Posted by: Dan | April 30, 2006

April Books

1. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf. This is a beautiful pastoral work that is an excellent follow-up to Volf’s much more academic work, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. Volf shares his wisdom, his questions, and his own personal struggles with the reader, while honestly confronting the mass of questions and objections that our culture brings to the topics of giving and forgiving. The book is broken into two major sections, the first on giving, the second on forgiving. Both sections begin by examining how the Christian God addresses these things, and then examines how we should do these things and then examining how we can do these things. This is an excellent and challenging book, and is highly recommended.

2. The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom by Henri Nouwen. I read and reread Nouwen’s books because he helps my heart to stay soft. He helps me, over and over again, to fall deeper in love with my God, with my neighbour (and even with myself). This book is Nouwen’s “secret journal” written during the most difficult period of his life and not published until eight years later because Nouwen felt that the material was too raw to be shared with others. Thank God that he changed his mind. Read this book, but read it slowly, meditating on each entry.

3. Prayers for a Lifetime by Karl Rahner. Rahner was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th-century. He published an absurd amount of material, and was highly influential of Vatican II on the ongoing reshaping of the Catholic Church. This book is a collection of prayers that he wrote and prayed over his career. I prayed my way through these prayers over the last month. What better way to do theology than to pray theology? Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

4. Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. Long before Kevin Vanhoozer was writing The Drama of Doctrine, Brueggemann argued, in this book, that drama is the appropriate approach for the Church to take towards hermeneutics (it’s odd that Vanhoozer doesn’t even cite this work). Brueggemann begins be highlighting some elements of the transition from “modernity” to “postmodernity” and points to reasons why this transition should be considered a good thing. He then goes on to study the way the biblical texts should shape the Christian community within this context, before providing a series of specific examples. The more I read Brueggemann, the more I love him. Thanks, Jude & Cheryl, for this delightful gift!

5. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge by Jean-Francois Lyotard. This is a classic text known, more than anything else, for defining postmodernity as “incredulity toward metanarratives”. In order to keep a promise I made to one of my brothers, I’ll summarise it in a little more detail.

More than anything else, this book raises the question of what it is that legitimates knowledge within our contemporary context. Over against terrorist governments that legitimate knowledge, including scientific knowledge, through narratives, Lyotard argues that postmodern science must engage in language games that challenge the metaprescriptives of positivistic performativity, in order to offer a counter-legitimation through paralogy.
Lyotard argues that it is the demand for legitimation that sets our technologically advanced cultures apart from all previous cultures (27). This demand questions who determines what is true, what is just, and whether a statement should be included within the discourse of society (7-8). Who, or what, legitimates knowledge is an essential question to ask because, now more than ever, it is knowledge that provides power. This is so because technological advances — the “computerisation of society” — have transformed the nature of knowledge (3-4). Within our societies, knowledge is increasingly exteriorised, translated into information, and produced in order to be sold (4-5). Because knowledge is power, the question of the legitimation of knowledge is linked to the question of the legitimation of a government’s power (9).

Systems of power, although supported and strengthened by their access to computer databanks, are actually premised upon two other things: narrative knowledge and the language of performativity. First of all, it is narrative that has traditionally provided the legitimation of knowledge. Here it is metanarratives that determine what is true and what is just, and this narrative knowledge makes possible “good” performances in relation to various objects of discourse (18-19). Narrative knowledge is self-legitimating, for it becomes legitimate simply by being recited according to the rules that define the pragmatics of transmission (20-23).

The credibility of the State is linked closely to narrative for legitimation, so much so that it attempts to transform science into a narrative form of knowledge. It makes science epic, and then it links its credibility to that epic (27-28). The State does this by telling two types of narratives: a political version, and a philosophical version. Within the political version, humanity is the hero of liberty, and all people have the right to science. The nation as a whole wins its freedom when State-sponsored institutions spread knowledge to the population (31-32). The philosophical version is a little more ambiguous towards the State, and it argues that knowledge should be pursued for the sake of knowledge. However, it still links science and the pursuit of knowledge to the moral training of a nation by positing a universal Spirit, and gaining legitimacy through speculation (32-33). In the end, the political version gained dominance and knowledge, to the State, became a means to an end (36).

However, it is exactly here that technology has contributed to a major shift in how knowledge is understood. Technology shifts the focus from ends to means, and when coupled with capitalism, causes the old metanarratives — speculative or emancipatory — rooted in institutions and traditions to lose credibility (38). This leads to the dissolution of grand narratives, and postmodernity is, therefore, most simply defined as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv, 14). It is exactly in this context that the State gains power through the language of performativity. For technology, coupled with capitalism, ensures that both research (the gathering of knowledge) and didactics (the transmission of knowledge) capitulate to performativity. In relation to research, it is technology that has become that which proves or disproves what is allowed to be a proof. However, technology follows the principle of optimal performance and this means that the question of efficiency — not the questions of truth or justice — comes to dominate science (44). Furthermore, because these technologies are costly, it requires money in order to establish proof, and science becomes a language game played by the rich (45). Yet, not desiring to squander their money, the rich seek to get a monetary return on their investment, and so the end result of science is made saleable, and science becomes a force of production (Ibid.). Thus, the production of proof is co-opted by performativity, and the end goal is power and self-legitimation; for if technology allows a person to say what is “real” this increases a person’s right to saying what is true and what is just (46-47).

Didactics are also co-opted by the language of performativity, and the goal of education thus becomes the optimising of a person’s contribution to the social order (48). This means that universities become job training and retraining centres, providing students with skills and information, while simultaneously maintain society’s internal cohesion (50). Thus, classical didactics are no longer necessary, professors can be replaced by computers, the central questions being asked are questions of efficiency, saleability, and usefulness, and the university is subordinated to the existing powers (50-51).

However, this incredulity toward metanarratives, coupled with technological advances, is not an entirely lost cause. In fact, Lyotard finds a way forward – rooted in the seeds planted by the ambiguity the philosophical narrative held towards the State – based upon these two things. Having little affinity for the positivism of performativity, Lyotard, roots himself in Wittgenstein’s notion of agonistic language games (10, 54). It is true that society has been fractured as metanarratives have lost their credibility, but individuals are not isolated, rather they are part of flexible networks of language games, and from these “islands of determinism” “catastrophic antagonism” is the rule (16-17, 59). The language game of postmodern science takes paradoxes and limitations seriously, recognising that the discourse on validating rules is imminent to science (54). This has been made particularly clear because of two developments: the multiplication of scientific methods that posit various axioms on which scientific denotative utterances rely, and the advent of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics which refute the notion of a grand determinism in nature because they reveal that uncertainty does not decrease but actually increases as accuracy increases (42-44, 56-57). On these “islands of determinism” grand narratives no longer exist, but little narratives are essential to the play (60). Within these little narratives, postmodern science does not produce knowledge of the known, but rather knowledge of the unknown, and it finds its legitimation in paralogy (ibid.).

Legitimation by paralogy focuses on dissension rather than on consensus. It counters systems of control and domination that, despite their appealing aspects, are “terrorist” systems because they operate by removing players from the game (63). Systems of control allow various language games to speak – but only if they contribute to the metalanguage of performativity (64). Lyotard argues that postmodern science must provide an open “antimodel” to this stable system (ibid.). In order to do this postmodern science points out the metaprescriptives (i.e. presuppositions) of performative narratives and science, in order to get people to accept different prescriptives (65).

And it is the computerised society that makes this resistance possible. Whereas previous power groups could maintain their control through a monopolisation of information, computers can be used to provide groups discussing metaprescriptives with the information they usually lack (67). Thus, these groups can be empowered to engage in a politics that respects both the desire for justice, and the desire for the unknown (ibid.).

6. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Well, I’m loving Vonnegut more and more. This is the story of an American spy who writes propaganda for the Nazi regime. The moral, as Vonnegut makes clear at the beginning, is that “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”. Thus the protagonist, Howard W. Campbell Jr., begins by dedicating this book to himself. As he writes: “This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times”. And, perhaps, the crime of our time, too. Vonnegut’s writing is poignant, sad, delightful, and honest. Wilde may be the master of the playful bon mot but Vonnegut is rapidly becoming, in my estimation, the master of the profound bon mot.

7. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. This is my second novel by Morrison (the first one being Beloved, which I loved). Her voice continues to intrigue me, as does the way she blends together (in a marvelous vibrant swirl that seems both captivating and painful) racial, socio-economic, haunting, and spiritual themes.

8. Baudolini by Umberto Eco. Within this novel, Eco returns to his love of the medieval period — although this book takes place several centuries prior to the events recorded in The Name of the Rose. Eco loves words and loves playing with his reader but, despite the fun I had with this book, I found it to be less meaning-full than his previous works of fiction.

9. More Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy. This book was read purely for pleasure. Ted L. Nancy, whoever s/he might be, likes to write crazy letters to various corporations, cities, hotels, or celebrities, and then publishes those letters along with the responses that he receives. He’s frickin’ hilarious.

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