Monthly Archives: May 2006

There’ll Be Some Changes

I don’t know when on earth I’ll have time, or whether I can put it off till after classes, but I promise all would-be or would-have-been commenters that I will upgrade to the current version of Moveable Type (with canned-meat prevention features) as soon as I can back up and get someone to hold my hand. And if MT doesn’t keep unwelcome comments at bay, then I’ll move over to WordPress — but the on-going waves of comment pollution must be stopped one way or another.

Genotext and Phenotext

OK, following up my perplexity of Saturday, I am now examining the pertinent section of Revolution in Poetic Language (conveniently excerpted in The Kristeva Reader).

It looks to me as though Kristeva may indeed be using these terms in a way that accords with what I want to do with them. It wouldn’t be a big problem if she weren’t, so long as I take care not to misrepresent my approach as a direct inheritor of Kristeva — more (in a cinematic gesture) “inspired by a distinction that Julia Kristeva develops.” Still, I think the similarity is close enough that I’m reassured that I’m not indulging in headstrong disregard of what heavier lifters have proposed already.

Kristeva construes phenotext as “language that serves to communicate” it “it is a structure.” “[I]t obeys rules of communication and presupposes a subject of enunciation and an addressee” (all these quotations from p. 121 of the Reader). Kristeva’s phenotext entails question of competence, of adherence to convention.

Her genotext derives from the inchoate processes of instinctual drives, of extrinsic constraints (of society, corporeality, formation), and from the “matrices of enunciation,” the patterns of expression that give sense to particular instances of expression: she nominated literary genres, “psychic structures,” and various modes of participation in communication, as examples. She associates “drives” with “phonematic devices (such as the accumulation and repetition of phonemes or rhyme) and melodic devices (such as intonation or rhythm), in the way semantic and categorial fields are set out in syntactic and logical features, or in the economy of mimesis (fantasy, the deferment of denotation, narrative, etc.)” (Reader, 120). Her genotext constitutes “language’s underlying foundation.”

Without pursuing further, then, the ways that Kristeva handles these categories differently from me, I’m at ease with re-employing them to suit the specific way they can help me articulate the hermeneutical point I want to make. Whew!

Joy and Adjustment

My heart’s beloved has come home, not for the weekend, not for a study week, but for the whole summer. This entails a joy and a relief beyond compare!

On the other hand, when we live apart for long stretches, our sleep patterns diverge. I, for instance, tend to wake up early and listen to the radio as I doze toward daytime wakefulness. Margaret sleeps later than I, and can’t have the radio on. She, on the other hand, is accustomed to listening to WUNC’s broadcast of the BBC World Service as she drifts to sleep, but WBEZ plays jazz for its late-night programming. I flop around the bed more when it’s big and empty.

Adjusting will be worth it.

Bluffer’s Guide

Kevin referred me to this Very Short Guide to Christianity for people who are, as the author says, “confused and frightened.”

It’s quite imaginative and funny, and it takes a brave contrarian to assert that Blondie’s cover of “The Tide is High” was better than John Holt’s original version — but I think Holyoffice is onto something there.


My mother always makes a point that “Mother’s Day” is a bogus holiday, a commercial institution designed to further the interests of greeting-card companies and florists, and I want to behave as would a dutiful and respectful son, so I won’t contradict her.

So perhaps tomorrow, or the day after, or some spontaneous moment, I will offer a thanksgiving for my mom, and for Margaret’s mother, and for Margaret herself (she’s actually coming home for the summer tomorrow! W00t!). And after church, I’ll probably make some phone calls. But no greeting cards.

Thanks, Mom!

Idiosyncrasy Goes Mainstream

It’s not a secret that I’m delighted with holy cards, the index-card sized illustrations of religious figures and themes. I favor the Belgian style known as “neo-Gothic” or “goldprint,” published notably by the Société Saint Augustin, or the German Beuron Art-Deco style (definitely not the gauzy pastel style popular in the U.S.A. and southern Europe — this site includes examples of various styles with source information), and I prefer images of various saints to scenes from the life of Jesus. So I was tickled when Margaret pointed out to me that BoingBoing covered the holy card phenomenon yesterday, linking to an article in the LA Times and to the Wikipedia.

For a survey of what’s out there, survey the eBay pages dedicated to holy cards. You can probably skip the entries that offer multiple cards (you won’t be able to get a good sense of the card design), but after a few minutes of skimming you’ll get the knack of spotting the real gems. That’s where I found the card of Cyril and Methodius for my Slavophile father-in-law (Hi, Dick!).

Rutland Weekend Semiotics

As I worked on my preface, I’m struggling over what to do with the distinction that I thought I understood) between genotext and phenotext. Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a more complicated theoretical point than I had understood at first; the rush of illumination that came with my apprehension of what I thought the distinction implied beclouded the exact nuances Kristeva applied to these terms. Kristeva’s interest in semiotics, seminalysis, draws much more heavily on Lacanian psychological discourses than I care to (“genotext as the unconscious of language, phenotext as the conscious”). Barthes, through whose “The Grain of the Voice” I came to the genotext/phenotext distinction in the first place, says of a musical expression,

the pheno-song. . . covers all the phenomena, all the features which belong to the structure of the language being sung, the rules of the genre, the coded form of the melisma, the composer’s idiolect, the style of the interpretation: in short, everything in the performance which is in service of communication, representation, expression, everything which it is customary to talk about, which forms the tissue of cultural values (the matter of acknowledged tastes, of fashions, of critical commentaries), which takes its bearing directly on the ideological alibis of a period (‘subjectivity’, ‘expressivity’, ‘dramaticism’, ‘personality’ of the artist). The geno-song is the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate from within language and its very materiality’; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or that depth) of production where the melody really works at the language — not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of it sounds-signifiers, of its letters — where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work. It is, in a very simple word but which must be taken seriously, the diction of the language. (“The Grain of the Voice,” 182-183, from Image – Music Text)

In a rush of excitement, I took Barthes to be proposing that the pheno-song was the structure, the script, the staves and lyrics and textual apparatus of the song — but that doesn’t seem to gibe with what he writes here. Similarly, I understood the geno-song to comprise the un-specifiable performative aspects of the text (which I inferred from his reference earlier on p. 182 to “the materiality of the body, speaking its mother tongue” and his subsequent comments on two performers, Fischer-Dieskau’s irreproachably exact instantiation of the phenosong, contrasted with Panzera’s reaching beyond the “expressive reduction operated by a whole culture against the poem and its melody,” p. 184).

This all comes up because yesterday I remembered a wonderful example of (what I had taken to be) the distinction between genotext and phenotext, Eric Idle’s brilliant “Gibberish” sketch from the first episode of the Rutland Weekend Television series (aired May 12, 1975, according to one source, though the Wikipedia biographical entry for Idle asserts that the program aired only from 1973 to 1974; Idle reprised the sketch, unsatisfactorily, with Dan Akroyd on Saturday Night Live on April 23, 1977). The sketch involves Eric Idle and Henry Woolf conversing as talk-show host and guest; though they use perfectly intelligible words interspersed with conventional phrases (“Good evening and welcome,” “I see,” “drawn two, lost three”), their repartee makes no sense: “Rapidly piddlepot strumming Hanover peace pudding mouse rumpling cuddly corridor cabinets?” The actors read their lines, however, with the comfortable intonation of conventional interview dialogue. On the imprecise understanding of genotext and phenotext I had worked up before resuming research toward my preface, this sketch demonstrates the divergence of the [meaningless] genotext, the unintelligible sequence of ordinary words, from phenotext, the pattern of emphasis and pitch, the embodied communicative satisfaction of the participants. But after having re-read Kristeva and Barthes, now I’m mostly just confused.

Or, more precisely, I don’t assent to what Kristeva (and Barthes) evidently wanted to do with these terms, and trying to puzzle out the most satisfactory account of her usage and the relation of her theory to mine, all gives me a headache. And I need to write out what I’m thinking in the next week.

By the way, I’m quite confident that the transcription I link above misses several words. Their “rabbit and and futfutfooey jugs” should be “rabbit and ratatouille jugs”;

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Then as Big-Budget Disaster Movie?

One of Philip K. Dick’s favorite tropes (one that he recycled repetitively, sometimes effectively, often tediously) involved the premise that the losing side in a war actually wins by provoking the winning side to adopt the losing side’s values and ideology.

I keep thinking about that as the secret history of the Bush administration unreels. This morning an NPR reporter described the recent developments in the NSA phone data-mining operation, saying, “The furor is causing more problems for Michael Hayden” — But I heard, “The Führer is causing more problems. . . .” No, George Bush is not a new Hitler — but we can’t afford to refuse to acknowledge and name certain characteristics that the Bush regime shares with governments against which the U.S.A. has waged war in the name of freedom and human rights. We do not win a “War Against Terror” by sacrificing the ideals to which the U.S.A. aspires on the altar of an illusory, idolatrous “Security.”

In the weeks between now and the Fourth of July, I will re-read the Declaration of Independence once or twice, checking the description of the grievances that the founders charged against King George. “King George. . . .”

More On MacGyver

Hoopoe“You’re a white man, Porgie. Whaddya think we oughta do?”

I owe some feedback (and amplification) on my argument concerning White Guy theology. There were a couple of points I omitted that I’d like to add on, and a couple of responses I need to offer.

First, then, I omitted the MacGyver feature of the Good Cause, the undisputable worthy end that warrants a White Guy marching forward and taking charge. Someone has to do it, after all, and a White Man is willing to, and if he brings privilege and social capital to the task, well, so much the better. Am I saying that White Men should sit on the sidelines with their white hands in their pockets?

No, not a bit, though one might do well to watch carefully when we see White Men exercising leadership in an undisputable Good Cause. Were there really no people of color, no women, who might have stepped forward in their own interest? Is the White Man there because the moment really needs his visible presence, or is he the token of establishment approval, proving that White Power (to some extent) supports this movement, and back-handedly reinforcing the premise that if White Men don’t want something to happen, it won’t? The ambiguous legacy of St MacGyver involves the very good dimension of conscientized White Men putting their resources at the disposal of women and people of color — excellent! It also involves White Men’s power and privilege sapping, diluting the power that people of color and women might exercise over against White Men.

Second, privileged White Men practice a pernicious form of ventriloquism whereby — since they have unique access to public attention — they lay claim to the prerogative to speak for the oppressed (even as they exercise the benefits of their oppressive privilege). I have no reason to doubt that John Kerry feels a sincere commitment to the well-being of manual laborers, of women on the margins, of people who endure racial oppression. At the same time, can one watch him stand on a podium orating about justice and opportunity without the creeping sense that something’s out of kilter? When a White Man speaks on behalf of anyone else, he simultaneously lends voice to a less-audible cause and suppresses the sound of the people of color and women for whom he speaks.

White Men exacerbate the ventriloquism problem when they use their podium to tell us what the real problem is. People who don’t have access to social power evidently don’t understand the true nature of their oppression, but it takes a White Man to explain it to them. White Men likewise need to justify their intervention, to exculpate themselves from their Whiteness, to get the last word in the argument that settles them on the side of all that is good and holy.

MacGyver, I’m given to understand, exemplified both these phenomena. He rolls into town, discovers a deplorable situation (a sweatshop, or a neighborhood terrorized by drug kingpins, or an environmental catastrophe), and steps up to remedy the situation. Risking his life on behalf of the endangered helpless victims (are they not poorer, darker-skinned, and often female?) he confronts the evil powers and undoes their pernicious machinations. The well-intentioned White Man steps out front in a Good Cause, and gives a little speech about goodness and right. Thank you, White Man!

Overall, White Men want to fix things in a way that doesn’t resolve the problem of their dominant social privilege; indeed, the very gesture of fixing tends to reinscribe White Male privilege (presumably, a woman or person of color couldn’t fix matters?) In this sense, “fixing” itself becomes a symptom of a persistent problem with White Men’s social standing. When White Men step forward to fix, to speak for, to diagnose the real problem, to arrogate the last privilege of the last word, they exemplify precisely the problem to which I pointed in the first portion of this argument.

A theology of grace obliges people to recognize that goodness doesn’t depend on us, especially not on White Men — and when White Men cling to the nonpareil importance of their contribution to realizing the Kingdom of Heaven, to identifying truth and goodness, they obfuscate or even falsify the claims they so desperately want to make. Instead of requiring that they maintain the prominence to which they have become accustomed, White Men need to let go their deathgrip on the reins of power, relinquish their control over theological deliberation, and concede that the world’s redemption doesn’t hinge on White Men’s action in behalf of the Good Causes.

None of this should amount to beating up on White Men, so long as they’re willing not to be in the driver’s seat the whole time. Yes, lend your energies to the causes about which you care. Yes, testify to the truth that God has given you to know. Yes, demonstrate your commitment to sharing authority and responsibility with women and people of color by actually participating in shared deliberation without dominating them.

Now, with regard to queries from Ryan and from my Tutor, I should say: I do not by any means suggest that White Men should stand idly by while they observe wrong-doing, nor that they have to seek out an authentic Oppressed Person to serve as a front for their laudable efforts. They do need to get used to operating on other people’s terms, on other people’s terrain, without assimilating it to the native White Men’s culture (that they mistakenly think of as definitive, normative, regulative). In this sense, White Men need to learn to practice patience, yieldedness, humility — not that they disregard wrongs, but that they recognize their complicity in those wrongs and the problems likely to ensue from their residual determination to fix things. Above all, they need to get used to the idea that they don’t automatically get their way, get a hearing, get commendations and gratitude, just on the basis of their historical dominance.

And sometimes, despite all our good intentions, all our insightful analysis of the real problem, all our diligent commitment and our willingness to speak on behalf of the voiceless, still White Men will have to sit quiet when people of color and women don’t respond with fawning deference. Sometimes even when we’re sure that we’re right, that we’re being criticized unfairly or that others are making a mistake, we need to back down (perhaps after gently articulating our dissent) and let other folks dominate in their ways, make their mistakes. It’s not as though White Men haven’t done that, nor as though White Men may not be mistaken in their diagnosis of “unfairness” or “mistakes.”

Grace, not political correctness or white self-hatred, obliges White Men to back down. So long as White Men insist on holding onto the reins, they can’t very well suggest that they’re trusting God to direct the horses.

Down To Business

OK, today I buckle down and make some headway on the preface. I plan on beginning by situating the essays in the context of my work and the field of biblical studies: throughout the twentieth century, biblical scholars have grappled with the hermeneutical problem of how to connect their technical study of the grammar and historical context of the Bible with the ways that the Bible can and should affect the lives of contemporary readers. They have suggested numerous work-arounds and improvements for hermeneutical deliberation, but none seems to have won general assent.

Some people sense no problem with the status quo; they’re content to puzzle over unusual verb forms, odd usages of familiar words, the likelihood or unlikelihood of people raising other people from death. A considerable number of readers, though, express dissatisfaction with an interpretive method that excels at retrospect, but falters when interpreters try to bring the Bible to bear on contemporary life.

In these essays, I propose that readers who want something more than, or something different from what conventional critical scholarship offers may need to rethink some deeply-held presuppositions of twentieth-century biblical analysis. The method — inasmuch as we can appropriately define this array of interpretive moves as a method — performs admirably, but it does not exhaust the work of interpretive reflection, nor does it set the terms on which further reflections may proceed.

Practitioners of contemporary technical scholarship frequently shore up the foundations of their discipline with appeals to particular axioms, axioms whose soundness I have come to doubt. Many scholars adhere to the myth of subsistent meaning, the premise that “meaning” constitutes a characteristic quality that inheres to a text. An exegete’s job, then, requires her to distill that meaning from its raw form in the text to a purer, more manifest form. Scholars often locate responsibility for interpretive conclusions in the text itself, such that they claim, “the text requires this” or “the text permits that, but not the other.” These figures of speech serve admirably when deployed as figures, but when they take on the character of literal ascriptions of agency to inert words, they disfigure our understanding of whence meaning comes and of who stands accountable for interpretive claims. contemporary interpreters tend to treat all interpretive deliberation as a more or less close approximation of verbal communication (hence we speak of “body language,” and suggest that “his expression spoke volumes”). At the same time, biblical scholars tend to operate as though one and only one interpretation rightly, finally, ascertains the [subsistent] meaning that the text expresses. Finally, the adherents of current interpretive conventions warn that if we depart from these axioms — if we allow that no lode of meaning lies embedded in our texts, that we (and not texts) sponsor and permit interpretations, that communication and interpretation constitute phenomena of far greater intricacy than the verbal paradigm allows, and that we may honestly and fairly consider the possibility that a given expression may mean several different things — if we yield on these points, the exquisite architecture of human communication (and especially, of course, of God’s communication with humanity) rapidly declines into inarticulate grunts and brutality.

The rumors of civilization’s demise, of course, would be greatly exaggerated. The essays included here explore the terrain of meaning beyond the boundaries enforced by conventional technical scholars. In various ways, with various points d’appui, the essays work toward establishing the claim that “meaning” pertains to human activity and interaction rather than textual inscription; thus, people devise interpretations for which they (not the objects they interpret) must be held responsible. These essays propose that expression and meaning involve vastly more sorts of gesture than verbal communication, such that adopting verbal communication as the paradigm for analyzing “meaning” constitutes a misleading oversimplification. Just as gestures, appearances, smells, and sounds may engender various indeterminable interpretations, so also verbal expression may issue in more than one meaning. All of this holds true not in some dystopian Looking-Glass World where nothing mean anything and everybody runs roughshod over any weaker communicator, but in the world we inhabit here and now. If anything threatens the well-being of the priase of God and the harmonious social order, it is more ominously the imposition of falsely-constricted meaning onto the demonstrably plurivalent economy of signification that prevails outside the rigidly-enforced domain of monovalence and correctness.

(Whew! That’s enough for one go. Plus, I want to say more about White Guy Theology, maybe later.)