Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Better Theory than Theory

Whatever difference it makes: more and more these days, I avow myself an atheist. Religion seems ever more like a particularly noxious form of dogma, one that punishes the intellect and tortures the spirit (and yes, I use the word "spirit" ironically).

So I find this essay by biologist PZ Myers to be especially refreshing. He blasts Terry Eagleton for muddy thinking, bad writing, and silly academic posturing. Myers concludes with a fine statement on making signification a cultural issue:

We live in a culture where the contorted body of a tortured criminal is an important signifier of the human condition. Eagleton believes this is a good thing. My imaginary friend Ditchkins and I do not; it is an image that captures the imagination, for sure, but it has done us harm. It has short-circuited natural human thoughts and feelings into a dead-end chase after the transcendent rather than the immanent.

If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars. That's representative of the state of humanity, too; it's a symbol that touches us all as much as that of a representation of our final end, and we don't have to daub it with the cheap glow-in-the-dark paint of supernatural fol-de-rol for it to have deeper meaning. We atheists, contra Eagleton, have aspirations, too; aspirations for humanity in all the meanings of that word. But we also expect that those aspirations will be built on reality.

Imagine this: choosing what we want for the signifier(s) of the human condition. If the kind of proactive, democratic play of signification that I always felt was the best of poststructuralism. The follow-up that comes to me is to remember that the signifier of the Middle Ages is - and always has been - in play. And there need not be just one signifier, but competing ones: the cathedral, the scriptorium, the scop, the monk, the book, the Ptolemaic universe, the dragon, the monster, the traveler, the king, and on and on. And it's not just the people but what they do.

My focus as a scholar often has been the text, the text as site and signifier, as a place of interminable significations. Contests of authority and semiology could often become inscribed in the medieval text. Perhaps I can be more specific about what these contests are and were, and how they established nodes in a discursive network containing text, events and history all together.

Thanks, PZ.

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