the earth, and both these versions are quite consistent with the Christian myth.

In the words of an English paraphrase of a Greek hymn:

Then when the earth was first poised in mid-space
Then when the planets first sped on their race
Then when was ended their six days’ employ
Then all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

 

 

 

Whodunits: local is lekker?

7 March 2019

We began our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch this morning by talking about crime fiction, and specifically detective stories.  I had recently finished A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley (actually a pseudonym for two authors), and found it very good. I also interrupted other reading for Cold Granite, which has to go back to the library, and I couldn’t help comparing them (see review below).

I liked A Carrion Death better, partly because it is local, if not to South Africa, at least to the subcontinent, since it is set in Botswana. Botswana is now the setting for two good detective series. Janneke Weidema also recommended the crime stories of Deon Meyer, which the rest of us hadn’t read, so we’ll be looking for them the next time we go to the library.

Cold Granite (Logan McRae, #1)Cold Granite by Stuart MacBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A readable whodunit/police procedural set in Aberdeen, Scotland.

A couple of dead children are found, and the Aberdeen police wonder if they have a serial killer to contend with, and then other children are reported missing. The investigation is hampered by someone leaking information to journalists.

I read this one soon after reading another whodunit, A Carrion Death, which was set closer to home, and thus in more familiar territory. And perhaps that showed up some flaws in Cold Granite that I might not otherwise have been aware of.

One thing is the backstory, which, in the case of Cold Granite made me think I was reading the second or third book in a series when it is apparently the first. The protagonist, Detective Sergeant Logan McRae, has injuries, both physical and romantic, that belong to a previous book in the series, except that the previous book apparently does not exist, which makes these details superfluous to this story, unless Stuart McBride is planning to write a prequel.

It is traditional in whodunits to scatter clues to who did the crime in the book to entice the reader to guess them, and occasionally they are known to the reader before they are known to the detectives. But in this book there were too many instances of the reader being able to see things that the detectives did not, in spite of the latter being in possession of the same information. That makes the detectives look stupid and unprofessional.

No doubt in real life many detectives are stupid and non-professional, but it is a little disappointing when it is made so obvious to the reader, and that is why I gave this one four rather than five stars.

From the police procedural point of view, it also raises questions. A clue that certainly gives grounds for further investigation leads the police to jump to conclusions and arrest a suspect for charging rather than questioning. Again, that kind of thing may happen in real life, but the Aberdeen police in the novel are not led to question their own procedures as a result.

Still, it’s a good read, and the police are called on to solve some pretty gruesome crimes in a hurry before the killer strikes again, but it might have been better if the police had shown more evidence of learning from their mistakes.

If you’re looking for crime and detective stories, there are several lists on GoodReads, where you can see which ones other people have voted for, and vote for your own favourites. One of them is the Crime Fiction list, which is for any book where crime forms a dominant element of the plot. It doesn’t have to have a detective protagonist — the protagonist can also be a criminal, or a victim, just as long as it’s mainly about crime.

And for the “local is lekker” department, check African Crime Fiction.

We then discussed a couple of books where the “local” wasn’t so lekker. One of those was Vortex, by Larry Bond. The author clearly hadn’t a clue about the geography of places he was writing about (mainly in and around Pretoria), which made the plot, such as it was, difficult to follow.

One of the better ones, by a foreign author, was The Fourth Protocol, by Frederick Forsyth. It gave a good description of the countryside around Tzaneen, and, best of all, for us, a description of a visit to the military archives in Pretoria, which was almost a user’s manual.

He described the location of the archives, and his description was good enough for us to be able to find the building, so we went there. They told us that the records had now been moved to another building in town, so we went there, and had a glorious couple of days looking through a card index of South African soldiers in the First and Second World Wars. We found Val’s father and grandfather, and numerous uncles and great uncles. And having found the reference on the cards, we were able to order the documents indexed by the cards, which were often even more informative. So whatever else Frederick Forsyth was, he was a grand guide to genealogical research.

From there we went on to discuss what kinds of books, newspapers and magazines encouraged people to read. And that is where populist newspapers like The Sun shine. Yuppies may prefer the other papers where they can read about the celebs they are trying to emulate, but ordinary people want to read about people like them, such as their neighbour whose soap was eaten by a zombie.

J

A Carrion Death

27 February 2019

A Carrion Death (Detective Kubu, #1)A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We read the third book of this series, Death of the Mantis, liked it, and then read the second A Deadly Trade. But the library did not have the first book, so we ordered it from a bookshop and I have now finished reading it. It is every bit as good as the other two, and in some ways better.

These are detective stories — whodunit/police procedurals — with a local southern African flavour, set in Botswana, and are interesting on that account alone, since we have been at or near many of the locations mentioned in the stories.

A word of warning, however. Many readers of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and others of that series , also set in Botswana, should be aware that these are police procedurals. This is not about a private eye looking for stray dogs and errant husbands, but cops looking for killers.

Being local also adds authenticity to the plot, and A Carrion Death seems almost prophetic, because it rings truer now than it would have ten years ago when it was first published. The kind of thing that happens in the story is what we see on TV all day every day (except weekends) with live blow by blow accounts of corrupt deals involving prominent businessmen and politicians.

Such corruption is not unique to southern Africa, of course. Every day I see my social media friends posting links to similar reports of corruption in other countries: Australia, Canada, the UK, the USA and more.

The characters are also believable and consistent with what we had learned about them in the later books in the series.

This one, however, hints at bigger mysteries than the other two books (and it looks as though later books in the series may expand on that theme), and that is the supernatural thriller. I had recently finished reading All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams, a master of the genre. In that an investigation of a murder gets nowhere until it linked to the activities of a satanist. In A Carrion Death there are mysterious appearances of a witchdoctor, who seems to have an uncanny knowledge of what is going on when the police are baffled.

But one mystery, which I had hoped would be solved by this book, remains, and it is more puzzling than ever. I thought that, being the first of the series, it would tell more of the backstory of the characters, but in that respect, it disappoints.

How does a young ecologist, Bongani Sibisi, who seems to be a Motswana of the Batswana, whose roots seem to go deep into Botswana soil and traditional culture (it is he who encounters the mysterious witch doctor) end up with a Zulu name? Enquiring minds want to know!

That surely needs some explanation , and having wondered about it in the other two books, I hoped that all would be revealed here. But it wasn’t.

Everything else about the books rang true. I could see no notable anachronisms, and the descriptions of places and what the characters did there seemed to be true to the time and the place. The only thing that stuck out like a sore thumb was the foreign names of some of the characters, with no explanation of what they were doing in Botswana.

Even the surname of the protagonist, detective David “Kubu” Bengu sounds a bit foreign. And there are others — people in the Botswana police with names like Zenele and Mandla. Was Botswana so short of trained police officers that it had to import them from Zululand?

In spite of that unresolved mystery, I still give the book five stars. It was excellent in every way but that one. Oh, and one other small discrepancy. One of the murder victims was said to have been shot by a .22 bullet, which later turned to have come from a 9mm Beretta pistol, which, in my memory, is quite a bit bigger than a .22,

I’d better stop here before I think of something else that doesn’t fit. I still think it was an excellent read, and lovers of crime and detective stories who live in southern Africa and have lived on a diet of stories set in the UK, the USA or Sweden might find this one more involving because the settings, characters and plots are local.

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Steve Biko & Black Consciousness

23 February 2019

I Write What I LikeI Write What I Like by Steve Biko
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I missed Steve Biko.

I never met him, or at least I don’t recall ever having met him, though some of my friends knew him quite well, so I knew him mainly through what other people told me about him. When I found this book of his writings in the local library, therefore, I wanted to read it to find out something about this person who had made such a strong impression on my friends.

This is therefore not so much a review as a response to the GoodReads prompt: What did you think?

Steve Biko was the founder of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa in the late 1960s, and this book is a collection of some of his articles and speeches edited by Fr Aelred Stubbs of the Community of the Resurrection (CR), who was, in a sense, Steve Biko’s spiritual father. It also includes a rather long (almost a third of the book) memoir by Fr Stubbs, which gives further information about his life and thought and deeds.

Steve Biko

In reading the book I wished I had been able to meet Steve Biko, and to be able to discuss some of the things he wrote about. If I had it might have cleared up some of my misunderstandings about Black Consciousness, and perhaps might have helped to clear up some of his misunderstandings of liberalism.

In the papers collected here he writes very clearly about his vision for a democratic non-racial South Africa, and of the need for black people unite to pursue that ideal.

I missed Steve Biko because at the very time that he began his university studies in medicine I had gone overseas to study theology in England. In that time he made a big impact on the student scene in South Africa, in the Anglican Students Federation (ASF), in the University Christian Movement (UCM) and the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). A year after returning to South Africa I moved to Namibia, and it was from there that I learned at second-hand of the Black Consciousness movement, mainly through reading a document “Towards a Black Theology” by a white Methodist minister, Basil Moore. It sounded like a rather bad idea. And Black Consciousness sounded rather abstract and wishy-washy. I had heard of and read about the Black Power movement in the USA, mainly in a series of booklets put out by the Sjaloom movement in the Netherlands, and that sounded much better that Black Consciousness.

Black Power seemed far more concrete, and Namibia got a taste of it when, in response to the World Court Judgement in mid-1971 that South Africa’s rule of Namibia was illegal, the (black) Lutheran Churches issued an open letter pointing out some of the abuses of power by the South African authorities, followed six months later by a strike of Ovambo contract workers, who demonstrated their economic power, and shook the system of white rule. Looking back, I suppose it could be said to reflect the kind of thing that Steve Biko wrote about. He said that black people needed to become conscious of their humanity before they could throw off their chains, as if black consciousness were a kind of necessary precursor of black power. But in Namibia it was the other way round — black people exercised their power. striking non-violent but telling blows against the white oppressors, and as a result of that became conscious of their humanity. And that was something that was very visible in the last six months of 1971. There was a change in attitude, a change in atmosphere, Before then many black people seemed to think of themselves as inferior, but after it many became aware of their humanity.

In 1972 I was deported from Namibia in order to be banned in South Africa (because of the sensitive international situation in Namibia after the World Court decision, the Department of Foreign Affairs was strongly opposed to people being banned in Namibia). In Durban I met Bennie Khoapa, the director of Black Community Programmes (BCP) and a close friend of Steve Biko. I learned of some of the good work they were doing, and also had a couple of brief chats with Barney Pityana (who was later to head t6he Human Rights Commission). But then they were banned, and I was no longer allowed to talk to them.

Thereafter much of my knowledge was mediated through white friends, who seemed to think that Black Consciousness was the mild and benevolent and safe thing, while Black Power was violent and dangerous. I still thought that Black Power was better because it was concrete, and Black Consciousness was too wishy-washy and abstract.

So I was glad, at last, to be able to read Steve Biko’s clear and lucid explanations of what he was about in this book.

I also knew Fr Aelred Stubbs slightly, and was interested to learn that Steve Biko, like me, apparently referred to him and called him “Father Stubbs”, whereas I referred to other members of the Community of the Resurrection by their first names — Father Timothy, Father Dominic, Brother Roger, Brother Charles. And I learned a bit more about him from his memoir too, which may help to explain some things about the history of the Anglican Church in South Africa, though that is a story for another time.

Fr Aelred Stubbs also writes something about Steve Biko’s religious beliefs, and whether he could be regarded as a Christian martyr. Though Steve Biko had been brought up as an Anglican, his beliefs about Christ could not really be regarded as orthodox (with a small “o”), but thinking of his life, and the manner of his death, perhaps the words on the tomb of St Alphege of Canterbury might be an appropriate epitaph for Steve Biko also: “He who dies for truth and justice dies for Christ.”

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Blogiversary: Khanya blog is 12 years old

13 February 2019

Twelve years ago I started Khanya blog. Here are some stats:

  • Best ever post

    12,094 views

  • All time

    678,905 views 5,034 comments

 

Over those twelve years, these have been the most popular posts:

Title Views
Home page / Archives More stats 96,971
What is Google installer, and why is it trying to access the Internet? More stats 42,782
The appearance of Jesus Christ: redux More stats 21,203
Three popes and a patriarch More stats 21,163
Nicene Creed: old and new translations More stats 20,606
About me More stats 14,212
What is African? Race and identity More stats 12,990
Zionist Christians and Christian Zionists More stats 12,678
Stuff to do on Sunday if you’re bored More stats 9,524
Makwerekwere More stats 8,649
Izikhothane: a new word for an old fashion? More stats 8,312
Tales from Dystopia More stats 7,290
Fighting crime — proactive or reactive? More stats 5,200
Charismatic Renewal More stats 4,915
The end of an era — Anglo-Catholicism rides off into the sunset More stats 4,578
Witchcraft, African and European More stats 4,274
The legacy of apartheid and the culture of violence More stats 4,218
Bad theology: Vassula Ryden and Benny Hinn More stats 3,682
The Church as the Liberated Zone More stats 3,664
The theology of Christian marriage More stats 3,535
Kitchen implement More stats 3,448
Ethiopian Orthodox Church More stats 3,236
More stuff to do on Sunday if you’re bored More stats 3,108
WordPress promoting porn? More stats 3,097
Khanya Blog More stats 2,945
Christianity and shamanism More stats 2,920
The youth of today, and yesterday More stats 2,762
Love is the measure: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker More stats 2,583
Who stole Halloween? More stats 2,535
Holy Glorious Great Martyr, Victorybearer and Wonderworker George (303) More stats 2,487
Angels and demons and egregores (book review) More stats 2,285
Squeezel? Squeeza? What does it mean? More stats 2,273
The Hunger Games (book review) More stats 2,226
Constants in context: A theology of mission for today — Book Review More stats 2,213
Inculturation, indigenisation, syncretism and cultural appropriation More stats 2,213
Salvation and atonement More stats 2,191

It’s interesting that among the most popular, including the one at the very top of the list, about Google Installer, are posts that were quite ephemeral, and probably didn’t deserve their popularity. Another in that category is “What to do on Sunday if you’re bored”, which is a metapost to test what kinds of blog posts become popular. Some more serious posts came much lower on the list, though I think they deserved more views.

So the number of views is not really the best way to judge the quality of a blog post. A much better measure is the number and quality of comments, and the extent to which discussion is carried over onto other forums. Unfortunately there is no way of measuring those things with WordPress statistics. But thanks to the 5034 people who commented. Your comments (well some of them) are what makes blogging worthwhile.

In case anyone is curious the cover picture was taken in the southern Drakensberg, at Drakensberg Gardens resort near Underberg. That part of the world has many memories for me, and it is the setting for two novels I have written — a children’s adventure story Of wheels and witches, and a kind of adult follow-up, The Year of the Dragon. And there have also been some blog posts about real events that took place in that part of the world, such as this one.

So thanks to everyone who has read what I have written here, to those who have commented in it, and to the other bloggers who have linked to posts here, or reblogged them (you can find some of them in the Blogroll in the sidebar). It is responses to ideas that helps one to sharpen and refined them.

 

Climate change, dystopia, history and politics

7 February 2019

Our Neoinklings Literary Coffee Klatsch today was mainly about the kind of dystopia likely to be brought about by climate change, and we discussed some dystopian fiction that followed such themes, and also history, mainly European, and some of the problems brought about by changing borders, with consequent demands for changing loyalties.

But first, David Levey returned our copy of Elidor, which he enjoyed, and said it was more gritty and focused than a lot of Alan Garner’s other books.

I certainly find it the best of Alan Garner’s books. The prose is tight and sparse, and the tension in the story builds up with unrelenting pressure. If that is what constitutes the genre known as “thriller”, then this is the thriller of all thrillers.

Janneke Weidema said she is in a Quaker group concerned about climate change, and David Levey mentioned some books about people who had tried to escape the consequences of climate change. One, whose title I didn’t get, was about people who retreated to spaceships orbiting the earth, and then there was a series about people who colonised Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars being the first of a trilogy on that theme.

Another he mentioned was The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. It was about a girl who lives in a gated community, built to protect its inmates from the angry proletariat outside. Her father is a Baptist preacher, but she finds his preaching irrelevant to the kind of world she lives in, so she creates her own religion and leaves the gated community to go and sow the seed of a new religion about a God whose main characteristic is change.

One of the dystopian novels that I recalled was Earth Abides by George Stewart. It was reading that back in 1961 that introduced me to the word “ecology”, and how the various elements of life hang together and influence one another.

The ecological question led into a discussion of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, who has a reputation as a “green” patriarch, but I had to try to explain why he is not looked on with much favour by the rest of the Orthodox right now, but that gets of the topic of books, so you can read more about it here.  An interesting sideline on that, however, is that the Roman Pope has been challenged to adopt Orthodox fasting rules for Lent.

Val mentioned a historical novel rather than one dealing with a future dystopia, Tombland by C.J. Sansom deals with a peasant revolt led by Robert Kett in East Anglia, protesting against the enclosure of land by landlords, and that has echoes in the present of peasants at Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape resisting threats to their rights and livelihood by international mining companies.

Perhaps we need to heed the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.
Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! (Isa 5:7-8 ).

From there the discussion somehow moved to wars and occupations and shifting borders in Europe, and how in the 1870s the European countries met to do the same thing in Africa that they were doing to each other. And that led to a book I am currently reading, Boereverraaier: Teregstellings tydens die Anglo-Boereoorlog. During that conflict the borders were constantly shifting, and a town occupied by one side one week might be occupied by the other side the next, and those who had declared themselves neutral one week could find themselves regarded as renegades the next. Some were accused of high treason, and ended up being shot by a firing squad composed of their friends and neighbours, and even, in some cases, members of their own families.

Social media, generations and me

2 February 2019

Yesterday I heard someone speak on social media, and a lot of it passed me by, and were completely remote from my experience. The main things I took away from it were:

  1. A Millennial is someone who knows what a Millennial is
  2. Millennials use social media almost exclusively for entertainment
  3. Millennials think they are cool and other generations are not.

I’m not going to argue about those points — after all I may have misunderstood them and got them completely wrong. People of my generation (whatever it may be called) tend to be somewhat hard of hearing, and I had to ask the speaker to repeat something three times before I realised  that she was talking about internet trolls, so there may have been a lot of other stuff I misheard as well.

But it did get me thinking about how social media in particular, and the internet in general, have changed the way we live out lives — by “we”, there, I mean those of us belonging to generations that lived at least part of their adult lives without the internet. So what do you call that generation, and those that followed?

I get confused by a lot of this talk of generations, and have no idea what the letters mean. I’ve read it somewhere, but I can’t retain the information, because most of the explanations have to do with US social history. And South African social history is different. and the landmarks are different.

What are the landmarks?

I recall reading in a newspaper that in the mid 1970s sociologists from elsewhere in the world wanted to come to South Africa to study the children to see how they differed from others, because South African children had not grown up with television. So that is, perhaps, a generational marker that differs from the USA.

Another, I would say, is the beginning of apartheid in 1948, and its end in 1994. And the last date happened to coincide with the Internet becoming popular.

Do we have names for those generations, and how do we apply them? And how did those changes affect our generation?

When I was in my late teens and early twenties one of my literary heroes was Jack Kerouac, who referred to his generation as the Beat Generation. Now Jack Kerouac was born in 1922, which is the same year that my father-in-law was born, so I don’t think I belong to the Beat Generation.

And Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac’s buddy, wrote of that generation:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

The generation that followed the Beat Generation shortened the “angelheaded hipsters” to “hippies”, and so was the Hippie Generation, and yes, I do kind of identify with that. So what did our generation, if it can be called the Hippie Generation, experience?

Hemingway, Eichmann, “Stranger in a Strange Land”
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion
“Lawrence of Arabia”, British Beatlemania
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson
Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex
JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say

We didn’t start the fire (Billy Joel).

Did you see what I just did there? Did you?

That is how my generation uses YouTube (a social medium). Not as entertainment, but as a footnote reference in a semi-scholarly blog post.

I don’t subscribe to YouTube. I don’t follow anyone there. I just use it as a reference, mainly for when the words of a song illustrate what I want to say.

Actually I can’t even watch it any more, because it has recently shut itself off to me, and if I try to watch anything it says “Your browser does not currently recognize any of the video formats available.” It used to recognise them, so what changed? My browser hasn’t changed, so it must be YouTube, catering only for Millennials who will spend five hours on it rather than the five minutes to check on a song.

I watch videos online as little as possible, because doing so chews bandwidth, which is hideously expensive. (“Hideous”, now there’s a generational word. My mother used to use it a lot. The currently favoured one, of course, is “toxic”). My generation is perhaps more economy conscious because we were deprived of things  during the war. It is said the Nats won the 1948 election because they promised white bread.

So much for YouTube. Then there’s Facebook. But to understand my generation’s relationship with Facebook, you need to look at its predecessors. We’re old, remember. We remember the Dark Ages before Facebook came to illuminate our darkness.

Before Facebook there was MySpace, which was graphics-intensive, clumsy, and difficult to navigate. It grew piecemeal, because nobody knew what users wanted, and so they added things in higgldy-piggeldy, and it became a huge mess.

And before MySpace was a site called SixDegrees, which was based on the theory that everybody on earth is within six degrees of relationship with everyone else, and tried to make it possible to trace the links. But it too tried to be graphics-intensive at a time when most people’s internet access was via dial-up modem, and waiting for a page to load was like watching paint dry. The site died.

Then along came Mark Zuckerberg, who learnt from the mistakes of sites like SixDegrees and MySpace, and came up with Facebook, which was uncluttered, simple, intuitive and fast. The only problem was that it was only for currently-registered students at tertiary educational institutions. Even amumni of those institutions could not apply. Eventually the hoi polloi were admitted and for a time it was social media bliss. Everyone wanted to join, and lots of people did.

And one of the things about people of my generation is that, having lived a long time in a lot of different places, we have lots of friends that we have lost touch with because they are too far away. And the more people there were on Facebook, the more likely it would be that you could reconnect with an old friend there. Millennials don’t like Facebook because they are not really interested in connecting with people. They are only interested in entertainment (so why do they talk about social media, then? Why not “entertainment media”?

And that is perhaps a difference between the computer generation and the TV generation. And that’s where the continental divide comes in. Americans of the hippie generation were part of the TV generation. South Africans of the hippie generation were not.

And having lived though most of these generations, I can recall the wonder, the excitement I felt when, with a borrowed 300 baud Saron modem, I sat in Pretoria and watched letters in amber on a black background coming, line after line, on to my computer screen, and to think that they were coming from another computer far away in Boksburg!

Millennials, who cannot remember a time when such things didn’t happen, can have no idea of the wonder of it, and the possibilities that it opened up. My family used to accuse me of being antisocial — instead of being sociable and sitting and watching TV with them, I was sitting in my study “playing with the computer”. But to think of it like that is to confuse means with ends. While they were sitting watching cabinet ministers opening monuments and being given their one way dose of the propaganda the SABC dished out, I was communicating with people in Boksburg, and soon Kirklees in Yorkshire, and a myriad other places. BBS networks opened up the world.

And the BBS networks that flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s were different from the monolithic corporate controllers of social media today. BBSs were private enterprise socialism. Shut one down and a dozen others would spring up. There were also dozens of BBS networks. FidoNet was one of the biggest, and was almost worldwide, initially using dial-up networks to connect people on every continent. Fidonet technology was also used by other networks, which could be used for specialist purposes, and nothing since then (late 1980s-early 1990s) has come close to the BBS networks for enabling meaningful many-to-many communication.

The high point of BBS networking was probably in 1989, .that annus mirabilis in which democracy was breaking out all over (including in South Africa — cue to plug Smashwords – The Year of the Dragon – a book by Stephen Hayes), and news of the Tianamnen Square massacre in China and the revolt that followed was carried hour by hour on the ASIAN_LINK conference on Fidonet, and news of similar events elsewhere was carried in other conferences. This was completely under the radar of the mainstream media at the time, who thought it was all done by fax,

In the 1980s I had to attend a lot of church conferences about such things as theological education and mission and evangelism which entailed having to travel at great expense to meet people from all over the subcontinent, spend a few days discussing stuff, and then we would scatter and forget everything we had discussed until next year. It struck me that Fido technology, or something similar, could save an enormous amount of time in preparing and following up such meetings which would enable the face-to-face meetings to be much more productive. Unfortunately no one else seemed to grasp this at the time, and I suspect that most people still haven’t grasped it. Last month as missiology conference was held in Potchefstroom, but no one saw fit to write about it in the appropriate forums.

The point here is that for people of our generation it was all about communication, not entertainment. It meant we could talk to and share ideas with people on the other side of the world.

We also discovered that it wasn’t all sweetness and light. In the TV generation we thought we were living in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, seeing events happening in real time all over the world.  But it was all mediated through journalists, through the news media, not social media. On the BBS networks, and in later incarnations of social media, people in those far-away places started talking directly to each other, and suddenly realised how different they were. Alot [sic] of people weren’t used to communicating in writing, wed we discovered that many did not know how to spell. A “waist of time” was quite common, for example. So that was another big change between the TV and the computer generations.The TV generation people lost the art of communicating in writing, the computer generation reclaimed it.

But people also encountered opinions they had never encountered before.

On another social media site, Quora, people just ask questions and other people try to answer them. Someone asked recently “What has been the root cause of our hyper-offended, angry culture in America? When did it start?” and my answer was that the cause may have been the Internet, when people discovered for the first time how the opinions that they would never have been likely to meet differed so radically from theirs. So communication has its drawbacks as well.

Another social medium is Instagram. I have never understood Instagram. I’ve seen tweets on Twitter and posts on Facebook telling me that someone has posted something on Instagram, but when I go there Instagram wants me to log in or sign up. What is Instagram, and why should I sign up for it? It says sign up to see photos and videos from your friends. Well I can do that on Facebook. Next site?

PInterest. That seems to be much the same sort of thing as Instagram. Never seen the point of it. I’ve put a few things on there, I wonder if anyone looks at them? Would I know if they did? Not much social about it that I can see.

Then there’s Twitter. I found out about Twitter from a site called Technorati, which used to be a kind of guide to blogs — you could look up a topic you were interested in and find out who had blogged about it recently. That was a useful service, but then they lost sight of their core business and lost the plot. But in the days when Technorati used to work, one of the topics that was trending was Twitter. So I had a look at Twitter.

On Twitter you were supposed to say what you were doing right now in 140 characters or less. The only thing that I could think of to say was “I’m typing this in Twitter”. The only use I could see for it was to get members of my family to join it, and then say things like “I’m going to be late for lunch.” Except that I never did manage to persuade members of my family to join it, and now WhatsApp does the same thing better.

Eventually they added features like shortening long URLs (to fit the 140-character limit), and then they added the capacity to link pictures (which made nonsense of the 140-character limit, so it was increased to 280). They also changed the prompt from “What are you doing right now?” to “What’s happening?” which enlarges the scope a bit.

Another improvement was #hashtags, which enables you enter keywords to show what your posts are about, which makes it easier for people interested in those topics to find them. For example, if you are interested in children’s books, just search for the hashtag #kidlit, and you will find articles about children’s books, reviews of books, articles about children’s reading tastes and habits and more. There’s an ancillary service called paper.li, which picks up all the tweets that link to articles with a certain hashtag, and produces a daily digest of such tweets called The #kidlit Daily. Go on, check it out.

And if you ever tweet a link to a theological review or article or web page, please, pretty please, use the #theology hashtag so it will get included in The #theology Daily. I am so tired of seeing links to “His Kingdom Prophecy”. You can follow me on Twitter (@hayesstw), or get a digest of my tweets at The Steve Hayes Daily.

And then there are the other drawbacks to social media.

One is that the interests of the users and the site owners rarely coincide.

Users (of my generation anyway) are interested in communicating with other people. If the site enables them to communicate more easily, they will go to it. And communicating more easily means using different channels. Not everything I want to say to my great aunt Ruby or my old school friend Dave can be said on Facebook, so I want to be able to e-mail them, read their blog, perhaps phone them or visit them. Facebook in its halcyon days enabled all these things (perhaps it is significant that “enablement” seems to have gathered negative connotations these days). But Facebook wants to keep you on its site, as do many of the other social media sites, so after first enabling you to do these things, they then disable you.

Facebook doesn’t want to leaving your web browser for an e-mail application (“client”, as some like to call it). So what did they do — they changed everyone’s e-mail address, without telling them, to an address on Facebook in order to keep them from leaving Facebook for another site, or another app. There are some things, like this blog post, that are easier to say on a blogging platform than on Facebook, but the monopolists at Facebook don’t like that. Back in the halcyon days (roughly 2007-2010) they used to automatically show blog posts in the timeline/status/wall. Now they have stopped that, and you have to post a separate link to a blog post. But if you do that, Facebook puts it low on the priorities of what it shows people, because if they click on  the link to this post it will take them out of Facebook, and they won’t be exposed to the ads on Facebook. Unless lots of people “like” it, or react to it. Then the algorithm might let a few more people see it.

So I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook and most other social media. They entice you to join because of the possibility of communicating with your friends, and then obstruct that communication as much as possible unless it can be channelled into the things that are most profitable to them. So you know you are talking to your friends, because they are there, but Facebook has blocked their ears. So it’s a perpetual battle of bait and switch. Facebook shows you your friend in the distance, so you can communicate with them, but doesn’t show you the obstacle course that lies in between.

The same thing applies to Twitter.

It used to be simple. Follow someone on Twitter, and see their tweets in chronological order. Until Twitter decided to do a Facebook, and improve your “experience” by showing the tweets they want you to see rather than the ones you want to see. And that means that it will show you more tweets from people who have lots of followers than those who only have a few followers. I used not to care how many followers I had on Twitter. It didn’t matter — many or few, as long as they were people with similar interests to mine, we could communicate. Only now we can’t, because if I have few followers and my friend has few followers, then we will rarely see each other’s tweets, because Twitter privileges to tweets of those who have lots of followers.

And this is what contributes to the kind of hyperoffended angry culture mentioned earlier.

A recent example of this is a picture that went viral on news and social media recently, which shows how both the news media and social media are used to manipulate public opinion in the interests of profit.

I suspect that whenever this picture was posted on Facebook quite a lot of people clicked the “Angry” button. And each click made it more likely that Facebook’s algorithm would show it to other people who were likely to click the “Anger” button, and so the anger grew. and many people did not realise how their anger was being manipulated by Facebook in the interests of profit. In South Africa we seem the same thing with the “white genocide” meme. Recently a couple of employees of Unisa were found to have six fake news sites exploiting the “white genocide” and similar memes for profit.

But it went so far that even some journalists began to have second thoughts, as in this article, which is well worth reading in its entirety How We Destroy Lives Today – The New York Times:

…these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers.

and this The Real Story Behind the ‘MAGA Kid’ Video That the Media Isn’t Telling:

what this case illustrates is the media’s power to manipulate outrage among those who blindly consume it. By failing to tell the entire story, preconceived stereotypes are used to stoke a divisive picture that is destined to get clicks and views.

Society’s own biases are being used against us to sell false hatred and it’s making these companies billions of dollars.

As someone once put it, we live in an age of communication without community.

The TV generation in the USA, which was the pre-TV generation in South Africa but perhaps the hippie generation in both, could watch on TV how bombs were dropped on Vietnam, and some would go to fight there, while others would protest against the fighting. But in the computer generation, perhaps, the Vietnamese (or their modern equivalent) are tweeting right back. Perhaps, if this process were allowed to continue unchecked it might be possible to build bridges, but that would not be profitable for the owners of the social media sites. It’s better to herd the supporters of each side into their own corral, where they can stoke each other’s anger, and keep the clicks coming.

Well, that’s a view from the Hippie Generation.

I’m not sure what the other generations are. I’ve heard that there’s a Generation X, a Generation Y and a Generation Z — presumably a Generation Zed in South Africa and a Generation Zee in the USA. What’s next? The Millennium, and then Generation A for Apocalypse.