Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Complicating Matters

Russell Jacoby writes:
"I hope today to complicate our notion of cahiers — grievances — and the role they played in the States-General of 1789." The professors and graduate students at the symposium nod appreciatively. They have heard or read similar justifications untold times before. The author explains that he or she will "complicate" our understanding of some event or phenomenon. "In this article," writes an ethnic-studies professor, "I seek to complicate scholars' understanding of the 'modular' state by examining four forms of indigenous political space." Everyone seems pleased by this approach. Why? The world is complicated, but how did "complication" turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn't scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?

The refashioning of "complicate" derives from many sources. One recipe calls for adding a half cup of poststructuralism to a pound of multiculturalism. Mix thoroughly. Bake. Season with Freudian, Hegelian, and post-Marxist thought. Serve at room temperature. The invitees will savor the meal and will begin to chat in a new academic tongue. They will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to "problematize," "contextualize," "relativize," "particularize," and "complexify." They will denounce anything that appears "binary." They will see "multiplicities" everywhere. They will add "s" to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like "pluralistic," "heterogenous," "elastic," and "hybridities." A call for "coherence" will arrest the discussion. Isn't that "reductionist"?

Unfortunately, such a recipe is often used to cook theology in the academic kitchen, as anyone who has taken graduate theological courses can attest. It's even affected my own field of interest, Patristics, which has now been folded into Late Antiquity, whisked free of its theological content, baked in a shell of social theory, and served neither cold nor hot. The result is a goopy and inedible mess that's lost all the salt of the Gospel, but is generously frosted with Foucault's excrement.

8 comments:

thestudent said...

In light of this post and the previous one, what might you suggest for a "classical" approach to modern and post-modern thought? It seems as though there are the classicists and the post-modernists and neither is able to see the others' viewpoint or offers a good critique of the other with all things considered.

the student said...

correction; Not that one does not see the others' perspective but I would like to see a writing that incorporates a significant portion that is uunderstanding to the opposite position. Most often there are only short blurbs about the others' position, usually toward the postmodern project.

Good or bad I feel myself more sympathetic to the post-modernist perspective and feel the reality of it in my life and see the world around fitting that. I'm not schooled in the classics but feel that I attend to a postmodern understanding "intuitively".

Felix Culpa said...

Personally I'd endorse what Fr John Behr calls the "reappropriation of a premodern perspective in a cautious postmodern fashion" in his "The Mystery of Christ." That is, we can't simply wish ourselves back in time: we are who we are, and can't help but approach matters through our cultural lenses. But what we can try to do is, as Fr John puts it, reappropriate the premodern perspective in a cautious postmodern fashion. So, for instance, we can't simply will ourselves back to fourth century Cappadocia and interpret the Scriptures through their eyes. It simply wouldn't be honest to pretend that we're unaware of modern Biblical criticism. But we can try to reappropriate their insights into a approach that tries carefully to be faithful to them in our own intellectual context.

As for a "classical" approach, I'm not even sure what that concretely means. If we mean big "C" Classical, then we're talking about the Greeks and Romans -- and I don't think many education reformers, even the most conservative, are suggesting that students should spend much of their day wrestling naked in a gymnasium or having endlessly confusing conversations with unemployed atheists interested in seducing the young to question everything.

And if we want to talk about "traditional" education -- well, which one? It's not as if all educational life were the same everywhere and at all times until John Dewey came along and screwed everything up.

So I think the thing to do is to own up to our own cultural and intellectual prejudices, and then reconsider these in the light of the Christian tradition. When we read Scripture or the Fathers it should not be to confirm what we think we already know, but to challenge us. Good reading is an ascetic act, a podvig. When we reading something in the Bible, the Fathers, the canons, the liturgical services that makes no sense to us, that we think is wrong or culturally backwards -- that's the moment that we need to step back, ask ourselves why we objected, stake out the offended prejudice, and then try to put it into dialogue with the Tradition.

On the other hand, however, that might simply be a recipe for going mad in a very pious manner...

Nomodiphas said...

Good post. I totally agree with your thoughts Felix. We cannot change the fact that we live in a particular time and place with certian assumptions and understandings, but it is wise (maybe even necessary) that we be aware of them.

You said: When we reading something in the Bible, the Fathers, the canons, the liturgical services that makes no sense to us, that we think is wrong or culturally backwards -- that's the moment that we need to step back, ask ourselves why we objected, stake out the offended prejudice, and then try to put it into dialogue with the Tradition.

Well put. We need to read the Fathers and the Bible so that we may become aware of false prejudices that we hold unto that we might not even recognize that we have for they are so taken for granted in our day and age. This is not to say that something is automatically right simply because it is old. But rather only that their diferent persepective can help us better understand the perspective of our age and by putting these in dialogue we may better ascertain the truth.

the student said...

Hhhhmmmm.....
"Think, Think, think" he says, as he holds his right elbow and taps on his cotton-filled temple.

Felix Culpa said...

It bears remembering that prejudices are not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, we couldn't live without them. Identity politics, however, have rendered "prejudice" synonymous with "bigotry."

Nonetheless, I don't think it possible to be a thoughtful or educated person without having some understanding of one's own assumptions and prejudices. Why do we take it for granted that democracy is the best form of government? Why do we, at least in English, automatically equate "science" with the natural sciences? How can we simultaneously believe in freedom and equality? The list could go on and on. We certainly don't need to overturn all our prejudices (that would put us back in the stone age), but we can at least be aware of them, and allow ourselves to be challenged by the past. (Why, for instance, were the Greek philosophers, supposedly the inventors of democracy, themselves so dead set against it? Why did the Founding Fathers of the US hold democracy in contempt? Why do we automatically think that democracy is the best thing for Iraq, or that it should decide the fate of Kosovo? Until one can justify one's own prejudices, one has no business analyzing the rest of the world.)

And you're certainly right that old doesn't mean better. One of the early apologists (Tertullian, I think, or perhaps Clement) distinguished between Tradition and custom, defining the latter roughly as ancient but persistent falsehood.

Felix Culpa said...

Student: You know what the Fathers say about "thoughts"!

the student said...

yes... fortunately