The New Institute is promoting a public forum on Religion in Political Life this coming Wednesday, 22 May, 7-8.30pm in the Newcastle Civic Hall's Hunter Room. The format will be a panel discussion with myself, Kathleen McPhillips and Terry Lovat discussing our work in the University of Newcastle's Religion in Political Life Research Program. Further details on the event can be found here.
The Religion in Political Life Research Program continues its seminar series in 2013 with the following speakers:
- 28 March, 2013, Dr. Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle, “Freedom of Religion and the Secular State”
- 18 April, Dr. Catherine Byrne, Macquarie University, “Religious Education in Secular Australia”
- 23 May, Dr. Tod Moore, University of Newcastle, “Calvinists and ‘Democracy’ in 1640s English Revolutions”
Venue: Auchmuty Library Cultural Collections
Time: Thursdays 3-4.30pm, All welcome for tea, coffee and nibbles
Contact: Linda.Hutchinson@newcastle.edu.au, Executive Officer of the Humanities Research Institute, +61(0)2492 17915
An interesting article was just posted reviewing Ben Kafka's recent book The Demon of Paperwork: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. It's interesting in pointing out the bureaucratic nature of writing, and, more importantly its optimistic promise of the power of transparency in making governments accountable. Precisely here, the gordian knot of surveillance and citizenship is tied.
I was reading in philosophical hermeneutics this past month for something I was writing. I came across an excellent essay by Anthony Thiselton on "New Testament Interpretation in Historical Perspective." What jumped out at me was how much time political philosophers like Locke and Hobbes spent interpreting the bible to promote their own rationalist aims. Mark Lilla makes a similar point in his recent The Stillborn God. Whereas some secularists avoid theology for the sake of the political order, Lilla contends that the key to a healthy secular society is a certain degree of sophistication in political theology. He cites Hobbes in particular as a master at using political theology towards secularising ends. In any case, whether religious or not, theological literacy is valuable to thinking and engaging the claims of religion in public.
This March 21, Russell Blackford will be giving a Religion in Political Life seminar at the University of Newcastle's Cultural Collections. He'll discuss his new Blackwells Press book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, where he explicitly discusses Locke's proposal. In any case, here's how Thiselton puts it:
Pope Benedict XVI resigned today and a few news programs in Australia wanted to discuss what it means. The first was a national radio program The Wire. The second was the local television network NBN, which aired a short comment on the 6pm news. Two things of note:
1. They were interested in the likelihood of a south american or african pope. On the one hand, the demographics support this. According to the numbers compiled recently by the Pew Forum, christianity is now a majority southern hemisphere religion. Pewforum.org has an excellent interactive map which compiles the numbers and allows you to easily see where the tradition is located. For instance, roughly 48% of roman catholics live in the americas, with 17% in the north and 31% in the south. Roughly 16% live in Africa (only 0.5% of those in the north), 12% in Asia Pacific, and roughly 24% live in Europe. So, if leadership represented the constituency you'd expect to see the americas play a part, and particular South America. But the actual politics of the Vatican can't be understood by the demographics. So, while some may speak of an Obama effect, where the leader represents a growing multicultural constituency, the likelihood is that it will be more of the Justin Welby effect, the new rather mainstay Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion.
2. The other interest concerns Benedict XVI's legacy. I tend to think that he is likely to be remembered as a rather paradoxical pope. That is, he was a strange set of contradictions in a single person. For instance, he maintained all the symbolic power of the medieval papacy in a way rather out of sync with the modern age, e.g. the silk and gold vestments, the relics, and St. Peter's Basilica. At the same time, in the past few months he was seen tapping the first papal tweet into an iPad. The media became as interested in how many followers he had on Twitter as he did in the church at large. Whereas John Paul II integrated the media into the symbolic power of the papacy, Benedict XVI seemed to hold them apart. Another example is the 2006 Regensberg Address, on "Faith, Reason and the University." Here, he made a compelling argument for the relation between faith and reason. At the same time, he fumbled a negative citation from a 14th century Byzantine Emperor, deeply offending Muslims around the world. Lastly, whereas John Paul II integrated suffering and death into the papal witness itself, Benedect XVI seems to have held the office in tension with his frailty as an eighty-nine year old man, breaking with 600 years of tradition in his resignation.
In short, Christianity is fast becoming a southern hemisphere religion. How these demographics will play out in the next leader of the roman catholic church remains to be seen. In any case, the legacy of this particularly paradoxical pope may be the contradictions he held in tension. This, in the end, may be a vital lesson for the future of this institution.
A recent post in Oxford's "Practical Ethics" blog prompted me to think about some of my past work on surveillance. I've posted a few comments here.
There are two things about this post which I wanted to question briefly.
Firstly, yes, I think this is basically right, we are moving towards a surveillance society and the social and economic logics which are driving this move are seemingly inevitable. It's important to note however that although the electrification of surveillance is new, the practice of tracking and tracing citizens has a much longer history. Surveillance is linked to the history of writing, which begins not with poetry but with mesopotamian bureaucracy. Enlightenment scepticism about surveillance is rooted in a critique of this bureaucratic power. Current concerns about privacy and the integrity of individuals are only one symptom of this longer history. In this sense, surveillance is very old and public concern about its electronic and digital forms are a continuation of a longer engagement. Thinking about how to get the most out of surveillance is, then, a rather banal comment. It's a central concern of democratic cultures for the last three hundred years and is written into many of our constitutions.
Secondly, however, the author of this post passingly notes that "we all know the negatives." I disagree. Part of my previous research on this topic was to uncover some of the hidden costs and dynamics of a surveillance society. The key paradox I tried to show was that the very camera which is said to bring safety, simultaneously undermines it. The reason is that precisely by tracking an individual, it alienates them from their neighbour. We see this time and again in the way people live in highly surveillanced societies. The goal is not to get to know your neighbours, but rather to get a camera up in your neighbourhood, so that when they do something wrong they can be caught by somebody in power. This practice undermines the reciprocity of human relationships, the engagement and communitarian practices where people do not live in constant fear of who is lurking beyond their surveillanced boundaries. The very idea of total surveillance demonstrates the paradox. Human people cannot be completely surveyed. It is a practical impossibility to see all that a person is and is doing. More to the point, however, there is always an excess lurking beyond the data being tracked. This excess leaves citizens with an even more severe fear, of the "other" beyond the camera'd walls, or the "other" beyond the political reach of the particular state in power, or indeed, the various ways in which people always find ways to circumvent the surveillance apparatus. The farce of "360 degree surveillance" only perpetuates the possibility that such a goal may, in the end, produce the least safe society in human history.
A recent Brazilian film, Neighboring Sounds, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, explores this dynamic of safe, surveillanced building complexes in neighborhoods that are springing up all over the globe. The geographer Emanuel Castells' notion of a "space of flows" is relevant here, in that it is increasingly possible to land in any city in the world and enter a frictionless, glass walled pleasure ground just like the one you came from. All the while the makeshift rick-shacks of the have-nots and service class live just out of view. The film brilliantly captures the paradox of the safety these neighborhoods promise. The soundtrack and camera work both foster a sense of unheimlich, of terror. As the film critic A. O. Scott commented, "No one can quite see or hear what is coming, but something is out there, just on the other side of the whatever we think keeps us safe."
In the end, I agree that surveillance is an inevitable part of contemporary society and will continue. So too, the idea of enlightenment surveillance is redundant. Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, who promoted independent thought and self-governance were acutely aware of the power of governments to survey their citizens. However, this very recognition of the longer condition of surveillance should make us even more critical of its current uses and abuses. The "negatives" are not well known, and turn out to be far more problematic and paradoxical than a mere concern for privacy might suggest. A luddite response is impossible at this stage. We must think technology through.
Upon looking for a download of Rowan Williams' "Farewell to Canterbury" documentary on the BBC, I found this debate with Richard Dawkins, chaired by Anthony Kenny. I'm reminded again what a gracious interlocutor Williams was as Archbishop, a public voice who will be greatly missed in that capacity.
Interesting short interview of Jürgen Habermas by Francis Fukuyama: