Annual Check-In

I’m still curious to know about the gospel choir number about which I’ve posted before, and today somebody arrived at my page looking for the answer. I don’t know who you are, knowledge-seeker, but I still haven’t turned up any evidence that that song existed apart from your query (the mere existence of which gives me consolation). In the age of Google, I’m amazed that the internet yields no trace of this number — but sooner or later, all will be revealed.

Metaphorically Literal

Quadriga Ages ago — the last time I blogged a two-paragraph hermeneutics post — I opened the case that the familiar distinction between literal and figurative (and its relatives “metaphorical” and especially “symbolic”) should be abandoned. Of course, the terms do very well for casual and heuristic purposes. I’m not in the least suggesting that we can’t say “No, I meant a literal brick wall” or “Donne’s use of metaphor sets him apart from his contemporaries.” The heuristic usefulness of the terms, however, does not warrant reifying the distinction nor extending it from a useful tool to a pair of ontological categories.

Symbols and metaphors work not because of mystical linguistic properties, but they work in the same way that literal language works. Where “literal” expressions rely on utterly familiar, unambiguously conventional usage, “metaphorical” language slides the usage from “quite predictable” further toward “unusual” (that could be as slight a difference as using a less common “literal” word or phrase) to “rather unconventional” (a word or phrase for which established patterns of usage haven’t worn a clear enough path to warrant calling the usage “literal” at all) to perplexing (“Is that a metaphor, or is she just talking nonsense?”). [I have two digressions to mark here, before I resume my second paragraph. First, yes, this is straight out of Nietzsche and Derrida, among others. As I said the other day, I’m not claiming to have invented this. Second, the relation between “metaphorical” and “nonsensical” warrants my exploring, too. Just not here.] In other words, metaphor isn’t an abuse of language, or a woo-woo special use of language: it’s a gamble on the part of the offerer (composer, artist, writer, speaker, whatever) that some portion of those who receive the expression will twig to the oblique association that the offerer envisions between the metaphorical phrase and what would be its ordinary, everyday, who-he-is-when-he’s-at-home “literal” usage. Sometimes those gambles don’t work out. Sometimes the oblique offering generates a rich field that includes unanticipated. But in the hands of a capable communicator, the choice of a less-than-obvious offering (be it linguistic or musical or a piquant combination of flavours) actually communicates very effectively indeed.


Here’s the Thing

QuadrigaIt’s been a long week of marking and revising and meeting and saying Masses and leading classes, so I’m allotting myself more than two paragraphs (if I want them — we’ll see how this turns out) to point to an oblique aspect of my hermeneutical proposal.

First, I acknowledge that this hermeneutic of offering-and-uptake risks undermining some deeply-help theological convictions about biblical inspiration on one hand, and the significance of a theology of the Word on another. Probably some third and fourth hands, too, but those two come to mind right away after years of gentle arguing and intense discussing with unconvinced sisters and brothers. Add to those factors the human inclination to resist destabilising changes, and I can understand a number of powerful reasons for doubting, or simply ignoring, the work I’ve done. (I don’t understand quite so well when people who have read, and reviewed, my work write essays that make points similar to my own, without mentioning my prior art; but I am small-minded that way, and if I wanted you to think I’m humbler than I really am I wouldn’t mention this.)

But here’s the thing: even if you want to uphold your unwavering commitment to a hermeneutic of subsistent meaning, of the unique semantic capacities of linguistic communication, of the objective and unchanging meaning of The Word — even if you’re set on all those fronts, and your hermeneutics have to work around the aporias these premises raise for you, you can look at meaning from the perspective I commend to you on an ad hoc basis. If you want to understand misunderstanding better (and I insist that if your hermeneutics can’t explain misunderstanding, you’re in a very bad spot), or if you want to understand the relation of verbal to gestural or artistic or musical expression, or if you want to understand how the catholic tradition could flourish without insisting on texts having single determinate meanings, or any of a variety of other issues, you can just pick up my gesture-and-inference hermeneutics for the short term and put it back down once you’ve resolved your conundrum. “This approach to interpretation explains the role of gestures in pastoral communication, but of course it fails to honour what we know to be necessary about linguistic communication, so it can’t provide a comprehensive angle of insight into biblical hermeneutics.” That’s OK with me, and it might be of help to you.

I have referred to this as “my” hermeneutic several times here (and probably in earlier posts as well). I don’t mean by that to imply that I thought this up and that I, the lonely genius of hermeneutics, lay claim to a discovery or a proprietary priority in this. I’m constantly embarrassed by how much this work draws on the authors in the syllabus of my imagination for instance. I constantly reread a favourite essay or book and realise that it makes one of the points that I feel obligated to drive home myself. So, let it be said firmly and emphatically, this is not original to me: Augustine, Thomas, Nietzsche, Peirce, Magritte, Wittgenstein, Goodman, Barthes, Derrida, Kermode, Fish, and numerous comrades have done the heavy lifting on all these issues. I’m only reminding people about what their work may add up to.

I don’t insist that anyone buy these wares in a single vast lump. Pick them up, use them for what they’re good for, put them down again. So far as I can tell, if using these ideas becomes habitual to you, you may find that the whole megillah is a more viable basis for hermeneutics than you thought before; that’s how I got here. But if you aren’t satisfied with the conventional dictum about meaning and application, or the necessity of historical criticism, or single determinate meaning, or whatever, this work may help you out.

And very soon I’ll return to my abolition of the “literal” and “symbolic.”

More Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeI suspect I’ve found another example of the role of desire in interpretation: the alleged prevalence of promiscuity and prostitution in first-century Corinth. At this point, the prevailing sense among classical historians (as far as I can tell) favours the view that interpreters of the relevant texts should acknowledge that the oft-cited instance of the Temple of Aphrodite and the thousand sacred prostitutes has no relevance for interpreting the culture of the first-century city. I’m satisfied by the research that questions the basis for the story in the first place — but even if one grants the existence of prominent sacred prostitution in Corinth in the centuries before the Romans razed the city in 146 BCE, surely 150-plus years of passing time would render the past city’s reputation moot. Or do people conventionally think of cities based on their reputation from several centuries ago? (This would make the reputation of many US cities complicated, since they will only have developed as such within the window between the destruction of Corinth and its renascence under Roman rule.

The story lasts because it gives people a chance to leer retrospectively at the goings-on in Corinth, not because there’s any significant evidence that Corinth was a more lascivious city than any other centre of trade. Scholars and their audiences alike want to think about a sexually outrageous Corinth, and that’s the strength of the story’s persistence. Evidence is a side issue.

[I grant that I haven’t subjected the topic to exacting study, and I don’t have time right now. I’m putting “Corinth: Sin City” on my research list, though. Maybe I’ll learn that I’m wrong, in which case I’ll be sure to write about it here.]


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.

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 “Devotion Love Surrender”

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.