Monday, 20 October 2014

The Religions of Textbooks

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

One of the quickest approaches to understanding religions is the sort of basic facts overview you often encounter in textbooks or encyclopedia (especially
that one) when you first look it up: who founded it, when and where was it founded, how do people practice it, what are their sacred texts (and do they have any). Often such sources present other facts, attempting to address the religion’s particular beliefs and worldviews, but at best these are usually very generalist. It might sketch out a broad understanding, but not one that can really help you anticipate what any individual practitioner believes. I think of this as the textbook approach. Let’s go over a few examples.

In an interview in the back of a later edition of God Is Not One (I’ll update when I get it out of the library again so I can tell you which later edition), Prothero defends his inclusion of New Atheism by noting that particular strands of atheism meet the 3 C’s definition of religion. The 3 C’s definition isn’t one that I remember from my Religious Studies minor, but a Google search suggests it’s pretty common. These C’s are as follows:

Creed – Shared beliefs about ultimate reality, creation and order of the universe, the place and meaning of humanity, and/or the final destiny of humanity and the world.
Code – Behaviours, attitudes, and conducts which practitioners try to maintain.
Cult* – Shared forms of worship, shared symbols, and/or worship of the same being or object.

The 3 C’s are a definition—something is a religion if it has all three C’s—but these features are also a good way into understanding that religion. They are what make up the religion, after all, at least according to this definition. (Note: “Code” is sometimes rendered as “Conduct” and “Cult” is sometimes rendered as “Ceremony.”)

In my Google search, however, I found another document that used 5 C’s:

Creed – as above
Code – as above
Cult – as above
Community – Groups of people which engage in ceremonies together, with a particular organizational structure.
Central Myth – Stories re-told and re-enacted that make the other features of the religion meaningful to the practitioners.

These basic categories might work well for our chart.

Central Myth
God is 3-in-1; Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and the Incarnated Word of God; etc.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”; 10 Commandments; etc.
Church on the Sabbath; sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, maybe others); etc.
Parish-based congregations within larger geographic areas; maybe small groups within churches
Creation and Fall of humanity -> creation of Israel -> Christ’s death and resurrection
Etc., a platform that describes itself as “Hosting the Conversation on Faith,” has a similar, though more fine-grained, approach. In their Library they have a Side by Side Comparison feature which allows you to compare traditions in a chart. The sorts of information provided include date of formation, number of adherents, place of origin, deity, sacred text, current headquarters, and different aspects of historical origin (including its influences) and development. It also has a few sentences for each religion on different beliefs: Sacred Narratives; Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings; Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence; Suffering and the Problem of Evil; and Afterlife and Salvation. It also addresses issues of ritual and worship and issues of ethics. This can be a very helpful summary, especially if you’re quite new to the religions described, but it lacks any sense of which set of beliefs are more important to practitioners. It’s notable that the categories under “beliefs” seem well-suited to describing Christianity but poorly suited to describing, say, Shinto. Moreover, it does not attempting to describe the sort of “deep” cosmologies that I’m thinking about—for instance, the problem/solution approach does more to suggest the overall worldview, even though it lacks the sort of details Patheos’ Side by Side Comparison provides. This is handy…but it’s way too much for the chart I have in mind, which is already pretty huge.

A common subset of these sorts of questions is to ask what deity the religion worships. This question makes more sense for some religions than others, but since a popular, though faulty, definition of the word “religion” is something like, “belief in and worship of a deity,” I suppose I can see why you’d ask it. So you could have something like the following chart:

Atheist (there are no gods)
Cult of Reason, versions of Zen Buddhism, Daoism
Monotheism (there is one god)
Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Rastafari, Atenism
Polytheism (there are many gods)
Hinduism, Shinto, Neopaganism
Pantheism (all things are God)
Versions of Hinduism, versions of Daoism
Henotheism (there are many gods, but we worship only one or only one at a time)
Versions of Hinduism, versions of ancient Greek and Egyptian religions

But that’s only so helpful, right? I guess if you just didn’t realize there were alternatives to whatever you were used to, this sort of thing might by mind-blowing. And while such details might help you understand where the philosophical texture of a given religion is grounded, it won’t give you access to that texture.

I think one of the most interesting schemas I’ve encountered is Chaotic Shiny’s Religion Generator. Chaotic Shiny is a website that has random generators for writing and gaming. The religion generator has a ~36** fields, so it can produce quite varied religions. A lot of those fields are the same as those above, but there are some interesting ones that start to add that texture I’m looking for: Focus has a number of goals, somewhat reminiscent of Prothero but less problem-based, like “repentance,” “leader worship,” “spreading peace,” or “self-improvement,” that gives a sense of what’s important to practitioners; Deadly Sins (“neglect,” “self-injury,” “wrath”) and High Virtues (“piety,” “moderation,” “tolerance”) give a moral snapshot that goes beyond mere prohibitions; Major Taboo gives a sense of the cultural neuroses the religion might have, including things like “bodily functions,” “sex,” “money,” “strong emotions,” and “mental illness.” This generator is intended to produce interesting and unique religions for fantasy gaming contexts, but its categories could also serve as a template for understanding existing religions.

The problem with such frameworks, of course, is that the sorts of categories chosen usually reflect the kind of religion the person making the categories follows or knows: emphasis on belief over ritual, for instance, or sins over impurities, reflects Christianity, and the world it shaped, more than whatever religion you’re using the framework to describe. Furthermore, it tells us little about individual believers, and their approaches to the religious tradition they live in. But it is still a good, and necessary, starting point.


*The word cult refers here not to brain-washing and isolationist religious groups with charismatic leaders, but simply to religious practice, deriving from Latin cultus, meaning “care,” specifically the care owed to God or gods and their temples, shrines, etc. “Cult” thus refers to worship, to keeping sanctuaries clean and pure, and the performance of proper ceremonies. Think of cultivation. I suspect it was the negative meanings that became attached to the word “cult” that caused some people to shift from Creed, Code, Cult to Creed, Code, Ceremony.

**Some randomly-generated responses affect what fields follow them, so there may not always be exactly 36 fields.



Saturday, 18 October 2014

Taxonomies for Religions Index

The other day a friend of mine observed that I am obsessed with understanding other people’s philosophies and how those philosophies affect their actions. She isn’t wrong. In yet another attempt to create a framework for such understanding, I’m attempting to compile taxonomies for religions.

What is a taxonomy for religions? This first post is a good example. By “taxonomy for religions” I mean a way of conceptualizing religions and seeing how they are different from one another. (And, I suppose, they give opportunities to see when they are the same.) So in that first example, you can divide and group religions according to the problem they see in the world and the solution they offer to address it. In a way, a taxonomy is a set of questions which narrow in on particular features in order to help us understand the things we’re putting into the taxa (in this case, religions).

But isn’t that narrow? Aren’t there more ways of grouping religions than just problem/solution? Absolutely. And that’s why I want lots of them. I hope that by overlaying them we can create a more detailed (or, I like to think, textured) view of each religion. That’s what I want to do here: if I gather enough such taxonomies in one place, we can start building a really complete understanding of each religious tradition.

Religious tradition? Wouldn’t the problem/solution question apply to sects within religions, too? Or even to individual believers? Yes, yes, and yes. It’s almost like you’ve read my first post! Some of these taxonomies will apply to believers better than to religions. For example, Richard Beck talks about Winter Christians and Summer Christians. This applies to believers (Christians, specifically), not religions. But you could also note that some religions, and some sects within religions, accommodate Winter Believers better than Summer Believers or vice versa. As such you could create categories—or taxonomies—on the Religion level according to the sorts of beliefs/attitudes it encourages or accepts on the Individual level.

What are Winter Christians and Summer Christians? The linked post contains a good explanation, but I’ll also explain it in a later post.
But, more importantly, how are you supposed to play a cleric or paladin in your D&D session next week if you don’t know what religions and religious people are like? Oh, you’re the DM? Then how are you supposed to make up the behaviours and beliefs of the Cult of Tiamat?

So if I basically don’t care about religion and I don’t plan on playing a cleric, then there’s no point reading any of this? You say you don’t care about religion, but maybe you’re thinking of something different than I am. Do you care about philosophy? Or metaphysics? Basic approaches to ethics or decision-making? Or a person’s fundamental understanding of the world, so fundamental that it remains somewhat obscure to the person holding it? About worldviews? Cosmologies? Cultures and subcultures? Then you care about religions, just maybe not the ones with God and stuff in them.
Links go live as I write the posts, and titles will updated as that happens. Will hopefully gain more entries as you recommend stuff. 

You obviously care about this, but why should anyone else? It’s really important to understand why people act the way they do and think the things they do! How else can you reason with them or predict their actions? Also, if you’re one of those people who needs to understand a person in order to empathize with them, then how else will you be their friend? You don’t want to go around assuming that everyone thinks the same as you do about things, do you? (If so, how’s that working out for you? And for the people around you?)

Isn’t that an unnecessarily and unhelpfully broad definition of religion? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s a whole other series of posts that I plan on writing someday. In the meantime, the basic question to ask is whether the worldview under consideration can fit in these taxonomies. Most of them can—even if they appear to be, or consider themselves, non-religious.

Would you like people to recommend taxonomies for people to add to your list? Absolutely! Thanks for asking! Write it in the comments! Or e-mail me, if you know my e-mail address! (Maybe I’ll rig up a burner account for this thing…)

But what if the ones I might recommend aren’t exactly scholarly taxonomies? In the last few years it’s started to seem like you mostly care about scholarly stuff, and I’m afraid that’s not really the world in which I live… Don’t worry about it! Didn’t I just prattle on about D&D? And take a look at my Table of Contents; it has lots of non-scholarly stuff.

Speaking of, maybe you’ll want to get on to that Table of Contents before you lose readers…? Oh, right. Good thinking.

Table of Contents, with Sloppy Annotations
  1. Religion as Problem and Solution or Religion as Obsession and Epiphany – On Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One and W. Paul Jones’s Theological Worlds, to whit, all religions observe that something is wrong with the world and try to address it.
  2. The Religions of Textbooks – On the 3 C’s, the 5 C’s, Patheos, enumerations of the divine, and RPG random generators, to whit, the sort of Religious Studies 101 overview of a religion.
  3. Religious Specialists and Religious Roles – On Prophet-Sage-Shaman, religious classes in RPGs, and the priesthood of all believers, to whit, different kinds of clergy, or religious specialists, and what they might indicate about the religion in question.
  4. Ultimate Concerns – On Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, to whit, looking at what people are ultimately concerned about, whether they recognize the ultimacy of the Ultimate, and different types of faith; further, how taxonomies have investments.
  5. Religions as Questions or Answers – On Robert Hunt’s blog Interfaith Encounters, to whit, whether a believer asks questions of the religion or the other way around, and what role morality plays in that relationship.
  6. Freud’s Ghost – On Richard Beck’s blog Experimental Theology and book The Slavery of Death, to whit, does religion deny death or face it honestly, and how does it handle doubt and suffering?
  7. That Kitchen Drawer with Assorted Stuff – On Sam Harris and wakefulness, Edward Fesser and trads/mods, stuff I’ve written before about genres, and anything else I find that doesn’t warrant it’s own post.
  8. Guide to Religion for RPGs – trying to cobble all this together for use in D&D and other RPGs; also, for fantasy worldbuilding generally, with commentary on having to do the same thing four times for religion, sect, community, individual..
  9. Summary – trying to cobble all this together, as above, but for more general purposes.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Religion as Problem and Solution or Obsession and Epiphany

EDIT: It appears the chart lower down does not work with my blog's formatting. I will try and figure out a solution sometime. In the meantime, you can work around it by highlighting the entire table, copying it, and pasting it in a word processor.


Have you heard the metaphor figuring the world’s religions as different trails up the same mountain? It’s reportedly a Hindu concept, but I know it through Huston Smith’s The World Religions, and if you’ve heard it I have little doubt that it came to you through Smith indirectly. It was a controversial claim when Smith made it (though one many people were ready to hear), but it might not be an entirely accurate one. For instance, Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One is almost wholly devoted to showing that religions have very different senses of the world and therefore very different goals. They do not converge upon the same peak, he claims.

Prothero’s way of understanding religions is an interesting one: he says all religions observe that there is a problem in the world, but they offer different diagnoses and therefore make different prescriptions. Religions also have a set of techniques for achieving the solution and a set of exemplars for guidance and encouragement. For Judaism, the problem is exile and the solution, therefore, is return, while for Islam the problem is pride and the solution submission; for Confucianism the problem is chaos and the solution propriety, but for Daoism the problem is artificiality and the solution flourishing. Prothero’s framework is a useful way of conceptualizing a religion. At the least, the framework forces you to ask particular questions about a religion which you may not have otherwise thought to ask. (Geez, I should make an index for all the posts in which I write that.)

Prothero runs into trouble when he deals with Christianity, however. He writes that Christianity’s diagnosis is sin while the prescription is salvation. But sin means so many different things to so many different Christians, and salvation means so many different things to so many different Christians, that its almost meaningless to define Christianity in this way. (Indeed, I’m fairly sure there are Christians who understand sin/salvation in something like each of the terms Prothero uses to describe the other religions: Islam’s pride/submission, Confucianism’s chaos/propriety, Hinduism’s samsara/devotion*, Buddhism’s suffering/awakening, Yoruba’s forgetting/connection, Judaism’s exile/return, Daoism’s artificiality/flourishing.) I wonder, therefore, whether a Muslim might have the same response reading Prothero’s book: “But what does pride mean? Aren't there many ways of submitting? Of course you could think of pride as a kind of forgetting or a kind of exile, and submission as a kind of connection or a kind of return.”

Which leads me to suspect that these four categories might be more useful not as a description of religions writ large but as a description of a particular person’s own religion. The question is not, “What problem does Christianity see in the world?,” but, “What problem does Christian see in the world?”**


Prothero’s framework, when phrased on the level of the individual, sounds much like W. Paul Jones’s obsession and epiphania. I know of Jones’s work through Richard Beck, who gives a summary: every Christian lives in a “theological world” (Jones gives five of them?) defined by an obssessio—a defining conundrum, quandary, wound, or question—and an epiphania—the experience or hope of an answer to that question. For many Christians, the obsessio might be the threat of God’s judgement, and the epiphania would thus be the promise of God’s forgiveness; for others, the obsessio might be the way we harm others, and the epiphania the promise that one day we will no longer do so. I hope you can see by now the similarity this has with Prothero’s framework: Prothero uses different terms and add techniques and exemplars, but the obsessio/epiphania distinction is at the heart of his description.

Moreover, these seem to be useful questions for anyone’s worldview, whether religious or not. But I’d caution that, of course, these might not be beliefs, exactly. You may not be able to simply ask, “What do you believe is the one big problem with the world?” After all, I think lots of people would say there are a few different problems with the world and these don’t necessarily have the same source. Rather, it seems to be about attitude. You should maybe ask, “What problem with the world, or with yourself, takes up the most of your time and your headspace?” That’s probably more accurate. And then, “What do you do to address it?”

It’s worth observing, I think, that Prothero’s formulation is a bit more bloodless than Jones’s. Problem and solution are very technical or matter of fact. Diagnosis and prescription are maybe even worse: there’s a disease, yes, but diagnoses and prescriptions are what make diseases manageable and knowable. Obsessio and epiphania, though, have a bit more emotional kick: rendered into English, obsession and epiphany suggest the urgency of the problem and the overwhelming nature of the solution.  If the problem is your obsession than it’s not something you’re going to be able to deal with in a detached manner; if the experience of solution is an epiphany, than you’ll never be done trying to figure it out. The same idea, maybe, but there’s a different sense of stakes. Jones, of course, is writing as an insider, and Prothero an outsider, and it shows.


All this, I think, is a helpful way to conceptualize world religions on the one hand and individual expressions of those religions on the other. You could make a chart:

Sin (meaning?)
Salvation (meaning?)
Prayer, rituals, etc.
Jesus, biblical figures, saints…
Prayer, fasts, etc.
Muhammad, the imams…
Meditation, etc.
The Buddha, the bodhisattvas…
Samsara (wandering)
Meditation, prayer, etc.
The avatars, the gurus…
Prayer, study, etc.
The prophets, the scholars…
Rituals, study, etc.
Confucius, the classical scholars…
Meditation, alchemy, etc.
Lao Tzu, the sages…
Divination, rituals, etc.
?? I don’t know this.
New Atheism***
Religion (ignorance)
Atheism (reason)
Skepticism, science, etc.
Voltaire, historical scientists…
Miseries of reality
Foma (harmless lies), etc.
Johnson, the outlaws…
Alienation/private property
Solidarity/class war
Unions, strikes, revolution, etc.
Marx, Engels…

All nice. All good. But this seems incomplete, doesn’t it? As I said, you can imagine a Christian who conceives of sin mostly as pride, and salvation mostly as submission. And yet they would not be the same, really, as a Muslim who thinks in much the same terms. The techniques and exemplars might account for a bit of the difference, but…surely there’s more difference, isn’t there?

I love taxonomies. I sometimes think that I have a taxonomic imagination. But I recognize their limitations, and one of those limitations is that there are usually many different ways of organizing objects and you have a very different sense of a set of objects depending on how you organize them. So one way of handling this is to use several taxonomies, layered atop one another, to create a bit more texture. You don’t have a set of nested classes, like in biological taxonomies, but rather a set of fields for each entry. In which case, you need a bunch of useful taxonomies, and you need them all in one place for ease of use.

That’s what I plan to do. In the next… however long… I will try to collect taxonomies meant to organize either the world’s religions or individuals’ expressions of those religions, and present them here for my own use, and for anyone who might find them useful. (One use I can imagine is worldbuilding. I’m fascinated my fictional religions, but so many of them seem flat and uncompelling. I feel like using frameworks like those in this post, and those I plan to post, might help make more fully-fleshed religions and religious characters in novels and RPGs.)


Samsara means “wandering,” literally, but in Hinduism it refers to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth which characterizes reality.
** I am the only person allowed to make this pun.
*** Prothero includes a coda on atheism in God is Not One. He characterizes the problem/solution as religion/atheism, nothing that even though the stated problem is religion, the solution is itself religious in nature (by definition). I’ve added my own take in brackets for the problem/solution and then filled out the rest.
 Bokononism is a fictional religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.
 Not a religion, but I want to suggest that there are other kinds of “theological world” than nominally religious ones.

On Speaking Practically

In my class about library planning and design, we’ve been listening to architects talk about the libraries they’ve designed and I’ve been doing research on Arthur Erickson and the West Coast Modernists. A recurring theme has been the conflict between the architects’ design philosophy and the libraries’ and librarians’ needs. For instance, Erickson believed that architecture ought to blur the difference between interior and exterior and that architects should allow building designs to rise from the site—from its topography and surroundings—rather than impose them on the site.*
The main gallery, or Great Hall, of UBC's Museum of Anthropology, which is sometimes considered Erickson's masterpiece.
And this leads to some beautiful buildings…but when such buildings leaked, Erickson would say it was merely “part of nature.” Such response is guaranteed to make a librarian squirm. In order to preserve materials, strict environmental controls are required. A blasé attitude towards leaks isn’t just impractical, but it violates some of the fundamental values librarians hold. Or, I should, it is impractical because it violates some of the fundamental values librarians hold. I’ve come to understand that claiming that something is impractical is a rhetorical move that appeals to a person’s values without appearing to do so.**

Generally, when a person appeals to the practical by saying that a proposed idea cannot be followed because it is impractical, they are saying either that 1) the proposed idea is impossible or 2) the proposed idea costs too much in terms of time, effort, money, space, or material resources. In the first case, it isn’t actually a case of practicality but possibility, and so invoking the practical is not quite accurate. In the second case, the reason they aren’t interested in following through with the proposal is that its costs are not worth the value the proposal would offer. Therefore either 1) they do not value the proposal (“This isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on”) or 2) they do value the proposal, but they value the other things they could attain with those resources more. If a person says, “Erickson’s design philosophy is nice, but it’s impractical,” they are either lying about the first part (they don’t think Erickson’s design philosophy is nice at all) or they have other values which trump the value the attribute to Erickson’s design philosophy (preservation matters more to them than acknowledging the location of the building). If you think a sports car is too impractical for you to buy, maybe you just don't like sports cars, or maybe you'd rather spend the money on groceries because you value groceries more.

By calling the proposal “impractical,” however, or by appealing to “practical realities,” the speaker rhetorically obscures the fact that the assessment involves their own values. Either the proposal is itself impractical, or they appeal to practical realities. This is a rhetorical move which makes their assessment sound objective and therefore shuts down further discussion; it is the kind of move people make when they are trying to finish the discussion, and it is effective in doing so because it smuggles values into the argument under the disguise of objective facts. Although I feel like this is always insidious, it is not always cynically intended. I suspect, for the most part, that speakers either assume that their interlocutors share their values or do not realize that a conflict of values is at all involved. In that last case, I suspect people’s values are often most inscrutable to the people who hold them, so they do not realize that a conflict in values is at the heart of the debate. And although this is a move meant to finish the conversation, I do not suspect that people are being deliberately unfair when they use it, in the sense that I do not suspect most people are even really conscious of their rhetorical strategies as they use them. Rather, they have goals, and they just sort of work toward them as it feels right. So I do not especially blame people for appealing to “practical realities”; often they are justified in doing so. Nonetheless, it is troubling as a rhetorical move because it tries to obscure the underlying values in an air of objective facticity, perhaps even to the speakers themselves.

As an attempt to rectify this, I will define practicality so that it makes its reliance on values clear:
Practical, adj. Of an object, process, or action, supports or does not hinder the users’ ability to act according to their values and intentions.


*Erickson’s design philosophy is more interesting and more involved than my summary makes clear. Look him up!
**I included a shorter and less aggressive version of this argument in the presentation; I excluded any sense that there's something wrong with appealing to the practical, though, because I didn't want to sound like I was blaming my classmates. Many of them appeal to the practical quite often.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

What Good’s an Author?

When writing A Theory of Reading 1.0, I beat your heads a bit with the intentional fallacy. And I think it’s important to do so, as many people just getting into serious literary analysis still have an attachment to authorial intent and dismantling that attachment is an important part of getting people to treat a text as an object into itself which we can examine. Moreover, as I hope I demonstrated, it is simply true that authorial intent doesn’t determine what a text means. However, I may have given the impression that the author doesn’t matter at all to a text or to its meaning, and while that’s not the worst of errors, it is an error. Indeed, if I get around to A Theory of Reading 2.0, I’ll want to address this.

I think there’s rather a lot to be said about this, and rather a lot of wrangling to be done over the precise relationship between authors and texts, which I’m not going to attempt here. However, I want to note three different approaches to the author-text-meaning relationship, which I’ll call the Process Approach, the Function Approach, and the Political Approach.

The Process Approach

For all our huffing against authorial intent, literary critics tend to talk about authors a lot. First, there’s a formal requirement, where we use the author’s name as the agent creating the text: “In King Lear, Shakespeare depicts a disenchanted world haunted by the absence of ghosts, fairies, or gods,” or, “Joyce’s Ulysses, however, marks a departure from Homer’s Odyssey in that the world which the journey marks out is not geographically complete but rather biographically complete.” Intent is never quite claimed, of course, in the way that “when you said x you insulted me” differs from “you meant to insult me when you said x.” But authors are never far from the mind of even the most formalist critic.

What seems to be happening—and this is only based on observation of my former colleagues and of the theorists I’ve read—is that critics use their knowledge of an author, especially that author’s other writings, to frame their approach to the text. Someone who knows that Shakespeare was about to write Hamlet (and two notably different versions, at that) might read Julius Caesar differently than if they hadn’t read Hamlet.* Knowing that Shakespeare was about to make a breakthrough in the depiction of character psychology, the critic might be alert to moments in Julius Caesar which presage that breakthrough. In other words, knowing something about an author gives you clues for what you might look for in the text. It might help you overcome certain preconceptions you were bringing to the text. Knowledge of an author can pull out a certain pattern you hadn’t seen before.

But knowledge of the author isn’t going to give you evidence for your new reading. It will just put you in the frame of mind necessary to notice something that you hadn’t noticed before. From that point on, you’ll still have to do what I described before: make arguments about the text using the text’s own features as evidence. Thinking about the author is part of the intellectual process, and it might help to replicate that process in your output (journal article, conference talk, high school composition, whatever) to help your reader see the text in such a way that they’re amenable to the evidence…but the evidence must be there and the argument must work on its own.

The Function Approach

Of course, the author might well be a feature of the text, after a fashion.

I highly recommend that you read Jorge Luis Borges’s short story/essay “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The narrator reviews the literary output of the recently-deceased Pierre Menard, most of whose work is unremarkable. Menard’s magnum opus is remarkable, however: Menard (re-)wrote several fragments of Don Quixote as though he had written them for the first time. The narrator goes on to explain how Menard’s Quixote is better than Cervantes’s, even though they use identical words in an identical order. The only difference between them is the author. And if the narrator is right, and Menard’s Quixote is better than, or at least distinct from, Cervantes’s, then this implies that the author, somehow, matters.

Now, an obvious explanation comes to mind. Menard was purportedly writing in a much different context than Cervantes, and in Menard’s time certain opinions present in Don Quixote are much more controversial or surprising than they would have been in the time period of the original. I remember my father speculated that the title of the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, bore some relation to the then-recent attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. I explained that the title was much older than that, but imagine if that title had only been chosen when the movie was produced. It would seem a lot different, wouldn’t it? We already discussed that the context of a text’s production matters because that is the context in which it means something, but it’s worth noting that the author is a way of indicating which context was the text’s.

There’s more, however, which I only want to indicate briefly. Foucault’s “What is an Author?” discusses the author function; put simply, the author function is the role the author plays in our analysis of the text. I admit to being unequal to the task of fully explaining the essay, since I’ve only just skimmed it today and it’s been a few years since last reading it, but the gist is this: the author of a text is not identical to the real person who wrote it, but is rather a sort of fictitious persona attached to the text (rather like a narrator, but more closely aligned to the writer). This author’s assorted characteristics are taken seriously by readers of the text. I advise that you go and read the essay; certainly I intend to, and I’ll come back once I have and explain it better, perhaps. But what I want to note is that certain ideas about the author might be a feature of the text itself. Note that I’m not sliding back into the intentional fallacy here, and for two reasons: 1) it is the perceived author or the received idea of the author, not the historical facts about the writer, that is a feature of the text, and 2) this author-function is only one feature of the text, and it might easily be outweighed by the other features of the text. For instance, consider Paradise Lost. Many people read Paradise Lost as a critique of Christianity, and it may be so, but if those same people go on to attribute that critique to Milton, they are mistaken. Milton, by all accounts (such as those of everything else he wrote), is about as devout a Christian as there possibly could be. Milton’s piety might be a feature of the text, but it doesn’t determine the meaning of Paradise Lost. Rather, it merely adds “despite Milton’s own intentions” to an explication of the text. As William Blake wrote, Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.”**

But this creates a sort of messiness which makes me feel uncomfortable. It tends to make texts replicate beyond limit, because each time you attach a different author function to a text, you get a different text. Paradise Lost, read in ignorance of Milton, is a different text than Paradise Lost read with this perceived Milton attached. Similarly, Don Quixote is a different text when we pretend Menard wrote it than when we acknowledge Cervantes wrote it. This messiness, however, might be inevitable. Again, I’ll return to this question after I finish re-reading “What is an Author?” But I want to note that the author might be a feature of the text, but this isn’t the same thing as saying that the author’s intent determines the meaning of that text.

The Political Approach

I was talking about Laura Mulvey’s film criticism with another Master’s student (now a PhD student) a few years ago; Mulvey made substantial arguments about the male gaze in film, and how it determines the representation of women in those films, which became a very common mode of feminist analysis of and in popular culture, but this colleague expressed skepticism because many of the filmmakers were gay men. Gay men can, of course, still have gazes, and it will be male, but it won’t operate the way Mulvey describes. What’s notable is that both Mulvey and this colleague are concerned with who is doing the gazing. The author matters.

Many conversations concerning identity politics focus on who is saying something or wearing something. I mentioned this briefly in my run-down of different schools of criticism. Concerns about cultural appropriation abound. And there are also concerns that not enough women, people of colour, etc. have opportunities to make culture. There is further discussion about how people of different demographics create different kinds of culture; women tend to represent female characters differently than men do. All of these concerns focus necessarily on the author.

Now, there’s maybe a confusion of terms and concepts here. Concerns about gaze and voice, as they impact the text, can be chalked up to the author function, perhaps, depending on how that shakes out. Meanwhile concerns about women creators or queer creators can be treated separately from concerns about the meaning of the text; indeed, if we’re noticing that women portray female characters different than men do, we need to examine those portrayals as independent objects without reference to their creators first in order to show that it’s the portrayal that’s different and not our perception of it. It’s possible that a lot of this concern is part of the second step of an argument, where the first step is an explication of the text itself and the second is an explanation about why that text’s meaning matters to the culture as a whole. Only the first step is literary analysis as I’ve described it, but the second step is part of what makes literary analysis useful.

But I think there’s a lot more to be said about how the author’s particular demographics and positioning matters to the text as a speech utterance. For instance, look at this paean to the YouTube song cover, which is not trying to make a point about literary analysis but nonetheless shows how the singer of a song influences the meaning of that song. Singers, of course, appear in songs much more visibly than authors appear in books, but songs are texts, too, and can be read as such (though they require familiarity with a different set of conventions and technical matters), and so if the singer influences the meaning of a text, so too must the author to some extent. Probably the Political Approach is equivalent to the Function Approach, but certainly not all people concerned with the politics of authorship would think so.

So that’s three different ways of thinking about how authors matter to their text’s meanings without determining those meanings. I’m quite aware that my thinking in this area is still weak and needs more work, but that will have to come sometime in the future. If you have any concerns or contributions, let me know.



*For more on the two versions of Hamlet, and how the second version is a watershed in not just Shakespeare’s own writing but English-language literature generally, take a look at Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Honestly, if you have even a little bit of interest in Shakespeare, or literature, or English history, give it a read: it’s one of those academic-topic-for-popular-audience books, and it’s good at being such a book.

**I don’t actually buy the Paradise-Lost-as-critique-of-Christianity argument, but even if it’s the case, that doesn’t say anything about Milton.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Adverbs in Sestinas

To the person who found my blog because they wanted to know whether you can put adverbs in sestinas: yes, you can, but I don't advise using adverbs in sestinas often. Adverbs only sometimes work well in poetry. Words that end in -ly are not very euphonious, and most of the time there'd be a more efficient way of conveying whatever you're trying to convey with the adverb. However, if it does sound fine and if it does convey something that's worth conveying, then there's no reason not to use it.

With a sestina in particular I can understand why you might want to give it a shot: an adverb could modify one of those repeating end-words, which could give you the difference-within-repetition that makes a good sestina tick. However, I feel like it would be more powerful if you managed to convey the change in the end-word using the whole line; that way, the sameness of the end-word remains, despite the change in meaning. Generally, the more the reader has to work for something, the greater its effect, but the more the reader has to work for something, the less likely the reader will get it. You need to strike that balance. Adverbs make things obvious.

But even more generally: find an editor! Try it out multiple ways and then run it by someone you trust with your work to see what they think of it. Revise revise revise; your first draft ain't sacred, so don't be afraid of bungling it.
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