Today’s my father’s birthday; he would be 80 today. This afternoon I bumped into a couple of ‘Net essays about parents and children and ageing and death, and only just now did I figure out why I was so teary and reflective.

A K M Adam and Donald G Adam

Dad taught English Lit (among other things) at Chatham College. He loved bringing students to England and showing them the places so many of his heroes, and theirs, walked and talked, drank coffee, drank wine and ale, and wrote. He was a great teacher.

This evening I’ll head out to the High Street to meet up with some students and former students at the Mitre. I know Dad had visited Oxford — I’m not sure whether it was a regular stop on his student tours — I know he’d been here because on one of his first trips, he brought back a yellow Oxford University t-shirt for me. I wore it through college, I wore it for years after, and it may well be in a storage bin in an upstairs closet right now. He wasn’t a perfect dad, and I was by no means an ideal son. I’m a teacher too, though I’ve come to terms with the fact (amplified by observing what an excellent teacher Margaret is) that I won’t ever be as good at it as he was. But I’ll have a pint, maybe more, and I’ll give thanks for him and his imparting to me his love of teaching and learning, and I’ll try not to embarrass my students by weeping at how he taught me to care about them, and how much I do.

Thanks, Dad.

Just To Remember

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
   This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


If you try to understand hermeneutics in order to control interpretations, you will neither control interpretations nor understand hermeneutics.

If all you want to do is to understand interpretations, your hermeneutics can reach deep and explain much. Your hermeneutics won’t help you control interpretations — but you’ve forgone that anyway.

O Felix Serpens

Daniel posted his Mountain Goats talk, so I’ll join in with mine (as distinct from the longer article on tMG from several years ago):

O Felix Serpens
Genesis 3 in Recent Songs of John Darnielle

A K M Adam
St Stephen’s House
Oxford University

Whereas in many popular interpretations, the Bible figures as an oracular repository of sacred law, or as a textbook of science and metaphysics, or a sourcebook for general spirituality, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has developed a repertoire of songs that draw on the Bible as an utterly human expression of how the world is (and will be), even in the face of appearances that suggest otherwise. In so doing, the Mountain Goats make the moral and theological ambivalence of the Bible audible again without resolving that ambivalence into cloying pieties, defiant blasphemies, or historical criticism.
Darnielle frequently invokes the crisis of Genesis 3 — without, however, focusing on “man’s first disobedience.” Instead of telling tales about temptation and fruit, Darnielle parses the effects of the primordial transgression: exile, alienation, labour. The serpent in particular draws his attention. In the lyrics of “Cobra Tattoo,” “How To Embrace A Swamp Creature,” and “Supergenesis,” Darnielle draws out ways in which the snake of Genesis 3 not only shares the curse that falls on humanity, but shares, and expresses, some aspects of humanity as well.

The earliest of the songs, “Cobra Tattoo,” narrates at the same time three interactions — perhaps more. In one setting, the song follows a scene of courtship and flirtation between two human contemporaries, a singer and a tattooed woman. At the same time, a figurative reading may regard both characters as snakes; the singer self-identifies with the serpent of Genesis 3 (“You will bruise my head, I will strike your heel”), and the girl bears the totemic tattoo identifying her with the cobra. Or one may finally see the scene as an interaction between the Genesis serpent and Eve (marked by the serpent’s prior seduction). On this last reading, the snake imagines wooing the marked woman from a position of celestial authority — Darnielle cites from the Daystar/Lucifer passage from Isaiah 14 in the second verse — “Higher than the stars / I will set my throne” — but then adds to it John the Baptist’s warning to the crowds, “God does not need Abraham / God can raise children from stones.” The serpent of “Cobra Tattoo” patiently awaits the time when he will be transformed from his reptilian condition to the dominion to which he aspires; he urges the girl to “dream at night,” in which dreams he may communicate with her (“Try to let these garbled transmissions come through”).

On a more recent album, Darnielle returns to the serpent’s longing for transformation with the song, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” As in the earlier song, the most prominent aspect of “Swamp Creature” concerns two ordinary humans (in this case they’re ex-lovers who meet one another and embrace in a perhaps-spontaneous encounter after they’ve broken up). Here the refrain makes explicitly impossible what “Cobra Tattoo” leaves undefined — that the two lovers, or would-be lovers, belong to two different species (“I’m out of my element / I can’t breathe”), as in comics and films that portray male aquatic monsters who lust after, and ultimately kill, human women. Thus the resonance with the third possible dimension of “Cobra Tattoo” — the singer again identifying himself with the reptile aspiring to a relationship with a human woman — comes to the fore. Although in the first half of the first verse he knows himself accursed with serpenthood, the second half reflects the perspective of the human visitor who stands in a doorway with his arms at his side. In this song, then, Darnielle invokes the myth of the Swamp Creature to characterise the situation of an ex-boyfriend, neither stranger nor lover, simultaneously human and reptilian. As in “Cobra Tattoo,” the singer is ultimately barred from the connection he longs for; Cobra Tattoo’s invocation of Isaiah 14 foregrounds the snake’s aspiration to be a star, but neglects Jehovah’s implacable determination to stymie any such transformation; in Swamp Creature, the way back into the Eden of the lost relationship is barred by the flashing swords of the cherubim. Although they may for one night fulfill God’s command that they be fruitful and multiply (“but not in those words,” as Woody Allen said), no more good can come of this liaison than did women’s unwilling encounters with the Swamp Creature. He’s out of his element, he can’t breathe; he panics and flees.

The transfigured serpent reappears in “Supergenesis,” although in this song Darnielle sticks solely to the snake’s longing to regain use of his lost limbs, so as to mount an attack against the forces that hobbled him. He “tries] to hoist myself up right / Again, try again,” because “someday, someday the call will sound / We all, we all are gonna get up from the ground.” (Darnielle also refers to Genesis 3 in the most recent Mountain Goats album, The Life of the World to Come, but this song (“Genesis 3:23”) concentrates solely on the expulsion of the human occupants from Eden: “See how the people here live now / Hope they’re better at it than I was / I used to live here….”)

Though the serpent in these songs looks forward to a rebellion, indulges in ill-planned sex, and imagines a battle for revenge, none of the songs vilifies him for these actions as do traditional interpretations that ascribe to him diabolical evil. But neither does Darnielle present the snake as the wronged victim of an unjust judge; “in the twinkling of an eye, my sentence gets passed” (“Supergenesis”), but the snake doesn’t protest that he was innocent. Darnielle describes how it might be to be the serpent, perhaps eliciting sympathy, but mainly opening up a rich imaginative connection to serpentine existence (and specifically to the existence of a Genesis serpent). In contrast to biblical scholars’, and most popular interpreters’, determination to prove a point for or against God, Darnielle doesn’t damn or praise his subject. He listens for the serpent’s voice, and finds the serpent in very human predicaments.
In so doing, Darnielle defies the binary mania of the recording industry by refusing both the controlling embraces of categorically Christian music (on one hand) and the defiantly secular (and in many cases “anti-ecclesiastical”) mainstream rock marketplace. The Mountain Goats’ presentation of biblical tropes is generally sympathetic, even when it’s contrarian; the frustrations and challenges that characterise The Life of the World to Come remain as steadfastly within the ambit of the biblical world as do the Psalms and Lamentations. Nonetheless, Darnielle’s qualified fascination falls far short of the norms expected of official, Gospel Music Association-certified Christian rock (even more so when one considers the catalogue of Mountain Goats’ songs with Vedic and Meso-American religious themes). The Mountain Goats sing of a more ambivalent sort of faith — steadfast and wounded, sin-soaked but hopeful — and instantiate it as a standpoint their audience may recognise, and may identify with.
They also exemplify a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t comport well with the sorts of distinctions that conventionally inhabit the interpretive discourse of professional biblical criticism. One would seek in vain for Darnielle’s lyrics to suggest that a historical reading of a particular verse legitimates his exposition. Neither, of course, does he back up his interpretive approach from creedal or magisterial authority. The standing of the Bible relative to Darnielle’s compositions derives from the extent to which he and his audience sense that he is telling the truth about the world in his (biblical) idiom.
As we theological professionals range from smoky concert venues and solitary mp3 players to the fluorescent lights of seminar rooms, lecture halls, and conference panels where we propound our own interpretations, we do well to bear in mind the limitations that arise from excluding middle terms. The texts we study provide ample grounds for complementary and contradictory readings, historical and theological, social-scientific and liberatory-political. Our best, most enduring interpretations derive their power to convince not from overheated claims about bias, ideological correctness, or methodological legitimacy, but from reading carefully and well, and from attending well to the myriad ways of heartbreak and hope in this world, for men, women, and serpents.

Turner Network

Our dear friend Gary Turner used to be famous online for his manic comic inventiveness, which he sometimes expressed in new-media stunts such as posting messages left on his phone-answering machine, colourful interviews, Blogtank organising, and photoshopped pictures of his cronies in various situations with television caption crawl incorporated into the picture. I was looking for one of these earlier, and I’m posting them all now so that they’ll be easier for me (and the internet) to find.

From “OK, No More Now, This Time I Mean It” (that is, it would be there if the Wayback Machine had saved the image file):

AKMA Nat Enq Preaching

From “I Got AKMA His Gig on Fox News” (note fountain pens in chest pocket:


And last of all, coverage of the notorious “Information Highwayman” incident:


Those were the days….

Jamie Lawrence Mitchell

Last Friday night, a friend of mine from more than ten years ago died. Jamie had been undergoing a series of surgeries to treat his heart. He had begun the process with confidence and bluster that we would have expected of him, and came back after his first treatment with determination to resume life full speed ahead; but a second surgery was required, there were complications, and quite unexpectedly Jamie Mitchell of Goulburn, New South Wales, died as a result.

I knew Jamie as Dargarian, the mercurial, boisterous, impatient, utterly determined lead warrior — our “tank” — in the World of Warcraft guild that Joi Ito founded, of which I was an admin. Very often I was Darg’s healer; he would yell “BIG HEALS” into the guild’s shared audio channel when a monster was raining down damage on him, and on those occasions when I did not successfully keep up a stream of healing equal to the damage he sustained (sometimes through random mischance, sometimes through my own slowness, sometimes because Darg would keep moving forward and I’d lose sight of him) he would shout “Tank down!” and sometimes suggest that we start the attack over again as soon as his character died. “Tank down, it’s a wipe” he would say, and we would point out that thirty-nine of us remained who might possibly be able to finish a particular event without his participation. I loved healing Darg, even though he sometimes cursed me out for not doing a good enough job; that’s what we want in a tank, a sort of swash-buckling, irrepressible enthusiasm for the job he has to do, and though I healed many excellent tanks before and after Darg, none were as colourful, as manic, as mad for the struggle as he was.

Eventually the close-knit raiding group from our guild changed direction, changed characters, changed times and emphases. Darg — who, after all, was devoting his Australian midnight morning and daybreak mornings to our raids — took less part in both the group raiding and in the guild as a whole. He’d pop up now and then, we might run a lesser dungeon crawl with him, but the mad glory of the huge 40-member raids ebbed away.

We kept in touch through the Guild forums, through Facebook, and in the years after our guild conquered its first big raiding challenge, Jamie went on to marry and have a fine son; we’d see photos on Facebook and imagine Darg as a Dad. He must have mellowed over time, but not too much. I’ll invite Giselle to leave her own comments — but we know dozens of comrades-in-arms who will remember Dargarian, will remember Jamie, as an unstoppable force (for better or, sometimes, for worse) with a big heart, comrades who will miss hearing him explode into the guild audio channel, who have been sending him big heals, big heals, and who have been greatly saddened this past weekend to hear that the tank is down. For now, it’s a wipe.



I’m Sorry, Cambridge

As I was going over the last round of edits to this morning’s sermon, I realised that the conclusion wanted a place name, a place name near to Oxford and recognisable as forming an improbable match for our fair city. I could have said “Blackbird Leys,” but Blackbird Leys attracts enough disrespect without my piling on. Jericho, Summertown, Banbury, Cowley, Iffley, none of them had the right ring to them. So I took an easy way out and chose “Cambridge,” even though it wasn’t what I wanted rhetorically. I apologise, but the sermon had to be finished one way or another.

What with the travel to and from Glasgow, my giving my Ephesians presentation twice yesterday, and preaching this morning, I’m knackered (and so is Margaret, who did most of the difficult stuff with me plus she has an ethics lecture to prepare for Tuesday). Glasgow touched my heart over the weekend: the city, our very sweet friends whom it was a joy to see again, teaching on behalf of Trinity College and the Scottish Episcopal Church, the pint of Chip 71 at the Ubiquitous Chip…. But it’s great to be back home in Oxford, and we will allow ourselves some time to relax this afternoon.

Sermon below:

Continue reading I’m Sorry, Cambridge

Friday’s Devotion

HoopoeLast Friday I led our weekly Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, so I prepared a devotion for the service. As it was St Ignatius of Antioch, I composed the devotion as a pastiche of passages (and some paraphrase) from Ignatius’s letters (attached below). I’m still getting the hang of this genre of writing, but this week’s did not take as much intense compositional frustration as past devotions (partly, I think, because I gave myself a framework by deciding to use Ignatius’s words).
Continue reading Friday’s Devotion

Rough Injustice

Several weeks ago, the Executive Board of General Theological Seminary fired eight members of the teaching staff, patently construing their legal work stoppage as “resignation.” Since then the leadership of the Episcopal Church has opted not to intervene (although GTS operates “under the superintendence and control of the General Convention”), and the full Board of Trustees yesterday evidently voted to affirm the dismissal of the eight staff who were exercising their right to seek redress of grievances.

Tom Ferguson of Bexley/Seabury has commented on this in extenso, and I agree with him whole-heartedly. I’d like to add my tuppence on several dimensions of the situation.

As Tom points out, there must be no mistaking what the General Executive Board and Trustees have done: they have publicly and unreservedly acted against the basics of labour law and (specifically) the definitions of academic governance, asserting their lordly prerogative to fire tenured members of the faculty without observing legal process. Even if they imagine they know loopholes through which they might be able to slime their way through this without juridical penalty, the explicit facts remain that the Trustees have taken the teachers’ statement that “We did not resign” and have responded “We accept your resignations.”

This fact alone should depress anyone who cares about labour justice, the Episcopal Church, truthfulness, the integrity of the General trustees, or anything other than investment opportunities in Manhattan real estate. Such as, for instance, the Gospel.

Several things follow from this naked, undisputed fact.

First, if I were a bishop or a Commission on Ministry, there is no way on earth I would let a prospective seminarian near General Seminary. At a moment when the Board most needs a full, active, enthusiastic enrolment, they have sent the message that theirs is a toxic environment in which those who hold power cannot be trusted. If their leadership takes “we do not resign” to mean “we resigned,” what student could trust them when they say “this is confidential” (already one of the background issues in the conflict) or even “this is a fact.”

Second, the Trustees of the seminary seem to have acted to kill the seminary with whose well-being they have been entrusted. Seminary education costs students and dioceses a lot of money; who would gamble such stakes on General’s future? What clear-sighted observer can disagree with Stanley Hauerwas when he says “in some ways what has happened is the death toll of General Seminary” (apart from Stanley’s use of “toll” when he probably wanted “knell”). I’ll bet that the space formerly occupied by General would make a swell headquarters for the Episcopal Church, though, enabling them to sell the skyscraper at 815 Second Avenue.

Third, the administrative style on display in this tragedy coheres with the way leaders in the Episcopal Church have operated with increasing frequency over the past few decades. Everything must reflect orderly “process” when it serves power’s interests, when the outcome is assured, but if “process” would allow the possibility that the wrong people might be allowed a persuasive voice or permitted to initiate a change of direction, then executive action is required! “The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you” — but the contorted use of terms such as “resign,” “renounce,” “abandon” and so on has become standard operating procedure, now more vividly displayed because the targets of such Humpty-Dumptian tactics are not isolated individuals without leverage, or ideologically unwelcome Others, but insiders who have been front-and-centre stars of the Episcopal Church’s self-representation as a haven for progressive, intellectual Christians.

Fourth, this manner of behaviour (it has been said before, but mostly by those outsiders and loners) partakes in no way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the best one can do is hand-waving about “stewardship,” but it’s a pretty sad statement when the Board opts to exercise benevolent stewardship of the seminary by taking actions that evidently will lead to its demise. Everything Jesus taught militates against this manner of behaviour. The Board willingly, knowingly, went there.

Fifth, this course adopted by the flagship seminary of the Episcopal Church drags all its lofty principles and manifestos into the muck. If General were located in a romantically exotic “foreign” locale, the plight of its academic staff would be just the sort of cause the Episcopal Church would ordinarily take up with fervour; anyone can perceive the self-serving duplicity of supposedly pro-labour, anti-oppression gestures that the church’s privileged leadership might make hereafter. Solidarity with unjustly treated persons is all well and good, so long as privilege still holds its perks.

I’m a contributor to the GTS 8 fundraising support site; I just made my donation, later than I might have, but I wanted to wait until the initial rush was over and till the Board had met and acted. You might also want to offer a hand to people against whom the fickle scythe of passive coercion has turned, who have been turned out of their posts for daring to organise and strike, for presuming to question their executive (surely not their “leader”). If you’re an Episcopalian, you might bear in mind that General Convention is coming up.

Embarrassed By Improbability

HoopoeMy Baltimore Orioles are about to play in the American League Divisonal Playoffs tonight, and the experts say that their opponents — the Detroit Tigers — should win the series. That’s OK with me; I never expected the Orioles to go this far, certainly not to finish first in the Easter division by twelve games over the New York Yankees. Based on everything that experts on baseball know, the Orioles’ season has been exceptionally improbable.

Since the Orioles have defied the odds this year, a great many people — some partisans of the O’s, some just ordinary sane sports fans — have wondered whether the experts reasoned incorrectly about the strength of the team. Especially since the Orioles have surpassed the experts’ estimates for three consecutive years, people suspect that there’s something about the Orioles that the experts just aren’t getting right: “the intangibles,” as sports writers often say, or “chemistry” or “clubhouse leadership.” Reasonable people look at the discrepancy between projections and results and wonder where the projections went wrong.

A onth and a half ago, Dave Cameron (no, not that one) wrote an elegant piece explaining that No, the experts haven’t been wrong at all; they’ve been exactly right, and the Orioles’ performance actually demonstrates their correctness rather than undermining their status. How can that be? It can be because improbable things happen all the time. Mildly improbable things happen daily; somewhat improbable things happen occasionally; very improbable things happen rarely; and utterly improbable things happen once in a lifetime, or an epoch, or a millennium, or what-you-will. But improbable things happen, and they happen at a rate we can measure and make sense of.

The point relative to my beloved O’s, the team that gave us the 1966 World Champions, is that although the Orioles have outperformed expectations for three years running — a very considerable sample size — their improbable streak of winning falls exactly where we would expect it to on the spectrum of “teams doing better than projected.” In cameron’s words, “the existence of an outlier does not prove that a model is broken. In fact, the existence of the right amount of outliers is actually evidence that the model works really well. The question isn’t whether we can find outliers in the data; the question is whether there are more outliers than we’d expect given a normal distribution.” And it turns out that, yes, the Orioles’ record falls neatly within the expected distribution of teams outperforming (and underperforming) projections. In fact, once you look at the distribution, other recent teams have been even luckier than the Orioles over a three-year stretch; the Angels had a five-year stretch of luck in the late aughties and early ’teens. Improbable things happen all the time.

So sport supporters should relax about trying to argue that the experts are wrong about their formulas (it’s possible, of course, but… improbable). Teams have long stretches of luck, good or bad, and that’s why sport is entertaining even when we know the projected outcomes.

All of this pertains to another field of my interest: namely, the study of the Bible. The Bible narrates a great many utterly improbable events. On the basis of their radical improbability, many very sensible people argue that these events did not take place, a sound enough conclusion when you look at the great span of human history and the great number of claims that have been made on behalf of utterly improbable alleged events. Most people, most of the time, reject out of hand most of these improbable claims, so one can hardly complain if sensible people reason that the events described in the Bible should likewise be rejected.

Like Orioles supporters, though, a great many adherents to traditions (biblical and non-) want to assert that our extraordinary events not only happened despite the odds, but indeed should be understood as the most reasonable explanation of the circumstances and allegations surrounding that alleged event. While the experts on biblical batting averages say “No one has hit for an average over .500 in major league history, so we decline to believe that Joshua slugged Canaanite pitching to the tune of a .633 average,” supporters of the Hebrew Conquerors say “Well, the Bible says Joshua hit .633, and in those days they played without leather gloves, and the pitcher’s mound was probably not very sturdy (else we’d have found archaeological evidence of pitcher’s mounds in antiquity, which we haven’t), so the best explanation for the biblical story of Joshua’s amazing batting average is that he had a career year against uneven Canaanite pitching.” Joshua’s alleged batting record must not only be true, according to this line of thought, it must be probable.

Of these two perspectives, I think the sceptics have by far the strongest case. They’re looking at the records, the circumstances, and the propensities of sport fans to exaggerate, and they’re unconvinced.

The fans tend to take two steps, both of which I think problematic. The first is that they sometimes take it as granted that in order to claim that something is true, it must be probable. Modern life certainly provides a propitious context for this step, since nobody doubts that it’s true that the Orioles won their division this year. So many claims about so many matters of probability or improbability can be tested very easily, with outcomes so near to certainty as makes no practical difference, that the “truth” bit of a claim can seem to be either given and necessary, or false and unsustainable. Orioles fans have not been satisified that experts agreed that the team finished first; they want experts to agree that the Orioles should have finished first, in a way similar to people who believe that not only did Joshua hit .633, but that it’s likely that he hit .633. (I think they are wrong to reason so.)

Similarly, supporters of unlikely events suppose that they may not be permitted to think that improbable things ever happen. Of course, everyday life should dispel this supposition. A friend whose nickname is “37” (srsly) was recently in a queue at the Department of Motor Vehicles and drew the ticket numbered 37. Now, I’m not sure how many numbers were on the roll of tickets; I would estimate the number as probably upwards of 999, since the tickets wouldn’t fit four digits, and cycling through 1 – 99 over and over might run some risk of confusion if there was a particularly long queue. So the chance that a gentleman nicknamed “37” would draw number 37 in the queue is about one in a thousand, and only if he were damned to several lifetimes of annual visits to the DMV (a fate of eschatological cruelty beyond the imagination even of the Christian apocalypticists) could one regard his drawing the number as nearing “probable.” At the same time, among improbabilities, this example is pretty small-scale (however striking and mmeorable it was to 37). In other words, it is not the case that “improbable things happen, so there’s no good reason to be sceptical about the Bible”; contrariwise, a great many things in the Bible are so improbable that we can’t reasonably complain if people don’t believe them to have happened.

Neither, on the other hand, is everyone obliged to doubt something just because it’s wildly improbable. Part of the point of the stories in the Bible, after all, is that these seemed to be extraordinary events even to those who reported them. If one is confident that certain extraordinary events happened two to five thousand years ago, well, there we are. But such believers should be straightforward about just how profoundly improbable the allegations are, and should not try to wrest the improbability dial from “nearly impossible” to “well, of course.” I accept that the maths tell against some of what I assent to having happened in Roman Judea. I don’t think I can screw up my credulity to think that every improbable thing narrated in the gospels (or the rest of the Bible) happened just as reported. I have various reasons for making distinctions among them, which cumulatively do not have the astringent rigour of simply denying all of them or (for that matter) affirming all of them. And my observation of improbability suggests that however comforting that rigour might be, my capacity to ascertain which improbabilities did happen and which didn’t, which teams will win and which won’t, is no better than the sport experts’ capacity to anticipate the Orioles’ winning season.

I know the Tigers are more likely to win three of the next five games against the Orioles, and I know that even if the Orioles defeat the Tigers, they’ll face a challenging opponent in Kansas City or Cleveland. And whoever wins the National League Championship* will be a strong opponent, too. Go, Orioles!

* I was hoping the Pirates would win, partly because I retain some affection for the team I saw so often at Forbes Field in the days of my youth, but mostly so my Orioles would have a chance at a measure of revenge for the two World Series that the Pirates won from us by 4 games to 3 margins.

Context For My Dissent

HoopoeMargaret and I were having a talk this afternoon wherein I paused a couple of times, on the verge of saying something about “context.” I paused, because as I was talking, the term “context”sounded flat and arbitrary; who, after all, decides what counts as “context”? What is context, and how much is enough? The questions that always come up when one invokes context came to mind vividly, and stalled my answers to Margaret.

What I ended up saying instead was “interpretive ecology.” Now, that doesn’t solve any great problems that attend “context.” I haven’t devised the brilliant terminological breakthrough that moves us on to the next problem. But “interpretive ecology” does suggest to me some of the considerations that impel us to make recourse to context — the fundamental premise that signification never happens in isolation, and that the circumstances affect the viability of the expression in question. Some elements in an ecology don’t make a great difference; other elements, even seemingly trivial ones, can prove vitally important (think of “invasive species”).

It’s not sliced bread, but it provides me with a helpful way of keeping an eye on the various roles that various contingencies play in our generating and appropriating expressions.