Metrics

Metrics – the moral code of a sourly reductive managerial culture– are the means to make sure that professionals’ working conditions should more and more correspond to the alienated, insecure, hollowed-out working conditions of so many other members of society. There was a time when the authorities had to deploy squadrons of mounted dragoons to quell the unruly mob. Now they just set them quarterly sales targets. Spreadsheet capitalism is much more effective than old-style ruling class repression, not least because it pulls off the conjuring trick of seeming to give priority to individual agency while in fact subordinating everyone to supposedly impersonal market forces. At bottom, performance metrics operate through a culture of fear, but one in which the arbitrary whim of a lord or master has been replaced with the terrifying implacability of a row of figures. ‘I’m sorry, John, your numbers aren’t good enough, we’ll have to let you go.’ The metric fixation is an attempt to extend that mechanism to activities that cannot be reduced to the equivalent of sales figures.

– Stefan Collini, London Review of Books, Nov. 2018

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The closer I come

The more I work, the more I see things differently, that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.

— Giacometti

The sudden

The handy representation of history as the temporal actualization of the supratemporal makes more difficult any effort to bring into view what is unique, the unique concealed in the enigmatic constancy which at times erupts and is assembled into the suddenness of what is genuinely Geschick-like. The sudden is the abrupt that only apparently contradicts that which is constant, which means, that which endures. What is endured is what lasts. But what already lasts and until now was concealed is first vouchsafed and becomes visible in what is abrupt. We must calmly confess that we never reach the vicinity of the historicity that is to be thought with a view to the Geschick of being so long as we remain ensnared in the web of representations which, all in all, blindly take refuge in the distinction between the absolute and the relative without ever going on to sufficiently determine that solely upon which this distinction can be determined, limited.

– Heidegger, The Principle of Reason (tr. Lilly)

Unpractical, idealistic bosh

I have never seen a class so deeply demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie […] For it nothing exists in this world, except for the sake of money, itself not excluded. It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold. In the presence of this avarice and lust of gain, it is not possible for a single human sentiment or opinion to remain untainted. True, these English bourgeois are good husbands and family men, and have all sorts of other private virtues, and appear, in ordinary intercourse, as decent and respectable as all other bourgeois; even in business they are better to deal with than the Germans; they do not higgle and haggle so much as our own pettifogging merchants; but how does this help matters? Ultimately it is self-interest, and especially money gain, which alone determines them. I once went into Manchester with such a bourgeois, and spoke to him of the bad, unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working-people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: “And yet there is a great deal of money made here, good morning, sir.” It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money. All the conditions of life are measured by money, and what brings no money is nonsense, unpractical, idealistic bosh.

– Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (tr. Kelley Wischnewetzky)

Machinations

Heidegger: ‘The unfittingness of mere beings, of nonbeings as a whole, and the rarity of being, for which reason the gods are sought within beings. If someone seeks and does not find and therefore is compelled into forced machinations, then no freedom for the restrained waiting of an encounter and an intimation…’

Machinations… We see ourselves in animals, nature, other people, in God, cunningly remake them in our own images for our own ends. We diminish and master them, reduce them to almost nothing. Isn’t the path then cleared to replace the whole world with a mirror of ourselves, to a total communication network and a total, false immediacy? We’re forced into machinations that empty our lives of meaning. Many we enable because they feel good. This isn’t only an age of exploitation, but also of fun; the two have become linked. ‘Have fun!’ we shout to each other, ‘enjoy!’ When you’re not busy earning money – exploiting or being exploited – you’re supposed to have fun, do something exciting, be exciting: above all fill your time to the brink with activity. What they used to call idolatry is now almost life in its entirety. We reflect ourselves in the things we buy, eat and wear, our homes, jobs, interests, politics, friends, children and lovers. We stress over critical targets that mean little to anyone outside our workplaces. We claim more and more fraught identities, manage our social media profiles on platforms that manipulate us, and create personal brands (something that’s now being taught in British schools). We try to define ourselves using the tools that dispersed us in the first place.

No freedom for the restrained waiting… For meaningful idleness, a gathering up of your time on earth: what they used to call prayer. Everything seems to conspire against it. Yet everyone knows the unease that comes over you when you’ve spent long enough doing nothing meaningful, at work or in your ‘spare time’. What do we do to hold it at bay? Work harder, have more fun; devise clever therapies and health and fitness fads to administrate it out of our minds and bodies.

Of an encounter or intimation… An intimation of something more, something wholly Other that can take us out of our everyday machinations and show them for what they are. A hint of God in the moment, passing through the innermost heart of time.

Chronos and kairos

Back in Kirkwood we wake up to a warm bright morning. In the afternoon it rains and in the evening you can see your breath. For the first time I can take pleasure in autumn, in the slow waning of the year.

*

The Greeks called the straight line of time from past to future chronos. But for them time was twofold: its other element was kairos, the opportune moment. Chronos was clock time that carries on regardless of us, kairos the personal experience of time. In classical rhetoric, kairos meant finding the right words at the right time.

For the early Christians, kairos had to do with the fullness of time realized in the Incarnation, the moment of conversion and the coming apocalypse. It was the intersection of history and eternity, the time when God acts in the world.

Now on my walks I always stop by the church. I like the routine. I like the heavy wooden door, the cold stone slabs on the floor. There are children’s drawings on the peeling walls, dull notices, faded black and white pictures of the parish. I sit on a pew for a few minutes to catch my breath, look at the altar, the wooden rafters like the ribs of an old ship, the stained-glass window showing Christ with two fingers raised to symbolize the hypostatic union. (How many people argued, fought, lived and died for that idea!) Sometimes I leaf through a hymnbook or bible… Relics, I sometimes think. Yet still here in the ruins, on the same ground as the rest of us.

Eternal God, which makes the moment seem like a grain of sand… Where’s the divine kairos now, when God no longer acts in the world, when the God of men has died? Where’s the intersection of time and eternity? When’s the right time, what’s the right word? I can’t call it him, I can’t call it you. But doesn’t the moment hint at it? Doesn’t it whisper to us of it? Sometimes I think it whispers something too terrible to hear, something I secretly want no part of, that might overturn my whole life.

But you’ve felt it, haven’t you? Its surpassing and sustaining power, which gave you room to breathe, as long as you were shielded by time, held in the moment. How carefully it has to be approached. But maybe approached is the wrong word. Questioned, perhaps, prepared for, undergone.

Denmark

My mother calls to talk about my father. He’s been having trouble walking for years and is now bedridden and losing weight. The doctors say the nerves in his legs are damaged from blood clots: a rare condition. She asks us to visit. I cup the phone with my hand, call S. over and ask her if she wants to go to Denmark. She says yes. After I hang up, we buy train and flight tickets for next week. I’ve been feeling a nostalgic urge to see my old places in Denmark for a few weeks anyway; it occurs to me now that it must be to do with all this talk about repetition and returning.

*

The week passes with work, housework (we clean the pantry and take the fruit and veg sign off the road), gardening, cooking, doing the dishes, making love, watching films and lazing about with Rookie. I’m comfortable, too comfortable maybe, but it’s a good change. I sense the power of the moment and the eternal God always in the backdrop of our everyday life.

*

Arriving at the airport in Copenhagen, it always strikes me how much cleaner and well-made everything is. We buy trays of sushi on the way to my parents. My father eats with shaking hands. In the morning we fix their bikes, which they no longer use. S. cycles to the library to work while I cycle to the central station and take the coastal train up to my old hometown. I’ve wanted to retrace the little groove of my life that I left there. I told S. it would bore her and that we can do something fun for her the other days, find some museums. Everything’s more or less the same, except that all the vegetation has grown and as a result the place seems to have matured, come into its own. It’s lovely. When I lived here as a child it was a rather sterile, newly built suburb. I go into the library where I used to sit and read, cycle down the old paths. The hills seem smaller, as I thought. I cycle through the old beech forest where we used to play as kids, and down to the harbour where I eat a crab sandwich, which tastes just like it used to. This kind of thing used to give me what Burroughs called the ‘fear of stasis’, of being ‘just where I am and nowhere else’ under the ‘dead weight of time’. Today it’s deeply satisfying.

It’s common to sniff at nostalgia. We’re taught – indoctrinated – to look forward, be proactive and innovative, shape our own futures, never stand still. But don’t nostalgia and the fear of stasis have their places as feelings to be undergone, as ways into the Open?

Heidegger says our origin always comes to meet us from the future. Strange saying. What does it mean? Perhaps that time, rather than moving in a straight line from past to future, or from here to the afterlife, describes a kind of circle that always completes itself in the moment and whispers to us of our silent origin.

The next day we go to Lejre, near Roskilde, where there’s a Viking museum. I’ve never been and know next to nothing about it. We take the bikes on the train and cycle through the countryside to the museum, stopping to pick apples from trees along the way. It’s the landscape that impresses most, with its glacier-formed hills and valleys, prehistoric passage graves and the stone remains of Viking longhouses and gravesites in the shape of large ships, designed to carry the dead to Hel. It doesn’t look very Danish but it turns out this is in a sense the mythical and historical centre of Denmark, the seat of the legendary Skjöldung dynasty mentioned in Beowulf, as well as real medieval kings and bishops who presided over busy settlements on the fertile land. I’ve never felt the presence of ancient history as strongly, even when seeing the bog bodies in the Aarhus and Copenhagen museums (carefully preserved and displayed in shiny cases): there’s something about it being left alone in the open, still-farmed landscape that’s surprisingly moving. The star exhibit of the museum itself is a tiny statuette of Odin – or perhaps a Viking goddess – seated on a throne flanked by raven messengers. As we set off on our bikes to go back to the station we pass an unusual number of rooks, jackdaws and hooded crows in the fields. It’s still sunny, they can’t be starting to roost. It occurs to me these may well be the descendants of birds that scavenged Iron Age and Viking fields and middens (møddinger in Danish). Is it possible that they have some ancient attachment to the place?