A Case for Intransitive Reading

In my last post (link), I argued that if you want to accurately understand what a text means, you need to acknowledge that it will mean multiple things; I also observed that that “if” was not a given. In this post, I am going to elaborate on that conditional. Now, I have written about it before in my discussion of taking someone to account for their tweets (link) and in my discussion of three kinds of reading (link). To further explain my argument to Jon, this post will mostly be a synthesis and summary of those two, reviewing why exactly a person might want to understand what a text means independent of particular authors and readers.

gc8Ufs

Source: Kennedy Library at flic.kr/p/gc8Ufs

A Review

I have identified and named three kinds of reading; I do not pretend that I am the first to identify these things, but I’m going to use my system because I think it is a good one. I laid these out in “Headcanons, Singer-Songwriters, and J. K. Rowling’s Tweets” on this blog (linked above), in order to update and improve my work in “A Theory of Reading 1.0.” I’ll block-quote these kinds of reading below:

Transitive interpretation attempts to understand something beyond the text object itself, something which the text communicates according to the conditions of its creation: the author’s state of mind, information which the text conveys, and so on. This is, as I said, a vexed process; no absolute understanding of that information is possible through the text (or out of the text, but that’s another story), yet the text is still evidence for better and worse arguments about the author, the text’s topic, and so on.

I stole the transitive-intransitive distinction from Roland Barthes, though it should be noted that Barthes denies that texts are transitive at all.

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Complexity as Accuracy

Jon was talking to me about what he wanted to teach his students in the coming year, and he remembered that, years ago, I had argued that complex readings are preferable to simple ones.1 He asked me why that was; he couldn’t recall the argument, only the claim.

I believe he was referring to the series I wrote about literary criticism, or perhaps just literary interpretation, where I tried to lay out what I took to be the lowest common denominators of most people working in literature departments (link). That series does, by way of its central argument, explain why I prefer a complex reading to a simple one; however, that central argument is spread out over several posts, and my series does not answer this question easily or directly, so for simplicity’s sake I will make the case here.

Rackham_GoblinMarket

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market,” a poem often read as containing lesbian subtext.

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Moral Foundations: Which?

About a decade ago I wrote at my old blog about moral foundations theory, the idea that people have different fundamental moral feelings which drive their ethical intuitions; I also explored this at the Weekly Wonders tumblr. Although I have grown in my thinking a lot since then, a basic version of Haidt’s idea has become essential to the furniture of my mind; it seems obviously, trivially true that something about our ethics is both given and idiosyncratic. Our moral foundations are given in that they are neither something we chose nor something we acquired through reason but rather something motivating us without our even knowing why; they are idiosyncratic in that different people have different moral motivations. Our moral judgements are always driven by normative feelings, a particular kind of motivation along with appetites and fears. I know better than to trust what seems obvious to me, but I really can’t see how moral foundations theory could be wrong.1

5C6xuP

“The deadly Franciscan Fist,” Matt Baume, flic.kr/p/5C6xuP

That said, I still have some questions and concerns regarding moral foundations theory which I’ve never gotten into. My friend Jon has asked me to write a bit about this sort of thing so he can share it with his students and I’m going to use that request as an excuse to finally get around to airing those concerns. These concerns can be described roughly speaking as “which?” and “whence?” Today I’ll talk about “which?”

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A Sixth Theological World?

I have come to suspect I was wrong in a previous post on this blog; specifically, I thought I could justify W. Paul Jones’s fivefold model of theological worlds despite how natural or obvious a sixfold model appeared. Now I think that my work–however tenuous, perhaps misguided, it might be–strongly implies that there is a sixth theological world which Jones does not mention concerning community and social integration.

84pTyQ

“Dungeons & Dragons” by Ville Miettinen at flic.kr/p/84pTyQ; according to Miettinen’s description, these people have been getting together for D&D for nearly 20 years

It might be the case that this work has already been completed. For my post on autism and masks I had been on Google searching for a particular passage in Jones’s Theological Worlds (which I could not find online, alas), and during this search I discovered that there is at least one article,  Jeanene Reese and Amanda Pittman’s “Theological Worlds Investigation” in the Journal of Youth and Theology 12(1), describing a sixth world identified among female students. As it happens, that article is behind a paywall which this ex-academic can’t easily pass. I would like to see it sometime but right now I think it might be useful that I can’t: if my work comes to the same conclusions as that paper but independently of it, that should suggest that we are all on to something. Therefore I’m going to press merrily on in the hope, but not the conviction, that this will all be productive.

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Impressions on the Mask as a Metaphor

Because I am autistic but did not know that until I was 30, I had to learn to compensate.1 I had learned as a child and teenager how to suppress symptoms and grit my teeth through problems and build workarounds so that I could act mostly neurotypical; moreover, I had learned all of this without knowing that that is what I was learning. Either this process was wholly unconscious or else I attributed it to the regular learning curve of a somewhat awkward teenager from a rural elementary school suddenly cast into a townie high school. But where I learned these social skills passably well in high school, I learned them very well in customer service jobs. I am now very good at the point-of-sale and tour guide personality performance; I have had coworkers call me charming and employers rely on me for impressing visiting dignitaries. It is a performance, though, that I turn on and off. I think many people in customer service do this. I suspect far fewer people in customer service also use their “customer service face,” as I call it, in almost all social encounters. I do.

anifrD

“Mask” by Philippe Gillotte at flic.kr/p/anifrD

I have seen other late-diagnosis autistic people on Twitter call these compensations a mask, and that is a good description. Lately I noticed that two of my previous posts here on Accidental Shelf-Browsing have a mask metaphor in so central a place that I used a photograph of a mask as one of its images: the first pertains, by way of William Blake, to the way that all self-expression creates an imperfect persona that is not identical to who we are, while the second pertains to my personal sense of inadequacy and the brazen colossus within which I find myself trapped. Is this preoccupation with masks a consequence of the fact that, in order to function in neurotypical society, I have had to live under one for my entire life? Of course, I still stand by the claim that all self-expression creates a “self” distinct from the person who created it, that for each Borges there is another Borges. But it is possible that most people take their masks off from time to time whereas, since I only recently learned that I wore a mask at all, I haven’t the slightest idea how.

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Guest Post: A Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Best Songs, Part 2

My friend Jon asked to guest post at Accidental Shelf-Browsing as his own blog is basically defunct; what he wanted to publish was his Top 10 ranking of Taylor Swift songs. This is considerably off-brand for this space (perhaps I am a fool for worrying about such things, but I do), so I said I would be interested in something that was very reflective about the aesthetic standards by which he made his judgements; I keep meaning to write a post about aesthetic standards and choosing between them, which his piece would then complement. The following is what he gave me. The usual disclaimers apply: Jon’s opinions do not represent my own, nor do I take responsibility for them. The only changes I have made are in converting formatting to something compatible with WordPress and in light copy editing.

Taylor Swift Speak Now - Pittsburgh

“Taylor Swift Speak Now – Pittsburgh,” by Ronald Woan. Source: flic.kr/p/9UX1U1

Because of its length, his post will come in two parts, which I have split arbitrarily in the approximate middle. This is Part 2. Part 1 can be found here (link).

If I recall correctly, I am the one mentioned below who observed Jon has strong deontological instincts.


An Objective and Unbiased Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Best Songs

Jon Wong

[continued]

  1. Mine
Song Catchiness:

60

Show-stopping Capabilities:

65

Lyrical Content:

70

Lyrical Quality:

75

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

60

I admit that when I first drafted this list, I was inclined to leave Mine, the opening track to Speak Now, off the top 10 entirely. Then I listened to all the songs again in order to be fair to them. It only took one listen for me to realize I had erred in my original supposition that this song was not among her 10 best. My guess is that it has to do with Mine not standing out on a musical level, which speaks again to how important it is for *songs* to sound good. That seems like it would be self evident, but my years spent among indie-music elitists have shown me otherwise.

Mine is plenty catchy enough to listen to, but the standout qualities of this song lie in its lyrics. Taylor Swift is particularly good at writing ballads—an art that is perhaps a little rarer in pop music than in other genres, and this story of two partners taking on the world together is both cute and clever. It contains one of Taylor Swift’s very best lines: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter,” as well as a chorus that changes with the context of the song with each revisit, which is something that artists frankly do not do often enough. Continue reading

Guest Post: A Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Best Songs, Part 1

My friend Jon asked to guest post at Accidental Shelf-Browsing as his own blog is basically defunct; what he wanted to publish was his Top 10 ranking of Taylor Swift songs. This is considerably off-brand for this space (perhaps I am a fool for worrying about such things, but I do), so I said I would be interested in something that was very reflective about the aesthetic standards by which he made his judgements; I keep meaning to write a post about aesthetic standards and choosing between them, which his piece would then complement. The following is what he gave me. The usual disclaimers apply: Jon’s opinions do not represent my own, nor do I take responsibility for them. The only changes I have made are in converting formatting to something compatible with WordPress and in light copy editing.

Taylor Swift Speak Now - Pittsburgh

“Taylor Swift Speak Now – Pittsburgh,” by Ronald Woan. Source: flic.kr/p/9UUwwX

Because of its length, his post will come in two parts, which I have split arbitrarily in the approximate middle. This is Part 1.


An Objective and Unbiased Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Best Songs

Jon Wong

A Primer:

In 2009, when I first began listening to Taylor Swift (to the extent that listened to all pop music), I felt a certain reluctance towards calling myself a “fan” of hers. Part of this was, I admit, due to my own musical bias/elitism regarding pop music—I enjoyed pop music as a collective, but I believed that pop music, by nature of its appeal to the masses, was inherently vapid, certainly in production and delivery, if not in actual content. Taylor Swift, along with Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and the rest of the biggest and best of the late 2000s, felt very much like guilty pleasures. They were guilty pleasures I embraced and talked about openly, but guilty pleasures nonetheless. I felt the same way about Sum 41, Green Day, Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan, Linkin Park, and the rest of the pop-punk bands that came before them in the mid-2000s. I was also an idiot. Continue reading

Can You Be Too Open-Minded?

I have said in the past that Openness is the only one of the Big Five personality traits which cannot be excessive. It is always a good idea to increase one’s own Openness; for all other traits, only some people would be well served for increasing it.1 The precise ideal point for any such trait might be different from trait to trait; higher-than-average Agreeableness is probably a good thing, while Extraversion may have a broad range in the middle within which no individual position is better or worse than another. For Openness, that ideal point is at the extreme high end. In other words, if open-mindedness is a virtue, it is not a virtue which is the median of two extremes, as Aristotle said all virtues would be; it is still a virtue if it is taken to the extreme.

This is what I said, and this is still largely what I believe, but of course there are people who disagree and I thought I might take some time to consider some possible objections; furthermore, this is not the whole story. There are cases where open-mindedness can be corrupted, but I think I can explain how such a thing would not happen as a result from an excess of open-mindedness but rather from a deficit of some other virtue.

The place to begin is with the phrase, commonly misattributed to G K Chesterton, that you should not keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. (Some short Internet research suggests that this quote should be attributed to Walter Kotschnig in 1940.) A possible reason for this misattribution is that Chesterton did say something similar:

For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid.

Finally there is another phrase which you might hear sometimes if you advocate for, or are assumed to advocating for, open-mindedness: If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. (Its original attribution was much more specific, incidentally.) This is something I’ve been told from time to time in comboxes.

Between these phrases, I think I can identify two concerns about open-mindedness:

    1. Being too open-minded will condemn a person to being eternally unmoored;
    2. Being too open-minded will make a person vulnerable to bad ideas and poor reasoning.

 

I will tackle these in reverse order because the second has already been well-addressed by Carl Sagan. Continue reading

Simple and Sophisticated Pleasures in the Capitol

While he was driving me to Toronto a few months ago, Jon and I were talking about YA fiction. Somehow in the course of that conversation I mentioned that I understood the Hunger Games films as containing a libertarian subtext, and that I had read an article about how many YA dystopia books have such a subtext. After Jon pressed me for further explanation, I interpreted The Hunger Games as a libertarian film for him; I was certainly not the first to notice its ideological commitments, and you can see some examples linked in my combative annotated bibliography on libertarianism. But part of my explanation is rooted in how The Hunger Games and its sequels depict the wealthy people of the Capitol as both gender-non-conforming and decadent. The luxury and sophistication of the Capitol citizens are intrinsic markers of their moral corruption above and beyond those pleasures’ costs to the poorer Districts, I said, and I went on to allude to a history of anti-luxury and anti-sophisticated-pleasures sentiment in Protestant and American conservatism. Jon has since asked me to write this up further for use in a high school classroom, but it might also be useful to others too.

an image of several elaborate chocolate cakes, including some with rabbit decorations

Karen Roe’s “The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012”

I have attempted to write this post a few times with little luck. A large part of the problem is that I do not remember how I came to understand this history of opposition to sophisticated pleasures and its relationship to American-style libertarianism. I do know of a few bits and pieces. There is a passage in H P Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness which used “decadence” in a way then unfamiliar to me which only afterwards made sense. There was an academic article I read about the characters of Falstaff and Prince John in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV which referred to competing economic theories of luxury goods (especially “sack,” meaning a fortified wine) in Elizabethan England. There have been perhaps a half-dozen posts on the blogs of Roman Catholics like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry which observe that Catholic countries have better food than Protestant countries because the former know how to enjoy life’s physical pleasures. I remember less well the dozens of broad generalizations of the effects Protestantism has had on the Low Countries, England, and North America I must have read between high school history classes, undergraduate courses at Queen’s, and graduate courses as UBC, or the lectures on the history of belief in the rise and fall of civilizations, or the articles about the effects all these have American culture today. Moreover there is the pattern of observations I have had in my own rural working-class childhood and in the time I spent in Fort McMurray.1 I cannot begin to summarize all of this. And if I cannot marshal all of these sources appropriately, I cannot make an argument, exactly; I do not expect anyone to just take my word for all of this, and yet I don’t even really know what my own sources are. What I can do is sketch out my position, and gesture toward some related material, and hope that I can supplement this with a better-researched piece later.

I have spent enough time in academia and then in a museum to be leery of making broad claims without substantiating them, but this is a blog post after all; if I cannot do this provisional kind of writing here, I cannot do it anywhere.

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Consistency in Two Traditions of Fantasy, Part 2: The Deathly Hallows

A Second Possible Consistency

In Part One of this discussion, I introduced the problem of appreciating different kinds of consistency in fantasy literature and then I elaborated the planetary correspondences of The Chronicles of Narnia as an example of a fantasy series which uses a different kind of consistency than a logical one. Now, I am not going to argue that L. F. Baum also had planetary correspondences in his work, or that the Harry Potter franchise has some hidden theological depths. What I want to suggest, though, is that each might have something more like a thematic or atmospheric consistency in place of a logical one.

A painting of a thestral

Carol Smith, “Harry Potter-47”

I think it is worth making a distinction between two ways in which that might be true. First, it might have achieved such a consistency which is easy to overlook if you aren’t primed for it; Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, according to Ward, Are an example of this. Second, it might attempt such a consistency but not have achieved it. What I mean by this is that various markers in the text suggest a sort of consistency which it aims at but a careful examination of the text will nonetheless reveal it was not successful. In that case logical consistency of the sort at which G. R. R. Martin excels would not necessarily be the best standard by which to judge the text; however, the best standard by which to judge the text is some other kind of consistency at which it also fails.1 In such a way it might be analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which really doesn’t work in the sense of logical consistency: the population distributions and the modes of agriculture, resource extraction, and economics are all impossible or at least seriously implausible. However, Tolkien does a sufficiently good job of making all of the cultural aspects look coherent that this is easy to overlook. So it might be more accurate to say that these other texts might be better judged by different standards of consistency than it is to say they are consistent in different ways, because they may have failed to meet those different standards of consistency.

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