A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.

A Review of “World Without Mind”

Cover image of "World Without Mind", taken from audiobookMuch as the author does in the beginning of World Without Mind, which is interestingly split between being opinion and being investigative journalism, I’ll admit my own pre-conceptions going in. Namely, I don’t require any convincing that Amazon and Facebook are evil, and, given my recent suspicions, I would require little to nudge my opinion of Google over the same line. So, of course, this book quickly slid to the top of my to-read list given the description.

The author, too, admits his bias at the beginning of the work. He was an editor for the New Republic who was displaced when the magazine was purchased by a Silicon Valley investor who had come from Facebook and, so we are told, sold the magazine’s soul of liberal tradition in the interest of clicks. To Foer’s credit, he admits the lens of frustration through which he writes early. I think that he underestimates the level at which it colors his work.

This book is curious, equal parts history, op-ed, and social theory. He has done his research on the foundations of Google, Facebook and Amazon, and he doesn’t mince words in condemning their questionable practices. My hesitation was in the missing sources in his work, but I read this an audiobook, which doesn’t really lend itself to referencing footnotes or endnotes as a format. So, I honestly don’t know if these are present or not. If not, then the journalistic integrity is obviously called into question.

What becomes at times odd, however, is Foer’s digression into what I can only describe as conspiracy theory. He paints a dystopian undercurrent to our present, theorizing how Facebook and Google conspire to be the sole entities to possess all of the data of our personal lives, using it to manipulate us into thinking and feeling how they want us to think and feel, and to purchase what they want us to purchase. I don’t think that he’s entirely wrong. His condemnation of the algorithm in particular, however, paints more of an image of an eccentric professor ranting against an evil that only he can see more than it does a serious journalist giving us facts in order to inform our choices.

His denunciation of Amazon is more focused on corrupt business practices than the other giants in his crosshairs. Again, I miss sources, but the history he outlines of Bezos’ empire is a damning portrait of a power-hungry business intent upon devouring any competitor in order to become the only source from which we can ever purchase anything.

Foer also spends some time speaking of the fate of the writer and the de-valuation of intellectual property in the Internet age. His feeling is that the dorm-room philosophy of tech giants is to abolish all individual credit to any writer as part of the process of implementing the hive mind. For all of his valuable points as to how writers are continually not paid their worth, and to how print journalism in general is overwhelmed by less intellectual forms of media, this smacks of paranoia and the curmudgeonly punches of one done wrong.

World Without Mind is thought-provoking for all of its shortcomings. While the concluding call to action falls flat, I do find myself examining the trust that I place in Google in particular (my own condemnation of Facebook and Amazon were solidified long ago), and I have found myself beginning to change some of the choices that I have made in how I engage these services.

Anyone who uses social media and e-commerce without questioning would be served at some level by this book. My concern is that Foer is unable to detach from his personal bias sufficiently to present an argument in a compelling enough way to sway the opinion of the majority of readers. I can’t help but feel that there’s a darker truth under the surface of our daily interactions with the Internet that Foer is sensing and the rest of us are downplaying. Hopefully that is my own conspiratorial imagination at work.

A Review of “Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism”

I stumbled onto this book quite by accident, but it had a lot going for it fairly immediately. While I had not read Miller’s work on Daredevil, I, like most any other comics fan, had read (and come away with strong feelings about) his Batman retcon The Dark Knight Returns. That said, Daredevil has always been a favorite character of mine…indeed, the first comic that I ever seriously collected, although after Miller’s run…and so seeing what Miller had done with this character fascinated me.

I’ll preface everything else here by saying that, if this book grabs your attention at all (and you’ve likely stopped reading by now if it doesn’t), then you really should read the source material before reading Young’s analysis. I took the time to do so and it won’t take long….about five collected volumes of graphic novels, none difficult reads, an you’ll be up to date. Doing so gave me a great appreciation for Miller’s work in and of itself. I didn’t really appreciate just how influential his writing was on the character, nor how much of his influence shows up in the recent Netflix series. I particularly enjoyed Miller’s forward in one of these collections, in which he discusses that Daredevil had always fascinated him because, given his history, he should have been a villain, yet chose to be a hero.

Miller’s re-telling of Daredevil’s origin certainly takes a rocky road to get there, but I tend to agree.

This isn’t so much about Miller’s writing, though, as Young’s analysis of Miller’s writing. Young describes Daredevil here as the most Christian of superheroes, which piqued my theological interest. The rationale for this statement is that Daredevil’s focus is always on compassion¬† for the victim, rather than justice or revenge on the criminal. Within the confines that Daredevil inherently struggles by adhering to the rule of law while still acting as a vigilante, this is a fascinating take. Young also feels that the current Netflix series isn’t truthful to Daredevil as a character because it seems to focus him on seeking revenge. Again, insightful perspectives and criticisms.

There’s an interlude in the middle of the book that attempts to ground the the author’s thesis theologically, but it’s strange. The writing style becomes oddly introspective. That said, the writing style throughout the book is very conversational, and I found myself often wanting it to be more academic given the subject matter. The issue is that the writing is conversational to a fault, including foul language at times, and that detracts from the seriousness of the analysis. I get the motivation to make the topic more accessible to a wider number of readers…this is sort of a comics apologetic in places…but the book suffers for this choice overall.

Perhaps the best part of this book is that Young writes as much as historian as he does literary critic, giving a detailed look into how the comics industry functioned at the time that Miller began working on Daredevil. This was certainly informative for me…as much as I’ve always loved the medium, I had no clue as to these inner workings. We also learn how influential Miller was on the industry and how artists are treated therein, especially within Marvel Comics, which was an entertaining account.

I enjoyed Young outlining Miller’s work on making Bullseye a villain to be taken (very) seriously, as well as his creation of Elektra, whom, as any Daredevil fan knows, is integral to Matt Murdock’s story. Young also gives an insightful analysis of the artwork decisions on Miller’s run, and the intent conveyed in those panels, which I found intriguing.

In the end, the author lands where most critics have with Miller’s perceived artistic and social digression in recent years, but does so while still respecting his contributions both to the character of Daredevil and to the medium of comics in general. If you’re a comics fan, and certainly if you’re as much a fan of Daredevil as I am, then this book is a must-read.

The Nature of a Hero Gone Wrong

Collectible statue of Thanos. Used under Creative Commons.A few days ago, I went to see Avengers: Infinity War for the second time. As usual, you see a lot that you missed in the second viewing. I still hold to my original critique that the movie is too big for it’s own good. However, there was another layer that I had missed the first time due to the sheer epic scale, and I think that it ties into the concept of the nature of a hero.

I’ve heard interviews with the writers of Infinity War in which they say that this movie was about Thanos. I found this to be very true, to the point that the heroes are almost all incidental characters. I applaud this, also, because, in order to tell the story of a hero well, one must have a compelling story behind the villain. Cheap and one-dimensional villains cause movies to fall (we all try to forget the altogether unfortunate treatment of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3). Thanos is anything but cheap or one-dimensional. He’s just as heart-breaking, in fact, as he is terrifying. He is terrifying because he acts with a decisive conviction. He will do anything, up to and including murdering the one person whom he (claims to) love, to achieve his goal. This is bad enough, and evil enough, in it’s own right.

On the second viewing of the film, I realize that Thanos is driven by such conviction because he earnestly believes himself to be the hero.

In any genre of literature, the most dangerous of villains live here. They are dangerous because they fight with the same conviction as the heroes. They believe that their cause is just. The motivation that comes with the belief that one is doing the right thing is not easily defeated.

The postmodern tendency here would be to lean on relativism. That is, if the villain can so easily be convinced that he is right, and fight with such a firmly held belief, and that fight can be the cause of so much evil, then let us stop defining “right” as an absolute. “What’s right for me is right for me, but maybe not for you,” and all that. That’s a slippery slope, and it’s a logical fallacy here, because there is an absolute point in which Thanos specifically proves himself to not be the hero.

Thano’s flaw is that he fails to respect all life as sacred. In the self-perceived nobility of his cause to save life, he is reduced to only logic. He sees the world, the universe, as only a mathematical equation, a “simple calculus.” In this reductionist worldview, killing some at random to save others is completely acceptable, because it is an action borne only of logic, while being devoid of any ethic.

The most powerful moment of this film is when Captain America refutes this type of logic with ethics. When confronted with the Vision’s sacrificial impulse to give up his own life to save many others, Steve Rogers replies firmly, “We don’t trade lives.”

There must be an objective litmus test that separates the hero from the villain. Respect for life is one of those. The absence of this objective proof is a dividing line that proves the nature of a hero, or defines the nature of the villain.

Image attribution: William Tung under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Avengers: Infinity War”

Photo Avengers Infinity War Poster. Used under Creative Commons.All of the build-up for this film was that it would be big. Even huge. It is, after all, the culmination of 10 years of Marvel faithfully adapting its characters to the big screen. It’s also big in the sense of how we are seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe stretch, recently bringing in paranormal and extra-terrestrial elements. Just as in the source material, Marvel has explored every genre, from science fiction to YA, high fantasy to spy thrillers to space opera.

There’s a trick to bringing so many characters, and their native genres, together into a “team.” This is the challenge with writing any super-hero team, and the challenge becomes greater as it scales. The Defenders, for example, is easier to pull off than the Avengers. Now, however, we’re going a step beyond. Now we are seeing teams brought together with teams, along with solo adventurers. The Avengers were big. This is bigger than big.

So, however, is the threat. Thanos is a Titan. We’ve seen him coming with a sense of dread attached to the foreshadowing, but even those of us steeped in the comics literature forget that he is more dangerous than all of our heroes’ rogues galleries combined. Now he is acquiring the Infinity Stones, making him all but impossible to defeat.

So, this is the biggest. This is the film’s strength, and also it’s weakness.

It’s too big.

In fact, it’s almost numbing.

We see some fantastic heroic moments here, don’t get me wrong. Some characters, particularly Wanda Maximoff and Dr. Strange, really have an opportunity to shine. Others though, while their presence and actions are critical, are cheated of very important moments. One that stands out is when Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanof encounter each other again for the first time since Ultron’s defeat, and we get barely a five second close-up before we’ve moved on. This is understandable in a way, given the sheer volume of characters and the scope of the story that this movie is telling. There simply isn’t time to explore everything. Still, having been spoiled by Marvel’s Netflix series making time (such as devoting an entire episode to the conversation that results from Foggy Nelson discovering Matt Murdock’s identity), this is a bit hard to swallow, especially given how we’ve grown to know and love these characters. In the case of Banner and Romanof specifically, I gladly would have spent another 10 minutes in the theatre to have some kind of conversation take place.

Also, there isn’t any time to fully explore the fallout from Civil War. These loose ends are either left hanging, or tied off too neatly. Not that this is really critical when the universe is about to end, but, again, an extra few minutes here and there would have been nice.

What was nice was the inventive combinations of characters working together. The pairings were thoughtful, very deliberate and well-crafted on the part of the writers. This also led to some beautifully-written dialogue, and well-timed comic relief to alleviate some of the weight of this story as it progresses.

There is no happy ending here, and some of the prominent deaths will shock you. This doesn’t resolve until a year from now with part 2. What will be fascinating is how other stories, specifically Ant-Man and the Wasp, will be told during the interim, having to deal with the aftermath of the ending of Infinity War.

Fascinating, and a welcome relief, because they will be smaller.

And we could use a little of that right now.

Image attribution: Brickset under Creative Commons.