Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, September 4, 2017

redirecting to Pinboard

I had thought that I might be able to resume at least some blogging here, but it's just not going to happen. Too much to do — and soon I will begin blogging in support of my forthcoming book How to Think. Please keep an eye on that site, if thinking is the kind of thing you're into.

I am still of course fascinated by all the themes I have written about here, and am always reading about them. I keep track of much of my reading on my Pinboard page, and will try to remember to use the textpatterns tag to note things that might of of interest to my readers here.

Also, I have essays on Textpatterns-related topics coming out in the journal that hosts this blog, the good old New Atlantis, and also in The Hedgehog Review. I'll point to those, when the time comes, on Twitter.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Can anyone help me understand Ephraim Radner?

While I’m on the twofold subject of (a) reading outside my speciality and (b) asking for help, I want to say something about the theologian Ephraim Radner. Several people I know and admire very much have encouraged me to read Radner, whom they in turn admire very much, and for a good many years now I have tried, repeatedly. But there’s a problem. The problem is that I simply cannot understand what he is saying. I do not know that I’ve ever come across a writer — not even Jacques Lacan — who has defeated me as thoroughly as Radner has. And this genuinely worries me, because while most of these people will acknowledge that Radner is not the most elegant writer, none of them seem to have any trouble making sense of his writing, and seem befuddled by my befuddlement.

Let me take some illustrative examples from Radner’s recent book A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. Here is what he describes as his “central argument”:

To have a body and deploy it is bound up with the fact that we are born and we die within a short span of years. And this being born and dying is itself — in all its biology of connection, memory, and hope — a mirror of and vehicle for the truth of God’s life as our creator.

The first sentence there seems clear enough: we know our bodies only as dying bodies. That doesn’t seem like a controversial point, but assuming I have read it correctly, I move on to the next sentence — and immediately run aground. “Being born and dying” has, or is accompanied by, a “biology of connection,” but I have absolutely no idea what might be meant by “biology of connection.” I am not even able to hazard a serious guess: maybe something like, we are biologically wired to be connected to … each other? Or maybe to the rest of the created order, in that we eat other living things? And all this confusion comes before we get to the idea of a biology of memory and hope, which I find even more inscrutable.

But then it gets even tougher. Because this being born and dying, with its accompanying biologies, is a “mirror” of … it would be difficult enough if the rest of the sentence were “God’s life as our creator,” but the phrase “the truth of” comes first, so I am once more wholly at sea. Let’s try to unpack this. God has a life “as our creator,” which I assume must mean something like the life God experiences in relation to Creation, as opposed to the internal life of the Trinitarian godhead. The “truth of” this life is distinguished, I suppose, from false ideas about it? It is, then, the character of that life truly perceived? So that if we perceive the life of God-as-creator truly we will then see that it is a mirror of our lives? — but if so, is it a mirror in the sense of being its opposite, its reversal? And then the brevity of our lives is the “vehicle” by which we perceive the eternal life of our God as creator? Probably not, because God is eternal in himself, not just as our creator … but I’m out of guesses. I cannot make any sense out of this passage, or indeed out of Radner’s writing as a whole.

One might say that all this becomes clearer if you read the whole book. But I have read the whole book — my eyes have passed over every word, I have scribbled thoughts and queries in the margins — and I am no better off.

At the end of the book Radner comments that “the argument of this book has been that thinking about who we are as created human beings comes down to numbering our days,” and while the phrases “numbering our days” and “day-numbering” occur frequently in the book, I’m afraid I don’t know what they mean either. It sometimes seems to me that the whole book does not say anything more or other than what a priest whispers to me each Ash Wednesday, as he inscribes an ashy cross on my forehead: Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. But there must be more to this book than that. Can anyone help me understand?

how to mark your participation in an academic guild

This is just a brief follow-up to last night’s post on my personal blog about my experience reading biblical scholars. All scholarly guilds have their characteristic markers of valid participation, but they vary considerably. For biblical scholars those markers seem to be, as far as I can tell, largely structural: that is, as I explained in that post, monographs are expected to begin with a methodological introduction and a literature review. But in my field, literary study, the markers tend not to be structural but terminological. We can organize our monographs in a good many ways, but we need to signal our deference to guild sensibilities by deploying certain terms: in one era we needed to point to aporias in the texts we studied, while later on we needed to acknowledge our complicity in the very structures we sought to critique, or to speak with appropriate regretfulness about the power of patriarchy; later on still it was heteronormativity that needed to be acknowledged.

The rules were never specific, and we could always neglect certain terms if we made use of others that were equally au courant; but terminological markers have to be there for a book to be a guild book. It would be interesting to hear from various academics about what they perceive to be the key scholarly markers of membership in their own guilds. Comment below, perhaps? (I'm also to hear challenges to my thoughts on these matters.)