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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.

Just In Case

Boing Boing kindly linked to the ten-year anniversary of my having been challenged by the Nantucket Island police for using the library’s open wireless signal at a time when the library was closed. Awkwardly, in the time since Boing Boing first posted that story, I have changed over blogging software from Moveable Type to WordPress, which knocked out the original link — the link Boing Boing provided points instead to a blog interaction with the great Jeneane Sessum; I’ve put point-ahead link at the top of my page with Jeneane, and twittered Boing Boing about the mix-up, but if you went first to the page with Jeneane, then to the front page of the blog, the link for which you’re looking is here.

What I Meant, What You Apprehended

Quadriga The premise of the two preceding paragraphs boils down to the importance of learning widely and deliberating expansively in order to attain the best, soundest possible interpretation. That principle applies as far as informing our interpretive discernments, but it does not require that any given field of considerations govern all interpretive responses. The legendary “author’s intention” provides a vital case in point; most of the time, practically all of the time, we benefit from at least asking orselves the question “Why did she express herself this way? What did she intend?” In various circumstances, though, the intent of an agent matters less than the expression itself. A White guy can with jocular tones shout to his colleague, “Yo, n*****!” and claim “I only meant to greet him in a friendly, ironically outrageous sort of way” — but if his colleague takes offence at this greeting, many would agree that the expression rightly be deemed offensive (even if the “author” did not so intend it). A great amount of the discourses surrounding sexual harassment set the intent of the agent (“I just gave her a friendly, encouraging hug”) over against the interpretation of the interpreter (“He enveloped me with his arms, making it difficult for me to escape his grasp, and then fondled my rear”). In cases such as these, especially where the power of social privilege falls squarely on the side of the one claiming innocence for his offensive behaviour, one can make a sound case that the intention matters less than the effect, and need not be taken into consideration.

Or take another example: some Bible interpreters know the text of the Bible (in the translation with which they are more familiar) exceptionally well, but know very little about the ancient Near East, Greco-Roman culture, the biblical languages, the reception of the Bible over the centuries, comparative mythology, ancient history, the modes of interpretive clarification which political criticisms, social-scientific criticisms, literary criticism (in the sense of “ordinary” literary criticism), source, redaction, form, or [YOUR FAVOURITE HERE] criticism. They exercise what we might describe as a vernacular canonical criticism (keeping the explanatory frame of their interpretations within the bounds of the Christian canon) and theological criticism (taking as granted the theological conclusions that dominant streams of the church have defined as authoritative). So if one points to an interpretive problem, they aim to resolve it by interpreting it in light of another text. Often, an academic technician such as I would say, “But that text doesn’t apply; it’s addressing an entirely different situation, in a different historical and narrative setting!” My objection takes for granted, however, the priority of differences in style, apparent historical context, semantics and syntax, and probably extra-canonical comparative material. My interlocutor and I talk at cross-purposes, until one or both of us extends the range of our interests and considerations to include criteria to which the other adheres.

On Meaning, the all-in-one page

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Out Of Place

Quadriga I beg your patience — I have fallen victim to a side effect of writing two paragraphs a day, namely, that I forgot one day what on the previous day I had anticipated writing next. I meant to wrap up my literal/metaphorical screed with the following two paragraphs (at least, I hope it turns out only to be two).


Since the categories of “literal” and “metaphorical” don’t work in a straightforward way, we should be doubly suspicious about claims that that certain people do or do not read the Bible “literally.” Interpreters have long perceived one of the obvious hitches in this phenomenon — that certain elements of the Bible apparently ought not be taken literally (parables, for instance) — and have decreed that in some cases, the “literal” sense of the text is itself metaphorical. That provides a rickety, but viable, work-around, but it’s also a strong hint that the literal/metaphorical distinction entails significant conundrums. We need not restrict ouselves to abstract discussions of hermeneutical axioms, though; the plain, observable fact is that even interpreters who try to read the “literally,” for whom “literalness” marks their very public identity, do not in fact read the Bible literally. The principle of inerrancy trumps the principle of literalness, and in order to make every detail (including eschatological events that haven’t yet happened, as far as I know) warrantably correct, they construe apparently plain discourse in figurative, indirect, “symbolic” ways.*

I’m not so worried here about eschatological figures, though, as I am concerned about accusations of “literalism” (directed against conservative interpreters) and “only just a metaphor” (directed against “liberal” interpreters). When one group decries same-sex intercourse, their detractors accuse them of literalism; but those same detractors often enough proclaim that they favour feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, and so on. And similarly, when the apparent literal sense of a biblical text suggests something scandalous or unworthy about God or David or Jesus, some interpreters quickly find an indirect way of construing that passage — while others jump on it with glee, suggesting that the God whom Jews and Christians worship is a bloodythirsty, misogynistic sadist. Neither “literal” nor “metaphorical” effectively designates a consistent hermeneutical strategy. As readers, [almost] everyone needs to take some stuff “literally” and some stuff “figuratively” — but “More literal than those other guys” or “We only take the ideologically-acceptable stuff literally” don’t sell the product.


* Pointer here to Fred Clark, whose dogged work on the Left Behind series has turned up instance after instance of a situations in which a “literal” interpretation of the Bible depends on non-literal interpretive work.

Oh, phooey, I just thought of a way that “literal” stuff warrants at least another two paragraphs.

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Spaceless Meaning

Quadriga So if interpreting a text amounts to a sort of recipe in which a main ingredient is complemented, accompanied, enhanced by seasonings and cooking, one of the hoary tropes of interpretive discourse goes by the boards: namely, “the world of the text, the world behind the text, and the world in front of the text.” And I won’t miss it when it’s gone. It does appear to make sense at first, but if one takes it at all seriously, the trope’s utility rapidly dwindles and disappears. Same with “text as window, text as mirror” (and I always want to add “text as picture plane”). There’s no interpretive “behind” to a text, no “in front,” only an expression and the amplificatory adjuncts we use to complete a palatable interpretation. (No one eats their texts raw.)

What makes “the world behind the text” refer to a social, material, cultural gestalt (a “world”) different than “looking at a text in the contexts of social conventions, archaeological artefacts, and identifiable contemporary presuppositions”? Someone will say, “Don’t be such a grouch, it’s a heuristic pedagogical device!”, a mind-map for considering the relation of various interpretive regimes to the expression. Why then “behind”/“in front”? Why not “a pie of interpretive interests: some in the northwest of the compass, some in the south, some east-north-east”? My objection is not to using figures to facilitate understanding — but to reifying those models and using them sub rosa to enforce particular priorities and necessities. The “world behind the text” becomes a “real world” or a privileged originary setting; the “world in front of the text” becomes the reader’s world, distinct from and opposite to the pastness of the “behind.” The self-conscious readerly reader, though, is no more involved in discerning meaning than the self-abnegating historicist. Everyone in this game is looking at an expression, adding context until satisfied, and offering the result for social approbation. The best interpretations (by my lights, and probably by yours) involve reasoned culinary supplementation and preparation, not just “Aw, let’s just throw some spinach, clams, marmalade, and tarragon into the oven at 450° and see what it’s like after thirty-five minutes.” Culinary styles can be aggregated into schools and families, but medieval European cuisine isn’t intrinsically superior to Asian fusion. Expressions, additional information, interpretive approaches, bingo! And no “behind” or “in front.”

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Treasures, But No Grill

In case I don’t gather my wits in time today to write more paragraphs about hermeneutics, nor have Net access till bedtime, I’ll post today yesterday’s sermon. The gracious Father James Wilkinson of the Church of St Laurence in the Parish of South with New Hinksey (that’s not to be confused with St Lawrence, North Hinksey!) had invited me to preach for the patronal festival, and it was my honour yesterday so to do. The church itself is a lovely small thing (I took some pictures which I may add if I have time), with its thirteenth-century nave and eighteenth-century chancel, and many generations of the local saints interred in the churchyard. Margaret worried during the sermon, because the rood screen comes perilously close to the top of my head.

The sermon went well, I think; at least, the regular congregants from St Laurence’s with whom I sat at lunch seemed to have received it kindly. The parish lunch held at the much newer and larger church in the parish, St John the Evangelist, New Hinksey, was a feast fit for a hungry visiting preacher, and good conversation, some impromptu stand-up comedy, and Margaret and I returned home well-fed, welcomed, and well tired! My thanks to Father James, to my friend, colleague, and neighbour Dr Mark Philpott (who helped us with the intricate history of the two churches and the various Hinkseys, arranged for transport, and subdeaconed at the Mass), and Lee and Eileen Clark who brought us home.

St Laurence 2014

Even With the Web, Sic Gloria Mundi Transit

HoopoeWhile I was writing my earlier post for today, I recalled a church-related public service announcement from my youth. My memory involved an animated clip of someone being mugged, of a judge walking past and humph-ing “Drunk!”, and a “Mexican” on a burro spotting the victim and saying “¡Ay, que lastima!” I thought it would make an apt, historic, multimedia addition to my argument about the meaning of the Good Samaritan parable.

That PSA seems, however, to have vanished almost without a trace. By determined, persistent Googling, I found a single mention of the theo-biblical advert, with a context that had, at the time, escaped my attention:

RIGHTS GROUP CHALLENGE
Chicano Says Samaritan Not Good
… A nationwide effort to portray the parable of the Good Samaritan in “Bonanza” terms is being challenged by Chicano civil-rights groups. Nick Reyes, executive director of the National Mexican-American anti- defamation committee Wednesday accused the United Presbyterian Church of trying to perpetuate the image of the Mexican as “a man on a donkey.” “The Good Samaritan,” a 60-second television spot prepared and distributed by the church’s division of mass media in New York is racist in tone, Reyes charged. But Charles Brackbill, who developed the short film, was puzzled by the accusation. “The Mexican is shown as the good guy of the parable,” he said. “He shows mercy and compassion. How can anybody object to that?”

I can’t find a copy of the clip now to check, but Reyes’s complaint rings true to me. “But Reyes said Brackbill said it never occurred to him that… no Chicanos were ever consulted about the strip.”

This reminds me of the grand premiere of the American Bible Society’s “Out of the Tombs,” a “multimedia translation” (or “transmediatization”) of Mark’s story of the Gerasene Demoniac. The producers and sponsors of the nine-minute film were there, the video was shown, the invited scholars responded — and the critics were harsh, to say the least. The demon spoke with a woman’s voice; why a woman? The white demoniac was depicted as reintegrated into society by depicting him in a charming contemporary suburban neighbourhood; did they mean to suggest that suburban life represented an ideal Jesus espoused? And so on, and so on. The producers might have said, along with Brackbill, “How can anybody object to that?”

History, unlearned, repeats — and so we hear of Ridley Scott’s biblical epic in which Blackness correlates to “being against Moses.” Possibly it never occurred to Scott to consult anyone with a smidgen of racial awareness about what that might signify.

The topics to which my search led me extend in a myriad of directions. If you know of a place I can see that original advert again, though, please let me know.

Meaning and Differences

Quadriga On the premises I’ve been developing (and, I fear, repeating) here, we anticipate correctly that there will be no exact outcomes for interpretation — that when Rembrandt interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan, his painting will look different from the Chagall’s depiction in stained glass.

The Good Samaritan paying the innkeeper for the upkeep of the traveler
Chagall's stained-glass window incorporating scenes from the Good Samaritan

And not solely because they were working in different media — each of these interpreters wants us to focus on, to recognise different aspects of the story. Interpretive difference isn’t a problem, it’s an inevitable reflection of the profound differences that attend (and make up) our motivations, our audiences, our cultures, our capacities, our experiences, our media, and so on. The same principle applies to interpretive difference in linguistic interpretation; we stumble into the dead end of struggling for interpretive homogeneity from the extent to which we can align our linguistic interpretive interests into disciplines and practices that, when accorded effectual power in temporal affairs, upholds their own premises, axioms, methods, and so on as necessary, solely legitimate.

We can essay relative assessments of Rembrandt and Chagall just as easily as we can compare and evaluate Hans Conzelmann and Kavin Rowe — and just as easily as we can compare the interpretations of the Good Samaritan implicit in two government policy statements, or by the simple gestures of pedestrians who approach (and pass, or not) somebody curled up on the pavement. However insightful Rowe’s interpretive work on Luke’s Gospel, one oughtn’t imagine that he has more truly articulated its meaning than has a sympathetic passer-by who accompanies an injured man to a surgery, or an artist who produces a luminous window. If we bracket the impulse to treat interpretation as a zero-sum death match between muscular scholars struggling for domination, we can advance toward interpretive practices that both comport better with difference and afford ample space for articulating reasons for considering one better than another (by specific criteria).

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Ephemeral Interpretations

QuadrigaOne last point that helps make my transition away from the literal/metaphorical distinction to the continuous interweaving of particular expressions in divers expressive modes: Even the most apparently nakedly verbal expressions entail inflections of appearance, tone, style that destabilise the question of whether they are “literal” (or even what “literal” means in such situations). To deploy an example I’ve used in other contexts, the same text represented differently must be allowed to mean differently:

Example

Likewise, imagine the words “Yeah, sure, Mom!” spoken by an eager-to-please eight-year-old child and the same words spoken by a sullen teenager. A focus solely on the words of an expression can never attain the goal of a definitive account of what it means, no matter how determined and expert the researcher. Even if a researcher had access to the original verbal expression — and the idea of “original” in this context is itself intensely problematic — that researcher could never determine just what Snell Roundhand or Comic Sans “means,” what the aural notes of the spoken filial response “mean.”

When discussing and evaluating interpretations, the terminology of “correct” and “incorrect,” “really means” or “doesn’t mean” or “can’t mean” or “has to be understood as” or any of these arm-twisting expressions betrays a category mistake about the activity and goal of interpretation. We can always propose better or worse interpretations (and in specific circumstances these can casually but never rigorously be conveyed by “right” or “wrong”), and we can give reasons for our discernments — that’s it. The willed determination to squeeze “right” and “wrong” into the interpretation of verbal texts arises not out of an feature of textuality, but out of the interpreters’ desire to enforce their judgments upon others, to authorise binding inclusions and exclusions, to extract particular judgments from the to and fro of inevitable historical change and install them as idols of the technical cult.

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À la Recherche des Lego Perdus

OK, so we watched The Lego Movie the other night, and I recognised 1980-Something Space Guy from Nate and Si’s days playing with Lego, so I looked him/her (can’t honestly tell from the minifig, can you?) up in the Brickipedia, as you can see from the link above.

That got me started thinking about the earliest Lego I had, a set which was sold from a side section of Benoit’s clothing store in Brunswick, Maine — in the days when even mail order was a somewhat exotic phenomenon, and local retailers were by far the commonest form of access to commercial goods. If Benoit’s were restored to its mid-sixties condition, I could take you directly to the Lego section (which had only two or three sets). I think I was first given this set, or one very much like it:

Basic Lego System set

I thought I recalled that the cardboard packaging was gold-yellow in colour, but I don’t see any such boxes at the Brickipedia site, so that must be a mistake. The package I remember was definitely a vertically-oriented oblong solid, and I was subsequently given the Gears set, some wheels, and a set with clear bricks, doors, and windows.

As you can imagine, all of this research and reminiscing absorbed several hours. Thank you, Internet.

(Yes, I do remember that I used to blog daily. Baby steps.)

Examination

I’m put in mind of the classic Milton Bradley/Hasbro electrical game Operation; we have the Final Honour School examinations running here at Oxford, and this afternoon I catch a train to Edinburgh here I’m serving as external examiner for their biblical classes. If I am not voluble on this site, please take these circumstances into account.