Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Matthew has finally posted his longer piece on Humanities--what originally was a more direct rebuttal of me that became a larger piece.

First off, congrats to him. In my view it's a well-written piece--if nothing else it makes his case clearly, whether or not one buys it.

Joe P. has given his responses with I would point the reader to for a more critical response. Here and here. In the second, Joe distilles Alasdair MacIntyre's argument against the so-called Great Books Program. MacIntyre mentions Harold Bloom and William Bennett by name, but thinks his criticism works across the board for similar minded studies.

I'm not usually a fan of these types of debates. I don't really per se have a dog in this race. I think they tend towards re-entreching egoity of thought and feeling. But Matthew does in one place specifically ask for some clarification on my part and has rightly nudged me towards further conversation on these points.

As a prelude....and I don't think I've made this clear enough, when approaching the Great Books Program/Classical Education I agree with Matthew on a number of points.

Matthew writes:

I simply mean here to point out that to use any theory by definition requires one to subordinate the importance of taking the gestures, ideas, words, markings, utterances, proportions, forms, images, metaphors, and implications forwards by works of the Canon on their own terms, and non-systematically allowing your imagination to organically make connections the arise from the internal logic of a particular work or piece as well as from one to another. After all, the patriarch of the University of Chicago's "Great Works" initiative, which became the Basic Program of Liberal Education for adults, famously reminded us that the Canon comprises a "great conversation" between thinkers and artists across time and space and epochs. Another way of saying this is to define the Canon this way — that which has demonstrably influenced great artists and thinkers, in their own work.

I was raised more or less in this tradition. I received a very classical-humanistic Catholic education vis a vis the Jesuits--especially in high school. I think there is far too much lunacy in our world and deep immersion in these texts holds profound value. And is a lifelong venture, no doubt.

As I would tend to put it, when doing hermeneutics, we should do hermeneutics. That is if we are going to follow the Chicago "method", then we should follow it. And Matthew has outlined it succintly. It requires attitudes like Gadmar's "sympathy" with the text and the mind/feelings of the author. Entering the author's world as best as we can.

And Matthew is right to do this properly means to let go, as much as any of us ever can, of preconceptions, systems, theories and the like. To me that possiblity is never 100%; more asymptotic to the X axis. Getting closer and closer but never actually touching the line.

But to the degree that we have conscious intention, we must let go of those barriers for the time we undertake hermeneutics. And by theories I agree that larger systematic ones like structuralism are not properly involved at this moment.

There are "theories" if you like in hermeneutics such as in Biblical hermeneutics "form criticism". Which is to study the form (usually oral) that a story, to the best we can reconsstruct, existed prior to its being written down, say in the Gospels. There's source criticism, redaction criticism, literary Biblical criticism--all serve their place and yet there is still a deep personal immediacy with the text at hand.

My only general disagreement, if this is a disagreement hard to tell anymore frankly, is whether structuralism has any place. For me there it is not a stark either/or choice. I know the post-structuralist themselves want to make it that way, but that is why, for example with Derrida, I said even if a person follows his method (as its supposed to be done) it still fails in a whole mess of ways. I think it succeeds in just a very small few. And if people can find those same worthwhile points through other sources than by all means. I'm not married to it.

But that brings us back to Jacques D. Its funny he is the one who has come up because I actually am not that connected to him as a thinker--even among post-structuralism. I just used him as an example orginally because I felt his method was the easiest to explicate.

Where I got the two step Derridian process from---a direct query from Matthew--my graduate philosophy instructor on post-structuralism.

And just a note, point 1 in this method was "read the whole canon". I didn't mean that to come off so literally, if it did, that was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. So, something like read as much as is generally assumed to be needed to get a basic competency. I don't know what that is exactly, but whatever we mean by having a decent understanding of the basic Western heritage.

I don't know any where Derrida mentions this two-step method specifically, but every text I've ever read of his uses its ad nauseam.

The example I've cited beofre on this blog is hsi dialogue with Habermas on 9/11.

Step 1: "read" the traditional way of responding. We hear language of 9/11 creating a post 9/11 and pre 9/11 worldview (one I've used myself, check the last post). That bin Laden has inaugurated a new style of warfare and this like episodes in the Balkans (see Ghosts of Balkans, R.Kaplan for example) are the product of the post Cold War world. When there is no longer the two great polar ice sheets of capitalism and communism over the world, these hot local wars flare up that had been frozen under the suface during the 20th century.
Plus the event was televised for the world to see.

Notice the inside/outside of this interpretation, dominant/submissive. post Cold War over Cold War being a big one. Total consciousness/presence over absence, blindspots of sense perception.

Step 2: Re-read the episode through the lens of the underside and deconstruct.

So doing this we see that in many ways bin Laden is actually not post Cold War but totally Cold War to the hilt. He learned his art fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The mujhadeen were funded by the CIA--the total Cold Warriors. Afghanistan being a total fallout and continued after effects of a Cold War world (the effects of absence, a big theme in his work).

And moreover no one actually saw just the event--as the event occurred their filters were already working. There are still unanswered questions about the attack (conspiracists notwithstanding).

Now, and this is a big NOW, I unlike Derrida do not think that this underside reading totally and irrevocably deconstructs the first narrative. Just as I do not think his writing does the same for the history of Western thought nor literature.

I think both the first story and the Derridian story are both true to degrees and a more whole enterprise incorporates both. The ways in which bin Laden was both influenced by and moved beyond Cold War era assumptions.

But back to the larger issue of the canon and everything else.

As I would put by doing hermeneutics, which is to me what the Humanistic readings are about, the reader is not a fool or naive buffoon. That is not what I meant by pre-critical, and if it came off that way, that was not my intent.

Joe is arguing from a developmental logic---green postmodernism reveals facts/interpretations not available to the supposed orange of Great Books. MacIntyre's argument argues that the GB, which MacInt. feels is modernist, does not stand up to the criticisms of postmodernity.

My point was more about perspective. Hermeneutics, for me, with its close-reading and sympathy with the text, back and forth socratic method, does not, I feel, give the reader a perspective on other forces occurrin at the same time. Hermeneutics goes all the way up and down in a developmental scheme--if one holds some truth to that model. And this blindspot, as I'm arguing, would stay up and down that vertical line.

Generically that point is argued by the metaphor of trees. Hermeneutics as an interior perspective requires being up close with the trees while structuralism (or other such 3rd person witnessing perspectives) requires sitting up on the hillside while allows one to see the forest.

Neither alone is good enough. Structures/stages ex-ist nowhere in the universe except in the minds of those categorizing them. It is an observational, non-participatory stance. That's why Matthew says that Wilberian thought, as one example, doesn't add anything to hermeneutics. Which is right in that limited sense. It only is meant to point out that it is part of your reality and you should become more and more hermeneutical. Or whatever.

To get upu and close and personal with life, with people, with history, events, texts, works of art. Because those are the only things that actually embody in this world.

However, it is equally necessary to take steps back and look for patterns. And often postmodernism taught those patterns/structures throughout history through the modern world were in many ways very destructive. I came to through this postmodern turn not through Derrida, Foucault, Nietzsche, etc. But originally through Liberation Theology. Through Catholicism that is.

Although to be fair, in my case liberation theology used Marxist analysis, but did so in a non-reductionistic is best that is. In other words, the postmodernism I went through was a non-relativistic kind (a "healthy green" some would say). So I fit all the other PM tracts (Frankfurt, post-structuralists) in through that lens, not the other way round. Which as I said before is a different emphasis/reading of those texts than the authors themselves would have allowed or even their later (mis?)interpreters. But there it is.

Matthew thinks that type of perspective can be gained through the hermeneutics he outlines alone. He says that is where we disagree and he's right. That is where we disagree.

As an example, take Gadamer. His "guidlines" for hermeneutics do in fact bring one into greater and greater immersion with a text/author/community of interpreters/history of effects. But Gamdar has no criteria for determining which is a better and which is a worse text. Now Matthew suggests Paglia's definition for the canon as the works that have "demonstrably influenced artists across the ages". I don't have a problem with that.

And further Matthew asks how artists should be using the canon---immersing themselves in it and contributing further to it. All of which gives as he says an self-organizing nature to the discipline. Again, I agree with that.

All of which to me is a good description of how the Beautiful needs to be done. Matthew is an artist writing for artists. Artists in the broad sense. I imagine--because I am not an artist this is a guess--that for artists excessive or maybe even any structuralist tendencies destroy artistic inspiration.

So others have other roles to perform. What is Beautiful is not necessarily what is Just/moral. Since I'm mostly writing from the True/Good setup, I think the Beautiful alone does not give often enough sufficient perspective on the Good. Numerous examples could be mentioned--Picasso's blindness towards the evils of Communism/Socialism.

My thoughts then are just an extended version of a Both/and argument. Paglia's definition of the canon seems to satisfy the initial quandary with Gadamer--which are good and which are bad works from within the landscape of Art/Beautiful.

But it still to me does not answer a more pressing issue: which ones are more moral and just for society, which less so? Is Beauty always good or the more needed in a moment?

But for me it is not supposed to. That's not Art's job, to put it way too crudely. I'm just saying people should be aware of its strengths and limitations. And when needed, use other tools. So if artists don't want to use those analysis bc they break them off from immediacy with the moment, that's fine. Just leave those who are doing other work to do their work.

MD pointed out a while ago, that he noticed a critical quasi-Derridian sense to my writings. It's there, he's properly picked up on it, but it's not Derridian. It's Biblical-prophetic. I think its not insignificant, though secular, that Derrida and Marx were both Jewish. And that Derrida's final writings were interested in of all things apophatic mystical theology--though again he reduced it to his own system which was a mistake.

Paul Tillich once said that in America there was never a Fall. The Fall never happened in the mind of [white middle/upper class] Americans that is. By Fall, Tillich in his theological existential interpretation, means an element of tragic sorrow inherent in every moment of existence. Not unlike the Buddhist notino that all unenlightened life involves suffering (dukkha).
American theology, as I've argued many other points throughout this blog, is a Calvinistic theology of blessing. For most that is secularized as the American Dream.

It has it's good and bad points no doubt. But the darkest side of the blessing theology, in my mind, is that if things go wrongly in one's life one is therefore cursed by God. Or the Market if you will. The reason one is cursed, in most regards, then is one hasn't worked hard enough (Protestant Work Ethic) or more traditionally, one does not have the proper faith.

In political and social terms, as I've said before, this framework has made America the best country for religious diversity and political pluralism. Relative to other nations, not in some absolute terms. Still all kinds of problems with it and our history, but relative to others it is better.

The most quoted American theological statement of faith is: God helps those who help themselves. Which doesn't even appear in the Bible, but rather the writings of Andrew Carnegie and is to me, a deeply un-Biblical, even idolatrous point of view.

In moral-theological-spiritual-philosophical terms, I lie with the Catholic Western European tradition. Even in the moments where an individual feels "saved" or "blessed" or does receive such things--if they are in any sense real, whatever they would mean--the rest of life is still deeply painful. People still suffer. The world is still deeply broken by sin. And for Christians our beings are never fully converted to Christ. No matter what state of stage of consciousness in however many lines. No matter how many conversions we've helped bring about, or the number who come to our church, how many social service activities we've accomplished, or how "inclusive" our church, how beautiful our art, how successful we are in any pursuit.

We still fall short of the glory. Humility, as Br. Wayne Teasdale said, was simply to learn how conditioned we are. There are only layers then of realizing the depths of our own conditioning--just as much as there is development and necessary achievement.

But still we have to do something. By reading the Liberation Theologians, I realized that my faith my reading intellect scholarship does not and can not ex-ist in a moral vacuum. It is either working with the Gospel Values or it is not. To degrees in both directions of course, mixtures of the two, but there it is.

And I did find that insight from Western European (or Western European educated non-Europeans) currents in theology and philosophy. My interest in more in competenecies--so if someone can point out ways in which those same insights are garnered through a different set of writings, I'm fine with that.

If, as Matthew thinks, the European tradition is too foreign to the US soil, then I'm open to someone finding the same insights in a more American garb. Since I do hold to a general stage conception in the sense that people live in different mental worlds and that I believe those worlds develop in a general sequence and can't be skipped, then I am able to advocate both a Great Books like program--even if it is only an "orange" version of one which I don't think all necessarily are or at least have to be--and at the same advocate a postmodern "hermeneutics of suspicion" and a "suspicion of the suspicion" (known as integral).

Because none of those to me ex-ist separate from the needs of the individuals/groups being taught.

I mean that a person should not be introduced to the hermeneutics of suspicion until they have shown adequate competency in hermeneutics/history. Structuralism is strong vodoo, and we all know what happens when Mickey Mouse apprentices dabble with the magic reserved for the Master.

Just as perhaps people shouldn't be introduced to the strong currents of integral and Wilberian thought until they have sufficiently gone through the suspicious hermeneutic (and the previous hermeneutic).

Or just start with Habermas and try to go from there---good luck--and try to leapfrog to a more balanced approach.

The argument has been made that these memes have so filtered in through society that educated individuals in the West are already introduced to modern/postmodern--which is different than the knowledge of perspectives and which perspectives give which kinds of experiences/knowledge. That maybe. I don't know.

I'm speaking more for those with a strong academic intellectual bent. The integral, if it is a wave, will have its popularizations and its general level of people who are just not that interested in all these debates. I'm not suggesting those individuals should join me--I'm just writing for those who for whatever reason are already interested in such issues.

This has been my path to where I am--I think its idosyncratic in multiple ways but shares certain insights that might be of use to others. Matthew and Joe are the ones to read if you are looking for a more concrete prescriptive model for Education. Mine's more descriptive.

All of which, again, is for me just a further unpacking of what Matthew correctly labeled our disagreement. i.e. I seee the need for a method of taking steps back and becoming structural at times. And that does, from the position of inner hemeneutics, violate the text. But only the hermeneutic inner method, to me violates certain needs for politics/morals. And all of us are going to violating to degrees.

Whereas Matthew thinks that ability can be gained from within by its own standards.

That disagreement was summed as my saing that post-metaphysical Wilber-5 gave perspective on perspective; for him perspective of perspective came from reading the canon.

In other words, we are using pespective differently. We feel it differently, not just think it so.

I'm typically going to be leaning towards the structural/political avenues; Matthew to the hermeneutical/artistic ones.

This being the last piece I'm going to do on this, I just want to leave the reader with the one point on which the three of us (Joe, MD, myself) agree: humanistic education in the West is dead--or at least seriously ill.


At 3:50 PM, Blogger MD said...

Nice piece. I'll soak it in some more. You still insist on "locating", for lack of better term, my discussion within a larger theory; I simply don't see the need for the larger theory within which all must fit. But let me say thanks for the recognition of one of my main intentions: writing for artists. I appreciate that.

You seem averse to dialogue (before it was mechanical, now reentenching to egoity)...I don't get this. And why is this the last such piece? I don't get that, either; you are good at this sort of thing. And besides, I don't agree on the last point (definitely not dead, nor really ill -- more, ignored than anything else, and not taught/facilitated well, but still alive and well in many places) so, we still have much to hash out.

Do did you go through a trivium-based approach in your Jesuit education?

At 7:23 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...

thanks for the response.

Don't know that I'm adverse to dialogue per se, more like I want to focus on other issues.

I was just more on about combining perspectivess, methodologies. I don't consider myself that knowledgable in pedagogy.

That's to me more a process thing. Seems more artistic. I'm more into context/content.

peace. chris


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