Wednesday, January 30, 2008

“Our First Woman President”

Toni Morrison was perhaps the first to say that “Bill Clinton is our first black president.” Now that she endorses the Senator from Illinois, I've been asking whether she may be able some day to say that “Barack Obama is our first woman president.”

Now Aristotelians seem to want to explain away such words. In fact, we’d all do well to hear what Morrison says, but let’s first listen to why an Aristotelian won’t.


The Aristotelian first classifies Morrison and her text. For example, the Aristotelian writer for an Oxford University Press encyclopedia concisely captures her this way: “Morrison, Toni (b. 1931), novelist, essayist, editor, short fiction writer, lecturer, educator, and Nobel Prize laureate.” Her text? “African American literature.” And sometimes, “literary criticism.” Hence, perhaps here, “political commentary” by a mere “novelist.”

What Morrison is not, and what her text is not, must also be very important, therefore. She’s not a political authority. Neither do her words constitute an authoritative text on presidents. Besides, Bill Clinton is not black, and Barack Obama is not a woman. The most extreme binary classification is this: Morrison is not a writer inspired with something like plenary inspiration. Her words are not God’s words.

(The extreme classifications may, for the Aristotelian, suggest a sort of Platonic ideal with a sliding scale. But don’t think the binary principle of non-contradiction is entirely lost. Aristotle didn’t completely abandon all he heard from Plato. Neither do contemporary Aristotelians. For instance, although Aristotle’s pure logic is not enough for Eleanor Rosch, prototype theory is just fine. And if Rosch won’t admit it, Aristotle did write some about “more or less” and did not just use pure “either or.” Likewise, George Lakoff would reject Aristotle’s pure method of objectivity, especially cold objectivity as Platonic Noam Chomsky uses it to view syntax abstractly; Lakoff nonetheless more-or-less-coldly observes metaphors we live by, a real specialty of Aristotle. In addition, Richard Rhodes gets a preacher to preach as if against Aristotle: “We must escape the slavery of words and give loyal adherence to meanings instead. Words should express ideas, not originate them.” But Rhodes and Aristotle together could care less about translation of words, because meaningful, prototypical, natural classes are the really important thing and are, for Rhodes at least, what makes prototypical translation possible, if you’ll pardon the circularity of the argument.)

So, a quick review of the Aristotelian’s method: first, the classification by binary features; second, the classification by hierarchy. What Morrison is (not), and what Morrison does (not) mean, maps her naturally, and in the extreme as below the man whose words mean what God’s words mean. (The Aristotelian rhetorician would say, then, that all of a sudden we’ve got an enthymeme: that what Morrison says is rhetorically not important, at least when compared to what God says. But let’s get back to words, to meanings, to logic.)

There are other things going on here for the Aristotelian logician, so let’s listen a bit more.

Because Morrison’s words are so like the man’s words that are God’s words, there has to be further distancing from her and her text. The Rhodesian Aristotelian does that this way:

>first classification as in “God’s meanings, naturally, are not Morrison’s” and “We’ve got a category mismatch here, a big issue in translation.”

>second hierarchy as in “In fact, it takes some significant training to get to recognize the differences between first order communication and second and third order communication. Literary critics, who should know better, are actually the worst. If they understood these distinctions even a little we never would have gotten into this post-modernism mess.”

>therefore if Morrison has written “Bill Clinton is the first black president” or writes someday “Barack Obama is the first woman president,” then we may just dismiss her and her meanings. Fair enough, the first order stuff, those words she uses, might be observed as “not for the faint in heart.” Okay, fine, it may appear she’s writing “in a stream of consciousness mode” and using “the kind of extreme terms Jesus did.” But come on, folks, “it’s the meanings that are important and that the words are only tools to get to the meanings.”


Jesus isn’t the only one who throws stories beside the stories of the one who has ears to hear (otherwise rendering deaf those who would claim to hear and making blind those who claim to see). C. S. Lewis isn’t the only one resisting Aristotelian modernism and saying (as an outsider reflecting on somebody else’s psalms): words have “second meanings,” which also means that what anyone’s words mean is always more than what he or she only intends them to mean. Kenneth L. Pike isn’t the only one who says (going beyond Rosch with the very first words of his Introduction to Linguistic Concepts): “When [a] man studies ‘things,’ he injects part of himself into their definition. What is a chair, if there is no [hu]man to sit on it? A flute, with no player? A concert, with no listeners? A saw, with no carpenter? The relevance or intended use of a thing is part of its nature as experienced by us—a component added to it by its designer or user or deduced by an observer. . . . [T]he observer universally affects the data and becomes part of the data. . . . The beginner’s ear [because she or he is an outsider] may play tricks on [her or] him and [may] refuse to listen at all, and ‘tell’ [her or] him that the words sound the same. . . Seeing or hearing or learning is facilitated when the observer has a stake in the outcome.”

Morrison has a stake in the outcome of her words. If they make you laugh, then you get them. They get you too. If you’re listening to her say that “Bill Clinton is the first black president” or hear her say “Barack Obama is the first woman president,” then you begin to affect her words and her words begin to become part of you. If you’re American and a voter, then there’s a stake in the outcome of Morrison’s words for you. If you’re black, then yes a stake. If you’re a woman, then yes a stake.

But even if you’re not any of those, you can listen from any of “several cultures” to “an old woman. Blind but wise. Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children.” Or is it not Morrison? Or not God? And if you listen closely, to this parable, to someone else’s story thrown beside your own, then what? What’s “the end?” You may know who’s saying this to you: “I trust you now. I trust you with the [thing] that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done - together.” You may get these words: “we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; . . . we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Update: Girl with Pen


Richard A. Rhodes said...

I'm being to see why you think I'm Aristotelian. I don't think there are natural classes pre-linguistically (actually pre-culturally).

There are natural classes in English.

There are natural classes in Greek.

There are natural classes in Vietnamese.

There are natural classes in Ojibwe, etc., etc.

The natural classes of languages overlap, but they are almost never the same. It's the identification of the overlaps that makes translation possible, NOT that there is a Platonic, pre-existing identity of natural classes. Where the overlaps are more tenuous we get into the interesting discussions, as in the case of chair and καθεδρα.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Rich, for coming over here, for reading, and for commenting with clarification. Pardon me for commenting almost simultaneously (again) at your post at BBB. Didn't mean for us to have the same conversation in two places.

Here, I appreciate your distancing yourself from the Platonism. I think what I want to hear from you is that your "natural classes" in any given language are only natural insomuch as English or Greek or Vietnamese or Ojibwe speakers and listeners form the naturalness. You come close to saying that by stating: "I don't think there are natural classes pre-linguistically (actually pre-culturally)."

But the key here is how and why and when and from where do the ostensibly "natural" classes come? And must these stay fixed? You'll admit the answer to the second question is "no." But my beef is with Aristotle's derivation of "natural." So we turn to method. Where does "the meaning" as you put it, come from? Self-centered people in power will want it to pre-exist in nature. But there are always other ways of looking at things (people ways), aren't there? And I think it's incredible how Jesus, for instance, looks at things in his "sermon on the mount." He's not after the usual natural classes and he starts in by saying something like "blessed are the poor in breath for they're the ones who get the royal palace in the sky."

Richard A. Rhodes said...

I have a response to you over on BBB, but your question here deserves a response here.

"Natural" classes are ultimately a product of the mind and its interaction with the world. But they are also partly a product of society. We not only see squirrels as squirrels for perceptual reasons, but we also agree that squirrels and chipmunks are different things on a societal level. I don't agree that "self-centered people in power" force a Platonistic view. That's a product of ethnocentrism. If one is fully an insider, high ranking or low, without contact with people who structure the world differently, there's no reason to think that our categories aren't pre-existent.

Yes, I agree Jesus' big challenges to us include pushing us to restructure our categories but his biggest challenges are to reevaluate our expectations about what will happen, which is not about categories as much as about experience.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Kurk,

I've tagged you.

J. K. Gayle said...

If one is fully an insider, high ranking or low, without contact with people who structure the world differently, there's no reason to think that our categories aren't pre-existent.

Now, that's imaginative. But contradictory.

Let me tag back to your last (and salient) word above: "experience." And to your mention of specific classes of animals. There was a time in early human history when such classes weren't formed. (The story goes that Adam named the animals). Then much later, someone says something, which someone else writes down in translation: "ἴδε ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ" and "τεθέαμαι τὸ πνεῦμα καταβαῖνον ὡς περιστερὰν ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἔμεινεν ἐπ' αὐτόν."

Now, if you and I get inside the world of the translator (using Greek), who's gotten inside the world of the one using a different language (perhaps a Hebrew Aramaic), then we begin to see classes of animals and metaphor and simile. We might even form our own categories (in translation from another's Greek to our English): "here's a 'Second Adam'."

But there's hardly anything natural about any of the classes. And at each point where we're confronted with any of them, immediately (unless we're blindly arrogant), we must say my experience makes me an outsider here. To go in, if I'm allowed in, I myself have to change. And just as soon as I begin to change, all of the observed "data" and their apparent "naturalness" begins to change for me too.

(Somehow, I recall a few conversations Suzanne started on "Adam" over at BBB. If any of us ponders that, as "earthies," then our experience of some technical class of Adam, whether Moses started it in Hebrew [or God did in some heavenly language] or Paul [or LXX translators] changes it in his transliterated Greek, . . . if any of us ponders that honestly and humbly, then we have to change it and be changed. As Richard B. Hays says of some of Paul's writing, "it's somebody else's mail"; the real implication, then, is that we're eavesdroppers listening in from the outside. If you want in, there's a degree of politeness required. As Jacqueline Jones Royster says her mother used to say: "you've got to have 'home training'." Sometimes when you go into another's home, you have to take off your shoes. And that may not be natural.)

J. K. Gayle said...

Suzanne, The game ("meme") continues.