Posted by: HAT | May 12, 2015

Standing Corrected

must . . . keep . . . writing

must . . . keep . . . writing

Hi, Gang!

Because I am deep-cleaning the house, I went through the rack of CD’s on the desk behind the computer. Lo and behold, one of them was my field comprehensive exam, spring 2006. My recollection of that exam was: a nightmare.

I sat down at the computer in the department office, all thinking there would be questions tailored to my recent course work and dissertation topic research, since I had had an extensive conversation with my major professor and because I had been assured by everyone that this is how things were done. I encountered: a question I could not understand. Literally. As in, grammatically.

That was something I hadn’t been prepared for at all.

At first I thought I was maybe going crazy. Then I spent a couple of minutes panicking and reviewing all of the disastrous consequences of doing things like walking out of the test, or failing. [Hmmm. I work here, so that would mean quitting my job. And just letting the past three or four years of graduate school count for NOTHING. Recalculating …] Then several more minutes of thrashing around trying to figure out what the question was literally, as in, grammatically, asking. I finally decided to answer the question I thought they had probably meant to ask, and that I thought I could answer, assuming as I think was correct that these my professors were well-meaning individuals who wanted to ask me a question I knew something about and could answer reasonably well.

In the middle of the exam, there was a fire drill. [I could not make this up if I tried.] Everyone in the building had to go outside into the courtyard and wait for the all-clear. We all figured some desperate student had pulled a fire alarm. “It wasn’t me,” I said to my office mates; “but it jolly well could have been.”

It probably goes without saying that I passed that test. But I remember it as having given me a keen sense for how fragile communication actually is. And for having made me feel I was back at the advertising agency, trying to communicate with artists and account executives, everyone around the table using the same words, but all using different lexicons, trying to make some decision about how to spend $20 million dollars. I had fun working in advertising, but that wasn’t the fun part.

I almost managed to resist temptation to look. I thought: what is even the point of this?

But I couldn’t remember the question. That bugged me a little bit – usually, I remember debacles like that. For instance, I remember that I once translated a Hebrew sentence, possibly in my sleep, as “The light of firmness is not in our uncles.” [Devi told me to go to bed, and I said “You don’t know anything about Hebrew!” and she said “No, but I know English, and I know that if you think that’s English you need to go to bed.”]

And then I thought: it couldn’t really have been that bad. What was my problem?

So I gave in. Here’s the question:

“Compare and contrast religion and art as symbolic systems that interpret human experience but also require interpretation themselves.”

So far, so good. Crazy big, but good.

“Consider aesthetic, communitarian, participative, and transcendent (or depth) dimensions.”

Still ok. In my ideal world, I would revise the “communitarian” language to read “communal,” or maybe even “social,” since “communitarian” in my book refers to a specific body of political theory, while “communal” refers in a more general way to something that takes place in or has to do with a community or a group; collective. But, no big deal, moving on …

“Include how symbolic presence in a culture helps one understand a culture without ‘reducing it to a substrate.’”

I realize now that it was the “symbolic presence in a culture” part that really threw me.

Everything else was at least reasonable, even the “substrate” part, which I interpreted rightly or wrongly as referring to a tendency to think of culture as merely a static residue of congealed human activity with no dynamic participation in the interplay of social forces that constitute human social life. Again, in my ideal world, I might have revised that language to be more Marxian-straw-dog, like “without reducing it to a superstructural reflection of the base,” (but since nobody thought that way anymore, I can see why it wasn’t that) or at least a reference to what culture might be a substrate “of” or “in”. But again, not the main problem.

I simply had no idea what “symbolic presence in a culture” was supposed to mean. [“What do they mean, “symbolic presence”??? Whose? What’s? THERE IS A PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE MISSING HERE. I NEED THAT PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE!! Meltdown in 3… 2… 1…]

Typically “presence” is the presence “of” something. So, “symbolic presence in a culture” is the presence in a culture, symbolically, of … what, exactly? Of course, different cultures incorporate the symbolic presence “of” different things: God, e.g., or freedom, or authority. Or more commonly, of lots of things – so, God and freedom and authority, in different places and different ways. And let’s not forget genderraceandclass – present, most of the time, in the things we read as signs (which can then become symbols, or revert back to signs, or slip between one and the other, depending on who is using them and how they are being used) of gender, race, and class, and of understanding, or failing to understand, or questioning or even rebelling against the relationships that constitute them. So, sure, if we look at how the things that are present symbolically in a culture – whatever they are – are present symbolically, and how the symbolic presence of those things – whatever they are – indicates, even speaks eloquently of, the meanings that the participants in the culture attach to them, and then consider what opportunities for change, and what obstacles to change, these meanings and the relationships they come from create as a situation for the members of that culture, we are understanding the culture, on one hand, and also seeing the culture as an integral part of the ongoing activity of the society, not just a decoration or a reflective ornament, but something that participates in the situation in which people find themselves, plan, act, dream of change …

I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before.

Fortunately for me, I guess, my committee did not hold against me the fact that I had temporarily lost the power of abstract thought.

I hold nothing against them, either.


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