Beautiful Theology: 12/17/06 - 12/24/06 .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Words and Images 2

The second image in Magritte’s graphical essay is:

Il y a des objets qui se passent de nom:

There are objects that do without a name. (or “noun,” perhaps)

That doesn’t mean one couldn’t name them, of course, or that one can’t apply a name/noun of some sort to them (“thing” covers most such entities). But the “name” doesn’t (once again) have an intrinsic relation to the entity.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

“Words and Images” 1

In 1929, in the last number of La Révolution Surréaliste, René Magritte published a short series of images with captions, under the title “Les Mots et Les Images” (“Words and Images”). This relatively little-known essay explores the relation of line, picture, letter, word, and meaning. It’s a useful starting-point for the topics I want to consider in this seminar, partly because it’s an early effort; partly because it’s a specifically graphical effort; and partly because Magritte concerns himself with just the sort of issues I care about. I’ll post the frames here one by one, with informal comments. (The translations of the captions are my own; Suzi Gablik has published a translation which I’ve read (probably in her Magritte), and the French is pretty simple, so our translations may converge — but I haven’t seen hers in a long time, and have not consulted it in preparing the version I offer here.)

Here’s the first image:

Un objet ne tient pas tellement à son nom qu’on ne puisse lui en trouver un autre qui lui convienne mieux

An object does not adhere to its name such that one could not find for it another which suits it better (I don’t have the French right at hand — I’ll add the original text as soon as I get it.)

This restates the basic structuralist premise about the relation of words to their referents; there’s nothing about a leaf that makes “leaf” a more appropriate word for it than, in this case, “canon” or “cannon.” Words don’t have an ontological relation to their referents.

I’d add — though it’s not an immediate inference from this image — that the relation between words and their referents depends solely on the practical communicative effect of calling a leaf (or whatever) one thing rather than another. If I developed the affectation of calling leaves “cannons,” people who spend a lot of time with me would get used to that and allow for it, while people less well-acquainted with me might be perplexed. The habituation and perplexity don’t derive from the essential characteristics of plant structures specialized for photosynthesis, nor from the letters or phonemes for “leaf” or “cannon.” The meaning of “leaf” or “feuille” is a function of people’s expectations of one another. When those expectations approach a very high degree of predictability, we can freeze them into definitions — but even then, people continue using the words in ways that escape our definitions, and we must either reassess our definitions or try to persuade people not to use words that way.

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

The story so far

I came to this reading list, and the arguments that these works catalyzed for me, from a variety of angles. First, I grew up at the peak of the first wave of pop culture/mass culture, the sixties (and the part of the seventies that the sixties slopped over into; much of the sixties, after all, didn't happen till the seventies). I watched Saturday morning cartoons and movies; I read comic books; I listened to AM and then FM radio. At the sam time (second), I grew up in the household of two English teachers, reading from the family bookshelf. I read Burgess and Pynchon, but as I frequently tell my students, I grew up in the nineteenth century: Dickens, Trollope, Wilde, Austen, and their contemporaries defined for me the admirable life. Third, though I am a sadly untalented draftsman (despite attending school at a time when we took woodshop and mechanical drawing as part of the normal curriculum), I have a certain sense for design and pattern. I had an early interest in the works of M.C. Escher and René Magritte. I’ve worked with computers and graphics for ages. I hacked the college computer system repeatedly in the seventies (not a real trick, mind you, since the main principle of security was "I didn't think any one would do that"), and I worked in computer graphics for a start-up from 1980 to ’83. Fourth, I majored in philosophy in college, with a heap of English courses that didn’t quite amount to a minor.

When I started seminary and began studying the Bible with a particular view toward interpretations that met fundamental criteria for soundness and met my own standards for interesting, compelling exposition, I encountered an impasse for which I had not been prepared. On one hand, my Bible teachers knew their stuff inside out, and had well-established, intelligible criteria for legitimate interpretation (and seemed to worry about interpretive legitimacy a lot — not my profs themselves, necessarily, but the guild they represented). On the other hand, almost all the interpretations they proposed were interesting in only an academical way; I couldn’t see the hand of a Dickens, or Sterne, or for that matter a Monet, or a Warhol or a Magritte.

I knew that there must be a way of talking about meaning, of understanding interpretation, that accommodated both the intellectual rigor of my professors and the expressive power of Donne, or Billie Holiday, or Goya. I spent my further years as a student trying to puzzle out some of the clues toward that more satisfactory account of meaning, and traveled to the far-off lands of French poststructuralist thought as a path toward seeing my home terrain from a very different perspective. That helped, and I did indeed obtain some clues in Vincennes, but the pieces only began coming together in a big way after I graduated and could read and think without supervision.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Beautiful Theology

OK, here’s what I have in mind.

At the outset, I will post an entry with some of my ideas, with an image or reference to one of the texts that provides background for the seminar, and anyone who wants can pursue a conversation about it in the comments. Since some people have expressed active interest in the topic, I’d entirely open to posting contributions from other people, though for a variety of administrative reasons I’d prefer to manage that by your emailing contributions which I then post (with attribution, of course). The short summary of “variety of reasons” can fairly be summarized as “my greater interest in controlling certain aspects of the seminar than in just seeing what happens if we throw the doors open.” The latter is a worthy project, but it’s not the one I’m most interested in at the moment.

No one is required to read the texts we’re discussing, although the whole endeavor will benefit from familiarity with those texts. I’ll strongly recommend that newcomers to the project begin reading from the beginning, since the seminar will probably develop along the lines of an extended conversation. That doesn’t mean that no one may ever join in midstream, but the discussion may be more intelligible if one has a perspective on the whole.

I’ll add to our reading list, or take it in unforeseen digressions directions in response to the flow of our interaction, but for starters I expect to move from Magritte to McCloud and Tufte, with perhaps some side trips into Kristeva, Irigaray, and Wittgenstein, and then meandering around Questions of Evidence and any other provocations I (we) elect. Although this subject involves ideas I’ve been writing about for nigh onto fifteen years now, it would be a conflict of interests for me to presuppose participants’ acquaintance with my books and articles; I won’t require them, and I’ll try not to treat their arguments as axiomatically true.

No homework, no credit, only the value we put on having stretched toward a lively, enlivening discussion. Which, if I’m right, should be a much more compelling goal than any other.