Blogs > Cliopatria > Word and Flesh ...

Jan 27, 2005 11:04 am

Word and Flesh ...

Misteraitch at Giornale Nuovo has a nice exhibit of alphabets composed of human figures. I learned from him that they are the inverse of calligrams, or pictures formed of words.

The relationship of word and flesh is important to me as a Christian. Our understanding of it, that the Word became uniquely Flesh once in the human experience, is probably the single thing we believe that is most offensive to my Jewish and Muslim colleagues, friends, and neighbors. I don't urge it on them. It is the most unbelievable thing that we believe, an offense to the sensibility of most other monotheists. My secular colleagues must think it quite bizarre, indeed. To know that what I believe is bizarre and offensive to others helps to curb my impulse to Christian triumphalism. There was a time, when I was quite taken with blogospheric triumphalism, represented in its own way by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit and, quite differently, expounded in Adam Kotsko's memorable"There is Nothing Outside the Blog."

I don't want to write here about the Incarnation or triumphalisms of either sort, however; that can await another time and place. I was interested in two different engagements with word and flesh by my colleagues, Hugo Schwyzer and Tim Burke. Hugo has been having serious discussions with Men's Rights advocates on the west coast. He's written here about his related experience of appearing on a Men's Rights radio program in Los Angeles. He's been under severe personal attack from Men's Rights activists. Among other things, they posted photographs of Hugo, from his website to theirs, with mocking subtitles. Oddly, I had posted links to those same photographs of Hugo, but with an observation about his being perhaps the least inhibited of the Cliopatriarchs. I've felt a certain kinship with Hugo the last few days. It isn't just that we are the two most publicly Christian of the Cliopatriarchs, but also that we've both been under siege. If his critics mocked his flesh, mine mocked my name, my word. The context for flesh and of words makes all the difference.

I'm deeply disappointed by what became of the discussion of Tom Reeves's blogging and his articles at HNN. There really were reasonably interesting questions that might have been considered. First, was Tim Burke's question about proportionality. Was whatever Reeves had done worth much attention, at all; and, if he made mistakes, wouldn't they best be handled quietly and courteously? That would have been a fair point to make. Second, as Julie Kemp asked, in disgust with the barfight that had occurred, is it reasonable to extend questions about a scholar's credibility in one sphere into a question about his credibility in another? The example of Joe Ellis, best explicated so far, I think, by Peter Charles Hoffer, suggests that, while there may be a rather complicated relationship between the spheres, one can't assume that there's a simple carryover. That would be an important point to make. Thirdly, as she suggested, are blogs to be held to the same standards of accountability that print scholarship is? That, it seems to me, is clearly worth discussing. My own inclination is to say that they are, but then I have to start qualifying that because livejournaling is clearly not intended as scholarship and there needs to be room for public airing of half-baked ideas that might become something. Those are serious questions, worth serious discussion, but all the interesting questions got short-circuited by half-baked accusations.

Still, I have hope for the blogosphere and one of the reasons I do is that historians like Tim Burke, Sharon Howard, and Mark Grimsley see it as a new step in scholarship. The virtual words may not yet be quite ready for print/flesh, but they can be a step in that direction. Burke's most recent piece at Easily Distracted,"Burke's Home for Imaginary Friends", grows from a presentation he gave to Swarthmore's faculty members about blogging. I ignore it that my reference to the fact that the Cliopatriarchs gathered in Seattle all had beards gets a"Geez" from him. This is flesh we are talking about here, Burke; not an index to the superficiality of my mind. Of the things we talked of in Seattle, the bearding was the least. More important, even most important, I think, was the enfleshment of virtual friendships and virtual words. I'd been reading Tim Burke for about two years before I met him in person and, apart from a question about his subtle sense of humor, I think the first thing I said to him was something like:"Tim, what you do on the net is so mature that it begs to be in print." The virtual word becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth.

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More Comments:

Jason Nelson - 1/27/2005

Mr. Burke,
You are providing a voice of reason on this issue. Thank You.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/27/2005

Point well taken, Tim. I keep sitting at your school of kinder, gentler personhood. Trying to learn here. There is a memory and some nostalgia for the old days at HNN, before register for comment, that wants to carry on as if a bar fight were the _only_ thing worth having. When I looked back at the comments on Reeves's article, all of the old forms were there. There's a whole range of things to be discussed. As someone who occasionally identifies as a conservative, I'm offended that reactionary bitterness is appointed the "conservative" representative at HNN. As someone who never had tenure, I'm shocked that someone would retire from 31 years at a place and immediately publish an attack on the institution and his former students. Still, a point I wished to make quite clearly is that the refrain of declining standards is a constant one for Reeves and he has not himself adjusted to the new forms well enough to just go into the system and self-correct. It would be so _easy_, in this case, for him to exemplify them. It's not as if the blog entry were in print. Yet, after three of us now, have pointed it out to him, it's as if his misleading blog entry were fixed in stone.

Timothy James Burke - 1/27/2005

My thought on the Reeves thing--which quickly became inexpressible in that discussion--was that the error you'd found in Reeves was meaningful, and of a piece with the general lack of charity and balance that his bitter summary of his career demonstrated. But that it was not an extraordinary error or misuse of evidence: a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Like Julie, I'd also hesitate to jump from an error in an essay or blog to an assumption about the general scholarly output of an author. I know I'm much more of a quick-draw artist when I'm blogging: you have to be. Plus you're aiming to start conversations, provoke a little, and to compress ideas into small spaces. I think it was a criticism of Reeves that was worth bringing up, though long before we got to his use of a study on school uniforms, I'd rather talk about the essential meanness of that essay. But were it me, I would have brought it up with the intensity dial set way way down.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/27/2005

Thanks for this, Sharon. As you know, I read a lot of history blogs and I think you are right at the top of them, standards and substance. As of this morning, there's been no correction and there's certainly no apology, from the blogger in question, even though he's been asked to make the correction by HNN's editor. It's so readily done electronically, but I'm afraid we're talking about someone who doesn't quite understand the difference between electronic publication and print. Of course, we all make mistakes. I correct mine when I know of them and Clio's gentle readers sometimes not so gently will point them out!

Sharon Howard - 1/27/2005

OK, I try to keep up certain standards when blogging. But they're still not quite the same standards that I (or the copy editors...) would apply to something that's going to go out in print. I cannot 100% guarantee that I've never got my characterisation of a linked source wrong; if I have it'll have been because I was in a hurry, skimmed it, thought it said the right things (... the things I wanted it to say): 'oh, that'll do'. Still, I'd like to think that if someone called me out on a cock-up like that, I'd correct it and apologise. Blogging can only produce provisional, rough-draft scholarship; the readers and commenters have to stand in as copy editors, and the scholarly blogger who wants to be taken seriously - and wants blogging to be taken seriously - has to be responsive to them.