Monthly Archives: July 2002

Xaire

Makes me feel pretty cosmopolitan to notice the number of referrers who point to this page from foreign-language sites (the same sort of feeling as having heard that I’m a bigger deal scholar in Finland than I am in the USA). At least, it feels cosmopolitan until I realize how few of the pages I can read. Now, my academic field imposes a certain limitation by requiring attention more to ancient languages than to contemporary ones. I doubt that Italian, Swedish, and (I think) Danish, Modern Hebrew, and Japanese would make my Top Ten Languages to Learn Soon list anyway. (Luckily, Jordon and Wendy, I already speak Canadian.) But I want to say hey to Gaspar and Gustav anyway, and Xaire, “greetings,” to everyone else.

DMRA: “Deep Ellum Blues,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore et al.; “First I Look At the Purse,” the Contours; “Mothership Connection,” Parliament; “Elvis is Dead,” the Forgotten Rebels; “Caravan of Love,” the Housemartins; “Tennessee,” Arrested Development.

Unwelcome Groceries

Has anyone else noticed an uptick in the quantity of spam recently? Or did I just get lucky with some spammer’s harvesting bot? I won’t mention what I’ve been offered, lest I get some misdirected Google hits, but let’s just say that they’ve got absolutely the wrong audience.

DRMA: “All My Little Words,” Magnetic Fields.

A “D’oh” Waiting to Happen

I know I’ll feel dopey for asking, but is there something I should be remembering to avoid giving my external USB hard drive a migraine every week or so, when I forget to dismount it nicely before my PowerBook goes to sleep? It seems so massively counterintuitive that Apple should have written the system software so that one has to dismount the drive manually before going to sleep, that I figure I must have missed some option built-in to the OS (I’m running 9.1 now, but this has been happening for ages).
If Apple dropped this ball, hasn’t someone written a utility to watch for this? Please?

DMRA:“The Sins of Memphisto,” John Prine; “Plastic Man,” the Kinks.

She’s Baa-ack

Juliet’s archive problem seems to have cleared up (blogger blogger) and that puts me back on the spot to respond to her (just as I was telling David in email that maybe we should wind this thread down). I’ll try to strike a happy medium between boring the non-hermeneutics fans out there (on one hand) and short-changing Juliet (on the other).

So: Juliet observes, partway into her blog, that “One of the issues that has snagged my thinking about the differential option, however, is the imaginative configuration that places the concept of meaning outside of the text rather than somehow corresponding to the unique dance that occurs between the text and reader. Far from a criticism, it is a stuck point in my own reflections on how reading occurs.” I’m not quite sure how to read that last sentence—I could have asked her this afternoon, but at that point I didn’t know her archives were operational again, and besides, her intention in composing that sentence is part of the question we’re investigating. In her first sentence, though, she rightly catches the differential-hermeneutic insistence that “meaning” resides not inside the text, as a vein of gold in a rock stratum, but in the interaction between reader and text in a particular situation (I’m adding the specific setting to Juliet’s “text and reader”).

I’m not surprised when she reports that a classroom of politically-attuned readers resisted Steve Fowl’s point that ideology does not reside in the text. I’ve been raked over the coals in professional meetings by colleagues who found that suggestion theoretically ridiculous and politically retrograde. (I suppose I don’t think I was coal-raked, as I had sound rebuttals to all the objections I faced; in fact, I had explicit counter-examples for every ominous interpretive threat that my interlocutors posed.) The no-ideologies argument affronts readers who want not only to point out ways that a text can persuasively be interpreted in ways that oppress, limit, or threaten particular constituencies of readers—they want also to say that hte problems they point to are intrinsic to the text. In a similar way, though an opposite orientation, other readers want to claim that “traditional” values and theological teachings are intrinsic to the biblical text.

Augustine really does help with these matters. He believes without question that God can appropriately claim authorship of the Bible, and that the Bible reveals God’s identity and plan. At the same time, Augustine the semiotician and rhetor recognizes that the Bible will inevitably engender different interpretations, that indeed the fullness of God’s providential will requires a plenitude of legitimate interpretations. So long as these various interpretations build up the love of God and of neighbor, and cohere with other pertinent texts, the interpreters have rightly understood Scripture.

I’ve probably said more than enough on this topic for now. My gang of critical interrogators has helped me see where readers are likely to doubt my claims, and to see where I should make the positive side of my position clearer and more explicit. Thanks to everyone who chipped in, and here I want to note Joe Duemer too (though I haven’t really followed up his observations on language games, imagination, fancy, and why AKMA is right and Pat Robertson wrong, though I do appreciate his confidence on the last-mentioned topic). If I go on any longer, though, these insightful critics may instigate a further round of discussion, and that would transgress against the patience of long-suffering visitors. So tomorrow I’ll try not to talk about hermeneutics at all. I’ve been itching to open up on trust and especially on how trust fares online.

Thanks for your attention, and I’ll keep y’all in prayer, and I ask your prayers also.

DRMA:“Ça Plane Pour Moi,” Plastic Bertrand; “Honeysuckle Rose,” Fats Waller; “Say Man,” Bo Diddley; “Rough Side of the Mountain,” the Rev. F. C. Barnes and Janice Brown; “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” Beck; “Number Nine Dream,” John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band; “Day After Day,” Badfinger; “Joyful Girl,” Ani DiFranco; “Touch Me Lord Jeus,” Angelic Gospel Singers.

Extremely Short Response

I’m going to keep this short, not out of disrespect for my wonderful conversation partners (whose patience and persistence I greatly admire and appreciate) but first, because I don’t want to go on indefinitely about the topic, ’cause I have the distinct feeling that very few people care, and second, because I don’t want to slight Juliet, who’s been waiting patiently for my response, and by responding to whom I’m likely to engender another whole round of this carousel. So a very brief response to David Weinberger’s morning post at this point goes like this:

(a) David’s point about “imagining” and “attributing” set me back a pace or two, but in the end those words don’t differ with respect to the activity of the interpreter. That’s one reason I’ve been so tediously persistent about the metaphor of the web as shared imagination; I don’t construe “imagination” as a sort of solitary dreaming-up-without-connection-to-anything-else, which is what David’s use of the term sounds like to me.

(b) (This is the biggy.) How does my conviction that I understand God’s intention in Scripture differ from Pat Robertson’s conviction that he understands God’s intention in Scripture?

If there’s no cogent way of comparing those intuitive convictions — and I’m Wittgensteinian enough to believe there isn’t, though I hope Joseph Duemer will check me on this — then I maintain that my assertion, “But I really do understand God’s authorial intention,” (the asseveration for which David is waiting) is syntactically blank. It puts my waving fist into words, but it doesn’t say any more than “I’m right ’cos I know I am.”

If there is a cogent way of comparing my degree of rightness with Pat Robertson’s, or for that matter for comparing it to The Big Truth, then I hope someone will show me. So far as I’ve been able to tell, all I can do is compare arguments and interpretations with Pat (or David, or whomever), and make an informed (imaginative) judgment about which is the most satisfactory.

In other words, if I’m wrong about this, I’m wrong in a big way — I’m ignoring, almost deliberately, an avenue to the truth that others on the road traverse easily. At least I’m not alone, though, because the other wanderers must include some sponsors of integral hermeneutics who are absolutely sure they’re on the right track, but who are misled, with no way to account for their erring.

Whoops! I was going to promise Juliet she was next, but her Blogger misfortunes seem to have 404’ed her archives. That’s a lousy way to get out of an argument, but perhaps she’ll remind me of the weaknesses she saw in my argument.

DRMA: “Double Crossing Blues,” Johnny Otis Quintet; “I’m So Bored With the USA,” the Clash; “Down on Me,” Eddie Head and his Family; Theme from Albert Campion, PBS TV; “Marrow,” Ani DiFranco; “When You’re Alone,” Bruce Springsteen; “2000 Man,” the Rolling Stones.

Interval

Two more quick excerpts on hermeneutics, in both cases especially Scriptural hermeneutics:

[Scripture] cannot as it were be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.
John Henry Newman

No interpreter’s articulation of meaning abrogates somebody else’s structure of meaning, provided that what each of them says agrees with a sound profession of the Catholic faith.
John Dun Scotus (both quotations as cited in Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis vol. 1)

Thanks, by the way, to the Tutor’s acknowledgement of my persistent efforts to clarify how my hermeneutics accords with my theology; would it be importunate for me to persist in affirming that my understanding of truth and salvation can’t be “noncommittal,” but that everything most important in my life hangs on these premises and that my life will be risible, ludicrous, if my faith in a Way that leads us toward Truth always by the ambiguous path of interpretation be shown false?

Insufficient Response

David Weinberger and Tom Matrullo (via email) have both gotten back to me about hermeneutics. I’ll answer David first, because I think it’ll be easier.
David tosses me a softball to start, asking whether his representation of my proposed distinction between “integral” and “differential” hermeneutics rings true. Yes, though I think that in the definition of integral hermeneutics, I’d substitute “unitary” where David says “single”: “Integral hermeneutics thinks that to understand X is to see the simple, unambiguous, single meaning behind X.” Some of my friends on the integral side of the fence are subtle enough to allow for intentional duplicity of meaning, so that the meaning is unitary but not single (if you take my point). So that’s number one.

Number two, David keeps a close eye on my treatment of specifically Scriptural interpretation. (Be sure to read his wise characterization of the Judaic hermeneutical tradition — I want to have that to quote for my students, whom I try desperately to teach to read like rabbis.) He goes on to suggest that I don’t “giv[e] enough weight to the scriptural text. His view of DH finds all of interpretation’s value in the play of differing interpretations and none in the meaning behind the text or the text itself.” To illustrate, he suggests that one difference between interpreting a restaurant menu and the Bible lies in the fact that the Bible’s author is God (a not inconsiderable difference, I should add).

This one’s harder, and I think I have to answer it backward. That is, God’s authority/authorhood in Scripture is something that he and I can take for granted, but it’s not intrinsic to the text of the Bible. The claim of divine authorship binds David (for the sake of argument) and me into a strongly, deeply-held set of interpretive conventions, but each of us knows friends who not only don’t think God is author f the Bible, but doubt that there’s any God to have done it at all. It doesn’t do any good at this point to say, “No, but really, God did write it”; the disagreement goes a great deal deeper than whether God can intelligibly be characterized as author of the Bible. I’m not reluctant to ascribe authorship of Scripture (in some sense) to God, but I refuse to exclude people who disagree with me on this from my account of hermeneutics.

Or take a Borgesian example: imagine an impious blasphemer who writes out longhand a copy of the words of the Bible, but illustrates it not with exquisite medieval woodcuts and delicate illuminations, but with caricatured exaggerations of all the most awkward passages, and who emphasizes everything that would embarrass the sensitive interpreter. I’d argue that one might make a case that this vandal had not in fact written out a copy of the Bible, even if the text of the scroll, or book, were identical to an approved version of that book.

So if that which makes the Bible special isn’t a feature of the book’s essence or nature, but of the way particular peoples regard the text, then we’re where I left off, where David didn’t want to be. Calling a book that begins “Bereshith bara elohim eth ha-shamayim. . .” (forgive my dodgy transliteration) “the Bible” already constitutes an interpretive decision that includes some people and excludes others; ascribing its authorship to God narrows the body of agreeable interpreters even further. And (as a differential hermeneutician) (“Do you have an appointment. sir?”) I have to account for those people’s interpretations, too.

Which brings me back to my main point, that I’m not beginning from a failure, but from difference. It’s failure only if we being with by defining “success” as interpretive unanimity, and I don’t do that.

I affirm David’s six-point version of a differential-hermeneutic account of revelation, except that I’m not sure how I would say that “Scripture needs a differential hermeneutic” (my tags). I think we need a differential hermeneutic to appropriate Scripture rightly.

And I don’t abhor “tyrannical relativism” — I don’t believe it exists (people who adopt the deplorable pose of being “relativists” are concealing their adherence to some occluded ideology).

So on the whole, I agree with David quite an awful lot, and I thank him heartily.

As for Tom — I ought to go to bed before I answer him, ’cos it’s past my bedtime and I’m liable to say something foolish, more foolish than usual. I need to clarify several matters for Tom (if I understand him aright): first, the business of what interpreters think and argue about, and second, the status and location of meaning, and third, how we are to go on if I’m right.

First, I’d propose that interpreters think and argue about different things. Some interpreters argue a lot about what the author meant by a text, but some interpreters argue about what the text means relative to our present situation, and still others about a sort of atemporal meaning that escapes any situational specificity. Many interpreters suppose that there’s a unitary quality to a text, a quality we may call “what it means,” that establishes the legitimacy of anything else we might say about the text; they then endeavor to show that their interpretations reveal the true meaning of the text, and other (different) interpreters have gone astray at some point.

On my account, the place that integralists fill with “the true meaning” can just as well be occupied by “the most convincing account of the text in question,” where “convincing” will always remain a more-or-less local set of criteria to which the (local) social formations adhere.That’s not because I don’t believe in God or transcendence or truth — it’s because I don’t know how to de-localize myself to recognize the universal/transcendent in a way that’ll convince anyone but me and my local colleagues. (Isn’t this the topic about which I first emailed David Weinberger, when he didn’t know me from. . . ? Oh well, I never liked that idiom.)

Which leads to the second clarification: differential hermeneuticians can’t dispense with the notion of a text’s author. We can’t think “textual meaning” without the imaginative gesture of positing an author who meant something. Differential hermeneuts will, however, allow that different people will imagine different authors, and there’ll be no way to pin a really real intention to a really real author and make from that a really final interpretation.

In that case, interpreters make an aesthetic judgment about which version of author, text, audience, history, motivation, and intention (and other elements) hang together for the soundest interpretive argument. I don’t contrast that imaginative, aesthetic judgment with ‘the meaning of the text,’ though. Either I’ll colloquially identify the imaginative construal with the meaning, or I’ll more carefully avoid talking about “the meaning” altogether. I just don’t believe texts have “meaning” in any way that escapes our attributing meaning to them.

Then third, if textual meaning depends not on the pole star of “meaning,” but on the wandering stars (the planets, from Greek planaw, “I err”!) of human judgments, how do we know where to go?

I suppose we go in the directions we believe in: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) and (and this one’s for the Tutor) “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” More obviously constructively, we will go on and navigate as we always have (for if now there is no meaning leading us about from extra nos, there hasn’t been such a magnetic meaning all along). We’ll rely on people we trust, we’ll look back on what the ancients have taught us, we’ll try to help one another along, and we’ll try humbly to accept correction when people whom we respect suggest that we’ve got something important wrong.

What this doesn’t allow us is a stick with which to beat the annoying people who persist in promulgating erroneous interpretations; we can’t say, “That’s just not what it means!” (not in an absolute way). In response to mistaken interpretations, a differential hermeneutic would advise that we make as plain and persuasive a case for our interpretation as we possibly can, and let willful or foolish interpreters do their best. If show-off looudmouths get more than their just share of attention and acclaim, we can with the Psalmist fret not ourselves over evildoers, nor envy those who prosper from wickedness. We can’t force our rightness into the hearts of others anyway. “Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” — Pope Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae.

Bedtime. Tomorrow evening Margaret gets home, so I had better spend tomorrow productively cleaning up and writing and running errands. I hope these responses clear the air somewhat, Tom and David. Thanks for your patient attention. Tomorrow I’ll try to respond to Juliet.

DRMA: “Praise You,” Fatboy Slim (Nate’s got it bad for Fatboy); “Hung Up,” Paul Weller; “Wicked Little Critta,” They Might Be Giants; “Midnite Cruiser,” Steely Dan; “Stormy Weather,” Billie Holiday; “Love On a Farmboy’s Wages,” XTC; “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” Elvis Costello (“Everybody’s crying ‘Peace on earth’/just as soon as we win this war,” and “Everybody’s crying ‘Justice!’/Just so long as there’s business first” — great!); “There Must Be a City,” the Fairfield Four; “The Only One,” Roy Orbison; “Tore Up,” Otis Rush; “Red Beans and Rice,” Keb Mo; “House of the Rising Sun,” the Animals; “Power of the Gospel,” Ben Harper; “In and Out,” the Pogues; “I Feel Like Going On,” the Dells; “There’s a Barbarian in the Back of My Car,” Voice of the Beehive; “Body and Soul,” the Benny Goodman Orchestra; “Can You Heal Us Holy Man,” Paul Weller.
SoundJam playlist hand-blogged by Stubborn Cuss meatware.

In Our Neighborhood

David Weinberger offers thoughtful criticism of my developing essay on integral and differential hermeneutics. If all writers had readers like David, writing would be none the less difficult—David doesn’t let me off any hooks—but it would be vastly more rewarding.

Shelley has answered us, firmly, that blogging is no longer for her, and she gives some good reasons. The minuses still don’t outweigh the plusses for me, not by a long chalk, but she’s certainly right about those minuses.

Gary Turner has uncovered my complicity in Halley’s hitherto-secret plan for world domination, which means I may have some time to spare when King George II’s Homeland Security Keystone Investigative Agency tracks me down. At least I now know who’s the anonymous other member of our cell.

And I meant to acknowledge Kevin Marks’ first announcement of mediAgora, but he’s only gotten more on target and accumulated more pertinent links. If you only stopped by Kevin’s the first time, go back again. It’s hard to imagine how anyone who reads Kevin’s pages can imagine that government-by-RIAA-and-Disney serves the interests of the people in any way.

DRMA: “Red Beans,” All That; “Got Myself Together,” the Holmes Brothers; “Talk of the Town,” the Pretenders; “Wild Women Never Get the Blues,” Lyle Lovett; “Lovesick,” Bob Dylan.

Weekend Update

Jennifer, our wonderful adjunct daughter, is here for a while, and Margaret leaves New England with Pippa and Si tomorrow early in the morning. We figure to be all together by Wednesday at the latest. It is, as Martha says, all good.

Integral and Differential, Again

Picking up near where I left off, oneof the aspects of the whole discussion that flummoxes me involves the extent to which the argument tends to presuppose a Protestant-vs.-Catholic worldview, with no room left for anyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the same vigorous arguments against plurivalence in the context of Judaism or Eastern Orthodoxy (I don’t know enough even to guess about other traditions). Judaism isn’t the exotic rain forest of unchanneled meaning that some critics in the 80’s made it out to be; we are talking about the Torah, after all, not a capricious textual free-for-all. Even the Catholic tradition embraced some plurality of interpretive meaning through Medieval exegesis. Once the Reformation took root, all parties to the dispute over theological authority felt the need to say, “The Bible supports us and not them,” and at that point plurality in meaning can only complicate the power moves that the advocates of Rome or Geneva or Augsburg, or for that matter Canterbury or Westminster or Plymouth, felt the need to make.

But authority in Judaism and Orthodoxy devolves more directly on performative criteria than on the theoretically exclusive textual correctness of one party’s interpretations. (By “performative,” I don’t mean to refer to Lyotard’s attention to the crtierion of performative productivity in The Postmodern Condition, but to something more like what Raoul Eshelman describes in the article wood s lot recently blogulated for us: testing truth-claims by living them out). This, too, may make a connection to hermeneutics in Judaism (and in Christianity outside the West?); questions of interpretation often resolve themselves the more clearly by trying them as part of life. As such, and permit me some emphasis here, my “postmodern” differential hermeneutics is intrinsically, inescapably ethical. Bad interpretation isn’t only a matter of insufficient cerebration—it’s a moral failure. Good interpretation isn’t a matter of being smart enough, but of interpreting with spiritual wisdom.

It doesn’t follow that someone we think good will always interpret rightly, or that being smart is irrelevant to interpreting well. It does imply that there are as many ways to interpret well as there are to live well.

[Brief interval as I’m overcome by the urgency of implementing relative font sizes in my blog template. Either I’m not an adequate direction-follower, or something about Blogger and CSS and the way I implemented the HTML dysfunctioned, so I went back to the old fixed sizes, with apologies. Movable Type will be here some day, I’ll begin working directly with Dorothea’s version of my template, daisies will bloom, relative sizes will work, we’ll get just the right amount of rain and heat, and I’ll have a sabbatical.]

So I just argued that differential hermeneutics is so far from being a-moral that it’s radically ethical (not that being a partisan of differential hermeneutics makes you ethically praiseworthy, but that it is, as Nate would say, all about ethics.

In this context, the Tutor’s question — plaintive, were it not so thornily pointed — “What must I do to be saved?” should find its native habitat in the differential approach to hermeneutics. Now, I anticipate that some readers, if not the Tutor himself, would like a single, unambiguous answer—and will reject any reluctance to provide that simple injunction as mere deconstructive stammering, unwillingness to commit oneself to the plainly-marked narrow gate that leads to salvation.

On the other hand, Jesus tended to respond to such questions indirectly, with parables or prophetic actions or aphoristic deconstructions of the presuppositions on which the questions seem to rest.

“What must I do to be saved?” First, neither I nor you can determine that you be saved — right? Salvation depends not on our efforts or on your or my wise advice. Salvation as a free gift from God comes not by way of diligent good behavior or (certainly not) from good advice from an online theologian, but always only as a gift (I ran through this same set of premises way back on the “forgiveness” topic).

Do I then mean that there’s nothing to it, that we can shrug our shoulders, kick the homeless beggar at our feet, and laugh all the way to the pearly gates? I would not dare suggest so. At the same time, it does imply an awareness that salvation comes not through our power—and “power” marks one of the cardinal points in the conflict over interpretation. So here, too, I would urge a benefit of differential hermeneutics, as an approach to interpretation that duly observes the humility befitting fallible followers of a God who blesses not the exercise of coercive force (whether social, interpretive, or military), but patience and resolute faithfulness and integrity.

Now, there’s more to be said about these and many other dimensions of the topic (as readers moan), but not tonight.

DRMA: “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday (I can hardly listen to this, but I make myself; it feels as though this recording, once made, ought immediately to have converted the hearts of anyone who ever hears it); “One Day,” Dixie Hummingbirds and Angelic Gospel Singers; “When I See His Blessed Face,” Sister Wynona Carr; “All This Useless Beauty,” Elvis Costello (a live version wherein he pertinently observes, “People are always asking me, ‘What does that song mean?’ and if I could say it in other words than are in the song, I would have written another song, wouldn’t I?”); “I Want to Go Where Jesus Is,” Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Singers; “I Thank You Lord,” James Bignon and the Deliverance Mass Choir; “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley; “Balm in Gilead,” Sweet Honey in the Rock; “The Girls Want to Be With The Girls,” Talking Heads; “Sunken Treasure,” Wilco; “I’m Someone Who Loves You,” the Roches; “All of Me,” Billie Holiday; “Here at the Western World,” Steely Dan; “Function at the Junction,” Shorty Long; “People Say,” the Meters; “Opening” from Glassworks, Philip Glass; “Watching the Wheels,” John Lennon.

The Shadow Over Evanston

And I thought it was just the typical Chicago summer heat: Alex Golub continues the saga — I hear Spielberg is interested, your people should talk to his people, let’s do lunch — of his intrepid defense of Baroque music and everything else worth saving in yesterday’s blog, in which my hitherto-secret weakness imperils the All-and-Everything, or at least Mayan commercial traffic. As an aside, I feel obliged to say that Alex has taken literary license and disguised my Achilles meal as Tim-Tams, perhaps as a way to draw in the Australian contingent. I’ve never had a Tim or a Tam, though, and my particular gustatory shame lies elsewhere. . . .

Then the Tutor reminds me that more than intellectual fashions, more even than lives are at stake in talking about interpretation. I’m still working on this; something so important deserves painstaking attention. (Recently I read that bloggers take less time to write their posts than readers take to read them — excuse me?)

DRMA: “Svefn G Englar,” Sigur Ros; “Oh No!” Camper Van Beethoven; “Didn’t It Rain,” Golden Gate Quartet; “London’s Burning,” the Clash.