Melting Away

Insofar as Reformation theology relies on this principle in interpreting Scripture, it remains bound to a postulate that is itself based on a dogma, namely that the Bible is itself a unity.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

I have recently begun to read Jacobin Magazine, as a scout might enter the boundaries of an enemy encampment. A few days ago they posted a review of Marx’s Inferno, a book I had seen mentioned in my web community a few times. The central conceit of the book, apparently, is that Marx used the basic structure of Dante’s Inferno in the way he unfolded his arguments in the first volume of Capital.

The critic is charmed by this analysis, and thinks it’s pretty compelling, but believes the author makes a fundamental mistake:

My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works. He does so on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive. I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.

The author responds:

[I]t is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.”

He locates their difference of interpretation in their model of Marx. The critic views Marx as an “explainer” who is distilling his findings to a broader audience.

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

One of the crucial questions in phenomenology and hermeneutics is what the relevant horizon of meaning is, within which some specific text is given its sense. The critic argues that Marx’s entire body of work, published and unpublished, trumps any one work standing on its own. The author, by contrast, argues that the public field into which volume 1 was published provides the most appropriate context.

“Horizon” refers to boundaries, but like the horizons of vision they do not bound all that could be seen. Marx’s other works are connected to yet others; ones that are directly mentioned in the texts as well as ones that were influential but did not get mentioned. And those texts, of course, were influenced by yet others, many of which Marx never read himself. And out and out.

The same holds for the disagreements and controversies he was responding to. If you had asked Marx to set out and draw a circle around the participants in these scholarly and political conversations, he could not have. He may have drawn it around the people he himself had read, or at some arbitrary point beyond them. But any participant would form a link to others, who formed links to others, going back to before any of the current participants were alive. If you look too hard, the “conversation” disappears into history itself.

The speech act theorist J. L. Austin described how the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife” have, beyond their locutionary effect or semantic meaning, a perlocutionary effect; they are “doing something” rather than just “saying something.” They are effecting a change in status, from single to married, with all that entails within the specific speech act community. But it can go wrong—what if it turns out the officiant was lying about being licensed? Or if the couple never filed for a wedding license? In order to know whether the speech act took effect, “it is important to take the speech-situation as a whole.”

But how can we do this? What is the whole speech-situation? Jacques Derrida replied that because context is boundless, we cannot possibly know enough of it to determine if we have learned all of the relevant context. The speech-situation is too large, the relevant details too hidden behind the horde of irrelevant ones. If you stare at the speech-situation too long, it too melts away, deconstructed without mercy.

What are we to do? If we need the whole to interpret the part, and the whole is either infinite or in any case too large for human comprehension, then can we interpret anything?

We can, but in doing so we are walking on air. Like Marx we do not have a “fully-worked out” framework in our “back pocket.” Nor is our horizon of meaning made up solely of the specific texts we have read and conversations we have had. The authors of the texts we have read, the interlocutors in the conversations we have had, and we ourselves, have what Gadamer referred to as “historically-effected consciousness.”

We bring our prejudices to the texts we read and the conversations we have. These prejudices are shaped most directly by “our place within a historical series of persons” with whom we have already interacted. But these people are, as mentioned, influenced in turn, and under scrutiny the influence ultimately melts into the many currents of history. The currents are fluid, but we, with our prejudices in this moment, are concrete. We take concrete actions, come to concrete understandings and establish concrete relations. We engage in concrete practices that form the basis of concrete communities.

Or so it feels to us, and so it must for us to carry on. We’re aware that there are peripheries to these communities, we may even be aware how vague and porous they are. But many imagine they could find reasonable boundaries, if they had the time and inclination to perform a systematic study of the matter. They are wrong, but that hardly matters. They recognize the game, they recognize and are recognized by the players, and that is enough—enough for books to be written and read and understood, enough for men and women to marry, “putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties.” Enough to be active in the community of scholars, of gamers, of young mothers in the neighborhood.

Except for when people do attempt a systematic study. Our understanding of social space is implicit, similar to our understanding of how to navigate a familiar neighborhood without a map. But unlike physical geography, attempts to map our implicit social space influence the very thing under study. And so those theorists who approach the study of community with the prejudice that there is an essential, rational meaning of the word, and that each community is discrete and can be mapped, may end up doing a lot of damage along the way. That, in any case, is the story of the 20th century’s great tragedies, perpetuated by men who imagined themselves to be social engineers and scientists.

When you approach the question of community as an engineer or scientist, the experience of community melts away entirely. Cold, logical axioms are all that remain, taking the place of authentic understanding.

Ploenipotentiary Representation

Or: In The Beginning Was The Chicken or The Egg

One of nature’s wonderful delights, for those of us who are easily amused, is a kitten chasing her tail. Is it an evolutionary impulse which causes the kitten to lie in a soft sunny place for the purposes of, after resting, training herself in the finer arts of feline pursuit? Perhaps it is, in the genius that is Evolution, a polyvalent delight, a telos achieved in the now for the kitten and also for the young mother who is nursing her child, bored out of her gourd, and a little tired, receiving peace and comfort from the kitten who is chasing her tail.

The kitten’s training exercises now complete, she wanders off into her patrols, seeking where she may to find a way out, but all the windows and doors are screened off, and every way out is simply another way in, but around the house she goes, patrolling. Young Mother rises, compelled by boredom to seek where she may to find a way out of her gourd, so, after tightening the bonds which secure her baby into her bosom on this fine spring day, she loosens the bonds which secure the screens closed against the kitten’s absconding.

It is a neighborhood into which Young Mother escapes, planted by city fathers in 1925, somewhere in-between the timber boom and the industrial boom. It is now 92 years later, enough time for a child to have been born, lived, married, produced children and careers, fought in wars, survived economic and marital hardship and change, grown weary, grown old, and perhaps has died or is about to die, given the mortality tables nowadays. It is not just a generation, but an entire lifespan which has waxed and waned.

There is womanly chattering nearby, a grandmother and a mother and Young Mother and a toddler or two, with the occasional automobile passing by, recognized or not. What is the conversation? It is of the weather, of politics, of family relations, of occupation, of career, of local government, of gardens, of school, of transportation, of–

Just what distinguishes 1925 from 2017?

–of hopes and dreams? I think not. Hopes and dreams are not for casual conversation out in the open, where there are no fences. –of hopes and dreams dashed? I think so.

“That worthless husband of mine…”

When Sheila’s man moved out, there was a ripple through the community, and the rest of us made adjustments, trying to be nice to her children while also warning our own children that there would be trouble, hoping to convince the children both of the particular kind of trouble, because who knows what kind of trouble comes from deep-seated emotional consuming fires which are kindled by divorce? And also that our children should be faithful to their friends in kindness and in deed, actual friends, not mere playmates. On the other hand, there was an envy, palpable, depending on who you talked to: Sheila had become free of her man, the asshole. I must admit, however, he was good to me, just tall and a little rough, and, I think, probably immature in certain ways. Maybe. I’m not sure.

Who said it? Who said, “That worthless husband of mine…”? Not Sheila. She never uttered an unkind word about her man. She rarely spoke of him at all, in fact, and her liberation from him was de jure, at least as far as we all could observe. The de jure declaration had more of an effect on us than the de facto reality she was living had on her. No, the others, namely, grandmothers, mothers, Young Mother, uttered those words, and regularly.

When the time of conversation comes to a close, Young Mother looks at Other Young Mother, knowing that an emotional bond has been forged, a strong bond, probably unbreakable (except by circumstance, which comes by chance and cannot be accounted for), but also knowing that Other Young Mother is about to go into her domicile to interact with her own man. It’s time for Young Mother to return to her own domicile, to make the life that she and her man agreed to make, an agreement forged in utter and absolute freedom, and witnessed, gazed upon by mother and father and mother and father. In these days, there are a few attachés via divorce and remarriage, and also illegitimacy, but the ties that bind are mother and father and mother and father, even if the ones who occupy those offices are destructive, and the attaché has no authority beyond helpful advice and good counsel, or unhelpful and bad.

“That worthless husband of mine…” An utterance she received from her mother many times. Young Mother thinks of her own utterances to the same effect. “By the power invested in me…” is the other utterance which engages, in fact which ended the engagement, putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties, not just an utterance, but a declaration, with authority, “…I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Is it an evolutionary impulse which causes nearly every other house in the neighborhood to be occupied by those under authority? And by what authority to bind together those whose binding would be in various stages of decay?

Young Mother, closing the door to the neighborhood behind her, finds the kitten asleep, having finished for the time being her patrols for freedom. The infant awakens, hungry, and Young Mother returns to utter boredom, nourishing her offspring. And her husband’s.

Wilderness Wandering

Matthew presents Jesus wandering in the wilderness, sent by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil, who is introduced to the narrative as The Tempter. Traditionally, the Church has liturgically connected the temptation of Jesus to the temptation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) and, subsequently, to Paul’s discourse on Adam contrasted to the One Man (Romans 5). Sometimes the Church has paired the temptation with David slaying Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Thus the Church generally has understood the temptation of Jesus to be an embodiment of some other significant event, drawing it out of its historical bonds of unbelievable, legendary, indeed, mythical storytelling, into the cosmic realm of timeless applicability.

Even so, it appears Matthew is guiding his reader to pair the temptation of Jesus with the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. In fact, if you read it this way, the wilderness wandering is transformed from being a tale of rebellion and grace–or a tale of mere rebellion and grace–to a full development of the struggle of the One Man against the satanic forces. Israel, indeed, is the One Man.

I am reminded of my first religion course, in which I enrolled as a wee lad of eighteen, fully knowledgeable in all things, offended that I had to convince a soulless institution of that fact. As a lifelong church goer, what in the bible could I possibly not know? A merciful professor was he, and he heaped mercy upon me and those like me with a quiz, a quiz given one week before the final exam. This quiz stood as the first and only mark going into the final exam. Of the ten questions submitted to us, a simple reading comprehension quiz, I was able to answer only one. Therefore, I was going into the final exam–pardon me–The Final Exam with a mark of ten percent, far below my expected A plus plus plus. Sufficiently chastised, I went to my dorm room, fetched my bible from its place on the floor behind the university-supplied bookshelf, tore off the cellophane wrapping, cracked open the spine, and read the sections our tender-hearted professor had assigned.

After the exam, which I managed to pass with ease, I stayed to speak with the professor, excited by the narratives which had engaged me for the first time in memory. “Boy,” I said. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”

I had in mind all their sins and rebellions which commenced almost immediately after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. “Yahweh is a mighty warrior!” they cried out in exultation. “He has thrown the horse and its rider into the sea!” They rejoiced and celebrated this victory given to them by the Lord with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, rejoicing, at least for the moment, before they turned to face their new freedom, this life in the visible presence of a personal and fiery God.

“Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh back in Egypt, where we sat beside meat pots, and we ate bread to our fill!” This is how they remembered the Iron Furnace: meat pots and bread, all the comforts of home, not the cruel slave drivers forcing them to make bricks without straw.

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes out of the mouth of God.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, failing to trust God. But are they condemned? The One Man received bread from heaven. “What is it?” they called it, the substance which was like a wafer made with honey, a down payment on the milk and honey they were about to inherit.

But not without more temptation. God called Moses up to the mountaintop to talk about this arrangement of God dwelling in his destructive glory in the very midst of the people, that is, they talked of building a protective tabernacle to shelter the Israelites, but of such a kind that God might be there in plain view. Well, an arrangement like that is going to take some time to hammer out, forty days, in fact, a type of the forty days of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The Israelites became terribly impatient and built for themselves an idol. They threw off all inhibition and threw a party for this golden calf.

This one stung God. He told Moses that he wasn’t going to go with them. Moses, of course, interceded, begging God to come with them or else they would all die, and then what would the nations say?

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the pinnacle of this Temple. “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, putting their God to the test with this bacchanal to an idol they made with their own hands, and a series of other tests, known as the Bronze Serpent, the Rebellion of Korah, the Complaining at Meribah, the Twelve Spies, and many more. Even Moses managed to test his God so that he earned himself a ban from entering the Promised Land. But are they condemned? God listened to Moses, and after the tabernacle is constructed, he descended from his heights to dwell in the midst of the One Man, fully revealed in his glory, leading them personally to their Promised Land.

But not without more temptation. On the cusp of inheriting the Promised Land, the Moabite women came calling. They must have been absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, sweet as honey, nice as pie. All the Israelites had to do to eat their peaches was to bow down to their gods. Without hesitation, they did eat and they did bow the knee to the Moabite gods. Twenty-four thousand Israelites were struck with plague and died.

All these nations and all their glory I will give to you if you throw yourself down and worship me. “Begone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, bowing the knee to the gods of the nations. But are they condemned? The One Man enters the Promised Land, and the process of inheritance begins in full force, with Yahweh the mighty warrior picking up where he left off at the Red Sea.

How disappointing to The Tempter! All that evidence, and the witness of heaven and earth to the red-handed sinners, but no condemnation! How can this be?

“Boy,” I said to my professor. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”

He looked at me through little round glasses, thick-lensed, which caught the fluorescent classroom lighting in such a way that his eyes always looked like they were laughing, but his countenance was otherwise stern, projecting dour and trustworthy wisdom.

“David,” he said. “The Israelites paint a picture of your heart. You are the Israelites. The Israelites are you.”

I slumped into my chair. My life was changed.

In this way I see the world and everything that goes on in it.

In the wilderness with Jesus is in the wilderness with the Israelites, distilled to forty days for intensity: the stakes are not a little Ancient Near Eastern nobody people with a bizarre blood cult, the stakes are all the nations of the world.

It’s Academic

Recognition is performed. Its meaning is determined by the context of the performance. This gives it an elusive quality, difficult to generalize out of particular settings.

Consider the academic department. Wallace Stanley Sayre famously said that “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” As a student in an MA program in economics, I had a very small window into it. Mostly through the gossip of the PhD students, for whom it was a practical concern. It amazed me how a few dozen people could organize into so many factions.

The games that were played were largely determined by larger communities than the particular department—academia and the field of economics. You published papers and you taught students, some of whom you took under your wing. My school was a bit unusual in the degree to which blogging and writing books for popular audiences were recognized as legitimate work, rather than sideshows. A popular book that made a big splash could elevate a professor’s status in the department, which I have been led to believe is not the norm.

A lot of the moves that professors made in these games were characteristic of the department rather than the larger communities. Ronald Coase, F. A. Hayek, and Gordon Tullock were recognized as authorities whose work could lend strength to your argument, for example. But a lot of moves were recognizable signs that you belonged to a specific faction.

One of the factions was extremely tightly knit compared to the rest. Their canonical texts were more uniformly selected, their shared scholarly language distinct. They rotated around a single central Sun, who had a handful of former students within the department in the closest orbit. An alumni who was not of this particular faction joked that to gain the career benefits from it, you had to burn their brand onto your forehead. The members went out of their way to make themselves recognizable, not only as members of the department but members of their faction first and foremost.

Repeated failure to recognize the moves, or even the games, that someone is playing, will eventually lead to lack of recognition of membership in the community. Tenure complicates that equation. One tenured professor was playing games so clearly different from his colleagues that he was out in the wilderness, as far as the community was concerned. He did not participate in their games and they did not participate in his. Nevertheless, all recognized his claims to a salary and an office, as well as his responsibility to teach classes.

Context is key. The department is a particular community, but so is the field of economics, as well as the vocation of university professor. Economics professors in different factions or employed at different universities would recognize one another as fellow travelers at a wedding where neither knew any of the guests. An economics professor and an English professor would probably find something to commiserate about in that situation as well.

In the specific setting of a given department, economists who seem quite close together from an outsider’s perspective may refuse to recognize one another as fellows. You’re one of them, the ones taking the department down the wrong path. At the wedding, the same person is someone who can talk about something actually interesting, and they are recognized as such.

I originally approached the question of recognition to get at a different question: just what is a community? My tentative reply was: a community is a group of people who recognize one another as players in a set of games which they also recognize, and are capable of recognizing the potential moves in those games.

Recognition and community exist, then, in a hermeneutic circle: community cannot exist without recognition, but recognition lacks sense without the context provided by community. Whether you’re in the department with one group of people, or at a wedding with another, bounds what you’re capable of recognizing and gives meaning to the recognition you do, in fact, perform.

Recognition is performed in communities which are created by recognition.


In a little suburban neighborhood, the children play on the sidewalk. The parents, standing together to watch, play a different game. This game takes the form of a conversation.

The moves in this game may include telling a story about your child that the other parents will appreciate, or talking about the sport you know another parent also enjoys. The potential moves are too many to list, and the boundary around them is vague and indistinct. You know you’ve made a legitimate move only when your conversation partners recognize it as such. You know you’re a member of the same community when the group of you are capable of sustaining a series of mutually recognized moves in familiar games.

Our membership is always incomplete. More crucially, the game is always in the process of being developed. So we will all make moves that are not recognized by anyone. This lack of recognition is isolating; it highlights the existential gulf that exists even between the closest of friends in the most tight nit of communities.

This lack of recognition is akin to what Gadamer called the hermeneutic problem: we begin to think about the discipline, as opposed to the everyday practice, of interpretation, only when something has gone wrong. When we come up against the otherness, the opacity of a text. We seek the fusion of horizons between text and reader to overcome that otherness, to the extent we historical, finite creatures can do such a thing. And communities form and fuse the horizons of their members as they continually seek to overcome the isolation of unrecognized moves and even unrecognized games.

There is another aspect of recognition which is also a crucial feature of communities. Its absence does not have its origin in misunderstanding; it is driven by a desire to exclude. A clique may form among the sidewalk parent group, and they may refuse to recognize one of their neighbors as a member of their little community. So merely knowing how to play the games is no guarantee of membership in a community.