Miroslav Volf, instructor by proxy
Or, rather, "by default." Or, perhaps better, "on accident and totally in spite of himself."
Friday, 2004-11-05 | Careerism, Classic Gin, On Writing Well, Philosophy
Would you have me believe that the Source of all that exists and the merciful Guide for all who walk the path of life just sits in a far corner of heaven twiddling the almighty thumbs? Either God exists and is then at the center of everything and affects it all, or God doesn’t exist. It is foolish to believe in a God who does nothing. An idle God is a false god.
A rather apt analogy has just come to me.
Think first of all scholarly discourse, all expository and thus exploratory writing as a sort of journey. One begins in one place (the blank page) and ends up in another place (the filled page). Later, he might reflect on parts of his journey and, in doing so, alter his memory of them by relating them or articulating them to the whole (edit his writing).
We can identify and name journeys by recognizing something or things about those who are on them; the pilgrim might be clothed in ritual weeds, the soldier will be bearing his weapons and armor and we identify the sojourner (i.e. refugee) by the fact that he travels in groups and carries all of his possessions with him.
Furthermore, once we have identified what sort of journey a given traveler is on, we understand what sorts of origin and destination he has, in a broad sense. One might be on a pilgrimage, the warpath
or an exodus--in each case, he is on a journey that presupposes a specific point of origin and expects to end at a given destination. When we meet a pilgrimage on a pilgrimage, we understand that he has obligations to the gods of his house or his nation to travel. When we see a soldier on the warpath, we understand that he left from the barracks and his destination is the battlefield. When we commiserate with a wanderer on an exodus, we understand that he is part of a large group and that his group is fleeing a place and seeking a place unlike it.
In these ways we can tell much about the origin and destination of a given journey from the name we give it or that the traveler gives it. That having been said, let us continue the analogy.
Certain types of writing, and we usually name them for their 'genre,' are wholly analogous to types of journeys. We can tell, once we have identified the traveler by what he outwardly expresses, where
he began and where he expects to end up (or would like to end up).
Consider the smallest unit of writing in which a genre can be defined, the axiom: the writer sets about asserting and denying certain claims in a few sentences. We can tell from what he asserts and what he denies where he began (with the desire to assert X) and where he intends to end (with the desire to deny Z). Next, think of something slightly larger: the anecdote or memoir. The anecdote, as it means to describe an event or events in order that others might appreciate a given interpretation of the significance of the event or events (i.e. the author's interpretation), is a journey with a beginning and ending. The author sets about the task of conveying a tale and, gods willing, he will have conveyed it by the end of his story.
We can extrapolate, safely, how increasingly larger bits of writing are journeys. The travelers on these various journeys demonstrate outward characteristics and and these characteristics tell us much about them and the task that have set themselves to. Novels, essays, librettos, etc.
The postmodern analysis/critique is one such journey. We can identify it by the writer's pressing need to 'reclaim' verbs and nouns--to redefine them in order that they might be appropriately (i.e. appropriate for the argument) understood--and a insistent/manic positing of an Other that is radically resistant to our characterizations because our cognitive processes and, indeed, our very language is wholly foreign to that which it would describe. We can also account for the destination of such a journey. By the end we expect that a person who bears such things with him on his journey plans to end up in an uncertain place, a place of uncertainty where the familiar has become unfamiliar and the unfamiliar has become unknowable.
What's most telling about postmodernity, however, is what we can discern about where the journey begins. It begins in the familiar, with the modes and mores of a criticism that sought to draw our attention to generic concerns and structural parallels (formal structures, semantic structures, etc.). The sort of criticism we're describing then, by leaving the familiar and demanding that nothing should ever be familiar again, gives itself away for what it is: a temper-tantrum.
Imagine the fulminations of an eight year old who hasn't gotten what he wants. He says, 'you're not my family! I don't have to listen to you! I'm running away and I'm never coming back!' We know, of course, that he'll be back before nightfall, before the cards are really on the table and he has to decide if he's really going to forsake what is comfortable and familiar for a life of sleeping in ditches and eating from garbage cans.
Just an image to keep in mind the next time you have to slog through some stultifying postcolonial text about the deleterious totalizing influence of pronouns or a similarly numbing feminist screed about the social structures engendered by phallogocentrism; the nefarious influence behind all symbols of masculinist oppression and such staples of the phallocracy/androcracy as the rectangular structure that stands perpendicular to the ground, the undeniable connection between the shape and the grammatical function of the majuscule 'i' and the emphatic, single-climax of the Aristotelian superstructure.
The affected and ultimately totally untenable rejection of one's own upbringing--the emotional outburst that signifies the angsty teenager in film and clinical literature--is what postmodern criticism is. The next time they ask you to define it, lay that one on 'em and watch their guilty consciences speak for themselves.