Orientalism—A Third Set of Thoughts (Fetishization)

orientalism_cover3I’ve finished reading Said’s Orientalism now, but I’ve still got a small backlog of thoughts to process from the book. Today I’d like to give some attention to the process of fetishization.

Briefly to review, Said’s argument opens with a description of othering, which in Orientalism is a term used to describe the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. When I ‘other’ someone it means that I am perceiving them as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us.’

In the history of Orientalism (as a discipline and mindset) this othering process has resulted in a flattening of “Oriental” culture (a very diverse and large set of data is made to fit within artificial and procrustean structures—I wrote about this last time), and also in a fetishization. Now, there is an obvious sexual component to this term that will factor in shortly, but beneath and behind that I want to highlight something more nuanced. By fetishization, I want to suggest a form of love for the other that is fundamentally self-referential. Fetishized love is a love which is based on what the other is perceived to be able to do for me. With this in mind, it is not hard to see how the Orient has been loved by the West in a way that is self-referential to the West. The Orient is loved on the basis of the West’s idea of the Orient (whether or not the Orient matches that idea), and the Orient is loved for the way that the West’s perception of its differences reinforces Western senses of self, and the Orient is loved because in its plasticity the West can project its desires upon it. Each of these is a fetishizing love. Each of these warps the Orient to Western tastes and perceptions.

Much of this, on the Western side of the scale, can be arguably laid at the feet of what Charles Taylor labelled as the West’s identity crisis. In Sources of the Self he explicitly claims that the West has lost its moorings—a new sense of autonomous self-governed authority dominates the western self and leaves it with few external reference points. Consequently, it is only natural that the West would look outside of itself in the hope of finding out who it really is. One of the richest mines for this outside look has been the Orient, and this connects directly to our fascination with so-called eastern mysticism. Not long ago I re-watched the 1984 film The Karate Kid, and couldn’t help but think about this process. A young, fatherless, displaced boy, finds himself bullied at school (he is a prototype for Taylor’s disorientated Western self). He is taken under wing by an older, Japanese man who coaches him through his bullying problem by providing him with a sense of deeper identity through Karate, bonsai trees, and Japanese culture. And while I loved (and still love!) the movie, I can’t help but reflect on the caricature of the East that it portrays (however lovingly). The east, I am tacitly told, is a place to be consumed, to be borrowed from, to be utilized for my own personal needs. It is a place (extending from this) from which I can collect souvenirs and artefacts, the foreign writing of which I can paint on my body, whose women will provide satisfaction for my carnal desires, and which will ultimately provide me with my much longed-for meaning in life. It is a place I can love selfishly.

Karate Kid_1984_Miyagi and Daniel

Within this dynamic, fetishizing love depends upon a perceived plasticity in the object of love. In other words, it is a suitable object for love precisely because upon it I can project my own desires. It is here that I think the sexualization of Asian women finds its roots. Said, writing about the history of Western pilgrimages to the east, records the following about Flaubert’s experiences with an “Oriental” woman: “…he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (Orientalism, 187, emphasis added). Because she is different, and exotic, and not like Western women, and because she doesn’t speak English, she becomes a vaguely feminine vessel for Flaubert’s sexual desire. That sexual desire, in turn, and under the influence of fetishizing love, can manifest itself imaginatively. The Oriental woman, under the same flattening process of othering, is thus stripped of her individuality, personality, narrative, and will, and serves as an ideal vessel for Western sexual desire. Said writes elsewhere that “women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (207) In this, she has been fetishized. (It is worth considering—does this process of female fetishization partly explain the emasculated characterization of Asian males? Are they diminished because they stand in the way of a Western sexualized power fantasy?)

Asian Eyes_Vanity_Makeup

It is difficult here to separate the immense danger of fetishizing love from the genuine allure of love for the other. There is, of course, a natural fascination with things that are different, the refreshing appeal of a system and world in which a different set of rules operate, the genuine pleasure of standing ‘outside’ one’s own culture and seeing the world in a fresh way. But this is a natural love that must be carefully cultivated and pruned. Love, to be love, must possess a disinterested quality, and however much I may love the other, no other (whether culture or person!) ever exists purely for the sake of my needs and desires.

The dangers of fetishizing love seem strikingly present when we think of the missionary efforts of the church. When a missionary approaches a non-western culture, does he or she love the people as they are, or are they loved for what they might become? Am I loving my Western idea of the foreign convert, or am I loving the foreign other in all his strange, foreign otherness, so that Christ might be formed in him or her? All too often, is it not the case that short-term missions trips are crafted more for the benefit of the sending nationals than for the people whom they are supposed to benefit? Are we there to save the others, or to make ourselves feel better? It’s a challenging prospect, and discerning between a love that is selfish and one that is godly will require careful and constant diagnoses of our loves.

“Super Why” is an Abomination that Causes Desolation

Ask any parent, and he or she will tell you that Children’s television falls into roughly three kinds of categories. In the largest, there is a wide swath of mediocre shows, with flashing lights and simple stories, which capture the attention of your children and allow you to clean your kitchen or take a nap. You don’t love letting your kids watch them, but you estimate the value of living in a clean house to exceed the relative inanity of the show.

Barney

No comment.

Then, there is a group of shows which are actually really good television. They tell good stories, or have fun concepts, and they’re so good you find yourself watching those shows with your kids and enjoying them. These are shows (at the moment) like Odd Squad, and Peg+Cat. These shows make you feel better about being a lazy slob and letting your kids rot their brains watching the telly. If you didn’t have anything to do, you’d probably rot your brain alongside them.

Then there’s a set of shows which are so stupid, so canned, so awful, that you suddenly understand why people might go insane. They’ve got flashing lights, and colourful characters, and loud music, and your children (who don’t have a discerning bone in their bodies) love watching them in the same way they’ll eat anything made of sugar, no matter how revolting. They are the nightmare fuel of children’s television.

PBS’s Super Why is such a show. And yet, Super Why is even worse.

Super Why_full cast

Super Why, in its most basic sense, is a storybook show which follows a precise pattern for each episode. A group of super friends encounter a problem in their world. This problem will require them to learn a lesson, and in order to learn their lesson they’ll have to “Look, in a book!” (The comma is there because they pause after saying ‘look’.) The super friends then suit up and dive into a classic fairy tale or storybook—Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or something else. The show progresses while they read through the storybook, reading the pages, looking for secret letter clues, and eventually solving the problem of the day. One character is a pig who digs up letters. One is a fairy who helps you spell. All well and good (apart from being mind-numbingly banal).

However, the critical dénouement of each episode is when the story reaches its crisis point. At that point, the hero (whose name is Whyatt) arrives with his special power, and “saves” the day. (Saves is in scare quotes for reasons which will be explicated shortly.) In the episode my children watched the other day, the real-world problem is that the main character wants to eat the same thing all the time. To solve this problem they look in a book called King Eddie Spaghetti, about a king, named Eddie, who only (as you might well guess) eats spaghetti. In the storybook page, displayed on screen, it read that Eddie only eats “spaghetti, and spaghetti, and spaghetti!”

King Eddie Spaghetti

Enter the hero, suited and ready to save the day. He announces, as a preamble to his actions, “With the power to read I can change the story!” (He says this each episode at this point.) He then proceeds to tap two of the three words, changing one spaghetti for beets, and another spaghetti for meatballs. The new sentence reads that Eddie ate, “spaghetti, beets, and meatballs!” Problem solved. Now we can return to the real world with our new secret word, Variety, and solve our problem. Yay!

Or not. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on what has just happened. We are looking in books to find solutions to our real world problems. When we encounter a possible solution, we don’t actually read, and interpret the book, we’re going to re-write it. What is more, we’re going to sanction this re-writing process by calling it, “The power to read.”

What?! That’s not reading. That’s not what the word means. That’s not how we deal with texts. That’s not how we deal with the world, or people, or problems. That’s not how we manage data, or interpret information. On no account and in none of the possible worlds is that a proper way to deal with a set of data. In fact, it represents the absolute antithesis of what good reading is, and we’ve got a word for it: eisegesis.

Jefferson Bible sources

Thomas Jefferson famously removed sections from his Bible that he didn’t like.

 

Maybe you don’t know this word. It’s the process of reading what we want into a text, rather than drawing out what a text actually says. It’s the process of projecting our own fancies, desires, and needs onto a body of literature, reforming it into a more convenient package. It’s a bad word. It’s repulsive. You don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Think plague, Ebola, Chicken Pox.

And yet, eisegesis is the kind of reading being taught to children through the monotonous rhetoric of Super Why. Jack and the Beanstalk? Let’s change the words so that the giant is tired and wants a nap, so that we can teach a lesson about using music to relax. Hansel and Gretel? Let’s change the candy house to a house of vegetables so we can teach a lesson about balanced diets. Humpty Dumpty? Let’s “use the power to read” to get him down safely and change it to a story about encouragement. In each case, a perfectly good story is mangled so that it can communicate an inferior message. And this, really, is just salt to the wound, because rather than finding a story and drawing a lesson from that story, however awkwardly, whatever real value these stories have is pressed through the transforming matrix of banal moralization. In addition to not learning how to read, your child is also being fed a diet of thin and watery stupidity.

Super Why_Variety

Your daily indoctrination.

Texts challenge us. Texts expose us to other worlds. Texts give us insight into other mindsets, other human perspectives, other viewpoints. Occasionally those viewpoints are comfortable; occasionally they are not. But in either case, learning to read is the process of learning what it means to wrestle with that discomfort—of taking texts, as best we are able, at face value; of refusing at all points to edit or change them to our liking, to project on them our own desires or fantasies. And in the end, the way we treat texts is a great deal like the way we have to treat people—each with a perspective, a vantage point, a set of understandings that are different from our own. We are no more permitted to project our desires on other people than we are on texts, and yet the people who do so are considered the worst of us. Imagine speaking to someone about lunch plans. “What would you like to eat today?” “I’d like a cheeseburger.” And his response, “Okay, we’ll go for pie, then.” That’s not listening, that’s simple projection. And that’s the kind of person Super Why is training children to be. It’s abominable.

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

Orientalism—Othering and the Kingdom of God

Orientalism_Cover2As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading through (and benefitting from) Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I’m taking advantage of a few blog posts to think through elements of his book. Today I want to think about certain aspects of the concept of “othering.”

Othering is an idea that Said employs to disentangle the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. As far as I understand, othering is a process of perception in which the ‘other’ is conceived as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us,’ I clearly demarcate ‘outsiders’ so that I can feel more secure in my own insider status. The key, it seems to me, is that the other is viewed not for him or herself, but primarily with reference to my own knowledge, and sense of self, and the security of my own identity. History makes it clear that this kind of process has been at work in the West’s treatment of the Orient.

Within this, Said seems to be well aware that some form of othering is a necessary part of cultural engagement. Discovering a boundary between myself, and my self-perception, and another and that other’s self-perception, is always a self-reflexive activity. David Augsburger, commenting on this reality, once wrote that “He who knows one culture knows no culture.” This is true because culture only becomes visible on the boundaries, in comparison and contrast. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing more clearly in the ‘other’ where I differ. As a personal example, I learned more about myself as an American by living in Canada, working with Vietnamese and then Chinese churches, than I would have known otherwise. My experience of the other has generated a marked and beneficial increase in my self-awareness. I would say that I’m a better person because of those experiences.

Boundaries_Shoes

“He who knows one culture knows no culture.” ~ David Augsburger

However, the Western pattern of othering has, historically speaking, reflected a more insidious flavour. Specifically, it would appear that the power dynamic of the West—including, but not limited to, its sense of superiority, manifest destiny, and self-referentiality—has caused this otherwise natural othering relationship to generate distortions. On my read, I see this taking the form of flattening, and of fetishization. In this post I want to focus on the flattening.

The West flattens the Orient in a variety of ways, not least of which is in the absurdly broad categorization that a concept like the “Orient” requires. Orientalism, Said writes with some understatement, “is a field with considerable geographical ambition.” (50) This results in a collapse in specificity—what qualifies as Oriental is as broad as China, Vietnam, Japan, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan, to name a few. This begs questions—what kind of food are we eating when we eat “Oriental” food? What kind of person are we speaking to when we speak to an “Oriental” person? What kind of subject are we studying when we read an “Oriental” book? The vagueness is problematic in itself, but it extends to individual persons as well. Many are content to collapse the dizzying variety of eastern races into a single class, “Oriental” (Asians are often flattened in this way to a single category) while at the same time privileging what would be the equivalent western disambiguations (Italian, Irish, German, etc.). In continuity with this, is it not possible that the phrase, “all Asians look alike” speaks more of Western self-perception than it does of actual Asian reality?

Oriental Restaurant

What kind of food is actually being served here?

An important counterpoint to this is to remember that there really is no way to escape stereotyping—it’s hard-wired into how our brains take in new information. We filter new data into categories of known data. It’s how we make sense of things. Consequently, our first steps into the world of the other commonly involves our recourse to what is assumed, or known by reputation. Almost all encounters between cultures (where there is at least some knowledge of the other beforehand) involves basic stereotyping. The problem arises—and this is terribly important—when I don’t allow the new data of the real person sitting in front of me to challenge that type. The problem is when I stop listening and project what I think to be true on the person, rejecting him or her in the process. And this, of course, appears to be very often precisely what the West has done in relation to the East. It has clutched its stereotypes, then demanded that those who have been othered conform to the type. This flattens a foreign culture, reducing it so that it will fit within my perceptions.

ridwan_adhami_islamophobia1

Photo by Ridwan Adhami

As I thought about these matters, I began to wonder—is there an othering relationship at play between the Kingdom of God and human culture, whether Oriental or Occidental? There is radical, disjunctive difference between the Kingdom and the world. In that relationship the Kingdom possesses immense power to shape, define, and identify. A crucial difference, however, is that the Kingdom has no need of human culture to self-reflexively know itself. It does not depend upon outsiders to be itself, or, rather, to be more itself. All the same, in its power relationship to the world, the Kingdom defines us, orders us, reshapes us, and sets our aspirations. That is to say, despite its perfect self-knowledge the kingdom is still a genuinely imperialistic force. It approaches the world—East and West alike—with the intention of invasion, interpretation, and reformation. Like the Oriental/Occidental dynamic, it is the Kingdom that gets to tell me who and what I am. It holds all the power.

There are further differences, however. The Kingdom holds this power by right—it deserves it. The West utilizes this power by accident of history. Where the Kingdom by right redefines the world, East and West alike, the West does not possess the authority to redefine the other according to its pleasure. In fact, what may make the particular cultural sins of the West more grim is the appropriation of Kingdom power for its own purposes. The West has done things to the world in the name of the Kingdom, and that corrupted, self-referential use of Godly power has not only done damage to the East, it has poisoned the power of the message the West was privileged to inherit. In presuming to speak with the authority of the Kingdom of God toward the rest of the world, the West has ascribed to itself an undue holiness, an improper destiny. Rather than bringing the Kingdom to the East as a subject of it, the West has often enough presumed itself to be the Kingdom. This has created situations where the West falsely legitimizes its oppression by appeal to the Kingdom.

Dutch East India Company Flag

This is the flag of the Dutch East India Company, which famously (or infamously) married its acceptance of Christian missions to its profit margins. Missionaries, often enough, were reduced to advance agents for empire.

Additionally, where in the hands of the West this othering power has flattened other cultures, the Kingdom of God does not flatten. Yes, it is imperialistic. Yes, it redefines and shapes according to its dictates, but fundamentally the Kingdom is about bringing life to the world in all its variety. Under the effects of the othering of the Kingdom of God, we are not less ourselves, but more ourselves than ever we were before. This is a great mystery.

Rowan Williams, writing about St John of the Cross, said the following: “To be absorbed in the sheer otherness of any created order or beauty is to open the door to God, because it involves that basic displacement of the dominating ego without which there can be no spiritual growth.” (The Wound of Knowledge, 176) To step from this language into our discussion suggests—I think rightly—that in the context of all true othering, we lose ego and gain self, while false, distorted othering causes us to clutch ego and lose our selves.

The Paragraph Sentence and Other Horrors

I read a lot of books. I enjoy a lot of books. Because there are so many books to read in the world, I try to focus my limited time on books that are worth reading. That doesn’t mean I don’t read candy—after all, one of my favourite genres is fantasy and sci-fi. But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing lately that causes my eyes to roll and my blood pressure to rise, causes me to snort in disgust at authors and publishers alike.

I’m talking about the paragraph sentence.

It hangs there, alone, pregnant, the typesetting equivalent of those three notes that play after a big reveal on old television shows—dun dun dun! It suggests significance and meaning, but doesn’t deliver; tantalizes the reader, making a big claim that begs you to read on. A cliff-hanger by formatting, click-bait for readers.

Dun-Dun-DUUUUUN-penguins-of-madagascar

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it’s bad writing. It’s the formatting equivalent of excessive exclamation points, of SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS!!!!!!1! It shouts at the reader like a decrepit Facebook user, invites nuanced meaning with all the skill and talent of a lovestruck teenager who only speaks in txt. It’s becoming habitual in books, blogs, and stories on the net (did the bite-sized demands of an internet age contribute to its rise and acceptance?). Like italics and scare-quotes, it uses formatting to stress the “appearance” of being meaningful.

They’re not especially meaningful.

Sure, the words appear meaningful. Sure, their situation on the page, or altered font, invites a veneer of meaningfulness. But the truth of the matter is that their meaning is borrowed from the formatting. The sentence paragraph is a cheat which pretends that its contents are especially significant, in the hope that terse phrasing and special formatting will make up for a lack of creativity, insight, and ability. Instead of writing well, of leading the reader wisely through a given passage, the sentence paragraph exposes the temptation to make formatting do a special work for the writer—instead of utilizing the vast scope of powerful literary tools at hand, instead of serving up a dish of vocabulary, word order, description, evocation, metaphor, simile, sound, and rhythm, the lazy author retreats to a simple emotive trope.

And tropes should be avoided.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

The man for whom the dark and stormy night was something fresh and original. Check out his wiki entry for other famous phrases he coined!

Tropes can be useful, of course, and I’ll be the first to admit that abuse does not negate proper use. Tropes can get a story started, can be useful, humourous, recontextualized, or subverted. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night…” he had no clue what he was about to unleash on the world. The thing to remember is that when he said it, it wasn’t yet a trope. Now, the stuff of jokes, it takes on its own life and meaning and can be utilized to great effect. But when writers excessively rely on these canned features they betray a deep literary laziness, even a contempt of the reader.

It is we who should be contemptuous of them.

Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.

Tragedy and Opportunity

The American phenomenon of the “school shooting” has begun to take on the aspect of a recurring tragedy. It plays with astonishing regularity across our screens and is beginning to manifest itself with an increasingly scripted set of responses: outrage, the appeal for change, gun-control lobbying, blame, witch-hunting, and so forth.

Protesters_Florida.image

Photo by Alan Alvarez, the Independent Florida Alligator

In recent months, amid these almost trope-like responses, one in particular has stood out to me. In the face of a surge of (justifiably) outraged people—calling for reform and real change—certain voices chastise, claiming that “Now is not the time for politics, but for grief.” A tragedy occurs, frustrated people call for change, and in response others call for silence, reserve. This chastisement begs an enormous question—if now is not the “right time,” then when is? When is the right time to get outraged over tragedy? When is the right moment to mobilize people to make a difference? Is a day enough? Two days? How about a week? What is an “acceptable” timeline for calling people to action in the face of public tragedy?

Controlling-Puppet-MasterIn a moment I’m going to argue that the best time to speak is when tragedy is fresh, but before I do that I want to be clear that there are good reasons to apply brakes to our cultural outrage machine. I suspect, for many of the people I know who called for “grieving” over against mobilization, that there was a fear of undue, or even nefarious, politicization. There is real wisdom in discerning who is operating the machinery of our collective outrage, and it is true that politically motivated entities are fully aware that public outrage is a powerful tool for political leverage. Caution in the face of such a potential circumstance is surely a course of wisdom. And yet, being over cautious can perpetuate injustice. The only solution is to ensure that, before giving vent to our outrage, we have surveyed sufficient data about the situation. Outrage on the basis of snap judgments is a recipe for stupidity. We ought to read multiple sources, try to gain a bigger perspective, and refrain from blaming ideologies (for example, Islam) until we’ve got a fuller picture.

But is fear of being used the only fear at play when individuals reject a call to political action? Is there not also an anxiety at work? In my experience, people don’t deal well with tragedy, and one of the ways that people don’t deal well with tragedy is by telling other people how they ought to respond to a tragedy. Humans habitually become controlling in the face of our own loss of control. Could it not be that the language of a “period of grief” is a projection of personal anxiety upon the situation? Could it be that anxiety motivates a host of other responses to public tragedies—for example, the desire for a complete explanation (how did he/she get the gun? where were the security services?), the impulse to scapegoat (laws are inadequate, if only we had more guns in schools, etc.), and the satisfaction of blame (he/she was mentally ill, a Muslim, etc.)? Each of these, and the satisfaction they potentially give to the thinker, arguably answers his or her own personal anxiety more than giving a reflective response to the situation.

Outrage is powerful. Public outrage, inasmuch as it unifies diverse people around a common cause, is always politically powerful. The truth of the matter is that if we don’t speak into it and seek to shape it, someone else always will. The appeal to caution, to silence, to anti-politicization, will fall not only on deaf ears, but will result in the judgment that we who call for it are inept and out of touch, that we have nothing constructive to offer, and that, summarily, we can be ignored.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses crowd

Library of Congress. Dr. King addresses crowd at the state courthouse, Montgomery, AL (March 17, 1965)

Speaking as clergy, the moment of collective outrage is not to be missed as a moment for speech. It is precisely at such times that we must speak, and speak powerfully, and speak without projecting our own anxieties on other people. This is, fundamentally, a function of the prophetic office of the Church, where Godly speech shapes and gives meaning to difficult circumstances. Here, inspired calls to action seek to shape, and not suppress, the emotions of the masses. After all, if we in the Church do not strive to speak a Christian voice into our public discourse other voices surely will. If we do not offer a real meaning to the suffering, they will seek their meanings elsewhere. And together this means, as far as I can see, that the right moment to call Christians to action is exactly at the moment of tragedy. Is this opportunistic? Of course, in the same way that a harvest is opportunistic—in both cases it is a matter of not neglecting a clear and self-evident opportunity. Can it be abused? Of course it can, but abuse does not nullify proper use. The challenge is to use our speech rightly. To neglect such speech is to bury our talent in the ground.

So be outraged, and do not sin. Be awakened from complacency. Seek to embody a uniquely Christian solution to the tragedies of public gun violence. But for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t do nothing.