2/2/09

NT Wrong, Biblical Studies, and Autobiography.

I had the misfortune of reading Kierkegaard in between classes at a relatively conservative institution during my undergrad initiation into biblical languages, theology, and the history of all the critical and historical constructs that we label “Biblical Studies.” Not only did it throw the master plan off course, that being the attempt of Evangelicalism to pass on its disaffection with continental discourse to my as of yet unformed theological nerve center (which was further stymied by spending afternoons in Donald Bloesch’s office at a different school up the street, and then hearing Vanhoozer talk about Ricoeur ad infinitum in the very heart of Evangelicalism itself.). But Kierkegaard’s playful autonomy and ability to refute himself at will corrupted my sense of authorship (specifically in his pseudonymous work). It ran at odds with the interpretative strategies I employed in my coursework, but lingered in the back of my mind as a reminder that these things are provisional, open to revision. Even matters of historical criticism are open to Kierkegaard’s insistence that we learn to think in more playful ways about increasingly serious concerns. It was an odd, hermeneutically magical time that I have since been trained to shake off like a daydream in the course of writing properly annotated articles and theses, preparing indexes of data pools, or delivering papers at conferences that proclaim my irrefutable identity on a nametag.

Here is a truly Kierkegaardian question: Can Biblical Studies be written in the mode of David Foster Wallace? With his characteristic networks of footnotes, asides, self-refutations, and ominously uncritical and immediate perceptions of “what is at stake” in religious discourse. It is a question as silly as it is important, one hinted at in Staley’s (literally) phenomenal essay on autobiography in biblical criticism, but seldom broached within the guild. The possibility that scholarship could actually exist in pseudonymous or intentionally biographical modes, or even in the language of satire, is something that the history of biblical studies scholarship can’t quite wrap its head around. It is also one that has been posed to the biblioblogging world by the pseudonymous NT Wrong, whose blog has recently been abandoned with the promise of a new project in the near future. I know where I would probably fall in his famous spectrum (conservative, though this blog never actually appeared upon it, and doesn’t actually leave that many ideological clues in this respect). But I have followed the whole ordeal with rapt attention.

Part of this is due to my own lifelong struggle to understand how I am supposed to practically correlate all my disparate roles as New Testament Studies academic, historian of book forms, practicing book artist, and part-time film critic. It can get difficult to say the least. But I hope to see this discussion continue, especially as biblioblogging so effectively expands our research identities beyond SBL catalog abstracts into the flux of current events and changing minds. That is to say, blogging is not just another output for data, but actually involves a more nuanced conception of authorship and a geometrical expansion of what has always been referred to as the “academy.”

Some reactions to the recent NT Wrong interview:

NTW: This was one of the most absurd things I’ve seen in a long time. There were dozens of posts dedicated to discovering N. T. Wrong’s identity, thousands of words written, with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness. I loved it. I felt like I was watching from the box-seat at the theatre of the absurd… It also made me wonder whether this is how the Historical Jesus quest got started — as a joke which some slightly anal fellow didn’t quite get, and then it sort of snowballed from there, gradually gathering momentum until everybody thought it was actually very serious.

And to think that this grand prank has been played right as the new Jesus Seminar has convened. I would be more happy to compare the NT Wrong quest with the Historical Jesus quest if NT Wrong had been cruising the Usenet by that handle since 1980, and had left traces of long posts about his purpose and identity that now only exist as fragments in the Wayback Machine and the recesses of what is now Google Groups. And then there were a few biblioblogging predecessors on Yahoo or Live Journal in the early 1990’s that began to collect what NT Wrong posts they could recall from these old bulletin boards. And now this broad discussion would exist on the internet about who NT Wrong really was, and whether we can really trust that one guy’s Live Journal Entry #334 that claims he said this or that. And why does that WebEx post #0922456 agree verbally for several sentences, but then ascribe it to a different Usenet discussion context? And was NT Wrong ever actually on any of the UNIX platforms, or are all those just translations from BITNET? That would be far more thrilling and absurd.

NTW: It’s a strange ‘discipline’, isn’t it, in which one of the most well-known practitioners of biblical studies ends up quite high up in the hierarchy of the group which should really be the object of his study. Now, there are a few anthropologists and sociologists who do something similar as a form of total immersion or for some reason (I’m thinking, say, of Barbara Tedlock, both academic anthropologist of mysticism and practising shaman). But the difference is that these people not only use the emic experience to inform the etic conception, but continue to recognize the benefit of an etic conception to inform the emic experience. In the case of so many biblical scholars today — and N. T. Wright is merely just one of the most visible ones (and not only because he’s wearing a bright purple frock) — the academic-religious mix only goes, tendentiously, in one direction. Biblical studies is considered to ultimately be a mere tool for the service of the Church, so that everything done within the discipline is not primarily for the sake of knowledge itself, but for constructing new apologetics.

It goes without saying that I continue to see a valid distinction between ‘use’ and ‘interpretation’ (and I like Umberto Eco’s theoretical approach here), and I place scholars whom I encounter somewhere along the continuum between them. Frustratingly, in reading the publications of biblical studies, there are too many of these scholars far closer to the ‘use’ end of the continuum, so much so that it is just annoying to have to continually second guess whether a particular biblical scholar is interested in discovering what is true or only has an interest in defending what is already believed to be true.


I am not sold on this distinction between the emic and etic experience in biblical studies. Any attempt to discuss it simply shifts the etic axis from historical issues to history of interpretation, which then swings the pendulum of the emic back to a different, but equally academic-religious, category of “use.” And isn’t the pseudonymity of NT Wrong an expression of a particular category of “use” that only expresses his emic familiarity with the guild itself? I sense the same problem with his commentary on scholarship that he finds in most commentaries themselves.

16 comments:

N T Wrong said...

Ha - I said "true" in that part of the interview. That was daring.

'Critical' what? ('Critical' being an adjective, searching out a noun.) While a careful examination of method and an equally careful examination of results are necessary requirements of 'critical ....', the nature of the criticism always changes with the particular method. Autobiographical method and philological-historical method can each be either critical or uncritical. (And to some extent, both. It's a matter of degree.) But in each case it is critical-for-Autobiography or critical-for-philology/history. The method - if it is critical - is open to infinite re-evaluation.

I'd use theology as a further example, but 'critical theology' is oxymoronic, impossible. Theology always already has finitude built into it (in stark contrast to its object) - always necessarily curtailing apophasis, the only possible 'critical theology' - but which ceases to be theology in that aporetical speace in which it is (not) spoken.

M. Leary said...

Sure.

But more importantly, it would have been cooler if you had embedded your identity in the internet much longer ago. We would have then had an actual information age analogue to NT authorship trajectories. As it is, you have attained the kind of pseudonymity that Ashton claims best describes the Beloved Disciple. And ever since, querying his actual function has been trumped by the endless hunt for his identity.

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