Category: Notes toward a new genre

Danto on Philosophy and/as/of Literature

Arthur Danto’s contribution to the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Literature is not exactly worth the price of the book (it’s $200!), but it would certainly be worth the bus fare to the library. His quarry in “Philosophy and/as/of Literature” is the literary nature of philosophical writing and what that means for philosophical reading today, given the professionalization of philosophy and the dominance of a certain genre of philosophical writing. There’s a history to be told here, and Danto notes a significant shift:

For a period roughly coeval with that in which philosophy attained professionalization, the canonical literary format has been the professional philosophy paper. Our practice as philosophers consists in reading and writing such papers; in training our students to read and write them; in inviting others to come read us a paper, to which we respond by posing questions which in effect are editorial recommendations, typically incorporated and acknowledged in the first or last footnote of the paper, in which we are exempted from such errors and infelicities as may remain and thanked for our helpful suggestions (p. 54).

Yep, that about nails it. I think non-academics, or even scholars from other disciplines, are sometimes astounded to learn that a philosophy “speaker” is really just a reader: s/he stands up at the podium and reads a manuscript, head-down, and rattles through the material.

Danto goes on to analyze this in Kuhnian terms: this is “normal science” in philosophy. “Mastery of the literary form is the key to success in the form of life.” It comes with tangible benefits (tenure, recognition, invitations to go read more papers). “These practical benefits aside, no one could conceivably be interested in participating in the form of life defined by this literary form, were it not believed that this is the avenue to philosophical truth.” But then Danto can’t resist lodging a bit of skepticism about this paradigm: “It is less obviously a matter of agreement that philosophical truth is defined by this being believed to be the way to find it.”

What Danto observes is the significant gap between “normal science” in philosophical writing and the range of creative genres that constitute the history of philosophy. And he starts to wonder whether that means we might not be very good readers, precisely because of the way we’ve learned to write:

Much of what I have read on Plato reads much as though he, to whom the whole of subsequent philosophy is said to be so many footnotes, were in effect a footnote to himself and were being coached to get a paper accepted by the Philosophical Review. And a good bit of the writing on Descartes is by way of chivying his argumentation into notations we are certain he would have adopted had he lived to appreciate their advantages, since it is now so clear where he went wrong. But in both case it might at least have been asked whether what either writer was up to can that easily be separated from forms of presentation that may have seemed inevitable, so that the dialogue or meditation flattened into conventional periodical prose might not in the process have lost something central to those ways of writing (p. 55).

It is exactly this concern about the irreducibility of form and the worry about what’s lost in translation that is dominating my thinking about volume 2 of “Cultural Liturgies.” But it’s also generally why I continue to resist certain hegemonies in professional philosophy, and even within my own department. Sure, Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity does not have any formalized syllogisms or logical notation–but in that incredible book Levinas is performing something that cannot be teased out in “summaries of the argument.” Indeed, such summaries and translations and formalization do an injustice to the kind of philosophical truth embodied in such works. This is why Danto ultimately worries about how we read:

The form in which the truth as [Plato and Descartes] understood it must be grasped just might require a form of reading, hence a kind of relationship to those texts, altogether different from that appropriate to a paper, or to what we sometimes refer as a “contribution.” And this is because something is intended to happen to the reader other than and in addition to being informed (p. 55).

Permission to Write: Thanks to DFW

The book from my summer reading that probably most affected me was David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. While Lipsky’s voice is a bit irritating, and while the book feels like a sort of theft on Lipsky’s part, the transcript of a 5-day of conversation with Wallace is riveting. I read this after working through a number of stories in Oblivion (“Good Old Neon” is incredible), as well as his non-fiction (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster) and I’ve now noticed this:

Reading DFW gives me a sense of permission to write in a way that sounds like the voice in my head.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing, objectively speaking. It won’t make me any friends with James Wood & Co. But I have found this to be liberating, energizing, and just generally encouraging. I feel like Wallace has loosened my tongue in a way, and I’m grateful.

Memoir, Testimony, and Writing Theology

As I noted earlier, I’m in a period of thinking through issues of genre and style in theological and philosophical writing, and thus I’m labeling my blog reflections on these matters “Notes toward a new genre.” My first post generated more email responses than usual, so I’m encouraged that others are also thinking through these issues. It makes me hopeful that we can expect a next generation of theological writing to be more experimental in this respect.

While it’s been writing How Worship Works (volume 2 of Cultural Liturgies) that has been the most recent catalyst for this, I might suggest that, on these matters, Thinking in Tongues is sort of a halfway point between Desiring the Kingdom and How Worship Works. In Thinking in Tongues, this arises when I try to take seriously the role of testimony in pentecostal worship and spirituality. It has been suggested that testimony is “the poetry of Pentecostal experience,” and I wanted to try to have a philosophical and theological methodology that honored the importance and distinctiveness of testimony in pentecostal/charismatic spirituality. So in the “Introduction” to Thinking in Tongues (which you can read in an excerpt at the Eerdmans site), I argue that we need a genre along the lines of memoir in order to do justice to the irreducibility of testimony:

Thus one might suggest that memoir is the consummate pentecostal theological genre. Or at the very least, something like testimony is integral to even pentecostal theorizing, even if this is not properly “academic.” In fact, this is just one performative way that pentecostal theoretical practice evinces an aspect implicit in pentecostal spirituality: against the Enlightenment ideal of the impersonal, impartial, abstract “knower,” pentecostalism affirms an affective, involved, confessing knower who “knows that she knows that she knows” because of her story, because of a narrative, she can tell about a relationship with God (p. xxiii).

As some attempt to actually undertake this, the book includes both personal testimonies as well as “novel-ish” accounts of Pentecostal worship and spirituality. Here’s a little sample from the opening of chapter 3 (“Storied Experience: A Pentecostal Epistemology”):

As she made her way to the altar, Denise carried herself in a way that indicated she already knew her story was “irrational.” Her steps were halting and timid, her eyes cast downward in a shaded look of mild embarrassment— as if the criteria for rational discourse were perched on her shoulder like little devils, mocking her and trying to dissuade her from testifying to such nonsense. Indeed, it wasn’t just the ethereal taunts of demonic dissuaders she was contending with; she could easily recall the flesh-and-blood skepticism of her father and sister as she had relayed the story to them earlier that week. Through a million little channels Denise had absorbed enough of the wider culture’s plausibility structures to “know” that this was crazy. And yet here she was, making her way forward in response to the pastor’s invitation for the congregation to share their “God sightings” for the past week — their stories and testimonies about where they saw the Spirit living and active in their day-to-day lives. Granted, this Sunday evening ritual could easily devolve into a parade of tales about divinely secured parking spaces or supernatural deliverance from failing to do one’s homework. But the “testimony service” was woven into the very warp and woof of discipleship at Cornerstone Vineyard Fellowship — these stories of faith were as important as any Sunday morning sermon.

Grasping the microphone handed to her by the pastor, Denise has to catch her breath and clear her throat.While a week ago she couldn’t imagine standing in front of 300 people and speaking in public, tonight she can’t imagine not doing it.

“Um, hi. I’m Denise,” she says just a little bit too loudly, the mic squealing mildly in response. Jolted, she holds the microphone away from her face and pauses again before continuing — the pastor nodding and smiling in encouragement, a hand on her shoulder.

“Uh, I’ve never done this before. But when Pastor invited us to share our ‘God sightings,’ the Spirit wouldn’t let me sit on my hands any longer. I just have to tell you — I have to tell someone, everyone.” Her words are met with various echoes of “Yes, Lord!” and “Amen!”

“As some of you know, Gary and I have been married for almost eight years. And maybe you noticed that we don’t have any children.” There is a crackle in her voice but she continues: “I’ve shared with some of the ladies at Bible study how much trouble we’ve had getting pregnant. It’s been so hard, and so long.” The cacophony of prayers and shouts settles down to a rapt silence as Denise continues her story.

“And I’ve gotta be honest with you: I’ve been pretty mad at God. There are all these women in the Bible who couldn’t have babies. But it seems like their stories always ended with a miracle. ‘Where’s my miracle?’ I kept asking God.” Her voice has fallen off, her face has dropped, and her shoulders are beginning to tremble. The pastor inches closer and wraps her arm around Denise in comfort and encouragement. The congregation’s attention is suspended in a bit of a netherworld, not sure where this story is going. Only rarely have “God sightings” been honest laments. But Denise takes a deep breath, wipes the mascara from her cheeks, and resumes her
story. Gary has joined her at her side.

“A few weeks ago at Bible study I had . . . well . . . a complete meltdown!” she announces in a tearful laugh. Others join in her mirth and some of the older ladies smile at one another knowingly. “I was just so frustrated and hopeless — and angry, to be honest. I was just so sad and so tired. But then sister Rose stopped everything and said, ‘We’ve gotta pray.’ And so all the ladies gathered round me, and laid their hands on me, and they prayed and prayed and prayed. It was as if they were lifting me on a blanket in their prayers and I fell back into them in the strangest feeling I’ve ever had. I heard sisters praying the names of Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth and I so wanted their story to be my story. But I was too tired to believe it anymore — but I was also kinda too tired to not believe it. So I just let myself fall back into their prayers. I think I might have even fallen asleep!” Denise testifies with a sheepish grin. Gary smiles with her, his eyes fixed on the carpet, his hand trembling around her waist.

“When I woke up, I didn’t feel any different. A little embarrassed maybe. In fact, that’s why I didn’t come to church last Sunday. I was too embarrassed to see all those ladies again.” The ladies’ respond with puckered chins and frowns meant to be encouraging. “Anyway, I pretty much forgot about the whole thing. Or at least I tried to forget about the whole thing. It’s just so tiring to keep thinking about it.”

“But . . . ,” Denise begins, but her breath seems taken away. She resumes her story in a rapid, breathy falsetto, trying her best to get the words out: “Something was sorta wrong this past week—in a way that could be good, or really, really bad. Gary encouraged me to go to the doctor, so I had an appointment on Friday.” She’s now doubled over, shaking her head in disbelief, but then explodes up like a Jack-in-a-box and loudly proclaims, “I’m pregnant!” The words roll out of her in an ecstasy that tilts between joy and sorrow; she is overwhelmed and exhausted by the tale. Pastor and Gary have now enfolded her in an embrace, supporting her as the congregation erupts in shouts of praise and thanksgiving. But Denise has more to say.

“Some people didn’t believe me. When the doctor told me, I just had to tell him about the prayer meeting. He talked to me about hormone levels and stress. Even when I told my father and sister, they looked at me like I was a freak — like I didn’t know what I was talking about. But like
Brother Jack always says: ‘I know that I know that I know!’ I know that I know that I know that God was working my belly! And I don’t care what others think,” she adds, now falling back into the King James English of her upbringing. “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able!”

The Physiognomy of Poetry

In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the bodily nature of our language, ultimately claiming, “Words have a physiognomy.” I was reminded of this when I read Ian McGilchrist’s recent reflection, “Four Walls,” in the July/August 2010 issue of Poetry:

Poetry engraves itself in the brain: it doesn’t just slip smoothly over the cortex as language normally does. It has all the graininess of life, as it rips into being from deep within the limbic system, the ancient seat of awareness and affective meaning.

On Writing Ethics (and Theology)

As I’m working on volume 2 of “Cultural Liturgies,” I am spending a lot of time and energy on considerations of genre and style, particularly given the argument in Desiring the Kingdom: that we are affective, liturgical animals who are moved and shaped more fundamentally by the imagination than the intellect. (Proust’s Contre Saint-Beuve is helping me out with this.) Indeed, as I’ve noted before, I am more and more inclined to think it is a travesty that so much theology is so horribly written. Thus I’m trying to craft How Worship Works as a genre pitched somewhere between a treatise and a novel, though I can’t quite imagine (yet) what that might be.

So I was interested in Mark D. Jordan’s recent essay, “Missing Scenes,” in the latest issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Arguing that “forgotten forms of teaching need to be restored to the writing of Christian ethics,” Jordan rightly notes:

Whatever the causes, the loss of represented scenes of instruction in Christian ethics is the loss of significant power to describe or shape our lives. Since the Reformation especially, academic writers of Christian ethics seem to peel off one after another of their most powerful genres. We’ll give this set of forms to the novel. We’ll delegate the slow discipline of formation to spiritual writing, to religious education, to homiletics, to sacramental theology. This knowledge will go to a new science called psychology, and that set of practices to psychotherapy or counseling. And in case anyone should still be tempted to write ethics beautifully, we’ll create a condescending category for the “merely literary” essay as catch-all. What forms are left then to ethics proper? Some syllogistic skeletons, a few maxims or intuitions, the drone of the monologue, and a little flotilla of lifeboat cases. This does indeed assure boredom–and uselessness.