No, David, if I had expressed myself more clearly, it would have been plainer that I hadn’t thought you were arguing that art uniquely, or distinctively, fuses matter and intentionality.

Let’s look at the point where you do agree that we differ: You observe that in some works of art, “the mute is brought to speech,” that they “carr[y] more meaning than words can express,” a carved stone “speaks more eloquently than does flesh.” (Clarification: you ren’t saying this happens automatically, in every case of supposed “art” — all these examples are governed by your prefatory “sometimes.”) Yes, that’s just where our paths diverge. I don’t want to concede that the power to move you resides in some quality of the carved stone, the painted canvas, the outstanding artwork. I think that the assumption that the item in question itself moves you or me engenders the misleading impression that there’s a quality of “moving-ness” that we might separate from the cultural settings and conventional modes of expression within which we encounter the work of art. “King’s pawn to King’s Knight 7” may be a powerful move, a blunder, an illegal move, or an unintelligible gesture (as my old Flanders and Swann record said, “because they were playing bridge at the time” — what a joy, to discover that Phil Wolff loves Flanders and Swann too!) depending on the situation, the conventions and expectations that govern that move.

I harp on this point because in my field, people persist in ascribing agency to words and artifacts in ways that mystify a more precise characterization of what’s happening, and in ways that direct attention away from human responsibility for those happenings. When someone says, “The Bible demands that I stone an adulterer to death,” such a person exculpates her- or himself for the blood of the transgressor, rather than acknowledging that a myriad of very pertinent human considerations affect every judgment about what the Bible says. They don’t render the Bible “meaningless” or permit people to cite the Bible as a warrant for just any action — but the constraints on interpretation (I repeat) derive not from inherent qualities of “the work,” but from the patterns of social interaction within which we judge particular interpretations justified and other outlandish.

Or as Cole Porter might have said if he were a technologist-philosopher or -theologian, “You say ‘Heidegger,’ I say ‘Wittgenstein,’ let’s call the whole thing drawn.”

Two Things

First, did the national “Do Not Call” list eliminate your unwanted phone calls? Not ours. In fact, if there’s a single Student Loan profiteer in the United States who hasn’t called us, you can be confident that they will call shortly. The Do Not Call list only gives me something to talk to them about; it doesn’t impel them not to call me in the first place.

They always seem astonished when I ask whether we have an existing business relationship. “What?” So I repeat the question. “I don’t think so,” they answer, “We’re just calling because it’s important that you consolidate your loans before. . .” Un-huh; you’re blanketing the population of student-loan borrowers out of the purely altruistic interest in their getting lower interest rates. Right.

Second, I’m linking again to Fred Clark’s Slacktivist site. I don’t know of anyone who engages popular culture, public policy, faith, and politics with such attention to detail such clarityt, such exemplary strong theological grounding. Updates to his reading of Left Behind come less often these days, but I read them avidly, and his commentary on immigration and legality illustrates his wondrous gifts as an articulate participant-resister to some of the ways America impedes the gospel (often in the name of the gospel).

Weinberger Essentially Right

David Weinberger reviews Paul Bloom’s Descartes’ Baby (come on, David, use some <cite> tags) this morning, with predictable insight. I appreciate the way David declines to let Bloom off for sloppy arguments (assuming David is correct) in a popular work; it’s always worth arguing carefully and precisely, especially in writing for a general audience. (If you’re going to oversimplify or
advance an under-argued claim, at least signal that you know what you’re doing.)

I felt particular sympathy with parts of this point:

More important, art refutes dualism. As Bloom acknowledges throughout the chapter — belaboring the obvious — we react to objects differently if we know they were created as art. So, here’s a physical object that embodies something mental and intentional. The artwork has no inner life, but it can’t be understood apart from the intentionality it embodies. Art and all objects we create are inseparably infused with matter and spirit. Monism is far more important to our experience than dualism.

As David surely anticipates my saying, I hesitate to go all the way with his “it can’t be understood” and “infused”; I argue that we can indeed understand them apart from inferring that they represent gestures in the discourse of “art.” (Indeed, I suppose that the category “art” involves judgments and conventions that militate against David’s ascribing “infusion” to the objects in quesstion.) He’s entirely right that art-stuff doesn’t differ in obvious material ways from “use-stuff” (Duchamp’s point?) or “nature-stuff” (the problem of driftwood, sea glass, `mountain landscapes: they’re beautiful, but under what rubric do they enter the discourse of “art”?), but we can differentiate art from urinals from driftwood not by a mystified infusion of artistic intention, but by the conventions we observe in how we live with them. We treat art differently; in my hobby-horse language, we participate in the signifying practice of artistic production by receiving certain objects as more valuable, more thought-provoking, than other very similar objects. The difference lies not in the material manifestation of the item, nor in the “artistic intention” that supposedly infuses it, but in the transactions by which we propose and accept meanings that the involve the object in question.

Apart from that, David sounds essentially right to me.

Opposites Attract

As I gear up for the coming series of da Vinci Code response gigs, it occurs to me how strange it is to live in a culture that exercises such thorough-going critical skepticism toward the Jesus traditions on the gospels, but that embraces such a ludicrously improbable conspiracy theory as Dan Brown and the Priory of Sion credulists propound.

I did survive unto Reading Week (or “Writing Week,” as Susie suggests that it be more appropriately known). I preached yesterday, and will go over the sermon text, then promulgate it here, and I will respond to the comments on my St. MacGyver post and, God willing, sketch out as I write the opening essay to Faithful Interpretation.

But it’s Reading Week, I can sleep and write and relax and reflect on a schedule [mostly] not determined by meetings and classes, and then Margaret and Si come home next Monday, then only ten days of classes to the end of term.

So Much

The Dean just added me to Seabury’s Long-Range Planning Committee, so I suddenly have an extra two-hour meeting on my schedule. That’s in addition to the theses I have to read, the sermon I’m preparing for Friday morning, and the letter I must write agreeing to preach at a Milwaukee ordination in June. And this morning my editor from Fortress Press called to inquire about when my preface to Faithful Interpretation will be ready, and I just received an email message from the production editor saying that the proofs are coming here overnight and I must have them back on May 19, with my preface.


Well, at least I have a sermon premise that I like (one of the readings is Acts 9:1-20, and I’ll preach about Paul as the Apostle of inflection points), and I’ll work on transmuting my comments at the CSBR meeting of ten days ago into a Preface. This will work out.

Next week is called Reading Week, but I have a feeling that it will be Writing Week in my office.

Love Note From a Thomist

“Thomas says, the critical thinker who is at the same time a believer is to be compared with the martyr who sheds his blood, who refuses to abandon the truth of faith in spite of the ‘arguments’ of violence.”

Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1997) 72f.