Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards

Ian McKellan call your office...

So it seems what while I was off busy with real life, J. K. Rowling answered a question from a fan by explaining that Dumbledore was gay, and had been in love with dark wizard Grindlewald. (For those who haven't read the books, in his youth Dumbledore and Grindlewald plotted to rule the world together "for the greater good", but eventually when Grindlewald's got his dark wizard groove on and was carrying on a reign of terror over in Eastern Europe, Dumbledore headed over, defeated him in a duel, and consigned him to a life sentence in wizard prison. In the process, Dumbledore's sister was killed, and he foreswore the idea of ruling others for their own good.)

Now, there's no particular evidence that Dumbledore leans that way in the books, and since I'm a "what does the book actually say" kind of reader, that means I don't really find this fru-fraw very interesting. Perhaps this has all sorts of deep meaning (disappointment for some, exultation for others) among the sorts of people who spend their time reading The Definitive Guide to the Potterverse or writing FanFic. But as far as I'm concerned, this just doesn't mean much of anything unless she goes on to write a book about it, in which case the book might be good or it might be lousy. In the world of books, even kid-lit, it's books rather than press conferences that matter.

However, that doesn't keep there from being lots of fuss. Jay Anderson has covered a bit of it, and Mark Shea has a very reasonable post about it, followed by 200+ comments, most of which are predictably not very reasonable.

I honestly don't have anything to say on the revelation itself. Both it and the rumpus a few days earlier when Rowling "revealed" that the Potter series contained some Christian imagery strike me as not very interesting. (The one great author revelation I'd be interested in is when the dream starts in Brazil.) But what does strike me as a bit interesting is the reaction of a number of the people concerned with the issue.

So for instance, The Herald announces:
Well, the cat is well and truly out of the bag now. Like every writer, Rowling has a back story for her fictional characters and ... there can never more be any doubt about Dumbledore. On balance, I think his gayness is a good thing and its revelation has been cleverly executed. First, Rowling built the character layer by layer. She built him to be the acme of all that is wise and kind; dutiful and virtuous. She put him in a position of trust; headmaster of a mixed boarding school. She made him a champion of the underdog and a protector of the excluded. She even killed him off in a final heroic act of self-sacrifice. And having placed him as far beyond criticism as her fertile imagination would allow; abracadabra - she revealed that he was gay.

Let the prejudiced, the gay bashers, the bigots try as they might; they won't be able to tear this icon off his pedestal. Rowling has held a literary mirror to their narrow-mindedness to let them see for themselves how purposefully blind it is. And as they wrestle with the invisible knots she has tied them in, they'll hear, if they listen, her metaphorical laughter. It's the laughter of a Pied Piper as she leads their spellbound children to the broad sunny uplands of tolerance.
While at the other end of the ideological spectrum, blogger Zippy (never a man to be accused of mild opinions) opines in Mark Shea's combox:
I think Rowling has single-handedly called "game over" here, for all practical purposes. There is no need for someone who enjoyed the series to "un-enjoy" it, as if such a thing were possible; but on a future-looking basis HP is now just another turd-bomb in the culture wars, like it or not. Its author has clinched the matter, seemingly deliberately.
What strikes me as tiresomely similar about both "sides" in this discussion is that neither one seems to have a well ordered idea of the book as text, rather than the book as whatever-the-author-and-fan-communities-mutually-say-it-is. So for instance, it seems to me that marxist/atheist Jean Paul Sartre actually wrote just as good (if not better) an illustration of sin and its consequence (hell) in "No Exit" than C. S. Lewis did in any of his books dealing with the topic -- though Lewis's books are certainly good. Sartre didn't intend to do this, from what I can tell. He intended to write a play showing how we are controlled by other people's ideas of us. However he was a successful enough observer of human character and its flaws that I think he actually succeeded in writing something which can be seen in a very interesting Christian way. This is not to say that a work is totally defined by how it's audience reacts to it -- that would be rather tiresome and post-modern. Works of fiction are best seen, it seems to me, as acts of sub-creation -- things are are seen as true so far as they are related within the context of the text. And how good that text is (leaving aside issues of prose style and such which are obviously key) has a lot to do with how successfully it conveys a sub-creation with "rings true". Do these people seem like real people? Does the world work in a real way? Does it convey something that seems true/worthwhile/interesting?

All this argumentation, on the other hand, not only strikes me as a bit off base, but as coming from people who don't actually read fiction all that much. Having hit a fairly adult reading level by age nine and going through books pretty rapidly in my youth, I was reading a lot of varied stuff by the time I was in the 10-14 age range which is probably the right age-range for the latter Harry Potter books. Sure, I read the canonical stuff like Narnia and Lord of the Rings, but I also a whole range of stuff by a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors (I was a genre reader as a youth) most of them very clearly with non-Christian viewpoints on the world. And my faith and sense of morality survived just fine. (Honestly, if your kid is getting his sense of morality from a seven book kid-lit series rather than you and your parish -- there's probably something wrong with the family communication level.)

Indeed, my sister used to refer to the "Aristophanes principle of pagan inoculation", which was basically that running into non-Christian characters and values for the first time via non-Christian literature (read in the safety of your home and discussed with your family) is much safer and lower pressure than running into it for the first time with close friends in a personal crisis.

38 comments:

Love2Learn Mom said...

Thank you! That was one of the most sensible posts I've read about HP in a long time.

I think perhaps people tend to live too much in the political world to look at a book or movie on its own merits. Which is a shame.

zippy said...

What strikes me as tiresomely similar about both "sides" in this discussion is that neither one seems to have a well ordered idea of the book as text, rather than the book as whatever-the-author-and-fan-communities-mutually-say-it-is.

Well, it is either true that Rowling wrote Dumbledore as gay (and that Tolkien wrote Gandalf as a Maia), or it is false. It is always possible that Rowling is lying: that she made the Dumbledore-is-gay thing up after the fact for some other purpose.

But the idea that Dumbledore's gayness is only pertinent if it can be verified in the canonical text (using some unspecified verification procedure) is a form of positivism; and you probably know what I think of positivism. Sola the canonical text doesn't work any better as a theory of meaning in literature than it does as a theory of meaning in theology.

Darwin said...

Zippy,

Oddly, I seem to recall you and I crossing sword some time back over the question of whether one could make an "immoral movie" into a "moral movie" be editing out the scenes he wished had not been in it. (I held that the movie was as stood, you held that the movie was whatever you made it.) So at least I can claim that hobgoblin of small minds in my favor when I continue to hold that what a work of art contains is what it contains.

I'm not clear that labeling the practice of holding a book to say what it says to be "positivist" means very much, other than that in this case you don't like it. After all, if what a book says is to be determined not from the text itself, but from some wider milieu, what where exactly is the end. (Actually, I would argue that the scriptural parallel is in my favor here: The reason why Tradition is necessary as an interpreter of scripture is because without it we would be in the same position in regards to the Bible as we are in regards to every other book.)


But to be clear, I also don't particularly care about whether Dumbledore "is gay" or not. There is nothing in the books that I think presents an immoral view of the world as regards to this. (How can it, it doesn't mention it.) It presents nothing as right that is not, since it presents nothing. And I am not any more worried about a youthful reader developing an incorrect understanding of homosexuality from reading it than I am about such a reader becoming a determinist because of reading the Foundation novels or a dualist because of reading the Earthsea novels, etc. (Indeed, rather less, because these novels actually contain these errors, while no one would ever come to the idea that Dumbledore were gay without reading the fandom opus.)

Darwin said...

Oh, and since you seem to think the question is so important (as you keep bringing it up everywhere): It doesn't strike me as at all relevant to Lord of the Rings whether Gandalf is a maiar or not -- indeed, I'm not sure the concept of maiar is even mentioned in the book. It may be nice to know, but it really doesn't matter in regards to the story. (I certainly doubt that the enjoyment of the original readers in the 50s was deficient because they didn't know it.)

zippy said...

(I held that the movie was as stood, you held that the movie was whatever you made it.)

I don't recall claiming that editing a movie doesn't result in a different movie, but maybe I did. I don't claim to have been consistent in everything I've ever said.

(Actually, I would argue that the scriptural parallel is in my favor here: The reason why Tradition is necessary as an interpreter of scripture is because without it we would be in the same position in regards to the Bible as we are in regards to every other book.)

It isn't a parallel in my understanding, but a basic matter of (universal) relations between text and meaning from which Scripture is not (literally cannot be) exempt. Meaning never arises from a text alone, but always as a system of reader, author (and editor), text, tradition, and hermeneutic. Saw any of those off and there is no meaning.

But there you go. No surprise that the positivist and the platonist disagree.

Darwin said...

I don't think I count as a positivist anywhere other than the ZippyWorld, but since you are the author of your comment, I guess I have to admit that within your comment I am one...

It's an ironic accusation, since I mentioned that one of the things I think defines quality in a work of art (the sub-creation) is the extent to which agrees with the real world (God's creation) in its working and values.

So out of curiosity, in your schema, if a work of great antiquity is discovered about which there is no recorded tradition or authorial intent, does it have any meaning, or does the fact it has been reduced to a text only mean that it's meaning is now fundamentally unknowable?

But to repeat one more time, I honestly don't think it matters a whit in regards to the moral value of the HP books whether Dumbledore was meant to be gay or not. He effectively plays an aged eunuch role in the books regardless of his orientation.

CMinor said...

The bit from the Herald put me in mind of an old Malcolm Muggeridge quip (re the Profumo affair, I think,) to the effect that nothing was more insufferable than the English when they had an attack of morality. Good gosh, what sanctimony!

My reaction was likewise "so what?" The book's written; Dumbledore's sexuality is never explicitly discussed. Does it really matter which of the Seven Deadlies brought him to the brink of darkness in his youth? (I would have assumed Pride before Lust, in any case.)

This revelation, IMHO, adds precious little to the story and merely confirms my already-ingrained feeling that Rowling, like many lesser writers of youth lit, is prone to laying on the political correctness with a mason's hod. She'd have done better to stick to the big themes of good and evil.

Anyhow, thanks for a sensible post on the matter.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

What bugs me is that she never said "I wrote DD as gay." She said she'd always thought of him as gay, then went on to explain the heartbreak when he his first love was...well, Wizard Hitler. Listen to a lot of authors talk-- they'll talk about how they designed the character, then they'll mention how sometimes the characters just bring up their own characteristics.

Honestly? Whoop de doo if Dumbledore has SSA. There's no evidence he ever committed an act with Griswauld, and his character doesn't lend one to think he screwed without love, so he is much more likely to be viewed-- if you care to view it at all-- as a role-model for folks who are trying to live with same sex attraction without sinning.

I got some good information-- like what she actually said, without the news looking for a headline-- at the Blue Boar for a more realistic roundup
http://theblueboar.blogspot.com/2007/10/rita-skeeter-covers-jk-rowling.html
and Cacciaguida.
http://cacciaguida.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html#2446569508213095368

zippy said...

So out of curiosity, in your schema, if a work of great antiquity is discovered about which there is no recorded tradition or authorial intent, does it have any meaning, or does the fact it has been reduced to a text only mean that it's meaning is now fundamentally unknowable?

If it is written in a language or symbols we understand then it has at least that much authoritative tradition behind it. We have some access to its meaning, but we are necessarily more ignorant of its meaning than the original person who wrote it and those it was written for specifically, unless it is something very, very simple (though even there we cannot know for certain that it doesn't mean something in addition to or different from what we think it means).

If it is literally a bunch of symbols we don't and can't understand then it has no meaning. If we can understand it at all, it already stands in some at least partially discernable authoritative tradition relating language to meaning.

Darwin said...

Zippy,

It strikes me that either you're changing the use of terms without notice, or else we've been talking about different things (in some regards) from the get-go.

If you want to define the language used, standard cultural symbols, etc. as "tradition" in regards to a work then: yes, obviously there are certain parts of a work which are defined by things outside the text. Thus, if someone is described as cheating on his wife in a novel, the meaning of that phrase is defined not merely by the specific meaning of those words in English but also by the cultural understanding of what a "wife" is, what a "marriage" is, and that having sex with someone other than your wife constitutes "cheating".

The sense in which it seems to me that the text is key in any novel that the text is the only way we know what events are supposed to have occurred in the imaginary universe.

Now, the reason that the "Dumbledore is gay" thing strikes me as a non issue in this case is because there are no events in the books that this recasts in any significant sense. (By contrast, if it were announced the Miss Haversham of Great Expectations was a lesbian, this would actually change the meaning of several events and relationships.) If Rowling had announced, "Dumbledore is the sort of person who has murderous rages," it would also not change the story much, because looking back over the series you wouldn't find any situations where this seemed to come into play.

Now, if Rowling goes on to write Albus Dumbledore and the Bathhouse of Joy, that may be a very objectionable book which portrays actions that we both believe to be very wrong to be right. And if that happens, I'll strongly advise everyone not to read that book. (Just as I advise people not to read any of the sequels to Ender's Game or not to read Robertson Davies' last novel.)

But the books that currently exist do not strike me as striking any morally false notes that are important enough to make them unhealthy reading material -- certainly not in regards to the sexual realm. And in that sense, I honestly don't see what the fuss is about (aside from the fact that a children's author has pulled a rather PC publicity stunt.)

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

Mark Shea was up to 282 comments a few minutes ago... where do some people get that kind of time to comment? And Mark had written another post basically asking commenters to be a bit more polite.

zippy said...

I'll stick to the non-HP-specific points here, since that is the more interesting subject anyway:

The sense in which it seems to me that the text is key in any novel that the text is the only way we know what events are supposed to have occurred in the imaginary universe.

It isn't the only way. In fact far more is implicit than explicit. But I'm not arguing that the text is irrelevant. (That would be rather like arguing that the wheels on a bicycle are not key to the functioning of the bicycle). I am arguing (equivalently: each of the following expresses the same idea in a different way) that

* 'the text alone' does not bear any meaning;

* it is false that the truth (or relevance, if we are defining a class of facts with some particular relevance) of a proposed 'fact' depends upon the verifiability of that fact in the explicit text;

* all relevant facts are not made explicit in a text;

* no sufficiently interesting text is complete

rhinemouse said...

Leaving aside debates over literary theory, I am keening in anger over The Herald's triumphant piece, because hello, Rowling spends the entire last book *deconstructing* Dumbledore's character and revealing him to be an extremely flawed man who is nowhere near as good as Harry. IT IS ONLY ONE OF THE MAJOR THEMES OF THE BOOK. The "gay bashers" don't need to tear Dumbledore off his pedestal--Rowling's already done it.

Also, "the only love of my life was a brief passion for a dark wizard who made me consider taking over the world, and who got my sister killed" does not strike me as a terribly ringing endorsement for a gay lifestyle. Honestly, if I were pro-gay, I think I would be kind of annoyed by it.

Darwin said...

Rhinemouse,

Yeah, the Herald pieces was pretty clearly on crack. The Dumbledore we have by the end is a sufficiently messed up (though brave and in certain respects noble) that I'm not clear how this is some big victory. I'd have to look around, but apparently a couple of gay activists have already cried foul on that.

Zippy,

I think we've both basically laid our our thoughts at this point, so I'll try not to keep the belaboring up indefinitely. A few final items:

Your claim that the text on its own does not bear any meaning only makes sense to the degree that if no one is able to understand the letters/language then the meaning is indiscernible. By the same logic, the Venus di Milo would have no meaning if viewed by some alien creature that had no idea it wasn't just an oddly shaped piece of rock. Which may be true, but when one is discussing current novels is a frame of reference which just plain isn't worth talking about.

I must admit I find myself wondering: Do you, or have you in the past, actually read much fiction? This idea that most of what a novel is about (and indeed even what happens in it) must be found from sources other than the text strikes me as rather divorced from any experience of reading. Most of the time, when I read a novel, I lack any sort of interviews and other "extra-canonical" information about the author and his thinking behind the piece. Nor do I go in search of such material.

This is not to say that I don't make connections between the work and things external to it. I might think, "He's using this character's feelings for the car he once believed would be the one possession to make him happy to say something about the nature of human relationships" or "This really seems to hint that the author believes our lives are fated rather than the product of free will," but these are conclusions that I reach through the interaction between my mind, the text, and my knowledge and experiences of the rest of the world and intellectual constructs that I've encountered. It's not the result of some sort of tradition of the sayings of the author which are handed down.

Finally, I'm amused at the idea (if this is what you're actually saying) that important events or character elements in the story (indeed, you suggest perhaps the most important ones) are often left un-explicit in the text. As someone who has done a fair amount of fiction writing (though I bow to the expertise of Rhinemouse and others who are still "in the biz") I can assure you that leaving key plot or character elements out of the text and then saying, "Oh, well of course I didn't write those down, but be assured that they are in there because I meant them to be" is phenomenally bad writing. The text is the means by which the author communicates to the reader, and if the author fails to include an event in the text, he can hardly expect the reader know (or care) about it. Otherwise we could simply print blank books and assure people, "Don't worry, there are all sorts of exciting ideas in there, I just didn't write them down."

Darwin said...

Kiwi,

Sheesh, yeah, no kidding... I read a certain amount of the first thread, left a comment, saw there was yet another thread, and gave up.

zippy said...

I must admit I find myself wondering: Do you, or have you in the past, actually read much fiction?

Libraries full of it.

Finally, I'm amused at the idea (if this is what you're actually saying) that important events or character elements in the story (indeed, you suggest perhaps the most important ones) are often left un-explicit in the text.

What I said is that most of the meaning one gets from a text is implicit. And it is. You can't even read the text without coming to it with background that an entire library could not make fully explicit. Text is a shaper and director of meaning-content for the one who understands it, but text isn't meaning-content in itself.

Darwin said...

What I said is that most of the meaning one gets from a text is implicit. And it is. You can't even read the text without coming to it with background that an entire library could not make fully explicit. Text is a shaper and director of meaning-content for the one who understands it, but text isn't meaning-content in itself.

This is completely true, but I'm not sure how it makes the "HP is now gay agit-prop, game over" point that you were making elsewhere. While cultural context is needed to understand what the author is conveying with the text, the text remains the sole means by which an author conveys the events which he means to be taken as part of the story. Thus, it may be interesting to know that an author theorized certain un-mentioned background factors and events to a story, but these ideas (if revealed elsewhere) are not part of the story itself.

If an author said of one of his characters, "I always pictured Sister Constance as having a pinch of cocaine in the evening to help relieve tension and achieve a meditative state," this might tell you a great deal about the author's attitudes towards the relationship between drugs, morality and religion, but if such an event never actually occured in the story in question, it would be hard to call it a "pro-drugs propaganda piece".


If what's bothering you is that I said, arguably using terms loosely, that the story "is" the text, that I'm happy to retract or ammend that.

zippy said...

This is completely true, but I'm not sure how it makes the "HP is now gay agit-prop, game over" point that you were making elsewhere.

I don't think it does. "Dumbeldore is in fact gay" and "HP as a cultural object is now mainly gay agitprop" are two distinct points.

...the text remains the sole means by which an author conveys the events which he means to be taken as part of the story.

That at least appears to be manifestly counterfactual. If author commentary isn't about the meaning of the story, what is it about?

Darwin said...

That at least appears to be manifestly counterfactual. If author commentary isn't about the meaning of the story, what is it about?

It strikes me that an author's commentary can fall into three categories:

1) An explanation or "why I wrote it this way" or "what message I meant to convey" which may either clarify the story or make it clear that the author failed to send the message that he thought he was sending.

2) Another story. (I'd put Tolkien's other works that were gathered into the Silmarillian, Unfinished Tales, etc. in this cateogry.) In this case, it may provide additional context for the original story, but it is primarily interesting (and stands or falls) as a story in itself.

3) An insistance (on the part of the author, perhaps encouraged by fans) to treat the story as a world rather than a story. I would distinguish this from 2) in that in this case you are dealing with details that really add nothing in particular to the story but consist of "filling in the gaps".

zippy said...

I guess to me it seems that however it is subcategorized, author commentary about a story is about the story, and no amount of dancing around the matter can change that.

Of course we are intellectually capable of editing a story and re-telling the new, edited story to suit ourselves. But it seems to me that someone willing to do that should be no less willing to edit the canonical text than the commentary, especially when that commentary is not additive in nature to the story as understood by the storyteller but reflects the storyteller's thoughts on matters as she was writing the story. If we are going to reject the story as told by the author and edit it to make a different story we like better, then why stop short of the canon?

In general I think the idea that the storyteller can be treated as irrelevant once the symbols - utterly meaningless taken in themselves - have been scratched onto paper makes a terrific hash of things. It is sola scriptura all over again, albiet in an area of generally less consequence than sola scriptura. If nothing extra-textual (including the author's unique role as author) is authoritative then meaning collapses. So in practice people adopt whatever esoteric hermeneutic they want to for their own purposes. That isn't so consequential in itself when all we are talking about is fiction, but it is a training ground for sloppy positivist/postmodenr thinking more generally.

Literacy-chic said...

So Zippy, haven't you realized that deconstruction is an exercise in futility? Or have you figured out that it is useful mainly for confusing valid points on blogs? You are obviously acquainted with Saussure and Derrida. Whoopdeedoo.

In the world of literary criticism, Darwin is right. Something has to pretty much exist in the actual words on the page as everyone understands them in the real world--that is, according to a consensus between the readers and the author. Otherwise, none of our signifiers has any meaning. But when we see the word "tree," we have to picture something with a trunk (not the kind you pack clothes in), branches (the kind that have sticks on them) and leaves (but not as in sheets of paper), otherwise we fail to communicate. Now, like Darwin, I think this whole "Dumbledore is gay" thing is really silly, and that it represents Rowling's reluctance to give up the spotlight and her desire to maintain (or perhaps assert) control over her texts, which in general she hasn't controlled very well. This is simply a continuation of what she has done with every book--gotten an idea about the last 4 books or so and decided to add it in to her next one. Only there are no books left, so you use the newspapers (and blogs, and fan fics) to get your point across instead. But at the end of the day, if it's not in the book, it doesn't matter. I've said elsewhere--the author's not whispering the "true meaning" in your ear while you read, so what really counts are those little black marks on the page and, let me add, the consensus reality in which we exist that tells us that the meanings we attribute to those words are, indeed, consistent.

P.S.-TOlkien doesn't actually say that Gandalf was a Maiar, though unlike Rowling Tolkien admitted that he "figured things out" about LOTR &c., after the fact. He just had a better sense of the consistency of his sub-creation, and knew how to allow his readers to "figure it out," too. So even if this is what he came to realize was the most logical explanation of Gandalf's origin, there is no real "textual evidence" to support it, only enough to support the theory that it could--in the real history of Middle Earth, be the case.

Literacy-chic said...

Funny thing, but the denial of the inherent meaning of language IS the basis for sloppy postmodern thinking that Zippy seems to want to avoid!

Literacy-chic said...

Incidently, if Rowling goes on to write Albus Dumbledore and the Bathhouse of Joy, I'm going to travel long distances and camp out o sidewalks to get Darwin a signed copy! (wiping tears from eyes after laughing so hard)

zippy said...

Funny thing, but the denial of the inherent meaning of language IS the basis for sloppy postmodern thinking that Zippy seems to want to avoid!

That is what the positivist thinks, which in my view is why positivism and postmodernism are closely related despite tremendous mutual animosity, rather like the Hatfields and the McCoys. Once the positivist (correctly) despairs of the "text alone" carrying meaning he has nowhere else to go but postmodernism.

mrsdarwin said...

Zippy,

May I ask what it is you mean by a "positivist"

Literacy-chic said...

Or "postmodernism," for that matter. Perhaps the words lack inherent meaning and we are unable to reach a consensus on what the meanings might be, making further attempts at communication futile. Just a thought!

zippy said...

Certainly, Mrs Darwin.

For the purposes of this discussion, by "positivist" I mean someone who believes that a text taken alone is meaningful.

It is difficult to nail down precisely what "the text alone is meaningful" entails: there are as many different interpretations of what the doctrine "the text alone" means as there are persons who think it means something. I think the difficulties arise from the fact that it is an inherently incoherent idea.

There are other forms/instantiations of positivism and other ways of understanding it. But one of the ironies of life is that an incoherent idea (like positivism) is often far more difficult to refute, or even to define, than an outright false one. In the case of an incoherent idea adherents can construct sentences - sentences which will be logically consistent as a local matter - claiming that their incoherent idea means whatever they say it means. So finding logical fallacies in an incoherent idea to which someone is firmly committed usually results in a revision of local premeses and the "expansion" or "movement" of the logically consistent "region", if you will. If we logically refute an outright false idea which depends on sufficiently proximate premises it has nowhere to go. If we logically refute an incoherent idea whose contradictory premses are deeply hidden it can "move around" in the green region of my diagram, always hiding from the latest refutation and still reaching the conclusion desired by its adherent.

A postmodern is someone who realizes that this is going on but refuses to give up on "the text alone" for a variety of reasons about which we can speculate, but which are often connected to the fact that giving up "the text alone" means accepting some extra-textual authority without which meaning is literally impossible.

Darwin said...

So far as I can tell, Zippy is taking a point which is true (that additional linguistic and cultural knowledge is key to understanding what a text means -- and also that an authors statements as to what he "meant" may be at least useful in helping to interpret the text) and then taking it out to a philosophical extremity which is just plain luducrious: claiming that the text itself has no meaning and that what is said about a work (by the author and by "tradition") is usually _more_ important than what the work says itself.

If we're to take this assertion as making any sense at all, rather than just being an example of a fun philosophical concept with Zippy is playing with, I think it would be useful if he'd cite a work of fiction in which the explanations provided by the author and others actually provide more important information than the story itself. An example would at least help provide context for what's being discussed here.

If, on the other hand, Zippy is not talking about the _story_ per se but rather asserting that external sources are needed to linguistically and culturally understand the work, then the assertion is true but not very interesting.

zippy said...

I suppose I should clarify that when I say "extra textual" I don't mean "more text gotten from somewhere else". I mean "extra-textual". Text can always be supplemented with more text, but this supplementation is never complete, removing all dependence on extra-textual meaning drawn from some non-explicit authority or metaphysic: thus the connection between completeness and positivism. Positivism believes (or asserts equivocally that it believes) that some meaning - any meaning at all - is possible in utter isolation from non-textual sources of meaning. It may like Darwin admit the existence of extra-textual sources of meaning, but it denies the absolute necessity of extra-textual meaning as prerequisite to the meaningfulness-at-all of the text.

All under the usual dance I described in my old post on the importance of consistency.

But in reality, a text taken alone isn't meaningful at all. We've just been programmed by centuries of exposure to the philosophical bastard children of Lollardy to think it does.

zippy said...

Darwin: the issues you raise in your 10:47 comment all revolve around logically "local" concerns (structure of plot and such), when the problem with positivism is far deeper down the rabbit hole: the problem with positivism lies down where the possibility of meaning itself arises.

mrsdarwin said...

But in general, what it positivism? Simply defining it within the context of this conversation is confusing to me, at least. Of course you've got to have some a priori knowledge to read a text, such as knowing how to read. But requiring extra-textual sources as a "prerequisite to the meaningfulness-at-all of the text" seems odd, especially (in the case of HP) when that means authorial revelations after the text has already been published and read. If this information was so crucial to an understanding the text, why wasn't it included? It seems to me that if an author wants his text understood a certain way, it's incumbent on him to include that information in the text, or to issue a revised edition.

A Philosopher said...

Zippy, I'm not sure what you mean when you deny that the text taken alone is meaningful. There looks to me to be a controversial and an uncontroversial version of that claim, and I don't know which you want.

Consider the word "Socrates". That word is a name of a certain Greek philosopher. Standard approaches to semantics thus assign to the word a meaning, which (in one way or another) links the word to Socrates. If these approaches are right, then that meaning is, in some sense, a property of the (in this case very short) text alone.

Now, no one thinks that the meaning property is a purely intrinsic or non-relational property of the word "Socrates". The word has that property because of some collection of facts extrinsic to the word, including perhaps intentions of speakers, social conventions, causal chains, qualities of abstracta, and so on. So if you mean, in denying that the text has meaning alone, that meaning properties are not intrinsic and non-relational, then no one disagrees (but nothing interesting follows, including the conclusions you're trying to reach).

So perhaps you mean that the word "Socrates" just doesn't have a meaning (that is, there is no monadic feature of the word). That would be controversial, but it also looks incoherent, since it seems to require blocking the construction of monadic features out of relations. I bear the "parent of" relation to certain people; as a result it follows, on standard understandings of properties and relations, that I have the monadic property "being a parent". I don't have that property intrinsically, but given my extrinsic and relational connections to the world, the monadic feature follows immediately. So I don't see the room for constructing the controversial position.

Mrsdarwin, the wikipedia entry on positivism is not too bad. It's worth noting that Zippy uses the term "positivism" rather broadly, and has what I'd have to call an unfortunate tendency to shoe-horn every view he disagrees with into the category of positivism. There is, for example, no historical tradition or theoretical reason for positivists to take any stand on the relevant data pool for engaging in literary interpretation.

mrsdarwin said...

Philosopher,

Thanks. I've just been looking at the Wikipedia entry, and I'm writing a new post based on it. As soon as I get it published, I'm going to close comments here and move the discussion up there.

zippy said...

If this information was so crucial to an understanding the text, why wasn't it included?

I don't know of anyone claiming that the specific fact of Dumbledore's homosexuality was crucial to understanding the story in general. I don't think the fact that Gandalf was Maia was crucial to understanding LOTR either. The genesis of the positivism discussion, on which Darwin and I have long had our disagreements, came about from the insistence that in order for it to be true as a matter of the story-told-by-Rowling it must be the case that this truth is verifiable in the text. It isn't the significance of the fact in the story-told-by-Rowling, but the insistence that in order for it to be a fact it must be verifiable in this manner, that makes the claim positivist. (Alternatively the notion that the story-told-by-Rowling is nothing but the text she produced is positivist).

I'm not sure the fact is all that significant to the story as a story, but I'm pretty sure its cultural impact as a fact in the story has some importance (within the bounds of the overall importance of Harry Potter generally, of course). Some people are doubtless attempting to deny that it is a fact within the story for this latter reason, I suppose, but the two issues are only peripherally related in my view.

Darwin said...

Zippy,

Can I then take you to be confirming (in your 11:07 comment -- what tangled webs we weave around here) that when you assert that most meaning is extra textual you are speaking primarily of the linguistic and cultural meanings necessary to understand a text -- as A Philosopher discussed in his explanation of the external knowledge employed in understanding the word "Socrates"?

If so, it sounds to me like you're maining making the "true but not interesting" point that I outlined -- namely that (in rather tautological language) in order to discern the meaning of the text you must understand it.

I'm willing to take (and indeed agree with) the essentially Platonic point that words in themselves do no have inherent meaning, but are rather products of the "shadowlands" in that by their linguistic and cultural meanings they attempt to carry from the mind of one person to that of another an evocation of something that does (or, in the case of fiction,is imaged to) exist.

However, I'm unclear why one should go from this (which is basically a theory of language issue) to insisting that the content of a story (working within a literary frame of reference) is not derived from the text of the work. (Other than simply because you happen not to like the Harry Potter books and thus would like to be able to assert that they say something about the gay lifestyle, when regardless of Dumbledore's sexual proclivaties the actual stories -- the later ones of which, if I recall, you haven't read -- do not really say anything on the topic.)

zippy said...

I'm unclear why one should go from this (which is basically a theory of language issue) to insisting that the content of a story (working within a literary frame of reference) is not derived from the text of the work.

I'm not unclear on that at all. It is obviously false. Clearly the telling of the story is mediated through a text. That a story is mediated through a text doesn't mean that the story is the text, or is nothing but the text.

"Rowling didn't make that absolutely explicit in the text" doesn't imply "that is not part of the story Rowling told". Unless she is a liar, it is a part of the story she told. I am unsympathetic to the notion that your understanding of the story she actually told is better than her understanding of the story she told, or that her knowledge of the story she actually told, and in particular the inner workings of her characters, is in no way privileged versus the knowledge of readers.

Darwin said...

So if I may: it sounds, Zippy, like (to lean on old Plato's cave) you see the story as being the statue carried through the back of the cave, and the shadow as the text. Further, you see the statue as being the thing that's actually of interest (taking the statue to be whatever idea was in the head of the author) and so any information you can get (from the person carrying the statue or from people who've seen it in the past) you consider more important than the shadow.

It seems to me that with fiction (and this is the thing that makes it different from non-fiction and other forms of standard communication) the shadow is actually what's of interest. The reason I think this, is that (to run with the allegory here) the author may often has shaped the statue in an odd, incomplete, or even mis-shapen way in order to cast a shadow that will be of maximum interest. The shadow is meant to evoce rather than simply convey, and as such it is the shadow that is really important, since that is what sets the bounds for the thought process that kicks off in the viewer's head.

This also ties in a bit with my experience in writing fiction, as I'm aware that often one puts things in as a writer without having an idea fully formed, but because it "feels right" and seems that it will evoke something interesting in the mind of the reader.

zippy said...

It seems to me that with fiction (and this is the thing that makes it different from non-fiction and other forms of standard communication) the shadow is actually what's of interest.

It is an interesting invocation of the allegory of the cave. I'm not sure it works, because the story the author is telling is in this case analogized to the shadow, and attempting to reduce that platonic object to nothing but the text just gets us back to square one: the shadow is now a statue in its own right in its own cave.

Interesting though.

I do understand that the author's own picture of the story she is telling isn't complete in the sense of encompassing a complete fictional reality.