Saturday, January 07, 2006

Journalism, Theology, and the Success of Failure as Virtuous Task

Jay Rosen's PressThink posts have included discussions of attitudes toward journalism as a religious calling not subject to debate or rational modification. Lately, the notion of the press deadline has emerged as a seemingly modest and yet practically ominipotent rationalization for journalistic failure. Advocates of the role of the internet as a complement to traditional print and broadcast media have pointed to the weblog as an emerging site of institutional memory. I thought readers of PressThink would enjoy reflecting on a passage I encountered in a book on Christian asceticism that discusses a text from the 4th Century. Athanasius' Life of Anthony brings together anxiety toward the known consequences of setting a deadline, memory as the redemption of secular, fallen writing, and finally, an understanding of writing as a task in which perfect imitation of reality or virtue is known to be impossible, but virtue is thought to reside in the effort to aspire to the impossible, thus written imitations of life are thought to succeed in part due to the writer's persistence in spite of his or her recognition of inevitabile failure.

Geoffrey Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism:

Athanasius inaugurates the tradition of nervous prefaces by asserting that his account of Anthony's life, though the best possible under the circumstances, is still flawed. Addressing himself to "the monks abroad," who have entered "on a fine contest with the monks in Egypt," trying to surpass them in feats of virtuous deprivation, Athanasius apologizes for the imperfections in his text: "since the season for sailing was coming to a close, and the letter-bearer was eager," he had abandoned his researches and had committed his work to the world. But he implies too than no account would be perfect, for "after each tells what he knows, the account concerning him would still scarcely do him justice." And yet even an imperfect account "provides monks with a sufficient picture for ascetic practice," enabling them to imitate his example, to "emulate his purpose" (Life of Anthony 29-30). In these few phrases we can glimpse the features of a textual ascetics that applies to what Roman Jakobson calls the referential function and the poetic function. Referentially, an account would be perfect if it were perfectly obedient to Anthony's life, if the rules of its configuation were drawn solely from life, if the author intruded nothing of his own creation. Athanasius appear to recognize that perfection in this sense is impossible to attain, the differences between accounts and lives being substantial, but he still maintains that virtue resides in the effort. The poetic function operates at the expense of the referential function by accentuating the message, the language itself, rather than the extra-linguistic reality that language is modeled on (355-60). The value of the text lies in its capacity to replace and extend the life of Anthony; the poetic function even enables the text to be superior as a "picture for ascetic practice" to Anthony himself. Now as nobody can be another person, the obstacles to a perfect imitation are absolute; but again, virtue resides in the effort. So both Athanasius and his readers strive for the impossible perfect imitation of Anthony. They fail, but succeed in the failure. Anthony was in fact so widely known through this book, and so widely imitated, that he as become a saint of the book; he is commonly represented in art holding or reading a book.
This aspect of his later iconography is odd in light of the first paragraph of the book itself, in which Anthony is introduced as a voluntary illiterate: "As he grew and became a boy, and was advancing in years, he could not bear to learn letter, wishing also to stand apart from friendship with other children. All his yearning, as it has been written of Jacob, was for living, an unaffected person, in his home" (I:30). Athanasius is trying to describe a "natural" asceticism, the precondition for the systematic privations undertaken later on. This precondition, the very basis of virtue and "redeemability," consists of a detachment so comprehensive that even reading is considered an "affectation," a distraction, a token of worldliness. Anthony's aversion to letters does not, however, extend to language as a whole, for he pays extremely close attention to "the readings"--passages read aloud from Scripture--and "carefully too to heart what was profitable in them" so that "memory took the place of books" (I: 30-31; 3:32).
It appears that the value of the written word is at war with the writing, or as if "what was profitable" were polluted by the ink. The emergent system might be represented by a three-part division (1) Mind, or the "heart" which takes in "profit." The heart is untouched by representation, repetition, or mediation. It does not require language but can motivate language and understand it. It is essentially an "inside." (2) Writing, which can harbor profit but which is at odds with it. Not only an "outside," writing is a deformation: it is secondary, belated, contaminatory, parodic, dead. The "dread of the text" Anthony experiences as a boy is akin to the involuntary shrinking we feel at teh threat of defilement. The corporeal form of script anchors it to the world of death, and so while it represents the living intention of an author, it is itself unalive, and so grotesque, vampiric. (3) Speech, which is magically capable of "redeeming" the profit from dead graphemes, delivering the living meaning from the letters to the heart. The heart, the silent intutition, is thus the origin of signs through intention, and the terminus of signification in understanding. In between lies the entire drama of the creation, the fall, and redemption. This drama is even projected onto the relation between Scripture and Christ. Anthony's fame as an ascetic hero grew so great that the emperor Constantine Augustus wrote letters to him, concerning which Anthony told a dazzled group of fellow hermits, "Do not consider it marvelous if a ruler writes us, for he is a man. Marvel, instead, that God wrote the law for mankind, and has spoken to us through his own Son" (81:89). Even God's writing requires phonemic redemption; even Scripture requires the mediation of Christ.pp.5-6

from Geoffrey Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987)