Quotable: Umberto Eco

“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ‘I love you madly,’ because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.’ At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”

Umberto Eco, Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”

Les Miserables and Irony

Anne Hathaway as FantineThe following is a few snippets from a great article by one of my favorites, Stanley Fish, on why the film Les Miserables is “good” and why critics say it’s “bad.” (read in the quotes my disdain for being forced to categorically call a movie good or bad, and my further disdain for the equivocation of statements of personal taste and value judgments like “good” or “bad”)

“I may have missed it, but I don’t recall USA Today devoting a full one and three-quarters pages to a movie, never mind a movie that’s been out for some time now. But there in the Life section of the Weekend edition was a lengthy discussion of “Les Misérables,” or, more precisely, a discussion of the furiously negative responses the musical epic has evoked from a gaggle of critics who simultaneously trash the film and express an incredulity verging on outrage at fellow moviegoers who don’t share their view.

. . .

The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.

“Les Misérables” defeats irony by not allowing the distance it requires. If you’re looking right down the throats ofthe characters, there is no space between them and you; their perspective is your perspective; their emotions are your emotions; you can’t frame what you are literally inside of. Moreover, the effect — and it is an effect even if its intention is to trade effect for immediacy — is enhanced by the fact that the faces you are pushed up against fill the screen; there is no dimension to the side of them or behind them; it is all very big and very flat, without depth. The camera almost never pulls back, and when it does so, it is only for an instant.

. . .

Endless high passion and basic human emotions indulged in without respite are what “Les Misérables” offers in its refusal to afford the distance that enables irony. Those who call the movie flat, shallow, sentimental and emotionally manipulative are not wrong; they just fail to see that what appear to them to be bad cinematic choices (in addition to prosaic lyrics that repel aesthetic appreciation, and multiple reprises of simple musical themes) are designed to achieve exactly the result they lament — an almost unbearable proximity to raw, un-ironized experience. They just can’t go with it. And why should they? After all, the critic, and especially the critic who perches in high journalistic places, needs to have a space in which he can insert himself and do the explicatory work he offers to a world presumed to be in need of it. “Les Misérables,” taken on its own terms, leaves critics with nothing to do except join the rhythms of rapt silence, crying and applause, and it is understandable that they want nothing to do with it.”

Read the entire post here.

“Beyond Post-Modernism via Polanyi’s Post-Critical Philosophy” by Dale Cannon

If you are looking for something that explains why I am interested in Michael Polanyi, this is what I’d give to you: “Beyond Post-Modernism via Polanyi’s Post-Critical Philosophy” by Dale Cannon. Dale Cannon does a good job emphasizing how Polanyi’s “Post-Critical Philosophy” can provide a viable alternative to either modernism or post=modernism. It is worth your time to read the whole article, especially to take a look at the common characteristics of the “Post-Critical ethos.” But for a summary see the chart below:

Situatedness(Context) of Claims
Truth & Tradition
Pre-Modern (Pre-Critical) intellectual ethos Parochially situated but making unqualified, naïvely universal claims. Truth (territory) is undifferentiated from a tradition’s own representations (its maps).
Modern (Critical) intellectual ethos Makes universal claims allegedly situation-less(“the view from nowhere”); foundationalist (presumes there are absolute criteria for establishing knowledge claims). Attainment of Truth requires a divorce from tradition-based/bred thinking (escaping any and all situated points ofview); Truth is what ends up on the one objective map, same for all.
Post-Modern (Hyper-Critical) intellectual ethos (note continuity with the Modern intellectual ethos, via its inordinate emphasis on medthodological doubt) Avoids universal claims.Because we are radically situated, attaining universality is inconceivable; anti-foundationalist.A radically diverse plurality of perspectives. Only traditional representations (situated points of view) exist; there is no meaningfulsense of transcendent Truth (no territory beyond our maps); the scientific map is just one among others.
Post-Critical intellectual ethos(also construable as “Constructive Post-Modern”) Situated, fallible but makes claims of universal intent; seeks ahorizontal universality /transcendence vs. moderism’s presumed vertical universality /transcendence. Truth regarded as uncertainly glimpsed from within traditions(situated points of view);efforts to attain it are rooted but not confined.
Methodological Faith (fides) & Doubt Knowable World/ Reality Objectivity (how achieved)
Unquestioned, uncritical faith (not yet having confronted its finitude and fallibility); methodological doubt toward other ‘faiths’. The world seen from one perspective only; no consideration of how things appear from other perspectives. Objectivity identified with faithfulness with adherence to cultural authority and its representations.
Aims to purge by methodological doubtallfallible (error prone), fiduciary elements(anything subjective, anything faith-based);(except surrepticiously it keeps faith in methodological doubt and liberal ideals). One objective world, universally structured (invariant for all); inprinciple wholly specifiable within a single formal framework(a single perspective of apparent perspectivelessness). Objectivity attained via a uniformalization—that presumes to transcend all particular perspectives, invariant for all (i.e., adherence to the one map). (Note the unacknowledged place of authority and tradition here.)
Because methodological doubt is dominant, fiduciary, fallible factors are recognized impossible to eliminate or to be transcended, making objectivity and Truth impossible; modern liberal ideals now in question (yet still a methodological faith in the hermeneutic of suspicion). Each in his/her own separate world (constituted by each different perspective); no confidence of inter-accessibility. The modern uniformalized,”objective” perspective is now seen as only one among others and problematic (not what it pretends to be). Objectivity deemed impossible (except as appearance, as pretense).Ironically, objectivity of a sort is achieved in repudiating attachment to any one view. (Note the tacit role of authority and tradition here.)
Fiduciary factors seen as a positive though fallible means toward objectivity and Truth; methodological faith and doubt kept in balance, with a chastened faith taking the lead. One world transcendent to any one perspective,but in principle accessible simultaneously from multiple but partial perspectives, which we seek (one by one) to integrate. Note necessary role of empathy. Objectivity to be attained via the on going intersection of different relevant perspectives; traditional authorities play a subordinate role in affording access to their unique angle onto the world.

D.A. Carson on Postmoderns

“Although the comparison of elephant and ants is helpful at one level, it overlooks the fact that in this case the ants have been made in the image of the elephant, and this elephant has not only communicated with the ants in the ant-language, but has also, in the person of his Son, become an ‘ant’ while remaining an ‘elephant.’
(From “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church” P. 129)

He presents an interesting thought. How does the incarnation (Christmas) impact the “absolute antithesis,” as D.A. calls it? Do we have to be omniscient to grasp absolute truth in some ways? What does the incarnation change? I covet your insight…

-Andrew Spink

Who Killed the English Major?

This is a fascinating story from Rod Dreher:
Did you realize that in the last generation, there has been a startling drop-off — a near-collapse, actually — in the number of college humanities majors? Prof. William Chace, writing in The American Scholar, takes on the problem from the English Department:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

Chace tells a long, fascinating and depressing story of how broader social and economic changes have marginalized the humanities in colleges. But he focuses his frustration on how English departments have done so much harm to themselves, by turning the study of the beauty and the wisdom of literature and language into a bloodless, clinical dissection of this or that Theory. Chace, who is a veteran professor of literature, says there is no center or coherence to teaching English literature nowadays, and therefore a dissipated sense that its study is important. The withering and decay of the profession can no longer be hidden, he writes:

Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves–the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or “acting assistant professors.” These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.’s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn’t here anymore; our technology is obsolete.

the whole post


Pages turn, questions burn
No way to tie the ends
Concepts swirl, confusion curls
The chords of my mind in knots
Where I saw the ground, I now see sand
Rising tides, where once was land
There is no rope to escape this sea
Its billows crush, overwhelm me
A Journeys calm–the end draws near
When we see light, we have no fear
But on this trip there’s no respite
Just vultures, questions, encircle the site
Journey’s shared, none are spared
From this hell we call différance

Vanhoozer Quote

Sin corrupts this medium along with all other aspects of the human being. Satan, insofar as he interprets God’s speech for his own devices, may perhaps be viewed as the first radical reader-response critic–the first to replace the author’s voice with his own: “Did God say?” Theological non-realism is ultimately a rebellious protest against having to answer to any other voice than our own.

Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text