Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Home Run

It's not often anymore that you get a stellar political speech in America, save for some of the neo-fascist conservative rantings whose sheer spectacle you can't help but gawk at from time to time. Occasionally, you get a choleric Howard Dean setting Sacramento alight in March 2003, days before the Iraq war, berating Democrats for giving America away to the fundamentalists. But normally you're stuck with middle-of-the-road political praddle, not unlike that exemplified by Bush himself in an interview (begins at the 15.00 mark) this summer in Ireland. (Note: Bush was lucky he had a fairly incompetent interviewer. Not so for Prime Minister Blair last February.). But then, occasionally, you get young politicans like Barack Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention ... and bringing down the house (text transcript here).  Turn your political cynicism off for fifteen minutes and check it out -- this one is a keeper.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Ideology of Intention

Yesterday I had an interesting email discussion with a friend of mine re: his assigned textbook for a second-year Hermeneutics course he is teaching in the autumn, Grant R. Osborne's The Hermeneutical Spiral. Osborne's book is regarded pretty highly by those evangelical Christian seminaries that don't want to come off as fundamentalist nutjobs. In my friend's words: "Osborne's deal is that you get closer and closer to the meaning of the text the more and more you deal with it. In other words, you don't just move in the circle of the author's meaning that you can't extract, nor the reader's meaning that you can't avoid. Rather, his vision is of a spiral that gets closer and closer with each subsequent reading. It is fundamentally an exegetical model, and he explicitly admits to following E.D. Hirsch."

What's wrong with this picture of interpretation? Well, very shortly, I don't buy Hirsch's conservative conception of authorial intention. Namely, that it (authorial intention) is the ultimate horizon of a text's meaning. I certainly think it is possible to come up with reasonable authorial readings, and to that end Osborne's (and Hirsch's) method is reasonably sound). However, the assumption that the elusive authorial meaning is what keeps the 'spiral' in motion (i.e., keeps us reading), is not one that I think is all that compelling. It's telling that when Hirsch tried to support intentionality with philosophy, he ended up appealing to a very suspect reading of Husserl. When he saw that that wasn't going to fly, he appealed, far more successfully I might add, to common sense and pragmatics. There's something to be said for the latter, at least insofar as it displays how normative meanings are conferred to texts and discourses (a necessary step if we're going to make sense of one another). But critically speaking, and to an extent ethically, I think the underlying assumption of both Hirsch and Osborne leaves a lot to be desired, as it ultimately forecloses the hermeneutical horizon to a single (elusive) referent. What you seem to have in Osborne, if I remember correctly anyway, is a pretty standard foundationalist assumption that there is an ultimate meaning lying just beyond our subjective purview, and inasmuch as we search for it in good faith, we'll get closer to it. What you also have, though, is the also pretty standard foundationalist / rationalist caveat that, if hermeneutical activity is to continue, said ultimate meaning must remain further down inside the spiral. Alice, upon her descent into the rabbit hole, as it were, never quite reaches Wonderland. In other words: you have a foundationalist assumption, with no foundationalist payoff. Where is the exegetical money shot?

It is hard to see how one of two things will not arise from such an impasse: (a) strong interpretations that claim tentative / open status, but do not readily accept deviant / alternative positions; or (b) weak interpretations that (implicitly or explicitly) anticipate new contexts to be be unearthed that will lead us closer to an author's meaning -- which will, in a sense, discredit previous interpretations (that do not coincide) as obsolete or solipsistic play. Inasmuch as Ultimate Meaning remains the inaccessible horizon that other (bad) interpretations keep us from achieving, I think hermeneutics remains dangerously blind to its ideological function. Keeping Truth on the far side of reality is just as standard in the ideologue's handbook as casting alternative / deviant interpretations as the hurdle to said Truth. (E.g., 'If it weren't for those damned liberals mucking around with our biblical studies, we might know what Paul really meant!', or 'Deconstruction is the death of biblical interpretation!', 'Queer theory [or whatever other special interest theory] is a mockery of biblical scholarship!')

Monday, July 26, 2004


Not too long ago I received a letter from a scholarly journal rejecting a paper of mine.  Long-time readers may remember the upshot: "I wouldn't encourage its revision . . . though perhaps its translation into English!"  Well, this weekend I received vindication, of sorts.  Much to the chagrin of some readers who recommended physical violence, I opted simply to submit it elsewhere.  Thankfully, the good folk at the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory didn't think it nearly as bad as The Journal of the ______ ______ of _____.  Should be up and available for public consumption in December.  Huzzah!

Monday, July 19, 2004

Two Weeks and Two Days

A whirlwind weekend in the life and times of K. and me.  It all started on Friday afternoon.  I was enjoying a quiet afternoon -- listening to this, reading this, skimming through this -- when I was called by the frantic Belgian, who explained that 'we have a problem'.  It turns out that if you want to get married in Belgium, nobody but you and your significant other can turn in the requisite documents (i.e., an assortment of birth certificates, certificates saying there is no impediment to a marriage, certificates indicating that you have never, to the knowledge of the Glasgow City Council, sacrificed a bull to Mithra, etc.).  This, of course, makes perfect sense, but, as it were, we'd been fed very bad information by the townhall.  Anyway ... upon the news that K.'s parents could not turn in these documents, K. told me to set aside all else and find affordable last-second plane tickets to Belgium, so that we might settle the matter in a timely fashion.  ('Just do it,' were her words, if I recall, when she heard the beginnings of the phrase, 'I told you s---'.)  So, twelve hours later, at the very dawning of Glasgow's most gray of dawns, I found myself with her, only one-quarter awake, £400 poorer, on a plane bound for Brussels (via Amsterdam). 
As it normally the case, the situation was not nearly as bad as we thought it might be.  If nothing else, we got to play with the (still nameless) orphaned kittens, drink Westmalle along the Maas, and tempt fate while riding a bike (after drinking said Westmalles) during an apocalyptic thunderstorm.  And, yes, we got things settled at the townhall, at least I think we did.  According to the competent official who has led us astray two times already, we are scheduled for a wedding on August 4, at 10.30.  Fingers crossed, people. 
We're bound for Glasgow early Tuesday morning, bringing another section of this weird chapter to its close.  Hopefully, it will eventually become just a footnote. 

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Fafblog Forever!

It was recently brought to my attention that, for reasons I don't entirely understand, but realistically suspect to be a part of a vast conspiracy against the full-functioning depravity that Silentio encourages, I've never linked to the always wonderful Fafblog. Er ... then again, maybe I have. Whatever. Prior linking or not, if you need more proof before you add it to your bookmarks, look no further than Fafnir's interview with Ralph Nader and his running mate cum sock puppet, Mr. Winkles.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

A Review

I got around to watching Fahrenheit 9/11 last night. As I mentioned here here, I went into it with a hearty dose of cynicism / skepticism. (Par for the course, that double dose.) Most of you have undoubtedly heard all the positive and negative reviews. One of the interesting things about the movie is that, at least in the 'liberal' press, its negative aspects are often redeemed for positive ends. There's some real value in this approach (e.g., Paul Krugman's op/ed), but I'm more struck by the fact by the weaknesses that undermine (what I regard as) its positive aim.

Most people are falling over themselves either in outrage or in defense of Moore's reliance on Craig Unger's book House of Saud, House of Bush: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties, whereby Moore insinuates many of the possible, conspiratorial ramifications of the connections between American corporate interest, esp. those of Bush's family, and those of Saudi Arabia. Yes ... this is one of the problems with Fahrenheit 9/11, but not because it lends itself to the self-indulgent promulgation of conspiracy theories. The downside is a bit more simple, I think: it just gets in the way of the more general, and in my opinion more interesting, analysis of America's corporate relationship with Saudi Arabia. In insinuating a conspiracy, Moore too quickly makes a conclusion that he ought not make; that is to say, I think this part of the movie would have been much more powerful had he presented the connections, in all their ambiguity and generality, and allowed moviegoers to make their own conclusions. The best way to spread a secret, after all, is not to spread it as such (i.e., as a secret); but rather, to talk around it, allowing people to create the content of the secret on their own and then spread it as truth.

Far more damaging, though, as was also the case in Bowling for Columbine is Moore's tendency toward haphazard collage, rather than meaningful pastiche. Now, I know he has a purpose, one I share, and I'm more than willing to give him leeway with playing with facts to make a rhetorical maneuver, but I'm still a sucker for a strongly argued point. The closest Moore has ever come to this is in Roger and Me. Since then, possibly due to his foray into television, his movies have become far too episodic and anecdotal, at the expense of their poignancy. What you have in Fahrenheit 9/11 is a series of reasons not to vote for Bush. Yes ... I understand that. On that level, I suppose it works. I do not think that only lefties are seeing the movie; in fact, I'm fairly convinced that it could be very convincing for non-committed middle-ground voters. HOWEVER ... I think its appeal could very well prove to be its worst point. Clearly, the end of the film, which profiles a Flint, Michigan mother, whose son was killed in Iraq, is designed for an emotional effect. I think it works. I'm not a very emotional person, but, unlike most of the Brits I've talked to about this scene, I was not embarassed by it, but genuinely moved. Seeing the mother nearly fall over in grief when standing in front of the White House lawn, not unlike the Iraqi woman screaming 'Why?' to God after yet another errant American bomb, is one of the most 'real' moments of the film. My problem with it, however, is that it functions as a climax to the anti-Bush theme, rather than its heart. As such, the weight of its reality is not as heavily felt -- i.e., it becomes all too easy to see through the rhetorical function of it ('Ah ... he's appealing to our emotions here'). In other words, it is not unreasonable to feel a little manipulated or jerked around. Surely, Bush & co. used the threat of terrorism to this same rhetorical effect, and one could perhaps say this justifies Moore's use of it, too -- but when one uncritiqued ideology replaces another uncritiqued ideology, you're simply left with what you started with. Mimicking the enemy is effective (and, as it were, true) only insofar as it disrupts its own reflection, breaking it into an untold number of possible reflections, all distorted, all inadequate.

Anyway ... in a nutshell: Fahrenheit 9/11 is surely worth seeing. It's chock full of unseen footage (of Bush, of the war, etc.), and is worth the ticket price (or length of a download) for that alone. I think it also has a lot of potential to sway middle-ground voters. Nevertheless, inasmuch as the rhetorical turns are often too apparent, and the content so broad as to be emotionally shallow, it carries the same potential to dissuade these same voters when/if their heads catch up with their hearts. On a cynical level, I guess I can but hope, apropos of the comparison of Moore's rhetoric with that of pre-war Bush, that it remains convincing long enough to accomplish its end.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Should I Include This In My Wedding Vow?

To put it another way: choice is always a meta-choice; it involves a choice to choose or not. Prostitution, for example, is a simple exchange: a man pays a woman for having sex with her. Marriage, on the other hand, involves two levels: in traditional marriage, with man as breadwinner, he pays the woman much more (maintains her as wife) in order not to have to pay her (for sex). So, in the case of marriage for money, one cay say that the husband pays the wife in order that she should sell not only her body but also her soul -- that she should pretend that she is giving herself to him out of love. Yet another way to put it would be to say that one pays a prostitute to have sex with her, whereas one's wife is a prostitute whom one has to pay even more if one doesn't have sex with her (since in this case she is not satisfied, and one has to appease her in another way, with generous gifts). (S. Zizek, The Ticklish Subject)

The Kids, They're Alright

The widespread influence of Silentio on America's youth is finally, after two long years, taking effect:

About one-third of American teenagers claim they're "born again" believers, according to data gathered over the past few years by Barna Research Group, the gold standard in data about the U.S. Protestant church, and 88% of teens say they are Christians. About 60% believe that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings." And 56% feel that their religious faith is very important in their life.

Yet, Barna says, slightly more than half of all U.S. teens also believe that Jesus committed sins while he was on earth. About 60% agree that enough good works will earn them a place in heaven, in part reflecting a Catholic view, but also flouting Protestantism's central theme of salvation only by grace. About two-thirds say that Satan is just a symbol of evil, not really a living being. Only 6% of all teens believe that there are moral absolutes--and, most troubling to evangelical leaders, only 9% of self-described born-again teens believe that moral truth is absolute.

Some commentators produce even more startling statistics on the doctrinal drift of America's youth. Ninety-one percent of born-again teenagers surveyed a few years ago proclaimed that there is no such thing as absolute truth, says the Rev. Josh McDowell, a Dallas-based evangelist and author. More alarmingly, that number had risen quickly and steadily from just 52% of committed Christian kids in 1992 who denied the existence of absolute truth. A slight majority of professing Christian kids, Mr. McDowell says, also now say that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ never occurred.

"There's a greater disconnect now than ever in the history of the church in America between what a Christian young person says they are and what they actually believe," says Mr. McDowell, who has ministered mainly to youth for more than 30 years. "Christianity is based on truth; Jesus said, 'I am the truth.' But you have an overwhelming majority even of Christian kids saying there is no absolute truth."

Ah, song of my most cynical heart -- sing again! Yea, my job here is almost done. I had to leave youth ministry before I could truly save souls.

Oh ... but it gets better:

Indeed, the consequences of this theological implosion now pervade the thoughts and actions of believing teenagers, following the moral breakdown of the broader American culture. Here's one practical example: Only 10% of Christian teens believe that music piracy is morally wrong, according to a recent Barna survey, not all that different from the 6% of their non-Christian peers who feel the same way.

It's almost too toothsome to taste, isn't it? Such moral ambiguity! Such unwillingness to unquestionably believe in a particular ideology! The audacity! It's almost as if -- Noooo! -- that the moralistic revival of America isn't really a revival at all, that American Christian belief is as shallow as George Bush's health care reform. Noooooooooo!

Friday, July 09, 2004

On Theory

As I've said in the past, I normally do not link to things in Salon, due to the mandatory ad you have to sit through before reaching any content; but, also as I've also said in the past, in so many words, exceptions are the spice of life. Granted, Judith Butler (professor of rhetoric & comp. literature at Berkeley) is not normally considered 'spicy' -- or at least has not been so, even in 'theory wonk' circles, for quite some time now -- but this article about her newest collection of essays is noteworthy. In it, probably far more than Butler does, the writer goes on at length about how 'maybe theory isn't quite so dead after all'. Hmm ... you think? One of the truisms that arose from the ashes of the Twin Towers was that, along with irony, theory was dead. The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and even the Chronicle of Higher Education went on at length about the name of the game now is action / praxis. In other words, what with all this reality surrounding us, i.e., the constrant threat of (if not always the reality of) war and terrorism, theoretical 'wanking' is irrelevant, if not irresponsible. I never really bought the doxa, though. It seemed a bit too much like the 'everything has changed now' line. Easy to say, and perhaps even to believe; much more difficult to flesh out into actual, livable content.

I agree with the author's point here, that theory is not only NOT dead but is potentially, at least in the able hands of somebody like Butler, helpful. Nevertheless, Butler (via quotes) makes a far more significant point than the author actually unpacks -- namely, because Butler seems to address the important question that continually dogs theorists: Why is theory important?

Theory, Butler clarifies in our conversation, has been mistaken by many people to be a "position of permanent skepticism." Instead, she sees it as "nothing more than a critical interrogation of beliefs we already carry with us." It is a form of inquiry that does not deny the existence of the world but rather relates to it critically. "Theory is never fully abstract," she says, for "it is in the context of action that we have to think." In her words, theory is an "engaged form of reflection" that frequently "emerges in tandem with suffering."

This is something I've come more frequently to recognize about my work: i.e., theorizing about theology, for instance, is not tantamount to pushing theology in the direction I think it must go in order to retain / generate its vitality. People often regard me (and my kind) as commonplace critics, ones who pick apart what either we cannot do or what we did not do. This misses the point, though. In the end, as Butler rightly notes, theory is about 'the beliefs we already carry with us'. It is a way to think about where we already are, what we are already doing, and wondering aloud "Why?" THIS is the reason theory is scary, and why it carries the potential for abuse. It is not a question we normally ask with any seriousness, outside of wondering about the apparent causes that led event-Y to follow event-X. A compelling, persuasive to 'Why?' is, as such, powerful stuff -- it carries the potential to change lives, ideally for good, if not necessarily the fundamental conditions from which theorising about our lives is possible in the first place (i.e., that we never escape from the possibility of wondering 'Why?') To regard theory as being dead is not to place it in an early grave; but rather, it is to regard ourselves as no longer culpable to 'Why?' For me ... this is far more dangerous than any pesky deconstructionist or scary feminist.

Hear Me, All Ye Cheap Bastards

Interested in seeing Fahrenheit 9/11, but you're too poor (or impatient to wade through the throng of popcorn-eating masses)? Well, my children, you simply download it!! This internet thing, I tell you, it's the wave of the future. Now, granted, I just started my BitTorrent download, and boy is it a big mother! But, what else does a PhD student have to do with his day, eh?

Much like visiting most of America's tourist destinations, I feel like I've already 'been there, done that' with this movie; and yet, much like I still visit many of America's tourist destinations, in spite of the accompany insipid banality everything about the visit itself, I felt as though I ought to see this movie. I read something the other day saying Fahrenheit 9/11 was necessary, not because it was a good movie (who expects to see an honest-to-God good movie that doesn't involve Spider-Man?), but because 'it makes people think'. Eh ... I'm not so sure. 'Thinking' is not really America's strongest suit, is it? -- well, outside those Nobel Prize winning community, and all those advertising people who do our thinking for us. Anyway, this is why I don't really care if Michael Moore is a loud-mouth truth-bender. We've been held sway by one for nearly four years now, so I think we can survive a two-hour movie by one bending truth in a different direction. So, my hope, oh song of my cynical heart!, is not that Americans begin to 'think' -- that's like hoping we'll be able to stare at the eclipsing sun without going seeing spots -- but simply to do what we do best. Namely, get really pissed off (not by a rational argument, but by sheer, visceral revulsion), revolt, and THEN sink back into the hazy-eyed, haggard ennui that'll let all those people who do our thinking for us (the Nobel-winning think-tanks and myriad marketers) to come up with a new way to piss us off (and thus start the process all over again).

Or something like that.