Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Canon as You Read It

Dogma is what you have to believe, whether you believe it or not. And law is what you must do, whether it is good for you or not.
   -  Dallas Willard

One of the most subversive institutions in the United States is the public library. 
   -  bell hooks

And he said to him,
   What is written in the law of the Torah?
   How do you read it?
   -  Jesus (as translated by Luke, as translated by Willis Barnstone)

Lynn Z. Bloom is pretty smart.  And so are bloggers Henry Neufeld and Brian LePort.  They are particularly intelligent when it comes to what makes a real canon.  They understand the goodness of subjectivity.  And therefore, they resist the sort of teachers who - and that type of teaching that - would force on you the following: "What you must read" and "Which works you should read."  It's all very aptly personal.  Lynn is interested in the essay canon; Henry in the best Bible version; and Brian in the canon of the Bible.

I first met Bloom by email after reading something she'd written that I decided to read while doing early research in my Ph.D. program.  She was kind to me, enthusiastic about her own research, and excited at the prospect of the possibility of my expanding some on what she'd started.  Bloom had noticed "how the essay, a belletristic genre in the 18th and 19th centuries, became critically undermined in the 20th century as a consequence of pedagogy that emphasized its utilitarian rather than aesthetic and intellectual functions."  She noted:  
"Canon-makers make pronouncements and lists.  Although I am not now and never have been related to any other Bloom of canonical persuasion, neither Harold ('Read my list!') nor Allan ('Read Great books!'), I make the following claims.  This article [of mine] is the first to define this -- or any -- contemporary essay canon, the first to define that canon empirically rather than critically, and the first to discuss its formation, significance, status, and implications.  Whether or not critics pay attention to essays, teachers [like me] do, and consequently so do their students.  Thus this contemporary essay canon has profound implications -- intellectual, aesthetic, pedagogical, and political -- not only for what but also for how our [American] nation's 2.2 first-year college students read, and think, and write -- and for how they'll think about reading and writing for the rest of their lives.  The teaching essay canon may, indeed, constitute the core of a liberal arts education for many of these students."
I've just now quoted her own essays, or articles, entitled respectively, "Once More to the Essay: The Essay Canon and Textbook Anthologies" and "The Essay Canon."  In her anthology co-edited with Louise Z. Smith, Bloom builds her own essay canon for her own students.  As The Arlington Reader: Canons and Contexts, their publisher Bedford/ St. Martin's makes this available to any of us and all of us teaching.  In the Introduction, they write:  "A canon is a list or other compilation of the most important members of a particular group or category, developed through agreement -- either implied or explicit -- by people who know the subject."  And they go on to give examples:  "the biblical canon," and "the canon of rock musicians" and other "canons that reflect taste, influence, and popularity -- those applying to music, books, art, or cars...."

Neufeld is interested in the canon of Bible versions.  And personally he notes:
"[S]omething is always present in translation as well. The question is just what you’re looking for. For example, I prefer the more formal style of the Revised English Bible. I even like its Anglicisms. I spent much of my teens in a former British colony (Guyana), and I was born in Canada. Those things are comfortable for me and they give me a familiar feel.

Should I therefore recommend that everyone read the REB? Hardly! For others, features that make it work for me may be a hindrance to understanding. Then there’s the question of just what it is that I want to understand, or more importantly that you want to understand.

What seems to escape so many people who prescribe what a translation must and must not do is that it matters not what is there if the reader doesn’t understand. Admonitions to 'get a dictionary' are both pointless, and in my opinion, arrogant. This kind of talk suggests to people that if they would just put in enough work, they’d be able to understand–well–what the talker believes they should want to understand."
Do you see what he's done?  Neufeld has let you decide just has he has decided, rather subjectively and individually, what is best in a version, an English translation, of the Bible.

LePort acknowledges canons of the Bible of all sorts of people of all sorts of faiths.  Then he does something starting.  He suggests that it's okay to fess up to the fact that, even in your own community, you have a different canon, or, as he puts it, a canon-within-the-canon.  He recalls and advises, practicing what he preaches:
"A couple of years ago I shared a chart that compares the biblical canon according to the following forms: Samaritan, Hebrew/Jewish, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Protestant (see here). If you are part of one of these groups you likely adhere to the canon as understood in that tradition. Yet practice is often a more trustworthy sign of what you believe than mere confession, so even though I am an evangelical it would be a bit disingenuous for me to act as if the canon influences me equally."
He then goes on to say what he reads and what he does not read so much of in his evangelical [Christian] Bible.  What about you, he asks.  

If I had more time, maybe when I do have a little time to spare, I might share my canons, my essay canon, my Bible version canon, and my canon within the biblical canon.  I might share in comments below.  If you have the time and inclination to share, then I think that'd be just fine.  It would certainly be as smart and as encouraging as Lynn Z. Bloom and bloggers Henry Neufeld and Brian LePort.


JR said...

Thank you for this subject. And your thoughts. I’m not sure I have felt-agreement for your praise for subjectivity. Maybe for your dislike of dogmatic prescription. I love/hate this subject. Confined to textual stuff as it usually is. A perennial theme and question inwardly for me – trying to resolve this question for myself – what do I consider canon? Darn thing keeps sliding around! Yet working with so many of them. Prescriptive and fuzzy ones. What a mess. Something in the sense and spirit of your meditation feels in the right direction. I can’t say what. Oh wait, I just heard Josey Wales (movie playing in the background) say, “when it looks like you’re not going to make it, then you need to get mean, I mean plumb mad-dog, mean!” Is that what you had in mind about subjectivity? Or is that too prescriptive? Why can’t Eastwood make a movie based on Aristotle? – “Prior Analytics - Unforgiving and Unforgiven!” God help me, I’m lost again! Cheers, Jim

J. K. Gayle said...

Jim, welcome here!

Thanks for sharing your own thoughts, struggles with "praise for subjectivity" and with such stuff "confined to" texts, musings over the messes and the movie in the background. Yes, and what would Aristotle be in an Eastwood flick? wonderful! I doubt you're lost at all. Probably mostly what I had in mind is that Jesus genuinely, likely, was curious about what the scholar had in mind, who came to him questioning the Canon, Torah, . "How do you read it?" How profound is that?!


Here's some subjectivity on the law, Eastwood style, for us -

Will Munny: We done stuff for money before, Ned.
Ned Logan: Yeah, we thought we did. All right, so what did these fellas do? Cheat at cards? Steal some strays? Spit on a rich fella? What?
Will Munny: No, they cut up a woman.
Ned Logan: What?
Will Munny: Yeah, they cut up her face, cut her eyes out, cut her fingers off, cut her ..., everything ..., I suppose.
Ned Logan: I'll be dogg - Golly, I guess they got it comin'. 'Course, you know, Will, if Claudia was alive you wouldn't be doin' this.

JR said...


JR said...

The feeling of – “confined to texts” – is an impoverished way of thinking to myself – my subjectivity – that maybe Ashley Montagu had it right? Right in defining our physical bodies and especially our skin (our skin is our brain turned outward) as the tablet and parchment-text for receiving written messages? Messages from our environment. And what about skin literally as the parchment to receive hand written words spelled out on the skin of some text-reading impaired aphasiacs – who could not read texts? How could text-impaired subjects interpret letters of the alphabet spelled out into words and written by touch on their skin? – when they could not read texts? How could Montagu defy our canons of text and touch us where our skin becomes the better parchment than what is “confined to texts?” When Montagu wrote in science publications about his findings about our skin, then did he expect his subjectivity to be brought into mine – by his written science texts? Montagu and skin? How could Ashley Montagu dare insist too that women are the superiors of our gendered species? Maybe even a separate species?

So when your subjectivity brought mine to attend what had been written on her skin – “Yeah, they cut up her face, cut her eyes out, cut her fingers off, cut her ..., everything ..., I suppose” – .... well, how do I answer that? For as long as that has been happening? – in all of history?

Sorry for this horrible change of subject ...

Margaret Somers wants to quantify narrative. Aristotelian measurement. To quantify the narrative constitution of identity. In relationships. Why am I wondering to myself how Somers might (might) go a-whoring here to cut-out voices she doesn’t want to hear? And to cut-in others? I like what Somers did. Somers finds the skinny on feminist law professor, Patricia Williams, because Somers hears two voices in Williams (Williams’s voices for different contexts – see the story). Takes one to know one? Subjectively, speaking that is?

Somers yes-es multiple subjectivity. Intentionally double voiced.

She wants to mend -- bring together -- what is in danger of being cut? - to many deaths?

Now I’m ready to cut! Up! How do I quantify that?

Oh. Leave Aristotle behind. Because now: 1=2.


JR said...


Which doesn’t quite me to “Two Mules for Sister Sarah.” Or, does it? Or is it two sister-Sarahs – for one mule? Just who is Sister Sarah?

Let your subjectivity decide the narrative identity of – the mule. And why Balaam beat his?

Will Munny: We done stuff for money before, Ned.
Ned Logan: Yeah, we thought we did.

Why am I wondering – subjectively – that I’m overhearing two men with at least two voices each and doubling their voices back to each other (mirrors to each other of shared narration) who are both old enough whores to admit that they have been – quantified – as whores for money? I mean, if we’re going to quantify narrative, why not get paid for it? So now these two old whores are going a-whoring to help other whores cut to hell by the – quantification (sale for money) - of life?

Aren’t these exactly the kinds of old whores who Jesus supped with? And asked, “how do your read this — situation?”

When you ...

Ned Logan: ... Will, if Claudia was alive you wouldn't be doin' this ...

Now I’ve got more voices speaking – in my subjectivity – than I can quantify. Or want to. Because Claudia could be saying any number of double, triple, or more numerous things – from the dead – to the living – than I can hear. Or maybe more than want to hear? I suppose the Million Dollar Baby says a million things. One or more things for each dollar? But what is Claudia saying to Will Muny? – that Will wouldn’t give an-Ashley-Montagu-care in hell for a skin-chopped prostitute, so long as Claudia was home cooking, while Will was slopping the pigs? – or is Claudia alive to Will and telling Will to do chivalry for Claudia’s sake (Claudia double voiced like Patricia Williams?) – for Will to go on this mission despite what Claudia would tell Will in the kitchen of real life (“Will, don’t go!” - but, really meaning, “go!”)? What would Claudia really feel and say about this chopped up woman?

So many voices. So little time.

That’s what I mean when I say I’m confused.

What’s the meaning in these Eastwood movies of the Crosses? – the Crosses on the graves of the women?

How many voices are speaking from those Crosses?

I love Clint for that ... Claudia too.



J. K. Gayle said...

Wow, Jim. Now look who's brilliant.

You'd do fine as a paid film critic or a professor of literature, of history, of anthropology.

When you brought up Montagu, I heard Elizabeth Cady Stanton's voice saying, "Man cannot speak for her" (e.g., even if he's not Aristotle saying that Nature has ordered one sex over the other).

When you brought up Somers as an Aristotelian quantifier "of narrative," I heard Michelle Baliff's voice protesting, about Aristotle:

"According to Aristotle’s aesthetics, a narrative must be arranged according to some organizing principle.... Aristotle also offers us the classificatory system of binaries to help us order our stories, to order our experiences, to order ourselves.... But perhaps Woman can (un)speak in the unthought, not-yet-thought, non-spaces produced by alternative paradigms, by new idioms, by paralogical and paratactical and, thus, illegitimate discourses. What... if our narrative had no syllogistic, metonymic, linear or triangular structure? .... What if Truth were a Woman... what then? Cixous replies, Then all stories would have to be told differently...."

Helene Cixous's voice replies.... Now she sounds like Somers saying how she herself hears Patricia Williams.

When I hear Somers talking about Williams, then I also hear Jacqueline Jones Royster's voices. Her her essay, “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own,” Royster complains that sometimes not women and other times not persons of color will speak as if a black woman, or at least for her, or at least about her, always about. And Royster, as importantly, invites all voices in, this way:

"Using subject position as a terministic screen in cross-boundary discourse permits analysis to operate kaleidoscopically, thereby permitting interpretation to be richly informed by the converging dialectical perspectives. Subjectivity as a defining value pays attention dynamically to context, ways of knowing, language abilities, and experience, and by doing so it has a consequent potential to deepen, broaden, and enrich out interpretive views in dynamic ways as well... In a fundamental way, this enterprise supports the sense of rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies as a field of study that embraces the imperative to understand truths and consequences of language more fully."

Hearing Royster on the values of the kaleidoscopic operatives, gets me listening to Pearl S. Buck:

"I became mentally bifocal, and so I learned early to understand that there is no such condition in human affairs as absolute truth. There is only truth as people see it, and truth, even in fact, may be kaleidoscopic in its variety. The damage such perception did to me I have felt ever since, although damage may be too dark a word, for it merely meant that I could never belong entirely to one side of any question. To be a Communist would be absurd to me, as absurd as to be entirely anything and equally impossible. I straddled the globe too young."

I'm also listening to Krista Ratcliffe overhearing the contentious voices, the mutually misunderstanding voices of Mary Daly and of Audre Lorde, the latter talking more about her skin more than the former. Ratcliffe is brilliant. She speaks but listens, on subjectivity, on voice(s), but on rhetorical listening more.

Jim, Your Clint Eastwood analyses here are just brilliant. In Two Mules for Sister Sara, he's just a voice, just an actor, just a character speaking, not the writer, director, or producer. But it seems he'd learned something there by the time he speaks up in Unforgiven. I'd never really gotten "Will" "Munny" until you spoke up over here! Thanks for pointing out the whoring aspects and reversals! Then you bring in Million Dollar Baby. Of course. How about Gran Torino, where skin, race, figures so prominently. And there's the gun of "Sister" Sara all over again.

--Thanks for the conversation!

JR said...

... oh my, thank you for mid-wiving .. Krista Ratcliffe (and her voices in tow -- too rich) .. back to me again ... my o’ my .. ever wondering whether she’s maybe less a rhetor and more pure empath? ... or empath in service of ..? .. will follow along, my thanks to you, listeningly. Cheers, Jim

JR said...

... and Sara (thank you) not Sarah ... with gun ...

J. K. Gayle said...

ever wondering whether she’s maybe less a rhetor and more pure empath?

Jim, What a pleasure your questions are, how full of logos, ethos, and pathos. It's rare to have a fellow blogger get so very much, to be so very insightful. Of course, she less a rhetorician according to Aristotle and, if by him pure, more pure empath. But then you know what Aristotle says about women, about females, about the pathetic, don't you? She rightly retorts: Of all the things one could leave out of the canon of "Rhetoric," do we hear the silences in Aristotle? Can we listen to his ignorances on listening? What do I know of sympathy and empathy, of passion in all of its wonderful ambiguities? And mustn't I overhear and eavesdrop on Aristotle as much as he'd insist his male-only Greek disciples "more purely" listen to his singular intentions?

JR said...

J. K. Gayle,

Talking about you behind your back.

I don’t know whether (good etiquette?) or where to place this link on your blog. I’m taking a shot: placing one here and also at our conversations on spiritual abuse.

This link may (feels to me) have more to do with canon and text. In a subjunctive mood!

Please – please - if this linking is offensive in content or good form – please delete these two links.

I do not expect to do this often, if ever again.


“What Thomas Aquinas, Saint of Evolutionary Psychologists, Did Not Know ~ The Biblical Basis For Darwinian Psycho/Sociobiology”

... with references to you. In thanks. Hopefully not counterproductive. Corrections welcome.



J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Jim, for the conversation. I appreciate your letting me know you're referencing this blog over in the dialogue over at your blog. Will try to get over to see what you've said soon.