1. At Apple’s Keynote on Tuesday, Tim Cook – in classic Jobs style – gave a short history of television. The first stage was black and white, and the second was color. A third was HD. Now, he assured his audience, we’re at another “inflection point” in television history: Apple TV 4K.

In hindsight, the original iPhone really did present such an inflection point: it dramatically changed the way we live our lives. People that attended that original keynote were, in a sense, present for the making of history. I’m not sure how well that holds up, actually–if one of my grandparents told me he had been in the audience the day that a domestic-appliance corporation announced a dishwasher suitable for home use, I’d be largely nonplussed.

But I think we’re attracted to these tech events in part because they represent real, tangible progress in the world. Which is one reason tech marketers have always emphasized the human element, Silicon Valley‘s theme of “making the world a better place”: we’re pretty eager to believe that the welfare of human society is tied to something so tangible and controllable. Those of us wed to such a dream want to believe that our times are historically privileged ones, that the invention of 4K streaming really is the equivalent of the color-TV breakthrough. There are, incidentally, strong reasons to doubt that it is.

But Tuesday’s big news was the iPhone X. James Poniewozik at the NYT has us covered:

These online-streaming keynotes have become as important a production of Apple as the devices themselves. An Apple event is a distinct kind of TV special: an extended commercial — this one ran nearly two hours — that people watch willingly, to get a glimpse of the new products and an art-directed idea of their better selves.

On the massive screen, attractive young people ran with a billowing red sheet across a golden desert. Caped figures soared through clouds like angels in a gorgeous video game preview. A promo video for the Apple Watch as a fitness tool was so heartwarming and inspirational I think the Apple Watch may be running for president.

Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president for retail, said new Apple stores would be rebranded Town Squares, places for community gathering, education — and buying the occasional thousand-dollar phone. (“Apple retail,” Mr. Cook said, “has always been about more than selling. It’s about learning, inspiring and connecting with people.”)

You will do such fantastic things with this technology, the presentation said. You’ll get healthy! You’ll learn! You’ll play ennobling games!

. . . so much of the presentation was about images: the cameras, the edge-to-edge displays, the animation, emphasizing the extent to which Apple could be overlaid on the world to make it prettier, better, more fun. . .

What will I do with it? What does anyone? I will Instagram photos of my cooking that I think look more appetizing than they are. I will see another tweet from the president. I will Google song lyrics. I will read Facebook posts and get mad on the internet.

And another year from now, I’ll set another reminder to watch another Apple event, believing somewhere deep down that with one more upgrade, I might be perfected.

There’s a certain superficial comfort in the fact that amidst renewed strife over our country’s self-definition – amidst the TwitterWars and name-calling and seemingly insuperable problems of race and class – the technological realm marches on, unfazed and untouched, to greater heights. William T. Cavanaugh diagnosed a problem in liberal democracy which he calls the “minimalist” modern state: the idea that our only unified social commitment is to facilitating individual material welfare. For him, that’s a thin ideological foundation for a society; there’s no truly social organizing principle or goal to which the state is committed. This gives rise to a certain feeling of emptiness, of restlessness, casting about for a public ideology which gives us moral meaning. Periods of economic boom, where everyone can share in the promises of capitalism, cover up that emptiness for a while, but it reemerges in periods of recession. That notion may have some explanatory power for why our politics has entered an especially polarized state after 2008.

All that is a longwinded way of saying Apple’s imminent rebranding of its stores as “Town Squares” seems far from accidental. For the marketers at Apple, public community can be built around the promise of increasing material innovation, technology’s inexorable forward progress to new heights. But there’s an insecurity there, too: the idea that technology is making the world a better place seems scant cover for the fact that this is, at bottom, motivated by profit, and that the vast majority of people can’t afford to share in Apple’s – or Google’s/Samsung’s/you-name-it’s – new world. And the almost desperate insistence that marginal advances in technology (such as 4K resolution) constitute revolutions perhaps betrays the fact that in looking to technological advancement to assure us that the march of progress continues on, we’re placing considerably more weight on the state-of-the-art than it can bear.

The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lydgate chimed in on “Apple’s Mundane Vision of the Future,” accentuating the ultimately humdrum nature of this incremental progress, as well as some of its religious overtones:

The original iPhone, Cook said, taught us that we could “touch the software.” FaceTime and iMessage “allowed us all to connect in more meaningful ways.” Siri “used artificial intelligence to make our voices more powerful.” And so, Cook said, “it is only fitting that we are here, in this place, on this day, to reveal a product that will set the path for technology for the next decade.” Was it time for another gospel already?

The Onion reported an additional feature: “New iPhone Will No Longer Secretly Record Every Word You Say.”

2. Also at the New York Times, Kieran Setiya addresses the problem of living in the present. He makes a distinction between two sorts of activities. “Telic” (from Greek telos, meaning purpose/end) activities aim toward a future completion – graduating college, buying a house, finishing a report – while “atelic” ones do not have a fixed point of accomplishment. Examples of the latter are enjoying spending time with one’s kids, or looking at a work of art. Setiya elaborates:

Atelic activities . . . do not by nature come to an end and are not incomplete. In defining such activities, we could emphasize their inexhaustibility, the fact that they do not aim at terminal states. But we could also emphasize what Aristotle does: They are fully realized in the present. “At the same time, one is seeing and has seen, is understanding and has understood, is thinking and has thought.” There is nothing you need to do in order to perform an atelic activity except what you are doing right now. If what you care about is reflecting on your life or spending time with family or friends, and that is what you are doing, you are not on the way to achieving your end: You are already there. . .

To live in the present is not to deny the value of telic activities, of making a difference in the world. That would be a terrible mistake. Nor can we avoid engaging in such activities. But if projects are all we value, our lives become self-subversive, aimed at extinguishing the sources of meaning within them. To live in the present is to refuse the excessive investment in projects, in achievements and results, that sees no inherent value in the process.

I’d love to be able to do that, but I’d start feeling pretty worthless after a while. I need accomplishments to feel good about myself. Sitting back and enjoying the things in life as a gift is a wonderful idea, but there’s probably a reason why most of us have a hard time with that. Setiya gives good advice, but passes over the fact that we don’t often live this way for a reason: we need to justify ourselves. Whatever the solution to our inability to simply enjoy the things in life, it would require the extinction of our need to self-justify, and it would have to come from outside ourselves. And Christianity’s the only thing I know that faces that problem head-on. (And as for being fully realized in the present, for Aristotle, the only thing that ever fit that description was God – pure act, without potentiality; Setiya’s language also sounds sounds suspiciously similar to how theologians talk about the beatific vision.)

3. In pop culture, we’re gonna go a little into some weird media this week.

First, the latest Rick and Morty was pretty on-the-nose. For those who haven’t seen the show, it’s an utterly obscene, whimsical, and surprisingly insightful animated show about an alcoholic supergenius dimension-hopping scientist named Rick and his insecure adolescent grandson, Morty. This week’s took us to the Citadel of Ricks, where thousands (or more) of identical Ricks from different dimensions have established a common society – one of two casts: overlord Ricks and servant Mortys. There’s the predictable tension between the two classes, but the interesting commentary is the rivalries within them. One Morty cop brutalizes other Mortys who are down-and-out, evincing contempt for his brothers, who are also himself. He’s risen up by putting others down, and his success – largely the product of circumstance – leads him to hate the other Mortys. Conversely, one Rick works in a factory on the assembly-line, and his resentment – the sense that he should be one of privileged, but isn’t – leads him to murder. All in all, it’s a fascinating commentary not just on divisions, but on how they’re caused by the human drive to out-compete and out-achieve others. Perfect society just isn’t a stable equilibrium, and the human cost for the Citadel of Ricks is high.

Second, Jim Carrey’s interview for New York Fashion week was unbelievable. His sanity comes off as possibly incomplete, but his insight is incredible. I.e., he basically deconstructs everything going on around him:

He may be a little short on charity, too, but I for one really enjoyed this. I suggest those considering a second watch focus on the reporter’s facial expressions. And Carrey says that the fact that “we don’t matter” is “the good news”! I’ll close this out with an mbird-classic Roland Bainton quote, from his Luther biography:

“Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into the ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid.”

Maybe not all of that is valid. But given the Church’s formal condemnation of the heresy that our resurrected bodies will be spherical, Carrey’s tetrahedral theory seems just a bit less far-fetched.

Finally, JAZ’s new EP, Passport to Paradise, hits the shelves soon. An excellent early review called it “cosmic gospel synth pop genius from a different dimension.” For a teaser, the first track’s up on Soundcloud.

4. In literature, a retrospective essay over at Image has me dying to read Denis Johnson, a dark, introspective writer who was married to an evangelical Christian (!):

But this alignment of horror with humor, if not exactly a foil, reveals something more important in Johnson’s journalism: of all these investigations and explorations, the true subject of the exposition is always his own vulnerability, placed out in front of him.

Never does Johnson distinguish himself from the evil and chaos he meets; on the contrary, he just as readily becomes another agent of it. . . . the monsters of the world can never be defeated without first confronting the monstrosity within—that, as Dante knew, is how you cover Hell.

I was reminded of these themes during election season last summer when certain literati (see, for instance, George Saunders’s piece here or Dave Egger’s here) travelled into the hangars and convention centers of the Trump campaign, trying—by taking a page out of the book of masters like Johnson or Thompson—to turn up gold. They each, however, mistook the alchemy and made moralizing expeditions of the journey, failing to see the black soul of the beast for refusing to implicate themselves in the darkness. . . .

It is troubling that we have no Denis Johnson now to shine a light on the current impasses fragmenting culture. We might, as consolation, look to the example he has left us, but even that example is not immediately clear (e.g., bad addictions and sadistic travel habits). It takes prudence to read Johnson, to find through the great burning rush of prose the quieter voice that shapes it: that we must assume sin in order to forgive it, and to thereby be forgiven. Only penance lights the way home.

It’s a searing confessional, and the notion that I may be a sinner immediately triggers abjection: the immediate dis-association of oneself from anything that threatens one’s identity. I would speculate that Johnson must have had some sense of God’s mercy, since it seems impossible to face one’s inner darkness to such an extent without some assurance of a love apart from merit.

5. And for the creatives or curmudgeons out there, Opuszine posted a fantastic passage from Ingmar Bergman, on the connection between art and worship:

People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.

We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal. Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts.

Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.

6. In humor, McSweeney’s stays on a roll with its “Grad School or Pre-School?” quiz. But this week’s star is The Babylon Bee’s report that “78% of Marital Problems Now Caused by HGTV Home Renovation Shows.” It nails the moral pressure exerted by the omnipresence of ideals of the good life:

“Most fights used to be about things like finances or kids, but now settling in to watch other people do a great job renovating their homes while your own house is falling apart is the number one cause,” the study’s administrator, Dr. Wes Contrero told reporters Wednesday. “It seems that watching Chip and Joanna Gaines renovate a $20,000 fixer-upper into a gorgeous home has caused irreparable tension in millions of marriages across the country.”

Contrero further indicated that most of the marital fights observed during the study occurred as the wife began to passive-aggressively utter phrases like “that looks really easy” and “I bet you could do that this Saturday,” before searching online retailers to see how much shiplap costs.


-The Cut examines the phenomenon of midlife crises among women in their 30s. They find a problem with the message that unfettered career opportunity will be ultimately fulfilling, which runs up against (i) the reality of continued workplace inequality and (ii) the fact that one-track goals aren’t satisfying. On finding inspiration beyond the confines of the workplace, the author tersely notes that “Dogs are helpful in this regard.”

-Steven Godfrey at SBNation runs through the pain of being a Falcons fan in a sort of sports-confessional piece, ht HE: “My family is from Georgia; half from Macon crackers and half from Roswell WASPs. That’s it. That’s why I’m a Falcons fan. I don’t have to justify shit to you, Tampa homeowner in a Steelers jersey. Here’s where we skip the four paragraphs about ennui and Southern pro sports franchises. And we aren’t going to paint a picture of Atlanta based on an out-of-towner’s gross miscalculation that the city is a cultureless void of white collar migrants and no local identity just because you’re scared of humidity and trap music. But there is a fantastic aquarium; you should try to visit that if you get a chance.”

-The Economist reports on the free-speech vs sensitivity to others conflict, this time at Reed college. Again, the law of (the new) social morality, just as the old social morality did, risks self-righteousness and alienation when taken too far: “Assistant professor Lucia Martinez Valdivia, who describes herself as mixed-race and queer, asked protesters not to demonstrate during her lecture on Sappho last November.” The writer follows up with a list of accusations leveled against her for insensitivity to the marginalized.

-Aronofsky’s new film, Mother!, looks fantastic.

-And finally, an adept Hong Kong moneylaunderer turns Christian-radio-host-with-an-emphasis-on prison-ministry

-That’s it–happy weekending. And check out the intro to this song at a Killers concert, below: