Friday, May 14, 2010

The Magisterium, delivered right to your door

In the May 7, 2010 issue of Commonweal, Kenneth Woodward offers an extended reflection, "Church of the 'Times': A Dissent," in which he examines the weltanschauung of the editors and staff of the New York Times. I will leave it to my readers to judge for themselves the legitimacy of his overall claims about the newspaper's purported allergy to religions (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). I think that is a worthy conversation to have, though I am not sure this is the forum in which to have it.

However, this one paragraph caught my attention and I wanted to take a few minutes here to make a comment or two about the issue he raises (since I think this is the proper forum for such an issue): the Church of Rome, the Times exercises a powerful magisterium or teaching authority through its editorial board. There is no issue, local or global, on which these (usually anonymous) writers do not pronounce with a papal-like editorial “we.” Like the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the editorial board is there to defend received truth as well as advance the paper’s political, social, and cultural agendas. One can no more imagine a Times editorial opposing any form of abortion—to take just one of that magisterium’s articles of faith—than imagine a papal encyclical in favor.

In my doctoral dissertation, The Covert Magisterium: Theology, Textuality and the Question of Scripture, I make the suggestion that Bible publishers (and the larger corporations of which many of them are now a part) exercise a de facto magisterial authority over the shape and form of printed Bibles. That, in itself, is a relatively uncontroversial claim.

What interests me about Woodward's assertion above is the ideological power that is brought to bear when these magisterial effects are wedded with certain types of material objects. That editors and corporations control the content (and therefore, to an arguable extent, the possible readings) of books and newspapers is plain. But the Bible is not an ordinary book, just as the Times is no ordinary newspaper, in terms of the relative cultural power wielded by both.

By virtue (is this the proper word?) of their respective material presentations, the editorial decisions that go into the construction of an imprint of a Bible version or an issue of the Times are of an elevated ideological nature. Words in the New York Times are different, in their weight and influence, than similar words found in the Chattanooga Times, for example.

Similarly, though I bemoan the fact, I can cite numerous instances when my students (undergraduate and masters level, both) have pointed to a footnote, chapter heading, or editorial introduction in their various "study Bibles" and quoted it with the authority of Scripture itself. These aspects of printed Scripture that (arguably) are not Scripture perform as a sort of "blurred space" at the margins of scriptural authority. Gerard Genette calls these sorts of additionals the "paratext," and he (along with Phillipe Lejeune) argues that these paratextual elements shape and control how a given reader reads the text.

The "editorial shape" of a printed object is an artifact of larger ideological positionings within a set of cultural disputations. Ancillary to this claim, it is important to distinguish the claim that certain printed objects will have (within a given set of contexts) greater ideological forcefulness than others. This is why, while it might be appropriate to examine the ideologies involved in the editing and printing of an edition of The Joy of Cooking, I would be hesitant (at least in the current set of contexts) to interrogate that object as an example of a (covert) magisterial artifact.

Both the many (and multiplying) imprints of Holy Bibles and The New York Times, however, are currently situated within our culture such that the interrogation of their editorial and paratextual shaping can yield good critical fruit.

For example, Woodward later quotes Times editor Daniel Okrent, who says, “If you are among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.”

I interpret this to mean that the editorial position of the Times does not exist in isolation, but rather as a part of a larger set of overlapping ideologies and communities within our cultural landscape. Certain "types" of readers identify with the editorial positions of the Times, and others will feel alienated by them. They are influenced by the Times. But these various groups are also influencing the Times through their economic power (whether or not they purchase the paper, for example, or whether or not they patronize the advertisers within), their reaction to the Times in the wider cultural discourse (articles like Woodward's, for example, as well as the blogosphere). Additionally (but not finally), the Times also exists as an abstracted totem, a crumb that is gnawed as a morsel or hurled as an insult within the over-simplified posturings that pass for political discourse currently (a totem of "Eastern elitism" or "informed journalism," alternately).

So the Times, so the Bible. Or, that is to say, so the many Bibles available as objects within the retail sphere (which, today, is the only sphere that matters). Just as certain readers will not feel at home reading the Times, we might easily be able to think of certain classes of readers made very uncomfortable the The Patriot's Bible, and other classes equally uncomfortable with The Green Bible. The editorial decisions that shape these objects are part of a much larger milieu of cultural and ideological disputes that are not one-way in their influences. The differentiation of Bibles creates hospitable (and inhospitable) ideological and theological space for differing classes of readers. These classes, moreover, are themselves complex and overlapping. In fact, it is the negotiation of publishers, wrestling with demographic data, with as many of these overlapping groups as possible that leads to the multiplicity of Bible imprints currently available.

All this is to say that I think Wooward's observation that the New York Times exists as a type of magisterial entity is right on the money (quite literally). Within the wider ideological landscape we are navigating with this analysis, it is an insight well worth exploring.


Duncan Vinson said...

Do your ideas extend beyond the "study Bible" into "standard" Bibles that do not include "paratext"? For example, I own a copy of the NRSV Bible published by Oxford University Press. Everything about the design of this Bible is "understated", "highbrow", and at least in an American context, "British": cerulean blue binding, somewhat antique typeface, meticulous footnotes, abstract watercolor illustrations on color plates. In other words, it is designed to be regarded as the "standard" Bible among people who already associate a certain aesthetic with authority, and it might well be received differently among a different audience.

dault said...

Duncan - Good question! My views on this point are pretty radical. No Bibles escape the fact of their being designed (in other words, they all have some form of these editorial and paratextual effects). The "highbrow" signifiers you mention are great examples of this.