Archive for discourse

The Post(structural) Apocalypse Post: or, God is Dead; But She Doesn’t Have to Be.

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , on December 23, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 22

Part The First:

Just as I believe we are often constrained by language and by culturally enabled and reified narratives, I believe that our understanding of any sort of higher power is hopelessly hindered by our small human brains and by limited language we have with which to describe such a thing. I’ve railed before about our substitution of the words we use for royalty and other hierarchies to describe our religious experiences and institutions. We just don’t have the vocabulary to help us along toward any kind of real understanding of any higher power. (Before you say it, yes, this is about the Eskimos and their gazillion words for ice. But it’s also about much much more than that.) And so we endow it, him, her, with these human traits, because that’s all we’re capable of, and then we have stupid arguments over whether God is a man or a woman. And then we cover it all, dress it all up, with Advent purple velvet, jewels and jewel tones, cathedrals and other Monuments to Power. I mean, really.

The language that we do use to represent God or any kind of spiritual being is so lacking that our experience of such a being is stymied. And so our language reduces abstract concepts like the idea of a higher power to concrete things we can understand, and then we forget the reduction, and think we do, in fact, understand, and that our language does, in fact, represent.

From Edward Arlington Robinson: “The world is not a prison house, but a sort of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

Part The Second:

If you let them, poststructuralist thought, and postmodernism, will annihilate you. They will x you. You will have never existed. And most certainly, neither will God, nor anything absolute.

From A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle:

She stood beside him, looking at the brilliance of the stars. Then came a sound, a sound which was above sound, beyond sound, a violent, silent, electrical report, which made her press her hands against her ears. Across the sky, where the stars were clustered as thickly as in the Milky Way, a crack shivered, slivered, became a line of nothingness.

“Progo, what is it? What happened?”

“The Echthroi have Xed.”


“Annihilated. Negated. Extinguished. Xed.”

Taken to their extremes, nothing exists. Certainly not Truth, and for a long time, I thought not truth, as well. Truth is just a bunch of metanarratives ordering the world for us. There is not one correct metanarrative, one grand narrative. The old dead white man no longer has supremacy. Postmodernism killed him, along with the universal and the general.

But. But, but, but. There is hope.

Gary Aylesworth define Postmodernism in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which you can read here, and tells us this: “The loss of a continuous meta-narrative therefore breaks the subject into heterogeneous moments of subjectivity that do not cohere into an identity. But as Lyotard points out, while the combinations we experience are not necessarily stable or communicable, we learn to move with a certain nimbleness among them.”

We have, instead of Truth, truths. Little t.

Part The Synthesis (We Hope):

So we have this language–failing as it does to accurately and precisely represent anything, signified and signifier separated by an abyss, even, sometimes–and yet it gives us a place to stand. A place to make meaning, however contingent, however partial, however unstable.

There’s a difference, there, between Truth, big T, and truth, little t. With the big T, we’re talking metanarratives; we’re talking ideologies; we’re talking Roland Barthes’ myths–values and beliefs we take for granted as natural and inevitable and universal (does this sound at all familiar? Have I used these words before?) that are in fact neither natural nor inevitable nor universal, that in fact vary from culture to culture, or even community to community.

Gone is a universal Truth, a universal morality, that we can run around the world imposing on everyone else for their own good.

But we do have truths. Local, fragmented, particular. We have truths that mean within communities, within ethnicities, within nations even. But not without. Not across borders. Not always, anyway.

We’re human beings and we need a place to stand. A place to be. A place from which to make meaning, however impermanent. Something to hold on to, maybe just for a little while, even as we challenge it. Just as the postmodern needs the modern to exist, just as they feed off each other, so we need structure and narrative even as we break them.

We are, and thus our God is, created and limited by discourse, by language.

Aylesworth, Gary, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

DNA vs. The Discursive Production of Identity; or, Holy Crap, Can That Be Right?

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 15

(Although this is a rather large epiphany, as epiphanies go, and not so much an epiphany as a discovery.)

Since I was small, my parents have told me, having been told, themselves, by the adoption agency, that I am of Italian, German and Indian ethnicity. And while I guess we were never quite sure about the Indian part, we were sure enough that there was at least one Native American headdress in my childhood, which I brought to kindergarten show and tell.

Later, the adoption agency told me that my birth mother was Italian; her parents had emigrated from Italy to Canada to the US; I found her last name in the New York City birth records and it seemed to confirm her ethnicity. The alleged birth father, as the adoption agency called him, was Indian-German. Last year, I wrote to Angel Guardian to ask what they might have meant by “Indian” in 1967–because my parents assumed it was American Indian–but they never wrote back.

Meanwhile, I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, that primarily identified itself as Italian American, at least in terms of food.

Today, I got the results of an DNA ethnicity test I took recently. Turns out, my ethnicity is 83% British Isles, and 17% Middle Eastern.

My first thought was that it was a mistake–that mixed up my saliva with someone else’s. But the whole thing was barcoded and registered and tagged and secure. I mean, sure, someone could have just mixed up the test tubes. Who knows?

My second thought was that I must have been, not only adopted, but switched in the nursery, because while I could see my birth mother reporting my alleged birth father’s ethnicity wrong, she seems pretty damn Italian. And how would she get that wrong? Unless she just lied. Again, who knows?

My third thought, in order both chronological and degree of outlandishness, was that it suddenly made sense that for the past nine years, ever since I first set foot in Edinburgh in 2003, I have been saying that Scotland is where I was meant to live. I must, therefore, be Scottish. My very blood was calling out to the land, my DNA recognizing itself in everyone around me.

The truth is, I have no idea what to do with this information. And before you say, “What does it matter? You are exactly the same person you were before you got this information, back when you were Italian and German and Native American,” I get that.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor am I having some sort of identity crisis.

But I am, I guess, sort of, like, “Hmm. . .”

I’ve just written 375 pages about the discursive production of subjectivity, and how we are written by narratives inscribed and reified by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our local communities, our religious beliefs, and so on and so forth.

What does it mean that I grew up believing I was Italian, in an Italian family? What does it mean that I am in fact English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, instead? How would that have changed the stories I told about myself as I grew up? How does it change the stories I tell about myself now?

Maybe the Italian part is a bad example; being Italian in an Italian family, your various kinds of traits sort of disappear in the crowd, into naturalness. Being Native American in my family, though, was a difference, a difference that made a difference, that made me special, and interesting.

And now I’m not that anymore.

My dissertation doesn’t look specifically at ethnicity and adoption; perhaps that’s because it seemed like a non-issue. My father cheerfully called us the United Nations; of course, we were a United Nations made up entirely of European nations. How does someone of Middle Eastern descent fit into that family?

I am, though, of Middle Eastern descent much the way I was of Native American descent–in name only, in ways that I would never claim on a census form. Still, how will the discourses of the Middle East, the wide and varied discourses we Americans write and subscribe to about people of Middle Eastern descent, now begin to change my narratives?

Part of my story, the story I tell about who I am and where I come from, has shifted, if only because new historical and ethnic narratives have become relevant; new discourses have become available to me.   And that changes things.

I’m just not sure what.