Between some marking and examining (on one hand) and a brief site outage (on the other) I’m behind. Can’t wait to get past this crest of busyness.

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Devotion Love Surrender

HoopoeHere at St Stephen’s House, we have the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament every Friday after Evensong — and since Father Damian is gallivanting around Australia, spreading the Good News and offering the benefit of his wisdom on mission, evangelism, and congregational life to the Diocese of the Murray, my turn to preside at that service comes up more often than it has in the past terms. SSH begins the service — after the exposition of the Sacrament, before the Benediction itself — with a devotion from the presider. This is a new homiletical-spiritual genre for me; I had never offered a “devotion” of this sort before (back at Christ Church, as best I remember, we simply performed the ritual of the Benediction accompanied by our nonpareil choir, with no unscripted clerical contribution.

As I care deeply about choosing my words carefully in the presence of God, from the first I’ve wanted to observe closely the genre conventions of this sort of devotion. I’ve been told that there are abundant examples on the internet to be found, downloaded, and used — but I’ve never found these fonts of eucharistic devotion, and have only located one or two at all, and these were not of the sort that I could proclaim convincingly. So I’ve fallen into writing my own, for better or worse. I am getting accustomed to preparing these devotions, and now I’m ready to post a couple here (in the “Continue reading” link), not because I reckon that they’re such great stuff, but because somebody else may be as desperate as I have been, and I’m posting these so that if somebody in indeed that desperate, and doesn’t recoil from uttering the words I composed, they might use ’em. Better still, it might encourage some more people to post the eucharistic devotions they’ve written, so that there’s a fuller range of possibilities available.

Continue reading

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Exit the Symbolic

Quadriga If you’ve been following along more or less agreeably, you’ve assented to a number of very powerful points. You are on board with my characterisation of words as an extraordinary but highly atypical (hence, at risk of misleading) mode for expression and apprehension. You have allowed me the notion that any verbal mode of expression involves a great deal more than words alone, and it’s not that rare an event when words are among the less important elements of the semiotic economy. Of course, most importantly, you’re allowing me to proceed on the premise that meaning is not a quality inherent in any expressive gesture, but is a way of talking about the process of offering and uptake.

Now I’ll suggest something more contrary even than what I’ve been saying before: namely, that the distinction between “literal” and any alternative (“symbolic” or “figurative”. Or “spiritual”, for starters) confuses more than it clarifies, and should be abandoned. The principal uses of “literal” in polemical discourse all construct false differences, and many of the uses of “literal” in constructive discourse mystify the interaction they’re being used to advance. Although there are certainly innocuous ways to talk about the “literal” and its alternatives, the innocuous uses begin when the theoretician can say at the outset that this is just a heuristic distinction with no effectual purchase on words or reality. Where dominant discourses of meaning propose a distinction between “literal meaning” and “metaphorical meaning“, we should think instead in terms of more and less familiar (“conventional”, “probable”, “ordinary”) usage. Un-reifying the “literal” and “symbolic” clarifies quite a bit in our interpretive discourse, but that would take me beyond my two-paragraph-per-day limit.


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Once again the beginning of the week is kicking me to the turf. Tomorrow should be better. Tomorrow should be better.

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Seasonal Hermeneutics

Quadriga On an “offering-uptake” model for hermeneutics, the hermeneutical problem becomes a problem of information design, an exercise in communicative strategy and tactics. Your communicative expression unfolds not solely in the words you choose (though those remain very important), but in the inflection with which you express those words, the gestures that accompany them, and so on. If you want to convey to your mother that you care for her, deeply and sincerely, and that you thank her for her maternal ministrations — then you probably oughtn’t to say, with a snarl, “Happy Mother’s Day, MOM.” (I do know at least one person who might well take that positively, though.)

That points to the variability of reception; your mother might be wounded by a snarky-sounding Mother’s Day greeting, whereas someone else’s mother might think that was just exactly the correct way to negotiate the complexities of expressing a threadbare sentiment in a hypercommercialised environment: “I’m supposed to say ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ but if I just utter those words, they won’t effectively differentiate my greeting from the facile, cloying slogans on mass-marketed notecards; so I’ll pitch my voice to convey the sense that I’m only speaking out of a sense of obligation, and my hip mother with a lot of attitude will pick up the honest affection and respect that motivates me to speak.” The phrase “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom” can’t simply have intrinsic meaning; its force depends on how it is expressed, and on who is offering the expression, and to whom it is addressed, and so on. The words are only a small part of the interaction; the power of the gesture engages a whole congeries of modes and elements, and constructing a satisfactory Mother’s Day greeting requires one to consider information design (what to include, how to indicate emphasis or to cue particular types of response, how the anticipated audience is likely to apprehend the offered information, and so on), skill at putting that planned design into effect, good timing, and favourable contingent circumstances. Not. Just. Words.


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Don’t Forget

I haven’t seen anyone link to wood s lot recently, and I wanted to rectify that in my own tiny way. Mark has been keeping at his cataloguing, linking, distributing his distinctive flavour of brilliant Web browsing for years and years. The megasites claim too much of our time these days, while humble wood s lot stands actually to teach us and form and inform us. Thanks for sticking with it, Mark.

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Seeing It Opposite-wise

Quadriga Up to now, we’ve been moving from non-verbal, non-glyphic communicative modes and trying to see how verbal communication functions as a remarkable, powerful, precise extension of gestural, visual, aural (etc.) expression and apprehension. As gestures, sigla, tones, even patterns of smell and texture become familiar and eventually routinised with very particular associations and expectations, so verbal expression draws on intensely formalised associations and expectations to lead auditor-readers to reach particular interpretative inferences. But Chris Spinks’s recent blog reminds me that my expression-apprehension hermeneutic leads to an equally powerful insight in another direction.

Chris cites the example of the photo of a coathook which looks distinctly like a cockeyed pugilistic octopus once that interpretation has been suggested (original source seems to be lost to the wave of online replications; perhaps this is it, as noted by Reddit in 2010). Chris suspects rightly that this sort of phenomenon stands to shed some light on the hermeneutical puzzles that have long been bothering him, and it’s just the sort of “not from within our discipline” exploration from which these two-paragraph essays emerge. Once you see that “Dans un tableau, les mots sont de la même substance que les images”/“In a picture, the words are made of the same stuff as the images”,

a great many other things come clear as well (from the Magritte section in the Beautiful Theology blog). We communicate via all manner of gestures, sounds, images, scents, touches, and more; words are at an extreme of this repertoire, an outlying data point, but they’re not sui generis. And once you get accustomed to thinking of interpretive activity in terms of expression and apprehension, of gesture and inference, or offering and uptake, a great deal of what puzzles Chris looks much less mysterious.


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Where Meaning Stands

Quadriga Rules do not prevent bad interpretations. No one really supposes that they do, I hope; do we imagine a scene in which Dan Brown considers writing a megablockbuster novel, but then realises that his interpretive background for the novel and its claims that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” were arrant poppycock, and so realises he simply can’t publish the novel. No one thinks there are sessions at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at which a panelist jumps up and silences an interlocutor by saying “But you’ve broken this rule of interpretation.” Moreover, what would these “rules” be, and how did they come into effect? Before the interpretive rule, was misinterpretation not reckoned? Do interpretive rules govern everyone, or only those who assent to them (and if they don’t govern everyone, of just what use are they)?

The short answer to these question dodges their specifics, and gets straight to the heart of the matter: interpretive rules have [at least] two functions, one creditable, and one disreputable. The creditable use of interpretive rules sets them out as a guideline for the learner, or as an internal criterion for a more experienced interpreter. We don’t learn about interpretation all in one go, in a moment of blinding insight, and interpretive rules help us make our way from “whatever I feel like” toward “what makes sense to the people around me.” Such use of interpretive rules serves as a shorthand for “We resolve this sort of semantic or semiotic confusion according to that principle.” The disreputable reason for wanting interpretive rules is so that one can control interpretation. In the long run, this never works, but in the short run it can function to silence obstreperous dissenters. If it really worked, you would probably never have heard of Dan Brown.


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The Dog Ate My Blog

Not really, but Monday I worked from 7:30 in the morning until 9:30, and then I went to Durham Tuesday — leaving home in Oxford at 6:00 and arriving back home between 11:15 and 11:30 in the evening. Yesterday and today have just been standard eleven-hour days (Morning Prayer begins at 7:30, Evensong ends at about 6:30), but I’ve been helping comfort Margaret, who has had a tooth extracted. I want to blog more, but I haven’t had time to think seriously about non-work matters.

Back soon, I hope.

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Semiotic Economies

Quadriga Observe the consequences of the few paragraphs we’ve walked through. Granted that there’s no subsistent “meaning”, and granted that verbal meaning is an atypical instance of the more general phenomenon of expression and inference, I submit that words in verbal communication function in the same way as gestures do in the frantically-mimed communication of someone who has just bit his tongue (for instance); there is no single exact right meaning to them. One may propose an indefinite number of meanings, depending on one’s interests. A psychoanalyst listens to your speech with specific interest to things that you are not saying, to things that you didn’t intend to say, on the basis of which she quite justly says “The meaning of these omissions and those unintended slips is….” Her assertion is not simply the assertion of a personal preference for viewing your slips and evasions in a particular way; you are both participants in a semiotic economy in which slips and evasions constitute an intelligible basis for interpretive inference.

“So can anything means anything? Are there no boundaries?” This question crops up all the time. Now, we know two things from the start: First, and this is important, we know full well that anybody can say “X means Y” no matter how daft we may think that assertion. At the same time, second, no assertion about meaning stands on its own; under most circumstances, such assertions carry the unstated subtext “In the semiotic economy of psychoanalysis…” or “Among all speakers of more-or-less standard English…” or “Assuming the speaker knew the word’s usual semantic range…”. Since those qualifying subtexts almost always remain tacit, though, it’s easy for people to mismatch assumed qualifications (“I thought we were talking about our relationship, and she thought we were talking about welfare policy”). Sometimes speakers deliberately operate with asymmetrical assumptions (psychotherapy again, for instance). And sometimes we deliberately interpret statements from one (presumed) semiotic economy in terms of another. But — and this is the key issue — no interpretive mandate can prospectively regulate the interpretations someone offers. (I’ve written about this before, in “Twisting To Destruction”; interpretive rules can function descriptively, but no interpretation was ever precluded because there was a rule against it.) Anything can mean anything to somebody, in some semiotic economy or another; the only boundaries come from our interest in participating in certain discourses, discourses where transgressive interpretive behaviour would be unwelcome.


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Old School Master

Imagine that Yoda were regular height, could speak lucid, straightforward, idiomatic English, was hardly ever seen without his camera, understood the internet the way a farmer understands seed and season, and knew more about broadcast radio than all but a dwindling number of rf-spectrum vets. You’re thinking about Doc Searls.

Doc’s another one of the homesteaders we used to banter with, link to, listen to, and learn from. He’s the one (you may remember) who supplies thousands of Commons-licensed photos to Wikipedia, to print and broadcast media, and to bloggers — especially bloggers who want to illustrate their pages with aerial views of their subjects,

or well-composed topical photos,

or just bunches of internet friends in interesting places.

That’s all just a warm-up, since the Web has grown from rural community with party line phones, general stores, and a stick-together, barn-raising ethos to a hyper-urban celebrity culture. A dozen years ago, you’d have known Doc — but he’s not on Huffington Post or whatever, so you may need an introduction.

A couple of days ago, Doc posted a lovely, thoughtful, un-dramatic reminder about mortality: his, ours, the universe’s, everything. It’s Doc all over — wisdom that’s neither awesome in its unexpected profundity, nor clothed in elementary homespun simplicity, but just true, illustrated from his own photos, informed by his own fascination with geology, and utterly saturated with his love for humanity. Thanks, Doc — you’re a champ.

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Old School

Gather round the YouTube video of a campfire, kiddies, and Grandpa will tell you a story of the days before the Web had coalesced into the shopping mall of franchises and brands that it is today.

In those days, bloggers didn’t have Facebook or Twitter to spread word of their memes, photoshopped images, and even their original ideas. And again, in those days, blogs didn’t have commenting capacity coded in; you could add comments on, or switch platforms to a more advanced blogging app that did support comments, or you could do without comments. Heh, we used to have arguments about whether a blogger was obliged to allow comments or, contrarily, that comments were a bad thing (someone was foreseeing YouTube comments).

If we saw a blog to which we wanted to respond, we wrote about it on our own blogs, and made a link to the other site.

Those days saw lots of workarounds and kludges and brilliant innovations to accomplish things that quite ordinary blogging apps do today (if indeed they’re still possible). Among the people who contributed to that ecosystem of connection and innovation was Kevin Marks. (He also used to blog more often than he does now, but I can’t throw stones about that.) So a week or so ago, Kevin was at a W3C meeting, when he realised that it’s important that a blogger be able to link not just to a page, but to specific words on a page. He devised a way for this to work, and Jonathan Neal wrote a script that, if added to a site, would enable links to specific words on a page — what Kevin calls a “fragmention.” Indeed, Jonathan wrote an extension for Google Chrome to enable fragmentions to workthrough the browser, regardless of internal scripting. And they worked out a refined implementation a few days later.

In the old days, we wrote about one another’s ideas and implementations, kicked the tires (or “tyres”), and responded to each other. Like saying, “Thanks, Kevin — this looks very cool. I’ll poke a round and try it — I hope it catches on.”

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