Thursday, June 26, 2014

Presence of absence

One salient experience I have with place is walking my dog.

We have several routes, variations on each other. We typically leave the house and turn right, or north, along Pearson Drive. On occasion, when we’re feeling radical, we turn left.

These walks, over days, weeks, months, and years, have introduced me to the wider neighborhood. Each walk is at least a mile, several are two or three.

We know the dogs. Rita knows them by their odors. She stops and sniffs at predictable trees, bushes, fire hydrants, and walls.

We both know the dog owners, if not by name, at least by face. We know which ones have treats, which are friendly, which cross the street to avoid us.

We know the fortunes of households, which have grown shabbier than before, which have gotten overhauls.

There is a new garden on Panola. The chickens were loose on Cumberland. I know several back yards with bee hives.

A pair of Cooper’s hawks patrols the northern corner by the urban forest along Broadway.

There are service berries along the green way. In spring we stop and gorge. They’re a bit like blueberries but watery, not so sweet.

I know the sites of homeless camps in forgotten woods. I know the benches where the drunks sleep it off.

The neighborhood is rich. Here and there are pockets of poverty. One old man I know used to ask me for spare change with which to buy booze until I convinced him that I hardly ever carry money. Now he just shakes his head and laughs with me when we pass. Once I found a five dollar bill on the sidewalk and gave that to him. It was good day for both of us.

I’ve known trees, some large and admirable, like senators. They’ve watched the fortunes of the neighborhood rise and fall and rise again.

Being projective and empathic, I like to imagine what those trees have witnessed, what they feel. Over time, I come to know them (though it is more myself than them I learn, which be true of all we know of others, but that is another story).

So when one of the old trees falls, or is felled, I mourn its passing.

One that stood on Zillicoa across from the big yellow mansion and above what the neighbors call “green cove,” was a wide oak.

The ground around it was otherwise clear, and must have been for a century or more, for the tree spread out as far or farther than it rose, and it rose pretty high. I always felt embraced by that tree.

It occupied a great deal of space. One of its lower branches reached out across the grassy slope that fell away beside the tree. I used to jump up and swing on that branch.

I remember how it eventually seemed dead, for it lost its leaves, and I wondered whether it would hold me. And then, after a year or so, I quit swinging for fear its arm would crack and drop me to the ground. I don’t think my swinging killed it. I think I gave the tree company.

But I am not an arborist. The tree came to be my friend.

Then one day after we'd returned from a trip, Rita and I went for a walk, and coming up the hill through green cove, we found the tree had been flattened to a stump.

I don’t know what happened. Perhaps it was dead and decayed and the owners put it down like an old dog. Perhaps it fell in a storm and they cleared the corpse away.

Two years later the tree remains big even in its absence. Each time I come out of the grove of walnuts at the bottom of green cove I look up to see the tree and see its absence instead.

That’s what I see: absence. Curious thing. One can see the lack, an emptiness where once was substance. It is the ghost of the tree.

A place doesn’t need to have a presence to be present: the missing oak is there in mind and memory. And it is gone in my mind and memory. The space it occupied, a great big cloud of extended green branches in summer, gnarly arms in winter, remains, glowing.

Places have unnoticed dimensions that are part of their presence even if we are unaware of them.

Perhaps only a few dog walkers and tree lovers have noticed the absence of the oak. There are all sorts of aspects of familiar places we overlook.

Yesterday, blessed with a new pair of binoculars, I walked Rita and looked for birds. They were singing in the tree tops, nearly impossible to see for the leaves. I wondered if I would even see one of the warblers that I knew from their singing were up there.

Imagine my pleasure then to discover, unseen like the taken-for-granted roof inside a circus tent, the wind-born bustle of the tree tops.

We live a sort of short-hand experience, catching outlines, broad brush strokes, missing specific details: Not just perfume but lilac or an English rose. Not just a bird but a towhee with white flash amid black and orangish brown. Not just a shrub but the euonymus and abelia.

And then there are other dimensions. I confess I overlook much of what sits below four feet and above eight. Beyond that in either direction, not so much. And yet when I do notice, much is there.

Like the blowing tree tops, dancing beyond notice.

This makes me wonder about the space of wind itself: how the landscape is made up of wind as much as anything else, but how heavy things like us hardly notice it.

Surely wind has shape. The birds and insects must notice and attend to it. They know the flow of wind, its currents and eddies, the still pockets behind obstructions – such as the old oak, the house, the pine. The free runnels of air in open fields. These are as much a part of a place as its horizon, a crossroad, and yonder hillside, but they are for the most part outside our consciousness.

I did not see even one singing warbler yesterday. I did see a couple of marvelous blue birds. And I saw the wind in the leaves.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Correspondence

Conversations are inherently unstable. Even old-fashioned correspondences via the post office. John writes Mark a letter. John has given Mark a gift. Mark now owes John a letter. Being a decent fellow, Mark writes and posts a return letter.

Now they’re even, don’t you think? Each has given the other something. The slate is clear.

But wait. Mark has asked a question. "How are you?" Or he has indicated an interest in John’s work or hobby or family.

So while the material exchange is even – each has sent and received a letter – there is now an outstanding query. Mark, anyway, feels the expectation of a response from John. He awaits it.

If John is attentive (and wants to continue the relationship), he understands the expectation, feels the tug of its obligation.

In this way, the exchange is unstable, demanding another volley, another note. The same is true, it seems, of ordinary conversations, phone calls, emails, or texts.

Hence, the salutation, “Later,” as in “We’ll pick this up again later.”

The fact of instability could be discouraging.

On the other hand, it also keeps relationships going. Just think of what would happen if John and Mark were ever even, fully square. They’d feel no need again to write, to talk, to visit.

I wonder whether this perpetual incompleteness of exchange has anything to do with the Freudian separation-attachment problem.

We all begin life attached to our mothers; indeed, in the beginning we are our mothers.

But to be the persons we are we must have separated from her, not only left her body but left her sphere, grown up, matured, fledged.

Then again, as separate beings we must retain some attachment to others, some connections. But the connections cannot be complete. For if they were, we’d lose ourselves, we’d dissolve into the other. We’d cease to be.

In this way, the separation-attachment problem, like the perpetual incompleteness of exchange, propels human experience, gets us out of bed in the morning, moves us out the door into the day.

And it gets us to return to home at the end of it.

We are thus caught in a negative-feedback system, constantly oscillating somewhere between the poles. And isn't that like the exchange between John and Mark? The two flirt with resolution but never achieve it. Perfect resolution would end the relationship. If there is a relationship, it must go on.

Completing a cycle of exchange is a sort of separation: if it is even, we are done. But like an actual separation from our caregiving mothers, such a break produces anxiety. That moves us to return. So we add a message, offer another gesture, keep the connection alive.

Each message is a return to attachment, each answer a bid for separation.

And each sortie is both. John sends a note in the interests of connecting but also of liberating himself from the obligation, which amounts to attachment. He responds to Mark for the same reason. Each missive is an effort to connect and distance at the same time.

In inventing our own humanity – by which I mean the requirement as a species of cultural information to complete us, the necessity of prolonged childhood, the need for others in our lives even as we need to be independent of them – humans have crafted a sort of paradox, built into our sociality a basic contradiction.

The tendency in rational thought is to regard contradiction as a problem, a flaw. In this case, however, the flaw is perfection itself, at least in terms of our humanity, for it enables our being.

How else would we do the on-going work of culture? How else would we continually enter into the necessary exchanges that complete us as human beings, even as they perpetually create our sense of being incomplete, of needing always to send yet one more message?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wild within

Today is my late brother Scot’s birthday, and as I usually do on this day I went for a long walk.

In past years I’ve taken these walks in remote wilderness areas. But unavoidable commitments made that impossible this year, so I went instead to the Biltmore Estate, which is closer and has several long trails that, if not through wild places, at least give the illusion.

As I drove onto the estate, I thought Scot would have rolled his eyes. He’d have thought a walk there overly tame. Scot sought out wild places in life, which is the reason I usually do for walks in his honor.

The schism between where I walked today and where I think Scot would have liked me to walk got me thinking about the divide, imaginary or otherwise, between wild and tame, outside and inside, natural and domestic.

It is more difficult to define these differences than I thought.

The Biltmore Estate was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead, who laid out Central Park in New York City and other famous and highly cultivated places. He had a knack for making a managed parkland seem like a wilderness, at least after a hundred years of growth and grooming.

The long approach road made me feel like I was driving through a wilderness: huge trees, streams, waterfalls, stone outcroppings, ferns, bracken. The road twisted back and forth like a mountain trail.

I noticed however that the forest beside the road displayed not just itself, for I could see and enjoy it plainly, but was also trimmed and tended so that it revealed the forest twenty and more yards beyond.

The near forest was in fact a parkland, there not just for itself but also to suggest the forest beyond. It was open, cleared of understory. Beautiful itself, it nevertheless revealed the darker more natural forest beyond.

In this way the Olmstead forest was both itself and something else, a park and a forest, a collection of carefully placed trees and shrubs designed to suggest a virgin wildnerness, but also a window, a shaded framework there to show off the darker, gloomier, seemingly more dangerous and distant landscape.

Thus, at once, these woods revealed but also distanced.

I suppose the Olmstead forest is a buffer, a sort of liminal space, neither entirely domestic, for the trees and ferns do suggest wild nature, nor entirely wild, for they are so obviously cleared and managed.

The staged forest reminds me of a museum diorama, the elements of which are carefully positioned to suggest natural profusion without hiding anything.

In some ways, the juxtaposition between park and forest at the Biltmore replicates within the estate the relation between the estate - an elaborate artifice made to seem like nature - and the great Pisgah National Forest just beyond the estate’s boundaries.

Indeed, it is in Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness areas within the Pisgah Forest where I have usually gone to walk on Scot’s birthday.

The relation between park and forest at Biltmore got me thinking on my walk about our family’s interest in wilderness in the first place. It began for us children on walks led by our parents through farm forests and meadows. These were Sunday afternoon affairs along dirt roads and well-beaten paths, across dairy fences and pasture brooks.

Thinking back, those walks were through an agrarian nature, hardly wild. And yet to us kids, they were wildness itself. I remember imagining us as Indians and Explorers trekking through remote territories, hunting bison and white-tailed deer, wary of ambush at every step.

So the farm fields of youth, like the manicured forests beside the Biltmore approach road, opened us up to wild places, planted an interest in remote nature even as it was more a wood lot beside the pasture the other side of a hill from the barn.

The farm forest was wilderness to two young boys, and wilderness itself became an idyll for the grown boys. And now that wilderness, for me, was replaced for a day by the Biltmore woods, for they reminded me of remoter places, at least for the little while as I walked and remembered my brother.

The domestic forest was transposed into the wild forest, then transposed today into a domestic forest. Today’s walk wasn’t so wild. Parts of it were within ear shot of the interstate. Parts were within sight of the Biltmore mansion, a castle of grace and overindulgence. Other parts, however, took me past trees three- and four-feet in diameter, tall and dark and carpeted below with thick moss and lush bracken.

Here and there I emerged into a meadow buzzing with the playing-card-in-the-spokes sound of grasshoppers and dragon flies.

The estate evoked the wild, at least for a couple of hours, much the way the farms of my youth evoked the American frontier. I thought at several moments along the way that they were not so neatly divided from one another: each participates in the other. Even Middle Prong Wilderness is a wilderness by definition, by some national decree, and in that way it too is domesticated.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Folklorist: Space Not Place

On some mornings, the dog and I walk to feel ourselves move.

Well, I don’t know about the dog. I suspect it’s true for her. Sometimes she just walks. Doesn’t bother to sniff.

When I walk to walk, as I did this morning, I allow myself to enroll in the pace of the march, to go forward, and in that way to become entranced by the rhythm of walking, like one of those dancers on the desert. He sang until he lost his mind, or found it.

I suppose sometimes I walk to lose my mind. Or find it.

That’s crazy talk, I know. But walking through space, along streets and lanes, country paths, without aim or destination, is a way of relating to place by annihilating place.

It’s Zen. The place of no-place. Walking for movement, for being.

Movement in space without sense of place. Presumably I’m passing through places. But places themselves require attention, demarcation, here not there. Movement without this sort of attention is different.

A teacher once told me that “awareness” was not the same as “perception.”

That lesson confused me. I’d thought the two words synonyms. I thought that I was cultivating awareness, awakeness, by paying attention to my perceptions: what the eyes saw, the ears heard, the nose detected, the soles of my feet felt.

I thought that these perceptions pulled me into the present. But they also managed to draw me into place and away from space.

I’ve pondered what the teacher said for years. I’m still unsure. But I’ve come to think awareness when sitting is analogous to the trance "awareness" I experience during certain forms of walking.

Space itself becomes the focus rather than the places along the way.

“Place,” like “perception,” involves separation, a pulling something apart from the whole, distinguishing this from that.

Zen on the other hand seems to invite simple awareness of undivided being.

Every perception, every place, involves foregrounding and thus backgrounding. These are conceptual activities, a sort of analysis, requiring cognitive steps, priorities, temporal desires, laser focus.

Sitting, or walking oneself into a trance, involves something more global, awareness of all these things at once without preference, without picking and choosing.


These anyway were the musings of an old man on his return with the dog to the coffee pot this morning.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kenneth Neal Wood 1933 - 2013

A person is a sort of place. In fact, a person may be a truer, more abiding place than any geographic location.

I have not relied on my father and mother for shelter in nearly forty years. But they have been that deep safe harbor. Even when I was far away, I knew that if I had to I could set a course and find shelter, strength, love.

That harbor lost its tall lighthouse last Saturday. We are all now at sea.

From his obituary: 

Kenneth Neal Wood spent his life teaching himself and others to seek out and pay attention to experience. He was a farm boy who grew up to be a minister, then turned to education before becoming director of experiential learning at Davidson College. In his last years he was a gardener and abiding friend of nature. He died Saturday. He was eighty years old.

The cause of death was amyloidosis, a rare disease involving the buildup of amyloid proteins in organ tissues, particularly the heart and digestive system, eventually causing their failure. He had been an exceptionally healthy and robust man. But for the disease, his family and friends had expected him to live another decade or more.

He was a quiet giant. He stood six feet four inches tall, all of it broad and muscled. He grew up milking cows and baling hay, hunting and fishing on days off. Once, hunting for meat on a distant relative’s ranch in Wyoming, he shot and killed a bull elk with a royal rack two inches off the Boone & Crockett record. Yet he gave up hunting altogether when his young children could not bear the carnage of the rabbits and pheasants he brought home for dinner.

He was a minister who eventually left the church because he felt it had failed to be the liberating institution it promised to be. As a minister he worked in the trenches of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s. He spent much of his professional life with young people encouraging forms of education that freed them to think for themselves.

After high school and before college, he and a friend spent a year driving around the American West in a Model A Ford, working on ranches and farms. For the rest of his life he would urge others to pursue their own adventures and learn firsthand from them.

In one of his early sermons as a Presbyterian minister, he celebrated the value of adventure.

“Late Wednesday afternoon,” he wrote in 1963, “I parked the car in front of the manse, stepped out, and was greeted by the excited little voice of my two-and-a-half year old daughter: ‘Hi Daddy, look where I am!’

“The voice was coming from an unfamiliar location, high up somewhere. I looked in all the upstairs windows, and then at the same instant the panic button was pressed. I spotted her fully twenty feet up a tree in the front of our house. A young eaglet on its first flight out of the nest couldn’t have been more proud and thrilled and excited than my little daughter beaming down at me from her perch....

“Pity the adult that cannot look upon a child straining to reach a perch far above what the adult world considers safe and not envy the reckless courage and the sense of victory that belongs to the young climber.... Pity the adult without an inner tree to climb.”

Ken Wood participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and two years later was arrested with others, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, on the Selma-to-Montgomery March. He organized his church in Orchard Park, New York, to work against inequality. He and other community leaders convinced Saul Alinsky to bring his Industrial Areas Foundation to organize Buffalo’s impoverished eastside.

Once one of his sons was told by a stranger in a pickup to go get his father and tell him there was a man outside who was going to “kick his ass.” When the son reported this news, his father assumed it was someone upset with his Christian politics.

Turned out it was a long-absent favorite cousin pulling everyone’s leg.

Ken Wood was born in 1933 in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up on farms at Evans Center and Sturgeon Point, on or near the shores of Lake Erie. After the year traveling out West, he studied history and psychology at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. He spent summers earning money for college at farm and construction jobs, even stints on freight boats on the Great Lakes.

At Westminster he met Sandra Jean Colman, who became his wife, love, and life-long companion.

He studied theology and counseling at Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. In 1959 he became founding pastor of Northway United Presbyterian Church in Williamsport, Pa., and then in 1964 an associate pastor at United Presbyterian Church in Orchard Park, N.Y. There he developed PACT, or Park Action, a citizen’s organization for racial justice.

In 1968 he became director of the Lansing Area United Ministries, where he continued work on race and justice issues. These led him from church to school interventions. Throughout this period he worked with school dropouts and alienated teens. He helped create the People’s Learning Center. In 1971 he joined the Youth Development Corporation in Lansing. The following year he became a fellow with the National Program for Educational Leadership at Ohio State University.

Much of his professional life had been focused on youth, cultivating in them capacities for freedom, critical thinking, and learning from experience. In 1974 he became director of experiential learning at Davidson College, where he counseled students about lives and work they envisioned for themselves and helped them gain real-world experiences to explore their dreams and build competencies.

During his time at Davidson he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. In part because of that work he won the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Davidson College. He and Sauni gutted and renovated the family’s old house on Main Street, where they continued to live.

Wood retired from Davidson in 1995, and spent his remaining years tending bees in his backyard, negotiating garden rights with woodchucks and deer, tramping Western North Carolina mountains in search of old-growth forests, reading, listening to music, attending to birds, visiting with family. He could watch a spider build its web for an entire morning and consider it time well spent.

Asked about high points of his life, he remembered volunteering with Sauni at state and national parks, climbing snowy mountains, hitchhiking in Newfoundland and going out to sea with its fishermen. He remembered adventures, abroad and at home.

He was preceded in death by parents, Christian Witmer Wood and Bessie Emily Wertman Wood; sister Janice Wood Tonder; and son Scot Kenneth Wood.

He is survived by his wife of fifty-eight years, Sandra; children, John Colman Wood and wife, Carol Young Wood, of Asheville, N.C.; Melinda Wood and husband, Irvin Wardlow, and daughter, Rosa, of Decatur, Ga.; Peter Neal Wood and wife, Patricia Sierra, and sons, Scot Salomon and Esteban Nathaniel, of Coral Gables, Fla. He is also survived by sister, Nancy Wood Mackenburg and partner Ron Smalt of Orchard Park, N.Y.; brother-in-law, sister Jan’s husband, Robert Tonder of McCaysville, Ga.; brothers-in-law, wife Sauni’s brothers, George Colman of Oaxaca, Mexico; Samuel Colman of Binghamton, N.Y.; Robert Colman of Montpelier, Vt.; and David Colman of Middlebury, Vt.; along with many loving nieces and nephews.

“Education,” he once wrote, “...should function to free people and thus enable us to act toward the solution of our personal and corporate problems. At times I am discouraged by the complexity and intractability of the problems. But I find within myself, my family, and in youth, abundant cause to hope and to work for both a better present and a better future.”

Ken Wood spent his life climbing such trees.

A celebration of Ken Wood’s life will be 2 p.m. Saturday, January 11, at the Davidson, N.C., Friends Meetinghouse on South Street.







Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Zen Anthropology

I teach a class called “Zen Anthropology.” It’s a methods class. Zen methods? Meta-methods, actually.

The class is about attitudes more than techniques. In it we ponder how to learn deeply from experience.


What cultural anthropologists do is ethnography. What ethnographers do, at least at the start, is fieldwork. Ethnographers carry out fieldwork among communities of people and then write up what we’ve learned.


The problem is that when we teach methods, we emphasize techniques – participant observation, interviewing, systematic observation, discourse analysis. But we seldom teach students about cultivating proper field attitudes, frames of mind, points of view.


Ethnographic knowledge is channeled through an ethnographer’s mind. So why don’t we talk about mind in our classes? How does one become open to others? How do we cultivate the capacity to notice what others are doing? How do we become mindful of ways our minds (and cultural sensitivities) color understandings of others?


These are matters of subjectivity that, as a discipline, we tend to leave up to the field worker or pretend will be eliminated by proper methods, or techniques.


I teach Zen anthropology because Zen has been around a long time and has over millennia developed texts, practices, teachings to help students become aware of their own minds and the minds of others.


Zen sometimes strikes my students as negative, nihilistic: Zen talk is full of expressions like “no self” or “no mind.” It is a Zen way of talking that Americans struggle with. But it is not so negative as people imagine.


I recently re-read Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing,” in which he writes positively about the need in any art not to know, at least at the outset, where the work is going.


“The not-knowing,” he wrote, “is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”


The ethnographer is not, at least at first blush, an artist. The ethnographer does not, should not, make things up in the way a fiction writer, such as Barthelme, makes things up.


On the other hand, the ethnographer must set aside some of her or his own cultural dispositions if she or he is to make sense of the cultural dispositions of others. In that sense, the ethnographer too must “not know.”


This is where Barthelme’s attitude of not-knowing would come in handy for an ethnographer doing field work, and where Zen has an entire canon to help students cultivate the capacity.


Hence, Zen anthropology.


This morning I was thinking about how to talk to students about “no-self” in a way that helped them understand the notion without simply dismissing it as crazy or nihilistic. The self is one of the great western certainties. How can these Zen masters talk about no-self?


It occurred to me that “not-knowing,” at least at the start of a project, may be intuitively comprehensible to my students in ways that “no-self” is not.


They know what it means not to know. They can imagine the value of suspending judgment. Perhaps this was a way to get at the meaning of no-mind, and thus, no-self.


Hence a formula: No-self : Self :: Not-knowing : Knowing, or put another way: no-self is to self as not-knowing is to knowing.


The attitude of “not-knowing” might really be a matter of openness, or receptivity. It doesn’t mean idiocy. It doesn’t mean a person must be a vacuum. Rather it means that for a time a person suspends a knowing attitude in favor of a not-knowing one, in which the person might discover something she didn’t already know.


Not-knowing may in fact be necessary if one is ever to learn something outside one’s own world view.


Barthelme’s “not-knowing” does not mean the writer gives up knowing altogether, just that for the project at hand one becomes open to other possibilities. One may know and not-know at once. We can imagine that. We can see how a painter or short story writer could set out on a project not knowing where it will end up, all the while knowing who she is, where she comes from, and where she’s got to be tomorrow.


Similarly, a person could adopt an attitude of no-self. It may in fact be the same sort of thing as not-knowing.


No-self does not have to mean no self. One can be self and no-self at the same time. It is not negative or positive. It simply is the case that all of us are just that, whether we think it or not: self and no-self.


We each have a body, a name, an identity, a set of memories, desires, hopes, frustrations, and so on. Yet each of us is related to everything else, dependent on an environment, a set of social relations, infinite interactions with others. The idea of a separate self is, in the final analysis, a fiction.


Like not-knowing, no-self is a platform from which we may realize our connection to others, cultivate our openness to others, discover our empathy for others.


They are really the same: mind and body and other. That is what interactionist theory teaches us in anthropology and what Buddhist teachings point toward in Zen. The aim, whether we are anthropologists or Zenists, is to be open to and learn about the reality of ourselves and others through personal experience.


That is why I teach Zen anthropology.


This, of course, is only speculation.







Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A matter of interpretation

The poststructural stereotype of structuralism, or modernism, was that the latter presumed certainty and correctness, that it was the right way to know and interpret the world.

The reciprocal stereotype of postmodernism is any view is as good as another.

These are extremes, of course. Neither structuralism nor poststructuralism is or ever was monolithic. Both are more complex than their critics like to admit. Still, stereotypes linger and inform arguments.

William H. Gass, in a review of essays by the noted literary scholar M.H. Abrams (and Gass’s former professor), characterizes the poststructural critique of literary theory in just this way: anything goes.

“But suppose,” Gass writes, “as has been proposed by followers of Jacques Derrida, there is no right reading of the work, no correct sense for it. Out of a cage of calculations, suppose we are free to choose the pigeon we like best.”

Perhaps that is the way it goes in the literary world (though I doubt even there you get to pick your pigeons). But these arguments needn’t always retreat to the corners.

The poststructural turn grew out of (or was at least cognate with) anthropology’s idea of cultural relativity. This assertion is a matter of interpretation. But it makes sense historically.

Contact with other societies over the 19th and 20th centuries (coupled with misgivings about slavery and colonialism) eroded the West’s confidence that it had things right, had a privileged view of others, let alone humanity.

A gross extension of this uncertainty is there is no better view: one pigeon is as good as another.

But that’s a leap: it’s one thing to say the culture of my family has nothing privileged to say about your family, quite another to say that the culture of your family has no privileged platform from which to think about itself.

One family may eat food with silverware; another with hands. The fact that these practices are relative to respective families does not mean there is no right way to eat, just that their views about each other must be taken with a grain of salt.

This might smell like I’m saying that a culture critique may only be mounted from within. That may be so. But I’m not making that argument.

I’m suggesting that the challenge to modernism of cultural relativity was more specific than general: a European could not hope to understand an African from a European perspective alone.

That doesn’t mean any view goes, or that there is no basis from which to interpret and evaluate cultural forms (such as literary texts). It’s only to say that a person from one culture is likely to get another culture wrong if she relies on her own cultural resources alone. It does not deny the possibility that there are better and worse interpretations.

There is, in other words, a middle view between a) modern certainty and b) postmodern uncertainty.

One can make better or worse interpretations from premises, and perhaps complex and nuanced variations with other premises, and that a critical “post” modern perspective is not "anything goes" but that "it depends" on the premises, it depends on perspective. Each interpretation is a function of its location relative to what is being interpreted.

Derrida’s project was not to say anything goes. If that was all, why would he have bothered to say anything? His aim as I see it was to expose the reality of multiple possible interpretations, to open up the possibility of richer, more nuanced readings. This is something I think Gass would applaud.

Indeed, Gass once did in a great essay called “In terms of the toenail: fiction and the figures of life.” Here he spoke of the power of metaphor to model (and interpret) the world. Metaphors matter. Perspectives matter. Some metaphors work better than others. We make choices; our choices matter.

In the Jones family they eat with their hands, in the Smith family, with a fork. It’s not “anything goes.” It's a matter of tradition, presumption, culture, point of view. Pluralistic rather than relativistic.