Thursday, November 01, 2007

Blog Name Change

I got the blog account mainly so I could post on other blogs. Because I needed a name in order to register for a blog, I came up with "Lutheran Guest" on the spur of the moment, since I figured I'd mainly be a Lutheran Guest on other people's blogs.

The Third Moment was the running header of the editorial column I wrote for the Brown Daily Herald. I always liked the title, so I'm recycling it here.

The title has two sources. First, there is the "third moment" in statistics, which is "skewness." That probably sums up more of what I think than I care to admit. So 'nuff said about that. (Incidentally, the first two statistical moments are "mean" and "variance.")

Secondly, T.S. Eliot wrote a letter to Stephen Spender in which he laid out his three moments of criticism. The first moment, Eliot wrote, is surrender to the text. The second moment is recovery. And the third moment is criticism in light of the first two moments. There is no criticism, Eliot wrote, without the first two moments.

When I read a text -- whether it's a bit of fiction or a math text -- my goal is to be sympathetic reader, which I take to be equivalent to "surrendering to the text." In doing so, you get inside the logic of the text and see the world from within. I take surrender to the text to be critical to understanding a text (which I take to be Eliot's point).

I'm not entirely convinced that "recovery" is absolutely necessary for criticism. First, I think it's possible to remain, as it were, "inside" a text and yet to recognize certain problems, particularly with coherence. I think you can point out that certain claims within a text are inconsistent with the internal logic of the text without necessarily extricating yourself from the text. Secondly, I would be concerned that "recovery" not necessarily imply that what you were before engaging a text is necessarily correct, and is the only baseline for criticizing a text. If that's true, then learning can't really occur. (I should stress that I don't think Eliot meant it in that way; only that his "second moment" might be taken in that way.)

Nonetheless, the first two moments are absolutely necessary for criticism. To be sure, by "criticism" I don't necessarily mean being critical. Rather, it means evaluating the text, whether it's in terms of how much I've learned, or what I had hoped to learn, but didn't. But it can sometimes be critical, in the sense that I have a sympathetic understanding of the text, but the narrative lacks coherence, or the results do not follow from the text's logic, or whatever.

Or perhaps Eliot's third moment and the third statistical moment do ultimately touch here, at least in image. That in "recovery" and "criticism" we necessarily skew what we just read, as we attempt to make sense of it in light of all that we already know or believe. Nonetheless, you're never quite the same person after surrendering to a text as you were before. And so reading offers both promise and risk.


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