Reflections on People of Paradox by the Author

November 28, 2007 | 26 comments
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Terryl Givens was kind enough to share some reflections on his book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, in response to our questions. His answers follow, in italics.

What led you to this project, and what did you hope to accomplish?

What led me to this project was the genuine question, what does it mean to refer to Mormonism as being or having a distinct cultural tradition? Is it premature to refer to Mormon culture? I wanted to ask this not as a sociologist, interested in patterns of social organization and religious praxis, but as an intellectual or cultural historian, asking about patterns of (high) cultural production. That meant further inquiring, first, is there a cohesive, recognizable set of characteristics that describe Mormon cultural production, second, is there a distinctive set of values or ideals that inform and give shape to those themes and motifs, and finally, how does that cultural tradition evolve in relationship to the larger, surrounding culture?

What I hoped to discover, in addition to answers to those questions, was how those contributing to such an evolving Mormon culture, assuming there is such a thing, are negotiating the space between merely superficial Mormon cultural signs and trappings on the one hand, and the total absence of an identifiable Mormon identity on the other.

What were you most and least satisfied with?

I was pleased to find how much Mormon art and literature avoid glib celebration on the one hand, and cynical disengagement on the other. Better LDS fiction and film especially seem to be earnestly striving to wrestle with the unresolved and often competing demands of the LDS theological tradition. I don’t think it’s always a highly self-conscious confrontation with theology. And I by no means believe I have identified the only paradoxes or tensions within that theological tradition. But I do believe I have focused on a core set that informs large swatches of the LDS artistic production and intellectual heritage. I have convinced myself, at least, that Mormon art, broadly speaking, does signify more than art that is produced by people who happen to be Mormon.

What I regret most are my own limitations and those of space, that have already left me lamenting the absence in my treatment of great spiritual icons, like Lowell Bennion, and poets, like Marden Clark –a list and lamentation that will only grow with time, I am sure. (By way of self-consolation and defense, I will only say that I already exceeded my contracted word-length by over 30%.)

How might the outcome of this project shape your future work?

The results of my study have persuaded me that the argument I made at the Library of Congress [archives here] is worth making, that is, that there was something deliberate and almost systematic about Joseph Smith’s method of working by contraries. I have always been partial to Hegel’s view of a tragic universe as one in which the highest Goods often come into fatal collision with each other. This view seems amply borne out in Joseph’s thought, and illustrated in our cultural response.

Do you think it would be better for Mormons to resolve or somehow get past these
paradoxes?

Finally, do I think we had better try to move beyond, or to resolve, some of these paradoxes? No indeed. I believe Paradox is the sign of a healthy universe, voracious enough to insist on having its cake and eating it too. Paradox is a sign of richness and plenitude. It is Adam and Eve, reaching for both godly aspiration and childlike submission. It is priesthood that is power with no compulsion. It is the weeping God, an infinitely powerful deity who is sovereign of the universe and as vulnerable to pain as the widow with a wayward son. I believe paradox is the inescapable condition of moral agents inhabiting a universe that does not readily yield to our values.

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26 Responses to Reflections on People of Paradox by the Author

  1. Clark on November 28, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    How do we distinguish between true paradox and simply two competing “things” that are in opposition within which we find ourselves in an essential tension.

  2. Ben H on November 28, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    I don’t know if Br. Givens will be weighing in in the comments here. I think ‘two competing “things” that are in opposition within which we find ourselves in an essential tension’ counts as a paradox for me. What do you mean by a “true paradox,” Clark?

  3. Dave on November 28, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    I’m halfway through this enjoyable and informative book. It is refreshingly new in that it uses Mormon history to explore themes that haven’t really been given much attention in other books directed to the general reader. I suspect it will spur further research and writing in that direction by others. It also illustrates to readers unfamiliar with Mormon Studies how rich and broad is the LDS cultural experience — not something those who classify Mormonism as essentially a successful fundamentalist sect are likely willing to grant without this sort of detailed treatment (or even then, for some). And thanks to Terryl Givens for participating.

  4. Clark on November 28, 2007 at 8:07 pm

    Ben, to me a true paradox is like the liar’s paradox. It’s a logical paradox. The kinds of things I prefer to call tensions rather than paradoxes are more competing values which demand a constant “revaluation.” Of course this is the Nietzschean in me coming out. But I think there’s a big difference between reconciling competing values and a logical paradox. (Although perhaps Hegel would disagree)

  5. mlu on November 29, 2007 at 1:14 am

    I haven’t yet read People of Paradox so I don’t know what Givens makes of “paradox” but it’s a term I’ve worked with a fair amount.

    Paradoxes generally occur when we mix descriptive systems or levels in a hierarchy (who would find his life must lose his life, where “life” is understood in different ways). Because reality is more complex than any of our theories of it, we can’t avoid paradoxes. They are invitations to understand things on a higher, more inclusive level. They often point to higher realities: there is more to life than you currently understand.

    True contradictions exist within unified descriptive systems, and they simply announce that an error is being made.

    I think.

  6. Frank McIntyre on November 29, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Clark,

    I have the same problem with the way many people use paradox. I think the definition of paradox must be discipline related. In economics, paradox generally means logical paradox, not just a specific kind of tension. In that case a paradox is bad– really bad. A model that generates paradox is probably very badly written and often unusable.

    In the humanities, they like to, for example, call equivocation, paradox. That’s not my thing, and the disparate definitions probably frustrates some inter-disciplinary dialogue. Namely, I find it annoying because equivocation is a perfectly good word in its own right and so is paradox.

    At this moment I have a sneaking but completely unsubstantiated suspicion that humanities’ love affair with the word is partly because of its logical definition that makes it such a big deal, so they’ve used it to add drama to discussion of equivocation or competing demands.

  7. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Frank, why do you think the humanities have a love affair with the word “paradox”? Does it seem to you that humanities scholars use the word especially frequently?

    Clark, I suspect that the word “paradox” was chosen for its mellifluous alliteration in the title. As I noted in my review, the four pairs of ideas are not paradoxes; they’re more like antithetical propositions. But Givens’ substitution of “paradoxical” for “antithetical” really doesn’t affect his analysis in any substantive way, since he’s not using the methods or vocabulary of rigorous analytic philosophy.

  8. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    It’s a major premise of the book that the tensions inherent in Mormon theology make fertile ground for art; that is, Givens asserts (rather than argues) that the inconsistencies and disruptions in our unsystematic doctrine foster artistic expression. But it’s not clear to me that this must necessarily be the case. How do we distinguish between provocative plenitude and stultifying incoherence? Indeed, it seems to me that many of the limitations of Mormon art that Givens identifies are themselves the direct result of conflicting impulses in Mormon thought and practice. How do we know that Mormon art wouldn’t be much better if we had a more coherent, unified theological tradition?

    It seems to me that Givens’ celebration of the antithetical and disruptive is an unexamined inheritance from post-structuralist literary criticism. I don’t think it’s indefensible, necessarily, but I’m a bit skeptical and I’d like to see him do the work of convincing.

  9. Adam Greenwood on November 29, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    Excellent point, RW. There was an odd cluster of conversions to Catholicism in the first half of the 20th Century by artists, not because of the bells-and-smells but because it gave them a systematic, well-thought out worldview to work with.

  10. Ivan Wolfe on November 29, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Frank -

    well, in Rhetoric, we tend to view paradox this way:
    http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/figures/P/paradox.htm

    “A statement that is self-contradictory on the surface, yet seems to evoke a truth nonetheless.”

    The example given on that page is a good one:
    “Whosoever loses his life, shall find it.”

    Oxymorons are good examples of rhetorical paradoxes: Cruel kindness, bittersweet, etc.

    I wonder if that was what Givens was getting at – on the surface they seem contradictory, but there is a higher truth to be gained when we realize there isn’t a contradiction.

    Of course, as RW pointed out, the title “People of Opposing Cultural Tensions” doesn’t quite work as well as a title.

  11. Clark on November 29, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    It seems to me that Givens’ celebration of the antithetical and disruptive is an unexamined inheritance from post-structuralist literary criticism. I don’t think it’s indefensible, necessarily, but I’m a bit skeptical and I’d like to see him do the work of convincing.

    I suspect this is right. I can’t speak to Mormon literature too much. (I’m much more interested in Mormon ways of reading traditional literature rather than literature by Mormons as such)

    Having said that though there is that famous Joseph Smith quote about reconciling opposites to find truth. Which always seemed to have more of a Hegelian vibe to it than a Derridean.

  12. Clark on November 29, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Actually let me take that back a bit. I’ve not read Givens so I can’t speak to his book. Perhaps you can comment Rosalynde about how he takes it. My understanding of post-structuralism is that there is always an excess in anything versus its representation. So representations are always a matter of “more and less.” Thus opposition in ideas ends up being problematic due to this fact. Thus oppositions are contaminated by each other and don’t form true oppositions. But even singular ideas never are quite the truth. We find truth in examing oppositions because we encounter the lack in our ideas and the excess that escapes them. Thus justice is more than we can conceive of.

    This gets at the rhetorical use of paradox. The logical paradox entails us to recognize that our premises are incorrect and thus a correction of the ideas that form our premises.

    My impression though is that this isn’t really what Givens is doing. As I said he’s more just dealing with competing values that in practice can’t all be satisfied completely. So we form a balance that is always somewhat unstable.

  13. Brad Kramer on November 29, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    “Having said that though there is that famous Joseph Smith quote about reconciling opposites to find truth. Which always seemed to have more of a Hegelian vibe to it than a Derridean.”

    The quote is “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest”

    It was a huge favorite of Gene England’s, who wrote at great length on the topic. The quotation ended up furnishing the title of an edited volume of essays in England’s honor.

    http://www.amazon.com/Proving-Contraries-Collection-Writings-England/dp/1560851902

  14. Dave on November 29, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    FWIW, I once did a post on the “proving contraries” quote, including England’s comments. I think it’s one of those sayings that gets quoted a lot precisely because it sounds profound but can be taken to mean many different things.

  15. Rosalynde Welch on November 30, 2007 at 11:51 am

    Clark, Givens isn’t doing anything like Derridean deconstruction, which is at root a formalist textual project. Givens is far more concerned with context and contextualization, and in that sense is doing something very different. But virtually all the poststructuralist theorists, from Derrida to Foucault to Marcuse and beyond, despite their differing aims and methods, share a preference for analytical tropes of disruption and struggle (versus the old historicist and textual projects, which were more concerned with the unities of texts and worldviews). It’s this general preference that I think Givens adopts.

    Dave, I completely agree with your comments about the “proving contraries” quote. Gene used it as the basis for a theory of holy dissent; Givens seems to want to use it as the basis of an organizational system for a somewhat disorganized corpus of revelation. I’ve never actually seen the quote in situ, and it strikes me at first reading that it could mean something quite different from what either has proposed.

  16. Frank McIntyre on November 30, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Ivan,

    “I wonder if that was what Givens was getting at – on the surface they seem contradictory, but there is a higher truth to be gained when we realize there isn’t a contradiction.”

    At which point, it is no longer a paradox (logically speaking). I mean, it does not appeal to me that your proffered definition of paradox:

    “A statement that is self-contradictory on the surface, yet seems to evoke a truth nonetheless.”

    relies on someone not having thought too much about it or not being smart enough to spot the equivocation (because once they do, it no longer is a _logical_ paradox). But hey, you guys can define words however you find useful. If that defines a useful concept for you, then power to the tribe.

    RW,

    Hmmm, what is the threshold for “love affair”? I did a search in JSTOR under Language and Literature and about 5% of the articles used the word paradox. In Feminist Studies it was about 8%. In philosophy (mixed bag to figure out how they define it) it was 9%. In Econ, poli sci, and law it was more like 2-3%. So, based on that, those humanities use the word 2-3 times as often in their articles. I guess you can decide for yourself if that is a love affair :)

  17. Clark on November 30, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Clark, Givens isn’t doing anything like Derridean deconstruction, which is at root a formalist textual project. Givens is far more concerned with context and contextualization, and in that sense is doing something very different.

    I’m not sure those end up being different. (Indeed I think Derridean deconstruction is all about context and contextualization)

    I think the reason the “poststructuralists” follow tropes of strife is interesting. Of course it goes back to some of Heidegger’s rightly famous musings on strife – especially in the context of Heraclitus. But also is basic to the rejection of foundationalism (which at its heart is a motif of philosophy and knowing as a passive act). Once you reject “givenness” as a kind of pure happening then strife is inherent and we’re led down the road of violence and ethics. (IMO)

    In a sense the more Nietzschean approach I mentioned to Ben is a manifestation of this. Nietzsche had, perhaps, a tad too naive near Stoic conception of centers of power. But the basic idea is there. To be is to be engaged in strife.

    Art then has a rather unique following from this. (Even if you reject Heidegger’s rather creative rendition of Nietzsche and Art) However in a Mormon context it is interesting since there definitely is a strain of LDS thought that is passive. But an other strain (the eternal progression) that seems to demand strife. These two moves: strife and passivity seem a tad unanalyzed in Mormon thought. If Givens does such an analysis perhaps I ought take up the book.

  18. Ivan Wolfe on November 30, 2007 at 8:19 pm

    Frank, that was a bit snarkier than I would have liked.

    And, why are you privleging “logical paradox” above all else? You haven’t really made the case that it’s the only true and living way to define paradox – you’ve just assumed it as a given.

    The idea of the “rhetorical paradox” goes back to Aristotle (and likely before), so us rhetoric types aren’t just pulling this out of our butts, as you seem to infer/imply/whatever.

  19. Frank McIntyre on December 2, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    No, Ivan, really, I meant it; if you like your definition and find it useful, go for it.

    I am trying to explain why I don’t find it useful and why I think it creates problems talking across disciplines to have the two definitions where one is strictly a subset of the other.

    I am interested when you say the idea of a rhetorical paradox goes back to Aristotle. Did Aristotle separate logical and rhetorical paradoxes, and then call both of them paradoxes? I’m asking as I have not the slightest idea.

  20. Clark on December 2, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    Isn’t the rhetorical use merely the “formal” use but when it is merely apparent rather than real?

    The idea of an apparent paradox goes back at least to Zeno since his paradoxes make it seem like motion doesn’t occur but of course it is occuring. I believe Aristotle was very influenced by this. Of course I’m not a big Aristotle guy: Ben is.

    I believe though that outside of pure logical paradoxes Aristotle was big on antimonies or “dead ends” where rhetoric leads us to an impasse. These aporias or contraries are often the result of our inquiry. Of course here Aristotle is merely following Plato since almost all of the Dialogs of Plato end with just such an aporia and we’re left wondering about the nature of the thing we’re investigating.

    So I think Ivan is quite right that the two senses of paradox go back quite a ways together.

    If anyone is interested in being bored more by me on this topic, I wrote about it relative to Socratic Method a few years back. I then discussed it relative to Peirce, Socrates, and Derrida.

    Let me note that I don’t have trouble calling both the logical and more rhetorical views of paradox both paradox. After all the very inquiry into what really is or isn’t a paradox is itself a study of paradox. However the idea that mere “tensions” are paradoxes is a bit more problematic to me. Although clearly some might be. (Say the tension between Being and Becoming that one could argue instigates and continues philosophy over the millennia)

  21. Ivan Wolfe on December 2, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    Frank -

    Clark has it about right – or at least close enough that further explanation would require something like 30 pages of linguistic clarifications and historical contexts.

    Clark -
    the idea that mere “tensions” are paradoxes is a bit more problematic to me

    That’s true, but all paradoxes contain tension. So the question is whether these are “mere” tensions or if the tension reaches the level of paradox. Take the liar’s paradox (“everything I say is a lie”) or Zeno’s paradox (which you mention above) – there’s clear tension between the words used, the meaning behind the words and observable reality.

    But I haven’t read Givens’ book yet. I plan too, soon (I hope).

    However, “People of Tension” sounds too much like a reflexology book. “People of Paradox” sounds cool, even if it is inaccurate.

  22. Clark on December 2, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Well all paradoxes have a tension in the sense that there is a contradiction. But not all tensions are real contradictions. So, for instance, the fact I have to love my children and my wife involves all sorts of tensions as I choose between the to values every day. But that tension is completely different from the tensions in a paradox.

  23. Frank McIntyre on December 2, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    People of rhetorical paradox

    People of apparent, but not formal, paradox

    I think those would be chartbuster titles.

  24. Adam Greenwood on December 2, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    You forgot the subtitle, Frank.

    People of “Paradox”: Aristotle and Me.

  25. ed johnson on December 3, 2007 at 4:44 am

    I’m surprised Frank thinks that economists use “paradox” to refer primarily to logical paradoxes. Wikipedia has a good list of economic ideas that are often refered to as paradoxes:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Economics_paradoxes

    I don’t think there is a single logical contradiction among them…they are instead models or empirical regularities that seem to defy intuition or might appear contradictory on the surface. Of course, most of them have become absorbed into the discipline to the point where they no longer appear so puzzling to trained economists.

  26. Frank McIntyre on December 3, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Ed,

    A few of those bug me too. Some (many?) of them _are_ logical paradoxes within a specific formal model, leading to a rejection or revision of that framework because of the paradox (for example the Ellsberg paradox is a paradox in a model of expected utility maximizers, but not if you allow for ambiguity aversion). Others are only apparent paradoxes and so I think do not get much respect as paradoxes by many economists (whether their author tried to pass them off that way or not).

    So I think it is still fair to see a disciplinary divide

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