Monday, November 26, 2012

"Glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

I went to a play a couple years ago, and grew quite annoyed. About midway through the play it became apparent that the play's villain was a preacher with a southern accent. Not like I haven't seen the Christian made into the villain before. Likewise it's not like I haven't seen the white guy, the business man, or the corporate lawyer similarly demonized.

This was so trite and predictable that I decided to rewrite the play in my mind. The preacher from Alabama was really a union organizer from Chicago posing as an Evangelist. Tho he said he intended to spread the gospel, the fella really wanted to spread International Marxism.

I decided to engage in a malicious interpretation of the text. And so can you. So can any reader with any text. Ask any Atheist to explain the Bible to you.

When the post-modernists speak of reader-response it is not immediately apparent that the response is disgust at heavy-handed axe-grinding by the author. That's the thing about reader-response, it varies with the reader and whatever s/he has in mind at the moment.

Returning to post-modernism, I think much of what passes for scholarship is mere vandalism. As our culture has died, they are the agents of putrefaction rendering our cultural heritage into bones and rich fertile earth.

Deconstruction generally takes the work of dead authors who cannot defend their work, and then attaches ridiculous meanings to their words. Disagree? Well, that's not how I read the post-moderns. But, but, that's not what they meant. This doesn't work when it's played against itself.

Perhaps a different model for reading is called for. One that uses communications theory as a metaphor. One big difference between mathy technical studies like communications theory and literary kultursmog is that the mathy stuff has to work. Bridges fall down and levees fail without any respect to the political influence of their builders.

When parties A and B communicate, the process begins with a message held by A that gets encoded for a channel, then the encoded message gets sent over that channel, then the message is decoded by B. In life A says something and B hears it. Thoughts are encoded as words in sentences, these words are pronounced by speaker A. Listener B hears the sounds, maps them to words, parses the words and thinks a corresponding thought.

Communication fails when the idea cannot be put into words, or the words cannot be heard, or the words map to different ideas.

Suppose A happens to be Pliny the Elder thinking Roman thoughts expressed in Latin on parchments that are copied by hand by Christian monks that are eventually printed and read by B, who happens to be Joe Random Latin student.

This communications problem is subject to the same considerations as a telephone conversation or a chat room. Since Pliny did not address his remarks to Joe, we should understand the historical-cultural context of Pliny and his interlocutors--in particular, how they used words and idioms. We should understand that some words like "damn" might be bowdlerized into "darn" by the copyists. And we should understand that Joe was napping during one of his Latin lessons.

It's hard enough to get communication right without axe-grinding vandals going on about dead white European males, colonialism, and sexual personae. They're just as bogus as me turning a southern evangelist into a union organizer.

This may seem a bit abstract, but it is as practical as reading a newspaper. In the novel 1984, Winston Smith's job is historical revisionism. He does his job by cutting away any aspect of the cultural legacy that does not support the state's current ends.

A less extreme example is Jerry Pournelle's Co-Dominium stories where a US-Soviet alliance manages to freeze technological and scientific advance by subtly revising math tables and reference works to obscure the anomalies that point to scientific revolutions like quantum mechanics and relativity.

We need to grasp the world as it is. Not the way we would prefer it to be. Because truth is complicated, this means parts of it will support International Socialism, and other parts National Socialism. We've got to sort through what is while being prepared to modify our partisan positions in light of reality.

And we've got to stand up to bullies who'd sell our birthright for a pot of message.


Those more worthy than I: