The Platypus As Postmodern Mammal: Understanding Rowling’s Depth and Success

Okay, Wizard Rock is a blast but it’s time to put Potter-mania and Fandom aside and get back to the books and some serious thinking, folks. Here are three notes on Umberto Eco and how to think about the narrative of the Harry Potter stories, especially about why it resonates so universally.

The first is a delightful introduction to the man himself in I Invented Dan Brown, a Jerusalem Post interview with Italian novelist and semiotics professor Umberto Eco:

Eco unhesitatingly accepts the label “postmodern” to describe his novels, whose plots often hinge on the ambiguities of language and pay homage to writers, philosophers and theologians from throughout the ages. “Postmodernism is a form of narrativity that takes for granted that everything has already been said before. If I love a girl I cannot say ‘I love you desperately,’ because I know that Barbara Cartland has already said it. But I can say, ‘as Barbara Cartland would say, “I love you desperately.”‘”

His 1997 philosophical study Kant and the Platypus described the platypus as a postmodern animal, after considering the debates of 18th-century scientists over whether to classify the duck-beaked, beaver-tailed creature as a mammal, a bird or a reptile. “Postmodern texts quote other texts; the platypus quotes other animals,” says Eco. “Borges said that the platypus is an animal made up of the pieces of other animals, but since the platypus appeared very early in evolution, there are probably other animals made with pieces of platypus.”

As unclassifiable as a platypus, Eco made his fictional debut at 48, when a publisher commissioned him to contribute to an anthology of detective tales written by academics. Instead, he turned in a 500-page tome: The Name of the Rose. Italian literature lacks a tradition of detective fiction, which Eco attributes to Renaissance Italy’s abandonment of Aristotle’s Poetics. “The Poetics is the theory of pure narrativity. The Italian tradition was more interested in language than plot.”

The argument of much of Unlocking Harry Potter. the first and revised editions, is much along these Umbertian lines, namely, that Ms. Rowling’s popularity must first be understood in the resonance her books have with our times. Transcendent meaning is all well and good, but if the Harry Potter epic weren’t very much a Postmodern epic about the goods and evils (and blindspots) of the historical ages, a surface meaning that hooked millions of readers, no one would be interested in the literary alchemy, Christian content, and Dante allusions. As discussed in Unlocking, the Potter novels pass every test for postmodern orthodoxy from genre crushing (call it “platypus publishing”) to metanarrative bashing.

Umberto Eco has more to tell us about Harry Potter, though, than his resemblance to a literary genre-crosser:

In Opera aperta, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged fields. Those works of literature that limit potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line are the least rewarding, while those that are most open, most active between mind and society and line, are the most lively and best — although valuation terminology is not his business. Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather operate in the context of utterance. So much had been said by I. A. Richards and others, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this idea.

Eco’s deconstructionist theories about “fields of meaning” explain as much about Ms. Rowling’s great success as does her resonance with the Zeitgeist. To many readers, Harry Potter is an epic Harlequin fantasy-romance in which ‘shipping is the central focus. To the younger (or beach-novel) crowd, it’s an exciting and engaging story without substance or quality meriting study. Come to think of it, this is also the Ivory Tower response in large part. And then there are HogPro geeks, who understood on the first read that the books were ‘heavily laced’ with symbolic and transcendent meanings very much worth exploring. How else can we explain both Potter-mania and individual fascination with Harry?

I’d suggest that this breadth of readings reflects at least partially what Eco means by “fields of meaning” and a book’s open understanding to a plurality of reader experiences

And an old hand from Sword of Gryffindor days on his own blog, Ohio River Utopia, takes Ecovian explorations in a different line, namely, how the Harry Potter novels are about the reader’s experience of the novel because the hero is in a similar race to understand what is happening:

I also have to wonder what this means for the structure of narrative. The story/discourse dichotomy is one that clearly exists. Can they be conflated? Or at least blended? The Harry Potter novels construct a story telling device in which the reader reads Harry’s attempts to “read” the narrative(s) that are emerging and/or rending in front of him. He seeks to codify some simple notion of his own past, something completely alien to him. And he easily latches onto a recaptured/reconstructed narrative of his father as a heroic and popular figure. His experience in Snape’s memory fractures that self constructed narrative (one largely built from shaky, biased sources filtered into a biased narrative architect/ure[Harry]). It’s a transgressive moment that figures the discursive element of narrative architecture as unstable, at least to a degree. It cannot collapse, or else the text is unintelligible entirely. But Harry must interpret the memory and do something with it. He does empathize with Snape, but only for a brief moment. He destroyed the limits of the narrative he had constructed, but only saw it as a minor crack in his father’s character instead of a seminal comment on the nature of Snape’s character evolution.

Is this a simple metanarrative? Or might it be a kind of elided narrative, or bifurcated narrative? One could argue that the real story is the one that Harry is trying to read, that we never fully see. Most of the plot in each book is bound to the attempts by Harry and the others to understand the behind-the-scenes activities that involve primarily Dumbledore, Voldemort, and Snape. And Rowling encourages this speculation by building a plot in HBP centered on Harry’s education in deciphering the text(s) to which he has access. The Pensieve lessons are devoted to an understanding of Voldemort’s motivations and plans through interpretation of his personal histories, both as Tom Riddle, and as the fictional Voldemort, a simulacra of the original in some fashion.

All in all, I think Eco’s theories give us plenty to think and talk about. I look forward to reading your thoughts, comments, and corrections.


  1. Forgive me, John, but I can’t – I just can’t -wrap my sleep deprived mind around the complexities of your elegant prose. All I get is: Harry tried to figure out what was really going on, and through him, the reader; but we never got the full picture (although he seemed to, hence the marvellously elliptical conversation at King’s Cross).

    And perhaps this is my sleep deprived mind again, but I do thnk that there is a “single unequivocal line” of narrative in the stories, and the challenge and the charm lies in trying to detect what that line is.

    You see, I regard the HP books as essentially being a mystery story, wrapped in fantasy, wrapped in a boy’s adventure / boarding school story. With death and sacrifice and resurrection walking stepwise beside. The classic mystery story is very clear and linear, and not at all postmodern.

    And the thought that one can not write “I love you” without adding “as Barbara Cartland would say ” or even “as William Shakespeare would say” is truly inimical to me.

    But perhaps I am making a Pythonesque error here, contradicting you without really giving you an arguement.

    And how postmodern is that?

  2. Very!

  3. Travis Prinzi says

    Rowling’s writing is indeed a strange animal, which in many ways makes it “postmodern.” As you’ve also noted in the past, it contains its critiques of postmodernism as well. I think it should be noted that Harry’s attempts to read Voldemort’s story result in a “correct” interpretation of them, without which he could not have accomplished his own story. There’s something strangely “objective” going on with the whole memory thing in HP, which is really the furthest thing from postmodernism (our subjective experiences can be reproduced objectively, apart from our own interpretation of those events?); and the memories are taken too seriously to be “play” in the text.

    Whether her critique of postmodernism is her being a victim of the antiquated, oppressive tradition of the fairy tale (the Ivory Tower’s criticism) or a deliberate attempt to prove that love breaks through the (needed) disorientation of postmodernism in breaking down our modernistic Tower of Babel (my preferred interpretation) is the question that deserves lots of analysis!

    I think the last commented you quoted by Eco is right on the mark, and there’s a lot to do with that comment as it relates to HP.

  4. I also prefer the interpretation that love is her atomic bomb to blow up postmodern dogmatic deconstructionism with. Love survives all narratives and metanarratives in the seven books, Travis. But also the latin incantations remain above deconstruction. So language meaning and love are ultimately ontological constants.

    This post is indeed a thought-inspiring post, John!

    Odd Sverre Hove
    (Bergen, Norway)

  5. Very interesting! I really like Eco’s image of literary works as “fields of meaning,” to be mined in different ways by different readers. I like the idea of unearthing new treasures every time I read old favorites, such as the Potter books! I must say that I’m gaining a bit of respect for postmodern literary theory, which I’ve ever had before. No, I certainly don’t want to “relativize” the absolute, but I shouldn’t be so quick to “absolutize” the relative, either.

  6. I’ve wrestled a lot with postmodern lit theory. I come from a very traditional, conservative evangelical household, one which tends to glower at any suggestion of postmodernism through squinty eyes. At the same time, I go to a liberal college where you are expected to be postmodern if you want to be treated as anything more than a part of the knuckle-dragging, heavy-browed, unwashed masses. I’ve read more than my share of Derrida and Foucault, and I think their critique of modernism is devastating, but I have also read enough Solomon to know that we cannot relativist it all – such is shepherding the wind. There is nothing new under the sun, and too often the church has chased after some “new” thing.

    I think Rowling understands this as well. She is not a thorough postmodernist. In the Potter books, the truth is found in the victory of Love, and this is not simply a matter of perspective. Voldemort was not “misunderstood.” He was evil, an abomination, and she did not flinch away from this very objective outlook, even when exploring the origins of his development. He was still evil, and he was still responsible.

    In a lot of ways, we have the interaction of subjective and objective in the Potter books. Some things are a matter of perspective – we don’t have an omniscient view of the events and neither does Harry. But, at the same time, we’re not stuck there. Subjective spirals into objective, which leads back to a subjective, which reshapes our understanding of the objective. Both are necessary or Yeats’ center cannot hold. It is a constant dance of revising and reforming, which leads to greater and greater knowledge of and interaction between subjective and objective.

  7. Travis Prinzi says

    Love survives all narratives and metanarratives in the seven books, Travis.

    Indeed, it does! I think it’d be pretty hard to consider self-sacrificial love a “metanarrative” in any sense of the term.

    I might suggest that the virtue of courage working together with the virtues of love and loyalty-to-the-good are her atomic bomb – or, more appropriately, her “Expelliarmus” charm against the splintered human identities of postmodernism.

  8. Dave the Longwinded says

    What intrigues me here, as a “postmodernist”, is that Rowling’s answers to postmodern dilemmas are always couched in abstract terms that are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to qualify, much less quantify:

    In the Potter books, the truth is found in the victory of Love, and this is not simply a matter of perspective. Voldemort was not “misunderstood.” He was evil, an abomination, and she did not flinch away from this very objective outlook, even when exploring the origins of his development. He was still evil, and he was still responsible.

    In a lot of ways, we have the interaction of subjective and objective in the Potter books. Some things are a matter of perspective – we don’t have an omniscient view of the events and neither does Harry. But, at the same time, we’re not stuck there. Subjective spirals into objective, which leads back to a subjective, which reshapes our understanding of the objective. Both are necessary or Yeats’ center cannot hold. It is a constant dance of revising and reforming, which leads to greater and greater knowledge of and interaction between subjective and objective. (Chosen66 para. 2-3)

    And Travis’s second comment says this:

    I might suggest that the virtue of courage working together with the virtues of love and loyalty-to-the-good are her atomic bomb – or, more appropriately, her “Expelliarmus” charm against the splintered human identities of postmodernism. (para. 3)

    But, to some degree, Rowling does rely on such “splintered human identities”. For a postmodernist, Rowling’s themes are striking in that her answer to the fractures of postmodernism actually exploit postmodernist tendencies by premising them on unified abstractions of “love”, “loyalty”, and friendship.

    For example, no one character becomes anything really close to a unified whole — something very much a premise in classical literature. Aristotle’s catharsis and the hamartic moment are about unifying the vision of the protagonist with the ontological realities surrounding him (and it usually is a him). Foucault plays with this idea in one of his essays “What is an Author?” (one of my favorites). He traces the notion that authorship and narration are about creating a unified theory of the story so that the narrative can establish some sense of Truth — usually a prescription for proper behavior in certain circumstances.

    Postmodernists think that such a unity has only ever proven to be an illusion — that any exegesis to uncover what is going on in a text is also closely related, and sometimes contradicted, by what happens in the places that surround the text and its meaning. Eco’s “fields of play” are one lyrical description of this — though my understanding is that Eco doesn’t take this to the extreme that Derrida, Barthes, or Foucault would.

    To put it into a concrete context for HP, the easy way to consider this idea is that Harry, Ron, and Hermione constitute one field of play. Because of the diffusion that postmodernism articulates, Rowling cannot answer the pomo dilemma by throwing the reader Harry as a straightforward, unified Christ alleghory a la Aslan — who seems to be Lewis’s answer to the problems Modernism articulates after WWI. Instead, she keeps her heroes thoroughly “real”, often articulating their power as a matter of their friendship to each other and to those beyond their immediate relationship
    — Harry often cannot do what needs to be done without their assistance, something DH hammers away at for two-thirds of the book.

    Yet, for a postmodernist, the potential deconstructive moment for the series comes in the end of DH once Harry faces Voldemort. Instead of his friends, he is accompanied by the specters of his parents and what might be considered Harry’s “true” family. I say “true” because it’s interesting that Rowling has shifted images on us a bit if this moment is read in comparison to Philosopher’s Stone and the Mirror of Erised. Harry sees his family — those people he is genetically related to — even if he should have no real concept of them (we’re never told that he has ever even heard of anyone beyond his mother and father). Then, “family” takes on a different meaning in the forest walk. That Lily and James appear will be a given. That Sirius and Lupin appear would seem a given, yet it is deeply evocative, suggesting that Harry’s concept of family has evolved quite significantly, and so has his connection to those around him. Rowling suggests the importance of connection and diffusion of purpose across multiple spaces — each individual plays an important part as the narrative unfolds. Family is now about “love” and “loyalty”, not simply who Harry shares physical characteristics with. Thus, the reader is confronted with the manifestation of his “family” returning to his side — what he’s wanted all along.

    The ephemeral quality Rowling gives to the moment is one of pure fantasy in the vein of Tolkien, and suggests the ethereal nature of her solution — heightened by the fact that Harry brings no one with him. It would be easy to read this scene as a deconstructive antithesis to one of the major themes the texts articulate for nearly seven books. But She’s relying on a simple universal that is really not an especially grand declaration — that “love” is something present in every culture, at least in some form that is worthwhile to any culture. In the unquantifiable nature of this, she’s couched an unassailable premise because it is a postmodern concept itself — as soon as you try to quantify or qualify the nature of love, that nature will shift into a space or into a nature other than what you just tried to describe. Travis’s “expelliarmus” metaphor is apt, especially because the first blows to Voldemort are struck by himself and…Neville Longbottom!? Like some of you have said — turning postmodernism against itself in a more sophisticated way than is the typical response from its opponents.

    If there really is postmodern dilemma I’m not sure the books deal with, then it is that the book stays with many of the conventions it draws from its genre influences. I mean, is Voldemort’s downfall ever at all in doubt for seven books? Of course, you could ask if the Voldemort problem is really the central conflict of the books, or if it is Rowling’s ultimate red herring…

  9. I can’t wait for “post-postmodernism”. It should be really freaked out.

    But seriously, and completely off-topic, I just finished reading the first of the Mistmantle chronicles. It was really good, not Harry Potter grade, but at least as good as the Narnia stuff. Has very much a Christian concept of a creator who loves the creation and evil, void-like force. Also the main character is an orphan like Harry Potter.

  10. I’m struggling here. As a “postmodernist” myself, I feel the postmodernist view represented in these comments (with the exception of Dave) is lacking. Postmodernism has been a bit unfairly categorized and carictured. I mean, I’ll chuckle too at such tongue-in-cheek remarks that it is very postmodern to contradict without argument, as long as we all understand that that is, of course, rubbish – postmoderns make arguments. I’m not here to be polemical, I really enjoy this blog and everything everyone brings to the table. But I would like to add the very strong admonition off the cuff that if we are going to talk about postmodernism, we have to do so within a certain (of course) linguistic framework

    So for example, the objectivist/subjectivist category should be abandoned, according to the postmodernist. It is not that the modern thinks there’s objectivity while the postmodern thinks there is only subjectivity; rather, this is understood as a false dichotomy in and of itself. Objectivity – and thus subjectivity as opposed to objectivity – is not really possible, nor is it even desirable. So when we talk about something “strangely objective” going on with the pensieve, I understand where that is coming from, but it is still not objective, because Harry – and by extension, the reader – is experienced through the lens of Harry’s persona. And the memories themselves come from one person’s brain, not everyone’s.

    Moreover, it is mentioned that the Latin phrases are “above deconstruction,” and that language, love and meaning are “ontological constants.” What does that mean? How are they above deconstruction? What is an ontological constant? I’m really struggling here, because I don’t understand the language being used. Does this mean we cannot pull apart the phrases and see what they mean? That these phrases always mean the same thing everywhere no matter what, and Wizards that don’t come from a Latin-based (which, coincidently, English doesn’t really) linguistic framework must use Latin, or that Wizards before Latin still used Latin to cast spells? Or is it just the language immediately at hand for Rowling, because of her own education? The language (that is, the terms it is being couched in) ultimately fails.

    More-moreover, I must say that the postmodernist, by necessity, does not deny a reality marked by love, meaning, or even a metanarrative. Rather, the qualification comes when we ask if these things are inherently available to all people no matter what, or if they are all viewed the same way, which I am persuaded they are not. So it is not “unpostmodern” in Rowling’s writing that she believes that “love conquers all.” Indeed, as Harry struggles to make sense of his world (and thus, as we struggle a long with him), we are again and again reminded (I’m thinking especially of the Hallows-or-Horcruxes issue of DH) that the choice is encompassed by who Harry trusts, who Harry loves, and what is Harry after. Ultimately, Harry did not need to know everything; he needed to trust Dumbledore, he needed to care for his friends, and be willing to sacrifice himself. Now just because these themes could be understood as “properly human,” or because we may discern a metanarrative, does not qualify Rowling from postmodernism. As a postmodern Christian, I think just the opposite.

    As for the question at hand, I am re-reading the books now, and I am interested to see where it leads. This discussion is a good one. I think that because we have much of the story from Harry’s perspective (or Rowling through Harry to us), we could argue that alone has some postmodern qualities. Or the depth of character – is Peter Pettigrew completely evil, or is Dumbledore completely good? Is Harry even one or the other? On the other hand, what are we to do with the seemingly hard-cast characterizations of the Houses, especially that all the jerks come out of Slytherin? How would this fit into the fluid postmodern framework?

    It is hard to discern where Rowling is being postmodern, I think, because one being postmodern is a slippery thing to call, especially when working from a narrative, since it depends on the issue, and it depends on one’s education and experiences, what a person has been taught about that particular subject, what one’s worldview is and what cultural-linguistic framework that person emerges from. But I look forward to the further dialogue on this post, and where it leads us.


  11. Dave,

    I like your question about whether the “Voldemort problem” is really the central conflict of the books.

    To a certain extent, Voldemort is easily replaceable, being no more than the “soupe de jour” villain, preceded by Grindelwald and to be followed perhaps by some forgotten scion of the Gaunt/Black families. He doesn’t pose a unique challenge, apart from the challenge evil always poses: to run away or to fight, and at what cost?

    I think there are a number of more central conflicts, which remain the same no matter who is the villain of the day: how we
    deal with our mortality, whether we accept it or whether we fear it and try to avoid it, and at what cost; and also about power, whether we pursue it or whether we relinquish it. And perhaps something about love, about the cost of loving others, and the cost of not loving others.

    I don’t think the outcomes for these conflicts were entirely conventional. Harry could have kept the Elder Wand, and that would not have confounded our assumptions of how the victor should act. He could have accepted DD’s conclusion that he was to be trusted with power; but he wisely did not. How many people do we know (aside from the deniers of the One Ring) who turned down power?

    The outcome of the conflict about mortality is more iffy. On the one hand, we have Harry making the sacrifice the plot requires of him – no less conventional for being tragic and heartbreaking and heroic. On the other hand, we have the interesting choice Dumbledore offers him at King’s Cross: to go back, or to go on. For the story to have its natural end – for Voldemort to be defeated – Harry had to go back. Conventional. But the brief thought he has about how peaceful it is at King’s Cross. Is that a real urge, or just lip service?

    And the final dilemma, about love. The love that Lily and Harry feel helps them to conquer death and ultimately conquer evil. That much is conventional. And Voldemort’s lack of love – or understanding of love – leads to his destruction. But how about Dumbledore? As a young man he feels love, and that leads to horrible consequences. For the rest of his life he forswears love, or doesn’t let love inflluence his decisions. And there is a good outcome: evil is defeated. Machiavellianism triumphs.

    I think that the outcomes are overall conventional, but there are a few glances thrown down the road not taken.

  12. «Semiotics» is «sign theory».
    Jacques Derrida is known to be the father of postmodernist deconstructionist semiotics («structuralist semiotics»). His thesis is reported to be something like this: A message is only a play of signs. Interpreting the signs is impossible, because there is no way to verify an interpretation. All interpretations are equal. No single interpretation is more probable than any other. Since messages are totalitarian and oppressive, they are in need of deconstruction.
    Umberto Eco is opposing the Derrida semiotics. He is in favor of «pragmatic semiotics». His claim is that Derrida defends an unlimited semiotics. The prosess of interpreting the signs of a given message is not a two-way-relationship with no possible verification whatsoever. But in the prosess of interpreting the signs of a given message the relationship is a three-way-relationship: The sender + The message/text + The reciever. The mesage itself is often a possible source from which a reciever may verify or falsify a given interpretation.
    Example: A message about sparrows may according to Derrida be interpreted as a message about soap. But according to Eco that interpretation may, by way of arguments from the overall theme of the message, be falsified as an invalid and false interpretation.
    If a pilot interprets the signs of the instrument panels of his airplane according to Derrida semiotics, he may crash the plane. If he interprets them according to Eco semiotics, he accepts some basic laws of correllation between what the instrument signs show and the objective reality of the atmosphere around the plane.

    Now turn to the latin «Wingardium Levitosa» spell in HP1, chp 10. You have to pronounce it correctly, to consentrate, and so on. But then it works. When you have learnt to make it work, you can even use it to knock out trolls. Just like the signs of the instruments of that pilot of Umberto Eco. He trusts his instruments to report correctly the objective realities of the air around him. And Ron trusts the Wingardium spell to work correctly after he learnt it.
    Now, dosn’t this prove that JKR & HP semiotics is the semioticas of Eco and not the semiotics of Derrida? Which means: She is critisizeing postmodernist sign theory from within. She is limiting its aera of validity. She is not in favor of unlimitid postmodernism.

    That, Alex, is what I mean with «latin spells as ontological constants», «latin spells as above deconstruction».

    Odd Sverre Hove
    Bergen, Norway

  13. For a moment of levity in the midst of this serious discussion, take a quick look at the Giant Squid’s cousin here:

    Would even a postmodernist want to play with its tentacles whilst resting beside the Lake? Not I!!!

  14. I won’t speak to the postmodernist debate any more, feeling woefully out of my depth in that area.

    But I am still intrigued by the central conflict question. What is the central conflict of the book, if not the forces of good vs the forces of evil?

    The easy answers are: fear of death vs acceptance of death, love vs its absence, and perhaps also wanting power vs rejecting power. And in each case the answer is fairly straightforward and conventional: accepting death is the only way to transcend it, love is the strongest force there is, and the quest for power corrupts.

    But when I read the books, those questions are important, but they are secondary to what really drives the plot. It is possible to construe the whole saga as Harry’s quest to understand his world, and his purpose in that world. The questions he asks over and over again are: what happened at Godric’s Hollow? why did my parents die? what happened to me? what is my link to the man who killed them? what am I? what do I need to do?
    Everything that happens gives him one more piece of information, one more piece of the puzzle, so he can understand where he comes from, what he is, and what he needs to do.

    Now the really interesting piece, for me, anyways, is the role played by his friends on the one hand, and Snape and Dumbledore on the other. Ron and Hermione are Harry’s allies in putting the information together. To a certain extent, they reflect his inner dialogue, his uncertainty, his speculation, and the give and take between common sense and desire. They can be construed as one information processing unit.

    Snape and Dumbledore, on the other hand, have the answers. If they don’t know the whole picture at the start, they both know it – and know what Harry must do – long before he does. Much of the story could be pre-empted if either man were to speak openly to Harry. But they don’t.

    And although there are a lot reasons why they don’t, including the obvious fact that it would have made for a less entertaining story, one of the reasons why they don’t is their own emotional inaccessibility. Dumbledore will not trust anyone with the truth, and carries it to his death, leaving it to Snape’s uncertain ability to connect with Harry to impart the vital information to him. And Snape – Snape is so angry and bitter that he literally needs to be at death’s door before he can tell Harry: in order to win this war, you must die.

    So there it is, the central conflict: between Harry’s need to understand, and the need of those who can help him to frustrate him by witholding that information.

  15. Thanks for all the discussion.
    I don’t usually post, but when reyhen says that Dumbledore feels love in his youth, but forswears it for the rest of his life, I have to wonder. What do you really mean? Dumbledore may forswear romantic love, but he certainly doesn’t forswear love in general.

    Love, at least in the Potter series, is more than kissing in a secluded hallway. It is caring more for others than for oneself. Dumbledore pursues the greater good at all times, and constantly seeks the best for all of his students, even slimy gits like Draco.

    I think we need to differentiate between love, and emotional feeling. They aren’t the same thing.

  16. Oshove, thanks for the clarification! I am aware of Derrida’s work, although I must admit that I am less familiar with Eco’s work, aside from a passing knowledge of his fiction as illustrative and speculative works on his field of study.

    I understand where you are coming from a little better, but I have a few responses. First off, Derrida is respected as the “Father of Postmodern Deconstructionalism,” however, there has been more work in that field since Derrida. Postmodernism is characterized by more than simply deconstructionalism, and there are other deconstructionalist theories beyond Derrida. My particular influences in postmodernism and deconstructionalism are mostly Christian theologists, such as Hauerwas, Yoder, Wright, Wittgenstein, etc. All of these people have adapted deconstructionalism in their own right. I understand what you are saying, but I still struggle with applying only Derrida’s theories, especially considering that they are dated.

    Moreover, as I said before, postmodernism moves outside of post-Enlightment linguistic frameworks, such as the (I would add false) dichotomy of objectivism/subjectivism. Derrida, in his critique of modernism and the positivism that results, is at least correct, I think, in saying that we are always working from our interpretation. Now, I am not inclined to think that this makes knowledge of reality impossible, as Derrida has been accused of saying. However, even with your illustration of the plane and pilot – where is the objective reality? The instruments have a “perception” (sort of) in that they are receiving information/knowledge based on their programming or the way they are built or whatever. Interpretation can be guided, but we must at least accept that we are always interpreting, and never seeing “objective reality.” At least, that is what the postmodernist says.

    Okay, that was too long a response. Just a bit more, though, if you’ll forgive me. I don’t know how much Rowling knows of “Derrida’s sign theory,” and beyond, but I don’t know that we can conclude that because she writes that there is a certain way magic must be done (I would add, by Hogwart’s cirriculum – we can’t say that the way Weasley is taught to do magic is the only way necessarily; I refer again to my earlier comment: how was magic done before Latin? Before Wands? How did Harry and the other young wizards do magic in “stressful situations” without the knowledge about the Latin, etc, from attained at Hogwarts), this necessarily means that she is “critisizeing postmodernist sign theory from within” nor that she is subscribing to Eco’s semiotics. I think that is a leap.

    Another clarifying question: what do you mean by “unlimited postmodernism?” I think I understand you, and more the most part agree with what you are saying. I don’t think Rowling subscribes to complete relativism, if that’s what you mean, or that there is not some kind of reality. Anyway, I appreciate this dialogue, and please don’t take my arguments personally – I think this is a good discussion.

    Reyhan, I really think you are on to something. I do agree that much of the book is Harry trying to make sense of his world, his past, himself. And I really thought appreciated your insight concerning Ron/Hermione contra (if that’s the right word) Dumbledore/Snape. I think a part of this theme is trust, which is related to the other themes you mentioned (Death, Love, etc). You know, we have, if I remember correctly (I haven’t read DH twice yet), Dumbledore apologizing for not being more up front with Harry, which really took me by surprise. And all through DH, we have, as Granger (I’m really not on first name basis with yet!) pointed out in one of his posts on Alchemy, the question of whether or not Harry will trust Dumbledore and stay on the quest for the Horcruxes, or will he abandon the quest in favor for the Hallows. And the center struggle in this question for Harry is, as you pointed out, driven by Harry’s need to understand.

    And, in the vein of this dialogue, I think there is some postmodern element there, whether intended or not. This could be a key to Rowling’s success. As we go through life, trying to make sense of the world around us and our place in it, we have a truly wonderful story of a boy trying to do just that same thing. Great observations.

  17. Correction: In paragraph 5 of my previous post, I meant “for the most part,” not “more the most part.” =).

  18. miroperegrinos,

    I meant that Dumbledore forswears romantic love after his disastrous early experience with it. I separately meant that he subsequently doesn’t let love influence his decisions. To wit, he loves Harry as much as he is capable of loving anyone, but he does not let his love let Harry off the hook for being the boy who must die. He doesn’t even let his love influence him enough to trust Harry with the truth.

    Ask yourself, if you were Dumbledore, would you not have said something to Harry about his destiny, especially when you knew you were about to die and Harry would be left to walk to his death alone?

    Cold, cold, Dumbledore, the coldest man in the whole damn town, colder than old Voldemort …

  19. I think the central problem I have with postmodernism is its lack of reflection on the nature of the Trinity. Up until recently the Christian response has been wholesale adoption of postmodernism or the wholesale rejection of postmodernism. Now we’re starting to see people like Peter Leithart write books like Solomon Among the Postmoderns, which is starting to converse and actually think and deal with what postmodernism is really saying.

    And so Alex, I understand your frustration with not really dealing with postmodernism. It is not wholly about epistemology, but that is a fruitful conversation anyway. The most annoying element of postmodern epistemology, especially with regards to theological interpretation of the Bible, is precisely that it gives wonderful excuses for sinners to excuse themselves from following God’s requirements. God says not to have sex outside of marriage – the postmodern glibly says, “Ahh, but that’s just really a matter of perspective. Who is God talking to, what were they thinking, and what was the author of this book thinking, and the people who transposed it down through the centuries? After all, this was necessary for a post-Babylonian exiled nomadic people trying to survive.” Yes. Wonderful questions, and helpful in interpretation, and by the way, you’re commanded to quit it too. Incidentally, this was an example; I wasn’t addressing Alex as though you were arguing this, merely that I have heard people argue in this way.

    Postmodernism does not take into account the Trinity. For instance, Derrida (in Disseminations) makes much of the thought that for Plato, communication between origin and supplement is a violent fall, an exile, a lie, a corruption of what was there at the origin. To Plato, thought is highest, speech second, and writing third, and every tier downward erodes the meaning of the origin.

    For Derrida, the supplement is always already at the origin, just like a spring of water. If the water flows, it has an origin (spring) and a supplement (stream). To not have the stream is to not have the spring either, so origin and supplement support one another. Yet supplementation is still a violent supplementation, a destructive replacement of the origin. Thus, for him, writing is an act of violence which replaces the thought of the story, and the interpretation by the reader destroys the original meaning of the work. In language and reality, the supplement is equiprimordial with the origin, and so the origin is disrupted and destroyed from the beginning. Every act of meaning is therefore a patricide, killing what birthed it. Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” necessitates every author writing against what came before, causing filial revolt. As each tries to overcome the influence of what came before, the necessary creativity requires the destruction of those which fathered us.

    Derrida then theorizes, rightly, that origin is father, supplement is son, but the very fact that there is a son is what makes a father a father, and so an eternal father must have an eternal son. Unfortunately, being an atheist, he cannot find anything but a distortion, seeing the very act of Son-ness requiring the patricide of the Father, closer more to Hesiod’s Theogony than to Paul and John.

    Here is where a robust Trinitarian orthodoxy comes in handy. We can, with much eagerness and rejoicing, embrace the fact that the supplement is at the origin, but deny that there is any degradation or loss between them, on an ultimate, inter-Trinitarian basis. The Son exists eternally because the Father exists eternally, and this does not require the death, distortion, or destruction of the Father. The Son is the very image of the Father, because the Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father and this perichoresis is essential to the gospel. For St. John, seeing is knowing (John 6:40; 11:45; 14:7), and this seeing/knowing is eternal life (John 17:3), and there is no distance between them, otherwise there is no salvation. God is present in Christ, eternity has “tabernacled” in human flesh (John 1:14). In the OT, man could not see God (Ex. 33:20-23), but in the Incarnation God the Father is made known (John 12:45; 14:9), and there is no distortion.

    Jesus is the way to God, and He is the way because the “destination” has always been “in” the way itself (John 14:7, 9-11). This is why when Jesus says He goes to prepare a place for us in His Father’s house, He is speaking about Himself on the cross and in the resurrection. He “is” His Father’s house, the place His Father dwells, or if you prefer, “tabernacles” (John 14:10-11). The Father glorifies the Son in redemption just as He has in eternity and creation (John 17:5). This glory the Father has given Christ those in union with the Incarnated Christ also get (John 17:22-23). We participate in, are drawn into, the life of the eternal Trinity in salvation, and there is present nothing but mutual love, glory, and self-giving in the Godhead.

    In that Godhead there is always supplement, and a Third supplement, alongside the eternal First, and all three are bonded together in an eternal covenantal love, a mutual indwelling that does not distort or corrupt between sender and receiver, between origin and supplement. The First is always with the Second and the Third. This is what Christians are drawn into, and the First and Second come alongside us through the Third, who speaks only what He hears (John 16:13-15), which was also what was spoken to us by Christ, who speaks only what His Father says (John 17:8, 14, 17). These words, the very words of the Father He gives to the disciples, who have heard the very words of the Father, without distortion or corruption in transmission (John 17:13). They, of course, will be distorted by the unbelieving, but to the one God grants ears to hear, it is undistorted.

    Christian theology can agree with just about everything Derrida says about origins and supplements, even what Derrida calls “contamination,” except that it is not a contamination at all, just a difference. The Son is not the Father, they are distinct Persons, and yet they are both perfectly God, reflecting and dwelling in one another. The Son and Spirit are simply the fullness and glory of the Father, without whom He would not be the Father.

    In this as well, because the world reflects the Trinitarian personality of its maker, finitude is not a degeneration from infinitude. Supplementarity therefore is not a structure of distortion or veiling or loss of knowledge, but rather simply a structure of respect, of acknowledgment of limitation. The creation is not a distortion or impurity in its move from infinitude or origin, rather the creation is simply (or ought to be) respectful of its Father. The creation is good. The movement of history for Derrida must be corruptive as each cycle of destruction eliminates knowledge. For the Trinity, the movement of history proceeds from First to Second and Third perfectly, from beginning to a stated end goal that is actually greater than the start – from untamed Garden to the Garden-City of Revelation, from God and man separate to God and man united in the salvation of the God-man.

    Thus every supplement is not a destruction, but an “added glory” to the First glory. The end is not simply a new beginning, but a glorified, resurrected beginning, a higher place from the start. The Son gives His glory to the Father eternally, and the Father returns that glory to the Son with interest. What is given up always dies, and is always resurrected to be returned. (Leithart goes into much more detail on this front in his books “Deep Comedy” and “Solomon Among the Postmoderns”, on which I based much of this).

    To return this discussion to the line of the thread, the ideas of objective and subjective are interesting. Within the Trinity each Person has a subjective perspective because each perspective is different from each of the others, yet because the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, and the Spirit in them, the knowledge within each is undistorted. In other words, each subjective view is truly subjective, and yet each subjective view is completely objective. Similarly, God the Father created the world through the Son via the Spirit (John 1), and so the world never speaks for itself. The world is never objective; it never has meaning “of itself.” Rather all meaning, all “facts” in the world are in the world itself, but from the Godhead’s subjective assignment of meaning. So God’s subjective becomes our objective. Our job is not to look at the world and get the neutral or objective facts, but rather to conform to the knowledge of God, which means learning to interpret the world in light of God’s perspective, through the Spirit who teaches us all things. We spirate from subjective to objective, gathering greater depth in an infinite swirl (John 17:7, 21, 25-26).

    To say that all knowledge comes from “a perspective” is not powerful enough to defeat the absolute claims of certain perspectives. The denial of objective also is not helpful, because denying objective knowledge *must* lead to subjectivity. I agree that they are falsely pitted against one another, but saying objectives is not possible or desirable simply pushes us down the slope from absolute truth. The only solution to pitting objective/subjective against one another is to say both are equally necessary and reciprocal in our minds, made as we are in the image of the Triune God. The question of perspective doesn’t matter; everything is a perspective. The question is whether a perspective is authoritative or not – and God’s is.

    Wow. Bit longer than intended. Oh well. Been wanting to talk about that for a while.

  20. Alex wrote:

    ‘And, in the vein of this dialogue, I think there is some postmodern element there, whether intended or not. This could be a key to Rowling’s success. As we go through life, trying to make sense of the world around us and our place in it, we have a truly wonderful story of a boy trying to do just that same thing.’

    Let’s take it a couple of steps further.

    Harry’s quest to understand his place in his world resonates with a universal need: we all seek to make sense of the world and our place in it. But how often is it in real life that our role is so clearly defined by factors outside of ourselves? How often are the answers truly “out there”, known by others but not ourselves? How often is there such a clear answer to the question: what am I? what do I need to do?

    So in a way, JKR’s fiction places an artificial degree of clarity and certainty on the universal quest for meaning. That is fine and good: we turn to fiction for that degree of clarity often lacking in our own lives. And the genre in which JKR writes – which for me is detective fiction – requires that degree of clarity. I’m just not certain how postmodern it is for the truth to be objective and knowable and “out there”.

    However, I think JKR goes one step beyond. The purpose of Harry’s life isn’t really an “out there” fact. Voldemort tries to kill him because of a prophecy which may – or may not – be true. JKR never tells us with 100% certainty that prophecies are valid. In fact, the creatures who seem to know the most about the matter – centaurs – are very skeptical about it. In the act of trying to kill Harry, Voldemort brings about the circumstances wihch will eventually lead to his destruction: he makes an enemy of Harry. But as Dumbeldore points out, Harry is free to decide what he is going to do about Voldemort. Even the knowledge about the Voldemort soul-piece he carries doesn’t have to push him to his “destiny”. It’s his choice. And that choice is underlined by the late-stage introduction of Aberforth into the dialogue: forget about Dumbledore’s mad plans and schemes; run away, and live.

    In effect, it’s Harry who gives meaning and purpose to his own life. He spends seven years trying to understand the truth about himself. But when he finally “gets” it, he still has to make the decision what he’s going to do about it.

    Now we have argued that by the time he finds out that he must die in order to destroy Voldemort there isn’t much of a decision to make, that he is already so far committed to the path that it would be inconceivable for him to back off. That the option Aberforth offers him comes too late, Dumbledore has had too many years to school him to make the “right” choice. That the freedom of choice is illusory at that point.

    I don’t know about that. I think that rather than Dumbledore or any external agency, it is Harry’s own nature which makes him walk that final walk into Voldemort’s hands.

    And coming full circle, after a life-time trying to get answers from outside of himself about “who am I” and “what am I supposed to do”, Harry finds the answers within.

  21. Dave the Longwinded says

    Wow, I’m glad some of you have made it through Derrida — I find the guy almost impossible to understand, especially Of Grammatology. From a general standpoint, oshove, I don’t think the Latin spellcasting really steps above the deconstructive criticism you articulate, for either Derrida or Eco. Eco’s partial recovery of semiotic relationships is one I find more acceptable than the radical strain attributed to Derrida, but Rowling’s emphasis in Philosopher’s Stone on the annunciation and pronunciation of the spells’ latinate chants does not articulate a full recovery between intention and word. Sign, signifier, and signified are not stitched back together into an unassailable unity. If anything, at this level, I read Hermione’s emphasis on the practice of speaking is a manner of rudimentary mental discipline, reflective of Hermione’s rigid attention to linear logic and narrative. Speak the words a specific way in order to adequately form intention. Thus, words are not the product of meaning ejected from within, but a manner of affecting meaning and intention from without — verbal spellcasting is something akin to meditation. The later books seem to reflect this when Hogwarts’ curriculum shifts from spoken spellcasting to silent spellcasting.

    Rowling constantly highlights language as a problematic tool in meaning construction — Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows are nothing if not a two volume treatment of some of the problems of language and narrative construction. Harry’s frame of reference about all the stories and “truths” he’s learned for four and a half books is pulled from underneath him from Order of the Phoenix onward. We watch Harry’s education move from something like a rote classroom curriculum to something closer to the critical thinking expected from university-level students. He must learn to infer what is probably true based on incomplete information, humbly mindful that he might be wrong.

    That Rowling takes the issue one step further is interesting — Dumbledore doesn’t tell Harry about critical details; neither does he send Harry to Madam Pince in the library to research the issue. To do this, Rowling invents the Pensieve, a device that allows Harry literally into the psychological strata of various subjects. Then, she introduces Legilimency and Occlumency. All three devices operate independent of language. She’s taking language out of the perceptive dialogic altogether. I’ve wondered for quite some time about the seeming accuracy of memories that can exist beyond the subject’s mind, or more literally his brain. This would seem to be her answer to the language problem, but it’s not. She removes language from the perceptive framework, but she never fully removes linguistic problems from the interpretive framework. Harry must still give voice to his reasoning, not only articulating his understanding for others, but constructing it for himself, as well — the camping sections of DH serve as a primary example — anyone ever wonder how Hermione would have treated a trip into the Pensieve?

  22. Hey guys, this is fun. I really appreciate the dialogue. A couple of quick comments in response:

    Chosen, I appreciate your comments. I agree with you that Christian theology is instructive to much of Derrida’s philosophy. I kind had trouble following you in your last bit, but I think there is a lot agreement there as well. However, I would say that I don’t think the “denial of objective knowledge *must* lead to subjectivity,” because I do not recognize either category of knowledge. For me, I don’t think that objectivity is possible, warranted, or even desirable. I do think Truth is knowable, but I do not think that it is absolute, mostly because I don’t believe that knowledge, truth, reality, or whatever happens in a vacuum. So this is not a slippery slope from “absolute Truth,” because I think that Truth is a very different kind of animal than defined within modernist, post-Enlightenment, positivistic framework. But I loved your bit about “Added glory,” I think that is right on.

    I also agree with you that the question is really about authority! I really do. I don’t believe that God is objective – I believe that he is biased and inclined towards certain beliefs; I do, however, believe that he is authoritative in his actions and beliefs. I think the language of subjective/objective ultimately fails, but I do not think the language of authority does.

    Reyhan, for the most part, I still think you are on. Really great thoughts. If I may add a few caveats…=).

    First off, I do not think that it goes against postmodernity to believe that truth is “knowable” or “out there.” Here would be where I think Christian theology (or any thought pattern of a truth-based people group, which includes most people groups) is instructive to *some* facets of postmodernism. Of course, I do think there is a problem with the word “objective,” but I think I have stated that ad nauseum. Nor does postmodernity necessarily deny clarity. However, there are some strong qualifiers that must be made with that kind of language. Does clarity exist within space and time – sure. Is that clarity available or even the same for everyone – probably not.

    Secondly, I do think that Harry’s story affords a bit more clarity than the average human being – I mean, he is after all, the “Boy Who Lived.” However, I do think that much of Harry’s fight to make sense of his world and himself is a fight to understand the narrative in which he is a part, and what that narrative means for the who he is and the kind of values he will live by. I do think that partly Harry finds those answer from within, but I also think there is an element of naivete to that statement as well. Part of who Harry is within is what has happened from a life of living with abusive muggles, of being an orphan, of being taught by Dumbledore and other teachers at Hogwarts, and so on. Harry’s choices/answers from within, I think, must in some way reflect that which is and has been pushing on him from without.

    Does that make sense? Great discussion, y’all. Grace and Peace.

  23. Dave, what fantastic thoughts! And I think you bring up a question that illustrates the problem of language and perception. I think, inherent in your question, is that Hermione would have experienced (thus, perceived) the pensieve differently than Harry. It is instructive at this point to remember that we, the readers, only experience the pensieve through the lens of Harry.

    The pensieve is a strange literary device, to me, to be sure.

  24. Chosen66 says

    Alex, I think the largest problem with objective/subjective is that it is couched in abstract ways, as ideas. In this we are all still hungover from Plato’s party. Rather, I believe that what we would call abstract ideas are actually exemplars of pure Personality. Christ is Truth incarnated. Truth is a Person, and therefore a Perspective, and the same goes for subjective and objective reality. I think that dismissing the categories is a little problematic, because we see them every day. The way I have seen Derrida, and larger postmodernism, employed in college is to argue that we honest to God cannot access what is really there, so why bother? Everybody’s interpretation is equally valid. This is completely accurate to Derrida’s argument for corrosive knowledge. If the original meaning is unavailable, then what is left but my personal supplement? We’re back to subjectivism, and a destructive subjectivism too. I don’t complain though – they get all swollen and puffy-eyed when you challenge the sacred cow; plus, it makes for easy A grades.

    To clarify just a smidge what I meant in the last portion of my post, fundamentally what I mean is that God made the world, and makes Him authoritative to it. It does not exist without His power, and He can do what He wants with it (Rom. 9), which also includes assigning meaning. I do not believe that we can come to the world, get some facts devoid of interpretation or bias, and then reason anywhere. Perception of facts colors facts, and so anybody who tries to paint a debate in terms of facts vs. interpretation is horrifyingly misguided. God’s world is subject to His interpretation and bias; He assigns it meaning according to His worldview, and this is revealed to us in the Scriptures. We are called to imitate and conform to Christ, who is very God in God, and this means learning to interpret the entire world according to the perspective revealed in the Word of God, the Person and the Book. So God’s subjective assignment (he could have assigned something a different meaning) becomes our authoritative, and therefore objective, interpretation.

    I will not get too wrapped up in sign theory. Not my area. However, has anyone considered how classical protestant sacramental theology might add clarity to the idea of the sign and the thing signified? I’ve been exploring Calvin’s use of sign and thing signified as separate but covenantally unified ideas recently, and this might be a promising area for discussion and exploration. In other words, the discussion has turned in some ways around perception in the Potter novels. The memories are a perception by Snape, which is perceived by Harry, which is perceived by Rowling, through whom we perceive it all. If there were a covenantal union, a real union, between sign and thing signified, just as there is in the sacraments (the promise and the thing promised both present), then we could acknowledge the truth of the shades of perception, but also acknowledge there is a union between the sign and the thing signified, in other words that some perceptions are more perceptive than others. Just because we only see Harry through Rowling does not, in a Trinitarian sacramental sign theory, mean that we are not truly seeing (or understanding) Harry. I am sensing Alex trying to get here, and perhaps this helps.

  25. Please note that the JKR/RDR trial transcript is available online and it does merit reading for serious readers, if only for postmodernist jewels like these:

    MS. CENDALI: Let’s put on the screen the entry for occamy. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

    A. Yes. You can pronounce it any way you like; it’s not a real thing, you know.

    Q. Again from Exhibit 1, The Lexicon. Which of your works did you write about occamy?

    A. This is from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

    Q. And again do you have a view of this entry in The Lexicon?

    A. Well, this one I found. When I read The Lexicon and I saw this one, this one made me smile to myself, because this should have been a sitting duck for Mr. Vander Ark.

    Q. What do you mean?

    A. I mean I read that he claims that one of the works he used to help him add value, as it were, to my work, one of his research tools was the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Now, I was pretty sure that he should have been able to work out my little joke if he had looked in the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and so I went and looked it up, and I was correct. Ockham was a philosopher, an English philosopher, most famous for what is known as Ockham’s Razor, which is the statement nothing should be presumed to exist which is not absolutely necessary. So, this was my little joke, my little private joke to create an occamy in a book of things that were quite clearly not at all necessary. And there is nothing there. All The lexicon has done is reprint what I wrote about the fictional creature the occamy.

    Ms. Rowling states that her joke about Ockham is in reference to the lack of necessity of the text in which the definition/description exists; could there be a more self-conscious attempt to ask the reader to become aware of the act of reading a particular sort of book while reading that book? In case you doubted the assertion that Chamber of Secrets is largely about good and bad books and Reader Response, appropriate and inappropriate, we have confirmation here of what was sufficiently evident in the text that this sort of thing is indeed part of the author’s understanding of what she was about in her writing.

    And does anyone else think what’s as funny about the Occamy joke is that Ms. Rowling believes that anyone armed only with the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is going to get her joke? And “Yes. You can pronounce it any way you like; it’s not a real thing, you know”? Priceless.

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