Archive for the ‘texts’ Category
Dallas Albert Willard (September 4, 1935 – May 8, 2013)
He was an improbable thinker: crazy about Jesus the Christ and a well-regarded professor of philosophy at USC. An expert in Edmund Husserl (father of phenomenology) and yet a very clear writer (despite phenomenology, which is notoriously difficult reading). Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy was a key text for me in learning about spiritual formation. His writing continues to bubble through my brain pan.
Dr. Willard combined the many unlikely things I love best. I never knew him personally, but I miss him already. John Ortberg’s tribute was perfect.
Warning: NSFL Image (Not Safe for Librarians)
Sometimes Ramsey County goes far afield to procure my desired book through their interlibrary loan system. Not so long ago a book about Levinas written by Sean Hand made its way to me all the way from Janesville, Wisconsin. I had not thought of that working community as a hot spot for continental philosophy, but life is full of surprises.
This copy of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity came from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. And somebody there did his thinking on paper. I say “his” because this scrawling looks like it was made with a masculine hand. I would like to buy this thinker a cup of coffee—his processing of the text is spectacular. He outlined sections of Levinas’ thought, he responded with gusto (exclamation points and double/triple underlines) to the sometimes obscure Levinasian sentences. His notations in the margins show him connecting Levinas to Hegel, Nietzsche, Sartre and Descartes. He is surprised when he finds “another way!” He offers a sad face upon realizing “the state is a totality.”
In fact the first 1/3 of the book is full of his incidental reactions and understandings, all scrawled in remarkably clear pencil in the margins. By half way through the book his interest seems to wane. The latter half of the book is free from all pencil inscriptions. Did he fall asleep in the library and miss his deadline? Did he finish his paper based “the same and the other” without ever getting to “exteriority and the face?”
I suspect so.
Even so, I’d like to have a chat with this illegal scribbler. This person has a lively mind, reaching out to make mental connections even as he reached out with graphite to record those firing synapses. Maybe this guy was even considering the poor dolt (this next other) who would pick up the text next—showing a kind of mercy on him.
I think the Ramsey County Librarian would also like to meet this scribbler. She wrote (for the tiny but loopy handwriting on the transfer label looks like a feminine hand to me) —wryly, to my mind: “pencil marks noted.”
Here’s your close reading.
These days nearly all these posts grow out of a much larger manuscript I’m working on. It’s as I were on a teeter-totter: falling with the gravitas of this larger work but then buoyed by the thought of breaking my indulgent thoughts and sentences into smaller pieces and stripping away language. Or this: pushing forward with the larger more difficult manuscript opens windows and doors in passing that frame tantalizing ideas that turn into posts.
Someone I recently read mentioned the notion of a palimpsest: an old manuscript that was erased and rewritten, because the parchment itself was valuable and endured. Modern techniques have allowed for the reading of the words that were erased.
Maybe the palimpsest is not that different with how we are with each other: our rewritten and redacted conversations help catalyze thoughts, actions and intentions with each other. Completely tangential words have the capacity to present a new and quite fruitful direction. Or waste lots of time.
Diversions present. I give chase. It’s neither a tidy nor effectual way of writing. And yet, the result is a fortuitous amount of blasting that clears away the surface…crap…and bores down toward the issue. Sometimes.
You have more choices than you think
Just like every day.
Just like most people.
Except for the odd nudist colony, most people clothe themselves without becoming embroiled in internal debate. Appearing clothed is one of those basic understandings we share. Being clothed is not the question. What that clothing looks like is, of course, the question that drives multi-billion dollar industries.
I’ve been thinking about the boundaries that circle our lives. Or maybe I’ll call them norms. There are expectations out there we follow without thinking. And that’s a good thing, because we might become paralyzed by all the choices before us if we did not have these norms our culture expects of us. And we also have these well-worn ways of acting that help us avoid constantly choosing. We always shower before breakfast. We always drive this route to work. We always park on this side of the lot. We always say “Yo, James” to the receptionist. These are the things we do.
But nothing says we must do it that way.
Nearly every corporate job I’ve had has involved colleagues complaining bitterly about the boss or the manager or director or the CEO. Mondays seemed to foster these discussions. Maybe we cited “golden handcuffs” or likened ourselves to wage slaves in those discussions. But in truth, we’ve been surrounded all along by truckloads, trainloads, barges full of options. An unprecedented wealth of options. But we didn’t see them because we followed the script of our workplace or culture. We didn’t see our choices because the script didn’t let on that there were choices.
I’ve been reading Wendell Berry and Jonathan Sacks—both of whom saw choices that were outside the script: pursuing contentment rather than fame or honoring the stranger. That poet-warrior-king wrote his own set of scripts that were bathed in gratefulness rather than ambition. That inveterate letter writer Paul went off script by weighing the choice of death and life for himself. Of course, Jesus the Christ guy lived the king of all scripts—something we’re still sorting out 2000 years later.
What script are you following today?
What choices are hidden from you because of that script?
What We Say Matters
In his fascinating After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975), George Steiner speculated on the origins of languages. At first it seems like a no-brainer: given all the people and geographies and histories and wars and all that has happened over time, sure, we have a whole lot of languages. But Steiner goes all systematic through the known number of languages over the course of history and asks the rather obvious question: Why? Given that human bodies all work roughly the same way, and that we ingest roughly the same foods the world over, and the we all need air and water and sunshine and coffee (ahem)…why is it again we don’t all speak the same language? It’s a great question and his book is a readable and erudite discussion on the topic. I’m only a few chapters in, but two things stand out:
- Steiner believes all of communication is translation. Whether inside a language or between languages, we are constantly translating and decoding words and meaning. I think he is right about that: there is no end to trying to understand each other. Even couples married for decades need to translate the words spoken by the spouse to understand what it is they really meant. And then to sort out what they should do about it.
- Steiner speculated on a “proto-language,” a sort of first language from which all other languages descended. Steiner called it Ur-Sprache (p.58) and likened it to the language of Eden. A supremely powerful language that when spoken, made stuff happen. One need only think of a couple old Bible stories to get the sense of the promise of this old language: God speaking stuff into existence and Adam naming all the animals (with no committees second-guessing his naming choices).
But…alas…this language is no more.
Or is it?
Maybe we still see hints of Ur-Sprache every day, when we say things and our saying seems to make it so. Saying a thought aloud has a kind of generative effect. Not always. And with more or less effect. But still—stuff happens when we talk.
Maybe this is why people in the U.S. hold so tightly to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. And why people all over the world agree that freedom of speech is a human right (except for despots, when speech calls attention to their efforts to rape and pillage their people). And maybe that’s why we feel almost personally violated by the Taliban in Pakistan singling out and shooting a teenager (Malala Yousafzai) for speaking her mind. It is beyond repulsive. Beyond degenerate.
Read the White Space. Hear the Silence.
MedCity News reports on an Endo Pharmaceuticals brochure under scrutiny by the FDA. The problem was a lack of transparency about the dark side of the therapy—a therapy designed to slow the growth of prostate cancer cells, namely:
- paralysis that may result from the risk of spinal cord compression
- the increased risk of diabetes/heart attack/sudden cardiac death/stroke
In a lively debate in comments section of the Pharmalot blog, the consensus seems to be that the FDA made a good call. Commenters began by speculating this was likely more than just a slight oversight as the Endo communicator skipped regulatory/legal review in a rush to meet a deadline. Then commenters started tracing the language to the Vantas Implant website and began speculating on the rest of their messaging and promotional literature.
The debate amuses me because it is the rare product brochure that is read outside of a sales presentation. And it is even rarer for a brochure to withstand extended exegesis. That the FDA does this regularly earns my respect/awe/fear. Love them or hate them, the FDA’s dogged attention helps medical copywriters and marketers hew to the high road.
The debate also serves as a reminder of the skills needed for watching tonight’s presidential debate. It’s the white space and silence that may be most eloquent. The skill of reading the white space and hearing the silence means the audience must be equipped with the fuller argument. The FDA certainly was. But to read Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker essay (“The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” Sept. 24, 2012) is to come away with all the history and reasons as to why the American populace remains a happily uninformed audience. Whitaker and Baxter of Campaigns, Inc. helped set the stage for the current state of our spectatorship:
In tonight’s debate, I’m trying to break free of my usual indolence to hear between the lines (as it were).
Image credit: The New Yorker
Word by word, pay attention to the text
Not so long ago I wrote about the Modern Poetry class I’m attending with ~30,000 new friends. We’re watching Professor Al Filreis and a team of dedicated UPenn student TAs react to and discuss Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and others. The class involves a fair amount of dissecting meanings and is lots of fun. And now we are grading each other’s close readings of a Dickinson text. The Coursera machinery for dealing with a massive online open course is startlingly easy to use and even (sort of) personal. Kudos to Professor Al Filreis and team!
For me this was to be a year off from grading college essays, but these essays are different. People from all over the globe are struggling to sort out what the assigned Dickinson poem means. Some—like me—have never worked this closely with poems. Many of us read our own meanings into the text—often this is linked with a lack of close attention to the words. Even word by word: the close reading demands the individual words add up to something. To gloss over the words is the thing that allows me to pack in my own meanings. I’ve noticed this tendency for years reading ancient texts with small groups: the farther we get from the words on the page, the easier it is to attach our pet peeves to the author’s supposed/assumed point. But the words themselves lead into or out of meaning and belief.
Naturally, there is lots to say as you go word by dash by word. But one thing—from the perspective of conversation—Corman focused on how we know something about ourselves as we stand together in conversation.
Probably someone will speak to the group—that’s typically what happens. And there will be singing. Prayers will be offered. You’ll shake a few hands. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Maybe you heart will be lightened. Your load lifted.
If heart-lightening or load-lifting happens, stop and think why. Was it because of magic words spoken from the pulpit? Not likely, as there are no magic words. But there are words that find a home in a person’s conscious thought and get absorbed there to do some work. One of the tests the old church fathers used to determine if a letter or text should be included in the Canon (our Bible today) was whether it had the power to change people—did the text speak with authority into a people’s lives? Did something happen because of hearing the text? When those old words get uttered from the pulpit today—they are not magic—but their truthiness has sticking power.
Just as likely: you meet someone who says something that affects you. Makes you think. Makes you reconsider an impending decision. And perhaps that same heart-lightening or load-lifting occurs. Sometimes we meet people who speak truth and it has the same effect.
And consider this: perhaps you go into that time expecting to hear something. What I mean is, sometimes we move into a situation actually expecting to hear something that could have the power to change how we think or act. You might call this listening. Or attentive listening. Or attenuated listening. Or listening on steroids. But whatever you call it, this is the most productive
penultimate approach: listening with expectation. Then you pick up the tasty truthiness from any source.
On Tuesday I start teaching Freelance Copywriting (Eng3316) at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. These are junior and seniors largely from the English department, but also from Journalism, Communications and Business. They are generally excellent writers and engaged students—people eager to take their faith into the street. We’ll use a few thought-provoking texts that deal with the business side of copywriting, along with the what to expect as a copywriter and how to get better at producing salable ideas (Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer, Iezzi’s The Idea Writers, Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas). But I’ve become convinced the real-time critiques of working copywriters around the web are just as helpful if not more useful than our texts. It’s just that the language and images used in the critiques often veer outside the lines of nice and polite, though I would argue the critiques follow the line of conversation Jesus the Christ encouraged with regular people like me.
I’ve devised a warning:
Question: Is this overkill? My goal is to help prepare thoughtful writers who fold God’s message of reunion into their communication work and live it out in a world that operates on a very different basis. I think students will understand. I’m not sure the administration will.
What do you think?
Image Credit: Chris Buzelli via 2headedsnake