In a freeflowing discussion of the Hist Crit vs. Postmod debate (kicked off by George Aichele et al’s JBL article and John Van Seters’ reply), James Crossley (Sheffield survivor) further problematizes the general opposition which has been assumed between historical criticism and postmodernism and makes his own comments on most of the points at issue.
At the beginning of his post, James refers to Leif Vaage’s “comments” on the book James co-wrote with Mike Bird (How Did Christianity Begin?: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence, 2008). He is referring to this month’s RBL review. Incidentally, I first encountered James Crossley when I reviewed a book he wrote called Jesus in an Age of Terror (2008), for the world’s leading journal on the Bible and Critical Theory (forthcoming). If I had known he has the habit of writing replies to reviews which are longer than the reviews themselves, I would have been far more provocative. (Jesus in an Age of Terror is a great read, by the way – good summer holiday reading at this time of the year.)
There is an implied question directed to me, in James’ post, about my opinion on the similarities between the so-called “postmodern” approaches and the (again so-called) “historical-critical” approaches. I think I’m headed in a quite similar direction.
At one point, in discussions with Roland and Stephanie, we wondered about a description “critical reading” which cuts somewhat across the boundaries of that which has been divided between “hist-crit” and “postmod” positions, while not including all that is included under each. I’m more comfortable with that – where “reading” attempts to establish meaning within (as well as prompted by, i.e., reception) texts rather than mere uses of texts, and “critical” refers to social scientific methods aimed at knowledge of the textual objects (close reading, source crit, narratology, structuralism, philology, reader reception, hauntology, etc).
But, I don’t know so much about the usefulness of “the logic of late capitalism”. Insofar as this idea refers to the fragmentation of modern society under the hegemony of capitalist hyper-commodification, it names an important aspect of what has been included within the rather too-broad and so largely counterproductive term of postmodernism. But I suspect it buys into the facile idea (bequeathed to us by a certain Nineteenth-century mindset) of progress through universal stages of social development. With other members of the Dunedin School, I prefer to view many of the apects assigned to postmodernism as merely another stage in the ongoing dialectic between rationalism and irrationalism, not peculiar to our own age – and which involves a complex mix of lurches to the irrational as well as the more critically rational. The demise of the system of Capital is another process coinciding with these aspects of postmodernism, but to which these aspects do not simply reduce, and which will carry on even if there is a lurch back to positivism in the future.
Though I do prefer to be more long-winded than this, I had to share something I discovered while researching a new class on world religions in film. For your viewing pleasure, the earliest surviving – and very short – film depicting Jews in New York City, A Gesture Fight in Hester Street (1903), which most likely is a filmed sketch from a vaudeville performance.
Compare these two with Mel Gibson’s Caiaphas in The Passion of the Christ and despair at humanity’s inability to learn a single damned thing from the past.
One Jack Kilmon has a complaint about the way TV Bible-documentaries portray Paul writing his letters:
“Many of these documentaries, like “After Jesus,” flash back to and anchor themselves on a guy dressed in ancient garb with a reed in his hand, writing on papyrus to represent the Gospels or the Pauline epistles as the narrator discusses some historical event mentioned in those texts between discussions from some of the finest and most brilliant scholars and authors today… Now I can forgive the Medieval artists who depict the evangelists or Paul writing a text of scribbling or jibberish but in every one of these documentaries, not just one but all of them, the director does close-ups of the papyrus and the scribe dipping his reed and writing…what? Jibberish! Scribbles!”
So… the TV documentaries are portraying Paul as though he was writing jibberish? This might be just too obvious to even say, but: at least they are getting something right!
For complete historical accuracy, they then need to portray hordes of scholars across the span of the subsequent two millennia asserting that they have made perfect sense of Paul’s jibberish.
What possible relevance could a hard-core nineteenth-century atheist possibly have for religious studies? Alberto Toscano attempts to answer this question, with an eye on ”the present reenchantment of catastrophic modernity”, by suggesting the need ”to link capitalism as religion with religions in capitalism”.
Toscano’s article, “Rethinking Marx and Religion” is over at Marx au XXIe siècle : l’esprit & la lettre. Couldn’t be that good – his bibliography missed “the first systematic Marxist engagement with religion and religious belief since Ernst Bloch“.
Hat tip: An und für sich
Most people are agreed that the weather in Dunedin is a long way from idyllic. But as the June 1871 edition of Evangelist notes, the weather is just ideal for one peculiar breed of folk: scholars…
“The climate in Dunedin, from its bracing character, as compared with the more warm, and, in some instances, weakening climate of the northern parts of New Zealand, presents an advantage for study, which those who have had experience in warm climates will fully appreciate.”
(‘Notes of Travel in New Zealand’, Evangelist, June 1871; quoted in the Otago Daily Times, 28 December 2009)
Rounding up some recent articles emanating from The Dunedin School:
Deane Galbraith examines the book of Job through the lens of Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of the differend, uncovering a further dimension of injustice in the book resulting from God’s appeal to universalising and transcendent standards of divine justice which serve to deny justice to Job in the specific facts of Job’s dispute. He describes the book of Job as “the Bible’s most anti-Christian text”.
‘”Would you condemn me that you may be justified?”: Job as differend.’ Bible and Critical Theory 5.3 (October 2009)
Eric Repphun explores the aqedah and divine violence in general, with reference to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange. He questions whether suicide bombing, including 9/11 horrifies us, in part, not only because of its transgressing of the boundaries between the human and the inhuman, but also because “it violates the conventional logics of exchange rooted in capitalist ideas of exchange and use value”.
‘Anything in Exchange for the World: Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and the Aqedah.’ International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 7.2 (July 2009)
Judith McKinlay fleshes out the elliptical story of Achsah, a hybrid biblical character, in whose person and genealogy is an uncomfortable reminder of the tangata whenua (indigenous people) still in the land. “Forever located in Scripture, she is the pawn of an imperial hegemony…”
‘Meeting Achsah on Achsah’s land.’ Bible and Critical Theory 5.3 (October 2009)
“Imagine a family in which moral values dominate everything else, including the affection the family members feel for each other: life in such a family will probably be quite miserable and thus somewhat “sick.” In short, I argue that a high degree of moral language and a highly moral mindset is not an indicator of the “health” of a person or a society, but, to the contrary, a worrisome symptom of tension and uneasiness.”
“It seems to me that ethical communication has almost reached a pathological level in our society, bringing about, in Hegel’s words, a certain “frenzy of self-conceit.””
“Interestingly enough, there have always been a number of philosophers who were highly suspicious of ethics; Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, for example. I follow these thinkers rather than the likes of Kant or contemporary ethical theorists who believe that they are able to identify what is “really” good. The attempt to define criteria for moral goodness has often ended in grotesque failures. I cite a number of examples of “shocking” or ridiculous ethical demands by some of the great heroes of today’s academic ethics, such as Kant’s moral defense of murdering “illegitimate” children or Bentham’s “scientific” suggestion of measuring weightlifting abilities in order to establish people’s strength for tolerating pain so that the moral quality of certain policies that might inflict pain on them could be objectively assessed. I argue that the history of “philosophical” ethics accounts for not much more than a series of unwarranted academic presumptions.”
(Hans-Georg Moeller, author of The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality)
Have you read this? What do you reckon?
Tom Morello, Rage against the Machine: “We would now like to play a song for you.”
BBC: “Let’s get Christmassy.”
- BBC Radio 5
Each Christmas, the Brits attempt to feel good about themselves by sending a really stupid, warm fuzzy song to the top of their pop charts. But this year, as the result of a successful campaign organized via Facebook, the UK Christmas Number 1 got hijacked by Rage Against the Machine’s classic 1992 fuck-you song, “Killing in the Name”.
The song was given some extra publicity when BBC Radio 5 prematurely cut short a live performance of the song, but not before the band delivered four ”Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”s over the BBC’s prissy pommy airwaves. The BBC doesn’t get upset when the Brits completely fuck over Afghanistan, Iraq, immigrants, workers, etc - but utter the word “fuck”, and that really is rather objectionable and unseemly and should be stopped immediately, please. After all, the main intent of the UK Christmas Number 1 lies in providing the anaesthesia to allow the Brits to forget about their endless military invasions and economic violence (all safely hidden and out of the way, thank you very much). Instead, this year, the anaesthesia got converted into a giant motherfucking molotov cocktail.
“Make no mistake about it, this was a political act! This was an entire nation delivering a stinging slap of rejection to the whole notion of pre-fabricated pop ruling the charts.”
- Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine
“Whether it’s in a small manner, like who’s at the top of the charts, or bigger matters like war and peace, and economic inequality, when people band together and make their voices heard, they can completely overturn the system as it is.”
- Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine
Finally, some Christmas music worth playing on Christmas Day.
Continuing my series on cinema and/as exorcism (see more here, here, and here), some thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the worst Orientalist fantasies in recent memory (though I don’t want to waste many thoughts on such a facile and deluded piece of rubbish) …
I would give a synopsis of the plot, but I don’t need to if you’ve seen Dances with Wolves, Glory, Seven Years in Tibet, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Children of Huang Shi, or any other film where a white European character stumbles into a culture of noble but blinkered primitives and then proceeds to save them not only from his (and it is always his) fellow Europeans, but also from themselves. In Avatar, the protagonist is an ex Marine named Jake, who is sent to a lush planet called Pandora to help run the Na’vi people (essentially three metre tall humanoids with better abs) off of their sacred land so a nameless company can harvest the minerals that lie beneath it. This is that same story, again, though done without any of the subversive gestures that distinguished the recent District 9, which shares a good few plot elements with all of these films but manages to be something other than the standard Orientalist bullshit. From the opening generic tribal drumming, Avatar confirms every last sentence of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism.
Argument one: Avatar is the most astonishingly racist film since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps worse even than 300. The film’s noble savages, the Na’vi – many of whom, though they are computer generated motion captures of real actors, are played by non-white actors – are an amalgam of all the noble savage clichés dating back centuries. They are in touch with nature. They believe, in fact, that their planet, Pandora, is one he living organism (Pandora’s bookshops must sell a lot of James Lovelock). They are violent but admirable. They like to hold hands and dance. They are sexually ambiguous. but still sexually appealing. They are superstitious and reliant on magic and all sorts of often brutal rites of passage. These may be noble savages in the film, but they are still savages and the film treats them as savages, as lesser people.
From the costume and character design, the Na’vi are evidently supposed to represent a smattering of oppressed indigenous peoples on Earth, from New Zealand Maori to the Navajo of the American southwest, but in blending all of these cultures into one, the film is guilty of doing exactly what it thinks it is condemning. That each of the cultures that Cameron borrows from the create the Na’vi are vibrant and complete in their own right simply does not matter. What matters is that they aren’t European and thus are an open resource to plunder when trying to define Europe over and against what it is not. This is Orientalism par excellence.
In a final insult, the Na’vi’s beliefs about their planet being a living organism are given endorsement in the film only when these beliefs are proven scientifically. This is the evolutionary narrative of history – out of darkness and into light, ironically, an idea that is deeply rooted in Christianity – in a nutshell. The Na’vi religion is nothing more than primitive science, an accident of insight that needs European systems of valuation for its legitimacy. This is, at the very best, a backhanded compliment and at worst an absolute repudiation of what the film intends. Final thought: if the humans – as one of the generic corporate faces notes – have nothing to offer the Na’vi, then why does Jake, the sympathetic white human Marine, become the long-awaited saviour of the Na’vi? Why tell the story from his standpoint at all? Why not make Neytiri, the main Na’vi figure, the film’s centre? Why not allow the Na’vi to fulfill their own prophecies? Why not allow them to save themselves? Why force them to end the film in a cold-hearted fashion, sending most of the humans home ‘to a dying world’? Why not grant them the courage of their own ecological convictions and allow them to take a hand in saving the Earth?
Argument two: to say that Avatar is ideologically inconsistent is to make a molehill out of a mountain. This is the perfect film for our times, when Barack Obama can make a speech defending a policy of perpetual war while accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, when there is endlessly debate about climate change that touches on everything except the actual problems behind the crisis (the market is not the solution, people; it is the problem). This is a film that appears to want to be an endorsement of peace but that ends in a fierce and very bloody battle for territory and resources that the audience is supposed to get behind. In a similar fashion, Avatar makes every gesture possible towards valuing nature and the Na’vi are shown – over and over and over again – being ecologically minded and treating Pandora’s animal life with respect; however, in the film’s climactic orgy of violence, Pandora’s Gaia analogue sends all manner of creatures to their deaths in the name of preserving the Na’vi, who are thus obviously the most important creatures on the planet.
This is a major Hollywood studio film – and I do know that Cameron is actually Canadian – that is trying hard to say something genuine about ecology and capitalism but doesn’t know how to say anything that hasn’t been said for the last four or five hundred years. Perhaps, more worryingly, it cannot, given that it is also one of the most expensive films ever made and it will need to recoup its costs largely in the international market, and thus cannot do anything but pander to the lowest worldwide common denominator. This is a deeply confused film that reflects in every surface the convoluted and confused nature of our culture. It is everything that it believes that it is not. We deserve this film, though I wish I could say with any confidence that we deserve better.
Argument three: Avatar is the ultimate in Orientalist fantasy. When Jake opens his eyes at the end of the film, having defeated the Europeans and sent them packing and having fully, literally become one of the Na’vi, he is living out the dreams of every white neo-pagan, Druid, or Wiccan out there who wants to truly recover a past that is, for the most part, a Romantic fantasy that has no roots in history. Unlike Wikus in District 9, who also becomes an oppressed alien but takes up arms against the oppressors because he is a selfish git largely concerned with saving his own ass (a fact that the film is smart enough to admit), Jake is a classic Hollywood hero who is able to be both coloniser and colonised at once. He is a coloniser without the need for guilt or any serious reflection on what he has done (he is instrumental in destroying the Na’vi’s village) but he is also colonised in that he can take part in a fantasy culture where everything is sunshine, simplicity, and sacredness. Jake is liberal guilt made flesh. In all of this, Cameron is ideologically at least the equal of the great Orientalist novelists, from Rudyard Kipling to Joseph Conrad, though these two have the distinct advantage of having been able to actually write.
The film, on a technological level, is a game-changer, as they like to say. As a narrative and as an example of the colonial gaze, there is nothing in Avatar that is any different, or any better, than eighteenth-century missionary and colonial writings about Egypt or India. This does nothing to exorcise the demons of colonialism or imperialism; indeed, it is a wholehearted embrace of both of these things cloaked in the shell of a protest against them.
To be fair, I’ll throw in a few positives: everything in the film from the production design to the intricately imagined and convincingly rendered worlds, looks amazing (even in two dimensions, as we down here at the ends of the Earth still don’t have a 3-D theatre) and the climactic battle is a stunning achievement in editing, effects, and pacing. Finally, Zoe Saldana as a nine-foot tall Smurf? Still hot as all hell.
The PhilPapers Survey was carried out in November 2009, and surveyed some 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students. The respondents were questioned on everything from realism to metaethics to the existence of zombies. But something interesting emerges when you compare the “Target Faculty” (faculties at top-ranked universities) against lesser lights and newbies coming up from the ranks.
Check this: for “Tradition”, the respondents had to choose between various options, of which the main options were Analytic and Continental. See the difference between the old fossils and the new and rising stars:
Target faculty: Analytic 91%; Continental 4%
Philosophy faculty or PhD: Analytic 81%; Continental 7%
Philosophy graduate student: Analytic 85%; Continental 10%
Philosophy undergraduate: Analytic 74%; Continental 18%
And for meta-ethics, here’s the differences between moral realists and anti-realists, for the same range of people:
Target faculty: Moral realism 56%; Moral anti-realism 28%
Philosophy faculty or PhD: Moral realism 56%; Moral anti-realism 28%
Philosophy graduate student: Moral realism 50%; Moral anti-realism 35%
Philosophy undergraduate: Moral realism 48%; Moral anti-realism 36%
And science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?
Target faculty: scientific realism 75%; scientific anti-realism 13%
Philosophy faculty or PhD: scientific realism 70%; scientific anti-realism 16%
Philosophy graduate student: scientific realism 62%; scientific anti-realism 21%
Philosophy undergraduate: scientific realism 54%; scientific anti-realism 25%
And what about God: theism or atheism?
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
authorial intent, bias, binaries, body, bricolage, bullshit, deconstruction, diachronic, differance, epistemology, fad, free will, hegemony, hermeneutics, humanism, ideology, individualism, interpretive community, late capitalism, liberalism, metaethics, metanarrative, metaphysics, mind, objectivity, ontotheology, pluralism, polyvocality, post-structuralism, postmodernism, reader response, realism, Relativism, social construction, structuralism, subjectivity, synchronic, totalization, truth
(1) nobody agrees on the definitions of either historical criticsm or postmodernism, and yet
(2) everybody is positioning themselves more on one side or the other, even if they don’t really buy the caricatures by the other side or even the appellations “historical critical” and “postmodern”.
So, in a (possibly futile) attempt to get a more precise fix on what people are holding onto dearly, or fervently objecting to, I’ve noted down a few of the so-called “postmodern” characteristics which are often touted, whether real or imagined.
Please let me know:
1. which of the characteristics are more imagined than real,
2. other characteristics that should be included here, or
3. which characteristics are the more important areas of contention, and why this is so
(and anything else that you really want to say, such as “why are you even bothering?”).
- Ideological criticisms (feminist, queer, postcolonial, etc) versus historical-contextual criticism
- Partial, non-totalizing interpretations
- Deconstruction (yes, as method!), post-structuralist identification of inherent problems with underlying binaries
- Personal, subjective, or unevidenced responses versus empirical and logically argued criticism
Concerning metaphysical assumptions:
- Anti-realism versus idealism
- Anti-humanist/individualist/subject-centred conceptions; pro socio-cultural, intertextual, decentred self
- Anti-free will; pro determinism
- Anti-valorization of mind (rational, conscious, self-directing); pro-body (passions, desire, unconscious) anti-dualistic
- Anti-metaphysics, ontotheology
Concerning epistemological assumptions:
- Heightened sense of uncertainty, subjectivity, and bias of knowledge (empirical and rational, including scientific)
- Increased recognition and opposition to paradigms, universalization, and metanarratives in knowledge acquisition
- [Investigation of the historial constitution of types of knowledge/discourses, genealogy versus the search for history-in-itself and universal truths and unchallenged teleologies]
- Anti-universal theories of knowledge, theories of everything, totalization, closure
- Relativism, anti-foundationalism; anti-objectivity of truth
- Anti- correspondence theories of truth; pro pragmatic or coherence theories
Concerning hermeneutical assumptions:
- Post-structuralist, emphasising instability of language, differance, deconstruction, inherent contradictions, polyvocality
- Anti-inherent or authorial textual meaning; pro reader response, interpretive communities for establishing meaning
- Anti-naturalizing of categories; pro social construction
- Focus on the final synchronic form rather than the earlier stages and diachonic issues
Concerning ethical assumptions:
- Anti-metaethical justification – pro the event, the singular
- Anti-consensus; pro pluralism, tolerance of difference
- Anti-power, hegemony; pro marginalized, disempowered, excluded voices
Concerning aesthetic assumptions:
- Bricolage, border-crossing, borrowing
Defined in relation to chronology and/or cultural phases:
- Post WWI/Holocaust/1968
- Late capitalism, hyper-commodification
- A fad, buzzword
- Crackpottery (voguish neologism attrib. to Chris Weimer)